Little Secrets

by
© 8-Jul-06
Rating: T
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
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All That Was

I'm not even sure now what I felt that morning, waking hour or so of sleep with what felt like a lead fist in my stomach. The entire world spun faster for me than anyone else, making me dizzy as if I had been pummeled to the end of my tolerance. Everything was off-kilter, unreal. In the space of only a few days, in what felt like the blink of an eye, I had all that I had wanted for the last year or so of my life, short of the literary prize I've always sought. And then we left that place and reentered a world that had been taken over in his absence, making him regret all that had happened between us. Suddenly it was gone, over, as quickly as the battle he fought to restore things to their proper order.

I knew it the moment I saw the look in his eyes, the way he turned to me. Even before he spoke a word. I had been the one to upset the balance; I was now a liability. Whether we liked it or not, being with me had interrupted his mission. He loved me, I know he loved me. There wasn't a doubt in his mind when he stepped into that chamber. He never would have defied his father if he didn't. But I was a selfish luxury that he couldn't afford as Earth's protector. What was it his father said, "Is this how you repay their gratitude? By abandoning the weak, the defenseless, the needy - for the sake of your selfish pursuits?" Maybe he was right, maybe not. All I know was that all the brave words I had voiced the night before were only that: words. And I had shards were my heart had once been. As stupid and purple and girly as that sounds, it's dead on the money. How I managed to get through the confrontation with him the next morning, I'll never know.

He seemed to be in pain, somewhat hurt by the situation that we were in, unhappy. But I've come to believe that that was more due to my distress than anything. I wanted to be stronger than that, be the strong and sure woman that he's always known me to be, a pretty face with an intelligent brain and a steel spine. But just seeing his face that morning was like scrubbing your heart with steel wool. I was forcing myself to hold on then, having him there in front of me, trying to be caring and sensitive while he carefully chose words to make things easier, make our mistake seem like something less than it was. Yes, a mistake. "Look, Lois, someday you'll..." You'll find somebody? The fact that he could even think it, that it didn't pain him to say it out loud stung. That he could stand to think of me with someone else even before I could myself. I'm not sure if I've ever felt so wounded in my entire life.

I tried to shrug it off, hoping for an instant that he'd just leave. But then he made a comment about liking worrying about me, which was just too much. I broke then, my damned traitor mouth letting every sharp-edged thought out into the open. Like a fool, I turned around as I finished, crying as I looked over at him. I remember an incident in my childhood when I had scooped up a handful of finely-broken glass and rubbed it between my fingers out of curiosity, to see if it wasn't softer when ground up. The pain I felt then came back to me at that instant, as he murmured to me, "I don't know what to say."

And like a schoolgirl with a crush, like the fool I've always been for him, I responded back to him what he had said to that reply that night in his Fortress. "I don't know; just tell me you love me." I didn't even have time to realize what I was saying, or how it sounded. All I cared about was just that, another reassurance that it hadn't been a mistake, that he had truly felt for me before his mission got in the way. After a moment, he slipped the glasses off. That last kiss was the tenderest and most bittersweet I've ever known. At some point during, I remember seeming to black-out, reality seeming to slide away. When I started to come-to, I realized from the look on his face and the fact that his glasses were intact, he thought I had forgotten. He thought he had ended it between us, it seemed. Something about that kiss...

Seems that whatever he had done had something of an amnesiac effect, enough so that it took some time to have those thoughts come back. Time in which life went on as it always had, same old Clark, same old Lois, same old banter. A month went by. Fragments of memory teased at the edge of my mind, memories of events that seemed like dreams to me, but they seemed nothing more than daydreams of the sort I had had since the day I met him . And then one day, Clark Kent didn't come to work. Didn't call, didn't leave notice with Perry. When called, his mother mentioned something about travel, needing to get away from the city for a while. Then Superman disappeared from our skies. I called everywhere, checked with all other news agencies. Scoured every photo and news service bulletin. I even found excuses to be a foreign correspondent for a time, in hopes of finding a clue. Nothing. As if he had vanished into nowhere. He was simply and completely gone. As much as I told myself that I didn't care, that he had only been a crush, only a relative daydream, I felt my heart break and wondered what had happened, what had gone wrong? Where did he go? And why?

And then the memories came back just in time to discover that I wasn't the only one he left behind.


Regrets and New Beginnings

Lying in the single suite in a Paris hospital, Lois wondered for the millionth time how she could have ever gotten herself into this. In the first months of her time overseas at the Planet's sister paper, she had struggled to maintain the standards she had always held to, yet she had been all too aware that it had all been just a fruitless search that had finished in a dead-end. The raven-haired reporter could only thank God that, even in Paris, Superman and his disappearance was still a huge angle. She had, of course, continued to file excellent and thought-provoking stories, but her heart just wasn't in it the way it had always been. Superman and getting the story. The story and getting Superman. Oh, and the Pulitzer Prize. That had been all she needed in her life.

And now, this. Something she had never expected. Something that was beyond her to stop. It was amazing the turns one's life could take in the span of just over six months.

When Lois thought back on it now, she knew she had felt only one thing when she had discovered that this constant sickness she was feeling wasn't a prolonged virus. It was the same emotion she was feeling at this moment, as hard as she fought it: cold and utter fear. Pregnant, with child, knocked up, call it what you wanted. It was always something that had been an impossible idea for her. The mere thought that her younger sister Lucy had married directly out of college and immediately had gone about having the first of three children at the age of twenty-two horrified Lois, although Ron was a wonderful man and her parents were overjoyed. That was great for Luce, though, and it seemed to light her up, even as the constant activity of her horde interrupted her sleep. Diapers, drooling, screams in the middle of the night, having to take them everywhere with you, no spontaneity whatsoever. And absolutely no more smoking. The mere thought of all of this could actually make her shudder.

Not that she didn't love her sister's kids, all of them very sweet and well-behaved when she come to see her family at her mother Ella's home for the Christmas holiday each year, but she contented herself with being the favorite aunt who could spoil them and send them home at the end of the day. She was more than happy with her life, with the excitement of Metropolis' fast pace and this exhilarating romance she had found herself in with the hero that she had named after a fateful accident. Why would she trade that for anything that took up every single moment of your life with the simplest things? Who would be that crazy?

A moment later, Lois' eyes opened wide with shock and she cried out, completely losing her train of thought and the rhythm of the timed breathing her mother had taught her when she was too stubborn to go to birthing classes. It had been a few minutes since the last contraction and the solid reality of it knocked the wind out of her. She had never been a wimp where pain was concerned, her father The General, had taken care of that early enough. Being forced through Daddy's boot-camp from the age of eleven on had made sure of that and had made her capable of that surety and daring she had today, much as she had hated him for it at the time. But, dear God, why did this have to hurt so much? And after the utter embarrassment of having gone into false labor in the city room of la Tribune Quotidienne two weeks before, followed by real labor beginning in the midst of a staff meeting. Of course, she hadn't known it was for real that time, the pain building slowly, until a rock-hard wave of agony had swept through her in the middle of a particularly astute comment. It had been - what, three hours since then? Four? - about two cigarette breaks, back in the good old days. God, for a cigarette!

At this point, she was just wishing it was all over. Or that she could somehow have it all taken back. All of it. Why had she ever been stupid enough to get involved with that damned man in the first place? Especially when they given in to their feelings later, only to have him make her forget it all and then disappear? What kind of idiot was she?

Again, the pain stabbed her suddenly enough to snatch a gasp from the startled woman, her trained breathing technique stuttering to a stop. Biting hard on her lower lip, she smothered her whimper just in time for Lucy to reach over and take her hand, looking down at her with a plainly worried expression. Damn, she had noticed. Which made Lois all the more determined not to let herself cry the way she abruptly wanted to. What was she doing here? Why had this happened this way? And where the hell was he, now that she needed him more than ever?

"Are you okay, Lo? Was it another pain?" Lucy's hazel eyes searched her own, brushing dampened strands out of her face. From only a foot away, she saw her mother turn and start toward them. "Are you ever going to get her an epidural? Doctor..."

Even as Lucy raised her blonde head, her sister squeezed her hand and shook her head. "I'm fine, kiddo. It's too late for that now. Just, this is a new experience, you know? I hadn't expected it to hurt so much?" Smiling slight to reassure her, she just resumed her Lamaze breathing, fighting off the urge to tell her everything for the hundredth time. As angry as she was, she had made him a promise, she knew now. A promise to never tell his secret, a promise to never reveal what had passed between them. And even if he was under the impression that she remembered nothing, she wouldn't break that promise, although she had been sorely tempted in the months that had followed the return of those memories. No, as it was, her mother and Lucy believed the tale she had spun them. Hurt and alone in France, unable to find the one she sought, she had had a stupid rebound relationship with a guest columnist to cure herself of this fascination that she had with Superman. It was only once he had returned to his home periodical that she had discovered she was late. As it had been a comfortable situation between the two and they had parted as friends, she was sure that it would be a mistake to inform him of impending fatherhood and decided to go this on her own.

Lies, first to last.

Now she longed to tell them her fears, especially the fact that she had only recently realized that this baby, or babies as she found out, would be only half of their own species. The other half of their DNA was Kryptonian, like their father. And she knew absolutely nothing of them, beyond what he had passed on. She didn't know what to expect, how they'd grow, what they would be able to do and when. And there was the very real fear of whether they could be born like regular children. As close as they had been, it had amazed her how very little she had known him. And how she had missed so many little clues. How blind could one person be?

Now the pain came again, faster and strong, forcing the loud cry from her lips that she had been trying so valiantly to hold back. She could feel something moving inside her, something tightening, her belly distended and hard as granite, and knew immediately what it was. Forcing back another shriek, she raised her frightened eyes to the doctor as she shook, trying not to bear down. Tears stood in her eyes now, both her mother and sister at her side as she asked silently if it was going to happen now. Oh God, where was he?

Doctor Shuler nodded then from her position, acknowledging the question. "Yes, Miss Lane, it's time. They're coming. And from the looks of things, one has decided it's finally time to show. It's okay to push now. You're ready - your babies are depending on you."

In the last few moments before her life changed forever, Lois didn't know if she had heard anything scarier than that last phrase. And began to cry only brief moments before her first-born did. The baby was crying, breathing. Here. When she tried to gain the strength to look up, all she heard were several moments of gasps of wonder, exclamations from both aunt and grandmother, and a glimpse of fair skin and pale fuzz. Lois barely had a moment to register that this was her child, hers, this was the tiny tenant that she had just evicted before she felt the pain flare briefly. The other one. The doctor had said to expect twins, but she had never imagined. There was hardly enough time for the first to be cleaned and handed to his grandmother before, with only a push or two, the second came into the world with a gusty wail. This time, she looked quickly enough and saw a little dark head as this little creature was taken from her. They looked normal, from what she could tell. Like any other newborn, with nothing to give away their unique parentage. And just as quickly as the second one was taken away, she closed her eyes and swallowed a sob, even as Ella and Lucy cooed over these new arrivals. A moment later, they finally gave her the pain-killer that she had been desperate for before and she waited for it to take effect.

For the second time in the last ten months, everything seemed unreal. This couldn't have happened, couldn't be happening to her. None of this was actually happening. She wasn't really here in this room with her legs nearly to her chin, her mother and sister were back in the states going about their lives, the soft crying she heard was not that of her and her children entwined. She would wake up alone in her apartment, wrapped up in the sheets and sweating, wondering what she had eaten the night before that had given her such an insane dream. She would be home, in Metropolis and probably late for work at the Planet. And Superman would still be here and things would be different between them. None of this foolishness that she was dreaming would have happ...

"Lois, would you like to see your children? I know a little boy and girl who would like to meet you," her mother's voice said suddenly, warm with happiness.

Fighting the urge to just nod off to sleep and sink further into this dream, teary hazel eyes opening against her will before the dark-haired woman could stop herself. When she looked up, Ella was standing at her side with a bundle of blue in her arms, turning to the side as she sat down in the chair at her bedside and giving her a view of the whimpering child hidden within. "This is your son, Lois. Look how perfect he is." Even as she tried to stop herself, she slid over a bit in the bed to look. And was instantly caught in a cerulean gaze.

The baby was a mottled pink, now that it was clean, though his skin was unblemished and looked soft. Most babies seemed interested simply to sleep after their ordeal, but this one was staring around. And from the moment that she had leaned to look, his gaze stayed on her, watching his mother as if fascinated. He had very little hair on his head, short of a bit of blonde down, but nevertheless he made her eyes water again as she spotted details that no other could, save another mother far away. Lois' panicked heart began to soften as she watched him, her chest aching as she watched him move. Her mother was right, he was perfect.

A moment later, Doctor Shuler came forward with a burden of her own, just as Lois was timidly asking if she could hold the boy. "Now, you can't just lavish attention on one there, Mommy. Your little girl wants you, too." After a moment, she was looking down now at her daughter with a thatch of little black curls, who woke long enough to fix her with eyes dark enough to make her wonder if their color wouldn't change. Her little rosebud mouth worked as her mother stroked her cheek with a tentative finger, amusing all to predictions of screaming unhappiness. Yet the child only yawned and seemed to decide that she'd rather have a nap first. And, in watching her daughter drift off to sleep, secure in her arms, Lois felt the last of her reserves break. The emptiness that had plagued her for months seemed to fill.

For the first time since Superman had disappeared, he was utterly forgotten as she held his children to her as she began to drowse. The only part of him she would ever have, she thought as she lay there and gazed at them with sleepy eyes, as utterly amazed then by them as the little boy seemed by her. To hell with Jor-El and his pronouncements of wrong and right. If this was all she had, would ever have, she would treasure it, would love them with the love she wasn't able to give their father. Who was far away in space, who didn't even know they existed. But she did and that was enough.


Avoiding the Ghosts Of Heroes Past

Lois lay sprawled, tired, across the length of her couch with a finally-napping six-month-old Kala cuddled into her chest. Ella decided now was the time to bring up the topic that she had been saving for the last four months. It would have been unfair to speak of it just after the twins' birth - her oldest daughter had not quite expected the essential insanity that goes along with the birth of one child, let alone two. That was part of the reason why she had delayed her return to Metropolis. She had claimed that it just didn't sit right with her that Lois would go it alone with both children so quickly. Lucy had wanted to stay as well, but their family finances had made that a complete impossibility. Her little Lucy was a sweet child, still protective of Lois even though she no longer needed to shield her from their father's exasperated wrath. It had somehow always fallen to the baby of the family to be the mediator between Lois and Sam. He was gone now, and Ella still remembered all of the endless battles of will that had frequently broken out at random times. Old habits died hard; Lucy was still Lois' first defender.

Ella startled as Jason burbled in his sleep, smiling at him where he lay dreaming in her arms. For once, the blue depths of his eyes weren't peering around curiously, both smooth lids closed in heavy sleep. The long walk in the Bois de Bolougne had obviously wiped out both generations of Lane children. From the moment she had first seen her twin grandchildren, her sharp eyes had quickly been able to pick out those features that belonged to the Lane genes and those that did not, leaving her to wonder about those unfamiliar traits. She looked at Lois now, her own eyes having closed with her arm curled around her little girl, dark hair splashed carelessly across the white fabric.

It was just as well that Lucy was back in Metropolis. There were a few things she needed to ask Lois, but she was quite sure that she might have to upset her to get the answers. Things had seemed quite strange with her headstrong child, beginning with the fact that she hadn't returned home upon discovering she was pregnant. Or the fact that she had never explained fully to Ella when and how it had occurred in the first place. She had never deceived herself into thinking that a woman as independent and striking as her daughter was pure as driven snow. This was a modern and freethinking world they lived in, but she had never known her to be foolish in that respect. And she had observed Lois' hesitancy and occasional discomfort around Little Sam, Nora, and Joanna. Not to mention the fact that she had made it quite clear that her career was of first and foremost importance. If she wanted children later, there was always time. But not now. She was too young, had too much to do, loved her job. What more could she want?

And now this...

She was very curious about how this had happened in the first place. When Lois had first told her of her plans to go overseas, Ella had completely understood. Her firstborn's fascination with Superman was well known and smiled about in the Lane household, although her father would have been less than pleased. The hero seemed to have stolen Lois' heart away from the moment he had saved her from the helicopter crash two years before. It was amusing to Ella how quickly she had approved of this man from another planet, and simply because he had done the impossible and saved her daughter from certain death. Although she had never met him, she had given her tentative approval of him, based Lois' descriptions of him and his deeds. In addition, her infrequent looks at him on the nightly news, had added to her high estimation of this 'caped wonder, ' as one paper had called him. This Superman that Lois had given a name. Simply from the tone her willful girl used when discussing him, the look in her eyes, had told her she had better approve. For the first time she could remember, Lois Lane was in love. Honestly and truly in complete enthrallment with this visitor from another star. It was clear as morning sunlight to Elinore.

But then, with no warning at all, he was gone and the entire world was in an uproar. And Lois was frantic, even looked quite pained when she had visited to announce her foreign assignment. It had taken over a month to talk her boss into allowing her to go, she had said as she bit her lip and ignored the chicken marsala in front of her. But she had she had been scouring every bulletin, any notice of a sighting of the Man of Steel, with no results. No one in the US had seen him, not since those awful people had attempted to take over the White House. He had seen to that, that she remembered, but then he had disappeared. She didn't know anything; neither did rival papers, which for once were sharing information about this frightening event. The next possibility was Europe; maybe he was continuing his clean-up of the damage those three villains had caused during their reign of terror. There had to be something, anything, to go on. And since they had had a close friendship, in the end, Perry had told her that she probably had the best chance to find him.

For an hour, she talked about this new, temporary position she would be taking in Paris, closer to his possible sightings, and how she would be home soon, once she was able to get in contact with him. That she was sure it was all just a misunderstanding and that we could soon all breathe a sigh of relief. Life would go on as usual.

But no mother could miss the dark circles under her eyes, the spark of hurt that she tried not to show. He was gone and it hurt her deeply, that was clear, but Ella was never sure why exactly it troubled her so. It wasn't as if Superman shouldn't be allowed time to himself, away from the public's prying eyes. But why the haunted look in her child's hazel eyes, why the pale cheeks?

The calls had come on time for several weeks, check-ins with little updates as to where she had been and what people were saying. The trail of her savior had looked warm for a while. But after about a month and a half, the calls had come less frequently, and her Lois had begun to sound tired as well as anxious. And more than a trace angry. Abandoned. In spite of all the little clues, no one had conclusively spotted him in airspace or at any disaster. Her voice conveyed clearly how heartbroken she was.

Just after the trail had gone cold, any trace of his presence on earth finally impossible, the call had come. Lois told her to sit down in a voice very unlike her normal one. First there was the news that she had finally confirmed that her hero was nowhere on Earth. Then, as her tone quivered, Ella's child dropped another bombshell. She had just discovered herself to be three months pregnant. And, seeming to bite back a sob, that the father would not be involved. No real explanation of why she had gotten involved with someone else while trying to find the man she claimed to love, no plans to come home to have the baby or why she and the father would not be together, just that. "Momma, when it's time, you'll come over, won't you? I wouldn't normally ask you to do it, but I think I'll need you. I'll pay for the ticket and all. Please?"

What could have possibly happened to change Lois' usual behavior so completely? Going to Europe to find one man, only to have become pregnant by another with whom she no longer wanted contact? And with the way she had obviously felt about Superman, how could she have possibly been with another? Only in anger. Lois was very capable of losing her temper, of being somewhat vengeful with those that had hurt her. But the times this happened were few and far between and Ella never would have imagined it.

Yet, maybe she should have. That very love Lois felt for him, combined with this sudden 'abandonment', could just have been enough for her to strike out. To tell herself that she didn't need him. Now, to be honest, Ella had never known the extent to which Lois and Superman had been involved, had never asked. For the millionth time in the last eighteen months, she wished she had. Because it was impossible to ask her child now. The mere mention of his name caused Lois to change the subject. It was a closed topic, as far as she was concerned. That part of her life was over now. She had grown up now, that was a silly phase she had gone through. Reality had returned, she had the twins now, planned or not, and that was all she needed. Really.

And it was true. The days leading up to the birth had been difficult, making Ella worry that Lois' mood-swings and general unhappiness were centered on the children. But Lois was finding a way to juggle a return to this French paper and spend all of her time with these new arrivals. It heartened her that Lois was so attached to them, after seeing her initial reaction to their birth. Her regrets had been there for all to see and her heart had gone out to Lois.

She remembered all too well her own hurt, only having hated her Sam once in their life together, and over this same child. He had been disappointed that she had given birth to a girl-child instead of his long-hoped-for boy. Ella, exhausted from the eighteen-hour experience, had been wide-eyed with wonder when confronted with this active and boisterous baby. Hearing the resignation and faint anger in his tone as he complained to the doctor, thinking she couldn't hear - she had almost risen from the bed to punch him in the jaw. Instead, she had simply held baby Lois Joanne closer to her and let her feel the love she felt for her. And when Sam had been harsh with her growing up, even to the extent of telling her that she was a disappointment and trying to make her twice as tough as any boy, Ella had often stepped into the crossfire to soften the blow. Elinore could only be pushed so far, as well.

Stirring herself from her deep thoughts, she again looked over at her child, her heart aching for her. Her life had not been easy. She had been the oldest, the one to bear the brunt of her father's dissatisfaction, the first to break down the impossible barriers that Lucy had later simply skipped through. These trials had given her the strength, drive and toughness to become the well-respected reporter she now was. She could give as good as she got. And then she had managed yet another impossible feat, winning the love of a god among men, only to be deserted for some unknown mission. A mission deemed greater than her. Being the wife of a general, she knew that feeling all too well. Oh, her poor strong-willed, unbreakable girl...

After a moment, she rose from her chair with Jason, the boy never even aware of it as his grandmother walked into Lois' small bedroom to settle him into his crib. She lingered a moment after smoothing the blanket over him, her heart full as her fingers ran over the softness of his hair, which was growing in more thickly now. It was still light, although it was starting to darken somewhat to a dark blond bordering brown now. Lois herself had been born with light hair, while Kala's had been nearly jet black from the day of her birth, with hazel eyes that very nearly mirrored her mother's own. And those blue eyes of his. Once again, she wondered at them. Wondered about the Frenchman who was his father. Would she ever know what had happened? Ever know what to expect in these children that were only half her child's, or would she always been amazed by traits she knew nothing of? She had the feeling it would continue to be the latter, which would have been fine, if she hadn't had the somewhat guilty realization that there was a grandmother out there who couldn't share her joy.

What isn't she telling me, little boy? she asked her resting grandson silently as she stroked his cheek. Why can't she just explain it? Or even tell me his name? And why didn't she tell him, for good or ill? And why won't she just come home where we can watch over her? Oh, Jason, I just want to understand...

With a sigh, she shook her head and smiled at the baby before pulling away. It was just Lois' way. But, even if they couldn't talk about the past, the present was still a safe topic. If only she could talk her into moving back to Metropolis, closer to all of the people who loved her, where she was well-known and loved... Where she knew everything and everyone knew her. And she knew that Perry White wanted Lois back at the Planet despite her evasiveness. He had been calling nearly every other day for updates on both her and the babies. There were even times when that young Jimmy Lois spoke of with such a combination of annoyance and amusement could be heard in the background, asking questions as Mr. White spoke to her, the older man constantly hushing the youngster, ordering him out of the office when he interrupted for the thousandth time.

They missed her, that was clear. And when Lois spoke to them, even as she carefully chose her words, it was obviously reciprocated. Everything she had ever cared about was back in Metropolis, except one thing. She needed help with these children and Ella's visa was running out. And she hoped that the new position that Mr. White had mentioned might be enough to lure Lois home and back to her old life. Especially when they told her that Mr. White had planned to ask her to train as his possible successor. Effectively making her assistant editor-in-chief.

Her feet carried her to the doorway before she even realized what she had done. Ella looked back once again to the tiny being dreaming in the crib before gently closing the door. She would lay Kala down as well, and then she and her daughter would talk. Superman was gone; she had given birth to twins by a man she hardly knew out of hurt and anger. But it was over and done. Let the past stay dead then; life moved on. And so would Lois, if her loved ones had any say in the matter.


Painful Perceptions

As I got out of the cab in front of the Planet that morning, I realized that I had never thought this building could look any more intimidating than it did that very second. Not even when I was fifteen and had come to wheedle Perry White into a job, bold as brass and just barely starting high school. For one perfectly insane moment, I considered telling the driver that I'd changed my mind, that I would like to go back to my apartment, please. But I'd never been a coward my entire life.

Before I could even begin to utter the words, I shoved my fare into the cabbie's hand with just a bit of a tip and pushed open the door in an attempt to discourage that idiocy. Trying to ignore the shakiness of my limbs, I slid from the vehicle and out into the early morning sunshine. Once my heels touched the pavement, it seemed impossible to move forward, into this place that had meant so much to me. As I tried to settle my nerves, my eyes wandered as the cab pulled away. The sidewalks were teeming with pedestrians as always this early in the morning. The hum of murmured conversations of coworkers reached my ears, and the mingled scents of strong coffee, hastily-smoked cigarettes and gasoline filled my senses.

It was a scent that had always comforted me, this wakening smell of a Metropolis morning, the way it jumpstarted my adrenaline. But now, it just brought back memories and a nervous yearning for nicotine, which was now off-limits. Memories that I had better learn to forget if I was going to continue to make a good life for him and Kala. I knew better than to look up to the shadow falling over me, at the globe looming almost seventy stories above my head. That really was where all of this mess had started. It was only sheer stubbornness and pride that propelled me forward, clutching my briefcase as I adjusted my trenchcoat over my shoulder.

I think I must have cursed both my mother and Perry a million and one times for talking me into coming back here as I strode with seeming confidence into the lobby and toward the elevator banks it was just another day. Business as usual. The interior of the Daily Planet was a microcosm of the world outside the revolving glass doors. Over four dozen voices echoed against the walls and high ceiling before bouncing off again as they moved into one of the three elevators. The sound of shoe heels was a steady beat. Here, life had gone on.

Yet all seemed just as it had been when I left almost two years ago, with the exception of the signs of renovation that Perry had mentioned over trans-Atlantic calls. I caught a few surprised glances as I made my way over myself, a few people poking each other and nodding in my direction, but no one greeted me out loud. And I became acutely aware of just how much I had changed in such a short time. How different I had grown from the woman I had been before, before he had left. Before I had disappeared from the place like a mad jet, before it became clear that he had left me ... all of us. And how completely lost I felt in this most familiar place.

The sensation of being watched and talked about didn't stop then, as we rose slowly up the height of the building. Jaw clenched, I kept my face unreadable and concentrated my thoughts instead on the babies I'd left at home. It was difficult to do, leave them alone with Mom and Lucy for ten hours so soon after arriving. Feeding them this morning and then having to walk away had been a special kind of emotional torture. All three of us had gotten used to the alone-time with each other. It continued to baffle me how different it felt to have children around, especially once that I had mine. And the thought of two of them back then...

But it seemed like everything new that they did, the way that Jason's hair slowly darkened from blonde as time went on, the expressions on his face, Kala's eyes like mine and her attempts to try to form sounds, if not words - utterly commanded my attention. Despite of the way they came about, even if their father wasn't a part of their lives, they'd become my anchor. My reason to get up and keep moving. Sorrow or not, those two wouldn't let me fall to pieces. And they needed me. Me and no one else. And this from the woman who wanted no part of all that 'Mommy' mess. My, my, the independent, free-spirited Miss Lane, what has become of you? I thought with a small smile.

I hated to think of it as using them as an excuse, but that was the first reason I gave Mom for not wanting to move back, how young they were. At only nine months old, it seemed cruel to uproot them from their routine and the only home they had ever known. It was only a partial excuse, though, because the flight would seem like a short stay in Hell if Kala had decided to let loose with one of those horror-film screams of hers. The one thing I've slowly learned is that kids are completely impulsive. In the case of mine, the ante seemed to have been upped more than even the average. And I prayed hard every night that there would never be outward signs of their mixed heritage.

But the moment my protest was of leaving was uttered, I should have known it was only a matter of time before I lost the argument. Paris was beautiful, but my heart had ceased to be in it due to the nature of my arrival. I had come here to find him, then had stayed to protect all of us. Besides, loneliness was an issue. Not to mention, I was deathly afraid that she would ask too many questions if I kept arguing. Questions that I had no completely straightforward answers for.

I had thought that if I had a plausible, if uncomfortable excuse, even a potentially image-harming one, it would keep others from sniffing out the truth. But I hadn't counted on Mom not letting well enough alone. In a way that was all too eerily familiar as we sat on the overstuffed couch in my apartment, both of the babies sleeping, she demanded the full story, top to bottom, and once it was told, began to pick over little inconsistencies. She had caught me off-guard, you see, and I was scrambling to tell the story I had rehearsed in my mind over and over. All along, I think I was sure that Mom would be the hardest person to convince; even when I was a child, very little got past her. It was if she could read the truth just by glancing at your face, no matter how hard you tried to hide it.

Knowing I was cornered, unable to even begin telling her the truth in any way, I'm ashamed to say that I took the coward's way out. Before I could even brace myself against her loving and concerned words, I was bawling like a terrified four-year-old. Even as the longing to tell her the truth was becoming unbearable, I stuttered out that big fat lie once again. About Superman's disappearance and my being a wounded idiot and the stupid non-existent Garen and the torrid prolonged one-night-stand/revenge sex that never even happened.

I hated it, hated every single untruth that I spoke, but I couldn't tell her. How could I possibly explain what I had been up to with the World's Defender?

"Well, Mom, it's like this. I've been hooked on Superman since I first met him, even more so than I'm sure you've gathered from my never-ending discussion, but get this? I found out Clark Kent, that sweet and goofy klutz from work was the very man I had to drawn to when we were on assignment as newlyweds. I said I loved him, he said the same. Only not in words. Anyway, we went to his place in the Arctic, this giant crystal fortress, and we proceeded to seduce each other after a home-cooked meal. Afterwards, the hologram of his mother said that he had to give up being a hero if he wanted to be with me. Guess what happened then? He did. And we slept together. Several times that night. And the entire world went to hell as we did it. Well, once the smoke cleared, and he chose his mission and the entire Earth over me. And just before he flew off to God-knows-where, we formally broke up and the kiss he gave me made me forget everything for a while. And I found out that I was pregnant with your half-alien grandchildren. Surprise!"

Oh, sure, she'd take that extremely well. That thought had been enough to make the waterworks even worse.

I was so torn up about it and worried over what would happen when I had to truly go out and face the world again, that when Mom brought up how much everyone missed me and wanted me to come back, it didn't take too much to agree with a sob. Without even really stopping to consider. I had avoided Metropolis from the moment I realized he was genuinely gone for a reason. It was a city of ghosts to me, full of memories that I couldn't bear to face, a skyline that haunted me, an apartment I had difficulty even thinking about. Nevermind that it had been partially paid for by my father or that I had had a hell of a time paying for my portion on a reporter's salary. At that time, I felt as though I had earned it for the way Daddy had always treated me and by the trials I had faced at the Planet. I had put it on the market once I was absolutely sure about the twins. I knew I could never have sat on that balcony again.

Nevertheless, I let Mom talk me into informing La Tribune Quotidienne that I would be returning to the United States, in spite of my earlier agreement to continue on after my maternity leave was over. I let her call Perry and tell him that I would accept the position he had offered and would be coming home. I let her help box things up and prepare all three of us for the move. I seemed to draw closer and closer to the twins as the date of departure grew more and more near. They went everywhere with me and both slept with me every night until we boarded the plane early that drizzly morning.

Sitting quietly in my seat, my anxious brain needing somewhere to go during that long flight, I made myself deal with all of the trauma and mystery of the situation I had found myself in, as the twins alternately slept, were played with, and were fed. I knew that I had to do what my mother was trying to lead me to do; I needed to get on with my life. Needed to resume being the person I was. My entire life wasn't swallowed up in him. I could do this. I could move on with my life.

It was just a case of finding out how.

Before I could torture myself further, the loud ding of the bell cut short this trail of thought as the elevator doors slid open. I was forced to move along with the frenzied traffic of journalists in a rush to both the Associated Press ticker and the coffee pot. Not to mention Perry's Monday Morning Massacres, the bullpen meeting that all of us lived for or would kill to avoid, depending on the week. For the first time since I was fifteen, I slowly made my way to the double swinging-glass doors, only to stop just to the side as the others filed past in twos and threes in an ever-increasing flow of discussion. It was awkward, that hesitant feeling in my gut as I watched this world I knew so well from the outside. Why did I feel this way in a place I loved so well, almost as if I no longer belonged?

Thankfully before I could ponder it seriously and psych myself out worse, I heard a voice that was familiar. "Miss Lane? Miss Lane, is that you? What're you doing out here? You look like someone just sent you to the principal's office." And then, as I glanced around to see where it came from, the owner of the voice was striding toward me with a boyish grin and camera around his neck.

I couldn't help the relieved grin I felt coming as he made his way across to me, smiling himself just like the boy he would always be to me. I'd known Jimmy for quite some time, practically since he first started interning here when he started high school. Poor thing got a couple of photos into his regional paper when he was just a kid, took some really striking photos for his yearbook and of special events like weddings, got known around his neighborhood, and let his photography teacher give him a big head by saying how outstanding he was. Said that he was so good that he definitely should go professional. Only the kid had a better idea; he wanted to be a crime-beat photographer.

And wound up becoming a glorified gopher and whipping boy to Perry. Not exactly the career path he had been dreaming of. I'd always encouraged him to keep going - he was young and still had plenty of time. But he would just smile and point out that the Chief and I were examples of young people who had made it. I could only imagine what the frustration was like for him, but he took it well. I had no doubt that if he kept going at the pace he was, he would be a seasoned professional by the time he reached my age. Especially if Perry continued to thaw toward him, which was slowly but surely happening despite his blustering.

I chuckled quietly thinking about it. It wouldn't be a surprise if he did thaw toward Jimmy, seeing how he took Clark under his wing, as unimpress...

The amusement froze in my throat as his name entered my mind, my frown clear as Jimmy came up to me. Damn him. Damn him for the fool he made of all of us. Even now, at this of all times... Only Jimmy's voice broke me out of my agitated thoughts, saying in a worried but teasing tone, "Uh-oh, I know that look, Miss Lane. Who should we put in the witness protection program?"

I gave an uneasy laugh at my acidic thoughts as I went to hug him, his hug as always tight enough to remind me of the schoolboy crush that had never seemed to go away. As I followed him in, and he took my briefcase, I got all of the updates I could possibly need about the City Room and its latest going-ons, entanglements, and sob stories. Two weddings, five deaths, a divorce, and only my twins for births.

Norm Palmer had been having a bit of heart trouble lately, but was back on the job with a bill of good health. Gil and Judy had separated and she and their brood of four had gone to live with her mother in Missouri. I was rather sad to hear this, as the two of them had always seemed such a happy couple. Steve Lombard had finally harassed the wrong pretty young female, the new CEO's daughter, and been fired for his trouble. The man had been a royal jerk, making several passes at me and causing much grief for Clark and Jimmy, and so it was no great loss. Remembering him and his horrible creeping hands, I suppressed the urge to wrinkle my nose in disgust. And it seemed to give Jimmy a great deal of joy as he related the incident, so detailed were his descriptions, and so spot-on, that as we reached the editor's office I started laughing.

"Olsen! Where's my..." For once in his life, Perry White fell speechless. The beginnings of a grin lightened his face, and then he scowled and bellowed, "Lane, I expect my assistant to be on time!"

Just as quickly, not even giving a moment to consider the recent change of affairs, I stifled my surprise to return the look and retorted with a hand on my hip,"Well, if I were your assistant, I would have been. Nice to see you, too, Mr. White." For just an instant, I winced internally, wondering why I always had to rise to the bait, but it faded. If I had reacted any other way, he would have wondered what had happened to me. He and Jimmy may have expected me changed after all of this, but I would have died before letting them dote on me. "As it is, though, you have one star reporter back in your midst. Is my desk still available?"

"No, but the office next door to me is open, " he shot back, eyeing me with just as much resistance. "The one on the left - my nephew's on the right, where I can keep an eye on him."

That really got me and I could feel my jaw tighten as I narrowed my eyes at him, missing the last sentence entirely. The fact that he was even pretending to misunderstand me was just insulting. In no uncertain terms, I had told him over and over that, while I would come home willingly to the Planet, I wouldn't consider being hired back in anything other than the same position I had left. Senior reporter was what I had worked for, had fought for. I'd always loved my job, loved the thrill of chasing down a lead, and loved the competition. I had absolutely no interest in being tethered to a desk simply because I had had a baby or two and the men at work felt more comfortable that way. Lois Lane was not going to become a desk jockey just because she was now a mom. The mere thought of Perry thinking I would put up with that train of thought infuriated me. "If this has anything to do with my having Jason and Kala now... if you think you can settle me into a nice and cozy position like some complacent broodmare, you have another think coming. I never wanted a desk job and I won't start now."

"Lane, you're the only one around here with enough balls to even be assistant editor," he snapped. "It's not as if you have to take over my job; I'll still be running this place when I'm seventy. You won't need to be at the desk all day; you can still go out and get the scoops. You just won't have to be climbing under an elevator car with a hydrogen bomb in it to justify your paycheck."

There wasn't a day that went by that it didn't drive me absolutely bananas that Perry knew me as well as he did. And he knew full-well that the recklessness was part of the thrill. My expression didn't change other than to allow for a scowl. "You would have expected nothing less for that story and you know it," I replied sarcastically. "You're not dying any time soon, Perry; you have the constitution of an ox. And you know that staying in this building and playing it safe is completely beyond my capability. I can't just write puff pieces for the Metro section. I won't. Your star reporter left here only to follow a lead story. Now, if this is up for debate, I hear that the Star has an..."

"Who says you were star reporter?" was Perry's retort. "Kent had as many articles as you, and he got them out faster - less proofreading, too. Look, Lois, I thought I was doing you a favor here. I'm not throwing you over to the wolves in the Lifestyle section. No matter why you left, you brought back more than a story. Take this job and your kids'll grow up knowing you instead of your byline."

Now I could feel the blood draining from my face. He knew that he'd scored a direct hit at my expense, but this time he had no idea what kind of anger he was tampering with here at those words. For one blinding instant, it was on the very tip of my tongue to tell Perry exactly why Kent had always seemed an equal with me all these years. All of those times, all of those stories... Not to mention the fact that it's his fault that I had to face this indignity, to be told to step back in the interest of my children. I had to force myself not to speak when every part of me wanted to have a tantrum worthy of a furious four-year-old. How dare he...?

And the worst part was that he was right about Jason and Kala. Look at Gil and Judy. Damn him.

I must have betrayed myself somehow, seeing the now real worry on Jimmy's face. But my editor-in-chief's face never changed, the both of us having been through similar confrontations before. But he had not the slightest clue what lay behind this difference of opinion. Taking a deep breath as I stared at the ceiling, I slowly counted to ten. It didn't seem to last long enough. That managed, my voice was very nearly calm when I replied, "I'll tell you what, Perry. Until something happens to make things any different, I'll take it in name only. I'll go to the meetings, I'll go with you to meet the players. I'll go home at five on the dot. I'll do all the things that a good little assistant should. But I still go out in the field, I still get to have my sources. I'm not 'acting' anything until there's a need for it. Deal or no deal?"

"Deal," he grinned, putting out his hand. "Shake on it, Lane?"

The door behind us opened abruptly. A handsome young man all but burst into the office, russet hair falling rakishly forward into his eyes. "You want to roll on the Bulgaria situation, or should we hold it another ten? The print room's getting antsy."

"Let 'em squirm," Perry barked. "Smith'll call in on the wire, he's been doing it for years."

"Thanks, Uncle Perry," the man said, at last noticing there were other people in the room. "Hope I wasn't interrupting ... anything..." He loses his train of thought as his eyes land on me, with that poleaxed expression I've seen so many times. It was too bad for him that it mattered to me very little just then.

"Richard, meet Lois Lane, star reporter and assistant editor, as of today," Perry said expansively. "Lane, this is my nephew, Richard White. He's cleaned up International for me."

"White?" I asked pointedly. Since when has the Planet indulged in blatant nepotism?

Perry just glared. I could read his expression like it was in forty-eight point type, and it said, So what?

I couldn't resist the slightest smirk at his expense. Ah, so it was like that. Unable to help a slightly wolfish grin, knowing that it generally threw male co-workers off balance, I held my hand out to him. It's not as if he was any kind of competition, being essentially in another department. Would probably be best to make nice. "Hello, Mr. White, good to meet you. You can't have been here all that long. I don't remember Perry telling me that you had hired on." My lips continued to smile at this new addition, but my clearly sardonic eyes flickered over to his uncle. I just couldn't help it. Old habits coming back. "How do you like it here so far?"

"Wonderful, really," he replied. "It was a bit of a challenge at first, but I just couldn't pass up the chance to work for the paper that got the first Superman interview. I admit I was a little stunned to see you here, Miss Lane - Perry told me he didn't think you were ever coming back to Metropolis. I really admire your work; it's great to have you back."

Would I ever get away from him? That name - those names - followed me like a tin can tied to a dog's tail. At least Mr. White the Younger was astounded by my fame and not my frame. But I couldn't resist giving him some of the old Lane derision. "Really? I appreciate the remark, but you don't know what it was like with me here."

"Oh, Perry talks about you all the time," he said with a wink to his uncle.

"Yes, but how much of it is printable?" I retorted, and they all broke up laughing.

In the middle of his chuckle, Perry appeared to notice Jimmy for the first time and barked, "Olsen! You got those photos ready yet? No? What're you hanging around here for? Get to work, kid!"

"Uh-oh, we're next," Richard said to me. "I don't get hollered at any less for being his nephew - which is just the way I want it. Let's run."

I had to chuckle at that. At least there was a sense of humor there. He'd need it. There are a few more moments of discussion, the Chief giving me a rundown of the where-to-go's and what-to-do's of the day, telling me to take Jimmy once he's finished picking up those photos, as well as extra information to be given to HR due to the position. I gritted my teeth over it, but thanked him again for thinking of me. He glowered, I sighed and rolled my eyes, and the audience was over. Ten seconds later, Richard and I were leaving the office, Jimmy waiting for me just out of Perry's line of sight.

Richard broke to the right, heading for his own office, then paused to glance back at me. I pretended not to see the way his eyes followed me; the last thing I needed were entanglements of any kind. Especially not now. And especially not with an obvious Superman fan who's so closely related to my boss.

Before I had a chance to think about it further, Jimmy was at my side and we were headed again for the elevators. Only this time I was not alone as I stepped in, with an old friend at my side and the solidness of my status at this paper renewed. And I felt more confident than I had in a long time. Despite all that had changed in my life the last sixteen months, familiarity suddenly felt like armor around me. There was life after Superman. He may have left me with no explanation, left all of us, I may have been the mother of Kala and Jason, but I was still Lois Lane. I could be star reporter and a great mother to my twins. And I was home. I was finally home.


The Return

"Why is it that a technologically-advanced civilization, capable of designing spacecraft that are undetectable to radar, did not think to include landing gear?"

That thought, drifting through Kal-El's mind as he pushed open the hatch, told him more about his kryptonite-weakened state than even the trembling in his limbs. Disoriented, staggering through the smoke, he wasn't even sure if he was headed toward the house or toward Oklahoma, and then he saw the spaceship again. In front of him.

Just as Kal realized he had walked in a circle, he saw movement near the ship. Ma. Thank God. He had just enough strength left to reach her, to touch her shoulder, and then the world went black. Ma Kent caught him as he fell, cradling him in her arms.

* * *

The stars were green. Except for one red one, right above his head. He blinked at them for a moment before recognizing the glow-in-the-dark star shapes that had decorated his ceiling since he was a boy. Ma had kept his room exactly as it had been before he left the farm for Metropolis. It felt a little strange to him now, to be a man in this room where he had grown up, but comforting all the same. Some things hadn't changed in his absence.

It was very early; the sun wasn't even up yet. Kal-El got up and dressed himself slowly, glancing out the window. The farm had looked just like it always had last night ... except for the track burned by his landing. But now, as the sky grew lighter, he began to see the differences. The outbuildings could've used a coat of paint, and the once lush fields were looking a little parched. A general air of disuse hung about the place, and Kal frowned slightly. Something he would have to see to.

He could barely remember yesterday morning, the first after his arrival. The sun's rays had helped him to throw off most of his weakness, at least long enough to bury the ship beneath the fields. Ma would lose some of the crop - most of the crop, young corn didn't take well to flaming meteors landing in it - but he would help her. After he had finished hiding the ship, he had come back inside. Ma had come into the living room while he watched television, becoming more and more disturbed. The world seemed to have literally gone to hell is his absence; crimes and disasters that even five years ago would have provoked an outcry now received only a brief mention in the news.

Her tears had surprised him - Ma had always been so strong, so sure. Kal berated himself for having left her alone, five years of waiting, wondering, hoping. And it had all been for nothing, really. Of all the things he thought he might find on Krypton, an abundance of radiation wasn't one of them. The very crystal of the planet had become lethal Kryptonite. He didn't like to think about how weak he had been, how close he had come to never making it home.

And this was home, he'd learned that. Metropolis itself had felt foreign to him at the end, the discovery of Krypton a welcome excuse to escape from all of the uncomfortable reminders. But the planet was dead, a shadow of its former glory, home only to ghosts of past greatness. The farm was where he had always been loved, always accepted, never had to hide who or what he was. That would never change; the Kent farm would always be his refuge. With those warm, comforting thoughts in mind, Kal went downstairs, following the scent of pancakes.

Kal froze in the hallway, his azure eyes widening. The delicious breakfast he smelled wasn't being made especially for him. There, at the head of the table, was Ben Hubbard. The older man laughed, his eyes twinkling with mischief and delight, and Martha fanned a dish towel at him in mock warning. It was so much like the scenes that had played out in this room during Kal's youth ... but now it was Ben sitting in Jonathan's chair and flirting with Jonathan's widow. Kal felt a moment of searing, unreasoning hatred, and promptly quashed it as he had learned to subdue all negative emotion.

He could've sworn he'd made no sound, but Martha looked up with a mother's intuition. "Clark! You finally woke up. Here, darling, sit down. I've got just the thing to bring back your appetite."

"Good morning, Clark," Ben said, a trifle shyly. "I'm so glad you made it back home. Did you fly in or drive?"

"I flew," he answered coolly, applying himself to the stack of pancakes. Wonderful, fluffy batter, not at all like that Bisquick stuff in a box; butter from an actual cow; and real maple syrup, served just slightly warmed. On the side, a rasher of crisp bacon, three sausage links, and two scrambled eggs. It was the kind of breakfast that would bring tears to the eyes of country boys and cardiologists alike, though for entirely different reasons.

An awkward silence descended on them as Martha prepared her own plate. Clark could not believe that Ben - a trusted friend of the family - had moved into his father's place so smoothly. And Mom let him. Didn't she still love Jonathan?

Ben finished first. "Martha, I've got to run back by my own place," he said. "See you tonight?"

"I'll beat you at Scrabble again," she replied easily. He kissed her cheek, awkward under the eyes of her son, and left.

Now it was just Martha and her boy, silent as they had ever been. It seemed even this was no longer home. I asked him to take care of the farm, he thought, but this is NOT what I had in mind.

"What's on your mind, Clark?" she asked, knowing the answer perfectly well.

"You and Ben..."

"We're very good friends, Clark," she said in that no-nonsense tone. "I love your father, always did, always will. But he's gone, and this house can get very lonely, especially for a woman my age. Ben and I, we have something special. I think Jonathan would be glad he's looking after me."

Clark had to force his mouthful of sausage down. It's none of your business, he told himself sternly. She may be your mother, but it's her life. "I ... I think I understand, Ma," he said at last. "I just ... it was a shock, that's all."

She sighed. "Oh, Clark. Things do change, but you will always be welcome here, you know that."

A weight seemed to roll off his heart. "I love you, Mom."

"I love you, too, son."

They finished breakfast in a far happier quiet.

* * *

Shelby was waiting when Clark walked outside. The dog forgave him for losing the ball yesterday, after he buried the ship, and had brought him a new one. This time, Clark only threw it a hundred yards or so - the last one was probably in Wyoming.

The dog was getting older, too. Once upon a time, he would have gleefully retrieved the ball as often as Clark could throw it, and he could be a pest when he wanted to play, dropping the slobbery ball into Clark's lap or pushing it against his hands. But today, after only six or seven tosses, he began to slow down, walking back instead of trotting.

Old dog, old farm, old house, everything is getting older and falling apart. Not me, though - well, maybe falling apart, but I don't get much older.

At least he could get started fixing things up a bit. Some lumber, some paint, judicious use of his speed and strength, and they could have the place looking presentable again.

A large beige truck turned into the driveway, rolling past the house and on into the north field, the one Jonathan always called the Rockery. That was what it mostly grew - rocks. You couldn't plow in it, not unless you wanted to keep replacing the plowblades. They had tried growing different things there, herbs and such, trying to make the land pay for itself, but it had never worked. Now it looked as though Ma had some scheme for it. Clark wandered over, mildly interested.

The tall corn from the main field had obscured much of the activity out here, he soon realized. Deep pits had been dug, the rocks that were in them carefully laid aside. One large area and several smaller ones had been leveled. It looked almost like a construction site.

"Can I help you?" a man in coveralls asked, his tone friendly.

"Sure, could you tell me just what you're building?"

The man grinned. "Well, Missus Kent saw as how the farm wasn't bringing in as much money as it used to, so she leased out these twenty acres to a firm from Rhode Island. They're building some kind of pioneer historical center; people can come and see how folks lived in these parts back in 1880 or so. Did ya know, some of them rich folks from New York and the like will pay money to live in a sod house with no electricity? They call it 'getting away from it all.' Crazy Easterners."

"Yeah," Clark sighed, adding under his breath, "I think we're all a little crazy."

* * *

Martha had just finishing milking Nancy, the goat, when Clark walked back in. "Son, would you be a sweetheart and carry this milk in?"

"Sure, Mom," he replied, lifting it easily. "There were some things I wanted to ask you about."

"Saw the new pioneer center going up, hmm?"

He looked down at her, startled, and she laughed.

"I'm your mother, Clark, I don't have to read your mind - I already know what's going to be there. And I'll tell you this, when I signed that lease I read it over twice with a magnifying lens - then I let that nice young attorney in town have a look, too. They aren't going to bother the farm - they'll have their own driveway, and they're going to plant cottonwoods to screen the center from the house. They won't ever have more than three families down there at a time, no more than twenty people including staff."

"Still, it just seems a little ... odd."

Martha put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Clark, my sweet boy. People in the city envy the things you had growing up - wide spaces, honest work, fresh food, peace and quiet. They want to know, just for a little while, what it's like to live simply. Most of them have never seen as many stars as we can, just because they burn so much light of their own. There's a metaphor in that, I'm sure."

And it did sound so reasonable, so right. When he had lived in Metropolis, he'd flown home at least once a week, exchanging the big city hustle for some small town comfort. Every single time he woke up here, the quiet was a surprise. Oh, he could hear roosters crowing in Texas if he wanted to, but there was so much less to shut out in Smallville.

"Mom, are you sure this is what you want to do?" he asked, putting the can of milk into the cooler.

She chuckled at him again. "Well, I was thinking of moving to Montana with Ben. It's beautiful country up there, great fishing, you know."

"Great ... fishing."

"Um-hmm. You should see the pike I caught last time - it was twice as big as Ben's, almost thirty pounds! Tasted pretty good, too." She grinned at the memory, then caught Clark's bemused look. "Anyway, the income from the lease will give us enough to keep the farm and maybe go on a fishing trip once or twice a year."

For the first time in his life, Clark felt lost with the farm's good soil beneath him. A bunch of greenhorns from the city, trying to get along without laptops, cell phones, PDAs, or even running water, would be a nuisance no matter what. All the carefully-researched history in the world wouldn't tell them how to milk a cow without getting switched in the eyes by her tail, or how to get eggs from under a hen who'd gone broody, or how to make biscuits from scratch and cook them in a fireplace. They would need someone like Ma for that, and since she was close by, it was Ma they would get. She never could stop herself from helping people; it was a character trait he'd gotten from her and Jonathan both, Clark reflected with a smile.

But all of this meant that his peaceful home was changing, too. Strangers on the home place would irritate him as much as they amused him. And he liked Ben Hubbard, always had, but seeing him as his mother's partner was going to take some getting used to. Until he got his mind around that, it would best for both men if he kept away from the farm.

So where on earth could he go, if not here? Walking back to the barn beside Martha, with Shelby trotting along hopefully beside them, Clark scuffed his feet in the dust. For now, there were chores to be done, repairs he could help with, but soon he would have to leave. And when that time came, he would need to decide where to go ... and who he would be in the larger world.


Tilting Planet

Clark's old apartment was now occupied by two bachelors and a pair of poodles; he'd gone by just for nostalgia's sake, after spending a couple of weeks fixing things up around the farm. His search for a new one was fruitless so far. Everything seemed twice as expensive as it was before he left. So on that Thursday morning, he was carrying both suitcases as he stepped onto the Daily Planet elevator, lost in thought.

They've even renovated here. Why can't anything ever stay the same? It wasn't all that long a time to be gone, but it seems as though I've returned to a completely different Earth. All those newspapers Ma saved for me - I couldn't read past the first few pages. So much crime, so much war, so much pain. Maybe Lois was right.

That article she wrote - Why the World Doesn't Need Superman - she has a point. People did depend on me, and they got out of the habit of doing things for themselves. When I left, everything was so much worse because they kept expecting me to step in and save them. Jor-El warned me, but I so loved to help people. Was it Kryptonian vanity, as he said? Or simply the joy of doing what I do best, as Pa told me?

One thing's for certain - Lois is furious with me. Well, with Superman. She has a right to be angry. I should've said goodbye. Maybe she would've convinced me not to go, but what would I really have missed? Besides the ruins of a once-great planet and a massive dose of Kryptonite poisoning.

I would've wondered, though, and I would've come to resent her for stopping me. Better this way, even if she doesn't remember everything that happened between us. I'm the one whose mission, whose responsibilities, kept us apart, so it's only fair that I'm the one who has to bear the pain.

But oh, I can't wait to see her again! I'm sure she's changed too - always restless, always driving forward, but still always Lois. She's probably into some new devilry - with Luthor in prison, she would've found some other arch-criminal whose cage she can rattle. I'll have to keep a tight hold on my reactions - she thinks I'm just Clark, and she'll wonder if her old partner acts any different.

The doors opened, and shy, clumsy Clark bumbled his way across the redecorated bullpen. New flat screen televisions, new desks, but the same old piles of work everywhere - file folders bursting with references, contact lists, notes, and other apocrypha. It had been a long time since he'd put on this particular charade, and he almost overdid it. Banging into one desk, he heard a very familiar voice yelp as an expensive camera dropped from the edge of the filing cabinet.

Clark caught it - people never seemed to wonder how such a klutz could suddenly manifest excellent hand-eye coordination. Jimmy was thrilled to see him; Clark noticed something manic about his greeting. While the younger man - Jimmy could no longer be properly called a boy - rushed off to get something, Clark looked around, trying to find one particular desk.

He didn't see it. He did, however, see the cake Jimmy had baked for him. A sweet gesture, even if someone had already eaten a slice. Further reminiscing was cut off by Perry's bellow. "Olsen!"

Jimmy all but leaped into the air. "Um, Clark, I gotta run. But, uh, make yourself at home, you know?"

Then he was hurrying away, popping Rolaids as he did, leaving Clark to trail off, in mid-sentence, "Where can I find ... Lois?"

He supposed he'd have to track her down himself. For the moment, he needed to get settled at his new desk and stash his suitcases somewhere. The janitorial closet would do, though the life-sized portrait of Perry was just a tad creepy. As for the desk, it was piled high with the former occupant's notes and files, and with a sigh, Clark set about organizing them. It was simple, undemanding work, and he was thoroughly lost in it when Perry yelled for him.

"Kent! Did your hearing get worse while you were on leave? Get in here!"

He scurried into the editor's office, hiding a smile. At least some things never changed. "Uh, Chief, I just wanted to thank you for letting me have my job back," he said, trying to sound nervous.

"Don't thank me, thank Norm Palmer for dying," Perry snapped. "Now, Kent, I need to talk to you. Just because you've been on vacation doesn't mean I expect any less of you. And don't think just because Olsen baked you a cake that you're gonna get some kind of special treatment for coming back here. I expect you to work, just like before..."

The lecture rolled onward. There was no stopping Perry once he started, and Clark just let it all wash over him, looking meek and nodding at appropriate intervals. As Perry turned to look out of the magnificent window while continuing his harangue, Clark let his own eyes wander.

There were two offices, one on either side of Perry's, each separated only by a wall of glass. In one, the desk was angled to face into this office, and the nameplate read "Richard White, International Liaison." A large framed photo of a seaplane hung on the wall behind it. Some other photos were on the desk, but they were turned away so that they faced the desk's occupant. A mostly clean office, with little to divert Clark's mind. He turned the other direction.

Ah, now this was an office he could get used to. Binders and notebooks stuffed to bursting, half a dozen Post-It notes littering the desk and computer monitor, articles tacked up on the wall beside the chair. Yet there was a certain organization to the seeming chaos, a sense that whoever worked there could put their hands on a desired item in seconds. It reminded Clark of...

Lois Lane, Assistant Editor. His keen vision read the words, but his brain refused to absorb them. Lois? His Lois, assistant editor of the paper? He would be working not with but for the notoriously temperamental Lois Lane. Lois, who utterly refused to stop or at least slow down when pursuing a story. Lois, who had once sweet-talked a locksmith into opening Luthor's Porsche for her.

Shocked, Clark scanned her desk. She had turned it slightly away from Perry's office, as if she trusted the Chief to watch her back. In addition to the usual detritus of her working style, he noted a couple of packs of nicotine patches. Thank God, she's finally quitting! And some more framed photos. He looked closer, wondering if her sister had had another child, and got instead the shock of his life.

Lois Lane, with her arms around two children, maternal pride very obvious in her smile. And beside her, his hand on the boy's shoulder, was a strange man. No, the face looked a little familiar...

Almost unwillingly, Clark looked back into the other office, where the picture of the seaplane hung. Its pilot stood on one of the pontoons, grinning. The same proprietary smile, the same tousled hair, the same laughing eyes.

He didn't even think, interrupting Perry's diatribe with a disbelieving, "Lois got married?!"

Perry glanced at him, curiously. "Not yet. You have been gone a long time, haven't you? She's engaged, to my nephew, Richard. Good kid, takes after my side of the family. At least with her twins there'll finally be one Lane that listens to a White!"

Clark gaped at him. Lois. Assistant editor. Engaged. With twins.

Perry just grinned and smacked his desk for emphasis. "Progress, Kent! You gotta keep ahead of things or get left behind. Now, I want you to get out there and wrap up that story Palmer was working on. You've got all his notes..."

The editor was herding him toward the door, and Clark went, still dazed. Twins. He had told her she would meet someone some day, but still - if those pictures were recent, she'd had these kids about a year after he left. She didn't wait. She didn't wait for me at all.

And on the heels of that thought: She's really furious.

Just as Perry was shooing him out the door, a dark blue blur flashed across the office in a clatter of high heels. "Lane!" the editor bellowed, and Clark's heart leaped. "Where the hell are you going?"

"Pierson's afraid of heights," she called back, snatching up her tape recorder and notepad. "He just told me. I'm covering the space plane."

"What? Lois, you can't..." She was already gone, never having noticed Clark.

He, however, had noticed her. Oh, God, she's just as beautiful as ever. Why did I ever leave her? What made me think I could live without her?

Idiot. If the world knows you love her, you might as well paint a giant bull's-eye over her heart. It's bad enough as it was - Jor-El was right about that. Besides, what kind of life is that for her? "Sorry, honey, I can't have dinner on our anniversary, there's an earthquake in India." We were both too much in love to let me do my duty, and too moral to shirk without feeling guilty.

But oh, that woman! Those eyes, that voice, that willpower, that temper - from the moment I met her, there was never another woman for me.

Part of him wanted to flee back to Smallville, where at least he wouldn't be constantly confronted by the woman he'd loved and lost. Then he remembered his last day there before coming to Metropolis. The first visitors to the pioneer center had been a very wealthy couple whose donations had made the construction possible. They occupied the first cabin before the facility was even complete, and on that day, after the construction crew had gone home, Ma had dropped by with one of her delicious apple pies. Clark had gone, too, for politeness' sake, but he had seen the shape of the future in the husband's casual question: "Where do we plug in the butter churn?"

A few of Jonathan's sayings about folks with more money than sense had flitted through his mind as he looked at the man's manicured hands, his perfect uncalloused fingers. Ma would help them out, of course, even lead them to appreciate this lifestyle, but for himself, if he was going to deal with big-city attitudes, he might as well do it in the city itself.

No, I really can't go home. I'd be underfoot and irritable with Ben. This is the closest thing to home I have left, and I have to face Lois. Maybe I can talk to her, find out why she chose this man, why she gave up on Superman. I owe her an apology, and maybe I can try to explain as Clark why I didn't say goodbye.

I can't just leave. Not again.

He might've stood there just outside Perry's office all afternoon, but Jimmy saw him. "Hey, Clark," the younger man said. "You look like you could use a drink."

I don't plan to fly anytime soon, and a drink sounds pretty good right now. I mean, twins... "Sure, Jimmy. You have someplace in mind?"

"The Ace o' Clubs. You'll like it - the bartender's a friend of mine."


Losing Altitude

It was almost as if she had known the call would come. And after five years of this routine, she should have. Once through all three checkpoints and having had her press pass checked each time, it was inevitable what would happen next. Just as she made her way up the tarmac, her phone chirped to life. Not even glancing at the caller-ID, Lois pulled the phone out of its carrier on her side and answered with a mix of amusement and exasperation. "Hello, Richard. Is this the standard 'Uncle-Perry-hates-it-when-you-do-this' call? Because he hired me for a reason and I won't let us get scooped because Pierson finally owned up to airsickness with no one else available on such short notice."

There was a pause before he laughed into the receiver. "Yes, well, he just burst in here and spent twenty minutes on a diatribe that included the comments that you were the bane of his existence and how it's a damn good thing that you're a good reporter even if you can be a lousy assistant editor. I figured that it at least deserved a phone call."

The roll of her hazel eyes was inevitable as she made her way up the aisle. Shaking her head as she slid into her seat, the dark-haired woman continued to argue her point, "Look, this Genesis project has the makings of being an important step in travel, but it's not without flaws. Would you rather I let the other papers carry this and buy all their propaganda, only to have them be wrong? And let the Planet go without because of Pierson and his vertigo? I think not."

"Well, I suppose it's a good thing that you don't have a fear of flying, eh?" The teasing was clear in his voice.

She had to chuckle at that. "Oh, give it a rest, Mr. White. Your uncle is all too aware that the only reason that I finally took the assistant's job was because he decided to make a spectacle of himself with that heart attack. And he knows now just as well as he did then that I don't play by the rules. I never have, I never will. Which has always served me well." Lois pretended she didn't hear the slight irritation in her own voice.

"Ah, yes. You've always been a brilliant role model, Miss Lane..."

Well, he was just being impossible this afternoon. "Hush, White. And speaking of which, I don't expect this to be over until after five. Since I'm caught up here, I'll take your turn on Friday if you'll go get the kids."

"Isn't today a half-day? It's Wednesday."

"Yeah, but they're going to spend the afternoon at Ashlyn's. Seems that little imp has talked her mommy into taking Kal and Jason to the zoo with them. Which is fine, since I made sure to give Barbara the money for their admission when I saw her Monday. The zoo's too expensive to expect her to pick up the tab alone, no matter how long the kids have known each other." Phone braced on her shoulder, Lois unzipped her purse and pulled out her recorder, noting that the plane was filling up rather quickly now. A glance at her watch told her that all would be beginning in the next ten minutes. "Alright, Richard, it's nearly show time. I have to go. And I'll be sure to have the whip and stool when I see Perry later. Don't forget to put out the beef for later. I promised Jason that we'd have something other than Chinese tonight."

"Consider it done, Lois," he said, the warmth of affection clear in his voice. "And you don't forget what I said last night."

"Richard, I told you not to get pushy," she replied with a trace of nervousness.

"I'm not pushing, Lois. Just ... think about it, okay?"

"Okay. Look, I need to go. If I don't turn this phone off before they start the engines, the plane might explode or something."

"Lois..."

"Richard, I'll think about it. That's the best you're getting right now."

"Thanks. I love you, Lois."

"Love you." She pushed the END button and sighed. He just had to bring it up again. Against her will, her mind drifted back five years, to a time when the twins had been in the middle of their second year, when she had just come back to the Planet. For a moment, it was almost like she was there again.

* * *

"So, what are you doing Friday night, Miss Lane?"

Lois glared at him. The editor's nephew couldn't take a hint anymore than Perry himself could. "Mixing macrobiotic shakes for the twins," she replied coolly. "Just like every night."

"You know, there's this new café called Heartworks down on Eighth Avenue. They have a lot of vegetarian food."

"The kids can't have wheat, either."

"That's fine, the menu says gluten-free options available. And no peanuts anywhere in the facility. We could try it."

"With a pair of eighteen-month-olds? Please."

"It'd be a lot easier with two adults."

She dropped the files she'd been carrying to the desk with a very final thwack. "Richard, do you have the first idea how to care for children?"

"No, but I'll have twice the opportunities to learn. Besides, you didn't know anything about kids, either, and everyone says you're a great mom." At her foreboding look, he amended, "Great reporter and great mom."

"Flattery will get you nowhere."

"And hiding in your apartment won't get you anywhere, either. C'mon, Lois, it's just a date. We'll have both your twins for chaperones. I promise you won't have to knock me unconscious with a shoe."

"Oh, so you heard about that, too?" she muttered. Lombard had deserved it, but she hated the way office gossip about her was so accessible to this man. Richard was still there, as he had been for months, always friendly, always supportive, always interested in the kids.

It was the last that had gotten to her. Most men would have run when they heard she had two children, but Richard only seemed more intrigued. On the rare occasions that she brought the twins to the office, he made a point of talking to them, as if he knew they were her only weakness now.

And he was still leaning against the door of her office, still smiling. Rejected a dozen times, and still never giving up. Lois glanced at him exasperatedly, and that smile broadened. "The owner says they're usually a little slow around five."

Lois' resistance finally crumbled. "Fine! If I go out with you, will you shut up?!"

Richard mimed zipping his lip and shot her a thumb's-up. Then he pointed to his watch, held up five fingers, and tapped Friday's date on her desk calendar.

"You are impossible, Richard White," she sighed. "Now, shoo. Contrary to your uncle's belief, I have work to do."

And that first date had been a success. Over time, she went out with Richard more and more often, and he proved that his interest in the twins wasn't just a front to get into Lois' good graces. Sometimes he paid more attention to them than to her, which she found oddly comforting.

Neither of them had said anything to Perry, but the office rumor mill had made the announcement for them. The editor gave his approval by his silence, although Lois sometimes saw him smiling at the two of them when they argued over layouts or stories to pursue.

And then, the office Christmas party. That had been singularly unfair. Lois would've been perfectly content to let things continue as they were, with Richard at her place as often as she was at his, their relationship cemented by long talks - and sometimes more than talks, but that had taken a while - after the twins went to bed. But that day he caught her hands and pulled her close, pointing upward with an impish grin.

Bloody mistletoe. Lois tried to keep it to a simple peck on the cheek, but Richard had other ideas. She heard someone whistle and a scattering of applause, and glared at Richard. "Now that I have your attention," he said, still holding Lois' hand, "there's something I'd like you all to hear." Then he turned to her, dropping to one knee, and pulled a black velvet box from his pocket. "Lois Lane, will you marry me?"

Her jaw had dropped, and spontaneous cheering had drowned out any response she could think of. The only voice that penetrated the uproar was Perry's. "Great Caesar's ghost!"

* * *

Oh yes, the memories were as clear as his honest blue eyes. Dragging her mind back to the present, Lois nibbled her pen as the captain announced their liftoff. Richard had been a persistent devil, not obnoxious but always hopeful. Just the way he was being about their engagement now. Richard wanted to get married.

It wouldn't change much. They already lived together, they already shared the raising of these children. Marriage would just make it official.

Which was precisely what made her nervous. It would be official.

* * *

The Ace o' Clubs turned out to be one of those bars where all the regulars know each other, where the TV seems to receive only news and sports, and where the bartender has worked there since it opened at approximately the dawn of time. It was a place where lonely, weary, or unhappy men came to drink quietly, watch TV without ever seeing anything called a 'special TV movie event, ' and occasionally debate the important questions of the times with other men, such as, "Can Holyfield really stage a comeback, especially at his age?" and "Will late-night TV ever show something remotely watchable?"

Jimmy took what was probably his regular seat, and Clark hesitantly took the barstool next to him. Bo, the bartender, glanced up at Jimmy and pulled the cap off a longneck; Clark held up two fingers, and the elderly man brought him one of the same. He didn't often drink, but it always comforted him when he did. As a teenager, Jonathan had sometimes allowed him half a glass of beer while they sat on the back porch and talked about so many things. Pa claimed that if his doctor recommended "a little liquor for my ticker" then it couldn't hurt the boy, either.

Remembering that phrase made Clark's heart ache, even after all these years. He wished his father was still alive; he needed someone to talk to. Apparently the bartender knew Jimmy pretty well; Clark partly tuned out their small talk as he brooded over Lois and nursed his beer. Assistant editor. Engaged. Twins. Did I even come back to the right universe?

He was startled into paying attention by a slap on the back from Jimmy, made hearty by a beer and a half. "Clark here has been doing some soul-searching. He saw llamas."

Llamas? Oh, wait, I was supposed to be in Peru. But before he could reply, Bo just nodded and asked, "Was it tough coming back?"

How on earth does he know? he thought, looking puzzled.

"To work," the man elaborated, obviously used to minds affected by alcohol.

Tougher than I ever imagined. Now they were both looking at him curiously, and he tried to tell the truth without telling too much of it. "Well, things change," he began. "And sometimes things that you never thought could change, would change." The bartender nodded.

"Take Lois," he said, glancing at Jimmy. The younger man was starting on his second beer. "A woman like her, I never thought she'd settle down."

Jimmy nodded wisely, but his eyes were distant, and he turned his beer bottle absently. "Yeah, I know," he said. "I used to get such good pictures. Even front page. But I guess there's such a thing as photographer's block. Like writer's block, you know? I haven't had a picture published in two months. Perry's gonna fire me, this keeps up," he sighed.

Now it was Clark's turn to comfort him. "No, Jimmy, I'm sure things will turn around soon. Just don't give up."

Just then, someone called for Bo to turn up the TV, and both Daily Planet employees looked up. "And now, live from the Genesis launch..." an overly dramatic voice began.

Clark had read about it; it was front page news. A space shuttle strapped to the back of a 777 jet, hopefully a means of cutting costs for NASA. The two craft would separate in midair, the jet taking its cargo of journalists back to earth, and the shuttle heading up to the space station. That was the story Lois had been racing to cover when she blew past him without even noticing his existence - or listening to Perry, which was nothing new.

And now Lois was on screen, the TV camera focusing in on her. She was honing in on the unfortunate press agent with typical Lane intensity. "You've said that the Genesis project may finally allow private space travel. Just how much would the 'average person' be expected to pay for such a launch?"

Bobbie-Faye, the spokeswoman, gave her a forced grin and a stock answer. Clark smiled; he'd been on the receiving end of Lois' questions more than once.

* * *

Meanwhile, not too far from either of them, Lex Luthor sighed and closed his eyes. For what felt like the millionth time, he asked himself, Why on earth am I surrounded by such idiots?

If Riley was any more obsessed with that camera, he'd have literally glued it to his face. Stanford was smart enough to be tolerable, and Kitty wasn't too bad either, even if Luthor was always one step ahead of her. But Brutus and Grant were typical prison muscle, and their blank looks at a moment like this made Luthor want to cut into them with several razor-sharp remarks.

Not that they would understand the verbal abuse he gave them, which Luthor had to admit was probably why he continued to employ people whose weight was more than double their IQ. Very few people in the world were smart enough to keep up with him; most were comparatively slow-witted, to say the least. It frustrated Luthor to the point of fury when he had to explain himself more than once, and he spoke cruelly when he was angry. The only people who would continue to work for him either thought that they were using him, like Kitty, or were thick-skinned as well as thick-skulled enough to let his insults pass unnoticed.

Just as he reflected on this, one of the miniature trains in the Vanderworth basement ran into Stanford's arm as he tried to place the tiny sliver of Kryptonian crystal into the lake. Calipers and crystal plunged into the water and Stanford jumped back, rubbing his elbow and looking at Luthor worriedly.

Scratch that about Stanford being bright enough to tolerate.

For a moment, nothing happened. Kitty shot Luthor a poisonous glance and said, "Wow, Lex, that's really something."

Is it truly necessary to have a woman in my life? Every one of them tries to be contemptuous of me - of me! - and what do I really get in return?

Hmm. True. Well, there are compensations. "Wait for it," he growled at her.

A moment passed, with Riley filming avidly, Stanford watching the lake with bulging eyes, and Kitty sighing melodramatically. "Wow, Lex, that's really something."

If sarcasm was lead, that remark would've dropped straight through the floor. Lex managed not to lash out at her, glaring at the miniature lake, willing it to do something. Anything, at this point. He couldn't be wrong. He couldn't be wrong. He...

He had learned to admit defeat. "Stop the camera."

"But-"

"Shut it off," Lex said sharply. They all relaxed slightly, disappointed.

The sudden darkness that descended on them should've made a noise. Its instantaneous, silent arrival spooked even the hardened criminals. "Sorry," Riley said meekly.

Now, in the pitch darkness of the basement, they could see the little lake glowing. "That wasn't you," Lex said softly, the faint light reflecting off his eyes.

Unbeknownst to them, unnoticed even by Luthor himself at the time, the electromagnetic pulse was spreading, racing outward across Metropolis, blanking out every electronic device it encountered. It also spread upward...

* * *

Although she was all too aware of the importance of this flight, as she had argued with Richard, Lois couldn't help but let her mind wander just a bit as their Genesis representative spouted Virgin Air dogma in a pleasant, modulated tone. Besides, she thought with amusement, she was sure that this Bobbie-Faye would be relieved to be left alone. After zinging her on the lack of major television broadcasting of this 'pivotal next step in travel' and questioning her usage of 'insertion boosters' just to rock her, giving her a break was somewhat due. The annoyance that broke through on that model-perfect face was like gold. It was moments like this that made Lois miss working in the field so much.

Watching the almost garish animated presentation before them, Lois couldn't help that her mind kept finding its way back to her and Richard's discussion. Or her conscience. Richard was a good man, a truly wonderful one that had been there for so long. He loved the twins. He loved her. So why was she scared to make an honest man of him? He deserved it, didn't he?

Didn't he?

Unwillingly, her eyes fell to her sapphire engagement ring from where it rested on her recorder. He did. Of course he did. He deserved more than she could possibly ever give him. He was so good to her and the kids...

And she was stalling, Lois thought guiltily. She knew it. She had never wanted to be married before, hadn't the slightest idea how to be a wife, the very idea always seeming impossible for a million little reasons.

And not the least of which being a large one who could crush coal in his very hands.

Just as she scoffed at herself in disgust, the plane's lights flickered and died even as the cartoon moaned to a stop. Startled out of her reverie, her sharp hazel eyes scanned around the plane as Lois felt the pit of her stomach go cold with déjà vu at the sudden lack of sound. Memories of malfunctioning aircraft past froze her to her seat then, and she tried to listen more carefully. She couldn't even hear the hum of the engine, let alone the added rumble of the shuttle's boosters. Something's happened. This seems too much like that damned helicopter, something deep inside her warned. Richard and the ring were completely forgotten as she turned her gaze to the window. And wished she hadn't. The ground seemed suddenly a lot closer.

And just as she made to brace herself, the cabin brightened again and the comforting sound just outside came again. The cartoon returned to life, continuing its careful explanation of the plane's workings. But no one was listening then, the sound of the nervous press overriding it easily.

Within a moment, the jet leveled off back at its former height. Bobbie-Faye was quickly attempting to restore confidence to the frightened pack of journalists, her lightly-accented voice was soothing, but her eyes were just a bit wider when Lois met them. And she was smiling just a little less realistically. It served to calm the other sheep, all settling in again with a nervous scattering of laughter. But the blonde woman knew something was wrong, even as she continued her rehearsed company rhetoric, just as well as she could. Lois wasn't buying it. "No reason to be alarmed, it was just a minor power outage, everything is perfectly normal."

Oh, dear God. Just tell me it was turbulence. Tell me it was turbulence, she thought around the rock suddenly in her stomach. Only to hear the shudder of the shuttle's boosters come to life, followed by more metallic groans. And the climb continued. Lois, feeling the cold prickle across her skin, took a deep breath.

They were right. I should have sent Pierson, after all. Would have served him right.

"The shuttle will separate momentarily, just before its boosters ignite. And if you're lucky," Bobbie-Faye said, grinning too widely, "you may just hear the faint pop of the sonic boom."

A sudden roar that made the entire plane shudder, seeming to shove the journalists against their seats, flung Bobbie-Faye to the floor practically at Lois' feet. The angle of ascent was markedly steeper as the plane continued to shiver, and the spokeswoman tried vainly to get to her feet.

I've flown with Superman, I know what a sonic boom sounds and feels like. Whatever the hell it was, that was no sonic boom, sister, Lois thought, unbuckling her lap belt. Even if she had been needling the woman a moment ago, this was some kind of emergency, and lying in the aisle was no safe place to be. No one else was even trying to help.

...

After a brief power outage, no unusual event in Metropolis during the summer, the coverage of the Genesis launch had been abandoned in favor of a baseball game. Jimmy was drinking his third beer while Clark sipped his second. The photographer took a long sip, then look conspiratorially at Clark. Apropos of nothing, he said, "You know, if you ask me - and you should ask me, you shouldn't ask her, because she'll tear your head off - she's still in love with you-know-who." He tried to nod and wink wisely, but two beers was clearly his limit.

No need to ask who 'she' was. Jimmy thinks Lois is still in love with me? The surprise lit up Clark's face.

He would've loved to follow up on that, to use his keen journalistic instincts to find out exactly why Jimmy thought that and whether his assumptions were valid. But just at that moment, the baseball game vanished from the screen, provoking groans from the bar patrons.

In its place was a serious-looking anchorwoman. "We've just received word that the inaugural flight of the Genesis space shuttle is experiencing a midair emergency."

The effects of one and a half beers seemed to melt out of Clark's veins as he stared at the screen. His mind, his entire being, seemed to resonate with one sentence: Lois is on that plane.

Even Jimmy had sobered up, watching in openmouthed shock as the anchorwoman continued gravely, "Sources are telling us that the shuttle failed to disengage, sending both craft rocketing toward space." He absorbed little of the next sentences, something about the blackout, while he remembered with quiet horror just who was covering the launch. Quickly he turned to Clark, his professional instincts kicking in.

"I should do some... thing..." Jimmy trailed off, puzzled. Clark was gone, leaving him with the bill. Guess his newspapering sixth sense is a little sharper than mine.


Defying Gravity

Gritting her teeth against the forces that tore at them, Lois finally caught Bobbie-Faye's hand while keeping an iron grip on the hand-rail beside her seat. Ordinarily it would be no great feat to pull someone as slim as the blonde to her feet, but she couldn't do anything about the disorientation that she would have due to hitting the floor as hard as Bobbie seemed to have. With a worried glance around, Lois realized that the only seat nearby was her own. Dammit. Nice going, Lane. There you go thinking with your heart again and not your head. Just perfect. Your self-preservation instincts are at an all-time low. As it was, she had barely managed to help buckle the woman in and start to look for another open seat, before there was another roar.

The plane lurched sickeningly, catching her by complete surprise in only four steps. Before she even knew what was happening, she was hurled to the floor with a startled cry. In an instant, Lois reached out for purchase of any kind, finding none as the force pulled her along. One more jolt and a with terrified cry, she was sent bumping and sliding to the rear of the cabin as oxygen masks dropped from their position. Even before she could catch her breath, her mind reeling, Lois was slammed brutally into the back wall of the jet. Pain shot through her like a knife as she cried out, her head an agony.

Oh God, please let us make it through this.

* * *

His mind was running in overdrive. Get out onto the street, dodge through the crowd out of anyone's direct sight, yank the shirt open ... and then force of habit failed him. There was only a plain white cotton undershirt beneath. Clark felt his heart freeze, then sharply kick into a higher gear. The uniform was still in his suitcase, in the janitorial closet.

For an instant, he considered leaving it there. But no, what would people think of Superman in a suit from Macy's? It would jeopardize his secret identity. And, unlike his red and blue suit he wore as the hero, this one would easily ignite if he flew too close to the afterburners. Not exactly the kind of 'Superman exclusive' he wanted to give the world.

Clark - no, better get in my superhero mindset - Superman changed course and raced back to the Planet, faster than the human eye could follow. The revolving doors whirred in protest as he flashed through them, soaring up a ventilation shaft instead of waiting for the elevator. In only a few seconds, he was flying at top speed out of the airshaft, his cape snapping behind him.

* * *

Dazed and hurting, Lois was coherent enough to realize that she was growing short of breath. And to realize that she was pinned to the wall by the force of the g's. Darkness threatened behind her eyes then. They were still climbing, going higher and higher. The air was growing thinner and thinner. The chaos inside the cabin, the screams, the prayers, were beginning to seem surreal, impossible. And her head was growing light, vision a bit fuzzy... She knew the physiological effects of too many g's, knew she was going to pass out soon if she didn't do something about it. Fighting gravity, she fought to reach for the nearest oxygen mask, fingertips just brushing the thin elastic band.

Trying to get her head together enough to make another try for it, she turned to face the side, trying to ground herself. I'm going to lose it, she thought with real fright. How are we going to get out of this? How? We must be headed into space. Feeling panic begin to seize her, Lois locked her jaw and started to make another attempt. Preparing to fight for it yet again, something made her glance to her right out the window. What she thought she saw out there in that breathless instant had to be a hallucination, a by-product of the lack of oxygen to her brain. Her eyes widened even as her heart rose higher into her thought. No, it couldn't be. That's impossible. You must be delirious, Lois. He's...

And then she heard two thuds on the roof above.

* * *

He rocketed past the fighter jets, sparing a pitying thought for the pilots who must have been staring at their radar in shock. The shuttle was dragging the jet higher and faster than it had been designed to go, and the booster rockets had set the jet's tail on fire. Superman pushed himself to the limit of his speed to catch up and landed on the roof of the jet, pressing his hands to the underside of the shuttle. Three quick flashes of his heat vision vaporized the balky connectors, and he began to push the shuttle upward.

It only took a minute for Superman to feel the shuttle beginning to lift away from him, its own power sufficient to take it the rest of the way. He watched it go, breathing a sigh of relief as it escaped gravity.

Gravity.

Lois!

* * *

The jet stopped shuddering, the groaning metal gone quiet. They seemed to be floating, Lois's sense of unreality doubling as she rose gently into the air. The other journalists had gone silent as well, watching in amazement as their briefcases and note pads and cameras hovered in midair.

Wow. This is some hallucination, Lois thought. A pen was floating toward her, and she reached for it, hoping that the contact would either shatter the illusion of levitation or prove it real.

For one long, breathless moment, the remainder of the jet's upward thrust was equal to the pull of gravity, and inertia canceled acceleration. There were no noticeable forces acting on the plane and its contents, so everything that wasn't fastened down floated. But it was unfortunately true that, within the earth's atmosphere, gravity always wins.

The jet began to slip sideways. The moment that its upward acceleration was lost, it was as if gravity had suddenly noticed the errant jet and snatched it downward. Everything that wasn't secured was flung violently upward and sideways - including Lois.

As her head whacked the ceiling again, bringing stars to her eyes, Lois cried out in pain. What now? How much worse can this possibly get?

Her answer was to slide across the roof, smack into the overhead bins, and wind up pinned to the roof above another terrified reporter. The clouds outside seemed to be spinning past the plane like the view from a merry-go-round, and Lois' disoriented mind kicked out the reason why.

She knew, from having flown with Richard, that a plane moved in three main directions: roll, pitch, and yaw. Tilting the nose up or down changed the pitch, and dipping one wing or the other rolled the aircraft. The jet was now yawing, the nose and tail spinning around its center. Just like a helicopter's blades...

Oh, God. Now I know I'm gonna die. Helicopters. I'm jinxed with damn helicopters. I'm going to die. I'm really, truly, going to die this time.

* * *

He'd found an extra burst of speed beyond what he'd thought was his limit, chasing the falling jet, boring straight through the clouds of smoke trailing behind it. Got to stop that spin. Superman grabbed the wing, trying to slow it, pulling against the force of the rotation.

The jet was massive, its surface slick. Centrifugal force whirled him out along the wing even as he forced it to slow down. The overstressed metal creaked under Superman's hands, and before he could change his grip, the entire wing broke off, spinning him along with it.

Damn! Hold on, Lois, hold on!

* * *

It had felt as though she was being squeezed against the corner where the ceiling and the wall met, robbed of her breath. The man sitting below her tried to reach up, to help her, but at first she simply couldn't pull herself down. A small, terrified voice in the back of her mind was pleading, Just let me get home to my kids. God, please, if You're out there, let me make it home to Jason and Kala!

Another voice, steadier in spite of the panic she found herself in, reminded her of that story she did about vehicle fatalities. The effect of multiple skull impacts is cumulative. You've had, what, four or five good smacks? One more might be your ticket to aneurysm city.

Then the forces acting against her suddenly dissipated, and Lois fell to the floor. She quickly hauled herself into a seat, her shaking hands struggling with the buckle.

* * *

Only a few seconds to get reoriented, but in that brief time the plane's other wing had broken off. No time to dodge; Superman shoved his fists forward and punched straight through it. The plane was dropping below him, nose down and beginning to spiral.

One more notch of speed, chasing the jet, seeing the ground come soaring up at him. Superman gritted his teeth as he forced himself past the huge airplane, grabbing its nose and pushing upward.

Not too hard, don't want to crush it. At the same time, he had to get it slowed down, and now, because they were close enough for him to recognize Metropolis by its street patterns. Shoving the jet, taking its weight on his palms and pressing it away, he felt himself being pushed toward the ground like a helpless rag doll.

* * *

Lois had just gotten her seat belt buckled when the whole plane shuddered and the overhead baggage came tumbling out. The passengers were thrown forward, only their lap belts preventing them from breaking their noses on the seats in front of them. Other journalists yelped as they were smacked by their own luggage, and suddenly a woman on the right side of the plane screamed, "The wing came off! The wing came off!"

Pushing someone's carry-on aside, Lois glanced to her left and saw that wing tear off as well. Somewhere up ahead she could hear Bobbie-Faye praying. The journalists, a more cynical group of people than average, were screaming and cursing. They were spinning over and over now, spiraling out of control as they plummeted several feet per second. The earth was coming up on them and there was no savior, nothing to stop this from happening. There hadn't been for years. The hallucination had been just that. She had seen what she had needed to see. What she had been subconsciously willing to happen even after all this time.

All Lois could do was lock her jaw to hold back her own despairing screams, both broken and enraged at the thought of never seeing her twins again. Never again to listen to Jason play the piano, so intense and determined to get it right that he would start again from the beginning if he even missed one note. Never to listen to Kala as she dressed up in her room like some rockstar, singing and trying to dance along quite badly to pop songs, acting as if she were in the Metropolis Arena. Never to listen to them squabble about the theft of a crayon. Never again hold them during a fearsome thunderstorm. Never again hear them say, "Mommy."

That broke her and a sob slipped from her lips. Why? Kala, Jason. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I didn't know this was going to happen. I love you. I love you both so much. Oh God, please... Choking down the pain in her heart, she couldn't stop the tears that ran down her cheeks. Trying to prepare herself for what was to come, Lois Lane closed her eyes.

* * *

Superman found himself praying silently, his jaw locked against the strain of trying to push upward on the jet hard enough to stop, not so hard that it crumpled. Please, God, please, let this work. Let them be all right ... let Lois be all right. Please, I love her.

The nose of the jet began to wrinkle with a groan, the metal scrunching up like an accordion. The sharp crack of a bat meeting a baseball, and then shouts and screams from below. From the sound, he was a lot closer to the ground than he wanted be.

Superman gave one final, mighty shove against the jet, and its metal skin rippled as the shockwave passed through it. Now he was just balancing it, having negated all of its falling speed. He let himself drift downward gently, looking over his shoulder to find the ground.

A wave of cold chills danced up and down his spine. The baseball diamond was no more than six feet below his boots; he'd stopped the jet with no more than a second to spare.

* * *

In the cockpit, the altimeter warning was suddenly loud in the absence of all the shouting, screaming, and praying. "Fly up," a mechanical voice repeated. "Fly up. Fly up."

The pilot and copilot looked at the man who was gently lowering their massive jet to the ground, and then at each other. Both were obviously badly shaken. Dry pants first, and then a drink to steady my nerves, the pilot thought. Maybe the seventh or eighth drink will be the one that actually stops my hands from shaking.

* * *

The fall seemed to slow down, and Lois assumed it was a side effect of dying. Her mind spun the time out, everything in slow motion, to savor the last few seconds of her life. A sudden jerk, and everyone's heads snapped forward, smacking the seats in front of them.

Then, strangely, they were stopped. Everything was completely still for a few seconds, and then the plane began to tilt gently backward from its position perpendicular to the ground. It settled to earth with a groan, and the passengers stared at each other. Lois was so amazed to still be alive that it felt like her brain was in vapor-lock.

"Thank you, Jesus, " Bobbie-Faye whispered.

Then the emergency exit door was torn off the plane, and their savior looked in anxiously. At that point, the journalists might have been less surprised to see a bearded man with robes and halo than the one who hovered just outside the plane.

Lois' heart froze in her chest.

* * *

"Is everyone all right?" Superman said, his voice as deep and rich as always.

They stared at him in utter shock, but he saw one face in that crowd upon whom amazement was written rather larger. Thank you, dear God, she's all right. Superman savored her face for an instant that felt like forever to him. In spite of everything, in spite of what he knew, how she had moved on, she was still his Lois, still so beautiful it almost hurt to look at her. He took a few steps inside, and asked again, looking directly into her eyes, "Are you okay?"

The rest of the journalists turned to see who was getting Superman's personal attention. Lois was rising from her seat slowly, jaw still dropped and eyes wide. She looked completely astonished, and most of the others thought that was all.

But inside the keen mind that lived behind those hazel eyes, a war had broken out, keeping her speechless.

The part of her that was still half in love with him - maybe more than half - whispered in awe, He's here. He's really here.

The anger that had helped her to survive her loneliness and pain, that had given her the courage to go on with her life, spat, Took you long enough!

He just saved my life. Again.

You bastard, where the hell have you been all this time!

Superman just smiled at her, his heart almost breaking. He could no longer try to deny that he loved her. He would never have her, not now, not with Richard and the twins in the picture, but to lose her forever was more than he could dream of bearing.

Lois saw the smile, but she couldn't even manage a weak one in response. The voices in her head were pulling her apart, one half swooning, the other furious.

If he hadn't shown up, this would really be it, I would've really died.

How dare you come and save me? Now I have to be grateful after you made me a tabloid headline! You bastard!

A long moment passed, in which everyone in the plane watched them keenly. Superman searched for something to say. I'm sorry, I was wrong to leave you, I'll never leave again, just didn't seem appropriate with twenty reporters standing around. He chose to make a private joke, hoping to bring her out of her shock.

Superman glanced around the plane, raising his voice to address all of the passengers and crew. "Well, I hope this experience hasn't put any of you off flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel." Only his raised eyebrow indicated the line was meant for Lois.

The press nodded dumbly, and he turned away. Then they all seemed to find their voices, shouting to him, begging for a few words, a pithy quote for their papers. Only Lois was silent, her eyes still wide, half-touched that he had remembered what he said the night they met, half-peeved that he should remind her now when so much had changed. But he had gone back to the door, and the roar of the crowd in the stadium met his ears, drowning out the reporters.

Looking around at the thousands cheering for him, for just a moment Superman felt like he was home, like he'd never left. He had thought there might be accusations, but this was unadulterated rejoicing. How could I imagine that my place, my purpose, my destiny, was anything but this?

He flew away quickly, a grin on his face, and never saw that Lois had pushed her way past the other reporters and come up behind him. What she meant to say, she had no idea. At least part of her just wanted to fling her arms around him; another part regretted that she couldn't just cold-cock him. He was gone before she could do anything, left watching him fly away as she had done far too many times in the past.

At last her mind seemed to kick into gear as she looked out into the stadium. Superman is back. Not a hallucination, not wishful thinking. He's really, truly, totally back. And he just saved my life literally a few feet from the end of everything. He can't know how much has changed, how much I've changed.

My God, what happens if he finds out about the twins?!

That thought was one shock more than her abused mind and body could handle. Lois' hazel eyes rolled back, and she fell almost gracefully down the emergency exit slide.


Irresistible Force...

Clark hurried into the Daily Planet bullpen, his notebook full of 'man-on-the-street' reactions to Superman's return. Lois wasn't back yet; good, she had probably been forced to see a medic. She definitely looked a bit dazed. Some of that was the shock of his reappearance, but she might have had a slight concussion too.

Jimmy was still out, likely trying to snap a photo of Superman. Clark smiled a little wryly to himself; if things were going as badly for the young photographer as he'd said, he would certainly try to make sure that Jimmy got a front-page photo soon. Have to do something showy in Metropolis soon, like the time those robbers tried to escape on a yacht and I left the whole boat in front of the precinct. That would get Jimmy back into Perry's good graces. But first I'd better make some plans to announce my return - circle the globe a time or two, rescue some people, and hurry off before people can ask questions. I'm not ready for questions yet.

With a start, he realized that he had taken his return as a fact, not a fluke. This would not be a one-time rescue; Superman was back in business full-time. Sitting down at his desk, he wondered why.

I was so ready to give it all up, to retire Superman forever. Lois made a lot of good points in that article of hers. People came to rely on me, and after I left, they spent more time wondering where I'd gone than trying to do the things I'd done for them. I believed her; I believed the best thing for the human race would be for this savior never to return.

But there are some things people can't do, like catch a falling jet. And there were some people who were inspired by me, who kept up their work even after I left. The women's shelter is still there, so are the soup kitchens, and that project that takes autistic children horseback riding got some publicity not long ago. I guess that much is still the same: the people who are actually doing good just quietly keep on doing it. It's the ones whose job it is to find evil and expose it that think there's nothing good left, just because they see so many terrible things.

Maybe Lois was wrong. Maybe the world still needs a savior. And maybe the reason why I'm already planning my reintroduction to the world is that helping people is my cause. I may not precisely have a home here anymore, but I have a purpose.

His pleasant introspection was interrupted by a young voice asking inquisitively, "Who're you?"

Clark looked up, startled. Two children, about six years old, were standing by his desk and looking at him curiously. Their faces marked them as twins, and their resemblance to their mother and the photos on her desk told Clark just whose twins they were.

"Um, hi," he said, looking from one to the other. The girl's hair was as dark as Lois', with her same hazel eyes, and the boy had sandier hair with blue eyes. Right now they were totally focused on him. "I'm Clark. Kent. An old friend of your mother's, from before you were born."

"Really? She never talks about you," the girl said. She turned her head then, frowning slightly as she looked over at her twin, questioningly. "Has she?"

"Never?" Clark asked. She never once mentioned me?

"Nope," the boy replied. He didn't take his eyes off Clark even when he pulled out an inhaler and took a deep gasping breath off of it.

The little girl sighed. "Please ignore my brother; Mommy says Daddy lets him watch too many monster movies."

"Kala!" the boy hissed, glaring at her. The sudden pink in those pale cheeks just seemed to egg her on.

"Jason, you're never gonna grow up to be Godzilla, so quit trying!" his sister replied. With this, she shook her head, rolling her eyes in a gesture that was all too familiar.

That really seemed to make him flush. For a moment, the presence of a grown-up was forgotten as what seemed to be an old argument broke out. "Mommy said that I could be anything I wanted to be, Kala! Anything! So stop being mean."

"I'm not being mean. It's the truth!"

"Says you."

"Mommy meant anything real! A human being can't grow up to be a lizard, Jason. Stop being..."

Clark's eyes flicked back and forth between them as if he was watching a tennis match. Oh, they were both so Lois - Kala's sarcasm, Jason's stubbornness.

Just when it looked like the squabbling would turn nasty, a man's voice intervened. "Kids! Jason, Kala, enough." He was tall and handsome, with an easy smile, and he offered Clark his hand freely. "Sorry, they can get underfoot a bit. I'm Richard White."

The fiancé. Clark's stomach suddenly turned sour. Now he could see Richard's lighter hair and eyes in Jason, and he assumed as many people did that Richard was the twins' real father. "Yeah, hi," he said a little weakly, shaking the man's hand. "I'm Clark Kent."

"Really? Glad you're back! I've heard so much about you."

"You have?" Clark said, with hope rising.

"Sure, Jimmy won't shut up about you." Richard's grin was friendly and open as he picked up Kala, ignoring her protests. "These two were supposed to be in my office. I didn't want them watching the news, you know?"

"Oh," Clark said. Her kids could've seen that? I've got to give the man credit; he had better sense than to let her kids see her almost get killed. "Oh, yeah. They're no bother, really."

"Thanks," Richard said. "We try not to bring them up here every day, but Perry says he's never going to see his grandniece and grandnephew unless they come to the office. Say, Kala, is there a good reason you're both roaming around?"

"All the fun stuff in your office is locked up," she complained.

"And you changed your password, she can't play solitaire," Jason added.

"Mr. Kent's nice, can we stay and talk to him?" Kala added.

Clark was a little taken aback. The twins seemed like the sort of children who were always into something, and he couldn't imagine how interesting such a pair of bright, curious kids would have made Lois' life. His Lois - perpetually rushing, always driven, frequently impatient, stopping a dozen times a day to answer "Why?" - the thought was almost more than Clark's mind could bear. He wasn't even sure if his super-speed could keep up with them.

Richard was saved from having to answer Kala by a very familiar voice saying exasperatedly, "Jimmy, for the hundredth time, I'm fine! The medics kept me long enough to sequence my freakin' DNA, and they said I'm fine to come back to work."

Kala squirmed out of Richard's arms, and she and Jason raced to the door. Several reporters looked up from their work to glance at them as they tore up the center aisle, shaking their heads or giving amused grins. It seemed as if this was a common enough occurrence. They were only a foot from her when Clark saw her eyes look their way, Jason calling out "Mommy!" With alertness he hadn't been aware that she had had before, Lois' eyes flew to the sound instantly, any anxiety draining from her face. The smile on her face was haunting in its beauty and affection as she went down on one knee and opened her arms as both flung themselves into her. Jimmy, seeming a bit embarrassed, made his way into the bullpen ahead of her.

She's a good mother, Clark thought with pleasant surprise. Heck, she's a great mother. Whatever happened to the woman who said, "My sister has three kids, two cats, and one mortgage. Yech! I'd go bananas in a week"? Lois really has changed.

And I think I like the new Lois even more.

Uh-oh.

* * *

Lois hugged the twins so tight, she heard Jason wheeze. Choking back the pressure of tears she felt behind her eyes, she nuzzled her cheek against the cool softness of Jason's hair. The rush of love she felt for the both of them increased when she turned to kiss her daughter's forehead, catching a whiff of cotton candy. It was amazing the reaction she had to just the scent of Kala's shampoo. All of the ramifications that were now before her were forgotten and there were only the twins. Thank you, God, thank you. Thank you for letting me come home to these two. I don't know what I'd do without them.

Completely unaware of her mother's inner turmoil, Kala wrapped her arms around her mother's neck and returned the embrace. As soon as he caught his breath, Jason did the same, a pleased grin on his face. For a moment, their joyous reunion was silent.

Then Kala pulled back slightly and said in a scolding tone, "Mommy, you're late!"

Still locked in her unreserved gratefulness, her comment startled Lois, who looked at her with incredulous eyes before breaking into amazed laughter. She had been so worried that they had seen everything somehow, that she or Jason might have had the slightest inkling of the last two hours. That they had possibly known just how close she had come to never seeing them again. Instead, Kala's tone, not to mention Jason's curious look, implied that she had just taken a long lunch or something. It just figured. And it was better than them knowing the truth.

"Oh well, forgive me, your highness. Many apologies."

Lois stored away all of the conflicting emotions roaring through her to arch a critical eyebrow at the child, breaking them both into giggles. It was one of the wonderful things about her children, their early understanding of sarcasm. That tone would most likely worry some children that they had done wrong; hers knew that it was simply Mommy being silly. Although she was wondering if it was the best thing, as Kala was showing signs of being just as snarky and a bit of a daredevil. Jason, on the other hand, was quieter than his twin. More thoughtful, spending most of his time trying to understand everything by observation. They balanced each other out, she thought with a proud smile, ruffling the boy's hair affectionately.

Still giggling, Jason beamed and stepped away with Kala. Holding his hand out to her, he offered like a little gentleman, "Come on, Mommy. I'll help you get up."

There was another warm feeling in her chest as she daintily rose to her feet, doing the work herself as she held his small hand. I must be doing something right. Oh, his teenage years are going to kill me. Taking a hold on Kala's hand, the Lanes made their way into the now-even-noisier bullpen. As she asked them about their afternoon, asking first about the zoo, she clearly felt the eyes of the rest of the crew on her. They wanted to ask her about the accident, she knew, and they were dying to corner her on it, but hung back in respect of the kids. She respected how hard it was for them to force back the urge to just walk up and bluntly ask her; it would be killing her, too, if it hadn't been her. As it was, Perry would be asking soon enough. And she wasn't quite sure how ready she was yet.

"...And I told Daddy about the meerkats and how Kala was scaring them when she kept poking her head against the glass. They ran to their little house and stayed there staring at her," Jason was saying, grinning at his sister. "They were scared of her big head."

"I do not have a big head, Godzilla-breath! And Mrs. Thomas said that they're normally 'fraidy-cats. Is because of other animals' prayed drive." Kala was scowling at him, something that happened often enough not to faze the boy anymore.

"Prey drive," Lois corrected gently, squeezing her hand. At the far end of their sixth year, it always blew her away to hear the amount of knowledge that they had acquired so far. She knew full-grown adults that weren't as intelligent. "Bigger animals try to eat them if they're not careful. They have to be very good at getting away, so they tend to hide, sweetheart." Trying not to laugh as she glanced over at Jason, she said in a serious tone, "So, see, Jason, Kala's big head had nothing to do with it."

"So there, lizardboy!" Kala smiled smugly, looking over at him again from her left side. It was only when Jason was laughing that the little girl thought back on it that she realized what her mommy had said. Her outraged expression was utterly precious; it was the main reason she occasionally tweaked her nose like this. "Mommy!"

"What, sweetheart? I love your big head. More brains to put in there, huh?"

"Uh-huh. Su-ure." Jason was just loving the fact that the shoe was on the other foot for the moment. His blue eyes gleamed. "Kala and her big brain. Right, Mommy."

Still pouting, their victim gave an imperious sniff before adding as if they hadn't spoken, "Anyway, Mrs. Thomas said to tell you hello and everything. And then Daddy picked us up and we came here. He said that you wanted to see us, but you weren't here. Why not? What made you late, Mommy?"

They were drawing close to her office now and she could hear Jimmy's voice up ahead as well as Richard. Silently, Lois groaned in frustration. Of all of the timing... Isn't that just the question of the hour? What are you going to tell them, Lo? Her confidence faltered instantly. How could she answer this without lying to them? Well, guys, Mommy was falling out of the sky in a burning plane and your real father saved her after being gone since before she knew she was going to have you. And he doesn't even know that Mommy still knows. But don't worry about it. Really. Mommy knows what she's doing. Sure. Of course.

It was in the midst of this mental battle when both kids stopped. Glancing up, her eyes moved from Jimmy to Richard, a frazzled smile rising to her lips. Lois was intensely relieved to be off the hook for the question now. So much so that hearing Jimmy's ecstatic next words stunned her even as she turned her head to acknowledge the third person in the party.

"Hey, Lois! Isn't this great? Look who's back."

Then hazel eyes met cerulean.


...Immovable Object

Unable to help herself, she couldn't unlock her gaze from his. It seemed impossible, unthinkable. Clark. Superman. Kal-El. Oh God, what next? Lois thought, momentarily forgetting Jimmy's cheerful introduction.

For a moment, both of them were frozen. Clark had seen her running past him and being shell-shocked on the plane, both times from a little distance. Now she was right in front of him, and he felt like he was falling into those impossibly beautiful eyes ... with a very disturbing expression of horrified surprise in them.

I suppose this is a little much, he thought guiltily, giving her a shy Clark grin. She was almost killed, Superman shows back up and saves her, and then her old partner's back too. It must feel like she's gone through a time warp. I guess it's one shock too many.

Lois, meanwhile, had an entirely different train of thought leaping from its track in her mind. What the hell is he doing here? Like that's no coincidence, Clark and Superman show back up on the same day - he might as well ditch the glasses! What kind of idiot does he think I am, anyway?!

Her grip had gone slack with surprise, and both twins tightened their hands in hers. That brought her consciousness back. And instantaneously she felt ice down her spine. My God, the twins! They're right here, right in front of him; he has to notice the resemblance! Oh, shit!

"Mommy, are you okay?" Jason asked, his brow furrowing with concern. Kala just rolled her eyes, glancing at Clark as if to say, Yes, the whole family is crazy, except me.

Her breath was caught in her throat, once again torn ruthlessly between heartbreak and resentment as she looked into those incredible eyes. The same eyes that belonged to that small voice calling her name. As it had only been an hour ago, the urge to confront him was so strong as to be tangible, but how was up for debate. The sensible thing to do would be to ask Richard to take the twins home immediately, then pull the man before her off long enough to tell him, in no uncertain terms, just how unwelcome he was here. How dare he do this? He somehow gets himself rehired behind my back, reappears to save me as if nothing happened, as if he's only been gone a day or so. And then he has the gall to be here waiting when I get back with that phony cornball smile on his face and acting as if this sudden reappearance shouldn't be a surprise. Damn him.

Yet, for all of the fear in her heart, there was also the most dangerous ache in her chest. One she thought she had exorcised long ago. Just to see him here, right before her, so close that she could reach out and touch him, was its own special kind of torture.

"Mommy?"

It was Jason's voice again, effectively snapping her out of her chaotic thoughts. Lois then remembered to breathe, shaking her head slightly. She would get through this, had to get through it. Without screaming. Without losing her cool. Without vengefully breaking that promise he thought she had forgotten. For the twins, if for no one else. With a deep breath, she tightened her jaw slightly and made herself give a reasonable facsimile of her usual high-spirited grin.

"I'm alright, sweetheart," Lois reassured her son without a trace of the tumult that was nearly choking her. "It's just not every day that your best friend comes home." Somehow she managed to get herself into some semblance of control. Regardless of all of this, she had to keep up appearances. She even leaned forward to hug him quickly, bracing herself against the chaos roaring through her. "Clark. I didn't know you were coming back here. This is a surprise. Perry didn't even tell me that you two were in contact."

"Yeah, well, it was kind of a surprise to me, too," he said, remembering to sound diffident and awkward. But the smell of her skin after all these years was sweeter than perfume. "Perry pretty much hired me back the moment I called. I've got Norm Palmer's desk now." Clark paused for a second, keenly aware of the two children staring at them both, of Jimmy and Richard grinning at this happy reunion. "So, I hear you're, um, assistant editor now? And engaged?"

Oh, did that sting? I'm so sorry, Lois' angry side growled, the General's Daughter as sharp-tongued in her mind as she'd ever been out loud. Meanwhile, the romantic half of her mind was squirming with unease, seeing the father of her children standing right next to the man they called Daddy. But her voice was perfectly normal, putting a slightly cheerful note into saying, "Well, Clark, things have changed since you've been gone. I'm happy to admit that Act Two is even better than I could have dreamed. I met someone who really did need me, for once." With that, she severed the intense eye contact with Clark to look over at Richard with a smile, making an effort to show her allegiance to the man determined to marry her. Mixed feelings meant nothing in the face of the secrets she was holding back. With more confidence than she felt and in spite of some internal resistance, Lois laughed. "What is it with me and flyboys?"

"Hey now," Richard said teasingly, "don't go comparing me to him. I have to file my flight plans with the FAA."

Both kids perked up at that. "Him who?" they asked in unison, looking up at their mother curiously. Jason continued, "Mommy, you knew someone else who flew?"

Lois was saved from having to answer by Perry's bellow, "Everyone! Staff meeting, now!"

"Richard, could you?" she asked with a helpless smile. "You can skip out better than I can."

"Sure thing," he said. "Hey, you two, how about some fast food?" The twins squealed with joy, running to him, and he quickly hugged Lois as the rest of the staff scurried into the conference room. Clark couldn't help seeing them kiss, or hearing Richard whisper, "You're really okay?"

"I'm fine," she murmured against his lips, while her heart whispered Liar. "Comes with the territory. Don't upset the kids." Richard kissed her again, provoking some retching noises from the twins, and Lois raised her voice to remind him, "Nowhere that handles peanuts!"

"Yes, Mommy," he teased back. "As if I don't know by now. Heartworks Café and chicken tortillas, we know."

Just before they turned to leave, both twins had looked up at him and smiled as they waved. "'Bye, Mr. Kent. 'Night."

And until the three of them were out the door, Lois' eyes never left them.

"Lois! Everyone means you, too!" Perry roared.

* * *

Clark's face was nearly ashen as he found a place to stand in the back of the crowded room. She remembers, he thought, feeling ill. God, if she remembered everything, what must she think of him? To leave a good friend, one you had a romantic interest in, without a word of goodbye, was insensitive. But to leave your lover that way...

She can't remember. If Lois remembered that night, remembered who I really am, she'd be a whole lot angrier. In fact, she probably would've thrown a screaming fit and chased me out of the Daily Planet with the nearest chunk of kryptonite. Lois doesn't carry a grudge, she cherishes one. The fact that she hasn't tried to murder me is proof that she doesn't remember.

Lois must have made the remark in reference to all the times she had sneered about the domesticated life. She was no longer the single reporter whose daring was legendary; now she was a mother and almost a wife. The second act of her life had begun, and it wasn't the maddening hell Lois had always imagined. She clearly loved the twins with every fiber of her being. And Richard. I mustn't forget Richard - that would be a very bad idea.

She is angry, though. And she has a right to that. But she doesn't remember all the reasons for being angry. Should I tell her? Wouldn't that harm her relationship with Richard? According to everything Jimmy said and the way he acts, he's a pretty nice guy. Should I even consider doing anything that will upset that? Should I just leave well enough alone, now that she's moved on with her life?

Oh God, what am I going to do now? he wondered.

* * *

Oh God, Lois thought, keeping her head down and pretending to make notes while Perry harangued them, what am I going to do now? Bad enough he was here, right under her nose every day, but he had seen the twins! She was torn between relief and irritation. Relief that he hadn't immediately realized just when those kids had been conceived and commenced trying to get back into her life - which I do not want, I really don't want him back - and irritation that something so obvious to her had slipped right by him.

"I want all of you on this story," Perry growled at them. "I want to know everything. Where did he go? Why did he leave?" The editor-in-chief continued to fire questions at them, singling out by name those reporters who didn't look like they were paying attention. He ignored Lois, though, presumably because of her recent harrowing experience.

Her mind had turned away from the man trying to hide himself in the crowd at the back of the conference room, Lois' thoughts avoiding him in either guise. Right before everything went to hell, we had that power outage. That is not normal; those jets have fail-safes and backups and redundancies to prevent such a thing.

Hmm. As I was walking in, I overheard people talking about a blackout here, too. Jimmy was saying something about a power outage at the bar he was in, too, one that knocked out his cell phone as well as the lights. What kind of blackout affects electricity, battery-powered phones, and a plane in the sky? Sounds like an EMP.

Also sounds like the real story is the blackout, not Superman.

Almost unwillingly, she lifted her head at the thought, and her gaze went directly to Clark. Their eyes met, his a little confused, a little embarrassed, hers full of that intensity that had once led her to drive all over the California desert interviewing anyone who could comment on Luthor's land deals.

Then Lois quickly looked back down at her notes, which had little to do with Perry's questions about Superman and everything to do with her own concerns about the possible EMP.


Ominous Portents

Lex was deep into research. He had books on gems and crystals spread around him, some open to a particular page, others with dozens of slips of paper inserted in their pages to mark passages of interest. At the moment, he was studying one volume intently, bent over it and ignoring the bank of televisions in the next room.

Kitty was not ignoring them. Ever since wrecking the Vanderworth basement hours ago, Lex had kept his nose stuck in a book, leaving her to entertain herself. At the moment, she was watching several different shows on sixteen different screens.

The clock ticked over to five PM, and the nightly news came on most of the channels. Kitty was immediately captivated. "Wow, he's cute," she said appreciatively.

That made Lex look up, already forming a scathing comment about 'cute' guys who didn't have his intelligence, his ambition, or his wealth. What he saw on five screens made the words die on his lips.

Superman. The damned alien was back.

The Encyclopedia of Gems and Crystals was about eight inches by eleven inches, and four inches thick. It was so massive that Lex had been using a bookstand to read it. But at the sight of that deviously charming smile, that silly little spit-curl, he snatched the book up one-handed and flung it, which shattered several screens and made Kitty screech. "Lex! I was watching that!"

"That," he spat at her, "is the sonofabitch who put me in jail. That is the damned alien invader everyone's welcoming back. He was supposed to die, damn him! Why can't he just die?! People do it every day, it can't be that hard!"

He was being irrational. He knew he was being irrational. Kitty was looking at him with that wide-eyed frightened look she liked to fake on occasion, and it made him want to throttle her. Prison had taught him to appreciate the thrill of killing someone up close, seeing the tiny hemorrhages in the whites of their eyes, and for an instant he could feel Kitty's smooth throat being crushed in his hands.

Don't kill the silly bitch, his father's voice growled in his ear, as it sometimes did in moments of emotional upheaval. She's good for bait, if nothing else. That caped fool has a thing about damsels in distress. You do need to distract him, don't you?

Yes, Lex thought, the rage in his eyes dying. It was only a matter of time before the big blue boy scout realized he'd been robbed. Lex stalked past Kitty into the other room, studying the remaining televisions while his mind churned.

He couldn't strangle Kitty while he still had a use for her. He'd made that mistake with Eve, abandoning her in the Arctic. Miss Teschmacher had deserved it - she had betrayed Lex, but she had also sprung him out of prison, so he had simply left her, giving her a chance to survive. Whether or not she had somehow lived in that frozen waste, Lex regretted it when he found himself in prison yet again. He'd had to court that decrepit old widow Vanderworth to free himself. Though he did have a spark of admiration for her - the crone had signed her estate to him as much to spite her vulturous relatives as to benefit her sweetheart. That kind of ruthlessness was...

"Among those rescued was Pulitzer Prize winner Lois Lane, assistant editor-in-chief of the Metropolis newspaper The Daily Planet. Miss Lane is a familiar figure to Superman fans worldwide; his first public rescue saved her from a falling helicopter, and at his return we find Lois Lane and another doomed aircraft..."

Lex's eyes widened suddenly. Lois Lane. Witness to his most inglorious defeats, snide post-incarceration interviewer, one of those people who managed to come out on top by a mixture of animal cunning and carefully exploited good looks instead of sheer intellect ... and Superman's beloved.

Kitty had hung back for a moment. Lex had his mood swings; mostly he was all right, if you let him think he was the most brilliant thing on earth. But once in a while she saw the man who had callously condemned millions to death to advance his own fortune, the man whose cellmates seemed to commit suicide with frightening regularity. At those times it was wise to handle him cautiously, and now was certainly one of them.

She sidled up to him, wanting a look at his expression before she said anything. What she saw sent chills dancing down her spine. The news story he was looking at was focusing in on a pretty dark-haired woman trying to shrug off a medic. The look on Lex's face was equal parts hatred, lust, and revenge, all blended into a savage predatory hunger.

Kitty tiptoed back. Whoever you are, sister, God help you. You're gonna need it.

But when Lex turned to her a moment later, he almost looked sane - except for the manic light in his eyes. "Tell me, Katherine," he said, "do you know what Superman's weakness is?"

She withheld sarcasm partly because she valued her skin, partly because he'd used her proper name. He only did that when he was feeling a certain sadistic glee. "Kryptonite," she said crisply, like a good student.

Lex grinned. "Yes, very good. And do you know what his other weakness is?"

Kitty glanced at the screens again. "Those clunky boots?" she guessed.

Lex actually chuckled at that. "No, no, Katherine my dear. His real weakness is that reporter right there, my good friend Lois Lane. Why, he'd move heaven and earth for her. I wonder what she's doing these days."

Kitty cast a sympathetic glance at the new report, now showing footage of Lois questioning the Virgin Airlines rep. Compassion was not a large part of Kitty's nature, but she knew that tone in Lex's voice and what it portended. Of all the bad men she'd fallen for, he was the most dangerous. Not because of sheer violence, though he could get into the wetwork, but because of his mind. She sometimes envisioned his head as being full of wheels and gears, constantly spinning. Whatever he was planning for this Lane woman would wring tears from a stone.

"Have you ever been to a Pulitzer Prize award ceremony, Katherine?"

* * *

Other than gruffly asking if she was all right, Perry had left Lois alone after the Genesis incident. For her part, she tried to stay out of the office as much as possible, tracking down the blackout. Most people weren't aware that it had been really an electromagnetic pulse, a massive one at that. Metropolis and its suburbs had been affected; everything electronic had simply gone dark as the invisible wave passed by.

Questions, bribery, and harassment had gotten her the information she wanted. The first address to lose power was the Vanderworth place, and she had gone to check it out that morning (successfully avoiding the office again). No one was home, and nothing was docked at the expensively and tastelessly decorated marina.

Lois circled the estate, peering in windows. Someone had spent a lot of money on furnishings; it was a pity that whoever it had been was more pack rat than connoisseur. She saw a beautiful Louis XVI desk that had been painted - sacrilege - and placed against a wall beneath a hideous painting of two vapid-looking toy dogs; imitation Greco-Roman marble statues that weren't even properly proportioned; and horror of horrors, a signed painting of a matador done on black velvet.

Please God, don't ever let me get this rich if I'm going to be this tacky, Lois thought with a shudder, longing for her home's clean contemporary lines and understated colors.

Behind the house, she noticed some structural damage to the walls. It looked like the basement was sunken or something, which perhaps explained why the owners were gone. And that was another question - who exactly owned this place? According to her initial inquiries, the title was being held up in the courts, another thing Lois meant to track down.

Something had certainly happened here, and it was damned suspicious. Lois contemplated the windows, thoroughly intrigued and burning to get inside the place.

If they can afford that kind of pricey dreck, they can afford an alarm system, her cautious side whispered. A good alarm system. Probably campaign contributors for the police commissioner, too. Don't chance it, Lane.

But oh, the story ... letting a lead slip through her fingers brought the acid taste of defeat up into Lois' throat. While she pondered, indecisive, her cell phone rang.

Incoming Call: Richard White, its little screen informed her.

She was of two minds as always where the little machine was concerned, both grateful to have such an easy and quick means of communication in case of emergencies and feeling as if she had a collar and leash at all times. And that was not a sensation she dealt well with.

At least if it was Richard, there was likely a good reason to answer. He was all too aware of how she felt about being interrupted in the midst of fact-finding. With a sigh, she smoothed a lock of dark hair behind her ear before pressing the 'talk' button. "Hello, love. I'm kinda in the middle of something, but what's..."

"And it better not be that blackout story you've been chasing the last few days," Perry barked. "It's a sorry sight when the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper has to borrow his nephew's cell phone just to get a hold of his assistant! Get back here right now, Lois."

"Perry," she began, her tone warning him of another explosive confrontation about her priorities and prerogatives.

"Lois, if you're not in your office in forty-five minutes, you won't have an office to come back to," he snapped, and hung up the phone.

She stared at the cell phone in open-mouthed shock. Perry, who had all but begged her to come back to the Planet as his assistant, was threatening to fire her? How dare he! For an instant she considered flinging the phone off the dock, and cocked her arm back before remembering why she kept the damn thing. Instant access to her kids, or for them to reach her.

Lois pocketed the phone, still seething. I swear, the only reason Perry made me his assistant was so he could yank my chain more personally... He'd better have a damn good reason for this.

* * *

When Lois walked back into the bullpen, all of the senior reporters unobtrusively got out of her way. Clark watched her stalk to Perry's office, fling the door open, and storm in, letting it bang shut behind her. The noise was curiously muffled; evidently the editor-in-chief had gotten his office soundproofed recently.

Not soundproofed against Clark, though. At first he simply watched through the glass walls, but when he saw Lois lean forward, smack her palms against Perry's desk, and apparently yell at him from a foot away, he focused his hearing on the room. What on earth could have gotten her so angry?

"Superman's the story," Perry was telling her forcefully. "Didn't we just have a staff meeting about that? Every newspaper in this town - this country - is dying to get the first interview with him! Hell, every one of them has a good-looking female reporter stashed on the roof."

Clark winced. Too true - and he'd been careful not to overfly the National News building after one of their reporters decided to sunbathe topless.

Perry hadn't let Lois get a word in yet. "And he hasn't given any of them more than a wave as he flies off somewhere else. Does that tell you something, Lois?"

"He's trying to make himself look good to make up for having abandoned us?" she said coldly, and Clark winced again.

Perry glared at her. "He wants to give that interview to the paper and the reporter that have always represented him best!"

"Tough," Lois spat. "Perry, you're missing the point. I'm busy with another story. Let Polly have his press release."

"You have the history with him," Perry said, "and you're gonna interview him. I'm still your boss, Lois."

For a moment, Clark just saw Lois' jaw lock up and her eyes glitter with outrage. He hadn't seen that livid expression for almost seven years, but he knew it better than most.

"Don't even start," Perry warned. "Lois, you're on Superman as of now. That's final. Give Kent your notes on the blackout story and let him run it down. He's never had any luck finding Superman anyway."

Absolutely the wrong thing to say to a strong-willed reporter who had the bit in her teeth about a completely different story. Clark tuned out the ensuing argument as Lois' voice rose; soon it was even audible in the bullpen, although fortunately no one could hear her exact words.

Richard came in with both kids, who ran to Jimmy's desk to raid his candy jar. They knew that whatever was in the glass jar would be safe for them to eat. Richard smiled indulgently at them, then realized what was going on in Perry's office. He flinched, taking his gaze away from the spectacle of his fiancée bellowing at his uncle, and his eyes happened to meet Clark's.

"They tell me she was always like this," he said weakly, coming over to Clark's desk.

"Well, Lois has always been, uh, intense," Clark said.

The twins appeared at Clark's side, watching their mother's tirade in the other office with interest. "Wow, Mommy's really mad, " Kala observed nonchalantly.

"Yeah, kids, your Mom can be a real fire-breather on occasion," Richard said, ruffling Jason's hair.

"See, Kala?" the boy said excitedly. "Mommy can act like Godzilla, so can I!"

The two men let the kids argue and looked at each other with a moment of perfect understanding. Lois is pretty much Reporter-zilla when she gets her teeth into a story, but we both love her for it. "I bet my uncle would rather deal with Godzilla than Lois on a rampage," Richard joked.

"Godzilla doesn't sell as many papers," Clark replied.

Richard chuckled. "True. You know, as much as I love her, I don't think I'll ever completely understand her."

Join the club. "Lois is, um, pretty complex," Clark offered.

"You know what Perry told me?" Richard said, seeming not to have heard him. "He told me to quit thinking of her as a woman. Can you believe it? I mean, look at her. But he had a point. When Lois wants something, she doesn't wait around for somebody to give it to her-"

"-she goes out and gets it herself," Clark said, nodding.

"Exactly," Richard agreed. "She's darned tenacious. You have to respect that, you know? And not just because she's a woman, you have to respect that willpower in anyone." He paused, reflecting, and added, "Of course, then Perry told me no man will ever really understand a woman, so I'd better just live with appreciating her."

That momentarily stunned Clark, hearing his father's advice coming from Richard's lips. He realized abruptly that he could have really come to like the man; they would've been good friends, if Richard hadn't been Lois' fiancé.

Evidently Richard thought they were friends. He clapped a hand on Clark's shoulder and said, "Looks like she's winding down. I'd better get into the bomb shelter; he borrowed my phone to call her."

He underestimated the speed of wrath, though. Lois was zeroing in on him before he could flee, Perry's office door swinging shut violently behind her, and for once she didn't even notice Clark or the kids. "You, sir, are never going to let Perry borrow your phone again, are we clear?" she said, poking her finger into his chest.

Clark felt his heart leap into his throat. She was so splendid in her rage, so vibrantly completely alive, that he couldn't help falling in love with her again. How had he ever thought he could live without this woman?

"Mommy, Kala's calling me a lizard again!" Jason whined.

And Clark saw an amazing thing then. Having known Lois for years, he would've expected her to turn that razor tongue on Jason, too, in spite of his age and the fact that he was her son. But instead, she looked blankly at him for a second, then sighed heavily and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "Honey, Godzilla is a lizard."

"See, Lizard-boy?" Kala crowed.

"Kala, don't tease your brother," Lois said automatically. "Richard, go talk to your uncle. If I yell at him any more he might have another heart attack, and I don't want to be editor."

"I love you, honey," he said.

"Love you," she replied, "but I'm still pi... peeved." At that moment, she noticed Clark, and her eyes narrowed for a second. Just an instant. "Kent, if Richard can't pull a miracle, you get the blackout, and I get to join the legions of attractive female journalists loitering on rooftops. Joy."

"Um, Lois, I think that..." his voice faltered in the face of her steely glare. I really have to get to the bottom of this with her.

"Here's an idea," Richard said. "How about you, me, Jimmy, and Clark stay late. We'll get the blackout put to bed first - we can get more done with the four of us working the phones. Then we can all devote our time to tracking down Superman. If both stories get done, how's Perry gonna argue about who did which one?"

"But the twins," Lois began.

"It's your night to make dinner, so we're having takeout anyway," Richard said. "Besides, they like hanging around here."

Jimmy had walked up halfway through the conversation, meaning to ask Clark if he could borrow a pen, and he was perfectly willing to be included. The first good-quality photos of Superman could save his career. "Sure, I'd love to stay and help, Miss Lane. I mean, Perry's kinda hung up on Superman, but that blackout was really weird and probably really important."

All eyes turned to Clark then. "Of course I'll stay," he said with a shrug. "Perry would make me work on the blackout anyway, and Lois and I always made a great team in the past."

"So that's settled," Richard said, beaming. "We're in covert rebellion against my uncle, and we're going to have Mexican tonight."

"Yay! Burritos!" Kala and Jason yelled in unison.

Neither they, nor the men, saw the narrow-eyed look Lois was giving Clark. In the past, she thought angrily. The past you took from me. This is the present, and it's not exactly a gift.


Confrontation and Reminiscence

After six o' clock, the Planet bullpen was largely deserted. Even Perry had gone home; his cardiologist insisted that he keep to a regular schedule. That left the office to Richard, Lois, Jimmy, Clark, and the twins. The four adults had polished off a second pot of coffee while trying to track the complicated paper trail attached to the Vanderworth estate; the two children were trying to entertain themselves. Coloring books, a deck of Old Maid cards, and even Mommy's computer games had lost their appeal, and the twins were ominously quiet.

"Holy..." Lois said, catching herself. "That dock I saw? It's not just a yacht, it's a freakin' baby ocean liner. Listen to these specs: 1400 tons, 65 knots maximum speed, 12, 000 horsepower, 58 foot beam, and here's the kicker, 300 feet long."

"Wow," the three men said in unison.

"And it's got a glass bottom," Lois added.

Just then, they heard a terrifying roar. Or it would have been terrifying, if it had come from a ninety-foot lizard and not a small boy with a trashcan on his head. Kala was chasing Jason with a rolled-up newspaper and yelling, "Die, Godzilla, die!"

"Rrrraaaar!" Jason screamed, and ran into Perry's glass office door.

Lois had to cover her mouth to stifle her laughter, tears squeezing out of her eyes as her breath hitched and her shoulders shook. The three men just stared as Kala did an impromptu victory dance over her vanquished brother. "Yay, Godzilla's dead!" she sang, twirling.

"Oww," Jason groaned, trying to get up. The trashcan was still on his head, and Kala whacked it enthusiastically, provoking an angry yelp.

"Okay, that's enough, you two," Richard said sternly, getting up. Lois was still helplessly sniggering as she buried her face in her hands. Richard continued, "I swear, sometimes I wonder if you guys are even from this planet."

"I'm not," Jason said quickly, pushing the trashcan off his head.

"You are so!" Kala yelled. "Godzilla's just a big ugly radioactive lizard!"

"Not as ugly as your big head!" he retorted.

"Not another word!" their mother interrupted. No one had noticed until then how Lois' amusement suddenly dried up at Richard's offhand remark. "Kala, Jason, stop fighting. Right now."

They both sighed melodramatically, but didn't even try to argue.

"All right, I think the kids are a little hungry," Richard said, stroking both of their hair while he looked speculatively at Lois. "Jimmy, let's go ahead and take them out to Pancho's. It's a little early for dinner, but they've had to think about it long enough."

All animosities forgotten, the twins were dancing around him and chanting "Burritos" like it was some obscure cult. Jimmy left his notes for Clark and Lois and went with Richard and the kids.

As soon as the elevator doors shut behind them, the room temperature seemed to drop ten degrees. Almost immediately, Lois dropped her eyes back to her work, not sparing Clark a glance.

Oh, boy. She's still burned that Perry tried to give this story to me; either that, or she's mad because he hired me back without even telling her. Either way, this is going to be about as much fun as a calculus test. "Um, Lois," Clark began diffidently.

She didn't even let him finish the sentence. Without a word, she stood as she snatched up her purse. Just sitting here, just keeping up the charade when they were alone was intolerable. This hadn't been quite the situation she had expected to find herself in when they had discussed staying late, but how could she have refused to be left alone with Clark without creating more suspicion? As it was, she was having a nightmare of a time simply remaining civil, something some people were starting to notice. Each of the last few days had been a struggle. She was avoiding the office constantly. Even old habits were returning, ones she had stopped before the twins had come.

Flashing him an attempt at a smile, Lois rounded the desks near hers and headed for the center aisle. One hand on the strap of the purse, she wasn't really watching what she was doing when she called out, "I'll be back. Just going downstairs for some more coffee." And no more than two steps later, one heel caught in the carpet slightly, and she lost her grip. Before she could attempt to catch it, the case hit the floor, spilling the contents. Swearing at fate, she snapped out, "Shit. Just great," as she quickly knelt down.

Clark hurriedly knelt beside her, and his heart caught in his throat as his glasses fell off and landed practically in her lap. Lois just picked them up and handed them back, not even looking up, snatching up her belongings with her free hand and dumping everything back in her purse willy-nilly.

Taking the glasses, Clark stared at Lois. She hadn't even tried to look. After all these years of suspecting he was Superman, after some of the crazy stunts she'd pulled...

The hideously over-decorated honeymoon suite in Niagara, Lois looking at him in the mirror, her eyes scheming. "You are Superman. Aren't you?"

He'd laughed nervously. Less than an hour ago, she'd tried to discover proof of his identity. "Lois, we've been through this hallucination of yours before. Don't you remember what you almost did to yourself, jumping into those rapids? Can't you see the tragic mistake you almost made?

She smiled thinly. "You're right, Clark. I did make a tragic mistake. What a fool I was..." Then she opened a drawer in the dressing table and swiveled in her seat, a loaded revolver in her hand. Leveled at Clark's chest. "I bet my life instead of yours."

He backed up, eyes widening. She couldn't be serious ... what on earth would he do now? "Lois ... don't be insane... Lois, you're crazy!"

She fired. The gunshot echoed across the room.

He remained standing. What else could he do, play dead?

Her voice was full of wonder and quiet triumph. "I knew it. I guess I must really have known it for the longest time..."

Clark stared at her, defiant and resigned, and let his voice deepen to Superman's register. "You realize, of course, if you'd been wrong... Clark Kent would have been killed."

She grinned, that exultant smile that he knew and loved so well. "How? With a blank?"

At that moment, he'd felt so foolish. After all that time, the lengths he'd gone to, she had trapped him so easily. He sighed frustratedly.

Lois just looked at him with a soft smile. "Gotcha."

A moment later, while he was still in shock from her discovery, she'd dropped another bombshell on him by saying she was in love with him. "Then we'd really better talk," unable to hide the little tremor of joy, relief, and new anxiety in his voice when he said it. And after that the Fortress, his explanation, the loss of his powers, that wondrous night ... and waking up from their dream of paradise to find themselves in a hell of conflicting loyalties.

Clark shook himself a little, bringing his mind back to the present. The glasses were replaced. He started helping Lois toss her things back into her purse; she certainly carried a lot more stuff than she did when they'd first met.

Pen, backup pen, Kleenex, recorder, Nicoderm gum, steno pad, cell phone, inhaler for the kids, backup inhaler, change purse, makeup compact, eye drops, wallet, Epi-pen in case one of the kids had an allergic reaction, pack of M&Ms, bottle of Zyban ... everything seemed to be there. Then Lois picked up her purse, and both of them saw the last item lying beneath.

A pack of Djarum Lights cigarettes.

Flushing against her will, her eyes briefly flickered up to his. The next instant, having seen his gaze light on them and know them for what they were, Lois snatched up the pack and slipped them back into their former hiding place. All of the things that had happened between then and now, and she was ashamed that he knew she hadn't completely stopped smoking? What the hell is wrong with you? It's your lungs and your anxiety. What right does he have to judge? Especially after almost seven years. Sounding both terse and defensive, Lois rose to her feet quickly, now avoiding his eyes. "I'll be back." Glancing back only briefly, she was gone up the grey carpet, disappearing quickly on her way to the elevators.

His eyes followed her as she slapped the call button, her shoulders tense. Clark felt like his gaze had been captured as he watched her get into the elevator, the doors transparent to his vision, watched it rise slowly...

Rise? She said she was going downstairs, not up. What could she want up there?

The answer was an instant in coming. Back then, she used to go up there to smoke. I thought she quit, but it looks like she just switched brands and cut down.

The way things have been going, this may be my only chance to catch her alone. Good thing I started wearing the suit again...

And swifter than sight, he vanished from the bullpen. Only a moment later, he was on the roof, watching Lois from the concealing shadows.

She sighed, glaring up at the night sky, then turned her back on Metropolis' skyline and took out the pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Lois held the cigarette in her lips while she tried to get the lighter to work, but as soon as the flame popped up, Superman sent a puff of his breath across it.

Eyes narrowed, Lois tried again, and again Superman blew out the flame, a little more forcefully. She whirled around, seeming taken aback to see him.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he said, floating off the parapet toward her.

Although she had seen him consistently for the last several hours, she felt that full-body freeze she had on the plane. Why was it that his sheer presence threw her for a loop, even more so when he was in the suit? The instinctive feeling of awe, of the history between them rose in her, the very thing that led Perry to his orders. And, against her will, she felt her heart tug at her as she felt her gaze lock with his again...

Only to tear them away a moment later. What was she doing? What, she could forget the last half dozen years that quickly for a pair of blue eyes, a perfect face? And what about the way he had left her? And the twins? What about them? Suddenly, Lois' anger was nearly palpable. "You didn't startle me, anymore than earlier," she said rather coldly. The edge of sarcasm in her tone was clear. "I just wasn't expecting you."

For once in his life, he was completely at a loss. Superman always pretended perfect confidence, always made it seem that he knew everything, could do everything, but behind that movie-star smile anxiety and doubt often lurked. He worried, sometimes excessively, if he was doing the right things, if he was helping people or just providing them with a handsome primary-colored crutch, and Lois' article had given those thoughts more power to gnaw into his mind. But in spite of that, he could generally still act like he knew what he was doing and everything would be okay. That was why people still trusted and adored him; inside every adult is the child they once were, and those children had not yet learned that this particular adult was as fallible as themselves.

Not now. Lois knew him better; Lois' faith in him had never been blind. In the time between his first rescue and his departure for Krypton, they had had many talks about the world, his responsibilities, and his image. She had helped him to understand people, playing devil's advocate, pointing out different viewpoints. Lois knew, as no other human being did, how his deep commitment to aiding his adopted planet spurred him on and sometimes tormented him. But that meant that she could not be mollified by some simple explanation; unlike the rest of the world, Lois was not going to settle for rejoicing that he was back. She clearly felt betrayed by his abrupt disappearance, and he would have to answer for that.

In the face of her cold anger, Superman drew himself back a bit. Let's start with the public, then we can get to the personal, he thought. "I know that people have been asking a lot of questions about me," he said, trying to keep his voice level and calm. "I think it's only fair that I answer ... those people." And you - I answer to you first and foremost for everything I've ever done. You're my chronicler, my critic, my best fan, and best friend. You're also the only woman I've ever really loved, and if I ever lost you I think my heart would just die in my chest.

Those eyes he had learned to read so well only widened and the look was absolutely incredulous. When she spoke, it was clear by the disbelief in her voice that that had not been what she had been expecting. "So, you're ... here for an interview?"

Wait, you have an opportunity to explain yourself, and you're not even going to use it? her romantic nature wondered. The General's Daughter, however, merely snapped, Un-frikkin-believable. Lois didn't give him a chance to respond, snatching up her recorder out of her open purse and flicking it on. Even the way she held it out was abrupt and angry, and her voice dripped sarcasm as she said, "Well, you're back, and everyone seems pretty happy about it." The set of that delicate jaw was clear.

"Not everyone," Superman replied sternly, trying to keep this from turning into a confrontation. "I read the article, Lois."

"So did a lot of people," she shot back. "Friday night they're giving me a Pulitzer for it."

"Why did you write it?" he asked, and now there was a hint of pain in his voice. Of all the people to write such an article, Lois, the one he loved best...

Lois had built a wall between herself and him, every brick made of anger and mortared with betrayal. Behind it were her pain, loss, and loneliness, but as hard as she tried to hold those feelings back, they seeped out a little. "How could you leave us like that? You didn't even bother to say goodbye!"

An awkward question, especially given what he had found. "Saying goodbye ... would've been too hard."

That flipped Lois back into outrage. "What's hard about it? 'Goodbye!' 'See ya!' People do it all the time, even you. How hard can it be? I mean, this is just me. It's not as if there was anything between us to make that difficult or anything." She could feel acid in her throat as she spoke.

"Lois..."

She cut him off instead, no longer willing to offer him an opportunity to explain. Get the damn interview, then you can go back to ignoring him. "So, where'd you go?"

"To Krypton..."

She seemed a bit startled, then suspicious. No, wait, he had told her... "But you told me it exploded."

"It did, but scientists thought they'd found it, and I hoped..."

Lois interrupted again, "What did you find there?"

Superman was finally annoyed. He'd had tough interviews with her before, but this on top of all the shocks he'd had in returning, on top of the cold, distant way she had treated Clark, was too much. His tone was nearly as snappish as hers when he replied, "A graveyard. Full of kryptonite, at that."

Blinking in surprise, Lois couldn't entirely rein in her sympathy. Oh God, that's why he went. And why he went so quickly. To have been faced with that... What that must have been like, to have gained hope that he might not be the last of his race, only to discover himself an orphan again...

Before she could even consider comforting him, a fuming voice abruptly interrupted those thoughts. He didn't have to go. What was he thinking, after all of this time? And that doesn't even begin to explain why the hell he couldn't have the decency to give you a by-your-leave, especially if there was a chance that he'd never see you again. That's what he's trying to tell you, isn't it? He planned to disappear forever onto a home world he doesn't even remember, leaving you behind with nothing better to do than stand around wondering. Never mind that he stopped being the last of his kind eight months after he took off. But, then again, why not? Near as you're supposed to remember, you were only his press agent, you know? A few stories, a little tension, and a little flirtation. Nothing more than that.

"Lois ... if I had known, I would never have left. I shouldn't have gone at all..."

"No, you shouldn't have," Lois said sharply. She had to get this under control again, and quickly. "Well, so tell me what you've been doing since you've been back. When did you get in? Why the new suit? Have you meet anyone? Were you waiting for something showy to save or were we just lucky you showed up when that plane fell?"

She sounded just like Perry, except for that last. Superman realized that he was quickly losing the chance to explain to her, not to win her back but to even win back the possibility of ever having civil conversation with her. He reached for the one thing that had always helped before, the one thing she had never been able to resist.

Holding out his hand, he said softly,"Lois, come with me."

She turned slightly at that, the expression that flickered across his face more than she could bear. Despite her barrage, it was impossible to miss the affection in his eyes. And that was something she just couldn't take. Not when she had seen it before and much more intensely. Despite her own painful betrayal, and loyalty to the twins, she felt herself weakening.

The first time, that moment of incredulity, startling her into saying, "You mean I could fly?"

He had chuckled. "Well, I'll handle the flying if it's all right with you." He had taken her hand before she could talk herself out of it, putting an arm around her shoulders. The gentlest push, and they left the ground, moving slowly off the edge of her roof.

It was unlike anything else she had ever known, his grip on her so light, and the canyons of Metropolis' streets yawning below her. She felt frighteningly unsupported, clutching him desperately, hiding her eyes.

Superman had been amused, but he had only chuckled softly and made her turn her head to look. All that space below her, seeming to pull greedily at her, wanting her to fall so far. Fear like nothing she'd ever known had overwhelmed her then, leaving her shivering.

But she didn't fall, and a few minutes later, the fear subsided, leaving her brimming with wonder. It was almost as if she really was flying on her own, his touch was so light, his strength so great that he could support her with one hand. Soon she was laughing with delight, arms spread wide, the entire city soaring by beneath her.

And then she did fall, and he caught her, and she was staring into those blue eyes from inches away. That was the moment she lost her heart, and Lois remembered thinking later that this was precisely how falling in love should be: terrifying, exhilarating, and wondrous.

For that instant, Lois' anger was lost as she fought off that traitorous memory. "No," she whispered then, shaking her dark head, those amazing eyes haunted. She had replayed that memory over and over, wounded by it and fate on many long nights after he was gone. And even now the pain was still fresh when she remembered all of her silly fantasies following that night. Going with him was the most foolish thing she could do. "No. What purpose would it serve?"

"Lois, please," he said. There was something more than anger in her feelings to him, and though the pain in her eyes wounded him as bullets never could, he reached for it, his own voice full of longing and loss. "Fly with me."

She struggled then, a part of her yearning for this more than she had for anything in her life. It was only the space of a couple of feet, an instant's walk, and she'd be in his arms. Even as the other side scorned her for these hopeless naïve thoughts. This was the real world. He knew what he was doing. His memory of their first flight was probably even better than hers, damn him. All of his memories, for that matter. He'd never forgotten any of them, had he? Had he?

That was enough to strengthen her resolve. Her delicate jaw set then, feeling the burn return to her blood even as she fought back tears. "I can't," Lois said firmly. She couldn't do this, not now. He didn't know, didn't even suspect why. And, in a way, it made it all the worse. "It's been a long time since that night; too long. I have two children now, and a fiancé. I'm Perry White's assistant. I have responsibilities; I can't just go off gallivanting around at all hours like I used to."

For a moment, just a moment, he'd almost had her. Superman had seen her take one step toward him, then abruptly turn away, venom in her voice. Her body language was as clear as a slammed door. "Lois," he began again, moving toward her.

Still not facing him, Lois said in a matter-of-fact tone, "No. Richard's a good man, and you've been gone a long time." A traitorous voice in her mind whispered, Yeah, he's a good man, but are you in love with him? Or is he just comfortable and good with the kids?

Shut up, her anger snarled. At least Richard's reliable, and I do love him. I do.

Who are you trying to convince?

Suddenly, she felt sick to her stomach. This had to end soon; this was getting too hard. As much trying to escape that final thought as end this, she turned her head to look at him, straight into those blue eyes she knew so well and not at all. It was a struggle to keep her voice as calm as it was as she murmured, "A very long time. And I've moved on. We've moved on. Besides, let's not make this more than it was. Why should you have felt beholden to me, or the rest of us for that matter?" With a shrug, she turned away, wanting to run as she moved to pick up her purse. "Besides, you're back now. If you still want the Planet to exclusively cover the stories, I'll see if I can work it out for one of our best to represent you. I'm not a beat reporter anymore." With that, she switched off the recorder and put it away.

Speechless, Superman watched her walk to the stairwell that led down to the top floor. She was opening the door before he realized that she really meant to simply leave without another word, and he found his voice again. Regretfully, he murmured, "Goodnight, Lois."

She hesitated for just a second, her hand on the open door, as that soft voice seemed to lacerate her heart. Not trusting herself to reply, Lois went into the dark little stairwell and shut the heavy door behind her.

No one was supposed to have access to the roof except the maintenance crew, but Lois had long ago finagled a key to the door below from one of them. She had been going up there, to smoke and to think, for a long time. Most of the staff wouldn't even have known where the roof-access stairwell was, much less that both doors were lead-lined.

But Lois did, and knowing that he couldn't see her, she slammed herself back against the door, biting her lip to stifle a sob. Why did he have to be so handsome, so kind, so attractive on so many levels? Why did this have to be so goddamned hard? She slid down to the ground, arms wrapped around herself tightly to try and hold in the pain that was gnawing at her.

Outside, all Superman saw was her walking away, apparently unconcerned. He sighed, and flew slowly back to the air shaft where he had left Clark's clothes, moving as if he carried the weight of the entire building on his shoulders.

* * *

Lois only allowed herself a few minutes in which to break down, then attempted to repair the damage as best she could with only a tissue and a compact mirror. When she thought she was at least presentable, she headed down.

Richard and Jimmy and the kids were already back, distributing the food across two desks. Jason looked up at her curiously, but Kala seemed confused. And there in the middle of them, his face rather paler than normal, was Clark, not so much eating a veggie burrito as staring it to death.

At the sight of him, she flinched slightly, the sharp edge of incredible hurt cutting her again. Oh, this was too much. It was a shot to the gut to see him again this quickly, even if Lois knew that it was the only thing he could do. Couldn't he have just pulled one of his famous disappearing acts? That would have been at least merciful; now I have to sit here and pretend like nothing at all happened. Dammit, go away! This is the last thing I can handle right now. Go the hell back to Krypton, for all I care.

But none of this left her lips as she strolled up to the gathering, only the swish of her skirt giving her away. Except for him, of course. She was sure he had known the minute she had entered the elevator, hearing the ding the moment the doors had closed. Clamping down on all emotion, focusing all of herself solidly on Richard, she walked up to them silently. Running a hand affectionately over Jason's hair as she came up behind him, she peered over his shoulder. The little boy looked up, grinning. In a voice that was eerily cheerful, she leaned forward to look through the feast, commenting, "Smells good. Good choices tonight, love." In truth, she had never felt less like eating in her life.

"Thanks, hon," Richard said with a smile, and Lois was perversely gratified to see Clark flinch a little. She called upon everything she'd learned in high-school drama classes, and sat down between the twins, teasing and joking with them. It took every ounce of Lois' will to pull off that performance, and even so, she felt it was a little flat. The kids seemed to notice, Kala more than Jason, but Richard and Jimmy were oblivious.

And Clark? He barely touched his food, answered when spoken to, but seemed very deep in thought. Which he was, his mind spinning fruitlessly around the same topic. She won't even give me a chance to apologize. How on earth can I explain things to her? Why won't she even give me the benefit of the doubt? Just then, Richard said something that made the twins giggle in unison, and the happy domestic picture seared through Clark's heart like his own heat vision. And why am I even trying? She's happy, she doesn't need me, why am I even thinking of intruding on the life she's built? Why can't I just let go? I've lost her.

Of course he knew the answer already. Because I'm still in love with her. Even if I can't have her, I need to try and make things right between us. I owe her an explanation. I owe her, and Ma and Pa raised me to pay my debts.

That sounds so... It's true, though. I wonder if people would find it funny that an alien with superpowers was given his moral instruction by a couple of Kansas farmers?

As the twins split the last chicken tortilla, Richard and Lois started cleaning up. Clark started to help, but Richard insisted the dinner was their treat. He caught Lois by the trashcan and whispered, "Clark doesn't look so good, does he?"

"Maybe something disagreed with him," she murmured back, glancing at Clark over her shoulder. Good.

Everyone was moving a little more slowly with a full meal inside them, the twins yawning, when Lois paused by the desk and sighed heavily. "You know, my mind is fried," she began.

"The last seven years or so," Jimmy whispered.

"Shut up, Olsen," Lois said affectionately. "Anyway. We have all this information, and none of it is making sense. I was trying to clear my head up there, and I'm just too tired and too stuffed with data to do it yet. How about we all go home and sleep on it?" She was looking at Richard, and glanced pointedly at Clark.

Jimmy raised an eyebrow, but he didn't argue. "Sounds like a good idea," Richard said tentatively, and watched her curiously.

The four adults managed to shepherd the sleepy twins downstairs, the silent tension between Lois and Clark unnoticed by the others, and Jimmy caught a cab to his apartment. Clark turned to go back in, having left his coat, and Lois sighed with relief.

It was only a few blocks to the garage where Lois and Richard kept their cars, so they walked, each carrying one of the twins. After they got them both buckled into the back of Richard's car, Lois started to slide into the passenger seat, but Richard caught her hand. She looked up at him questioningly.

"Hey," he said softly. "I didn't want to call you on it in front of Jimmy and Clark, but Clark said you went up to the roof. I know you used to, when you were smoking, so I have to ask..."

She had an instant to realize how Clark had betrayed himself with that remark, and to be annoyed that Richard had appointed himself her personal stop-smoking watchdog. And then Lois smiled with deceptive sweetness, leaned forward, and kissed Richard deeply.

Surprised, he ran his hand into her hair, forgetting everything else for a moment as he always did when she was in his arms. The kiss lasted long enough that the twins would have been making retching noises if they were awake, long enough for the hair at the nape of Richard's neck to prickle.

Lois drew back with a wicked gleam in her eye and purred, "You tell me. Does it taste like I've been smoking?"

He grinned and got in the car.


Aftermath

Several hours later, Richard was still awake, but just barely. He propped himself up on one elbow in bed, looking at Lois' face in the moonlight. Her eyes seemed a little shadowed as she slept, but that could simply be the fact that she hadn't been sleeping well this past week. Lightly, Richard stroked her cheek, running his hand possessively over the curves of her shoulder and hip.

She hasn't been that passionate since ... I don't know if she's ever been that passionate, he reflected. He was usually the one who began things, though Lois had never been any less than responsive. And of late, they seemed to have settled into a comfortable routine, physical affection given tenderly but with little spontaneity. Part of any long-term relationship, he supposed. But tonight... Now I know why she wanted to go home, Richard thought with a chuckle. Lois has never quit early on a story before. I guess I have to buy Mexican more often, if it has this affect. Considering the slight soreness he felt in every muscle, he reconsidered that. Not too often; I don't want to exhaust myself into an early grave.

But oh, what a way to die, he thought as he snuggled down beside Lois, sliding one arm around her waist to pull her close. She murmured sleepily and leaned her head back onto his broad chest. Dozing, Richard let his mind drift back over the last few hours.

After they got the twins in bed, he had gone upstairs first, taking off his tie. Lois had followed him into the bedroom and stood in front of him while he unbuttoned his shirt, still smiling that strangely predatory smile. "Are you really all that tired, Richard?" she had asked huskily.

"Not really," he'd replied, leaning forward to kiss her again. It was just as searching this time, just as hungry, and when he drew back for breath, she had caught the front of his shirt and yanked it open.

One button spanged off the bedside lamp as she pushed him down onto the bed, sliding into his lap with that grace exclusive to women in desire. Lois had been aggressive, almost frightening in her intensity, driven by some unfathomable need. He surrendered control to her then, taken by surprise. Richard didn't question his good fortune, just gave all that she asked for.

And now of course he had the souvenirs to prove it. Her nails had scored his back, something he hadn't even felt at the time but which now stung slightly. And there was a darkening bruise on his shoulder where she had clenched her teeth in her ecstasy, stifling a cry that would've frightened the twins awake. Kala, especially - she had the sharpest hearing of any child Richard knew, which meant that his romantic encounters with her mother usually took place while the kids were out of the house.

Not tonight, though. He had the feeling Lois wouldn't have stopped unless the house had been on fire, and perhaps not even then. That had taken him totally by surprise, but then, even after five years, Lois still could surprise him fairly easily.

Richard was under no illusions regarding her, but in spite of college flings with pretty girls who liked pilots, he did have some experience with strong-willed and independent-minded females. He had been fascinated by flight all his life, and had spent high school summers volunteering at a facility that rescued and rehabilitated birds of prey. By the summer before he went into the Air Force, he had been allowed to handle some of the more predictable raptors, though always with the caveat that they were wild animals, inherently dangerous.

Lois reminded him of a particular falcon, an indescribably beautiful creature that was nonetheless a ruthless predator; newshawk was an apt term for the woman he loved. Like the falcon, Lois never faltered in her hunting, never hesitated to swoop in for the kill; and like the falcon, she returned to his glove for reasons of her own, not because she was commanded to. Giving orders to the bird or the woman tended to get results that were only amusing after the stitches came out. Yes, Richard was perfectly aware that he did not own Lois. She might at any time simply fly away and never look back.

Which was why he kept that faint but insistent pressure on her. If Lois married him, Richard would have some assurance that she would stay. He wouldn't press too hard; you couldn't cage a hawk, a raptor that could never fly was not a raptor, and liable to turn viciously on the fool who caged it.

It was a surprise that he had won her at all. That same delicate, patient pressure had finally brought her to him, in spite of her views on office romance. Lois had once been heard to proclaim, "I never miss a deadline, I never let anyone else get to the scene first, and I never sleep with anyone I work with." That particular line had been quoted to Richard many times during his courtship, along with teasing about him trying to steal Superman's girlfriend. Lois had told him that it wasn't like that, but she was so touchy on the topic that he sometimes wondered.

Was it even worth asking, when the answer might not be one he wanted to hear? Superman had returned, and if Lois had been his girlfriend, Richard knew he was no competition for the Man of Steel. Honestly, no man on earth was. But if ever a woman was a match for him... Drifting to sleep, Richard snuggled a little closer to Lois, burying his face in her wavy night-black hair. Whatever else came, this woman was the most exciting, the most intelligent, the most provocative, the most determined he had ever met. The past five years with her had been a constant source of amazement for Richard, and even if she didn't belong to him like his college groupies had claimed they did, he loved her intensely.

* * *

Lois woke first the next morning, almost purring with pleasure as she lay curled in his strong arms, his warm skin against hers, his breath stirring her hair gently. In a moment, she'd roll over and those amazing blue eyes would open, that perfect mouth would curve into a smile just for her, and she could run her fingers through that thick black hair...

She gasped, sitting up suddenly. Richard murmured in his sleep, but he was far too tired to do more than that. Lois looked at him with her mouth hanging open, her eyes huge with mingled horror and guilt. Oh. My. God. I cannot believe I did that ... was I thinking of him the whole time? God, no - I came in here meaning to prove to myself that I wanted Richard and only Richard. I couldn't...

Get real, Lane, you even ripped his shirt open. Hello, who does that remind you of? Geesh!

There was absolutely no way she could face Richard. He probably didn't even realize how he had been used, intended to exorcise her feelings for another man and ultimately becoming a mere stand-in for him. But Lois was too ashamed of herself for having done it - for having enjoyed it so damn much - to look into his eyes and try to pretend that everything was normal.

Normal? After that? Like he's not going to notice the difference between the last five years and last night. Right, Lane. Just then, she caught sight of the reddish-brown spots on his side of the sheets and winced again. Dammit. The last time I sank my nails into someone's back, he was a lot harder to hurt. I really hope that isn't as bad as it looks.

She had to get out of here. Richard could handle getting the twins to school; Lois got up quietly and slunk into the shower, careful not to wake her fiancé or the kids.

At the office, Lois came through the door tense with guilt and the anticipation of a Perry White tirade. But the editor-in-chief only grinned at her and waved her by. Okay, that was spooky, she thought, tiptoeing into her office. Why on earth isn't Perry shrieking at me for not working on ... Superman...?

And there on her desk was the answer. All of the old files on the Man of Steel had been pulled and neatly stacked, some of her old notes scattered across the desk, and a typed list of potential questions laid atop them. Lois just stared for a moment, and then for the second time that morning she blushed so deeply with guilt that even her ears turned crimson.

Clark. He didn't really leave his coat, he came back to bail me out. After the way I treated him...

Not that he didn't deserve it! Have you forgotten the twins?

Still, while I was rutting with Richard to forget him, he was making sure I didn't get yelled at this morning. Just like old times. Oh, God, he still doesn't realize I know. Please, please don't let him try to be my best friend. I just can't take it. Not like this, not anymore.

* * *

Clark, meanwhile, had arrived at his customary early hour. He saw Lois come in, pale and unusually quiet. She didn't pause to speak to him, or anyone else for that matter, but he saw the look on her face when she walked into her office and knew she saw that he had covered for her.

Was it the right thing to do, in the end? Or did the interview questions in particular come too close to revealing himself? In the old days, when he had interceded between her and Perry, he could expect a grateful hug or at least a thank-you. Now, Lois was in her office, seeming tense as she rifled through her desk drawers. Clark watched her surreptitiously, wishing he could somehow discover what was going on in that raven-haired head. Not even his powers were equal to that task, however.

After a few minutes of fidgeting, Lois' frustration seemed to come to a head. Snatching up her purse, she headed for the elevators, walking right past Clark's desk without even glancing his way. He frowned as he watched her ascend. Smoking again? I wonder if I should... No. Leave her alone. She always hated me nudging her about the cigarettes, in either guise. I suppose if it's just one or two a day it can't be too bad, especially since she's not smoking around the twins.

Whatever's upsetting her now, I'll know about it soon enough anyway. Lois has never been one to suffer in silence when she could share the misery with everyone unfortunate enough to aggravate her.

* * *

This high, the breeze over Metropolis was almost clean. It was certainly refreshing coupled with the view of the skyline. Lois started to shake a cigarette out of the pack, then put it back. Six years ago she wouldn't have been able to resist the siren call of nicotine, but she'd quit for the twins. Mostly quit. There were some times when she really, really needed a smoke, but this morning it would only serve to remind her of times gone by.

Lois strolled to the parapet and looked down sixty-five stories at the traffic swarming like ants. The height didn't bother her, not anymore; back before the giant globe had been put up, when there was still a helipad up here, she'd fallen most of that distance...

And that brought to mind memories she'd rather not think about. Lois leaned into the breeze, letting it comb through her hair and blow the cobwebs from her mind. Almost thirty minutes later, she finally felt as though she could face life again. And as she was walking back to the stairwell, a thought occurred to her. I really don't want Richard to know the interview happened last night. I've been up here almost as long as I was then; if I go downstairs and type it up, everyone will assume it happened this morning. Perfect.

No one bothered her when she went back downstairs, a determined look in her eyes and a tape recorder in her hand. Lois closeted herself in her office, typing up the interview, tweaking a few things to make it less obviously a personal confrontation. She was so focused that she didn't even see Richard come in, exchanging typically friendly greetings with everyone he met, and head for her office.

Lois heard the door open, but didn't glance up. Whoever it was would soon realize she was busy ... and then Richard came up behind her and bent down to kiss the back of her neck.

Every nerve seemed to wake simultaneously, a shiver running down her spine; that was one particularly sensitive area, as another man years before had been delighted to discover...

Kal-El, for that was the name she had begun to call him, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her shoulder, then the back of her neck. Still sleepy from the night before until that moment, Lois woke with a shiver and a soft moan as the touch of his lips seemed to burn itself into her memory, arching her back against him...

Lois let the shiver become a shudder, and shook her head to get those memories out of it. "Richard," she hissed, shoulders tensing, "don't ever do that at the office again."

"Whoa, sorry," he murmured, but she heard that faint pride in his voice and could have smacked him. As it was, she swiveled around and turned her hazel glare on him until he looked away. Even his expression, part wonder, part surprise, and part overwhelming satisfaction, was too familiar.

Stop thinking about the past, Lois told herself sternly. "You're forgiven, flyboy," she said to Richard, smiling.

He returned the grin and bent to kiss her, almost chastely this time. As if to remind herself exactly who she was kissing, Lois touched his shoulder lightly as their lips met. An instant later, Richard flinched away, looking chagrined.

"Are you okay?" Lois asked, worried.

Richard actually blushed a little. "You mean you don't remember?" At her blank look, he continued, "Let's just say I might need a tetanus shot."

Of course, she remembered then, and her own face colored guiltily. "Richard, I..."

"I'm not complaining, " he said quickly. "You're welcome to have your wicked way with me anytime, Miss Lane."

"Shut up, White," she muttered, playing along, guilt gnawing at her. "Quit teasing and get out of here before I have to ravish you in a closet."

Backing toward the door, he said playfully, "I'm trying to decide if that would be a bad thing or not."

Lois shot him another cool glance before turning back to her work. Time to ice this down. "Considering that the only closet on this floor has a life-sized portrait of your uncle on the wall, I'd say it's a very bad thing."

"When you put it that way..." The next thing Lois heard was the door closing behind him.

* * *

Richard headed back to his own office with an extra spring in his step, and Clark watched him go by with a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but he'd seen Lois jump and wondered what had startled her. Now he wished he didn't have super-hearing.

So that's why she wanted to hurry home last night. She sees me, and immediately she wants him. No matter how you look at it, that can't be good. The thought of Richard and Lois, together... Clark had only felt this miserable when he was suffering from kryptonite radiation.

Struggling to reason with his feelings, Clark reminded himself that Lois hadn't exactly been a virgin when they'd met. She had led the first dance between them, that night in the Fortress, her greater experience making her the teacher. Although by the end of the night, he proved a very quick student indeed...

The lovers she'd had before him didn't matter, though. For one, he never had to see or think about them. For another, Clark couldn't have expected her to remain chastely waiting for her soul mate to appear. His own celibacy had been as much a matter of necessity as choice. He did not trust his great strength in such a situation, had even been nervous after the loss of his powers...

Lois' warm smile spoke of mysteries his to discover. She caught his hands and pulled him close, erasing his hesitancy with a kiss that stole his breath. "You won't hurt me," she murmured, and her confidence in him was perfect, her skin so smooth and warm...

Clark pulled his mind back to work with an effort, but his thoughts of Lois could not be entirely banished. The thought of Richard bothered him in a way those long-ago lovers of hers did not; Richard was here, under his gaze every day, and scenes like the one he'd just witnessed could not be too uncommon. Clark would be reminded all too often that Richard knew Lois better than he did: the taste of her lips; her soft, breathy gasps and murmurs; even the indescribable wonder of her hazel eyes, widening at the penultimate moment. This could very quickly become intolerable...

* * *

Lois typed in the very last line, let the spellchecker run, and then swiveled her chair around to look out the window while her article printed. The sky was unusually clear for Metropolis, just a few skinny white clouds far away, and her mind began to drift backward in time again.

It seemed unreal that this was happening, after so long imagining. But this was no dream. He was here, truly here in her arms, not even a breath from her. The feel of his skin pressed to hers, with no barriers, so warm, her fingers tracing the lines of muscle across his back, the softness of that dark hair against her cheek. The feel of his quick breath ruffling the hair at her temple. No dream, real. As real as the words he had spoken to his father. And he was hers.

Although still cautious, it seemed he had understood that she trusted him after she had whispered it to him. There was only the vaguest chill in the air as he gently ran the back of his hand over her cheek, causing her to shiver in reaction. As she looked up at him with darkened eyes, that blue that had held her ever since they had first locked eyes, was full of emotions she had never expected to see. "I won't break, I promise. You won't hurt me, Kal-El."

Little did either one of them know it, but at that moment they were thinking of exactly the same thing, the same moment, the same breathless kiss and what came after it. He remembered kissing the hollow of her throat, even as she remembered curling her leg over his hip while he did so. And after that...

Lois felt eyes on her in the present, drawing her out of her intense reverie in spite herself, and turned to look out into the bullpen. She caught Clark's eyes, and blue and hazel were both haunted. For a moment, each believed the other could read their recent thoughts, and it was almost as if there were no secrets between them at all...

"Lane! Kent!" Perry's bellow cut through the fog of memories past, and both reporters hurried to his office, unable to look each other in the eyes. The editor-in-chief was in one of his impatient moods, and started barking before they even sat down in his office.

"Lois, are you going to work on the Superman story or not..." Perry trailed off as she tossed several typed sheets onto his desk. He read, grinning wider and wider, and finally slapped the interview onto his desk with unmistakable glee. "Wonderful! I knew you could do it, Lois, even when no one else could! Remarkable!"

"Thanks, Chief," she said quietly, eyes lowered, trying to keep from glancing at Clark. Even the air was stifling and she could feel the heat in her cheeks, all too aware that he was only a foot away. If he happened to read the look on her face correctly ... that was trouble she didn't want.

"Got your dress picked out for the Pulitzer?" Perry asked, and Lois only nodded. At this moment, the last thing on her mind was that. Frowning at her a little, he turned to Kent. "What about the blackout, Kent? You got anything on that?"

Clark quickly forced himself to concentrate. "Um, it all started at the Vanderworth estate, which is tied up in probate right now. The widow Vanderworth had at least three different wills, and now they're all sealed documents being used as evidence. Something happened there; there's structural damage to the basement, but everyone is being very close-mouthed. I've got Jimmy working on a source at the Clerk of Records who might be able to cut through the red tape and tell us who owns it while the relatives fight about the will."

"Jimmy?" Perry said, then he quickly crossed to the door, flung it open, and roared, "Olsen!"

Jimmy hurried in, carrying a stack of photographs behind his back.

"What's this about you working the blackout when I assigned you to Superman photos? When did you become Kent's flunky?"

Paling until his freckles stood out, Jimmy just said, "Mr. Kent's not the person to, um, court this source, Mr. White. She's closer to my age."

"She?"

"Works in the Records department, and we know she filed the documents," Jimmy said. "Dinner and drinks at Chez Chantel in exchange for copies of the wills being probated. It's sort of a bet she has with someone else that works there." Glancing at Clark, he added, "Mr. Kent's paying for it, though."

"And renting your suit," Clark muttered.

Chez Chantel? Just mentioning the restaurant's name caught her attention. Realizing what they were discussing, a memory not quite so distracting came to her mind. Lois was hard put not to smile slightly as she continued to avert her gaze, staring at the wall, thinking, This from the man who took me and my eight-hundred-dollar evening gown out for burgers. Riiiiight. Think you took the clueless nerd act a little far that time.

"Well, that's lovely," Perry said. "And pictures of Superman? You got any of those? Better than that blur you were showing me Monday."

"I do have these," Jimmy said modestly, laying the eight-by-tens on Perry's desk. Clark and Lois both bent forward to look.

The photos showed Superman flying with a dark-haired woman, pretty in a brittle way. In the best one, the upturned faces of the crowd were clear in the foreground, and the woman's car was visible resting in Centennial Square in the background.

Perry just grinned at Jimmy. Clark winced; the woman ("Call me Katherine," she'd said breathlessly) had insisted she was hurt and begged to be taken to the hospital. But once there, she was strangely cured and fishing for a date. It wasn't the first time a woman had tried to ensnare him, although her screams were genuine when she discovered the brakes wouldn't work.

And Lois sneered. "When was this? I don't recall hearing about this rescue."

"That was last night, Miss Lane," Jimmy said. "The lady's brakes were out and she almost drove into one of those sidewalk cafés before Superman came and saved her."

"Oh, really?" Lois said drolly. A second glance didn't improve her opinion. "Some lady. From what I heard on the wire this morning, the Metropolis Museum was robbed around the same time Superman was saving this hooker. Fine use of his precious time there."

"Never noticed your eyes were so green, Lane," Perry said gruffly, making Lois whip her head around and glare at him.

Ignoring Jimmy and Clark chuckling, Lois spat vindictively, "I had better things to do last night, Perry, as your nephew well knows." And had the satisfaction of seeing Clark wince and look pale. But I am so not mentioning anything else that happened last night.

"Lois, can it," Perry said warningly.

She rolled her eyes at him. Well, then, stay out of it, old man. "Anyway, it may be of interest to Superman to know that the only thing stolen in the museum robbery was a meteorite. From Addis Ababa."

Clark had to stifle a gasp of surprise, which Lois sadistically enjoyed. "You mean someone's stolen what might be kryptonite?" he said faintly.

"Who wants to bet it's Luthor?" Jimmy said.

Clark sat forward suddenly. "Lex Luthor's in prison ... isn't he?"

Lois turned that glare on him next. "What's wrong, Kent, they don't have newspapers in Peru? Or was it Tibet? Some country with no telephones, anyway."

"Lois," Perry said incredulously. "Something you want to get off your mind?"

"No, Chief," she replied sweetly, knowing that she had gotten her point across as Clark looked away.

"Then tone it down, will you? If it's the wrong time of the month or something..."

"Leave it, Perry," she shot back. "Being your assistant, I don't want to know I'd be like without Midol and Stolichnaya. And you also have to thank Jason and Kala for being so fond of you. If not for that, you probably wouldn't survive."

Meanwhile, Jimmy was filling Clark in. "Luthor blamed everything after his escape on the Kryptonian villains."

"But he killed that transit cop," Clark said. "And California, the missiles... Superman put him in prison for a reason."

"Yeah, but Luthor's appeals lawyers blamed everything on that guy Otis. He's the one who led the transit cop onto the tracks, he's the one who reprogrammed the missiles, supposedly he's the one who did everything. And he was conveniently dead by that time the appeal went in. The state called Superman as a witness, but he wasn't here, and the lawyers got Lex released because there was no 'proof' Lex had done anything. How bad do you think that pisses Superman off?"

"A lot," Clark replied. Luthor's free. I'm going to have to look out for him as well. Wonderful.

"Yeah, Lois tried to fight it, but they didn't even call her as a witness - she got knocked in the head fighting with the Kryptonians and went to see a couple of doctors. Lex's people subpoenaed her medical records and showed that she was being treated for amnesia shortly after those events, and that threw her whole testimony into doubt."

"Which pisses off Lois Lane a lot, too," she put in quickly. Even now, it infuriated her to no end. "Anyway, Perry, someone should check into Luthor. With Superman back, you know he isn't going to just slink off into retirement."

"You're not gonna be the one who does," Perry warned. "You've got history with Luthor, and he'd love to kill you almost as much as Superman."

Jimmy snickered. "Um, Chief, you might wanna reword that. It sounds like you're saying Superman would want to kill her too."

Clark and Lois avoided each other's eyes, Lois' back stiffening, but Perry just chuckled. "Which reminds me, we're all going to the Pulitzer on Friday night."

Hazel eyes went wide at that statement, going from her editor to her former partner and back. Oh, no. No, no way. He can't do this to me. Not now. You've got to be kidding me! "What?" Lois said aloud, attempting to sound more blasé than she actually felt. "Chief ... I don't even know if I want to accept the thing. After all, the article I wrote is titled 'Why the World Doesn't Need Superman, ' and every paper in the country is headlining 'Welcome Back.' Cat Grant even said it the other night - 'Superman is back in all our lives, and we sure needed him.' I mean, Perry..."

"Lois, Pulitzers are like Oscars," the editor-in-chief replied. "After the open bar at the acceptance party, no one's going to remember what you won it for. All that's important is that you got one."

"Perry..."

"You're going, Lane, if I have to bribe your kids with candy to get you there."

"Guess I'd better rent a tux," Jimmy muttered.

"Um, Mr. White," Clark began. "I really don't think..."

"Good, don't," Perry said. "No arguments. Show support for Lois; I've got my best team back, and I want to present a united front to those scandal-mongers at the Star."

Helplessly, he looked at her. Could he really stand to see Lois accept a Pulitzer - the award she'd hungered for since high school - for an article about how she no longer needed him? Especially when the evidence was all around them that she'd taken her own advice and moved on. Her gaze only skittered away.

Perry leaned forward, glaring at them both. "You do not have a choice, people. You're both staying here Friday until it's time to leave for the ceremony, too, so you can't conveniently get stuck in traffic, Kent." Lois couldn't help giving Clark a snarky look at that; now that she knew why he kept missing so many important events that Superman just happened to arrive for. Perry continued, looking at both of them now, "And don't try calling in sick. I'll drag you both out of the city hospital in wheelchairs and tow you behind the taxi to the Pulitzer if I have to."

Neither Clark nor Lois could defy him after that; when Perry's mind was set he was a bulldog, and no one in recorded history had pried him off of something he was truly determined to have. In another bit of synchronicity, the same thought flashed through both reporters' minds at the same instant: Just how on earth am I going to survive this?


Mother Knows Best

It felt rather strange to be leaving the office at midday, but even Perry had insisted that she needed a break. It wasn't exactly something she could dispute, having felt under siege almost constantly of late. And wonder of wonders, it was Perry who caught her on her way out the door.

Quietly, Perry said, "Remember, Lois, you're just taking the kids to the museum. Don't get into a car chase, don't eat anything that'll make you sick, don't catch the flu, don't try to interview any crooks, and if the museum gets robbed again, don't get taken hostage. You are not gonna miss the Pulitzer tomorrow."

Lois just rolled her eyes. Times like this, his worry was endearing. "Yes, Mother."

Perry glared at her, but it was all too clear that his bluster masked a strong affection for this headstrong young woman who was almost a niece to him. "Tell Elinore I said hello while you're at it, Lane."

"I will, if I can be heard over the kids telling her how much they miss Nana," she said.

"See you tomorrow, Lois."

Sighing, she replied, "Message received. Yes, Perry, I'll be here. With the dress and all accoutrements."

On the way to the elevators, adjusting her purse strap and honestly relieved to be getting away, she ran into Clark. Literally. He stepped out from the side door leading to maintenance at the same moment she left the office, moving just a bit too quickly. It was the absolute last thing she needed on top of all the stress since the interview.

"Gosh, sorry, Lois," he stammered, reaching for her shoulder to steady her.

Lois jerked away, her irritation rising anew. How could he be so careless, especially being who he was? He hadn't even checked to see if anyone was in sight first! Now that she knew his true identity, the signs seemed obvious, and it infuriated Lois that she had been so blind for so long.

"You really ought to be more careful," she snapped, releasing the frustration of the past several days on Clark. Why can't I avoid him for more than an hour at a time? He was gone all the time before, always found some excuse. Even claiming to be locked in the janitor's closet. What makes it all so different now? "I mean, look where you're going! It's not as if you can't see, Clark! God!"

Clark flinched. He'd always known that Lois used the sharp side of her tongue in self-defense, and this was more proof that something in her life was hurting her, something she couldn't escape. He only hoped it wasn't him ... either persona. But either way, it wounded him to hear the pain beneath her anger.

"I really am sorry, Lois," he said more softly, his voice dropping down almost to Superman's register as he strove to make his sincerity clear.

Just that subtle shift, so slight that no one else would have even noticed... Lois halted, having to pause for breath before turning a terribly hurt and haunted look on him that went through him like a knife. "It's too bad you couldn't have said that five years ago," Lois said tautly, and swept away to the elevators to escape him.

Clark was frozen, watching her. All this time, he had worried about how she felt about Superman - not that her anger wasn't justified. Now he began to realize that it wasn't only Superman drawing her ire. He hadn't thought about her reaction to Clark leaving ... he had always thought that Lois had a sisterly fondness for him in that guise, nothing more. And yet, to have one's partner, one's friend, sometimes one's confidant simply leave without a word, postcards or no postcards, certainly justified a little more of Lois' behavior toward him the last two weeks.

His mind churning, Clark went quietly back to his desk, hoping that no one would notice how dispirited he suddenly was. Perhaps it was best if he got out of the office...

* * *

After finally convincing Jason that the thirty-foot-tall robotic Tyrannosaurus would still be there after lunch, Lois and Ella managed to herd the twins down to the museum café. Choosing something for lunch wasn't as daunting as they had expected; the Metropolis Museum of Natural History carried a wider variety of foods than most. Both kids were disappointed, however, that they couldn't have astronaut ice cream, and had to settle for dehydrated cinnamon apples.

"Where to next?" Ella asked as she finished her salad.

"Dinosaurs!" Jason said happily after gulping down his mouthful of chicken wrapped in a corn tortilla.

Kala sighed heavily, rolling her eyes in a way familiar to both Lane women. "Boys are so dumb. Mommy, why are boys so weird?"

"Just 'cause they don't have any meerkats," Jason began, but Lois' arched eyebrow silenced him quickly.

"They have a planetarium," Ella said quietly.

Both twins perked up. "What's a plan'tarium?" they chorused.

"It's a room with a special machine like a movie projector, only it projects stars and planets instead of movies," Ella told them, not noticing how Lois paled. "The roof is round, so they can make it look just like the night sky. Or at least, how the night sky would look without smog."

Kala and Jason looked at each other for a moment. In spite of their bickering, they did tend to consult each other when making decisions. "Sounds okay," Jason said with a shrug.

"Anything but dinosaurs," his sister replied.

It was Jason's turn to roll his eyes. Although any sarcastic expression failed when he glanced over at Lois. "Mommy, are you okay?"

Lois had turned away as this discussion had worn on, counting under her breath. Just a bout of nausea, nothing more, she told herself. God really did have a sadistic sense of humor lately. Dammit, Mom, of all the things... Hearing his voice, and the worry there, she looked over with a smile she hardly felt. "I'm alright, sweetheart. I guess my salad didn't agree with me very much. Ready to go see the thunder-lizards?"

"Yeah!" he said, all enthusiasm returning instantly. Grinning, he caught her hand and started pulling her out of the restaurant, Lois stumbling along with him, unable to stop herself from laughing.

From behind them, as Ella took Kala's hand and strolled, the little girl asked curiously, "How can you get sick off of salad?"

"Your Mommy just has a delicate stomach," Ella said, curious herself.

"She ate two pieces of chicken last night an' that didn't make her sick," Kala replied.

"Chicken is very good for sickly people," Ella told her. "That's why you eat chicken soup when you have a cold."

Kala nodded wisely. "Jason should eat a lot more chicken, then. He's sick in the head."

Ella couldn't help chuckling. "That isn't nice, Kala. While your brother's mesmerized by the dinosaurs, do you want to go look at the artifacts they've pulled out of Hob's Bay?"

The little girl thought that over. "Do they have any pirate stuff? Swords an' doubloons an' stuff?"

"Maybe," Ella told her. "We'd have to look to find out."

"Anything's better than dinosaurs again," Kala finally said, and after getting Lois' attention to point to the sign for the maritime exhibit, they hurried off to explore.

* * *

Everywhere Clark turned in the blackout investigation was somehow a dead end. That only intensified his determination to get to the bottom of it, however. The Kents had instilled in him a deep desire to finish anything he began, and that doggedness served him well in his chosen career.

After spending an afternoon in the Public Records department, however, even his eyes were blurring. Some information he couldn't get, because of the pending court case (and even the names of plaintiff and defendant were sealed at that point, most unusual), but what he had been able to uncover seemed to show that the Vanderworths were very wealthy indeed. They had also sheltered their fortunes by keeping most of their assets in corporations, which were in turn owned by other corporations, and the same names kept cropping up on the boards of those companies. The late Gertrude Vanderworth had replaced her husband as president on most of them, and five individuals whom Clark had painstakingly learned were her doctors and lawyers filled the other chairs. It all looked like the typical financial finagling of the rich, nothing particularly interesting.

However, he'd overflown the estate on his lunch break, and his x-ray vision had clearly showed the structural damage Lois had noted when she visited. It looked strangely familiar somehow, but Clark couldn't place it. The destruction seemed most like a few explosions he'd seen, though different, less concentrated. It was very puzzling indeed, and strongly suggested a link between whatever had happened in the basement and the EMP.

His run-in with Lois on his way back from the flight had unsettled him badly enough that he had made the trip to the records department mostly to escape, and now he was back in the office again. Clark's mind felt full of disconnected bits of information, and he knew from experience that prodding at it wouldn't help much. What he needed was a break from this case, a change in perspective. Sometimes even a brief walk would jog his mind enough.

Thinking along those lines, Clark headed down to the break room, a dingy linoleum-tiled room where the scent of over-boiled coffee had seeped into the very walls. The bulletin board was covered with the usual notices: free kittens, furniture for sale, solicitations for various charities, and a notice about the office blood drive. Clark scanned over them anyway in the hopes that someone would be subletting an apartment in the area, but had no luck.

That was about as much break as Clark could stand with the EMP story seething in his brain. He turned to leave, and saw Ron Troupe walking in. "Hey, Kent, long time no see!" Ron said warmly, shaking his hand firmly. "Man, we missed you! Perry been keeping you chained to your desk or something?"

"No, things have just been a little, you know, hectic," Clark told him. "How is Lucy?"

"Delightful, as always," Ron said with a grin. He had married the younger Lane, and in days gone by, he and Lucy and Clark and Lois had often met for dinner after work. It wasn't quite double-dating, but Clark was startled to realize that he deeply missed Lucy's sunny charm and Ron's sincere friendship. I left behind a whole lot more than I thought.

"So, how's life over there in Metro? Has Mount Lane erupted and rained fire on anyone yet today?" Ron asked wryly.

"Um, Ron, Lois is under a lot of stress right now..."

The handsome black man dropped his voice a little. "Honestly, I think it was that plane crash. Or almost-crash. Did you know, she actually unbuckled her seatbelt to help that girl from Virgin Air, Bobbie-Faye? Our Lo got Bobbie buckled back in, but when the secondary boosters kicked in she was still unbelted. During most of it, Lois was getting slammed around inside the plane, bouncing off the ceiling and stuff."

Clark's eyes widened in horror. While he had been catching the plane, he'd assumed Lois was in the relative safety of a seat. To think of her being flung around the cabin while the plane spun and rolled... "No, I didn't know. She didn't say anything when she got back, just went right to business."

He shook his head in amazement. "She's one tough lady, that Lois. But anyway, I think she might have hit her head a little too hard. Ever since that day, she's been very short-tempered - more than usual. And she was never this mean before - she doesn't quite hunt people down to yell at, but you'd better not screw up in front of her. I worry about her sometimes."

"Me, too," Clark said quietly. He knew now that Lois' personality change wasn't caused by some head injury; it was the result of a heart-injury, of seeing him back so suddenly, both Clark and Superman.

"Could you kind of keep an eye out for her?" Ron asked. "I mean, you two have always been really close. If something was wrong, she wouldn't tell Lucy - can't worry the kid sister. And Richard, well, he's a good guy, but he doesn't know Lois like you do."

Clark had to glance away briefly. It hurt to be reminded of how close he and Lois had been, before, but it was a strangely pleasant kind of hurt. They had had an almost magnetic attraction when he was Superman, but as Clark their relationship had been very deep and caring, in spite of its rocky beginnings. He missed both sides of her - the bossy, temperamental, protective Lois that Clark knew, and the wide-eyed romantic that only Superman had seen. "Of course, Ron," he said. "You know I'll always watch out for Lois."

"Good man," Ron said, smacking his shoulder affectionately. "Look, we're still in the same house. Drop by for dinner some time; you don't have to call or anything."

"Thanks, Ron," Clark said, smiling. "Oh, hey, speaking of houses - do you know of any apartments for rent nearby? Reasonable?"

"Reasonable? In Metropolis?" Ron chuckled. "Hell, even Lois sold hers."

Clark winced. One more memory gone - he'd never land on that balcony again and see her turning to look at him with wonder in her eyes. "Wow. Where is she living these days?"

"On the river out in Bakerline," Ron told him. "Nice place - they have a dock for Richard's plane and everything. Of course, Lois has been living in terror that the twins will somehow drown themselves. I never thought of her as a hysterically overprotective mom before, but knowing those kids of hers..."

Clark had to smile faintly. "Godzilla always swims away after he's done stomping Tokyo, doesn't he? Maybe she's justified."

"Ah, so you've noticed Jason's career plans," Ron chuckled. "And I see you're still defending Lois. That woman just doesn't know ... nevermind. Listen, I gotta get some coffee and get back to work, but don't be a stranger, okay?"

"I won't," Clark said, and headed back to his desk. The conversation with Ron hadn't helped the Vanderworth investigation at all, but at least Clark knew that he was the cause of Lois' problems, which explained her behavior to him. What he needed now was advice.

In the past, he'd often gone to the Fortress and consulted Jor-El. But he had not been back since his return, and didn't plan to visit any time soon. Jor-El had been very displeased with his decision six years ago, and he would be even less happy to hear that his son was still obsessing over the same woman who had caused him all those problems.

My father tried to plan for every possibility, but I don't think he really understood what it meant that I would be raised by humans, raised as a human. No, I don't need to talk to Jor-El about this; I need Ma. If anyone can help me patch things up with Lois, she can. I'm overdue for our weekly dinner anyway...

* * *

In the end, Lois couldn't escape the planetarium. She sat beside Kala, Ella flanking Jason on the other side, and tried to calm her queasy stomach as the darkened room and the projector created the illusion of stars dancing overhead. It didn't help her nerves any to realize that both twins were utterly rapt. They had never been both conscious and completely quiet for half an hour before, and when Lois glanced at Kala to see if her daughter was awake, she saw the whole glorious Milky Way reflected in Kala's wide eyes.

It was even worse after the program ended, when their guide called for questions. Both twins raised their hands immediately, but it was Kala whom the man pointed at. "Can you show us the planet Superman went to?" she asked excitedly.

Lois slid down in her chair, the salad rebelling. To hear it said aloud by her own daughter...

Oh dear God. How did they learn about him already? That question sounded so naïve the moment she thought it. Although she had known full well that the news was out, had been for almost a week, hearing that name on her child's lips was like a resounding slap. He had been on every medium since his return; none of it his idea, she was sure, but there none the less. How long did she think it would escape their notice, no matter how much she monitored their television viewing? They were in school, for God's sake.

Kids talk; it's no different now than it was before, Lois tried to comfort herself, forcibly ignoring the ice in her blood. And there's nothing they love more than a hero. Someone who can do fantastic things. Someone they think they can look up to. So they know his name and a bit about him. Breathe, Lane. The kids don't know. They didn't guess. No one else on the earth knows; how could they possibly?

The docent smiled. "Very good question," he said. "Krypton is very far away, so it's hard to see, but I can show you where it with the laser pointer - right there, between this star and this bright one." The twins watched the circling red dot of the pointer as if fixing the planet's position in the night sky. The man continued in pleased tones, "You're the first one to ask, and I'm glad to see you keep up with the news."

"Mommy is the news," Jason replied, and the crowd chuckled. Lois slunk even further down in the seat, letting her long wavy hair fall forward over her face. Please don't let anyone ask their name, or recognize me. That's all I need, a gossip-page headline in the Star: Lois Lane's Kids Curious about Krypton - Wonder Why? God help me.

You knew you should've avoided the planetarium, Lane, why are you complaining now? How could they not wonder about their Daddy's home planet?

Shut up, Lois told herself firmly. He's not their Daddy, they don't even know him. He doesn't even know they're his. And he won't, either - my kids don't need a father who would abandon them for six years without even saying goodbye to me.

You can't abandon what you don't know exists...

He abandoned me! Lois yelled in the confines of her own mind, momentarily drowning out both the General's Daughter and the Romantic voices in her mind. Question and answer time was over without the twins having volunteered any more incriminating information, thank God, and the museum was closing soon. Lois and Ella managed to get them into the car with a minimum of fuss, other than the children worrying about Lois' upset tummy.

Ella kept glancing at Lois with cool interest. Something was definitely up with her eldest, and she meant to get to the bottom of it.

* * *

After work, Clark called Martha to let her know he was coming, then changed into his Superman uniform and flew high and fast to Smallville. He dropped down into the middle of the cornfield quicker than any human eye could follow, and changed back into his regular clothes.

"Perfect timing," Ma told him with a smile, handing him a paring knife and some potatoes. "By the time you get those peeled, boiled, and mashed, the roast should be done."

Clark inhaled deeply, and sighed contentedly. "Smells like rosemary and red wine. Ma, you're the best cook ever."

"Well, maybe not ever," she said with amusement. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that red meat and red wine go well together. Don't touch that pie on the windowsill, Clark."

She'd caught him eyeing it, and he smiled. The two of them worked easily together in the kitchen from long practice. Clark had learned to cook fairly young, following the typical Kent family division of labor: everyone eats, so everyone should cook.

It wasn't long before they were sitting down to a delectable meal, just the two of them, just like old times. Clark had forgotten how much he needed this, as well, the glad silence of two people who know each other better than words can express, and who incidentally have their mouths full of delicious food they'd prepared together. The roast was melt-in-your-mouth tender, the mashed potatoes creamy with just a hint of garlic, and the corn was from their own fields, fresh and flavorful. You just couldn't get a meal like in the city.

Ma chuckled at him. "Son, you look like you've been living on sawdust and just had your first real meal."

"Some of the hamburgers in Metropolis taste like sawdust," he replied.

"Hmmph. Feedlot cows full of antibiotics and God knows what else. That beef there is from Henderson. I can drive up the road and see what they're eating, so I know good old-fashioned grass-fed beef is tastiest."

Clark sat back in his chair, feeling absolutely content for the first time since his return. Ma brought in the pie, giving him a slice with ice cream on top, and shattered that contentment when she asked, "So what's been bothering you, son?"

His pleased smile fell as he remembered Lois and all the troubles he had. "Everything," he sighed, poking at the pie with the tines of his fork.

"Mm-hm. And would everything happen to have dark hair and a tape recorder?"

Clark glanced up suspiciously. "Are you sure you're not psychic?"

Martha Kent smiled at her only child. "I'm your mother. They tell you mother knows best, but they should tell you mother knows everything. It only stands to reason, Clark. You called me all of a sudden, flew out here in a hurry, and you haven't mentioned her or work once. So tell me what happened - and eat that pie, don't play with it."

"Yes, Ma," he replied, and ate the first forkful. Flaky crust, crisp apples, and ice cream sweetly melting ... how could anyone be upset with something that delicious on their palate? Gradually Clark explained the situation to Martha - Lois' reactions to the first sight of him, her anger at both personas, and the way she had moved on with her life. "So now I'm working for her, and she hates me," he concluded. "And she's completely in love with this guy Richard, and she has his children, but I'm still in love with her."

"Does she know you love her?" Ma asked gently. "Either of you?"

Clark opened his mouth to say Of course, and stopped. Did she? "I ... I don't know. I mean, I think she knew that Clark ... but she never took me seriously. But Superman, she knew, but she ... things happened, the Kryptonians, and it hurt her to remember, so I ... I made her forget."

"You made her forget?"

"It was a power I didn't know I had. I made her forget finding out who I was, and telling me she loved me, and everything that happened ... after."

One silver eyebrow crept up. That was a loaded pause if ever Martha Clark Kent had heard one. She kept her questioning gaze on her son until he looked away, faint roses blooming in his cheeks. "I see," she said quietly.

Clark glanced back at her. For a moment, he felt like a child again, dreadfully afraid that he'd disappointed his mother. He'd been raised with a higher moral standard, and to have Martha know that... "I intended, you know, to marry her ... it wasn't supposed to be a one-time thing, it was supposed to be forever... I even gave up my powers because Jor-El said that was the only way to be with her..."

Martha folded her napkin decisively. "Clark, you know I'd never want to speak ill of your birth parents. But you have to remember that what you know as Jor-El is just a recording. The man doesn't know you, not really. He made plans for a baby, one he probably thought would grow up to be just like him. But if you're like anyone, it's Jonathan."

Clark blinked. After all these years, that comparison could still touch him, a tiny wound of grief that his father hadn't seen the man he grew up to be, and what an honor it was to hear that he was so much Jonathan's son.

Martha wasn't finished, though. "So Lois found out who you are, and you two were in love, and all of this happened while the Kryptonians were trashing the White House? And after you got your powers back and defeated them, you erased Lois' memories of everything?"

It sounded so ... irresponsible when she said it like that. "Yes."

Martha looked at her son for a long moment. Circumstances meant that he knew even less about women than most men, the majority of whom were clueless about the feminine mind. "Clark ... you may have erased the memories, but I doubt you erased the feelings. And then you left her without saying goodbye. The goodbye is more important than the fact that you left."

"I couldn't ... I wouldn't have been able to leave, if I'd spoken to her one more time. And if she'd kept me from going, I think I would've resented that eventually."

"Oh, Clark," Martha sighed. "My boy. Life is harder for you, isn't it, in spite of all the things you can do?"

"It isn't easy for me, being who I am, keeping secrets," he replied sadly. "Trying to balance my mission against my heart."

"I could smack that Jor-El for telling you that you couldn't have both," Martha said a trifle sharply. "He was married, wasn't he? He had a wife, a partner, a lover - how dare he tell you different?"

"He wanted me to be a savior..."

"But you're a man first," Martha argued. "And my son. I want you to be happy, I want you to be able to have a life, not just a cause."

Clark just sighed. "But is it possible for me to have both?"

"I don't see why not," Martha replied. "It's going to take a very special woman, though, and she'll have to know the whole truth. Speaking of which, are you sure this Lois is the right one? Maybe that's why things are so difficult with her, maybe it isn't meant to be."

His incredulous look was all the answer she really needed. "Ma - she's the only one."

She couldn't help but smile. Oh, you poor boy - you've fallen hard for her, haven't you? "Well then, are you absolutely sure she's happy with this other man?"

"She seems to be," Clark began, then thought about it. Love you instead of I love you, too, the way she'd snapped at Richard about the phone, a few other little things. "I'm not sure - I think she was more in love with me. But I can't just go steal her back - that isn't fair to Richard."

"No woman in these times would let you steal her without her consent," Martha told him. "But no, you can't just go wooing someone else's love. First you have to let her get over being angry at you. Both of you."

"How do I convince her to forgive me?"

"You can't," Martha said. "She will or she won't, in her own time. And if you try begging for forgiveness, you'll just make her angrier."

"I have to be around her every day - Perry's making me go to the Pulitzer with her tomorrow. She won a Pulitzer for an article about how much she doesn't need me!"

"Which only proves she loves you," Martha replied wisely.

Clark looked at his mother for a moment, astonished. "I will never understand women."

"You and every other male on the planet," Martha said. "Don't worry, we don't understand you men either. We just pretend we do."

"So what can I do?"

"Be her friend," Martha said. "Be kind to her. And resist the temptation to yell at her when she acts nasty to you."

"I'd never yell at Lois," Clark said, affronted.

"That'll change," Martha said wryly, and ate the last piece of her pie, effectively ending the serious part of their discussion.

* * *

"I see you got your interview. So, have you told him?"

Lois froze in the act of pouring a glass of water. The twins were in the other room, their good behavior guaranteed (for fifteen minutes at least) by brand-new coloring books. Ella was standing behind Lois in the kitchen, arms crossed, and asking a question that made her daughter's queasiness return threefold. Of course Mom doesn't know, but still, God... "Yeah, I told him exactly what I thought of him."

Elinore's eyes narrowed as she saw her oldest flinch. Her answer was delivered without turning around, too, another indicator. "That isn't what I meant, Lois, and we both know it. Did you tell him?" she repeated with emphasis.

Lois finally turned around, hazel eyes wide. "Tell him what?"

"Lois..."

"What, Momma?"

Ella looked pointedly at the door to the living room, where Kala had burst out laughing.

A thin trickle of icy sweat ran down Lois' spine. "Yeah, he knows I have kids and he knows I'm engaged. I made it very clear it's over."

Ella sighed heavily, fighting down the urge to spank her daughter for what seemed deliberate misunderstanding. "Darling, Lois, dear: did you tell him whose children you had?"

Lois went very, very pale, but she braced herself against the counter and replied, "Why would I tell him about an affair I had in France? That would be kinda rude."

Her mother just closed her eyes for a moment, and Lois had a horrible moment of feeling like a little girl again, caught in a lie. Then Elinore simply walked over, grabbed her wrist, and hauled her into the guest bedroom on the other side of the house.

"Mom!" Lois cried, pulling back.

"Hush, the twins'll be fine for five minutes," Ella said, closing the door. "Now you listen to me, young lady. I looked into your eyes the morning you were born, and I've known you ever since, loved you every moment. You can't lie to me. Your father, your sister, your boss, the rest of the world, but you can't lie to your mother." She dropped her voice to a whisper and asked sharply, "Did you tell Superman about his twins?"

Lois' mouth dropped open in shock, and if not for her mother's tight grip on her arm, she would've fallen. To hear it spoken aloud, when not even she had ever done so ... and by her mother, the only family member whom she wanted to impress... "Momma ... I ..." really don't know what you're talking about, was on her lips, but died there. There was no point. She'd only make herself look like more of a fool.

Ella relented, stroking Lois' hair as she guided her to sit down on the bed. "Hush, baby. I understand. I knew how much you loved him the first time you called home to tell me about the interview. I'm your mother. I know you had boyfriends, lovers, before him, but you never lost your heart until he came along. And he's the only one I could imagine you having been careless with."

"Careless..."

"Lois Lane, you were not a lily-white virgin before those twins were conceived," Ella scolded. "But you never managed to get yourself in trouble until them. And once you knew what had happened, you never even tried to ... do anything ... about it. That tells me their father was a lot more important to you than some one-night stand in Paris."

There was no immediate reply. Her daughter just sat there as if under impossible weight, leaning with her head down, the long fall of her dark hair hiding any expression. It was amazing how quickly Lois broke now that she couldn't run. Her arms creeping up around her own shoulders, needing the comfort. Ella didn't need to see her eyes to know that they were closed, Lois' breath having begun to shudder just faintly. It seemed an eternity before her child whispered in a painfully defeated tone, "Have you known all this time? Have you, Momma?"

I've been fairly certain since I talked you into coming back to Metropolis, Ella thought, but lying to one's children was a parent's luxury, especially when it spared them pain or shame. "I had an idea," she said calmly, cradling Lois' head on her shoulder. "But I didn't really know until he came back, and I saw how you felt. Especially today at the planetarium."

Remembering that moment, Lois lifted her head, her haunted eyes full of pain when they met Ella's. The expression on her mother's face wasn't the disappointment and disapproval that Lois had feared; her face was full of love and acceptance, as it had always been. The tears that had threatened since Elinore first spoke his name now spilled over, and Lois managed to choke between sobs, "God, Momma ... what am I gonna do? What the hell am I gonna do now?"

Ella hushed her, and held her, stroking Lois' hair and humming to her. No one else ever got to see this child of hers break down; Sam had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in making her tougher than any man. Only her mother knew about this vulnerability ... her mother, and one visitor from the stars. And Ella was fairly certain he'd never seen Lois this lost and wounded. Burying her face in her mother's neck, Lois continued, "... I'm engaged to Richard, and he doesn't know ... he's back now ... the twins don't even know ... oh, God, the twins ... I have to see him every day..."

A revelation dawned on Ella then. "You're still in love with him," she blurted out.

And immediately regretted it. Lois pulled away, flinging her hair out of her eyes defiantly. "I am not," she snapped, that old-time General's Daughter tone, the I-don't-need-anyone attitude that had kept her sane throughout her adolescence. "I'm not even certain if I was in the first place; I shouldn't even be able to remember it, after what he did."

Ella stifled a sigh of defeat. Life would be so much easier for her oldest if Lois would just let down her guard more than once in a blue moon. The love and heartbreak was plain on her face, but she denied it so strongly that she would eventually convince herself it had never been. "What do you mean, after what he did?"

And then Lois had to explain, the loss of his powers, the threat to the world, and their breaking up, at first mutual. Then when it tore at her too much, he'd erased her memories and disappeared. During her pregnancy, she'd begun to remember, and by the time she delivered the twins, she'd known everything again. Lois sighed, scrubbed at her eyes, and finished, "So that's how I became a tabloid headline, Mom: 'Fearless Reporter Gives Birth to Superman's Half-Alien Babies.' You could probably get on Jerry Springer with the 'I'm an alien's grandma' angle."

"I'd say they act like perfectly normal humans, but they're half yours, Lois," Ella said, completely deadpan.

"Mother!" Lois snapped, coming out of her bitter melancholy mood at last. For a moment they just stared at each other, then both Lane women burst out laughing. And if that hilarity had a touch of hysteria in it, neither would ever admit to it.

In the living room, Kala paused in coloring The Little Mermaid, looking toward the hallway with a frown. "What?" Jason asked her, and she just shook her head worriedly.

* * *

Much later, after Richard got home, the twins very solicitously told Daddy that Mommy had been sick most of the day. Beyond a questioning glance, he wouldn't have questioned it, until Jason said in a whisper he thought Lois couldn't hear, "Mommy's been sick a lot lately. D'ya think she's gonna have another baby?"

That had turned Lois' skin so pale, no one argued with her decision to skip dinner, take a hot bath, and sit out on the dock in the cool air. She could hear, faintly, her mother and her fiancé talking to the twins; Ella firmly shot down the notion of Lois being pregnant, to Richard's disappointment.

The sun set spectacularly, as if to make up for the rest of the day, and Lois began to feel a little relaxation. It was nice to have one person who knew the secret, someone she could talk to, and she felt guilty for not having told Ella earlier. But there was only one thing that could really settle Lois' nerves just now.

Glancing guiltily at the house, Lois' hand went to the pocket of her robe. She really did need to be as calm as possible for tomorrow - that was going to be a trial. I resisted temptation on the roof earlier this week, she thought, don't I deserve to indulge now?

The deep craving said yes, her wounded heart said yes, and even her tired mind relented. Lois shook a cigarette out of the pack and slipped it between her lips. A moment's hesitation when she lit it, then she shook her head and did it anyway. This one small defeat was something she could deal with.

And the first drag tasted so damn good. Lois held the smoke in her lungs for a long moment, feeling the nicotine percolate through her brain, soothing the tension and worry. Then she tilted her head back to blow a stream of smoke into the air, and saw him.

Overhead, flying back into the city, almost obscured by the darkness, but there was nothing else in the sky that could be shaped like a man in a cape. The sweet clove was suddenly bitter on Lois' lips, and she coughed in surprise.

A moment later, she surrendered, watching his leisurely flight. He didn't seem to have glanced down at her, for which she was grateful, and soon he was a dwindling dot in the distance. Lois took another deep breath of scented smoke, and closed her eyes, wondering, Just what am I going to do about all of this? The bloody lung cancer he kept warning me about would be easier.


Moment of Truth

"She what?" Lois exclaimed, her nerves jangling.

"Lois, calm down," Richard said worriedly. "Mrs. Thomas just left the doctor's office. She's got the flu, she can't babysit the twins tonight. She's really sorry to do this on short notice, you know she's always reliable..."

The tensions of the day, spent avoiding Clark and trying not to smoke, suddenly rose up and smote Lois. Her expression went from disbelief to anger to determination. "Fine. My mother ... damn, that's right. Mom's car is in the shop, she can't get here." Not quite panicking, she dialed her sister, and her face fell. She hung up only a minute later after a few brief words, thinking, This is payback for that cigarette last night - God hates a smoker. "Lucy and Ron are out, and I don't trust their sitter with the twins. Richard, what about your parents?"

"Sorry, hon, they're in Florida this week on that vacation-home-exchange thing. And we don't have time to drive the twins out to your mom's place." He sighed heavily, glancing out into the bullpen where the twins were doing their homework unconcernedly. "I guess that means I have to stay home with them."

"What? No! Richard, I don't want to go without you."

"Relax, kids," Perry said, patting Lois' shoulder awkwardly. "Loueen and I will watch the brats."

"No, Uncle Perry," Richard said firmly. "It's your paper and Lois' article; you two have to be there. I'm just the accessory. I'll stay with them, it's no problem."

"Richard..." In the privacy of Perry's office, Lois let a hint of pleading creep into her tone, catching his sleeve. "Please, I don't want to go alone. We can bring the kids with us..."

"Honey, no," Richard said, petting her arm. "They're going to be so bored, Jason will do his Godzilla impression in the middle of the keynote address. It's all right, I'll stay. I'm not too keen on rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, anyway. Besides, you won't be alone. Perry and Jimmy and Clark will be there - if Clark ever gets here."

"He will," Perry interjected. "About two minutes before we have to leave."

You're missing the point - I don't want to be alone with Clark. "Guys ... I don't even want to do this," Lois said, pacing the floor. Her satin gown flowed behind her, a deep rose gray like water at midnight, and Richard's eyes followed it unconsciously. "Maybe I should just stay home and let Perry accept the damned thing on my behalf."

"No the hell you don't," Perry began, and just then the office door opened. In came Jimmy, uncomfortable in the Armani tuxedo. Upon seeing Lois, her long gown with its embroidery and its deep décolletage, he froze with surprised wonder.

Lois caught sight of him, and had to smile. "Well, well, look at you, Mr. Olsen," she said playfully. "You look very handsome."

"Th-thanks," he stammered. "You look really good, too, Miss Lane."

"She looks like some 1930s oil tycoon's wet dream," Perry barked, ignoring Richard's yelp of protest. "And she's going to the damn Pulitzers if I have to tie her on top of the car like a trophy deer."

"Try it and die, White," she snapped. "You only get away with saying stuff like that because people think you're getting senile."

"Uncle Perry!" Richard said in affronted tones. "Can't you see Lois is already nervous? Don't rattle her cage!"

Nervous? I'm not nervous, I'm about to have a complete mental breakdown, that's all, Lois thought, resuming her pacing. If not for the upswept hairstyle, she would have been running her hands through her raven locks ceaselessly.

Perry just gave his nephew a despairing look. "Boy, the angrier she is, the better she'll handle her nerves. And the better she'll look, too."

"Stuff it, old man," Lois snarled. It was all the worse because he was right. "You may as well quit looking, you couldn't handle me even if you were ten years younger and had a bypass."

"See what I mean?" Perry said genially. "Jimmy, isn't she splendid when she's mad?"

"It's damn hard to see splendid with two black eyes, Perry," Lois shot back. "Don't make me commit elder abuse."

"Ouch," Perry chuckled. "You've wounded my fragile vanity, Lane. If you're any nastier to me, I might have another heart attack. Which would leave you as acting editor, since you're the only person in the room who knows CPR and you said you'd never resuscitate me again."

"After the last time?" Lois whirled on him, poking him in the chest to punctuate her words. "Here I am, panicking, the closest thing I've got to a decent father turning blue on the floor, and after I summon up everything I learned about first aid in Girl Scouts, you finally come around. Only to look at me and groan, 'It's Lane, I must be in Hell.' Thanks a frikkin' lot, Perry!"

By that time, Jimmy had seated himself on the couch, keeping silent out of her line of fire. Richard tried to rub her shoulders to calm her down, saying, "Darling, it's okay. You don't have to do much of a speech or anything; all you have to do is say thank you and head for the bar."

"It's not the speech!" Lois snapped, jerking away from him. It's CLARK, you idiots! Can't you people see ... nevermind!

"Then what is it, Lane?" Perry barked.

"You just made me get the interview of the century, he's on every channel including Bravo and ESPN, every magazine and newspaper is cheering him on, and people have been getting drunk every night to celebrate the fact that our savior hath returned!" Lois yelled, her voice rising. "And now I have to get a Pulitzer for an editorial about how we don't need him! It makes no sense!"

"You always wanted a Pulitzer," Richard began.

"For investigative reporting," she shot back. Not for essentially flipping off my ex in print!

"It's an important editorial," Perry said sternly. "Lois, people needed to hear that - you made a very good point. We were spending too much time wailing and gnashing our teeth over his disappearance instead of trying to help each other. I'm sure Superman himself would realize that if he read..."

"He did read it," Lois retorted. "And probably took it as a kiss-off speech." Especially when he found out I'm engaged with kids.

The sharp rap on the glass door nearly startled her out of her skin. Of course, with his usual impeccable timing, there was Clark. He came in shyly, avoiding Lois' gaze. Unfortunately that meant he saw the dress first, saw how it clung perfectly to the curves of bust and hip and thigh.

Clark couldn't entirely hide his reaction, but tried to play it off by simply saying, "Wow. Nice dress, Lois."

For a moment she couldn't reply. The suit ... oh, the suit was perfect. Even with the glasses on, there was no denying his attractiveness. Dragging her mind back from memories she really couldn't deal with, Lois rallied enough to reply, "Nice suit, Kent."

The awkwardness wasn't lost on the other three men in the room. Jimmy just tried to look anywhere but at them; Perry's and Richard's gazes met, confused and a little worried. They both knew how snappish Lois had been around Clark the last two weeks.

"Well, children, it's time to leave," Perry said. Lois had turned away from all of them, staring out the window, so no one saw her go pale. The editor-in-chief tuned to Richard and said, "Are you sure you don't want me to stay with the kids?"

"No, it's all right, Perry," Richard replied. "It's not every day the Daily Planet wins a Pulitzer. You should go."

Clark turned to Jimmy, asking, "What's going on?"

Like you didn't hear the whole conversation from down the block, Lois thought, trying to control her nausea.

Jimmy filled Clark in. As soon as he got to the part about Richard staying behind, Clark turned to the Whites. "Really, Richard, I'd be happy to watch them for you. I mean, it's not like I need to be at the award ceremony."

"Like hell," Lois said flatly. "Clark, you know absolutely nothing about children, much less mine."

Those words silenced everyone in the room, and Lois turned around to look at them. Clark's expression was more wounded than she'd ever seen it, even more pained than when he realized that the Kryptonian villains had taken over the world while he was with her in the Fortress. In that moment, and little though she knew it, Lois was as beautiful as she had ever been, and her cold remark was more devastating than kryptonite.

That hurt in his eyes was more than she could bear. "I'm sorry, Clark," Lois said quietly. "They're very fragile, and I'm pretty overprotective."

"Just a smidgen," Perry grumbled. He'd been shocked by her nastiness, and even more so by her apology. Lois Lane did not apologize to anyone. But he quickly recovered, and said, "No, Kent, I want my best team on this. You're going even if I don't."

"Uncle Perry, you should go," Richard said firmly. "Look, you guys go way back. I'm the newcomer here, and I really don't mind staying with the twins. It's not exactly my kind of party. It just makes sense for all of you to go and me to stay."

It seemed as though Perry and Clark were both persuaded, and Lois finally confronted the inevitable. She was going to a black-tie awards ceremony, with the man about whom she'd written the editorial, and without her fiancé. Wearing this dress.

Suddenly, it was just too much. "Excuse me," Lois muttered, and fled the room. Leaving Richard to get the kids, the other three men followed her worriedly. The banging of the ladies' room door told them all they needed to know.

"Wow, she really is sick," Jimmy said nervously.

Richard, Jason, and Kala were walking up behind them in time to hear that, and Jason said curiously, "Mommy's sick again? Are you sure she's not gonna have a baby?"

Richard was caught out by the question, in spite of what Elinore had said last night. Perry answered for him. "No, Jason, she's not," he said in his customary gruff tone, then softened as so few people had ever seen him do. "Your Mommy loves you and Kala so much, she doesn't want any more babies to take away her time with you two. So she had an operation, and she won't have any more children."

Richard's eyebrows went up. "She had a..."

"Tubal ligation," Perry told him, as the twins, their curiosity satisfied, went to pester Jimmy for candy. "Not long before she came back here."

"I knew she was on birth control, but..." Richard was torn between disbelief and indignation, at a loss for words.

Perry shrugged. "She never wanted kids, Richard, and those two were a surprise. Now she's sure. The surgery can always be reversed if she changes her mind."

Overhearing the conversation, Clark wondered how Richard could not know something like that. The next moment, the twins decided he must have something delicious and quasi-forbidden tucked away in a pocket somewhere, and their wheedling kept him from pondering what he'd heard further.

* * *

In the ladies' room, Lois rinsed her mouth out and spat. Her stomach still roiled, but there was nothing left to bring up. Being sick always brought tears to her eyes, but she blotted them carefully with a tissue, sniffling a bit as she tried not to smear the makeup. Which was hard to do when she couldn't even bear to look at herself in the mirror.

She had told herself all day that she had it all well in hand, having spent yet another long sleepless night planning exactly how to go about the evening. Difficult as it seemed, she had told herself that she could put her feelings aside for the evening, make herself forget what was between her and Clark, and enjoy the fruits of a job well done. She had won a Pulitzer Prize, for God's sake. That was something to celebrate. For one night, everything past and present did not exist, only this moment of triumph.

Only it didn't feel anything like a victory now. Richard wasn't going, leaving her on her own. Without armor. And the award was beginning to feel like so much ash in her mouth. Rather than be proud of it, too much thought made her all too aware of the article's undertone; all too aware of how quickly the people were already forgetting its overriding message. Even, to an extent, she was herself.

Get a hold of yourself and stop the pity party. You'll get through this, she told herself sternly, forcing her eyes up to make a few quick repairs with lipstick and powder. So will he; might even remind him of a few things. No one will be the wiser. It's just one night. You'll survive. You've been through worse than this. Why am I acting like this is the end of the world? If something happens, it happens. Either way, there's nothing to be done about it. It has to end eventually. Better now than later.

Unfortunately, her stomach didn't seem to agree with that bit of wisdom. Pressing her lips together, Lois rode out the cramp with small breaths, closing her eyes. This was going to be impossible if it kept up. God, you truly have a sick sense of humor. Why the hell did Perry have to do this to me tonight of all nights? And why is it that I win the one thing I've dreamed of so long, only to feel guilty as hell for winning it? Not like Clark's reaction out there wasn't completely unfair. I want to hate him for it, but that scared the living hell out of me. God, what an offer. Did he have to look so damn wounded? And did it have to hurt to see it?

Why did it hurt to see it, is the better question, a quiet voice in her head murmured. And why are you so constantly striking out at him, even when he doesn't even say a word? You're angry with him, but that only accounts for some of it. I think you're scared, and you do, too, whether you want to admit it or not.

Scared? the other half of her feelings snarled. Sister, the last thing I am is scared. If anyone around here is afraid, it should be him. If he knew the whole truth, he wouldn't dare show his face...

But he doesn't know, came the insistent reply. You won't tell him, because if you did, you'd have to tell it all - that you remember, that the twins are his, that you still love him...

I do not still love him! I don't think I ever did, it was just an infatuation!

Oh, put a sock in it, you liar!

Lois pressed her fingertips to her temples, her eyes tightly shut, and muttered, "Shut up, shut up, shut up," under her breath. Dammit, he's the one with multiple identities, not me! If this keeps up they'll be fitting me for a straitjacket.

Mercifully, the General's Daughter fell silent, leaving only a faint murmur from the romantic. Lois finally made herself look in the mirror; other than a bit of strain, she didn't look too bad.

A quick rap of knuckles on the door. "Lois, for once you're the one making us late," Perry said gruffly, but she heard the worried undertone.

Summoning up a ghost of that old-time Lane feistiness, Lois replied, "Coming, Mother." She stalked out of the door, keeping herself cool and collected by force of will alone.

Richard looked at her dubiously. Arguing with her could wait - but they would definitely talk about this later. For the moment, he simply asked, "You sure you're going to be fine, honey?"

"Of course," she replied blithely, smiling, and kissed his cheek quickly. The twins came in for a quick hug, and then the old team was headed downstairs together. Just like old times.

The three men were watching Lois with a hint of anxiety. Her mood seemed to have done a complete about-face, and of all of them, Clark was the most concerned. She's almost chipper, he thought with dismay. Lois only gets like that when she's very stressed and can't go to a kickboxing class or something. Oh, dear.

I wonder what exactly has her so wound up? It's not accepting a Pulitzer in front of a thousand people - Lois has never had stage fright. Could it just be winning the Prize for that article? Clark brooded all the way to the limo Perry had hired, but he was no closer to understanding how Lois' mind worked than he had been the first day back at the office.

* * *

Perry wasn't exactly sanguine, either. Lois had been in a fury before she got sick; since then her mood was light, almost flirtatious, as if she'd managed to vomit out some essential parts of her personality. She was even gently teasing poor Jimmy now, the boy unable to look at her in that dress. It was almost like the old days, before Kent left and Lois ran off to track down Superman.

Ah, the good old days. Perry was almost overcome by nostalgia as they rode to the Centennial Hotel, where the awards would be presented. He watched as Clark cautiously tested Lois' mood, first speaking softly to her, then gradually becoming more relaxed. By the time the limo had threaded its way uptown, they were bantering again.

Clark and Jimmy both seemed to have accepted Lois' apparent time warp and were behaving as they had six years ago. Peregrine White was rather more wary than either of those young bucks, however. He also understood Lois better than they did; not that anyone seemed to take his advice regarding her.

Lois was a lot like him, in a lot of ways. She'd had a rough childhood, though in her case it was caused by a too-demanding father, whereas he'd had a good family with a chronic lack of money. Lois had come out of it with an indomitable will and a tendency to use anger for self-defense, just like Perry himself. He had mellowed with age, and more than a few of his employees suspected that the Monday Morning Massacres and all the other harangues were just a front, obscuring the fact that he really did care about them all. Lois was still young, still a firebrand, and as yet most people believed that the sharp-tongued hothead was all there was to her.

Idiots. She's just as much a sentimental fool as I am, she's just hiding it better.

When they were sitting down, he carefully placed her between himself and Clark. Even though she was acting as if nothing was wrong, Perry knew perfectly well that something was. What exactly remained to be seen, but if he had his way, he'd get it out into the open tonight. Once revealed, it could be dealt with one way or another, but until then, Lois was just going to simmer until she boiled over. If that had to happen, Perry wanted it to occur under semi-controlled conditions and on his watch. Someone would have to do damage control.

While they sipped ice water and waited for the keynote speaker, Perry glanced at Lois and Clark surreptitiously. Try as he might, he couldn't imagine a reason for her to be as angry as she had been since he got back. Of course, she's always been a proprietary soul, and Clark was hers from minute one. Her friend, her partner, her puppy-eyed follower. Could she really be this pissed because he ran off on his own? Or is part of it because I hired him back without asking her, and she's taking that out on him because I don't give a damn if she's mad at me?

The keynote address finally began, and the assembled journalists, writers, musicians, and hangers-on paid attention, when they weren't preening for photographers' cameras. Perry noticed something terribly amusing; once Lois fixed her eyes on the podium up front, Clark started taking these tiny little glances at her. Nothing horribly obvious, but he was noticing every detail, and his gaze darted her way as if magnetically drawn. Ah, Clark, you poor devil. You're still carrying a torch for her, aren't you?

The speech was soon over, and the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize award committee came to the microphone. As he announced each name, the winner had to walk down and receive their plaque, smile for cameras, and say a few words into the mike. Most of them were simply thanks to the boss, the spouse, and sometimes the people who'd caused the story. The foursome from the Planet applauded along with the rest as each name was read out.

"And the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished editorial writing goes to Lois Lane of the Daily Planet, for her article 'Why the World Doesn't Need Superman, '" the chairman said, and for a moment Lois seemed frozen. Perry worried that he might have to prod her out of her shock, but then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and rose to accept the award.

It's a damn shame you're winning this for that article, Perry thought rather sadly. You deserved it so much more on so many things, but the sheer shock value captured the committee's interest, I'll bet, and here you are.

* * *

All eyes turned to her when she stood up, but Lois only saw a pair of amazing blue ones looking up at her. The agony in them was a knife through her heart, regardless of the armor she'd painstakingly surrounded her troubled self with. She could not even summon any of the General's Daughter's bitter delight in revenge; this just hurt.

She had been the picture of cool confidence since stepping into the elevator back at the Planet; even walking in to the hotel, red carpet and velvet ropes, Lois had looked as though she were on a runway. There'd been no hint of her turmoil then, and now as she walked down to accept the award she still appeared calm and collected.

Lois had managed that feat thanks to drama club back in college. Quite simply, she was acting as if the last six years hadn't happened. It was the only way she could possibly get through the night. But when she saw the gleaming plaque elegantly engraved with the title of that damned article, the act started to unravel.

The Chairman of the Board shaking her hand, cameras flashing in her eyes, and a microphone thrust in her face; Lois could only mutter an uncharacteristically humble "Thank you," before fleeing the stage.

As she escaped back to her seat between Clark and Perry, Lois could think of only one thing: God, I need this evening to be over. But since I doubt that's going to happen anytime soon, I need a drink.

* * *

The bartender smiled appreciatively at the black-haired beauty who approached him furtively. "What can I do for you, miss?" he asked as suggestively as he dared while on the job.

"Do you have Stoli Vanil?" she whispered, her eyes raking the room.

"I certainly do," he replied, leaned against the bar. "How do you like it?"

Straight, and without insinuations, she thought, narrowing her eyes for a second. Then she was fluttering her lashes charmingly and asking, "Can I get it on the rocks in a water glass?"

The bartender poured slowly, grinning all the while, and said softly, "Seems like a lot of vodka for a little thing like you."

Lois gritted her teeth behind a fake smile until the drink was in her hand, then drained half the glass at one swallow. "This little thing can out-drink you anytime, anywhere," she said sweetly. "And if you're scared of being drunk around me, I can out-curse, out-shoot, and out-box you too."

His astonishment was satisfyingly obvious, sweeter than honey, and Lois finished off the vodka. Holding the glass out for another, she added, "But thanks for the 'miss.' It's nice to know I can still rob a cradle anytime I feel like." The bartender couldn't even think of a reply, so he poured in wide-eyed silence.

Well, that was delightfully vicious, she thought, sauntering away with a full glass and a snarky smile. Of course, he's probably only six or seven years younger than I am, but it's the thought that counts.

By the time she made her way back to Perry, her nerves were thoroughly soothed. "There you are," the editor said, looking suspiciously at the glass. "What on earth are you drinking, Lane? Smells like ice cream."

"Flavored water," Lois said innocently, her eyes wide and so sincere. "The vanilla's my favorite, but I like the raspberry too."

Perry seemed willing to accept that, and turned aside to greet an old friend. While they were absorbed, Jimmy asked curiously, "They make it in vanilla now?"

Lois had absolutely no qualms about kicking his ankle. "Hush, Olsen."

And then Clark was at her elbow, frowning at the drink. "Is that vodka, Lois?"

The look she gave him was hellfire, just as scorching as it had been in the old days. "I am over twenty-one, Kent, and I'm not driving tonight."

"That's neat vodka?" Jimmy hissed.

"No, it's got ice in it," she whispered back.

"But everything else besides the ice is vodka? Jeez, Lois."

"Shut up, Jimmy," she growled, taking a bigger gulp than she should have. Thank God it's triple-distilled or I'd be coughing it everywhere.

Clark looked as though he was going to add something, then reconsidered. "Drink plenty of actual water so you don't get a hangover," he said.

"My God, has Mr. Midwestern Morality actually shown some lenience toward my hedonistic ways?" Lois purred, and then Perry was back among them.

"Why the hell are you all standing around about for?" he asked.

"We don't play well with others," Lois said, snickering. No more vodka for you, Lane, the last sober part of her mind mused. And especially no more vodka on an empty stomach, when you haven't been drinking like this since before the twins.

"Has it occurred to you people that you're hanging around like the ugly girls at the prom?" Perry chided them. "Get out there and dance!"

Both boys looked slightly horrified, and Lois rolled her eyes, sighing, "I'd rather be a wallflower, Perry, but thanks."

"Please," he scoffed. "That dress was made to waltz in, and I've never known you to pass up a chance to show off. Get out there and dance, Lane."

"Who with? One of these two?" She chuckled at him, even though faint alarms were ringing in her mind. Clark would trip over his own feet - I doubt Superman's had time for dance lessons - and Jimmy ... that really would be robbing the cradle. I'd probably give him a complex.

"Lois, get out there and dance," Perry told her, taking the now-empty glass and passing it off on a waiter. "I insist."

Oh, dear. "Fine, I'll dance. C'mon, Chief, show a girl how it's done." Lois gave him a genuinely affectionate smile as she offered her hand.

Perry stared at it like it was a cobra. "Lois, there're photographers running loose here. If my cardiologist saw me dancing with a woman your age, he'd shoot himself."

"Has he met your wife?" she challenged.

Clark blinked in surprise, and glanced at Jimmy with a raised eyebrow. "He married Loueen," the younger man whispered.

He actually startled back at that. "She's a year younger than Lois!"

Jimmy just shrugged.

Meanwhile, Perry was explaining to Lois, "There's a big difference between you and Loueen."

"Such as?"

"For one, that dress. I can almost see your bra."

Lois quirked an eyebrow at him challengingly. "What bra?"

"Good God! That was something I didn't need to know, Lane!"

"Relax, it's a corset," she replied, rolling her eyes.

"As if that's any better," Perry groused. "Anyway, the main difference is, Loueen's a good, loving, kind, wonderful woman, and you're Lois Lane."

Once again, Perry owed his continued life and health to Russian vodka. Lois merely folded her arms and glared at him as the slow, bluesy music continued to play. "She also used to be your secretary," Lois said eventually. "Fine, old man. I'll get you for that little remark later. In the meantime - Jimmy, let's dance."

She caught him by surprise, and the redheaded photographer shook his head quickly. "Nuh-uh, I don't dance to old people music."

"Old people music?" Lois said in disbelief. "Jimmy, that was Diana Krall! I own that CD!"

The younger man shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. "Like I said. I can't dance to that."

Lois was still astounded by his complete lack of appreciation for classic jazz - the hottest, most forbidden music of its time, and miles away from the tame, insipid stuff they called modern jazz. So she couldn't prevent Perry from catching Clark's arm and saying, "Go dance with Lane, Kent. I'm sure they still teach dance in Kansas."

"Um, Perry," Clark began, looking very uncomfortable indeed.

No. Absolutely, completely not, Lois thought. She'd never understood before that the expression 'heart in your throat' could feel so literal. That sleek, unruffled look was gone now, replaced by something akin to a deer in headlights. I can't get that close to him. No way.

What would it hurt? a persuasive voice murmured to her. Maybe you can finally convince yourself - and him - that you're over him. Dance with the man, Lois - it's just a little slow dance. Ella Fitzgerald never hurt anyone.

Perry had literally shoved Clark over to her. "You two at least look decent together," he said gruffly. "Go, dance. It won't kill you two to be civilized for another five minutes."

Then he was standing in front of her, looking as trapped and panicked as she felt. "Um, Lois..."

Courage, Lane. This is only supposed to be Clark, the clueless goof you've always known, your best friend; you have to treat him like you always have. "C'mon, Clark," she said. "Papa won't shut up until we dance."

He laughed - he couldn't help it, it wasn't his shy little chuckle but that other, richer laugh - and then they were on the dance floor, and Lois was in hell. She'd forgotten how warm his skin was, how very safe she felt in the circle of his arms. And how intensely he affected her in close proximity. Being so near to him filled her with a craven desire to forget herself for an instant and just snuggle up to him, rest her cheek on his broad chest, and wait for him to make everything better. She actually heard herself sigh as the last of her defenses began to dissolve.

It was no easier for Clark. For six years, he'd slept in the spaceship, and his dreams had been haunted by this woman, her body so delicate, looking so fragile, but her mind and will so formidable, stronger even than the steel that bent like putty in his hands. Now, one hand on her waist, holding her hand with the other, only this little distance between them, and he was nearly overwhelmed by the desire to pull her closer, press his lips to her hair and let all the rest of the world fade.

After she'd learned the truth all those years ago, after she confessed her love, his joy had nearly overwhelmed him. He'd known he loved her from the moment he looked into her eyes on that first flight, but never until she spoke the words did he realize that love was reciprocated. He had almost stuttered that they would really need to talk, too startled to simply say, I love you, too, Lois, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. There was a moment when they simply looked at each other, the paradigm shift so overwhelming, and then he had taken a hesitant step toward her. Lois rose from the chair and came to his arms eagerly, the first kiss fulfillment of all the unspoken truths between them.

Then they had both moved back slightly, about as far apart as they were now, in fact, and they had simply stared at each other, both wondering how such a perfect soul mate could exist and marveling that they had found each other. If he could just kiss her like that now, let the press of his lips speak for all the things his heart couldn't say...

I can't. That's over now; what I want doesn't matter. Her happiness does.

But oh, God, the last time I held her like this...

"Lois," Clark whispered, and her name was a prayer.

"Don't," she replied almost as soon as he spoke, that pained pleading tone that only he had heard. "Just ... don't."

"Lois, I'm so sorry I left." And that was the only thing he could say, the only way he had of trying to lance the anger and hurt between them.

She finally looked up at him, and her gaze was terribly torn, that dark brow furrowed, all of her emotions plain in spite of her resolve. "How could you? How could you just up and... nevermind, I forget how little I seem to have meant to the men in my life. You and Superman both, gone just when I needed you the most."

"I never had any idea I meant that much to you," Clark protested. And in truth, he hadn't; not as Clark, anyway.

"Yeah, 'cause I tell details of my life to every guy in the office," she snapped back. "And I ask them to go out with me to dinner after work with my sister and her husband. Sure, that sounds just like me." Her eyes managed to be both scornful and wounded. "Clark ... how could you be so blind?"

He stiffened a little. She couldn't mean... "Lois ... what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that you were my best friend, the only one I could trust completely! I'm saying best friends don't just disappear! We had to call your mother to find out where you were! I thought you were dead in the West River, for God's sake!"

* * *

Watching from the sidelines, Perry smiled with self-satisfaction. From the looks of things, they were finally talking about whatever it was between them. Good. Get it out of your systems, kids. I want my two best reporters back in action, not scurrying under desks hiding from the sight of each or snarling like wildcats.

They really were a handsome couple; Clark was an oddly graceful dancer, given his klutziness around the office. It seemed like the more he concentrated on Lois, the more fluidly he moved. She's a good influence on you, Perry thought with a grin, and glanced at Jimmy, watching them with a wistful look.

* * *

"You were always so hung up on Superman, I didn't think you'd notice I was gone."

Her eyes narrowed coldly as Ella Fitzgerald crooned, "Heart and soul, I begged to be adored; lost control, and tumbled overboard." Lois had to bite her lip to keep from saying sarcastically, You didn't seem to mind 'overhearing' how much I cared about you then. "Clark, I had a crush on him. Maybe a little more than a crush," she said through clenched teeth. "And yeah, I was furious when he left. But I was much angrier at you. Clark, I cared about you, you should've known that. I've told you secrets that I've never shared with another soul. And you up and left without a word. How do you think it felt to have both of you abandon me at the same time?"

Clark winced, accidentally pulled her closer when he did. The pain in his voice was all too clear as he said, "I'm sorry. I can't undo the past six years. I made the worst mistake of my life when I left." His blue eyes were so troubled behind the magnified lenses of those stupid glasses that she couldn't doubt his sincerity. "Lois... I don't know what to say."

The words echoed through time, back to that morning after their world fell down, and both of them flinched as they realized it. Lois' eyes were suddenly as wide with imminent tears as they had been in her office all those years ago, and Clark's expression was as lost in regret.

"But now I see, what one embrace can do. Look at me, it's got me loving you ... madly. That little kiss you stole, held all my heart and soul..." The singer's voice was husky and soulful, full of love and tinged with pain. Lois' world had turned upside down; her righteous anger had bled away during the dance, and she was no longer immune to his presence, to the overwhelming unconscious magnetism between them. Just say you love me, a small lost part of her heart cried in response. All of those stifled emotions, locked away and jealously guarded, were seeping out like a loosed tidal wave. She was being drawn to him the same way she always had been.

Lois fought it, looking down away from him with every ounce of her self restraint. She knew what would come next, what had to happen next. Knew those lips, the feel of them on hers, the feeling of that soft hair curled around her fingers as her world narrowed to just that moment and she forgot everything else... The Romantic in her mind rose up, all compelling murmurs and sweet persuasion. Just say it, say those words and kiss him, everything will be all right. Kiss him, let those five words only you both know tell him the truth, you know it will heal your heart if you do, kiss him...

Lost, so very lost in nostalgia, regret, and the love she could no longer deny, Lois lifted her head, her searching eyes meeting his for only an instant before slowly lowering. Unable to bear the ache in her chest, to deny the draw between them any longer, she gave a soft sigh of emotion as she surrendered.

Lois braced her right arm more against his shoulder as she rose on her toes, their lips only a whisper apart...

* * *

Oh, how that hurt, to realize just what he had said ... to see the pain in her eyes too. Clark bit his lip, feeling like such a fool. Whether she remembers it or not, those words caught her, too. I just do not know how to act around this woman anymore. Why is it she completely ruins me every time?

But when he looked at her again, Lois stole a heated glance and let her eyes slip closed in that hauntingly familiar way. She looked like ... it couldn't be. She couldn't possibly intend to kiss him.

Why would she... Oh, God, please. She hates me, she's...

Lois leaned up to him as if she'd done a thousand times, not six years ago. The look in her eyes was lost and full of the love he'd seen in them before.

I shouldn't do this. She's engaged to Richard. This is absolutely the last thing I should do...

Helpless as she was, Clark bent his head to kiss her...

* * *

Hey! Hey, stupid! If you're gonna cheat on your fiancé, try doing it someplace with less than a thousand witnesses!

Lois jerked back, horrified. The General's Daughter had spoken up just in time; she could almost taste his lips, only a breath away. Oh, my God. What the hell did I just do?

Clark was staring at her, looking as confused and uncertain as she felt. Choking back a sob, Lois thought, I can't do this. I can't take this anymore. It's tearing me apart.

Two rare tears fell as she whispered sadly, "I think you should leave ... Kal-El."


Repercussions

"Great Caesar's ghost!" Perry rasped, feeling his heart shudder to a halt in his chest. Lois Lane, actually rising on her toes to kiss Clark Kent? Not a friendly peck on the cheek, either; that looked like an imminent lip-lock he might need a fire extinguisher to break up. For one moment he feared that she had precipitated another heart attack, and then it began to beat again. The shock, however, showed no signs of vanishing so easily.

Lois abruptly came to her senses, only an instant away from passionately kissing Clark. She backed away, leaving Clark looking poleaxed, said something Perry couldn't decipher, and fled like Cinderella when the clock struck twelve. At the moment, her boss was in no condition to run her down and demand an explanation. He did catch her eye, and saw her flinch; for the first time since he'd known her, Lois looked scared.

And then she was gone.

"Holy-" Jimmy whispered, and Perry elbowed him savagely.

"You didn't see that," he growled. Well, at least I know what the hell is wrong between them. How long was that going on? And how did they ever keep me in the dark about it? And what am I going to tell Richard?

After a moment's reflection, he came to a difficult decision. Nothing. Telling Richard will only hurt everyone I care about. Besides, she didn't actually kiss him. If she had, I'd have to tell Richard, but as it is ... maybe it was just a fluke. I didn't think that was flavored water she was drinking. Maybe that explains what just almost happened. "Jimmy, don't ever mention that you saw that, not even to me," he said quietly, and the boy just nodded, driven speechless by shock - or Perry's elbow in his ribs a moment ago.

* * *

Clark's mind was whirling as Lois turned and disappeared into the crowd. Kal-El. She called me Kal-El. There's only one way she could know that name... Lois knows everything. She remembers all of it.

In spite of his turmoil, he managed to get himself off the dance floor. Oh, God, now I know why she's been treating me this way. Look what I did to her! Lois has a right to be furious.

But why did she start to kiss me ... why did she stop? I wonder if... She couldn't be ... even if she does still love me, she's still engaged to another man. Richard. Perry's nephew, Richard. Oh, God, Perry saw that!

Clark glanced guiltily over at his boss, and saw him and Jimmy both staring after Lois. He winced again; there went Jimmy's admiration for him, too. As Superman, he had faced all sorts of dangers, even survived the effects of kryptonite. But at that moment, he couldn't stand to see the dismay on the faces of his friends. Feeling like a coward as well as a heel, Clark fled the scene.

* * *

Lois escaped the hotel ballroom and fled to the second floor, locking herself into the ladies room. Both halves of her heart, the bitter and the sweet, were berating her for what she'd done, and her own guilt scourged her as well. She hated the sobs she was choking back, hated the angry, hurt tears that wouldn't stop flowing.

What the hell was that?! the General's Daughter demanded. What did you think you were doing? He left you, pregnant and mind-wiped, and here you are trying to smooch him! You lovesick little twit!

You love him, the Romantic insisted. Admit it, you've never known a love like that before or since. Richard's a good man, but you still love Kal-El. And you always will. Why do you keep fighting and hurting yourself and him? You saw his face; he still loves you, too!

How can you ever trust him! came the snarled reply. No, he screwed around with your mind - your mind, dammit - and there's no forgiveness for that! He didn't know what he was doing or how long it would last when he erased your memories. I'm pretty sure he meant it to be permanent, which would've been a real surprise when you found out you were pregnant! That would've driven you crazy for sure!

I'm already crazy; I hear voices in my head, Lois thought, kicking the faux marble trashcan across the room savagely. I just gave up my advantage; he knows I know, how long before he figures out about the twins? And when he does, of course he'll want them. He's the last of his kind except for them. Regardless of his father's disapproval of what we did, I can almost guarantee what that damned hologram would say. And if Jor-El tells him it's the right course of action, how the hell can I keep them from him if he decides to take them?

Let him try and take them, the General's Daughter hissed. Over my dead body will anyone get my children from me.

He would never do that to you, Lois, and you know that. How could you even think that? The Romantic sounded horrified at the mere thought.

Yes, well, I never thought he'd steal away more than forty-eight hours of my life, either. Forty-eight important hours, mind you. She hated how weak and repetitive this statement was beginning to sound, despite the truth of it.

He deserves to be in their lives, the Romantic argued as if she hadn't spoken. He is their father, and he's been alone all his life. Not to mention, they deserve to know him. There's no one else on Earth who can understand what their childhood is like, especially if they wind up taking after him. You know what I mean.

What about Richard? He's the one they call Daddy, he's the one who's been there with them since they were toddlers. Are you just going to toss him aside and go running back to the man who betrayed you? Richard loves you, you can rely on him, the twins can rely on him. That counts for a lot more than the one night of passion that got you pregnant.

What about Richard? You aren't in love with him. Look what happened the last time you tried to persuade yourself you were! You never even actually said you'd marry him; he tricked you into that. The Romantic, usually only a persuasive whisper, was getting stronger and stronger in her mind. Lois looked up at the mirror, seeing her tear-stained eyes and the conflict behind them.

So you're going to send Richard packing like a placeholder when the real thing comes back? You can't just do that to him; he deserves better. The General's Daughter goaded her with honor and responsibility.

You're right, he does deserve better, came the swift reply. He deserves a woman who will love him with her whole heart, not watch the sky at night for someone who's gone. And he deserves to be more than 'Superman Light.' You do realize that he's just the closest thing you could get to the man you really wanted, right? Hel-lo, he's even a pilot!

Is that what I've really been doing all this time? Lois wondered, unable to simply toss this thought away as much as she wished to. Have I really been waiting for him, making do with a substitute? I mean, the attraction is undeniable, but it was more than that tonight. Am I really still in love with him?

If you have to ask, you already know the answer... the Romantic muttered.

That doesn't mean you have to go running to him! He screwed you over, remember?

That sounded like another internal argument gearing up, and at the moment, Lois couldn't handle it. Not on top of the knot of cold horror in the pit of her belly, not after these disloyal thoughts about Richard. "Stop it," she hissed aloud, glaring at her own reflection in the mirror. "Stop it! Just stop it! I can not deal with this, not now!"

Those hazel eyes, so full of pain and love and loss, mocked her with their resemblance to her daughter's, to the child that was both hers and his. It was all suddenly too much for Lois. Snatching up the box of tissues from the counter, she flung it at the mirror with all the pent-up frustration, guilt, and conflict bearing down on her.

Thankfully, the glass didn't break, but the porcelain box-cover did shatter. Lois jumped, startled at the volume of the sound, and could've kicked herself for losing that much control. The best thing she could possibly do now was to just get out. And, for once, she wouldn't call herself a coward for running away...

* * *

Clark had just managed to get away from the Pulitzer ceremony when he heard the alarm and the sirens. Third one today, he thought worriedly, dashing through the hotel's lobby at super-speed. When he emerged, he was in uniform and flying rapidly toward the sounds, glad for a momentary escape from his troubles. What is this, National Bank Robbing Day? Or are all of them connected somehow? With Luthor out of prison, I'd better stay on my toes.

Not far ahead now, he could see a host of squad cars clustered around the National Bank building. Just then, the heavy thudding of automatic gunfire; several of the cruisers were perforated. Looked like the robbers had some kind of chain-gun on the roof, and they were perfectly willing to target cops.

I'll stay on someone's toes, anyway, he thought angrily, zooming up to the roof. A couple of Metropolis' finest were coming out of the stairwell, and fired at the maniac wielding the big gun. Unfortunately, he was wearing a bulletproof vest, and he whirled to aim the weapon at them, squeezing the trigger before he'd even brought it completely around.

The cops had one instant in which to realize their fate, and then suddenly they were spared. Bullets ricocheted off Superman's chest, puncturing the helicopter the robbers had planned to use for a getaway vehicle. The machine gun's magazine clicked on empty before the crook even had time to recognize just who stood in front of him.

Superman stepped forward. The cops had wisely gotten behind the door to the roof and had the other robbers covered; now he could deal with this one. All the while an insistent little voice was muttering, This makes no sense. Helicopter, Kevlar vests, chain gun, crane to mount the gun on - their equipment costs more than they could possibly make on this job. It has to be a distraction. But I still can't ignore it.

The bank robber glared at him, yanking a .45 caliber from its holster. He fired from point-blank range, and watched dumbfounded as the bullet flattened against Superman's eyeball and bounced off. They both glanced down to see the insignificant little piece of squashed lead land on the rooftop.

Even when everything else is going down in flames, I can always count on a moment like this. Superman smiled slowly. I love my job.

* * *

Lois leaned against the second-floor balcony, watching warily for a flash of blue and red. The sweet, fragrant smoke filtering through her lungs was beginning to relax her, and she took a last drag off her cigarette. Yet another betrayal of Kala and Jason, this covert smoking. Okay, I'll go back on the patch tomorrow, no excuses or arguments. But I needed that. What's one more defeat tonight?, she thought with a sigh, crushing the butt against the wrought-iron handrail.

"Fancy meeting you here, Lois. Loved the article."

She froze. She knew that voice, knew the cheerful tone overlaid on anger and violence. And it was coming from right behind her. Whirling, Lois started to bring her hands up, ready to claw for his eyes if he...

Luthor struck like a rattlesnake, slamming her back against the balcony. Lois had to grab the rail behind her just to stop herself from going over the edge. Lex pinned her there, smiling that slow, satisfied smile. "Well, well, well. Looks like I've finally got the drop - if you'll pardon the pun - on everyone's favorite fearless reporter. Just what are you going to do now?"

Dammit! If I'd still had the cigarette I'd stick the lit end in your eye! Bastard probably waited there in the shadows rubbing his hands together until I finished just for that reason. And he's got me pinned so I can't knee him - smart son of a bitch. I wish it was it was easier to hide a gun in ladies' evening wear; I could save us all a lot of trouble... All she said aloud, however, was, "Lex Luthor. You came out of hiding just to see me win a Pulitzer? I'm touched."

His laugh sounded like it had gotten rusty in prison. "Just checking up on an old friend. Remember all the fun we had in the Arctic? Oh, wait, you had amnesia - you couldn't remember. My lawyers proved it. Darn."

"I remember who sat in Perry White's office and told the Kryptonians how to use me as bait," she growled. "I remember you giving exact directions to Superman's home. And I remember Superman beating you yet again." The look she gave him as she spoke, her left brow raised sardonically and her expression showing just how unimpressed she was by his taunts, was just the same as it had been during their prison interviews. "Why don't you just give up, Lex? Every time you mess with me or him, you lose."

Lex chuckled again, leaning in close, his eyes locked on hers. "Maybe I have something special in store for him, a welcome-home present, if you will. As for you..." His voice dropped to a whisper... "Tell Jason and Kala I said hello."

That broke through her condescending attitude in an instant. Lois' entire body froze in absolute horror. The last of the vodka seemed to burn out of her veins that instant, and her shock gave Lex a moment in which to step back and shove her hard. She'd been braced for just that move since the moment he pinned her, though, and kept her balance. But Lex managed to vanish before Lois could even begin to think about following him.

How did he...? When...? Dear God, I've got to get to the twins before he does...

* * *

Perry had been trying for the last quarter hour to find Lois; she and Clark had both disappeared after their near-miss kiss. He was just heading for the lobby again when she came barreling out of the stairwell right past him, without even noticing he was there.

Grabbing Lois' shoulders, Perry spun her to face him, and saw the look of wide-eyed terror on her face, the paleness of shock. Before he could even begin to ask what the hell she thought she was doing, she gasped out, "Oh God, Perry, Luthor's here! He threatened me - he knows about the twins! He knew both of them by name, Perry!"

Perry switched gears mentally without wasting a second. He yanked out his cell phone and speed-dialed. "Lieutenant Sawyer, I realize this is pretty irregular, but I need your help," he said gruffly. "Can you have the boys in blue send a car to the Centennial Hotel and escort Lois Lane home?"

Lois couldn't hear the reply precisely, but she heard the disbelieving tone. Leaning in, she spoke into the mouthpiece with a voice that was just beginning to tremble, "It's Luthor, Maggie. He was here at the Pulitzer ceremony; he just cornered me. Please, he threatened my kids. I need to get there and make sure they're okay, Maggie, please..."

Both reporters heard the reply. "Be there in two - meet me at the front, Lane."

Lois looked up at Perry. Lots of unanswered questions there, but this definitely took precedence. And despite her bitterly mixed feelings on the topic, she had to warn him, make him aware of the situation. "Perry - warn Clark. And you and Jimmy be careful, too. If the bastard comes to my house after I get there, we won't have to worry."

"Lois - take care." Perry confined himself to that remark and a quick squeeze of her shoulder, then she was disappearing for the second time that night, leaving him to think, Now all I have to do is find Clark to warn him...

* * *

Lights flashing, siren whooping, the black-and-white screeched up to the front of the hotel only moments after Lois shoved through the doors. Lieutenant Margaret Sawyer herself was driving, and pushed the passenger side door open just in time for the reporter to fling herself inside without losing any momentum. "Drive, for the love of God," Lois gasped, slamming the door.

Maggie peeled out without a word, tires squealing, and roared off to Bakerline, weaving skillfully in and out of traffic. She glanced at Lois, taking in the too-wide eyes, the rapid breathing, and the death grip on her door. It was a side of Lane she had never seen in all the years the two of them had been acquainted. Luthor really had gotten her where she lived. "Easy, Lois, I already sent two units to your house," she finally said, her voice trying to soothe.

Lois forced herself to loosen up a little, but the strain still showed. She was very nearly on the verge of panic, and that wasn't a state Maggie wanted her kids to see her in. And the lieutenant knew her almost as well as Perry did. "You know, Lois, all the times I envisioned you in my cruiser, I always thought I'd have to read you your rights first."

The black-haired woman turned a cool look on her, and asked with complete nonchalance, "Why, Maggie, what makes you think I'd break the law?"

That startled a bark of laughter from Maggie. "Knowing you for almost a decade, that's what. Crossing a police barrier without clearance ring a bell? Breaking and entering? Or maybe inciting a riot? Never thought I'd be playing Sawyer's Chauffeur Service."

Lois sighed. "You know perfectly well I've never been caught in anything illegal."

"Not yet, Lane," Maggie told her, grinning. "Just be glad you got an escort at all tonight, okay? Three banks in the greater Metropolis area have been robbed today. The last one was only a few minutes ago. I was on my way, but Superman turned up and gift-wrapped the crooks for us, so my unit wasn't needed." She casually whipped into an oncoming lane to pass an ice truck, and continued, "Something's weird about these robberies. They're going through an awful lot of trouble for a pretty small take, and they're fairly obvious about what they're doing. Almost like they want the cops there."

But Lois was staring out the window and up at the blue velvet sky, her stomach doing somersaults in spite of herself. Clark ... with everything that just happened, he still has his job to do. No wonder he was late leaving for the Pulitzer...

* * *

Clark snuck back into the awards ceremony, adjusting his glasses. The robbery was still bothering him, but he couldn't skip out entirely - he still had to face the music here. Honestly, he'd rather be dealing with a crime spree than with Lois' revelation at the moment...

And right on cue, here was Perry, grabbing his arm. "Where the hell have you been, Kent?" he barked.

"I, um-" Clark began, but the editor cut him off.

"I sent Lois home with the cops," Perry said sharply.

"What? Why?!" Oh God, what did she do?

Perry didn't notice the question, scanning the crowd. "We'd better get out as soon as we can find Olsen."

"Here, Chief!" Jimmy materialized beside them, practically dancing with impatience, cell phone in hand. He'd completely forgotten about the dance floor incident. "My source at the department of records called - you'll never believe it..."

"It's Luthor," Perry said to both of them. Clark stiffened, but Jimmy slumped.

"Well, if you already knew, why'd I have to take a girl with seventeen facial piercings to Chez Chantel?" the photographer complained.

Perry started to speak, then furrowed his brow. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"Luthor," Jimmy said exasperatedly. "Lex Luthor married Gertrude Vanderworth while he was in prison. It was her lawyers and her money that got him out. When she died, she left the whole estate to him. The relatives are fighting it, but it's clearly her signature on the latest will and Luthor has control of the assets while they debate it in court."

"Just what we needed," Perry growled. "Luthor was here. He threatened Lois, threatened the twins. The fact that he knows about the twins is too much for me. I sent her home with Lieutenant Sawyer; they've got more cops at her house. The three of us better scram, too."

Luthor, Clark thought, his gut turning to ice. Every time I turn around, it's Luthor again. He has to be behind the robberies. I was right, they were a distraction. But Lois' twins... "Um, Chief, you and Jimmy take the limo," he said diffidently, his mind racing. "I'll get a cab; my hotel is the opposite direction."

"Be careful, Kent," Perry told him.

"I will," he replied. I just hope I'm not needed where I'm heading.

* * *

She bailed out of Maggie's cruiser before it had even come to a complete halt, running up the front steps past two startled officers. Even Richard, standing in the foyer with a third cop, couldn't slow her down. Lois took the stairs two at a time, hair flying, her calf muscles screaming about the high heels, and barreled into the twins' room. Only then could she finally stop, nearly tripping.

They were both in their beds, sitting up and blinking dozily at her. "Mommy? Kala said sleepily.

Lois let out the breath she hadn't known she was holding, ignoring the sob that came to her lips. They were both here, they were both safe, she'd gotten home in time. Wordlessly, she crossed to Kala's bed and swept her into a tight hug, reaching out for Jason as well. He slipped out from under the covers and padded to her, putting his arms around her neck and Kala's shoulders. Home safe, Lois thought, and all the quarrelling voices in her heart and mind were silenced in a sigh of relief. For what seemed the millionth time tonight, she was fighting back tears as she covered them both in kisses. Only these tears were grateful ones. My babies are home safe. Thank God.

Maggie, Richard, and the young cop he had been talking to came to the doorway, glancing in. The lieutenant felt a sympathetic twinge, thinking of her own Jamie, and gave them their moment of peace. Richard's heart ached as well, but for different reasons. Lois and the twins were so clearly a family - one single unit - and in their tight embrace there was no room for him. You're being ridiculous, he told himself. She's just scared; you knew all along that the twins were fine, but she had to see it to believe it.

The rookie eventually cleared his throat, and Lois' head snapped up, her eyes wild. Almost immediately her look softened; but in that instant Maggie saw Luthor's fate if he dared approach those children. I hope we get to you before she does, she thought. Hard to press charges on a corpse.

Lois kissed Jason's forehead and Kala's cheek before pulling away slowly. "Mommy has to talk to the other grown-ups for a minute, sweethearts. I'll be right back."

Jason yawned hugely. "'Kay. You look really pretty, Mommy."

She chuckled then, ruffling his hair affectionately. "That's very sweet, hon, but probably not true. Mommy's exhausted." One more kiss for each of them, another hug to reassure herself once again, and she went outside to talk to Richard and the police.

And oh, did Richard look like he was bursting with questions. But Maggie jumped in ahead of him. "You gonna press charges on Luthor?"

Lois sighed, raking her fingers through her now fallen hairstyle. "What good would it do? I've got nothing concrete. No witnesses, no real evidence, just my word against his. And he's got better lawyers. As we've proven before."

Maggie nodded, keeping her face calm but seething inside. For her, this was the worst part of police work; knowing someone was going to do something, and unable to stop him until he did. "We'll keep a unit at the house tonight, and the rest of the week. Beyond that..."

"Beyond that, remember whose daughter I am and just what I'm capable of in his case," Lois replied matter-of-factly, and the icy wrath that flashed in her eyes startled Richard and the younger cop. "Luthor won't find me or the kids defenseless. That I can promise you, Maggie."

Sawyer punched her shoulder lightly. "Leave me enough to prosecute, will ya? It's bad enough the corrections system dreads you; don't give us a reason to worry."

Lois grinned at her. "Tell the corrections boy to keep the bad guys safely behind bars when I come to interview them, and I won't have to put my spike heel into anyone else."

"Only thing stopped you from nailing his foot to the floor was the sole of his shoe," Maggie remembered fondly. "Be good, Lane."

"Or good at it," Lois retorted, provoking a chuckle.

Watching this exchange, Richard saw the shadows under Lois' eyes, the tension in every muscle. She was trying to play 'Relieved Mother' for Sawyer's sake, but underneath it, she was strained to the breaking point. Much as I want to call her on the tubal ligation - and a couple of other things, too - Lois needs a break. If I push her too hard, she's liable to try to hunt down Luthor and either commit murder or get herself killed.

As the police left, Richard wordlessly wrapped his arms around Lois, holding her. For a moment, she stiffened under his touch, then relaxed with a heavy sigh. The evening had been altogether too much, leaving her desperate for comfort. Her forehead dropped to his chest as her arms crept up around his waist. They stood like that for a long moment, each silent with their own thoughts loud around them, and Lois looked up. "I need to be with them tonight, Richard," she said quietly.

"I know," he replied. "We need to talk, later... but tonight, just try to get some sleep, hmm?"

"Thanks," she sighed.

* * *

The young cop kept glancing curiously back at the house as they left. Maggie watched him from the corner of her eye and finally stopped him near his patrol car. "What's on your mind, Davis?"

He didn't bother to ask how the lieutenant knew something was bothering him. "Ms. Lane. She just ... I read all her stories, you know, and she doesn't seem the type to..."

"She's a mother," Maggie told him, a trifle sharply. "Any mother in her right mind would die to protect her children - or kill. Lois is a tough cookie, and she wants you to think she doesn't give a damn about anything except the next story, but she's a lioness about those kids. God help Luthor if he does try anything."

Davis nodded, perhaps remembering that Sawyer was a mother, too.

* * *

Above them all, hidden in the shadows of the tall pine trees surrounding the Lane-White house, a pair of deep blue eyes tracked them with a worried frown. Superman saw Maggie leave after giving a few parting instructions to the cops that would remain, saw Richard and Lois push the twins' beds together while Kala and Jason looked on bemusedly. He looked away, scanning the property for anything amiss, while Lois slipped out of the Pulitzer ceremony dress, and glanced back to catch her curling up in the slip she'd worn underneath it. Her arm was around both twins, and they went back to sleep quickly.

Lois, for all that she looked and acted exhausted, didn't follow their example. She lay awake in the near-dark for a while with the dim reach of the nightlight illuminating her clouded expression, once looking up and seemingly right into his eyes. Superman flinched, then felt like a fool; he could clearly see her through the roof and ceiling, but she certainly couldn't see him. Still, that glance ... the look in her eyes ... he was relieved when Lois finally drifted off to sleep.

Richard was downstairs, pacing through the darkened house. The officers outside were covering the road in both directions. Everything looked safe, but Superman still floated there, keeping watch through the night. You can never be too careful where Luthor's concerned...

Unfortunately, the silence and inactivity let his thoughts come crowding back. Alone in darkness, memories haunted him. So many little things about Lois that he loved; the way she'd shove her hair back behind her ears when it got in her way; the way she had watched his very movements over the rim of a champagne glass; that swift walk, all determination and sharply striking heels; her scowl of concentration, her dazzling, mischievous take-my-picture grin, and the slower, sweeter smile he'd known in those brief days, the one with lowered eyelids that was so often followed by a tender kiss, one hand sliding through his hair.

I can't believe I'm thinking about this when her family is right there for me to see. Look, you fool, this is what you would destroy by coming back into her life: her fiancé, their children, their home, their life together. Why am I even torturing myself with this?

Because it could've been me down there, those kids could've been mine, I could've been the one to wake up beside her every morning, I could've been the one who gets swatted when I try to get her to open her eyes, I could've been the one laughing at the way she grumbles and whimpers until she gets her caffeine fix ... if only I hadn't left.

* * *

Lois felt utterly wretched the next morning other than waking to see her children there with her; too much vodka, extreme stress, leaving her makeup on all night long, and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed were not a good combination when a somewhat early morning was added to the mix. She would have been even more irritable had she known just who had hovered over her house until dawn. But she levered herself out of bed, groaning, because the twins were up and eager to make the most of a Saturday. "Mommy, why are you so unhappy?" Jason asked cheerfully.

"I'm not unhappy, I'm just out-of-sorts and grumpy," Lois said, and yawned. "C'mon, you two, time to get moving."

The morning routine was comforting in spite of its complexity; Lois supervised the brushing of teeth, choosing of outfits, and swallowing of pills that preceded breakfast, somehow managing to get herself showered and presentable in the process. Richard was still asleep, and from the look of the covers, he'd tossed and turned late into the night. Lois didn't wake him, heading downstairs quietly.

Saturday mornings, the twins got to choose their own breakfast, no matter how weird it might seem to their parents. Kala was already making one of her infamous pumpkin-butter-and-pickle wraps, something Lois always felt must have been horrifying to the corn tortilla. And Jason was eating organic oatmeal with slices of jicama on top, a vegetable Lois had never heard of until her then-four-year-old son snatched one up without warning and started eating it in the grocery store.

"Want some?" Jason asked politely, offering her a spoonful.

Lois shivered. "No, honey, but thank you. I'll stick to toast."

"Boooring," Kala groaned, rolling her eyes, and making her brother giggle. After a minute, she asked apropos of nothing, "Mommy, who's Lex Luthor?"

Lois almost dropped the bread. Damn, her ears are sharp, she thought, and sighed. "Lex Luthor is a very bad man," she began tentatively. "Back before you two were born, he did some things that would've hurt a lot of people, if Superman hadn't stopped him and put him in jail."

Unbeknownst to her, Richard had come downstairs. Hearing Superman's name, he stopped in the hallway, listening.

"How come you're scared of him?" Kala asked, making her mother wince again.

"Well..." How am I going to answer that without telling more than I want to? "Lex Luthor is really mad at Superman for putting him in jail, even though he deserves to be there. And Mommy used to be good friends with Superman, so he's mad at me too."

"Cool!" Jason cried, his blue eyes gleaming with excitement. "You know Superman?"

"How come you never talked about him, either? Like Mr. Kent?" Kala said shrewdly.

Good question, Richard thought. Someone inherited her Mom's interrogation skills.

"Let me ask you something," Lois replied. "How would you guys feel if Ashlyn moved away, and never told you she was leaving, never said goodbye?"

"Sad," Jason replied, but Kala scowled at that thought and retorted, "Mad!"

"A little of both, probably," Lois told them. "I was upset and angry at him for not telling anyone where he was going, or when he would come back. So I never talked about him."

"But he's back now, an' you wrote a story about him going to Krypton and everything, so you guys are friends again?" Jason asked hopefully, envisioning an eternity of bragging rights.

"Not ... quite," Lois said, trying not to bite her lip. How could they know just how loaded their questions really were? "Things are complicated when you're a grownup. Eat your oatmeal, Jason, before it gets cold."

"I'm never growing up," Jason said, and Kala rolled her eyes.

That seemed to be the end of the discussion, so Richard wandered into the kitchen, acting as if he hadn't heard a thing. The twins pounced on him and he hugged them both while Lois munched toast and looked on. He didn't like the narrow, speculative look in her eyes, wondering if she suspected that he'd been eavesdropping, but her next sentence seemed completely out of the blue.

"Richard, do we still have that hideous vase your cousin gave us? The one I keep threatening to drop-kick out a window?"

"That vase with the purple flowers on it?" he replied, startled. "Hmm. I think it's in a closet somewhere. Why?"

"I've got a worthy end for it," she said simply. I had hoped that this could be avoided for a while yet, but maybe now... "Could you fill it with water and put it at the end of the dock for me, please? I want to show the twins something."

"Is it a surprise?" Jason asked curiously.

"No, sweetheart, this is serious. Kala, that sandwich isn't going to eat itself - and no one else in this house will eat it, either."

"I like pumpkin butter with pickles," her daughter muttered.

By the time Richard came back inside, still mystified, the kids were done eating, and they were in the living room with Lois. What he heard and saw as he walked in froze his heart for an instant.

"Sometimes bad people do bad things," Lois was saying. "Sometimes they hurt people. It's not something to be scared of every day, but it is something to be prepared for, just in case. Like sometimes people will steal things. No one comes to this house every night trying to get in and take our TV, but we lock the doors every night anyway. Just in case. Right?"

The twins nodded solemnly. Lois continued, "Lex Luthor is mad at me because I used to be Superman's friend. He's a bad man; he might try to hurt me. So if that happens - just in case - I need to be ready. I need to be able to protect myself. That's what this is for." Her heart grieving for the loss of her children's innocence, Lois unlocked the black case and removed her stainless steel S&W Ladysmith .357 Magnum revolver.

The twins' eyes went wide. "Wow," they whispered. "Mommy has a gun."

"Exactly, and it's not a toy," Lois said. "The toy guns you see at the store have red plastic on the end; they can't really hurt anyone. This gun is real, and it could hurt someone very bad. If you ever can't tell if a gun is real or a toy, treat it like it's real - don't touch it."

Ironically, Lois finally had use for her father's teachings, and the lessons she needed most were the ones she'd always hoped the twins would never have to learn. "The only way to be safe is to always treat every gun like it's loaded, all the time - even if you just unloaded it yourself. You two are never, ever to touch Mommy's gun unless I'm there and I tell you to, okay? Never, ever. Someday I might need to have it nearby, and it might be loaded. If you see it outside its case, you must never touch it. Someone could get hurt."

Their eyes were still wide and wondering, but the twins met her gaze and nodded. The seriousness of the matter had impressed them into silence.

Lois went through all the steps patiently, showing the twins how the gun worked. She reminded them constantly never to point it at anything, never to touch it anywhere near the trigger, never to handle it without her supervision. Richard watched all this, amazed and a little angry. Another thing I didn't know - she never even told me that there was a damn gun in the house. And don't I get a say in whether or not the kids get Junior-freakin'-NRA memberships at six?

But that wasn't all. "All right, you two, I know you want to see what it does. C'mon outside." She met Richard's eyes on the way by, and her cool gaze brooked no argument. It was clear she regarded this as extremely important. He followed them, curious in spite of his disapproval.

Lois stopped in the yard. The vase was white with huge purple pansies on it, the kind of eyesore that, like fruitcakes and novelty sweaters, exists solely to be given to relatives on holidays. It looked very small on the end of their dock, and even Richard wondered if she could hit it. He also was glad that his plane was presently being serviced and docked far from home.

"Stand behind me, and cover your ears," Lois said. Kala and Jason obeyed, but leaned out around their Mom with sparkling eyes.

Lois took a deep breath as she unlocked the trigger guard, pushed the cylinder out, and loaded six Gold-Tip hollow-point bullets. She let the breath out slowly as she squared her stance and braced her right wrist with her left hand. Another breath as she lifted and aimed the gun, lining the sights up on the center of the vase.

The distance was pretty much the limit of her range with this gun; with a little .22 she could almost drive nails, but the Ladysmith was built for stopping power, not target shooting. So Lois gave herself an extra incentive to hit her target. Imagine that flower there is Lex Luthor's right eye...

Even Richard flinched; the thunder of gunfire was amplified by the river, a deliberate choice on Lois' part. The ugly vase leaped into the air and disintegrated, shards flying, the water inside it splashing everywhere. Both twins stumbled back, momentarily frightened.

Lois hated to scare them, but she had been scared the same way, even younger. It was the swiftest way to teach a child the respect guns deserved, and to ensure that they never handled them. The curiosity of a young child for something so sleek and metallic could be deadly, if not curtailed. Waiting until Kala and Jason were both looking at her, she blew imaginary smoke from the barrel and pushed the cylinder out to remove the spent cartridge.

Richard watched speechlessly, thinking, Where the hell did this come from? Did I ever really know this woman at all? And on the heels of that thought, I don't want to argue in front of the kids, but we really need to talk.

* * *

Dawn had found Clark heartsore and gritty-eyed; though he didn't actually need sleep, he found it a welcome respite at times. Even if he had not kept watch on Lois' house through the night, though, he would've found no rest. His thoughts chased each other endlessly even as he flew over Metropolis in the morning light.

I don't know what to think. She acts like she wants to strangle me - and she'd be justified - and then tries to kiss me. It's almost as if she's as confused as I am. But one thing is perfectly clear: she wants me to leave.

Question is, did she mean her life, the paper, the city, or the planet? I can see her being mad enough to want me to fly back to Krypton, radiation or no radiation. But there are six billion other people who do need me and want me around, so even if that's what she meant, and it does seem rather an attractive option at the moment, I can't run away for another half-dozen years. And I'm not leaving Metropolis. If there's anything on this planet I love as much as Lois, it's that city, crazy as it often seems.

But I don't see how I can keep working at the Daily Planet. She's my boss, for God's sake. Not to mention, Perry saw us almost kiss. I'll be surprised if I still have a job Monday morning. That'd be the most original pink slip ever handed out - terminated for trying to kiss your immediate boss, who happens to be engaged to your ultimate supervisor's nephew, who also works in the same office. Could I possibly screw things up worse?


Monday Morning Massacre

The weekend was still haunting Lois as she drove to work Monday morning. It had been one of those blustery weekends, a storm out in the Atlantic playing hell with the barometer and yet not actually coming ashore. The skies were overcast, thunder throbbed in the distance, and rain threatened but never delivered.

Lois' life seemed to echo the weather. She and Richard had not actually had the monstrous argument they both felt looming over them; neither of them wanted to fight in front of the kids. But they had sniped back and forth most of the weekend, mini-quarrels like brief flashes of thunder, all of their spats coming back to the same central theme. Richard seemed to think he should know everything about Lois, everything she had ever done or even thought, and she disagreed.

Saturday afternoon was the perfect example...

"I'm getting tired of not knowing anything about you."

"What on earth are you talking about, Richard?"

"Well, for starters, you never mentioned there was a gun in this house. I'm really not comfortable with kids and guns, Lois."

"You think I'd endanger the twins?"

"Lois, kids younger than them have found a parent's gun and shot themselves."

"Oh, please. It was in a locked case with a trigger lock on it, hidden in a shoebox in the top of my closet. They would never have found it."

"Still..."

"Still, nothing! They know it's not a toy, I showed them."

"Yes, and we'll be hearing about that again if they ever need an analyst."

"My father scared me and Lucy the same way, to teach us never to touch his guns. We turned out all right."

"Lois, I don't believe you! You hate the way your father treated you!"

"Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, Richard, and my father was right about guns. If I'm going to wear it, the twins need to know what it is."

"You're going to wear it? What, to work?"

"I have a permit to carry, and I'm going to use it. I'm wearing it now."

"Lois! We're in the house."

"And if Luthor comes here, I'll be ready. Do you have a problem with that, White?"

"No, not really. What I have a problem with is the fact that I was never even consulted. But that's kind of a theme with us, isn't it?"

"What? If you've got something to say, then say it."

"Why didn't you tell me you had a tubal ligation?"

"Richard, I told you I didn't want any more kids."

"It's not the same thing, Lois."

"I don't see how it's different."

"You don't see ... Lois, there's a big difference between 'I don't want kids' and 'I can't have kids!' Why do you have to keep secrets from me?"

"I'm not keeping secrets! I told you I didn't want more children, Richard, that's why I had the surgery! That's why I'm on birth control, which I know you knew about. Please tell me you haven't been wandering around hoping I'll change my mind."

"You never bothered to tell me it was beyond the realm of possibility."

"No, I told you I didn't want kids. I would've told you if and when that changed."

"Are you sure? You don't have much of a track record of keeping me informed. I mean, Superman--"

"Don't even go there! Besides, tubal ligation is reversible - it's not like you were going to marry a barren woman, Richard!"

At that moment, the twins had started fighting over crayons, and Lois and Richard had put their own bickering aside to break up the kids'. But the angry words had hovered in their thoughts, making them both irritable. They'd sparred verbally all day Sunday, Richard even getting in a jab about not knowing her favorite cereal while they shopped for groceries. Lois had snapped that she didn't know his, either, and didn't give a damn.

By Sunday night her nerves were frayed. Hearing on the news about a couple of strange robberies - the university's science department and a warehouse owned by a medical supply company - hadn't improved Lois' mood, either. So that night, when she came into the bedroom and Richard followed her with We need to talk practically written on his forehead, she'd had enough. "Richard, I'm exhausted. I've had more than enough to last me for the moment. Don't even start."

"I don't want to fight," he had said quietly.

She had laughed, bitterly. "Really? Could've fooled me. The way this weekend is going, I can't imagine what else we would do at this point."

"I might have an idea," he'd replied, and caught the belt loops of her pants, pulling her close and silencing her with a kiss.

That was one thing he knew about her, knew very well indeed: exactly where her weaknesses were. Unable to help herself and too surprised to stop, she responded. Lois had only had one chance to murmur, "What do you think you're doing?"

"Not arguing," he'd replied, gathering her hair at the nape of her neck gently. "Perry's right - you are gorgeous when you're angry, you know that?"

But by then he was kissing the back of her neck, her eyes closing in reaction, and she couldn't quite answer.

Of course, now, she felt guilty about it, and mad at herself for feeling guilty. Why the hell do I feel like I'm being unfaithful when I'm with Richard? I'm wearing his ring, for God's sake!

Actually... the Romantic whispered.

Just the amused tone in that voice unsettled her. Almost dreading to lower her eyes, Lois glanced at her ring finger, and swore loudly enough to frighten the guy driving the Volvo alongside her. Growling in frustration, she punched the steering wheel. Left it on the sink again. Damn! Men and their need to mark their property... If I don't go get the bloody thing, he'll see me without it for sure. Damn his insecurity!

Doesn't he have a reason for it? That insidious whisper again, but Lois ignored it firmly. Cursing, she turned the car around and headed home.

* * *

Clark was always early to work, but that Monday he came in only moments after Perry himself, and went directly to the Chief's office.

"Good," the editor said when he glanced up and saw Clark at his door. "I need to talk to you, Kent."

"Actually, sir, I think I have something to say before you do," Clark said. His usual meek hesitancy was gone, and for once Perry didn't barrel over his words. "First, let me apologize for what happened Friday night. It won't happen again."

Perry looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Seemed to me like it wasn't your fault," he said.

Clark looked down. That's not what matters. I've had the weekend to think about it, and I made a decision. "I accept full responsibility, Mr. White. My behavior was completely inappropriate. I hope you'll accept my apology ... and my resignation." Perry's jaw dropped in shock, giving Clark a few moments in which to add, "I'm sorry to do this so soon after I was hired back. My reasons for resigning are personal, and I'd prefer not to explain them."

"You're quitting because Lois tried to kiss you?" Perry said disbelievingly.

"No, it's not Lois," Clark said hurriedly. And that's not a lie; it really isn't Lois. It's what I did to her six years ago, and how very much I regret it, that I can't stand to be reminded of every day. Better to do this gracefully. "It's me. I just ... I don't feel comfortable working here anymore. And yes, Lois being assistant editor is part of that. She and I were such close friends for so long, I don't want to give the appearance of favoritism."

"The way she's treating you right now, nobody could call it favoritism," Perry snapped. "Hell, if you quit now, everyone's going to think she chased you off. And that includes me."

"Mr. White, please don't blame Lois. She has a right to be angry with me; I never even told her I was leaving. Best friends aren't supposed to do things like that."

"Knock off the 'best friends' line," Perry told him. "You're in love with her, aren't you? Always have been."

Clark pushed his glasses a little further up. Sometimes I wish I didn't work for an extremely observant journalist. "I don't see how that applies to the current situation, Mr. White. She's engaged to your nephew. Even if I did have feelings for Lois, it wouldn't be right for me to act on them."

"Kent, you're either the most excruciatingly moral person on this planet, or you studied to be a lawyer before you decided on journalism." Perry sighed, rubbing his temples. "I know you won't budge once you've made up your mind, either. Look, I hate to lose you to the competition. If you can't work for Lois, I understand that. How about we transfer you to another department?"

"I don't know..."

"I'm not talking about Lifestyle or Advertising, Kent. That'd be as much a waste of your skills as letting you resign. Give me a chance to find you a spot somewhere else. You've worked for the Planet too long to let you leave without a fight."

Clark had walked in determined to quit, but he hated to leave the Planet when he had only just returned. Perry's offer was tempting... "All right, sir, you win. I'll transfer."

Perry had to fight down a sigh of relief. Losing one of his top reporters to the competition would be more than a professional mistake; it would be a personal failure as well. It wouldn't do for any of them to think they were indispensable, but Kent was the least likely to get arrogant about it... I would've said the least likely to kiss Lois Lane, too, but I was wrong. Speaking of which... "About the Pulitzers, Kent."

Clark couldn't meet his eyes. "Sir."

"I haven't said anything to Richard about it, and I very much doubt Lois will, given what happened with Luthor. I'd recommend that you don't either. Nothing really happened, and as far as I'm concerned, the blame for it lies on whatever she was drinking that night. That's over, and I very much doubt you're going to try for a repeat performance, so let bygones be bygones."

"That's probably good advice, Mr. White." Whether or not I take it is another matter entirely.

"Of course it is, it came from me," Perry shot back. "Now, while I've got you here, let's have a look at the current openings, shall we?"

* * *

Lois breezed into the office later than normal, preoccupied and testy. Traffic heading out of the city isn't supposed to be bad in the mornings! It took me twice as long as it should've to dash back there for the ring. Of course, now that I went through that, Richard will never glance at it. Murphy's Law. Well, I'd better go talk to Perry before I lose my nerve. Courage, Lane - you've known Perry since you were sixteen, you can convince him to keep his mouth shut about Friday night...

She was concentrating so fiercely on what she meant to say to Perry that she walked into his office without even really registering the fact that he wasn't alone. Arms crossed and her brow furrowed, Lois had gone only three steps inside the glassed-in door before she realized her mistake.

Startled by her abrupt entrance, Clark turned, and their eyes met. Watching them, Perry thought that the only thing the moment lacked was an audible sizzle.

Clark had so much he wanted to say to her - and none of it was anything he could say in front of Perry, of all people. I never expected you to have to carry the burden of my secret all these years. You didn't have to do it, but you did, and I'm ashamed of myself for thinking that you would've outed me for revenge the first day I came back.

Lois' mind had gone blank at the sight of him, loss and pain and a terrible, tenacious love filling her eyes with tears. Her composed expression had faltered, her mask slipping once again. They might have been the only ones in the entire building as she grappled for control. He looked so very grave, so wounded; almost as hurt as she felt. Finally, her inner voice found words. I do not need to be here right now. Overly-emotional twit exiting stage left...

"Ah, Lane, I need to talk to you, too," Perry said gruffly.

Before she could even get her own brain in gear enough to protest, the spell had broken and Clark rose. "We're nearly finished here, Mr. White. I'll just get back to you later."

Trying to shake off her uneasiness, the dark-haired woman shot him an indignant look. Great. Leave me with the Chief now that I'm all off-balance. Thanks. But with that thought came the realization that they both had already seemed agitated. One dark brow furrowed then as Lois glanced from her boss to Clark and back, finally noticing their tense expressions. Clark was practically scuttling to the door. I have this really bad feeling suddenly... Suspiciously, she asked, "Perry, what's going on?"

His answer was surprisingly brusque, even for Perry. "What's going on is your harpy tongue finally drove Clark to resign, Lane."

Her jaw dropped; her chest too tight to breathe. This was not at all what she had been expecting this morning. Despite the words exchanged at The Pulitzer ceremony, Lois was utterly thrown for a loop. "What are you talking about? Resigned?"

Clark had actually opened the door when he heard Perry's reply, and he shut it again rather more firmly than usual. "Mr. White, I told you it has nothing to do with Lois," he said sternly.

"And I'm telling you that's bullshit," Perry shot back. "Sit down, Lane."

"This is not Lois' fault," Clark said, all but glaring at Perry. "Mr. White, I thought I made it clear that the responsibility was mine."

Knowing the way she had been treating him just made the protectiveness all the more excruciating. Why couldn't he just be a jerk about this? Why wasn't he yelling and screaming at her? Lois finally managed to regain her senses enough to step between them, catching Clark's gaze. "I don't need you to defend me, Clark; I didn't back then and I don't now," she said harshly, even more sharply than she meant to.

For just a second, he was startled and hurt, her words applying to more than the current situation. That gave Perry an opportunity to say, "Fine, fine, you've made your point, Kent. Now scram, I need to talk to my assistant."

Clark hesitated a moment longer, but Lois' stern expression made things clear. She didn't want him there. "I'll clean out my desk," he said quietly, and left.

"Lois," Perry said warningly.

Her mind was still spinning. Clark, actually quitting? Not like she hadn't asked him to leave, but... It was too much to process at the moment, and Perry's glare was more than she could deal with. Before she could stop herself, words sprang unbidden to her tongue. Words that could only be from one source. "Listen, White. You can have a senior reporter or an assistant editor, but not both. Clark and I cannot work together anymore. That's it; it's over, finito, finale. Make your choice."

What the hell did I just do? she thought, even as she spun on her heel and stormed out of Perry's office. He might very well take me up on that - and fire me. And it didn't help that Clark was still right outside the office, his wide-eyed expression making it clear that he'd heard her angry words. Lois flinched when she saw it as if shying from a physical blow, unaware that she and Clark were thinking exactly the same thing at that moment: How did I screw this up so badly? From the day we first met, when everything looked so promising, how did we get to this?

Part of Lois wanted to whisper an apology; part of her wanted to simply run. She obeyed the latter, heading for the elevators, completely unaware of anything except her own pain.

The doors were actually closing when Perry slipped in between them, cornering Lois in the elevator car. Before she could even open her mouth, he smacked the ROOF button and the elevator started to rise. "I'm doing this in here away from prying eyes as a favor to you - by rights I ought to bawl you out in front of everyone in the city room. Like it or not, we're gonna talk about this, Lois."

Uh-oh, this is bad - he called me Lois, he really means business. "I fail to see where there's anything to talk about, Perry," she said coldly, not quite meeting his eyes.

Perry looked at her incredulously for a moment, then thumbed the STOP button, freezing their car between floors. "Then open your eyes, Lois, and look at mine when you talk to me. You've been an insufferable bitch to Clark since he came back, and I want to know why."

How dare he! The General's Daughter roared like a lion in Lois' mind, hasty words leaping from her mouth before she could stop them. "Insufferable bitch, am I? Then get yourself another assistant, Peregrine. I never wanted this job in the first place!" Lois' saner half yelped, Oh, my God, shut up! I'm gonna talk myself right out of a job if I keep this up! That'll look great - I win a Pulitzer and two days later I get fired!

Perry wasn't fazed. "Please, Lois, you're as much a Daily Planet institution as 42-point headlines and bad coffee. I'm not firing you. But I think the gamble I took on you when you were sixteen deserves some honesty, so cough it up: what the hell is going on with you and Clark?"

"Gamble? I won you a frikkin' Pulitzer, Perry, I think that pays off any gamble you took in hiring me!"

"It wasn't just hiring you, Lois, and you damn well know it! I let you stay at my house for six months when you first started working here. The only friends you had in this town would've killed you with secondhand pot smoke if you'd kept on staying with them. But still, you were an attractive underage girl living with her boss - if that wasn't just begging for the Star to publish an exposé on my hiring practices, I don't know what was! Not to mention, I co-signed for your first car, I invited you to my family's Thanksgiving and Christmas when you couldn't go home - hell, I was your father in all but blood! That arrogant bastard who spawned you might've been a four-star general, but he had no idea how to raise his firstborn. Don't you think, after all we've been through, you owe me the truth?"

Every word seemed to make Lois shrink further into herself. It was true; Perry had been there for her when her own father scorned her. He had encouraged and supported her, emotionally and financially, and all he'd ever asked in return was that she become the best damn reporter she could be. And now he was asking for this as well - a confession.

"Things have just gotten so complicated," she said at last, frustration loosening her tongue. "It's not just the four of us anymore, Perry. Everything's changed in the last six years. Clark walked back in expecting that everything was going to be just the way he left it, and it's not."

"Okay, and can you translate that into simpler terms? I'm a man, I don't do this touchy-feely emotional stuff."

Lois shot him a look of pure venom. "In man-speak, Clark always had a thing for me before he left. And he still does."

Perry sighed, rolling his eyes. This is why I never had kids - they state the obvious like it's a revelation. "So? What's the problem?"

"What?!" Lois said disbelievingly. How much clearer can I make it?

"You've put guys in the hospital before for harassing you," Perry elaborated. "So take care of it - I know you can. Plus the guy has always had a crush on you - you knew that when he started working here. Him and every other straight man in this office. Hell, I think the one girl in the mailroom's sweet on you, too. Clark liking you is not news. Cut the bullshit, Lane - what's really going on?"

"Perry, I just can't break his fingers or something," she snapped back. "He's Clark, not Lombard. But now he's having a hard time realizing that I'm engaged to someone else."

"Looked like he wasn't the only one Friday night at the Pulitzers." Perry cocked an eyebrow at Lois as he spoke. "Matter of fact, it looked like you started that."

Her jaw dropped open. Well, Perry, it's like this. Clark is really Superman, and I'm in love with both of him. Oh yeah, that's a one-way ticket to Bellevue right there. And if that doesn't give the Chief a heart attack, I can say I've known since I was about four months pregnant with Clark's twins. I'm also mad at him for leaving me and for erasing my memories. I can't decide if I want to kick him in the teeth or kiss him, and I'm being torn apart by my own feelings. Oh, yeah, and by the way, Richard's helping to drive me nuts because he's getting suspicious and possessive and wants to know everything about me, starting with my kindergarten report card! Bring on the straitjacket, folks, he'll think I'm insane - and I'm almost ready to agree with him!

All she actually said was, "Perry ... I don't ... I don't know what to do anymore, I don't know what to think..." And then, hating herself for it, she started to sniffle. I will not cry, I've done too damn much crying over this man lately, I will not cry in front of Perry...

Perry watched the conflicting emotions chase each other across Lois' expression. It was fairly obvious to him, from the way she'd been acting and the near-miss kiss Friday night, that Clark's feelings for her were at least partly reciprocated - although it would take torture to drag that admission out of her. And of course he'd known how she felt about Superman; no other man on this planet had knocked her for a loop the way the hero had. To make things even more complicated, what she felt for Richard wasn't faked. The boy had had to chase her for a long time, but Lois did honestly love him; she wouldn't settle for less. Perhaps if the other two had stayed gone...

Now that Clark and Superman had both shown back up, Lois found herself caught between three men. None of it was her fault, and she was too damned honorable to do anything but be hurt by it. And too damned proud to show the pain - Perry knew how that went, locking the ache way down inside until it turned into anger. Anger could be harnessed and made to drive a person's ambitions; it was a far more useful emotion than pain. But it could also break loose and lash out, often at the very people you loved best.

Poor Lois, Perry thought, watching her fight to hold back the tears that threatened. What've you gotten yourself into now? And in spite of the fact that the one you're with is my nephew, all I want is for you to be happy. You're the daughter I never had.

"Easy, Lois," he said softly. "I'll take care of it." Far more gently than the rest of the office would have believed, he drew her into the circle of his arms and let her bury her face in his shirt. Her shoulders shook as he held her, surprised again by how very delicate she was. The force of her personality could overwhelm, and it was easy to forget how petite Lois was, how much spitfire temper fit into such a small package.

* * *

After cleaning out his desk, boxing up the few things that belonged to him, Clark took the rest of the day off. He had an appointment later that afternoon to look at a one-bedroom on Shuster Avenue, and that seemed promising, but until then he had nothing to do.

In his pocket, his new cell phone chirped, startling him. The things had become ubiquitous during his absence; even Ma had one, and she'd insisted that her son carry one as well. As a matter of fact, the little display screen claimed his caller was Martha Kent. Pressing the TALK button, he held it to his ear and said, "Ma?"

"The one and only. We just got in, and I saw your messages on the answering machine. You were trying to reach me?"

"Yes, Ma. I tried the house and the cell all weekend. Where've you been?"

"Ben and I went up to Emerald Lake. There's a Scrabble tournament there, and the trout were biting. Of course, I didn't realize I'd left the cell phone on the charger in the house until we were halfway there. I'm sorry if you worried about me, son."

He sighed, shaking his head. "It's okay, Ma. I just needed someone to talk to. Actually..." Clark glanced at his watch. Four hours until his appointment. "Are you busy this evening?"

Martha hesitated. "Oh, son, the bridge club meets tonight. I'm supposed to host; I can't back out now. But I've got a little time before I have to get ready."

It felt weird discussing this on the phone while walking down the street surrounded by crowds, but at least a third of the people around him were carrying on conversations of their own. Clark had even heard someone mention their bloodwork results, casually discussing white cell counts and lipids while any passing stranger could listen in. He supposed anonymity was privacy enough. "Well, Ma, it's like this. Friday night, I found out that Lois remembers everything. She told me."

"Oh, my. And what did you say to her?"

"I didn't have a chance to say anything. She ran off, and then she left the Pulitzer award ceremony early because that snake Luthor showed up and threatened her kids."

"Good heavens! They're all right, though?"

"Yes, I checked. She has police protection, too. Some strange things have been happening lately, robberies that make no sense. We can't prove Luthor's involved, but it's him. I'm certain of it."

"Whatever he's up to, you'll catch him. You've always stopped him before." Ma sounded perfectly confident in him, and he took heart from it.

"Yes, but it's been so close. Of all the people who want to hurt me, only Luthor really scares me, Ma. And now he's after Lois and her children."

"Well, he won't be able to do much more than threaten with you and the police watching over her. But seriously, Clark, have you had a chance to talk to Lois?"

He laughed. "Not really. And I don't know what I'd say if I had the chance."

"Whatever you do, don't try erasing her memories again! No woman likes to have her mind messed with, and with what I know from reading her articles, that woman least of all."

"Oh, trust me, I won't. One mistake is enough to learn from."

"Smart boy. Now, you wanted my advice, so listen carefully. When you do finally get a chance to talk to Lois, apologize first. She's going to yell - let her. Half of what she says is going to be just because she's angry and scared, so don't take it too personally, all right? All you want to do is make amends; you have to get through that first before you try repairing the friendship. Sound good?"

"Sounds wise," Clark replied. "I love you, Ma."

"Love you, too. Be good, and don't be a stranger!"

"If dinner with your son can fit into your busy social schedule..."

"Clark! Stop being a wiseacre! You're always welcome here - you'd be welcome tonight, except you don't play bridge and you'd be bored to death."

Somewhere, a fire truck's siren wailed. So much for an afternoon off. "Gotta go, Ma - duty calls."

"I love you, Clark. Be careful!"

* * *

Richard was unusually quiet Monday evening. The whole office had buzzed with tension he couldn't define or explain, Lois was being distant, and Perry had been distracted. He would've liked to talk to his uncle about Lois, about the widening gulf between them, and see if Perry had any ideas on how to bridge it. But the editor seemed to be heavily preoccupied, avoiding him. Even the Monday Morning Massacre lacked its usual bite. Lois was pale and silent throughout.

Something had happened that morning while Richard was running down specifics on the newest designer drugs coming out of Eastern Europe. The twins seemed to have caught the subdued mood, making themselves scarce after dinner. Richard hadn't even heard them arguing. Like any newsman worth his salary, he hated this feeling, this intuition that something was afoot and he had no handle on it.

Lois breezed through the kitchen like a wraith, pouring herself a glass of milk. Perhaps she thought Richard didn't see the shot of Scotch she tipped into it; perhaps she didn't care if he knew that her nightcap had become more high-powered of late. He came up behind her and kissed her hair, feeling her hesitate for an instant before tipping her head back onto his shoulder. Richard hated that, too, that new pause in all her responses, as if she had to remind herself constantly who he was...

"Time to put the kids to bed?" was all he said.

"Mm-hmm. Me, too. I got caught in traffic this morning; gotta go in early, get some actual work done soon."

What were you doing this morning, Lois? What made you so thoughtful and quiet all day? "Let's get the brats settled, then. I got them into their pajamas right after the eight o'clock news. Jason wanted to finish that picture he was working on before bed, but he should be done."

She sighed, taking a deep breath as she unconsciously ran an idle hand through her hair. "Okay. Let's round them up."

But there was only one twin to round up. Jason was in the living room, yawning while he finished coloring the last few spikes on a stegosaurus' back, but Kala was nowhere to be found.

Instantly, Lois' heart turned to ice in her chest, her pretty face sickened with suspicion that struck her to the core. Luthor. With that thought firmly in her mind, she raced through the house, calling for her daughter, at first angrily, then with increasing hysteria as there were no signs of her. No, no, no! Please God, she's only a baby! "Kala Josephine, you answer me! Where are you?" The tremble was clear in her voice, but there was no reply from any quarter.

Richard dashed out to the squad car in front of the house; the officers hadn't seen anything, no one had gone by them. He met Lois as she raced out the front door and stopped her long enough to say, "No one came out the front."

She looked at him blankly for a moment, mind working double-time, and then her expression turned to utter horror. "The river," Lois whispered, and tore away from him.

Jason had come to the open front door to watch them with only mild concern in his blue eyes, and Richard went to him, catching him up and following Lois around the house. She had gotten to the dock, but froze there, staring. Richard breathed a sigh of relief as he saw Kala sitting calmly on the end of the dock, looking up at the night sky. Jason squirmed out of his arms and padded to his mother.

Lois had never understood the phrase 'my flesh creeped' until that moment. Somehow, she knew not just what Kala was looking at, but who she was looking for. Oh my God, was all she could think, icicles dancing up and down her spine. She didn't even realize Jason was walking past her, heading out to where his twin sat in her nightgown swinging her feet and gazing at the stars.

The little boy craned his head back to look up, following his sister's gaze, and then glanced down at her just as she looked at him. They shared a strange, almost secretive smile, and Jason commented, "Pretty."

"Very pretty," Kala replied. No further conversation was necessary. They both turned to look at the sky again, unaware that their shared curiosity was giving their mother a massive case of the heebie-jeebies.

Richard came to stand beside Lois. He didn't know why, but the scene affected him too, filled him with foreboding. There had always been something a little bit ... enigmatic about Jason and Kala, some sense that they weren't like other children. He had always written it off as a combination of their fragility, their precociousness, and the inexplicable bond between twins, but now, it felt like something more. Something else.

The twins were not allowed on the dock alone, and they both knew it. Ignoring either parent when they called was an even worse transgression, and Kala had to have heard Lois yelling for her. Breaking the rules demanded consequences, but Lois was too spooked to care. When she finally found her voice, she simply called their names again.

Both twins looked around, and when Lois said, "Bedtime," they came trotting back to her as if nothing was amiss, going as far as to both hug her tightly. But that weird feeling still lingered, and when Richard caught Lois' gaze over their heads, she looked honestly frightened.

* * *

The large ballroom's acoustics amplified the sound of Kitty's high heels slamming into the hardwood floors, and Lex grinned as she stomped over to him. Still mad about the brakes. Well, I couldn't take the chance of her acting skills not being up to par. She'll get over it.

Kitty stalked to his side and stiffly held out his drink; Lex grinned a little more when he saw it. The martini glass was nearly filled with olives, probably only one shot of gin in there to keep the garnish company. He speared one silently, leaving Kitty holding the glass.

She would not look at him; instead she looked at his desk, at the coverage of the Pulitzer award ceremony in the Daily Star. Without naming Lex, the reporter had hinted at some unspecified threat to Lois Lane's children, and the article made a point of mentioning the police presence around her house.

"Well, I hope you enjoying scaring that Lane woman," Kitty said nastily. "Whatever you had planned for her kids, you blew it by warning her."

"My mind works in ways too subtle for the average man - or woman - to comprehend," Lex all but purred, taking another olive. "I'm not going to do anything to Lois or her kids. Not yet."

"But why did you do that Friday night then?"

He smiled. "To make her worry. While I get my affairs in order, my enemies will be trying to defend against an attack that won't materialize. Maximum disruption of her life with minimum effort on my part. And it will wear down their vigilance so that when I finally make my move, they'll be completely unprepared." Lex finally took the glass from Kitty and sipped the gin.

"You devious bastard," she finally said, staring at him.

"Brilliant devious bastard," Lex corrected, and ate another olive.

Kitty sat on the edge of Luthor's desk, striking a provocative pose. Lex was deep in thought, his eyes locked on the photo of Lois Lane walking up the red carpet to the awards ceremony, his expression unreadable. After a few moments of being ignored, Kitty sighed, "I suppose we'll just have to find some way to keep ourselves busy until your mysterious plan comes into effect, huh?"

He smiled that evil smile again. "Oh, I expect we'll have some entertainment shortly. I'm expecting a package from the Clerk of Records in Paris. Its contents should be ... interesting."


Interim Cycle One: The "Boys"

Interim: Perry White

Things have finally settled down around here. The last big blow-up was when Lois found out I'd transferred Kent to International. I let her yell for a while, then told her very calmly that I had no intention of letting one of my best reporters quit, and I figured sending him to work for her fiancé might remind him that she was taken. I didn't know people could actually turn green.

Somebody once said, "Love is the best way I know to jump-start a vomit." It sure applies to Lois; every time you mention Kent or Superman, she looks distinctly nauseous. I've given up meddling in it. With Kent in another department and Polly covering the Superman stories, Lois doesn't have to be around either one unless she wants to. But she can't forget about them, either. Every week or so Superman's on the front page, and of course Kent's byline is in the paper every day. Wish I knew how he learned how to type that fast.

Speaking of which, I was a little nervous about sending him to Richard's department. Kent looked a bit anxious, too, but it was the only senior reporter's job available at the time he tried to resign. It worked out pretty well, though. Better than I thought. Kent makes a hell of a globetrotting reporter; he speaks several languages and gets along well in foreign cultures. Either he's very adaptable or very centered, or both.

What's really creepy is how well he and Richard get along. Traveling the world knocked some of the nerdiness off Kent, and it's easier than ever to see how much alike the two men are. Richard practically raves over him - the guy never misses a deadline, he's got great style, and he's got connections like you wouldn't believe. And Kent seems to like working for him. They've both been in Mexico the last two weeks, covering the new illegal immigration laws. The coyotes down there - that's what they call the smugglers who bring in the illegal immigrants - are already finding ways around them, and people in Texas are starting to patrol their ranches at night, armed to the teeth. Recipe for disaster. And headlines. If I know those two boys, they'll bring me back a whole series of articles.

Near as I know, Richard doesn't suspect a thing. Kent hasn't said anything to him about his past with Lois, and I know damn well Lois won't. The others who've been here long enough to remember them before probably thought he just had a puppy crush on her, like half of them have. No one knows Lois well enough to realize she felt something for him - still feels it. No one but me, and I'm keeping my mouth shut. I love Lois, but I know her well enough to know she's got to figure this out herself. And much as I love my nephew, too, Richard will have to lose or keep her on his own.

Richard's worried about Lois, says she's been aloof and tense. Luthor really got to her, and the stress is making her snappish. Doesn't help that he's pitching a fit over every new thing he learns about her, saying she kept secrets from him. Poor kid. Lois went along to get along the last six years, following the current, making decisions mostly based on convenience. Now she's charting her own course again, and my nephew's just realizing he was never the captain of that ship.

I told him to calm down, that you can't know someone completely in three years, or thirty. If you could, they'd be damn boring, and whatever else you say about her, Lois has never been boring. I also reminded Richard that the two things about her that interested him the most when they first met were her independence and her mysteriousness. She didn't suddenly tame down and get all domestic when she started wearing his ring.

Still, it didn't make me happy to learn Lois is wearing that damn gun around the office all the time. I keep waiting for Olsen to walk up behind her at the wrong moment and get shot. She did train with the Special Crimes Unit for a while, so I guess she's got better sense than to blow away the photographer. It's just that, even though she's been on a much more even keel the last two months, I feel like Lois is subtly off balance and waiting for something to make her tip over. And I'm not exactly looking forward to a return of the sharp-tongued short-tempered hellion she was for those few weeks that Kent worked in City.

Let's see, what else is new? We had a couple of really big stories. Some firebug is working the city. The arsonist has money and time and intelligence; he hasn't been caught yet, and Sawyer told me off the record that unless the guy makes a mistake or burns himself to a crisp, he never will be. He's too good. Just last week the bastard lit up four floors of the Bank of America building downtown. The four floors in the exact middle of the building. Every fireman in the city was down there, and Superman helped rescue the trapped workers and put out the flames, but there were still seventeen casualties. Over three thousand got out alive, though, so I'll count it a win for the good guys.

There's tension in the Middle East, but when isn't there? I've got two embedded reporters with our troops, and a two-bottle-a-week Mylanta habit because of it. Still, this is the job. Nobody ever said it was easy or safe. Lois would be over there, too, except for the twins, and I can't help breathing a sigh of relief that she has them. She's one of the best, but those fanatics like to kill journalists.

And that's another thing. Polly's a good writer, but she's no Lois. I can't help but feel that our Superman coverage is below par. Lois knows him like no one else; they have history together. She ought to be writing the stories, and it feels damn weird to see anyone else's byline under a Superman headline. I won't suggest it to Lois, though. I've heard enough jokes around the office about Nuclear Warhead Lane to last me a lifetime.

The usual bedlam around the office - when I said things settled down, I meant they've settled down to a dull roar. Gossip, rivalries, feuding, the whole nine yards. The girls in Fashion have asked me again to put one of those fancy cappuccino-dispensing machines in the break room. I asked them what was wrong with my coffee, and they dropped the issue again. Newsman's coffee - thick, black, and strong enough to make your eyes water - is one of the best parts of the job. Nowhere else can you get coffee that bad. Just don't tell anyone my cardiologist is making me drink decaf these days.

Halloween was two weeks ago, and the twins finally talked Lois into dressing up when she took them trick or treating. Would've been fine if they hadn't had to run back to the office and show off as soon as she picked them up from school. Kala was a scurvy pirate, complete with sword and eyepatch, and Jason was Godzilla, of course. The killer was Lois, dressed as a gypsy. There should be a law against walking into your office wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse when your coworkers are used to seeing you in suits.

Oh, and I hired Grizzly Lombard back. He just moved back from Star City, and we've got a new CEO, one without attractive daughters. Sports section loves him, though, and his column sells papers. At least if he's here, he has Lane to remind him why he shouldn't harass women. I'll have to play absent-minded boss and ask him if his hand still hurts when it rains.

We've got a new artist in the graphics department who's causing a stir. It isn't enough that Sophie Noux is pretty and French, she's also damn talented and fast. One of the old stuffed shirts over there quit when she drew up a layout in fifteen minutes that would've taken him two hours. I suppose the time she's saving me taking over his work makes up for the time lost when all the single and single-at-heart guys find excuses to drift through her department.

Sophie's charmed the hell out of Lois, too, which no other female on this job ever did their first day. The twins were up here when she was hired, and while we were waiting on her W-4 to go through the fax, she drew Jason and Kala. Lois has that little sketch framed, and Sophie's got a fan for life.

Speaking of the twins, I'm officially the Best Uncle on Earth, In Perpetuity. I admit, it wasn't very nice to Lois and Richard to give the kids live birthday presents, but children should have pets. Kids and critters go together like politics and corruption. And even though it was funny at the time, it was kinda sad to hear Kala telling Jimmy that Mom would get her a goldfish, "an' if we can manage not to kill it, maybe we can have a puppy!"

A goldfish? Please. Lois wants to strangle me, but the kids love their gifts. At least I didn't get them puppies that she and Richard would wind up having to walk, or kittens that shred the furniture.

Although I wish I'd known how damn big iguanas get before I bought that one for Jason...

Interim: Richard White

When I was in flight school, I thought I was the absolute hottest flyboy on earth. Untouchable, immortal, the next great flying ace, a born jet jockey whose natural aptitude would completely blow away my classmates and even my instructors. I was talented, true, but also arrogant, impatient, insufferable, and reckless, probably the guy voted "Most Likely to Kill Somebody in a Stupid and Completely Preventable Way - We Can Only Hope It's Himself."

Then this one morning, I'd rushed through the preflight because it was just beautiful out, and I wanted to be up there. I liked to do things fast to show off, and as we were getting ready for takeoff, I flipped all the switches and goosed the throttle. Only, I didn't switch them all, or I switched something off that should've been on, or I missed something in the preflight. Maybe I somehow caused a short in the electrical system. My instructor and I never quite figured out how the hell I did it, but I got the jet into the air and then lost power completely.

There is nothing more unnerving than sitting in several million dollars' worth of Uncle Sam's property, and realizing you are now operating this finely-tuned fighter jet as a glider. With only about a hundred feet of air beneath you. In the Armed Forces, there's something called the Pucker Factor. That experience showed me how apt the term is.

I got the jet landed somehow, without wrecking it. I was too shaken to try putting it up again, so I just parked it and stared at my flight instructor. I'm not sure if any cadet has ever scared an Air Force sergeant right out of his repertoire of profanity before, but the man just sat there staring at me for a good five minutes.

It knocked all the cockiness out of me, though. And I'm grateful that it did. What bothers me is that feeling of floating along almost peacefully, the roar of engines abruptly and unnaturally silenced, knowing that unless you do something quick, there's gonna be one hell of a wreck soon. I've never forgotten that feeling, and I'm having it again with Lois. This relationship has stalled like that jet's turbines, and now we're coasting along, gradually but surely heading for a very rough landing.

We haven't really been fighting that much - we argue a little now and then, but both of us are avoiding the big one. There are so many things we don't say to each other now, so much we don't talk about.

Thing is, we aren't doing anything else, either. We hardly even see each other - Lois is always working on a story or staying late at the office. And sex is pretty much out of the question. Lois can't sleep lately, so she says coming to bed is pointless and stays on the computer. Damned if I know how she can work on just two or three hours of sleep. When the insomnia gets bad enough, she takes one of the sleeping pills Dr. Saavikam prescribed for her, and fifteen minutes later she's out like a light. Either way, our love life is basically nonexistent.

Those are just two symptoms, though. Lois is so distant, often lost in thought and staring at nothing. She worries incessantly about the twins, in spite of the gun she carries everywhere and the off-duty cops who cruise around our neighborhood as a favor. Sometimes she gets so distracted, so wrapped up in trying to run down the Vanderworth yacht and find Luthor before he finds her, she even forgets to eat. Between that and not sleeping and working all hours, I swear she's dropped five or six pounds in the last two months. I like my women on the lean side, but not model-skinny; that just looks unhealthy. Lois was petite to start with, and the weight she's lost has made her seem almost frail.

All of that taken together makes me wonder if we shouldn't start seeing a couples' therapist. Fat chance of getting Lois to go, though. Dr. Saavikam told her that insomnia as a symptom of stress is best treated by counseling and lifestyle change, but Lois talked her into getting the pills instead.

To top everything off, my insane uncle decided to buy a ferret and an iguana for Kala and Jason. He didn't even warn us; showed up the day before the party and snuck the animals in before Lois and I knew what was happening. Of course, once the kids saw them, there went our chance to stop Perry's plan. I'm just glad the twins aren't allergic to either of their pets.

There is one good thing going on, though. Clark Kent transferred over to International. We all knew Lois had a problem with him, but nobody knew what it was. I still can't see why any department in their right mind would let him leave - he's fast, his style is distinct and very readable, and he seems to know a source for everything. He's been practically indispensable in Mexico - his Spanish is better than mine, and he blends in with people in spite of himself.

In fact, I quite like the guy on a personal basis. Lois hates that - she's quite nasty any time I say something nice about Clark. But hell, he's polite, intelligent, well-spoken, and he's got that old-fashioned integrity that so few people still have. This is a man who would drive forty miles back to a store that gave him three cents too much in his change. You have to admire anyone who can maintain those kind of values in this society.

Since it can't be professional reasons, there must be something personal between Lois and Clark (doesn't that sound like a daytime drama). Eventually I'd like to know what it is, but I know better than to outright ask either of them. Lois will explode if I mention his name, and Clark gets visibly ill if I mention hers. It's crossed my mind that they might've been involved somehow, but if they were, no one here knows about it. Her opinion of office romance - before I came along anyway - was very well known and often quoted to me. I guess there are a lot of frustrated suitors around here.

Speaking of which, I knew Lois was going to dress up for Halloween with the kids, but hot damn! The hair down and curly, the eyeliner, the blouse, the boots ... for a second I almost didn't recognize her, and then I was speechless with awe. The woman is a knockout.

Yeah, she may be difficult to live with, and she might be having a nervous breakdown as we speak, but I do love Lois so much. Now if only I could figure her out...

Interim: Clark Kent

I needed this two-week break, although trying to dodge drug smugglers and coyotes and Texas militia isn't much of a break, especially when I have to hide my alter ego from Richard, too. Thankfully, this is Mexico, so all I had to do was 'accidentally' drink the water and I gave myself plenty of excuses to rush off without explanation. In spite of the stress, it beats the office. I don't know how much more of that I can take.

I see Lois every day, but she doesn't see me - if she happens to glance my way, she averts her eyes, always with that angry, wounded look. And after two months, I still haven't been able to talk to her. She avoids me like I'm a leper or something, cuts me off mid-word if I say so much as 'Good morning' to her.

Doesn't help that I'm tormented by memories. Not just the physical, although those flashbacks are haunting me. I remember when Lois was happy, when she'd flash that thousand-watt grin at everyone, particularly me. I remember hearing her laugh without that sardonic edge to it. She's always had a hint of darkness in her soul, remembered pain that turned to anger, but the sheer joy of hunting down a story used to overshadow the past. Now there's a fraught quality to her, Luthor's threat gnawing in her mind, and I'm sure knowing that I'm over here in International isn't helping. Sooner or later, something's got to give. We can't go on like this.

In the meantime, at least I can see her kids. Richard likes to bring the twins over to our department, and they really seem to like me. They are all of Lois that I can have right now, and I adore them both, even when they bring their new weird pets to school and thus to work afterward. Put this on you resume, Kent - you can make conversation with a black ferret named Captain Jack and an iguana known as Ignatius. Oh, yeah, and if they ever need an experienced mediator in the Middle East, let them send their trainees here to deal with Jason when Kala calls the lizard 'Gazeera' instead.

The twins just turned six. I thought they were younger - if I'm doing the math right, Lois didn't even wait a whole month after I left, and that's something I'd really like an explanation for. Turns out the kids just look younger than they are, being a little fragile. Just like their mother, they might small, but they make up for it in willpower. That's not the only way they take after their Mom - Kala even has her occasionally smart mouth, which Richard laments, even if he's also amused by the comparison.

Richard. God, what am I going to do? I don't want to like the guy - he's engaged to Lois, whom I keep thinking of at random moments as my Lois, and he has the life I wish I could lead. But I can't help becoming friends with him. It just isn't in me to stay jealous and angry in the face of someone who genuinely likes me and is happy to see me every day. I've even heard him tell Lois she's crazy to have let me leave City. Why couldn't he be a jerk? Why couldn't he just be wrong for her? I feel so guilty for being friends with him and at the same time wishing his fiancée was with me. This is hell on earth.

Nevermind. Thinking on that does nothing but ruin my day. What I'd rather think about is the potential lead in the Vanderworth case. I do have to turn it over to Lois when I get back - it's her story again now that I transferred, but the message from Karla Smith-Bennett went to my voicemail. She's an attorney formerly with the firm that represents Lex Luthor and used to represent Gertrude Vanderworth. Ms. Smith-Bennett left the firm while they were working to get Luthor released from prison, for ethical reasons I believe. Perhaps she'll talk off the record about his plans, if she knows them.

I can't help thinking Luthor's somehow connected to this arsonist in Metropolis. He ruins my day, too, but I'd rather think of him than Lois. I will catch this man, whoever he is. One day he's going to make a mistake, and I'll have him. What makes a person want to do these things? There is so much in this world to love, to rejoice in, why must some people find their happiness in destruction? I will never understand such a desire - everything I want so much seems so simple compared to these twisted people and their dark hearts.

Give me one thing with no darkness in it, one pure example of innocence and joy ... or better yet, give me two: Jason and Kala. The two of them never fail to make me smile, even when they bicker. Especially when they bicker, because I know them well enough now to know that, much as they fight, if an outsider tried to start anything with either one, they'd back each other up unhesitatingly. They're so protective of each other. I suppose they need to be.

I only wish they were mine. I suppose I wouldn't be so bitter about that if Richard was their father. Oh, yes, that was a shock. Someone finally enlightened me as the fact that Richard and Lois only got together three years ago. It was Ron, as a matter of fact. He and I have gotten quite close again - it's amazing how much I missed simply having friends. Anyway, Ron happened to mention in passing that he admires Richard for treating the twins as if they were his. That's when I found out that Lois had an affair - more of a one-weekend stand - while she was in Paris.

While she was looking for me.

Ron called it revenge sex; I can imagine the terminology Lois would use, and it makes me cringe. God, I have no words for how that makes me feel. The twins ought to be a slap in my face, a constant reminder of how angry Lois was with me, but every time I look at them I simply see her. Lois' eyes in Kala's, Lois' smile in Jason's, her laugh, her mannerisms, her stubbornness, and her character in both them.

One major difference between the twins and their mom: the kids like me. I don't know if it's the fact that I'm a misfit, just like them, or if I'm just one of about five grownups in the place who talk to them like they're adults. Every time Richard brings them to the office, they wind up at my desk. And I don't even have candy! Ron thinks that's hysterical.

At least I finally have a place to stay. The new apartment's on the corner of Siegel Street and Shuster Avenue. It has a nice view and reasonable price. Not too far from the office, either. Best of all, I can come and go pretty much undetected thanks to super-speed and a balcony. I got it through Vgerland Real Estate, so everything's aboveboard. My realtor was a wonderful lady from California, probably one of the ones whose life I saved back when Luthor and I first crossed paths.

I haven't bothered to hook up the phone service; I've got the cell phone, and it's not as if I'm going to be getting many calls that aren't Ma or business-related. Speaking of Mom, she's my main source of support these days, encouraging me to take things one day at a time. She says to think of all of those people out there, the ones wearing t-shirts with my symbol on them, and let their love and belief keep me focused.

I still can't help but worry for the future. Will I ever be able to make things right with Lois? And will I be able to stop this latest plot of Luthor's, his newest level of depravity?


Interim Cycle Two: The "Girls"

Interim: Martha Kent

I love my son. From the moment he came toddling up to me out of that scar in the fields, naked as the day he was born with a smoking spaceship behind him and a questionable future ahead, I loved Clark with all my heart. You hear people say things like, "I couldn't have loved him more if he was my own." Well, as far as I'm concerned, Clark is my own.

The first arms that held him on this planet were mine. His first meal was my famous corn chowder. His first word of English was "Ma." I was the one who wanted him, who pleaded with Jonathan to keep him, though Jonathan grew to love his son so much. And no one else will ever quite love him as much as I do, or understand that love, unless they too had the one thing they wanted most in the world literally fall from the sky and land right beside them. He is my very own miracle, my son from another star.

But as much as I love him, there are times when I could just swat him!

Like right now. Clark really can't comprehend why Lois is still so mad at him. He still loves her, he thinks she still loves him, she remembers everything, they should be able to come to an understanding, right? Wrong! Typical man, looking for the way to fix their relationship as if it's a leaky faucet. Some things take time, and nothing but time, to heal. And no matter what I tell him he just will not leave well enough alone. Bad enough she isn't speaking to him - if he keeps pushing her, she might turn that razor tongue on him again, and my boy's heart has always been tender.

Clark doesn't really understand women - could I expect anything else of him? He didn't get to have the same experiences as other boys, too afraid of revealing himself or accidentally harming a girl. His strength has always been a liability in itself, and he's been nervous about it since his powers began to show. And what a show that was...

When Clark was six or seven, we had one particularly vicious rooster. I kept meaning to make soup out of him, but he protected the hens so well that I forgave him. Well, Clark went out to feed the chickens, and that rooster attacked him. He was so surprised and so angry, and being pecked still hurt at that age, that he kicked that rooster.

Through the side of the henhouse.

He screamed so loud I thought he'd stepped on a nail or something. We found him in the chicken yard bawling, and the rooster was no more than a bloody pile of feathers against the opposite wall. Clark had never hurt a living thing before that - he knew where chicken soup came from, but he didn't want any part of killing. He was so horrified by what happened that he got himself all knotted up about it, worried God was going to send him to Hell for killing a mean old rooster I meant to behead anyway. It wasn't as if he meant to hurt the thing. He'd seen me shove the rooster around with my foot - not quite kick it, you know, but push it away - and there was no reason for him to think his little foot could do that.

That incident, and a few others while he was growing up, traumatized my poor son, and he was leery of girls, terrified of hurting them. If he could pick up a tractor, how easy would it be to break a girl's ribs just by hugging her? And he had a farm boy's education about death, life, and birth. If a normally well-behaved stallion could savage a mare, then what might my son - who could juggle horses if he wanted to - do to a girl if he lost control of himself?

Jor-El only reinforced that with his legacy and his mission to benefit us poor, weak, primitive Earthlings. "Yours is a higher calling" my fanny! We all have feet of clay - no one can be a perfect savior except the one who already was, and my son is not Him. Clark was raised to be a man, but he always believed he could never have what a man wants: a wife, a family. He's not even the same species as us, there's no reason to believe he could ever father children. Though I wonder sometimes...

So Clark held himself apart from the whole world, as if his motto was "Look, but don't touch," and he made himself the gentlest man he could be. My heart bled, but I didn't know how to reassure him. What most people consider his blessing is really his curse - it really might be possible for him to hurt or even kill someone purely by accident. The one time he put aside his powers and his mission to try having an ordinary life, the world fell down around his ears. And he wound up having to resume his burdens and lose the girl.

I can't help but feel sorry for Clark. With all his great powers, all the amazing things he can do, the thing he wants above all else is the only one he can't have. And what makes it worse is that every day he has to work with someone who does have Lois Lane, and her children; this Richard White possesses precisely what my son yearns for. I don't know how he stands it.

And how much Clark loves those twins of hers! I hear about them every time he calls home or comes by for dinner. He adores them both, and he's very good with them. I know it makes him wish they were his. Makes me wish they were my grandchildren, too - I think I'd make a pretty good grandma. I know a dozen cookie recipes by heart, after all. But Clark is absolutely sure that the Lane kids can't be his. Not only are Kryptonians and humans probably incompatible, the dates are off by over a month.

Sometimes I wonder, though I won't mention it to him - it would only make him more determined to fix things with Lois. I wish I could meet the children, see if they remind me of Clark when he was their age. I wish above all I could meet Lois and talk to her. Maybe then I could learn the truth, one way or another, and silence that little voice whispering, "But what if they are his?"

Interim: Ella Lane

My God, these kids! What on earth am I going to do with them both?

Lucy is pregnant. Again. Another girl; that makes three girls and one boy, all in fairly quick succession. Someone's going to be spending a fortune on prom dresses as they all hit high school. Fortunately the Troupe siblings seem to get along, or at least they do when they're at my house. And even though I've gotten some funny looks walking to the ice cream shop with them, the kids are always welcome. If my snobby neighbors have a problem with my beautiful grandchildren, well, that's their problem. Sam would've said, "Take a long walk off a short pier."

Ron wants to name the new baby Michelle, after his cousin. Or as he says, "The one everybody calls Devil because she's always making mischief." What a precedent to establish for their youngest, but I suppose it's a Lane family tradition, too. I gave my daughters matching names and now they're giving me matching gray hairs.

Lois still hasn't told Superman the truth, and red-hot pincers couldn't make her do it. I've toyed with the thought of threatening to jump off something famous downtown until I get his attention and telling him myself, but that's just not something a man should hear from the grandmother of the kids he doesn't know he has. But I have to talk - or knock - some sense into my oldest. As near as we know, Superman is utterly alone on this earth except for those twins. And as near as he knows, he is alone. He doesn't even have Lois anymore.

And with Luthor knowing the twins exist, threatening them, that's reason enough in itself to tell Superman about them. But Lois flatly refuses to do it. She's convinced he'll see the twins as a mistake, as living reminders of the one time he failed in his mission. Or worse, that he'll decide only he can properly raise them to their half-Kryptonian heritage, and take them from her. Somehow I doubt he could be that cruel, but Lois' nerves are so frayed right now she can't even listen to anything on that subject. It isn't fair to him. But it isn't fair to Lois either. And it really isn't fair to Richard.

I like Richard. He's a wonderful man, but I was always surprised that Lois chose him. She hates military guys. And Richard's just so ... nice. Lois has been fairly mellow the last few years - mellow for her anyway - and I can't help but cringe at the thought of him seeing her go nuclear. There are parts of Lois he's never seen, and some of those are her worst traits. A very few are her best. The poor boy doesn't really know her, but I've bitten my tongue and kept a smile on my face. Neither one will take advice from me, so why bother to give it? I just hope Lois hasn't taken the wrong lesson from my life and decided to stay with someone just because he loves her and she's comfortable. That wasn't how it was between me and Sam. I loved him just as much as he loved me, even if he did make me crazy sometimes. I don't think Lois can say that about Richard, but I know enough not to ask.

At least Lois now has someone to confide in, though I was horrified by some of what she told me. She didn't know if the twins would have their father's powers, or when they'd get them. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility for them to be born with his strength, which might've killed her during the birth. That was why she wanted me there in Paris. Not just because this was her first pregnancy, but also because she really thought she might die bringing the twins into the world.

My brave girl. She knew that, and she still kept the secret she'd promised. Lois had it set up to where if anything ever happened to her, I'd get a letter telling me who the twins' father was. Always prepared. I wonder if anyone else realizes just how often she forges ahead in spite of herself, in spite of being afraid or angry or nervous. Probably not. She's too damn good at hiding how she feels.

Even from herself...

Interim: Lois Lane

No matter what I will be there
I'll be gentle, I'll be light
These are the words you

Whispered In the night

Here I Am
Here I Am

Now I'm standing in the cold

(Everything is said and done)
Atomic winter in my soul
(From the absence of the sun)
The only remedy I know
Is I gotta let you go so

Here I Am...

And this is what I woke up to yesterday, playing via the radio station set up on my alarm. What a way to jumpstart your morning, never mind a guilt complex, huh? I can't even fathom when I programmed that in. Doesn't really matter. At least I had managed to make it to my bed this time and wasn't asleep on the couch. But with the way things have been of late...

The last thing I want to do is start this out by using one of history's greatest clichés, one phrase hated by authors and journalists universally. Yet it doesn't make it any less valid. Here it is, anyway: If you had told me six years ago where I would be standing - hell, if you had told me three years ago - I would have had you committed. As it is... I'm honestly considering it in my case. Then again, you think a lot of things at 4:38 in the morning.

Three and a half months. Almost three and a half months to the day. Once again I'm snatched from the arms of Death, this time by an angel who's fallen from grace in my eyes and flung face-first into a Hell of my own making. Why is it that I could never leave well enough alone, especially where he was concerned? And why is it that my mind always tries to make this idiocy between us into something more poetic than it is?

The fact that he creeps into my thoughts even now infuriates me to no end. He has no right to even exist for me, let alone expect anything of me, not after what happened between us. Or wasn't supposed to have happened. That one simple act made his choice before he disappeared loud and patently obvious. He never even asked me! Sure, I was hurting, but who wouldn't have? I had the one thing I wanted more than anything else torn away from me by sheer guilt; there was no discussion of a way to salvage things, no compromise. It was just over, as if it were an unfortunate event best forgotten. And then, even those moments I had left to cling to were gone. As if they had never been.

Unfortunately, as 'merciful' and 'powerful' as this 'amnesia kiss' was supposed to have been, it seems it wasn't capable of magically erasing fertilized eggs in a human woman. Part of me is just vicious enough to wish he had seen the hell I went through when I went for a checkup for my 'Flu' symptoms and had Dr. Samuelle tell me with an almost paternal happiness that I was three months along. Congratulations. Sure. I remember even now the shock and horror that crashed down on me. It was impossible, I had thought. As much as I felt like a love-struck junior high kid, I had gone without a lover from the week after I met ... him. There hadn't been anyone else; despite the fact that he and I had had been flirting with the possibility of something happening, nothing had been plainly said.

I had been having somewhat vague daydreams around that time, but they had been growing more distinct as time went on. Not all of it was physical, although what I was dreaming was surpassing anything I had experienced before it. There was more, details of the battle with the Kryptonian villains that had been impossible to recall. Being at Niagara Falls, covering the Sunday supplement for Perry. But nothing had clicked. It came back, trickle by trickle, like melting snow. First, small and almost insignificant bits and pieces. Snatches of discussions. Some understanding of what had happened over those foggy three days. Then it moved faster, a stream, a river. Finding out his secret, my confession to him about my feelings, the flight north. His Fortress, all white and gleaming, the same place where the last of my childish fantasies ended. His father's vehement disapproval, his defiant decision. Watching him walk out of that crystal chamber, stripped of everything but that handsome face and his desire to be with me. And what came after...

All that came after...

Like the entire world falling down. And it being entirely my fault. If it hadn't been for me...

Can you even begin to imagine what it's like to discover that the near-destruction of your planet and race has occurred because you allowed yourself to be swept away, finally falling in love for the first time in your life... with its defender? Especially once you're aware that that defender made things right again, only to disappear? I thought I was going to go crazy, to have the weight of that knowledge almost more than I could bear a second time. To have never asked for a child, especially a child of mixed species. To look down at your growing belly, knowing that, in his mind, it never should have been. And the last thing you want is a reminder of this 'mistake' that he made with you. To know that he would be horrified to know that this had occurred, the memory of his father's words probably still echoing in his mind? To have never wanted any of this?

And loving him too much even then to do anything to prevent it in any way. Protecting his image, hiding the pregnancy for as long as I could. Standing on the roof in the snow, looking up into the sky with tears running down my face the night they kicked for the first time. Wanting him so desperately, but ashamed to admit it. Ashamed to even have this small part of him that I had stolen away from the world.

Enough of that. God, why can't I just drop it? That's over.

Because I can't get him the hell out of my thoughts, no matter what I do. Damn him. Much to my own disgust, I'm realizing I'm missing him as much as I miss Richard. I'm such an idiot.

I wish I had an excuse for what happened the night of the Pulitzers. Not my finest hour, that much I'll flatly admit. It was an intense flickering instant of complete and total insanity on my part, to be bluntly honest. I have a wonderful relationship with Richard, a life most women can only dream of. It's comfortable, reliable, he adores the twins and loves me. Yes, loves me and I know that full well. He's never even looked at another woman since he first asked me out. He braved office gossip and my own opposition to get to this point. He wore me down and won me beyond any shadow of a doubt. He tells me every morning how beautiful I am, how lucky he is, and wants me every night before we go to bed as much as he did when we began.

But why isn't that enough?

And it's something I just don't want to think about. Kal-El is my past, over and done. A chapter that should have been firmly closed a long time ago. It doesn't help matters that Perry pulled a fast one. Resigned, huh? Well, that explains perfectly well why he turned up in Richard's department a few days later. Which is just perfect, seeing as how I wanted him out of my life and now a bullpen and two panes of glass separate us. Perfect. Some day I'm going to sneak some cyanide into that old man's coffee. Really, when he least expects it.

Besides, if that little cuteness wasn't enough, I owe him an automatic death sentence for the fact that the two latest occupants of my house are a lizard and a weasel. Neither of which is an appropriate gift for a six-year-old. I said 'maybe a goldfish'; Perry says, 'Sure, I'll get two of the most evil creatures on earth for you two, even if you are in kindergarten. Teach you some responsibility.' More like teach Mommy to get Aunt Loueen to leash her husband. All in all, the twins' sixth was an utter success. And it's a good thing that the looks of delight of their faces made my heart ache to the point that I forgot to attempt to flush that iguana when no one was looking. I have the feeling that dinosaur means trouble.

I hope he gets the flu at the first sign of a cold wave. Would serve him right, underhanded bugger.

Of course Richard's over the moon where Clark's concerned, thinks of him as the brother he never had. I can't even avoid hearing about him at home, within earshot of the twins. It does nothing for my nerves that they're both coming home in a day or two from Mexico, where they were working on a piece about the 'coyotes' there. Just the thought of the two of them talking, especially Mr. Morality, makes me uneasy in the extreme. There are too many things both of them know, and don't know, and the last thing I need is for them to play Twenty Questions: The Lane Edition. I fought their going, with no luck. Richard and Clark both seemed baffled by it. Clark shouldn't have been.

And Perry really did put Polly Mattheson on the Superman beat. She's writing puff-pieces, to be politically correct. Could she be any less objective, asking the most random questions? She doesn't question his motives, doesn't try to pry with thought-provoking statements. The tone of the articles is so worshipful, I feel like I should edit them in the Cloisters. And damn Perry, he hired back that bloody former quarterback. I've already announced that Lombard had better keep himself busy in Sports and stay the hell out of my newsroom. He's a stress I just can't take at the moment. I also try to forget the sick feeling in my stomach that this latest rash of arsonist attacks gives me. Thank God it's died down the last little while that Kal-El's been gone. It's like this firebug knows it, too. And that's a thought I don't like at all.

With all that's going on, I'm so tired, yet it seems impossible to close my eyes for more than a moment or two without hearing a random scratching outside near a window or a high sound that might not be the wind. Goddamn that madman. Luthor's done exactly what I suspect he wanted. After all this time, I'm hair-trigger and attacking shadows. I've been on hyper-alert since our confrontation in August. The sound of winter in his voice when he spoke the twins' names scared me more than I'll ever tell a living soul. Even myself. It horrified me the same way that night on the dock haunts me still. There's an inescapable feeling of inevitability. This isn't over. Something's beginning, something's building even as I fight it. Sometimes I wonder if this will ever be over. Me, Luthor, Kal-El. It tears me apart to think that the sins of my past, of the 'mistake' that created the twins, a foolish night of selfish lust, could destroy us all. 'For want of a nail.'

But if Luthor thinks that he'll have even the possibility of taking them from me, he'll have underestimated me for the last time.


Interim Cycle Three: The Villians

Kitty Kowalski

I used to think that with Lex, I'd be going places. Well, it's true, except I'm only going one place lately: mad. I'm either wandering around this huge underground complex filled with science nerds and ex-cons, or I'm trapped on the yacht. It's amazing how fast even a boat that big can begin to feel really, really small. The only company I have most of the time is Tala. She's a sweet little dog, to everyone but Lex. I think she knows he's responsible for leaving her locked up in the Vanderworth house while he dragged me to the North Pole. Poor baby, she had to eat LJ just to survive.

If I was stranded somewhere with Lex, I wish I could say I'd do the same. But he'd probably kill me first. I think I really made a mistake with him. The man's crazy. Dangerous crazy. Thinks he's a god among us lowly mortals crazy. Nothing proves that more than his obsession with Lois Lane. His whole thing about her revolves around the fact that she hates him more than any other woman on earth. So that makes her about the most desirable woman in creation to him. Perverse, I know. But then, all his girlfriends hate him - present company included. He kicked Tala the other day, just booted her across the hall for no reason other than she was in his way. No wonder she tries to bite him.

So there's no one here for me to talk to. The scientists are all absorbed in the work on the crystals, and that includes Stanford. At least he used to be able to hold a decent conversation. The rest of the staff - the hired muscle Lex keeps for security - are cavemen. I wouldn't trust any of them alone in a room with me - the only reason they keep their hands to themselves is Lex. The one time Grant tried something, Lex threatened to castrate him with a bullet. At point blank range. The rest are scared enough of Lex's mood swings to avoid me. I just wish that Lex was so jealous because he actually cared about me. The truth is, he just hates for anyone else to touch what's his.

Of all the assorted thugs we have roaming around the place, the one that creeps me out the most is Brutus. Big, ugly, shaven, tattooed freak, who smiles a lot and likes cracking walnuts in his bare hands. That does describe half a dozen other people, but Brutus is just weird. I can't explain it, but I don't like him. It's like, if Grant ever got me alone, he'd rape me. And Riley would tape himself raping me. But Brutus - I have no idea what he'd do. Maybe sit down next to me, talk quietly to me, hold my hand ... and break each of my fingers while still smiling gently. That kind of weird.

Brrrr ... he gives me the chills! It's almost as bad as when Lex decides to stare at those birth certificates he got from Paris. The way he smiles then makes me want to go take a long shower. How the hell did I get mixed up with these people? I just wanted some excitement, someone to buy me diamonds and furs. I got that - fearing for your life is damn exciting, but what's the point of wearing a mink coat if there's no one to see you in it?

Lex Luthor

Things are going nicely according to plan, for once. The research progresses - Stanford is perhaps overly cautious, but since my theft has not yet been discovered, we have the luxury of taking our time. I'll have plenty of warning when that caped buffoon finally realizes he's been robbed - all of my old haunts are being very quietly surveyed by remote camera. Lane has been sneaking around the Vanderworth property, but no sign of him yet. The first glimpse of him looking for me, and I'll implement my second plan of distraction.

The first is going very well. Most arsonists deserve the name firebug - they're scuttling creatures with little brains full of fire, liable to burn themselves to a crisp or to get caught videotaping a blaze of their own making. Easy to squash, and deserving of it. But with my help, Carl is making himself very useful. I choose his targets, I plan his methods, he just does what he does best, and loves it. He might even manage to keep the alien busy long enough for me to find out the optimum salinity for crystal replication.

It's not nearly as fast as I'd hoped. I had visions of my own continent, but no matter what we do, the crystals just aren't going to expand that much. There seems to be a built-in limit to how much growth we can get from a given sample. A tiny fragment will produce enough crystal to wreck a basement; a single complete crystal could have created his icy palace up north. Different crystals also seem to produce different structures, and we're not entirely sure how that works yet. Top priority is reproducing the console I stole the crystals from. Then I can access the information stored on them again.

The actual expansion is quite fast once it reaches a certain threshold, unless we happen to get a fragment that codes for something intricate, like the three-quarters spaceship that Stanford is fawning over right now. Too bad we don't have the whole thing. Still, there's a lot to be learned from this technology. I've chosen my research team very carefully; all of them are discredited for some reason or another, unable to continue in their own fields and willing to work underground for me. I mean that literally and figuratively - the lab is underground. Lining the outer walls with lead was obscenely expensive, but now that I'm free I've been able to tap into some of the assets the feds couldn't find and didn't seize.

I've had to revise my long-term plans, but I believe the payoff will be more than worth the wait. In the meantime, I have plenty to amuse me. Carl, of course - he positively capered when I told him how to do the bank. The next one will be even better. Although I must warn him about the fumes. He's using model airplane fuel - clear, odorless, and it even burns with a clear flame. But if he breathes enough of it he's liable not to make it back out of the building in time. That will be fine for when he's no longer useful, but at the moment I prefer my pet firebug alive.

Another guaranteed source of entertainment is Kitty. We're staying on the yacht or in the lab, and she's beginning to go a little stir-crazy. She talks to that damn powder puff of a dog now, wants to buy it fancy diamond collars and cute little sweaters. What is it about a fluffy little dog that makes woman want to dress it up? It's a dog; given the choice it would rather roll in something dead than wear a puppy parka. Besides, this yappy bitch has enough fur to keep it warm without buying it clothes. I know I've found its shed hair in my coffee more than once. The stuff floats.

But Kitty is so damned funny when she sulks. The exaggerated pout, the flouncing around, the intent stares, the melodramatic sighs - it's all I can do not to laugh out loud. She's smart enough to know that her continued health and safety depend on me, and I've been more interested in taking pages of laboratory data to bed lately than in having her there. What can I say? Even the most neurotic and treacherous woman eventually becomes boring. Kitty hasn't quite reached that point yet, luckily for her, but my plans come first. I never let myself get distracted from a goal.

If there's a secret to my success, that's it. I don't clutter my life with lovers and friends, and I'll never have children. Business before pleasure, avoid attachments, and always keep someone around to take the fall for you. Dear Otis, such a moron and yet so very useful, even after I had him killed. This bunch, however ... Stanford's reasonably bright, and Riley at least has an interesting obsession, but Grant and Brutus are nothing more than hired muscle, men willing to lie, steal, maim, kill and rape for money. I worry about Brutus, though. He's the only one who hasn't started sniveling about the lack of women around here. Must keep an eye on him - I can't imagine Kitty lowering her standards that much, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility.

I'll have to consider bringing some female company down here. Restless men are rebellious men, and I'd hate to have to shoot a couple of them to keep order. It's messy and wasteful, and it would disturb the scientists. For the most part that group stays absorbed in their work and don't need women around, but the security staff needs some outlet for their collective testosterone. I can easily procure a few women whose affections can be purchased. Of course, then I have to worry about rivalry and possessiveness, not to mention that Grant isn't the only man I employ who was imprisoned for rape and murder. It could get expensive if the boys keep breaking their toys.

I must keep my mind active while I'm down in the lab. Fantasizing about what I'll do if my plans come to fruition in exactly the right way isn't enough, though it is quite entertaining. Fortunately, I have a least one mystery to ponder. On days when the scientists don't have anything interesting for me, I can always open the lockbox in my desk and look at my latest prize. It wasn't easy to get these two simple sheets of paper, but they provide me with no end of joy and speculation. It's amazing how the absence of one little thing can mean so much - particularly when it's a name, any name at all, on the line marked 'Father' of a child's birth certificate. I suppose she didn't know his real name - not that anyone does.

I wonder if Lois even knows who the father is? She did have partial amnesia. I'm not completely certain myself. The timing is about right - they behaved like lovers when I saw them last, and the children were born ten months later. They could've been conceived just before he vanished, or the gestation period for half-alien spawn could be longer than a normal human pregnancy. I doubt anyone else would guess at the latter possibility. People forget what he is - simply because he looks human doesn't mean he is human. If the twins really are ... his, Lois is lucky the brats didn't have his powers in the womb. Though that would've made for wonderful welcome home - "Hello, Superman, one of your kids kicked a little too hard and your woman hemorrhaged to death. And you didn't even know she was pregnant."

That's almost as bad as what I have planned for him...

The Russians say revenge is a dish best served cold, and though it may be very cold indeed by the time it reaches my plate, I'll be completely content. I may never have so delicious a meal again, but if everything falls into place just right, I'll never need to, either.

Sweet satisfaction, thy name is vengeance. Complete vengeance.


What Would Happen If

Richard and Clark were both laughing as they waited on their luggage. "So then the witch says, 'What stepping stones?'"

Clark chuckled, shaking his head. "Where do you get these, Richard? They're so bad they're funny."

"Dumb jokes dot com," he replied. "No, seriously. They have stuff I haven't heard since grade school. Like the one that goes, 'Two guys walk into a bar...'"

"And the third one ducks," Clark said, grinning, and then felt as sudden pang as he remembered just who had sprung that one on him. Lois and her warped sense of humor.

"Yeah," Richard said. "You all right, Kent? You look a little melancholy there. Homesickness is supposed to happen when you're away, not when you get back."

Clark forced a laugh. "Well, I guess it never really hit me how much I missed home until I got here," he replied, feeling that casual remark echo through the past two months, back to the first moment he'd stepped from the spacecraft and seen waving corn again, felt the breeze on his face. "I mean, we were a little too busy to be nostalgic down in Mexico."

"True," Richard replied with a sigh. "It's a good thing those guys in Tijuana can't aim worth a damn."

They can aim just fine, Richard, they just weren't counting on me catching the bullets, Clark thought. He'd had to be very quick, faster than Richard could even see, and thankfully the smugglers were far enough away that they thought they'd simply missed. "Being a reporter's more dangerous now than it used to be," he said quietly. "People target us specifically."

"A free press is a dangerous thing," Richard countered, "to people involved in illegal activities and to oppressive governments. They fear us, rightly, and they're willing to go to any lengths to maintain their secrecy. But if we didn't do our jobs, we'd be letting those people win. And I for one am not inclined to let them win."

Clark just nodded thoughtfully. Any possibility of making an intelligent and insightful reply shattered at the sound of a woman's voice. A familiar woman's voice, raised cheerfully. "Clark! Hey, Clark, fancy meeting you here!"

Richard saw Clark turn to look, and suddenly break into a wide, boyish grin as the voice's owner made her way through the crowd.

* * *

Lois was not having a good morning. She hadn't slept well, but then, she never did these days. Her hair was trying to frizz, and her favorite eyeliner had gone missing. When she took her cell phone off the charger, she realized that it was still flashing LOW BATTERY, and took a closer look at the charger itself. None of its lights were on, meaning the damn thing was broken. And the spare charger was at work.

The iguana had gotten out while she neatened up the living room, and it whipped her with its tail when she tried to push it away with the vacuum's hose attachment. Jason had to rescue them from each other, cooing sleepy blandishments to the lizard while Lois put iodine on the fresh welts on her ankles.

It was nearly time to leave, but the twins were dawdling, still logy from last night's dose of Triaminic. And to make matters worse, Lois could feel her sinuses drying out, a sure sign that she was coming down with their cold. Richard hadn't called from the airport like he said he would, and she began to worry that his flight was delayed.

I have to call Mom and tell her I'm bringing the kids over, Lois thought, adjusting her favorite pinstriped suit jacket. And I have to leave in five minutes if I don't want to be late.

"Mommy?" Kala said, walking slowly up to her.

"Oh, baby, what's wrong?" Lois asked, almost kneeling to brush the hair off her daughter's forehead.

Kala looked very unhappy, and her skin was warm under Lois' hand. "I don't feel so guh..."

Then, in mid-sentence, her breakfast of oatmeal returned.

At speed.

Lois froze in horror, oatmeal dripping off her suit, her hair... Oh my God. Don't throw up, don't throw up...

Kala, seeing what she had just done and already feeling awful, began to cry. "Mommeeeee, I'm sorry," she wailed, shivering as her stomach roiled. Her loud, harsh sobs brought Jason running, but when he saw their mother slowly standing up and looking like she'd been showering in slightly-used oatmeal, he started crying, too.

Lois felt like bawling herself. I give up! I just plain give up this morning! How could this possibly get any worse?

An hour later, after calming the twins down, cleaning up the kitchen, having another shower, and getting dressed again, she had her answer. Traffic was fairly light getting out to her mother's house, but heading back into the city it was a nightmare. Lois gripped her steering wheel hard enough to make her knuckles turn white, and glared angrily at her cell phone. If she'd had some charge left in it, she could've called Perry and let him know what was going on, maybe ask if he knew anything about Richard's plane. As it was, though, she found herself completely cut off from communication.

This is it. This is the absolutely worst morning of my life.

Well...

Okay, this is the second - the third worst morning in my life. The first was the morning after I broke up with him, the second was when my memories finally came back and I realized just how screwed over I was. At least this miserable start to my day has nothing to do with a certain man in a cape.

I'm going to be almost two hours late. At least it can't get any worse than this.

* * *

The employees at the Daily Planet had learned to get out of Lois' way when she stalked into work with that expression on her face. It meant that her own personal little doom cloud was following her, and it had a tendency to rain on whoever got in her way. They didn't openly avoid her, they just sort of drifted somewhere she wasn't.

All except the breakroom crowd, that is. Lois' usual Starbucks had a line all the way outside of the store, but caffeine was utterly necessary, so she steeled herself for the awful newsroom brew. Unfortunately, Polly Matheson was holding forth in wistful tones as Lois entered, surrounded by the usual crowd of slackers and Babette from Accounting, the one honest employee just there for the coffee.

"He is so utterly dreamy - I know, I sound like a high school girl, but oh, that man! Lois was crazy to let him get away..." Her voice trailed off as she saw Lois heading for the coffee pot, the black-haired reporter's jaw firmly clenched.

The loiterers who had egged Polly on, a mixed crowd who preferred gossip to work, all fell quiet at the sight of their boss, though they secretly hoped for a confrontation. Lois had been closemouthed about Superman for the last few years, and perhaps if she unloaded on Polly they'd get a few juicy tidbits...

Polly herself had the decency to blush. In the face of Lois' stony silence, she could only say, "Lois, I didn't mean that to sound... I mean, if it was me..."

"It wasn't you," Lois said brusquely. "It was me. And it wasn't what you think it was, either. I had a bit of a flirtation with him, hardly anything to get worked up over. When he left, I moved on with my life. Case closed." Ignoring the murmurs of Oh, really? from the back of her mind, Lois added creamer and sugar to the oily black liquid in her coffee mug.

The crowd radiated curiosity, but Lois had no intention of saying anything else on the topic if she could avoid it. Finally Polly burst out, "It sounded like a whole lot more than that. From your articles and stuff. I mean, I Spent the Night with Superman?"

Hazel eyes narrowed as Lois tried to keep her tone civil. "Polly, I didn't pick that headline. Perry did. Same way he picks all of the front-page headlines. And he does it for the shock value; all of you know that. Furthermore, I had just met him and I was interviewing him. I don't mix business with pleasure, and I don't sleep with anyone on the first date. Not even aliens." It was unlike her to be so blunt about that little fact, but some traitorous part of her wanted to remind Polly that the man she was rhapsodizing over wasn't even human.

The younger reporter frowned disapprovingly. The comment didn't appear to be discouraging to her; like most women, she assumed that if he looked human, he might as well be human. "Well, all I can say is, if you were in love with him, you should've waited for him to come back."

"Really? In that case, you're welcome to him. I'm not going to waste my life waiting around on a momentary attraction. If you want to sit around twiddling your thumbs and pining over a man who disappears without a word for six years, feel free to do so." Lois had sounded almost cheerful while she spoke, and then her voice dropped to an angry hiss. "But not on my time. All of you have jobs, right? If you want to still have them ten minutes from now, get to work!"

The group scattered, all except Babette, who grinned and gave her a thumbs up. "Get 'em, Lane," she whispered. "I hate it when the gossipy crowd gets between me and my morning dose of motor oil. Nosy buggers."

For the first time that morning, Lois smiled. "Thanks." As she headed over to the bullpen, she almost thought the morning wasn't a complete waste of makeup after all.

Lois cruised past the cluster of reporters in animated conversation just inside the door, then halted. Ron was just coming out of International and saw her weary but basically okay expression vanish, replaced by blank disbelief. Lois took several steps backward and slowly turned to look at the group by the door.

At its center was a stunning redhead whose appearance immediately reminded Lois that she herself had slept three hours last night and been puked on this morning. Surrounding the woman were several male Daily Planet employees, including Jimmy Olsen, Jerry Ellison from the Nightlife section, and Brian Beateau from the Arts department. But standing closest to her, and smiling as if bewitched, were Clark and Richard.

Even from several yards away, Ron could see Lois take a deep breath as her eyes narrowed slightly. Her expression looked calm and even friendly as she walked up to the group - unless you knew Lane women, knew that the exquisitely slow inhale through the nose was their equivalent of a boiler's high-pressure valve whistling. Ron headed their way, trying to get Jimmy's attention and get him out of the line of fire.

Richard and Clark were both listening to the redhead, utterly absorbed, until a wonderfully cordial voice said, "Richard, darling. I'm so glad you got in on time; I was worried about you when you didn't call."

The International editor winced. "Lois, honey, I'm sorry. Clark and I ran into Ms. Lang at the airport and..."

"Lang? As in Lana Lang?" Lois said, and suddenly her voice had an edge.

"Yes, and you must be Lois Lane," the redhead said with a dazzling smile. "I've heard so much about you - these two can hardly stop singing your praises long enough to tell me where the Style department is."

The cheerleader. Clark's first love. And I know she's my age or older, but she looks five years younger. Lois managed to smile politely and shake her hand, but Clark knew the look on her face and started edging away. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Lang," Lois said sweetly, and Richard finally saw the tension in her jaw. "You're here for an interview, right? Putting on a fashion show next week, silent auction afterwards, proceeds go to charity?"

"Exactly right," Lana said. "Are you going to be there?"

"Oh, no, I'm so sorry," Lois replied, still with the saccharine overtone and the steel underneath. "I'm so busy lately, it's just unreal. Wish I could, really."

For a minute, green eyes looked into hazel, a question unspoken between them. "That's too bad," Lana said eventually. "I would've enjoyed seeing you."

Lois just nodded, then asked courteously, "Wasn't that interview scheduled at nine? Because it's a quarter to ten now."

"Oh! I'm going to be late! What a first impression to make on Ms. Vega. I hate to run like this, everyone, but..."

"It's okay," Richard told her. "Clark, would you walk Lana over to Style?" He cast a pleading glance after Lois as she stalked away.

Clark looked at him dubiously. "Sure," he said, and added softly, "If I were you, I'd let Lois drink that coffee before you try talking to her. You know how she is without caffeine."

Richard just nodded as he and the others went their separate ways, and Clark showed Lana the way to the resident fashion maven's office. Once alone with his old flame, though, he found himself without much to say. The feelings he'd once had for her had unexpectedly mellowed into warm regard, and he didn't want Lana to think he was still the puppy-eyed follower he had been back then.

"Life in the big city suits you, Clark," Lana said with a wistful smile. "You're looking fabulous."

"Thanks," he replied. "You, too." Most of the how-have-you-been small talk had been exhausted on the trip from the airport to the office, and Clark had sort of known what was going on in Lana's life courtesy of his mother. She'd broken up with the jock, Brad, shortly after graduating, then quit college and married a banker who turned out to prefer golf and young tellers to spending time with his wife.

"What got you into fashion?" Clark asked, searching for something to say.

Lana smiled. "I have a nice little PR blurb for the article, but I'll tell you the truth. When I was in college, my roommate was a girl named Elena, an exchange student from Italy. She was studying medieval history, and one of her projects was to make a set of clothing using only the materials and technology available back then. Everyone else was going to do a simple tunic and leggings, or a peasant's kind of dress, but Elena wanted something nicer than that, and I helped her make the kind of dress a noblewoman would wear. I'd always known how to make clothes from patterns, every girl back home does, but actually designing this entire outfit from first sketch to last stitch was so much more fun.

"It was a real challenge, too, but it looked fabulous when it was done. While I was married to Don, I kept my hand in, making clothes for myself and a few friends. Nothing big or fancy, but I developed my style while I was a bored housewife. Since I never finished my degree, it was the only real skill I had when I got divorced. As to becoming famous for it, well, I just got lucky."

"I imagine it had more to do with determination and hard work than luck," Clark chided her gently. "Good deal, though. What are you going to tell Agi when she interviews you?"

Lana grinned, a mischievous look Clark remembered well from the old days. "That I learned dressmaking from my mom. It's technically true, but it leaves me more space to talk about my winter collection coming out."

He chuckled with her as they reached the office marked Agnes Vega, Style Editor. Unfortunately, Clark's mirth was cut short. Several floors below, his exquisite hearing picked up Lois' voice rising. I'd better get down there, he thought with a quick wave to Agi.

* * *

Lois completely ignored everyone in the bullpen as she headed for her office, the set of her shoulders broadcasting Leave me alone as clearly as if she'd used a megaphone. Of course, the one person who should've recognized her state of mind immediately was also the one with the most cause to upset her.

"Dammit, Lane, where the hell have you been?" Perry barked, throwing his office door open.

All of the nastiness that Lois had held back when talking to Lana suddenly burst its bonds. She turned very slowly to look at Perry, her eyes blazing with frustration and anger. Biting her tongue, she stalked over to her boss, grabbed his sleeve, and dragged him into his own office before unleashing her temper in a torrent of obscenities.

The reporters in the bullpen looked at each other silently, their eyes widening. The door hadn't shut completely, so they could hear Lois ranting.

"Your bloody nephew didn't call this morning, here I am wondering if his plane crashed or something, and I get here to find him drooling over some Kansas cheerleader! Not to mention, my morning was lovely, thank you very much - both kids are sick, I'm getting their cold, my cell phone charger's broken, and that goddamn dinosaur you bought my son attacked me! I have welts, Perry, freakin' welts on my ankles from that vicious little beast!"

She went on in the same vein for several minutes, until she felt eyes in the back of her head. "And I just had to break up the subjective journalism coffee klatsch on the way in ... one of you out there shut this goddamn door, it's none of your business anyway! So I really don't want to hear about being late when I don't even want to be here!"

Cringing, Jimmy tiptoed to the door and shut it carefully. Vera from the secretarial pool stopped in her tracks, having heard the extremely unladylike language Lois was employing. The girl sniffed, still annoyed at having been chased out of the break room. "What's her problem anyway? My God, Lois is such a bitch."

"Shut up," Jimmy snapped at her, surprising himself with his vehemence. "Ms. Lane is under a lot of pressure right now."

"And she's your boss, so she can fire you," Rhea from Arts added as she breezed past with an armload of books.

Vera wisely said nothing more, hurrying back to her own department. Rhea's column, The Eclectic Reader, was avidly followed by soccer moms and cognoscenti alike, her unbiased point of view valuable in a literary critic. Though she rarely got involved in office politics, her opinion carried a lot of weight with Perry.

Clark got to International just as Lois was winding down, and saw that Richard had wisely gone into his office to wait out Hurricane Lane. He headed to his own desk, listening to Lois rant and sympathizing with her.

"And in short, I'm sick, I'm worried about my sick kids, I'm pissed at you for giving them the messiest pets on earth and really pissed at you for that vicious lizard, I'm exhausted, my best suit is covered in partially digested oatmeal, and I'm about to hamstring your nephew for forgetting to call me! He'd rather spend time with some fashionista than let his fiancée know he's finally back after being gone for two weeks - a dangerous trip you sent him on! So don't screw around with me, Perry! I am not ... in the mood ... for this bullshit! Especially not from you!"

Pretending to type, Clark peered into Mr. White's office, where the editor was looking at Lois very calmly. "Are you done?" he asked almost gently.

Lois paused for a minute, growling at him under her breath and running her hands through her hair. "Did I mention I hate that frikkin' lizard?"

"Yes. Four times."

"And your nephew's a jerk?" She glared through the glass at Richard, who was typing up his last installment on the story and ignoring the yelling coming from Perry's office.

"Hey, you're the one who wants to marry him."

Lois opened her mouth to say something, then stopped herself, glancing around the office. She didn't catch Clark looking, but his presence was enough to silence her. "Richard still didn't call me. How could he forget something that simple?"

"Lois, if you're not finished kvetching, at least get me an umbrella," Perry said. "And open a window or something - all that swearing has used up the oxygen in here."

Lois took a deep breath and sighed heavily. "Dammit, Perry! I just didn't need all this at once this morning, you know? First the kids, the lizard, the traffic, that twit Polly cooing over Superman and reading too much into your headline - and then when I get here, my ... my fiancée is being mesmerized by some redhead! I have never felt so old and unattractive and domesticated in my life!"

Perry took hold of her shoulders and looked at her sternly. "Lois, you're none of the above, and you ought to know it. Now listen, get yourself together and get to work. You'll feel better once you do."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Thanks for the fatherly advice, Chief."

"Anytime, Lane. Oh, and could you grab me some more black pens while you're up? Everybody steals them."

"Sure, Perry. Just because you married your secretary doesn't mean you should have to actually fetch your own pens out of the supply room."

Perry grinned. "Now that's the Lois I remember."

Clark watched surreptitiously as Lois squared her shoulders and left Perry's office. The City beat reporters all paid strict attention to their work as she cruised past, heading for the supply room.

If it had been a little smaller, it would be the supply closet. As it was, the space was so filled with folders, hanging files, copy paper, toner, ink, pens, pencils, notepads, and other journalistic necessities, it was quite claustrophobic. Being an interior room with no windows didn't help that feeling at all.

Lois disappeared inside, and Clark quickly used his x-ray vision to make sure no one else was there. Perfect. She's been dodging me for two months; maybe I can corner her long enough to explain. There's so much to be said, and she may be angry enough about something else to listen to me ... or give me a few answers. Besides, someone within ten years of her age ought to remind her that she isn't old, or domesticated, or unattractive in the least. Lana's pretty, but Lois is Lois.

No one else was watching. He darted across the room with super speed and eased the door open, then closed it behind him silently. Lois didn't even turn around, hunting through the shelves for a box of pens that hadn't been emptied. Only when he was standing right behind her did Clark realize she hadn't heard him approach, and he tapped her shoulder to get her attention.

But she took half a step to the side, and his fingertips landed on the back of her neck instead. So absorbed in her task was she that Lois' back jerked in reaction before it automatically stiffened and a shudder rose from her lips before she could trap it. She knew who it was almost instantaneously; blushing with shame at her reaction and angry at them both, Lois whirled around to face him. This wasn't the time for it, not after all she'd been through so far that day. Not after the mix of feelings churning in her since his most recent absence. She had held so much back for so long, locked in every thought and feeling, every memory and nightmare. Keeping a handle on the raging emotions only tenuously, those stormy eyes locked with his. The demand in them was clear: What do you want?

When she turned so quickly, his hand had slipped down her spine to rest at the small of her back. They were standing closer than they had since his return, with the sole exception of that dance at the Pulitzer's ... the memory of her lips so near melded with another memory, far older; another kiss, sweeter than their last; a time that was long gone but suddenly so near...

Without thinking, Clark pulled her a little closer, as captured by his feelings as she had been while they danced. The attraction between them had always been magnetic, and it only intensified with time apart. Before either of them really knew what they were doing, their lips met, softly at first.

All the horrible moments of the morning, all the frustration, the upset was suddenly gone. Her lingering anger at this man, her recent almost adulterous thoughts of him and the guilt that came with it. Even the presence of Lana Lang and her damned beauty, Clark and Richard's reactions to her. For Lois, just that brush of lips roared through her like being thrown down by the strength of a monsoon wave, electrocuted by the most searing of lightning. The sound of her gasp was lost, forgotten as quickly as the way she had instinctively and vainly attempted to push him away. Her body felt as if had been turned to glass and struck with a tuning fork, an impossibly sweet chime resonating through every cell. The weakness, the intensity that had drawn her on that crowded dance floor seized her, and she was returning the kiss fully. No past, no future. All of it forgotten for the sake of this. There was only now.

When they last kissed six years ago, Lois had temporarily forgotten three days. Now, both of them forgot the world around them, forgot everyone else in that world, even forgot themselves. Superman's mission had no place here, nor did Clark's disguise. Even the General's Daughter was swept away by passion, the Romantic's satisfied murmur fading. Only this moment existed, this man and this woman, Lois and Kal-El both stripped of anything but their eternal longing for each other. As if to confirm that fact, as her fingers curled into his hair, Lois' other hand was grasping one side of the glasses frames and pushing them out of the way.

Even as she did so, his hand slid down to her hip, lifting her easily. The difference in their height vanished and he kissed her more deeply, not even realizing that he was holding her completely off the ground. His mouth silenced her soft moan as she wound one leg around his hip, fingers clenching almost desperately in his hair.

Years literally melted away around her as she held tight to him, reeling at the sensations tearing at her. The memories that had taunted her ever since his return were mere specters compared to the recollections that blazed through her now. She remembered wondering how it was possible to have felt so many things in so short a time.

Clark's hand on her hip traced the curve of her thigh, making her shiver. The last time he'd had his hands on her there ... oh, how sweet those few hours that belonged to them only, the memory of his sometimes hesitant but very thorough discovery of her body. The light and tentative kisses that deepened in surety until they were as full of passion as this one now, his free hand wound into her hair and his tongue darting into her mouth quick and hot.

This sudden needy cry was harder to conceal, Lois as deeply caught up in the spell as he, only moving closer now. There was no room for excuses or denials, no need except for theirs. All too well she could see the half-anxious look on his face that night when she had slipped onto his lap, not that she wasn't also aware of the expression in his eyes he tried to hide. And then when she had begun to move, the intensity of his reaction. God, those eyes on hers... It all washed through her mind then as if it were no further away than an instant. His skin against her lips over and over as she had taken advantage of the lack of skin-tight uniform, the impish joy she had felt when she had glanced up to find him watching her raptly. The harshness in his voice, the overwhelmed surprise, as he tried to say her name. The mix of awe, adoration, and a bit of wickedness that she could affect him so greatly. Oh dear God, are his memories this clear? They have to be. How else can he remember how to do this so well?

A wordless husky murmur of need as Clark tightened his arms around her, lost in the memory of her legs wrapped around his back, the faint blush of desire across the tops of her breasts, their tips rising under his lips, and the secret heat of her like nothing he'd ever known or dreamed. His recall was perfect, achingly so, and he kissed her now almost hard enough to bruise as those feelings rose in his mind again, whispering, "My Lois," against her lips.

Only moments from surrender, lost in the remembrance of the past and the sensation of the present, Lois heard a cool, amused voice say, That's funny - for someone who claims not to like him, you do seem to have your leg wrapped around his ass. Care to explain that, Lois?

The comment came so quickly, it was more than several seconds before it registered. Then both voices, one external and one internal, were enough to slide white-hot through her conscience, freezing her in position. It announced without a doubt the reality of this, where they were, who they were. And what they weren't. Oh God, what am I doing? Lois, what the hell is wrong with you!If you had been any later realizing, you'd have let him take you right here against the file cabinets, wouldn't you? Instantly, she was berating herself, even as her body shook with the evidence that the General's Daughter had a point. She was more than just a bit affected, something that seemed reciprocated.

All of a sudden, she was tense, though she didn't try to pull away. That hesitation percolated through the haze in his mind, and Clark paused, suddenly nervous. What was wrong? "Lois?" he asked softly, voice still rough.

Even though you two managed to screw up everything else, the physical side of the relationship was never a problem, the General's Daughter said, still amused.

This reminder stung her conscience deeply, making her flush all the more. She was over this, it was a naïve crush. Nothing more between them. What a lie, one in a long line of many where this man was concerned. How could she do this, after trying so hard lately to make Richard happy? Make him believe again that she was his? Yet here she was, breathing hard with every nerve in her body on high-alert, pressed tight enough between a filing cabinet and Clark that it made things all too clear that the past wasn't dead? And if she had been given a moment longer?

Even the reminder caused Lois to stifle another moan. She wanted this; the voice in her mind now was right. Wanting him had never been a problem, she had never denied that to herself. It was just everything else that had been their problem. And the temptation to toss everything aside for just this moment was so strong...

Closing herself, she forced herself to gain strength. It just wasn't right, especially done like this. Unfair and misleading. And wrong. Not now, not like this. Lois' voice shook as she spoke, her entire body atremble, "Clark ... please ... put me down..."

He blinked at her, trying to reconcile her words with her expression. Even her tone was still breathy. But still, what kind of gentleman would he be if he didn't do as she asked? Clark let her down gently, and for a moment Lois was still in the circle of his arms, still close enough that he felt her tiny gasp as well as heard it. "Lois, I'm sorry..." he began, and she drew back, putting two fingers over his lips to silence him.

"Don't," Lois whispered. Her eyes were so stormy, caught between desire and guilt, almost on the verge of tears.

So troubled, wanting to just kiss her again, Clark almost didn't hear the faint squeak of the doorknob turning. He took a quick step backward, turning to glance at the door, and his spine turned to ice as he saw through the door just who was walking in on them. Super-speed gave him time to leap back even further as Richard swung the door open.


Hints and Allegations

When Richard walked into the supply room, the tableau he saw wasn't absolutely damning, but it was implicating enough to give him pause. Clark stood several feet away from Lois, looking down unable to meet anyone's eyes, while Lois herself was holding out a hand as if to touch him, her expression fraught. Richard glanced from one to the other, taking in their suddenly guilty expressions, and said with a touch of sarcasm, "Am I interrupting something here?"

Lois caught her shuddering breath and let it out in an annoyed sigh, controlling her reaction. "Of course not," she told her fiancé, rolling her eyes briefly. It was much harder to summon up any of her usual venom when she added, "Kent, we'll discuss this later."

Clark glanced at her, his mind in turmoil. He'd never meant to kiss Lois, just came in to talk to her, full of sympathy and wanting to tell her ... anything to make her feel better. What had just happened? And what was happening now? Oh, God, what did Richard think just happened? As Lois stalked out of the supply room, Richard following her with a thoughtful look backward, Clark remembered what his mother had said. Of course she's furious. That's proof that she still loves you. Evidently it was true - that kiss had been full of longing.

He picked up a handful of steno pads as an excuse for going into the supply room in the first place, still thinking it over. What if Lois does still love me? What if she's been so angry with me because she knew something like this would happen if she let me get close to her? Above all else, what should I do now? I don't want to betray Richard - I shouldn't have kissed Lois just then - but oh, my God...

* * *

Lois headed back to her own department, iron self-control keeping her appearance casual. The flush to her cheeks might have been anger or the exertion of yelling at the coffee crowd and Perry. True, her hair was disheveled, but she always ran her fingers through it when she was nervous or angry, and everyone had seen her practically raking it while she argued with the editor-in-chief. Thank God for smear-proof lipstick, she thought. As long as I can keep the shivers under control and breathe normally, I might just pass for a woman who hasn't been making out with her ex in the last five minutes.

While she dropped the pens off in Perry's office, acting rushed, Richard wandered into her office, dropping himself into the chair across from hers. Lois met his eyes as soon as she walked in the door, and steeled herself against the evitable. "Yes?" she said, making her way over to her desk with a clearly nonchalant air. God, please let this be an Academy Award-winning performance. Don't let him suspect.

"What was that?"

"What was what?" What was what? Wow, Lane, that didn't sound defensive at all. And, really what do you have to be defensive about? Flatly ignoring those thoughts, Lois slid down into her own chair, not even looking up at him, and yanked the blackout notes from her drawer. Call Evie @ Telnet Directery Assistence re: Vanderworth calls to & frm, the note on top read.

Richard picked up the soft foam stress-reliever globe on her desk and squeezed it. Lois' manicured nails had permanently pockmarked most of the continents. "You're really rough on these things, you know it?" And in the same mildly inquisitive tone, "What was that in the supply room with Clark?"

Again her conscience burned at just hearing the words. Question was, was she really sure of the answer anymore? It had just happened, without a clear thought in her mind. She had never expected to do that. But with all of her idle wandering thoughts of late, the reminder of her feelings and revelations the night of the Pulitzer, coupled with the very 'what' they were discussing, it seemed impossible to deny. I'm still in love with him. I don't think I ever stopped loving him.

But that doesn't make it right, either, and you know that. The General's Daughter's voice was almost kind in her thoughts. Maybe you should just tell him the truth, even if it's a half-truth. You did promise to keep the secret. And it might help if you were honest with Richard about something.

And to that excellent advice, Lois finally looked up at her fiancé with that trademarked sarcastic expression, rolled her hazel eyes, and replied in an utterly deadpan voice, "Yes, Richard, you were on the verge of catching me in an act of mad, passionate love with the biggest dork in your department. We'll have to remember to lock the door next time. By the way, it's nice to see you, too. Enjoy your two-week trip?" As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she mentally winced. Je-sus! Nice, very nice. You and your bloody defense mechanisms. Why did that have to be so close to the truth?

Richard blinked, surprised by her sharpness. It seemed he'd hit wide of the mark, very wide, but still... For the moment, he chose to act as if nothing was going on. That assumption might even have been true. After all, this was Clark they were talking about: mild-mannered to a fault, extremely moral, and a friend of Richard's. If the nagging voice in the back of his mind was wrong, then no harm done. And if it was right, well, it was best to have some proof when he confronted Lois.

"No, I didn't really enjoy it," Richard said. "We were shot at by drug smugglers who thought we were ATF agents; Clark caught a mild case of Montezuma's Revenge and had to run off on me a couple times; we had to see a Texas rancher hold a gun to the head of an eight-year-old boy; and one of the people we were supposed to contact was executed by the 'coyotes' before we ever got there."

I'd rather be shot at than have the kids get sick, Lois thought as she 'woke' her computer, kicking herself as soon as the words formed. "At least you weren't alone," she replied.

"Yeah, but I didn't have the three people I love most in the world with me," Richard retorted. "Not that I would've wanted you or the twins in the line of fire, but I missed you. And if Clark's to be believed, you were the perfect person to be there - did you really talk a terrorist into letting all the hostages go but you?"

Lois sighed. Ah yes, the boys have been talking. Just what I don't need. "That was the guy who wanted to bomb the Ford building, eight or nine years ago. I just told him one hostage was easier to control than seven, and one hostage who's a famous journalist is more prestigious."

"You said that?" Richard couldn't help grinning at her. "Damn, woman. And then what?"

"Then I got him to let me look at the gunshot wound he had from shooting at the police, and convinced him he'd better go to a doctor or he could die horribly." Lois looked up at him and shrugged. "Plan B was to dig my fingers in the wound and steal his gun while he was screaming in agony."

Richard just shook his head. "Your picture should be in the dictionary next to 'spitfire, ' Lois. I'm so glad you're on my side. So what did Kent want?"

Again there was that hunted, sick feeling in her guts. Of having to betray one or the other with a lie. Knowing that the expression on her face might betray her even if she kept her tone blasé, the dark-haired woman was immediately immersed in her notes again. "The usual. He wanted to apologize again. I wish he'd stop. It's over and done with."

Richard looked at her speculatively. "He obviously feels really guilty over it. Maybe if you weren't so sharp with him he'd get over it." And let's see what you say to that, Ms. Lane.

At first she didn't say anything, just froze that those words. Giving a gusty sigh as well as an annoyed roll of her eyes, Lois looked up at him again over the monitor. Alright, Richard, you're starting to push it now. "And maybe I'm just not ready to get over it. Richard, stop trying to help him fight his battles. He's more than capable of doing it himself, despite appearances. And you weren't here then, Richard. You don't understand the way things were with the four of us." The reminder of this made her frown again, although it had a bit less sting now. "Besides, like I told him at the Pulitzers, you don't just up and leave your best friends like that. He has a lot to make up for and I'll forgive him if and when I'm ready. Alright?" The aggravated look on her face was even more pronounced with the last word.

Richard knew better than to push her. Besides, the office was no place for a personal confrontation. But before he could say more than, "All right, hon," they were interrupted.

Perry threw Lois' office door open, stuck his head in, and glared at them both. "Richard, did I hire you for the city beat?"

"Duty barks," Richard said to Lois, and got up.

"Lane," Perry began, but she held up one hand and pointed to the telephone, where she was dialing Evie direct.

"Calling a source, I'll get back to you," Lois said sweetly, and Perry let her be, satisfied for the moment.

* * *

Clark stayed at his desk, trying to avoid Richard's notice. It appeared that he didn't suspect anything, which simply couldn't be true. Could it? The moment Richard walked in on them, Clark felt as if he had a giant neon sign hanging over his head, flashing the word GUILTY! But so far Richard hadn't said anything to him, had only given him a speculative look. Was it possible that he didn't have more than the slightest suspicion?

I don't know whether to be relieved or more upset. I do not want a confrontation with Richard, but if he's truly unsuspecting, then I feel obligated to confess. He's a good man, and a friend. Not telling him what happened feels as bad as a lie.

I didn't walk in there intending to kiss his fiancée, but darn it, she's the love of my life! I don't think either of us could resist that moment. And a moment is all it was, no matter how much my entire world feels knocked off-kilter by it. She's still engaged to Richard, and I'm still just her ex.

But we have to talk soon. Somehow I need to talk to her about everything that's happened, everything she knows, if just to let her know how grateful I am for her keeping my secret... And if I can get a few answers, too, that would be quite helpful.

* * *

The information from Evie had been very helpful, a long list of numbers regularly dialed from the Vanderworth estate. Having that research to work on helped Lois' mood considerably. What she wouldn't have admitted on pain of death was that the kiss she'd shared with Clark had done much more for her attitude and her self-image. Oh, she was still angry with herself for giving in to her tempestuous emotions, still frightened by how swiftly passion had overtaken her, but at least she no longer felt old and frowsy.

Lois had come in late, so she took lunch late, too, and headed over to Berg's Bistro for one of her more socially-acceptable vices: a quarter-pound blackened sirloin burger smothered in sautéed mushrooms and Swiss cheese. So bad but oh so good, and she could only have them when the kids weren't around. She could practically taste the waffle fries, almost smell the smoky grill...

Wait, that really is smoke. What the hell? Lois opened her car window all the way and stuck her head out, looking all around for the source of the odor. Other drivers barely paid attention; this was Metropolis, where a red light didn't really mean 'stop' unless a cop was nearby.

Only after craning her head around for several minutes did Lois see the sinister gray cloud rising into the sky. It was coming from downtown ... it had to be the arsonist. Lois dropped back into her seat, snatched up her partly-charged cell phone, and dialed Perry even as she cut out of traffic and roared down a side street.

"The firebug's at it again!" she told the editor as soon as he picked up. "Looks like Lennox or higher, somewhere between 35th and 40th. Send a couple reporters and a photographer, Perry. I'm on my way, but traffic's bad."

"You get back to this office, Lane!" Perry barked. "You're not a beat reporter anymore, and those fires are damn dangerous!"

"Sorry, Chief, bad signal," Lois replied, raising her voice and scraping a fingernail over the microphone to simulate static. "Gotta go." Grinning with the joy of the chase, she flipped the phone shut and 'accidentally' turned it off in the process. God, I forget how much I miss this. Pedal to the floorboards, the Audi roared up the backstreets.

There was a nifty little way of bypassing the traffic here; up eight blocks, over three, up another four blocks, and a quick run through an alley brought Lois back to the main streets again, farther ahead than she would've been. Now the source of the smoke was clearer, and Lois' heart sank. Aetna was one of the largest employers downtown. The skyscraper ahead of her belched smoke into the sky, its top stories already engulfed in flame.

Traffic was completely halted as emergency personnel rushed to the scene. Lois spotted a conveniently empty sidewalk. The Audi thumped up over the curb and Lois parked it between two ornamental dogwoods, snatched up her purse and press pass, and ran toward the scene.

Running in heels is an art, she thought, dodging onlookers while pawing through her purse for the tape recorder. The crowd got thicker as she got closer, and she had to employ the famous Lane elbow to make way as she struggled to the front.

"Keep back!" a man yelled up ahead, and his voice had the harmonics of authority. Lois sidestepped, finally coming up behind a police cruiser. Edging out alongside it, she wasn't in the cops' direct line of sight, but she was out of the thick of the crowd at last. At last she could see what was going on.

This time, the arsonist had set the top three stories of an eighty-six story building afire. People were rushing out of every possible exit, looking more like a stampeding herd of cattle than the competent professionals they had been moments ago. The fire department had already arrived, some heading inside to help people out, the rest getting trucks and hoses ready to fight the blaze.

One first responder was missing, however. I understand him being late that one time when he had to get here from Mexico - not to mention had to make excuses to Richard so he could leave - but where the hell is he now? The kiss was damn good, but he can't still be reeling two hours later... Lois gnawed her lower lip, sharp eyes darting around the scene as more sirens howled in the distance. I'm gonna hate myself for this, but I'll hate myself more if I don't. Pulling the cell phone from her purse, she turned away from the crowd at her back as she switched it on and went to the Contacts list. Under Group: DP Staff, she scrolled past Chief, Jimmy, and Richard to the listing That Damn Man and pressed Send.

It rang through to voice mail. "Hi, this is Clark Kent. I'm not, uh, answering my phone now, but if you leave your name and number I'll get back to you, um, as soon as possible. If this is you, Ma, I love you and thanks for buying me the phone."

Lois winced and rolled her eyes. No wonder he doesn't date. How did I get myself involved with someone so ... so... Then the message beeped, and she started speaking, so worried that the anger was gone from her voice. "Listen, I shouldn't be doing this. I don't even know if you can carry this thing in your cape or whatever. But the firebug's struck again, at the Aetna building between..."

Silence, but for the whistle of the wind and the rustle of leaves. Lois' already mussed hair blew forward into her eyes, but she still saw the red and blue blur darting into the building, the kind of speed she always expected to be accompanied by a roar like a jet engine, nevertheless so nearly silent. "Nevermind," she said, pushing End and trying to ignore the feeling of awe that rose in her.

Just behind her, Lois heard an ironic voice. "What's a high-powered assistant editor like Lois Lane doing mingling with us lowly beat reporters?"

Lois closed her eyes. Please don't let her have heard the call... "Hello, Toby. How'd you get here so quick? Chase the ambulance?"

"You almost sideswiped me on Twenty-fifth and I followed you," the pretty brunette replied, smiling. "I figured it was either a disaster story, Superman was around, or Starbucks was giving out free espresso. Two out of three ain't bad."

Lois glared, but she couldn't quite keep herself from smiling back. "Trust a Star reporter to follow me in. Can't you catch a story on your own?"

"I was on my way first! I had the inside track, Lois, I have a police scanner in my car."

"Maggie's a Lieutenant, for the love of God! Getting the scoop that way is cheating. I just evened the odds for the Planet."

"Oh, bull," Toby said, rolling her eyes. "You're not even a reporter anymore, Lane, you've gone to the dark side and joined administration! Now get out of my way and let me do my job. I'm sure the Planet will send a real journalist, eventually."

"Kiss my Pulitzer, Raines," Lois shot back, ready to trip Toby if necessary to make sure she was the first one to interview a firefighter or a cop. The fact that the Star's reporter had struck a nerve there had nothing to do with it, nothing at all.

Before they could snap at each other further, a sudden greedy roar erupted above them. Lois and Toby both whirled around in time to see the fifth, twentieth, and sixtieth floors of the building seemingly explode, glass flying everywhere.

* * *

The cell phone chirped from somewhere in the office behind him as Superman soared out of the airshaft. He heard the sirens, not just the rising and falling wail of police units but the bawling blare of fire department trucks. The arsonist again! It wasn't bad enough he had to strike while I was on assignment with Richard - thank God for the water in Mexico, it's a convenient excuse - now this creep is burning buildings on the one day I just want to go home and sleep for a week to get my mind together. Oh, when I catch him, I'm going to drop him reeking of accelerant right in the D.A's office...

The thought wasn't even completed when he reached the scene, flying at a little less than the speed of sound. Top floors fully involved, people heading for the exits with their panic barely under control, fire and police on the ground already. Stop the blaze first, then help with the rescue. He uses methanol - colorless, odorless, and it burns clear, so more may be on fire than people can actually see. That's been the problem in the last few fires, everyone thinking it was over when it was just starting. Fortunately methanol isn't as explosive as gasoline...

And just moments after he entered, the building shook around him. What the...? I see blue smoke, what combusts extremely fast and has blue smoke? Nitromethane! Good Lord, he really is into the model airplane fuels. Got to put these flames out. Superman started on the fifth floor, from which most people had already escaped. The accelerant had been painted on the walls and ceilings of corridors, so that flame rippled along them. It was almost beautiful, in a frightening way.

Superman blew a freezing breath at the dancing fire, knocking it back. The nitro that had been used here made it difficult, but the fire department already had several hoses aimed at the shattered windows. The one good thing about the arsonist's choice of fuel was that it could easily be put out with plain water.

One last check with his superbly acute vision revealed no more of the faint blue flames on this floor. A woman had fainted in an office, and he quickly took her to the stairs where the other workers helped her escape. Up to twentieth, just a brief red and blue vision as he spiraled up the stairwell, his glimpsed presence inspiring hope among those hurrying down the seemingly endless stairs.

The stairwell door was hot, and he went up to twenty-one and back down through the floor, blowing out the flames. A man, panicked, trapped in the elevator; four secretaries barricading the corner office door and screaming for help from the balcony. One man carrying a badly-burned woman; another man passed out from smoke inhalation only yards from the stairwell. Superman saved them all, working as fast as he could, wrapping his cape around people as he flew them through the fire and down to the waiting ambulances.

The work numbed him, narrowed his focus; put out the fire, save the ones who were trapped or hurt, always heading upward. Hurry, get to the next floor, keep the blaze from spreading. Catch the fire, fight it like a savage, vicious beast, pin it down and drive it out of existence, and try not to listen to its hungry roar, try not to think that it bellows defiance when it swallows people whole and their screams rise above every other sound. Rescuing people whose skin crackled under his hands, whose hair and clothes were gone to the flames, the smoke and the heat even robbing them of their screams, only their white staring eyes to prove they were alive. The further up he got, the worse it was, and anger began to beat in his temples beneath the shock and grief at what he was seeing. How dare anyone do this...

* * *

Lois felt her heart seize up as she heard and saw the explosion. Those people inside ... and Kal-El ... my God. In the next instant, she realized that the glass and debris were falling right toward them. The crowds the police had kept back would probably be safe, but she and Toby were now well inside the lines and too close for comfort.

The two reporters dived in unison for the shelter of an overhang across the street, barely escaping a shower of glass fragments that fell onto the pavement with obscenely cheerful tinkling sounds. Half of someone's desk didn't land so gracefully, coming down from an upper story to smash into a police car. Lois and Toby watched, silently, fulfilling their duty as the eyes and ears of their readers. No interviews now, just the need to witness, and then to report. This is what happened, this is how it was. I was there, I risked my life so all of you didn't have to. This is the story.

A telephone handset with someone's hand still clutching it landed just in front of them. Bits of steel lanced through the air, warped by the explosion into deadly projectiles. Concrete dust danced in the air, frosting everyone's faces and clothing. The roar of the fire, the smoke and the confusion, and through it all the reporters who raced into danger made themselves into living recorders.

In spite of journalist objectivity, in spite of her almost sacred calling to witness events of this magnitude, Lois was thinking in the back of her mind, That could've been me, or the twins, or Perry or Jimmy or my mother. And for someone else, it is. God, please, no more ... let the cops catch this bastard, let him burn himself up, anything, just please never again.

* * *

The fire on the top floors had been burning longest, and it was much more reluctant to surrender. Thankfully, no one was left up here, and Superman could concentrate on battling the flames. He was focused on the smoldering carpets when he became aware of a faint beeping noise somewhere below.

That's somewhere about the fortieth floor - no reason for a smoke alarm to be going off down there. Sounds like four different alarm clocks going off, really. I'd better check it. Much as he hated to leave what he was doing, the top floors of the building were already pretty much gutted, and with the other blazes extinguished the fire department was working on this one now. Superman flew down the stairwell, noticing that most people were now in the lower half of the building and proceeding more calmly.

The fortieth floor was mostly given over to maintenance and janitorial. He traced one set of beeps over to a far corner of the building. Just paint cans stacked over here. What could be beeping? Another ignition device? I know this guy uses delays, but why would it make a sound... And then he moved the paint cans aside, and saw what was behind them.

Just an old, battered suitcase, with a travel alarm clock sitting on top of it, beeping in time with three other alarm clocks somewhere else on this floor. Only why was it here, and why was the clock counting backwards...

* * *

Lois had managed to snag one of the executives coming out of the building for a few questions. "Did you have any warning?" she was asking.

The man's eyes were a little too wide, but he mostly had it together. "The fire alarms went off upstairs. Everybody reads the paper, we know about the arsons. Never thought it would happen here. Security's been beefed up for weeks. Soon as we heard the alarms, we knew it hadn't been enough."

"Any ideas on how the arsonist got in?"

The man shook his head. "Not a clue. Used to be security would let you in if they knew you. Last month or so, you'd better have your badge or you'd be stuck outside waiting for a manager to approve you."

And badges can be stolen, Lois thought, but her train of thought was interrupted by a crash above. Everyone on the street looked up, fearing the worst, and their expressions turned to puzzlement as they saw Superman flying straight up at his top speed, the glass wall he'd flown out of fragmented. The downdraft of his ascent hit them, blowing Lois' hair into her eyes again. What the hell is he doing? she wondered, trying to focus her eyes on the rapidly-dwindling dot that was Superman.

So she was looking right at him seconds later when the four suitcase bombs went off. The fireball was visible for miles, but Superman had flown high enough that no buildings were damaged.

Everyone on the ground who had seen him fly up cried out at this latest explosion. Lois was no exception, in spite of the fact that she knew an ordinary bomb couldn't hurt him. What if that wasn't ordinary? Luthor was behind all of the arsons, she knew it. What if there was kryptonite in those bombs? What if all of this had just been a trap for Superman?

Lois watched the sky, ignoring the tears that burned in the corners of her eyes. Please, let him be alright...

* * *

The force of the blast knocked him reeling, spinning through the air for a moment. He caught himself quickly, scanning the city below. No damage. I was high enough, thank God. Superman rushed back into the building, waving to the crowds to let them know he was all right. All the while he tried not to think about what would've happened if those bombs had gone off while everyone was still evacuating. Placed near critical support structures. Whoever did this meant to bring the whole building down, and timed it to kill the most fire and rescue workers possible. Who would be sick enough to do something like that? He was all too sure he knew the answer to that question.

The top floors were still burning, and he hurried to blow them out. The fire department's highest ladders and longest hoses helped, and Superman concentrated on the innermost sections of the building, halting the blaze before it could spread along air ducts and electrical conduits.

He had no idea how long he'd been fighting, tasting smoke in the back of his throat, feeling ash on his skin and in his hair. At last, though, the conflagration was out. This had been the worst of the fires so far, and the most intricately planned. Superman didn't know how many people had been harmed or killed, but the thought made his stomach churn painfully.

One last scan of the building revealed a child hiding under a desk on the sixty-first floor. The smoke hadn't reached her; she had simply panicked at all the alarms and people rushing for the exits, and she had hidden. He worked his way down through the building to her, checking the structural integrity as he did. The fire had damaged it, but not as badly as the arsonist had clearly hoped.

Here she was. "It's safe now," he said gently. A little dark-haired girl who reminded him of Kala peered fearfully out at him, then brightened when she recognized her rescuer.

"Superman!" she cried, and leaped into his arms. "It was so noisy, I was scared."

"It's okay now, sweetheart," he told her as he carried her to a window broken by falling debris. "You just hold on, and I'll get you out of here. Who are your parents?"

The child murmured the names as he flew gently out of the window and drifted to the ground. Her eyes went wide with fascination, staring fearlessly around her as they flew.

* * *

Lois barely had time to register that Superman was okay before he headed back into the building. The police, seeing the explosion, were suddenly a lot more concerned with members of the press sneaking inside their lines, and Lois had to dodge several officers' eyes. Murmuring notes into her recorder, she quickly described the events as she'd seen them; the initial fire high up, the sudden burst of flames from several points in the building, and then the bombs Superman had removed just in time.

She paused then, collecting her thoughts. Everything still pointed to Luthor; he had the resources and the sheer ruthlessness to plan something like this. And it would be just like him to time the final blast so it would kill the first responders. But Luthor never did anything just for the heck of it. He had to have another purpose behind this, and Lois let her gaze roam as she wondered what that could be.

The sudden sense of something wrong made her stop and suddenly pay attention. A man had gotten inside the police lines and was filming the building with a video camera mounted on a tripod. He seemed to be paying close attention to the fire itself, now confined to mere flickers from the roof, and only occasionally switching to pan his lens over the ambulances and the survivors able to flee on foot. Something about him was just...

I don't recognize him, Lois thought, looking more closely. True, I don't know all the photojournalists in Metropolis, but I've never even seen this guy before. Tall, sandy-haired, clean-shaven, but there's something about the eyes I don't like. And the way he's watching people doesn't seem right. He just looks out of place.

The man seemed to notice Lois looking, and leaned away from his camera to catch her eyes. When he had her full attention, he gave her a cruel, knowing smile and an ironic little wave.

Lois felt the hairs at the nape of her neck prickle. Intuition told her this man was either the arsonist or someone connected with him, and that meant he was Luthor's crony. She whirled, looking for Superman, ready to yell for him to catch this crook. They could find out exactly where he fit into this macabre puzzle later.

A clatter of metal behind her, and Lois turned back to see the man melt into the crowds. Dammit, she swore at herself, moving forward quickly then, sure that he hadn't had adequate time to disappear completely with a crowd this size. I knew it! I knew that creep was up to something. Bracing herself for the resistance, Lois pushed herself into the throng in pursuit of the tall man, momentarily forgetting any of the events that had just occurred as she maneuvered her way after him. For an instant, she thought she could see his crew cut hair, her quarry possibly no further than fifteen feet in front of her...

Then the crowd around her surged forward, beginning to cheer. Lois had to move with them or be crushed, and she struggled against the tide, cursing her delicate build. The police were trying to hold them back, the building wasn't entirely stable, but everyone had seen what Lois now saw as she turned around: Superman landing gently, a little girl cradled in his arms. A perfectly unharmed little girl who could've been Kala...

In spite of knowing both twins were in the suburbs with her mother, in spite of having seen the disturbing man only seconds ago, for one instant Lois believed that was her daughter, just rescued from Luthor's henchmen. She lunged out of the mob, flashing her press pass at the closest cop, and wound up being one of the first media representatives around Superman despite having been the furthest away. By then, of course, she had seen the little girl's face and knew she wasn't Kala, but there were still plenty of questions to answer.

* * *

A pack of journalists surrounded him as he handed the little girl over to the police. He hadn't given the press much of his time since he'd returned, and there was no escaping them now without being completely rude.

Some of the faces were familiar, some were new, and Superman barely had time to catch his breath before a pretty blonde he knew well elbowed her way to the front. "This is Cat Grant, WGBS News, live at the scene of downtown Metropolis' latest fire," she said hastily into her microphone, then held it out to him. "Superman, do you believe this blaze is the work of the serial arsonist?"

Cat's cameraman was behind her, focusing in on Superman's face. "The police will be able to determine that when they complete their investigation," he replied cautiously. I do not want to do this now, but I can't really escape it, either.

The questions came thick and fast, cameras pointed his way, microphones and tape recorder pushed toward him. "Superman, were you able to rescue all of the trapped workers?"

"How many bombs were inside the building?"

"Do the police have any leads or any suspects?"

"What's being done to prevent future fires?"

"Any indication of the arsonist's next target?"

"Has anyone discovered a link between the targeted buildings?"

"These fires began after your return to Earth. Is there a connection?"

That last question, its tone almost rude, silenced everyone for a moment. Superman couldn't see the man who had asked it, probably some tabloid 'reporter' with no real journalistic credentials, but suddenly became aware of jostling in the crowd to his right.

The last person he expected to see elbowed her way out in front and thrust a tape recorder in his face. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she stated coldly. "Do you believe that your return has caused an increase in high-profile crimes such as this?"

And twenty cameras caught his poleaxed expression.

* * *

She'd been furious as she walked up. I could've gotten that bastard! I could've caught him and gotten us a real lead! But nooooo, somebody had to fly down for their photo op!

But as soon as the harsh words left her mouth, Lois started to feel sick. He was clearly shocked by her tone, and everyone around them knew perfectly well she didn't need to introduce herself. Did I really say that? Jeez, Lane, why not be a complete bitch on camera!

Before he could even reply, Lois felt a sharp jab in the middle of her back and heard Toby Raines hiss, "Thanks a lot, Lane! Now I have to print something about you acting catty to your ex. I try to be nice to you in spite of the fact that you're the competition, but then you go do something like that."

Superman cleared his throat and looked right into Lois' eyes. "No, Ms. Lane, I don't," he said quietly, but his voice was sterner than it had ever been speaking to her. "Crime has existed since Cain slew Abel. These fires have gotten so much press because of the numbers of lives saved. It's the work of our police, our fire department, and our emergency medical teams that's remarkable here. I was able to render them some aid - and it's my honor to do so - but they are always the real heroes." With a nod to the rest of the press, he continued, "By the way, congratulations on your engagement, Ms. Lane. Ladies and gentlemen, if you'll excuse me..."

The moment they stepped back, still muttering over the frosty exchange that had ended the impromptu press conference, he flew up and away. Other reporters sought out police and firemen to interview, but Lois could only thumb the STOP button on her recorder angrily and sigh with frustration.

"That was lovely," Toby said, glaring at her. "Not like I can ignore that in favor of a real story. Well, since you've gone and forced me to become a gossip columnist, would you like to give me a little background on why you two are squabbling?"

"Shut up," Lois growled at her Daily Star counterpart, and stalked off.

I can't believe I just did that. I can't believe he just did that! 'Congratulations on your engagement' ... Clark, you nasty jealous bugger, I'll get you for that one.

The Romantic chose that moment to murmur, And you were worried he didn't still care about you.

Who said I was worried? the General's Daughter snarled. Besides, being jealous doesn't prove he cares. Based on the supply room this morning, he's just being possessive of something he no longer owns!

I do not have time for a mental breakdown! Lois shook her head sharply, silencing both voices. There was one sure way to distract herself from that man and lay one nagging fear to rest. She pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed 3.

"Lane residence," Ella answered in formal tones.

"Mom, it's me," Lois said, closing her eyes gratefully for this anchor of calm and sanity in her life. "Are the kids okay?"

"Sure, dear, they're playing Connect-Four. And beating me, I should add. Do you want to talk to them?"

Just then, Lois heard Kala yell, "That's cheating!"

Jason immediately hollered back, "Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

Lois chuckled in spite of herself. "No, they're fine. I'll let you go before they start World War Three. Love you, Momma."

"Love you too, Lois," Ella said fondly. As she replaced the receiver, Lois heard her say sternly, "What ever happened to good sportsmanship? Let me look up the rules and I'll tell you if it's cheating or not, but there's no reason to yell..."

Dropping the phone back into her purse, Lois sighed with relief and cut down an alley toward her car. For the first time that morning, her thoughts were far from Kal-El.

So she was too surprised to scream when she found herself off the ground and accelerating upward somewhat in excess of two hundred miles an hour.


It's All Coming Back To Me

Kal-El had meant to fly away, seek the solace of the sky. Lois was obviously pissed, still off-kilter from her terrible morning and their ... what do you call an encounter like that, anyway? Clearly, that had left her a little unbalanced. And what had she been doing at the scene of the fire?

Yet the more he reflected on her beautiful hazel eyes gone so cold, her voice so clipped and formal, the angrier he got. The Kents had raised him to suppress anger, to turn the other cheek, to always be the better person and present a mild face to the world. But Lois had been alternately ignoring him and lashing out. This final outburst, in public, was the last straw. He simply couldn't take any more. Superman halted and turned in the air, scanning for her.

Perfect. Lois was alone, walking down an alley. He dove faster than the human eye could follow, catching her around the waist and soaring up through the clouds. Let's see you ignore me now, Lois.

By the time she drew breath to scream, they were far out of earshot of anyone below. Lois had to settle for sinking her fingernails deep into the sleeves of his uniform and hissing, "Let me go!"

Kal-El had flown up behind her and wrapped one arm around her as he accelerated. He didn't want to be facing her at the moment, didn't want to be reminded of all their romantic flights. "Are you sure you want me to let you go, Lois?"

"Of course I'm sure! Put me down right now!"

"If you insist," he said, "but it's a long drop." He turned his arm a fraction of a degree, not enough to let go but enough to make his point.

The sudden clutch of her hands on his arm told him she realized she was at a disadvantage, for once. But not defeated. "So I remember," she spat. "Did you really drop me by accident that time, or was it just an excuse to be cute?"

"It really was an accident, Lois," he retorted. "I'm not anywhere near as manipulative as you think." He slowed, rising to stand on the air, and adjusted his grip to hold her around the waist, facing him.

Lois stiffened, hating the familiarity of his touch, and braced her hands against his forearms. If you think I'm gonna wrap my arms around your neck like some lovestruck teenager, you've got another think coming. "So what do you want? I expect you didn't bring me up here for nothing. Seems like every time we fly there's something you want."

He ignored the implication. "Some answers," he shot back. "In a venue where you can't dodge the questions."

"Answers? From me? Hmm, looks to me like you're the only one who remembers all the questions!"

"And that's the first question. What exactly do you remember, Lois?"

Her eyes narrowed with fury, pure spite in her voice. "I remembered everything after you'd left. Everything."

"Are you sure?"

"I remember everything from using my gun to trick you into admitting who you really are, to hearing your father tell you that yours is a higher destiny," she spat. "And everything after that, Kal-El. I remember twice that night and once the next morning. I remember you shivering with shock and desire; I remember how dark my hair looked against your thigh. And I remember how quickly it was all over after you got your ass kicked in that diner and found out about the Zod Squad."

He flinched, blushing furiously; six years ago, her blunt tone and choice of reminders would've made him drop the subject right there. But Kal-El had been gone six years, had seen his birth planet fractured and poisoned by radiation. He had returned to his adopted world, the only home he'd ever known, and found it changed almost beyond recognition in his absence. And he had discovered the love of his life engaged to another man, raising some stranger's children, and generally going on without him. All of that might have been enough to break him, but for the hope that she might still love him. That they might be able to salvage something of their former closeness.

This morning, that unexpected kiss had fueled his hope, made it burn high enough that not even her snide remarks at the scene of the fire could dampen it entirely. Kal-El was beginning to see the pattern: the more Lois felt for him, the more his presence reminded her of their past, the more she tried to drive him away, to deny or degrade everything that had been between them.

But Lois wasn't giving him time to process all of that. "I also remember you refusing to talk about anything that was happening. You barely said ten words to me that night while I washed the blood off your face. 'I have to go back, I have to try something, ' that was all. And then when I finally went to bed without you, figuring we'd make our plans in the morning, you snuck out on me. Snuck out the window like a little boy who'd been grounded, and probably walked all the way back to the Fortress! I was so worried I called in every favor Daddy's friends owed me and had the military looking for you out there!"

"Lois," he began, but she overran him. That little habit of hers was getting really annoying.

"You couldn't even be bothered to say goodbye - seems like that's a habit with you - and you damn sure couldn't let me try to help you. Never mind that I've got military and police contacts, never mind that I could, say, walk up to the three of them with a hunk of kryptonite. No, you're Superman, you had to do it all by yourself, go back on your knees to your father and tell him he was right and beg him for your powers back. I had no idea what happened or what you were doing until you showed up in Metropolis the next time. When I saw you again I was too glad you were alive to cuss you out like I wanted to!"

"Too bad that didn't work the second time," he told her.

* * *

When Lana left the fashion department, she met Richard in the elevator as he was making his way to lunch after a stop-off at the proofreading department. They wound up talking easily, and he decided to walk Lana to the subway terminal. I can definitely see why Clark had a crush on her, he thought.

In the middle of animated conversation, they passed a store displaying a dozen television sets. The live coverage of the fire was on. Drawn in, they watched it raptly, unable to look away from the scene of destruction so narrowly averted.

And then the press mobbed Superman, and Richard saw Lois' face in the crowd of reporters. His heart leaped into his throat at the thought of her being there, so close to danger, and then he recognized the look on her face.

"Oh, no," he said, seconds before his fiancée snapped out frostily, "Lois Lane, Daily Planet. Do you believe that your return has caused an increase in high-profile crimes such as this?"

He was watching when Superman's eyes narrowed briefly, his jaw tightening. "Congratulations on your engagement, Ms. Lane," and Richard winced. Oh, crap. I really did steal Superman's girlfriend.

"Oh, dear," Lana murmured, biting in her lip in sympathy. She felt for everyone at that moment - Superman, who hardly deserved such an underhanded attack; Lois, whose day was only getting worse from the sounds of it; and the kind, wonderful man beside her, who had apparently just had his worst suspicions about his fiancée's former love life confirmed.

But Richard quickly went from pained to pissed. She has a lot of explaining to do. And I'm not going to be brushed off anymore.

Lana touched his wrist lightly. "She's had a really awful day, Richard. I'm sure she didn't mean to be so..."

"Bitchy?" Richard finished.

"I was going to say forceful," Lana corrected gently.

"I don't want to talk about it," he replied, and changed the subject. "Got time for a late lunch?"

The redhead hesitated for a minute. He was such a nice guy, and she was feeling a bit peckish ... but he was engaged. "I'm sorry, Richard, if I don't get down there my assistant will faint from anxiety. But it's a very kind offer."

Richard smiled and glanced away, wondering what the heck he had been thinking. "All right, then, let's get you to the subway."

They walked the rest of the way in comparative silence. When they reached the subway station, Richard stopped and said, "Feel free to drop by the Planet anytime you've got news for Agi, though."

"Oh, I will," Lana said, smiling up at him. "Take care of yourself."

"You too," Richard said. For a long moment they just looked at each other, and then she took a step back and turned away.

He watched her leave, telling himself it was her safety that concerned him. As he headed back to the office, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed Lois. She wasn't answering, but he left a message and abruptly decided to stop somewhere and have a sandwich or something. This issue with Lois has waited for three years, it can wait a little longer.

* * *

Kal-El wasn't finished saying what needed to be said. "I'm going to assume, based on this morning, that on some level you are glad I survived and returned from Krypton."

Lois clenched her teeth so hard her jaw ached, forcing herself not to slap him. It would only hurt her hand and possibly distract him enough to make him drop her. "That's completely unfair," she said, grinding the words out.

"Like everything you've been saying to me hasn't been just as unfair," he retorted. "Especially since most of the time you never give me a chance to explain. Can you stop yelling long enough for us to actually talk about what happened?"

"Talk about what happened when? Six years ago or two months ago? It's too late on both, Kal-El. All of that is over and done with."

"Oh, really?" he asked. "If that's true, why are you so vicious to me? Lois, can you really look me in the eyes and say you don't love me at all?"

Any moment now, one of her teeth would shatter from the pressure. "That doesn't matter anymore - I'm engaged with two children. It's been a long time."

"And that's another thing," he said. "You say you were so angry at me for leaving, you claim to have been hurt so badly, but barely a month after I'm gone you get pregnant? Care to explain that, Lois?"

She froze at that, the expression in her eyes incredulous even as the nausea in her stomach roiled. For a rash moment, she considered calling him on his own blindness and lack of faith. How could he look at them and not see it? Not see the rich blue of Jason's eyes and know them for his own? The way both of the twins smiled just like him, only Jason's was usually shyer, more like Clark's. And Kala's hair had the slightly blue tint from his darker shade. If he could see right through her, than why the hell couldn't he see that?

Holding back the ticking time bomb that rose to her lips, Lois glared at him scornfully. "What did you expect me to do? Pine away for you like a dithering twit? Well, you should be thrilled, in that case. I spent over a month looking for you, practically sleeping by the Associated Press ticker with CNN in the background."

"And then you just jumped into bed with first man who looked interesting? What? Tell me what was going through your mind, Lois. Had you remembered by then? Were you doing it to get back at me? Or did it just seem like a good idea at the time?"

Again she bristled. That he'd think that of her so easily tore something inside her. How could he know so much but so little? Unable to help it, she was feeling the sting of his words deeper than he'd ever know. Struggling to keep the gut-shot feeling off her face, she struck out blindly. "What did it matter to you? You ended it, you disappeared. You told me that 'Someday, you'll...' I believe the end of that was supposed to be 'find someone, ' wasn't it? You cloaked it all as if it never existed. And you have the gall to stand there painting me as a fallen woman? What right do you have to judge me? What the hell did you care? You made your big mistake and you cleaned it up. End of story. 'Thanks for the fling; the sex was great.'" Unaware of it, the fire in her eyes was being outshined by the spark of hurt glowing like a live coal. "Regardless of what you think me capable of, Richard isn't that kind of man. Check your facts, Mr. Kent."

"We're not talking about Richard here, Lois," he reminded her. "I know he isn't the twins' father, so you don't have to try to lie to me. He didn't even meet you until you came back to Metropolis from Paris. Yes, he and I talked about you. He loves you, Lois, but the he doesn't know you. And the longer this goes on, the more he realizes just how much he missed about you."

Before Lois could reply to that, he continued, "It wasn't a fling, Lois. It mattered a lot to me, in fact. More than it seems to have mattered to you. I hate to remind you, but you were the first. And the only. Once I looked into your eyes on that flight after the interview, well, there's never really been another woman who could compare."

Now she couldn't hold back her emotions. He had hit her too many times where she lived, had punched her directly in the weak spot of her fears. How could he have known her so well and not at all? It took all she had in her not to attempt to struggle free of him, heedless of the fall. "Do you think that makes it any better, Kal-El? Is that supposed to be some kind of comfort? Do you think that would have made any difference then, when I was near a nervous breakdown wondering what had happened to you? When I was chain-smoking at a computer all night while I tried to piece together your trail? And when I remembered, do you think that didn't feel like lemon in the wound? Didn't make me feel like a fool?"

She looked away from him forcefully now. It was too much of everything. Too much hurt, too much anger, too much time passed. "And you're right. I knew Kala and Jason's father about as well as I know the man before me. Is that what you wanted to hear? I never realized that until this moment. Thank you for making me aware of that."

He flinched at that. "You knew me once, Lois. You knew better than anyone else on earth. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes back then. The biggest one was not talking to you about anything I was going to do before I did it. You're right, I screwed up royally. And then the way you were that morning at work - I've never been able to stand seeing you hurt. I only wanted to make things better, Lois. It was fine for my heart to break, for me to bear the loss alone, but I didn't want you to have to remember all of that. I know taking the memories was a mistake now, but back then it seemed like the best way to spare you pain. Remember, that was the first time I ever told anyone about my past, the first serious relationship I ever had, the first time I ever defied Jor-El, the first time I ever failed the world in my mission, and the first time I broke up with a woman I loved, all in the same two days! Can you blame me for not thinking straight?"

Her brows rose at that, her hair whipping at suddenness of her head turning. Lois could only look at him in amazement, unable to believe what she was hearing. He was talking as if he had been a teenage boy caught by his father in the backseat with a girl after the senior prom. Had he even stopped to consider what his choices would do to her? That she had felt for him more than any other man she had ever met? Did he really just think that that had just been a typical situation of her to be placed in? Not to mention, and she was damned if she would, the little surprises she had had growing inside her when he left. Unable to help herself, she could only utter a bitter, broken laugh. "Take me back. Back to Metropolis. This was a mistake; it was all one big mistake."

"No, you're misunderstanding me," Kal-El said urgently. "Loving you was never a mistake. The decisions I made - including going back to Krypton - were what ruined everything. Lois, Jor-El was wrong. He told me I had to choose between you and all humanity, but I don't think that's true anymore. He was trying to make me into some kind of intellectual robot, free of all attachments, when even he had a loving marriage. He wanted me to be some kind of superhuman savior, but that's not what I am."

What she would have given to have heard those words while she carried the twins, how it hurt now to hear them and know better in spite of the thrill that ran through her as he admitted it. Even now, knowing it was no more in reach than a dead echo, it felt like sunshine pouring through her just to hear it. She knew better, even as a voice deep inside her argued loudly to the opposite. He had made his choice before, only to change it again. The man she had loved ... did love ... had never belonged to her. Never would, despite what he was saying now. It didn't matter, though. They had had their chance then, only to have it fall apart.

Softly now, she whispered, looking up at him, "The world may need a savior, from time to time, but I don't. I loved you, Kal-El, more than anyone else I had ever laid eyes on. But that was six years ago. There's nothing that we can change, not where we are or the people we've become. You don't even know me anymore, if you ever did. You could never have me over your duty. You can't even know for sure what you felt for me was love. Let me go; it's the only thing we can do. Save both of us the heartache."

He sighed; some things could not be argued about. At what point did a suitor become a stalker? How could he pursue her when she finally told him, calmly and sincerely, to leave her alone? "If it's really what you want, Lois, I will. But I'll always love you, and I'll always wish things had been different. And I'll never forget what you did for me - keeping my secret in spite of everything I did to you."

The grief and sorrow in his eyes nearly killed her. Once again, the feeling of déjà vu was strong enough to send her reeling. Don't ever forget, a ghost of her own voice whispered, chilling her as she fought tears. It was her this time, her being the voice of reason, where it had been him the last. Yet it felt as if something was dying inside her, something impossible to close off. Rash words leapt to the tip of her tongue - I still love you, and I love our children, too - but she choked them back.

Even if he loves me, he clearly can't even imagine the possibility of the twins being his. There's no telling how he'd react to that news, but one thing's for certain: whether he considers them a mistake or the newest heirs to dead Krypton's legacy, he'll want to take them from me. Jor-El would demand no less, whether he would admit it or not. Kala's hearing is sharper than it should be, and Jason breaks a lot of toys that are supposed to be indestructible. If those are powers coming in, it's yet another reason for him to raise them himself. And I don't care how good his logic is, no one will take the twins from me.

For a moment neither of them could meet each other's eyes, and then he spoke again. "But if you ever need me... Lois, if you ever change your mind, if you want to see if maybe we could make this work again... I'm always around. I always will be. No matter what happens, if you need me, just call me. I'll be there."

Now, in spite of her struggle to hide it, the tears came silently without her permission. The venom drained from the wound, the anguish running through her entire body was clear. Only then, in that instant, was it clear to him just how much she had been bottling up. She looked so small and fragile now, nothing like the tornado that had ascended with him. Her voice was broken and almost tender when she replied, "There's no point, regardless of how anyone feels, Kal-El. We know how it ends. At least, we both do now." Lois looked up at him then, those unique hazel eyes glimmering, and doing so was an almost Herculean effort. "You're theirs now. The whole world. What's the point in selfish jealousy when you have to contend with that, especially when I have so much waiting for me at home? Be good to them, Kal-El, because they trust you again. Just know that they'll never love you the same way I did."

Lois, tell him, dammit! What's wrong with you? The two of you could make it right this time. He loves you and you love him! No more of this 'I hate him' crap; it's the biggest damn lie you've ever told yourself. You love him, here, now, this minute. Say it, tell him the truth. All of it! The Romantic flew into a rage then, knowing that the moment had come and their chance was slipping away. Just tell him!

No! The General's Daughter was louder. Do you really want to go through all of that again? To think you can have him only to lose him? He loves you, he wants to be with you - none of that's new. Sooner or later, the world and the mission will win. He can't be who he is and not let that happen. Can you stand to have your heart broken all over again?

Lois already knew the answer to that. Just this moment, the closure they'd never really gotten six years ago, was killing her. To have him again, to have the bliss of waking beside him, to nuzzle up to him in the hazy predawn hours and know he was hers, and then to lose it all once again - that would destroy her.

She saw the way he flinched when she mentioned what she had waiting at home, saw the keen agony in his eyes. And given the way this entire evening had gone, she really should've expected his next words. "Just ... don't ever forget, Lois," he said sadly.

No words existed to really reply to that, but Lois tried to find them, anyway. After a moment, she simply leaned toward him as he bent his head to hers. In the instant before their lips met, Lois whispered, "No more amnesia, not this time," even as a sad voice in her mind murmured, Wouldn't it be better to forget it all and start again?

He whispered, "Never again," and kissed her softly. For those few seconds while they were in each other's arms again, their feelings for each other were even more plain than they had been during that blaze of passion earlier. This was the love they had both found unexpectedly, had cherished and had mourned. It should have been a kiss goodbye, but it didn't feel quite so final. More like the healing of old wounds.

Lois sighed and rested her cheek on his chest, letting him kiss her hair. "I'm sorry ... for how nasty I've been to you... I guess I blew that part of the promise, huh?"

"Shh, Lois," he told her, drifting gently down through the clouds. "You were hurt. I understand."

She pulled away a little, looking down to avoid meeting his eyes. There below them was the Daily Planet globe, and Lois was a little relieved to see that reminder of her sane life - her real life, she told herself firmly. He saw it too, and said quietly, "I think I'm going to take the rest of the day off."

"Go ahead," she replied more casually than she felt. Even if the war in her heart might not show on Lois' face, there were no words to accurately describe her feelings at the moment. "I need to write up the fire ... and some other stuff..."

Superman just nodded and set her down. They looked at each other another long moment, each seeing something beautiful once theirs and now unattainable, and then he stepped away. "Goodbye, Lois."

"Goodbye," she whispered, and watched him rise up into the heavens again. In her mind, she again heard her own voice echo back over the years as he disappeared from her sight. Well, there he goes, kid. Up, up, and away.

* * *

Lois drifted into her office like her own wandering ghost, speaking to no one and seeming not to see them, either. She sat down in front of her computer and stared at it for a few moments, then leaned forward and pressed the heels of her hands against her brow. So many thoughts crowded in her mind, so many emotions threatening to burst her heart, all she could really think was, Now I understand how he felt all those years ago. I hate being the voice of reason.

"I love you," she whispered brokenly, the words she'd never dared to say out loud, knowing that he wouldn't hear her unless he tried. Knowing right then that he was trying to think of anything but her. "Oh, dear God help me, I'm still in love with you."

And just as the first tears began to spill, her office door banged open.

"Dammit, Lois, where the hell have you ... been..." Perry stopped in mid-sentence as she looked up at him, her face so wounded and vulnerable. Everything he'd meant to say - to yell, really - vanished at that shattered look. "My God, Lois, what's wrong? Are you okay?"

A short, sardonic laugh. "No," Lois said, dashing the tears from her eyes with impatient gestures. "What do you want, Perry?"

He just stared at her. "Tell me what happened first."

Not in a million years. "I went to the fire scene. I ... I guess it bothered me more than I thought..."

"I guess so," he replied, "considering that you snapped at Superman in front of a TV camera and then mysteriously disappeared somewhere between that little press conference and your car. Which, by the way, is still parked on a sidewalk downtown, being roped off as a potential crime scene. Do you have any idea how many people are looking for you right now?"

"Huh? But Chief, why?"

A little annoyance crept back into his voice. "You vanish into thin air - that girl from the Star, Raines, said she saw you walk into an alley and never come out. Your car's sitting there, you aren't answering your phone, nobody knows where you are, and we all know Luthor's out there somewhere. And then you turn up here!"

It dawned on her then, and she spoke before thinking. "Oh, shit, he brought me back here! I didn't even think about the car..." My Audi is still illegally parked downtown, and the cops are treating it as a crime scene since I vanished... Why the hell didn't I remember to go back to the car?

"He?" Perry asked. "Superman, I presume?"

Lois closed her eyes. "Yes, Chief, he decided we needed to talk after the little incident there."

"Good. And since he didn't drop you down a ravine, I assume you two are going to be civil to each other from now on?"

Lois shot him an evil look. "Yes, Perry, you're going to get your bloody exclusives back! Now excuse me, I have a car to fetch." And a heart to glue back together... and a brain to find before I do something else stupid...

"Don't worry about it," the editor told her gruffly. "I called Sawyer as soon as I saw you. She's bringing the car here. But if I were you, I'd turn on your cell phone and check your messages. That news feed was live."

"Oh, God," she groaned.

"Yeah, don't turn on your TV tonight. I'm sure they'll show it again," he said. "Too bad Richard's probably already seen it, wherever the hell he is."

Lois winced. "Perry..."

"Have you even told him yet?"

"Told him what?"

Perry crossed his arms and glared at her. "About you and Superman."

"What about..."

"Stuff it, Lane. The whole damn city just got a live definition of Woman Scorned. Have you even told my nephew - your fiancé - about your ex?"

Lois sighed disgustedly. "I think he suspects."

"Good. He'd be a damn fool not to, and I'd hate to think he was a disgrace to the White name." On that note, Perry left her alone.

Bracing herself, Lois powered up her phone. You have ... twenty ... three ... new messages, the pleasant recorded voice told her, and Lois groaned. First message...


Glass Houses

The cell phone buzzed for a second, then played the first recorded message. "Lois, it's Richard. I saw the news. We need to talk." There was an abrupt click as he hung up the phone, and Lois pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering if this was what a migraine felt like.

Next message...

"Miss Lane, this is Jimmy. I think the Chief's really mad at you - he's turning red and yelling something about you and the news? Call me before you come back to the office and I'll let you know if the coast is clear." Even as he whispered, she could hear Perry bellowing in the background.

Next message...

"Lois, this is your mother. I hope you realize you've just traumatized your twins. They were watching TV, and they saw all of that. Kala's in her room claiming that there's nobody named Kala home right now, and Jason's in tears because he says you said you and Superman were friends and now you're being mean. Call me."

Next message...

"Hey, Lane, this is Toby. Um, where the heck did you go? I saw you walk down that alley a minute ago, but I lost you after that. I was hoping for a sound bite that won't make you look like a total bitch. C'mon, help me out here?"

Next message...

"Lois, you'd better start answering this goddamn phone when I call you! Oh, and just so you know, I know Olsen called you. Don't bother calling him to find out if I'm not pissed anymore, if you wait for that you won't come in 'til February. Bring your butt back to the office before you say something else snarky on live television!"

Next message...

"Toby again. You're not at your car and nobody else has seen you. We all know you keep the phone on for the twins - why aren't you answering? You're starting to scare me, Lane. Call me as soon as you get this." A hang-up call followed that one, and then Perry again.

Next message...

"Now I'm mad 'til at least June! Why the hell is that broad from the Daily Star calling here to ask where you are? And who gave her your office number? Where are you, anyway?"

Next message...

"Honey, where are you? Uncle Perry called to ask if I'd heard from you. You left the car parked downtown and no one's seen you since the fire scene. Call and let me know you're all right."

Next message...

An annoyed sigh and a click as the caller hung up. The next two calls were hang-ups as well.

Next message...

"Lane, Sawyer. Toby's starting to freak out. Apparently you walked into an alley and disappeared? Please tell me you're just being cussed out - and rightfully so - by your ex. If you were kidnapped out from under all our noses... You'd better be off with Big Blue."

Next message...

"Lois, where are you? Your fiancé and your boss have both called me. I'm starting to get really worried. Not to mention the twins are still upset. Please just call and say you're okay."

Lois put her head in her hands and sighed heavily. Just great. I managed to scare or piss off everyone I know in one twenty-minute period. Fabulous. And still the phone continued to play her messages, which became more and more shrill.

* * *

Superman took to the sky, for the solace and silence of the highest reaches, where the atmosphere was thin and the never-ending roar of humanity was easier to ignore. Superman rose higher and faster, trying to escape the pain of loss and the worse pain of knowing that she did still love him. That last kiss ... so much unspoken, but so very clear. And after he'd flown away, he'd heard her voice whispering. What can I possibly do now? I love her, she loves me ... but that's not enough.

Clark flew halfway across the globe, stopping in Indonesia to pull an overcrowded bus off the edge of a bridge. That finished, he hovered in the stratosphere, trying to collect his scattered thoughts.

At least we've cleared the air a little bit between us. Maybe we can be civil to each other from now on... Not that it helps the fact that I'm still in love with her, and have no right to be. She is engaged to Richard. Someone I respect and admire. A man who's spent the last three years taking care of her and her twins. No matter what happens, it isn't fair to him.

I need some perspective on this. I need to talk to someone I can trust. I need someone who can decode the feminine mind-set.

I need Ma.

* * *

Lois stared at her cell phone as the final message played. "Lane, this is Maggie again. Your boss called me. I'm bringing your car over to the Planet garage to keep you from getting a parking ticket. I don't know why, I ought to let them tow the damn thing. Next time you turn your cell phone off I'm gonna cram it up your nose, you hear me? I ought to write you a citation for disturbing the peace just for the amount of panic you've caused today." She paused, and Lois heard some faint metallic noises followed by a pop. "Damn German cars are a bitch to break into. You better hope I can hotwire this thing or I really will let them tow it."

Shit. Lois' forehead smacked into her palm again. I don't believe this! A cop is breaking into my car. A lieutenant, at that. Good God.

"This day is shot," Lois muttered aloud. She erased all of the messages and changed her outgoing greeting to say, "This is Lois, I'm alive, I'm fine, you can stop calling. Leave a message of it's important." Then she went to Perry's office and told him, "Chief, I give up. I'm going to go get my sick kids and write this one up from home, okay? I'll come in earlier than usual and might even sit in on a meeting with you to make up for it."

He glared for a moment, but the mention of the twins had a predictable effect. And there was the fact that Lois never asked to leave early. Ever. It had been a helluva day for her. "Fine. But if you're late, you're toast. Email it to me and the proofreading department by nine."

"Yes, oh, benevolent dictator," she snarked tiredly, and left. Perry just watched her go, shaking his head.

* * *

Richard gave up staring at his plate. The baked potato was too salty, the steak was too tough, the green beans were too bland ... and none of it was the restaurant's fault. I've been sleeping with Superman's ex-girlfriend. Well, up until recently, anyway. Her insomniac hours on the computer pretty much ended our love life. Talk about an intolerable situation.

And that's not to mention Kent. I don't believe Lois for an instant. Something's going on there. From the way people have been talking since he got back, it was always common knowledge that he had a crush on her. God, using the word 'crush' to describe the feelings of a man over the age of nineteen!

But why Kent? Lois likes control. I wonder how much she likes it? Enough to string along some guy too nice to call her a tease?

His conscious stung him. I'm being spiteful because I'm pissed. Lois isn't really like that. No, it's more likely that she's seen through the slightly nerdy exterior as well as I have. And that she saw through it a long time ago. If they were more than friends, that explains all of her recent behavior towards him - and it also explains the first stamp I glimpsed in his passport book. Got to get a better look, but it was France, and the year looked about right.

You know, for a while there I actually thought that Clark and Superman might be the same person. They returned to Metropolis around the same time, they were both probably involved with Lois, they're about the same height and weight and coloring... But I've seen video of Superman in action, and I just spent two weeks with Clark. There's no way - nobody's that good an actor. Besides, if they really were the same person, I think Lois would know. And if she knew, as mad as she's been at both of them, she'd have won the Pulitzer for exposing the secret.

It's a ridiculous image, too. I mean, what does he do with the uniform? Tuck the cape into the back of his pants? Carry it around and change clothes while he flies? Some satellite would've picked that up by now. No, there's no way Clark could be Superman, or vice versa.

In the middle of that train of thought, Richard realized that his steak had gotten cold. He decided to cut his losses, pay for the disappointing meal, and go look up the two people who were always glad to see him.

To hell with work. What's the point of being assistant editor and the editor-in-chief's nephew if you can't blow off the occasional afternoon?

* * *

Lois' phone rang again as she left the bullpen, and she answered it while suppressing another dismayed groan. "Lane."

"Where are you, Lois?" Maggie said.

"Leaving the office."

"Great. Your car's on the third level, by the elevators. You can drive me back to my patrol car."

Lois sighed. "Please tell me you didn't screw anything up on my car when you broke into it."

"Oh, no. I'm sure that scratch will come right out, and you can tuck the wires back up under the dash real easy."

"Maggie!" Lois yelped. "Do you have any idea how much it costs to take that car to the dealer?"

"Relax, your 'baby' is fine," the lieutenant sighed. "You're just lucky you aren't paying to get it out of impound, you know that."

Lois was at the elevators then, and knew from experience she'd get no signal inside. "Yeah, well, that's why I put up with sarcastic friends like you, Sawyer."

"Smartass reporter."

"Jaded cop."

The elevator doors dinged open, and Lois said, "See you in five," and closed her phone as she stepped in. When she got down to the garage, Maggie was leaning against the Audi and watching Lois critically. As the reporter fished her keys out of her purse, the lieutenant's gaze never left her. "If you're going to say something to me, Sawyer, please just say it."

Her only answer was a look from those ice-blue cop eyes, so Lois let herself into her own car with an annoyed sigh. Thankfully, she couldn't find any evidence of the way Maggie had broken in and hotwired it. Sawyer dropped into the passenger seat as soon as Lois unlocked it and started buckling her seatbelt.

Inside the car, the faint scent of soot on Maggie's uniform got stronger, and Lois rolled her window down a few inches. She wasn't even aware of what she did next until Maggie said pointedly, "I thought you quit."

Lois looked at the cigarette in her hand. It was that automatic, after all this time: get in, buckle up, roll window down, light cigarette. She'd already taken a drag without tasting it as she put the car in gear and backed out of the parking spot.

What the hell, she thought, and drew the smoke deep into her lungs. "After this day, Maggie, I deserve one."

"Really? You were a bit of an ass, but I don't think you deserve lung cancer for it," Sawyer said.

Lois simply rolled her eyes and raised her middle finger with an elegant flip of her wrist, and then drove out of the garage.

After a few minutes, Maggie tried again. "So, what happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Well, hell, Lois, the way you're acting, how on earth would I guess that?" Maggie replied. "The point is, I want to talk about it. Toby's going nuts worrying about you."

"Fine! So talk."

"You're usually better at controlling your temper than you were today," Maggie began. "I'm not saying you don't have a right to be pissed at the guy, just that it's unlike you to cut into someone in front of cameras. Now, I know Luthor hasn't done anything since he threatened you, but I also know that you haven't relaxed in the slightest. So maybe some of that can be blamed on you being on edge continuously for two months."

"Yeah," Lois said, navigating Metropolis' busy streets. "All wound up and no one to shoot."

"Be damn sure it's really justifiable homicide before you plug him," Maggie warned. "I guess I'd just like to think that, if something else was going on, you'd tell me."

The police driving course. All those hours at the firing range. A few off-the-record whispered conversations. More than a few drinks in out-of-the-way bars, talking about life and love and crime and politics. That wild dash home from the Pulitzers, and a few days later, the two boxes of Silvertip Hollowpoint bullets that Maggie had dropped off at the house. The lieutenant didn't have to mention any of those things, because they both knew about them. And she didn't have to say, Don't you think you owe me the truth? Both of them knew that, too.

What can I say? "Maggie, this isn't easy."

"I know."

Lois sighed. "Look, he wanted to talk to me. Is it my fault he decided to snatch me up out of alley and have that conversation a mile up? If it's any comfort, I was pretty damn scared, too."

Maggie nodded. "And did you two get certain things cleared up?"

"What are you talking about?"

The lieutenant sighed and ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. "I'm not used to doing interrogations outside the precinct, Lois. Did you and Superman get everything straightened out between you, or are you going to publicly snap at each other again?"

Everything but the tiny little fact that I had his kids, Lois retorted in her mind. "Yes, Mags, we argued and yelled and then made up. Are you happy?"

"Ecstatic. Who said you could call me Mags?"

Now that was more like their normal ribbing. "It's a free country."

"Fine ... Joanne."

"Do you want to live to see your squad car again, Sawyer?"

* * *

Superman flew past the farm after rescuing some miners from a cave-in, and was unsurprised to see that Ma was out. She and Ben are probably out playing bingo, or fishing, or watching a movie. For all I know, they could be competing in the International Scrabble Championships. He shook his head slightly, still amazed that his mother had a more active social life than he did.

Then another thought occurred to him. Speaking of a social life, I've been meaning to have dinner at Ron's house this week. Lucy will kill me if I put it off. I really need to talk about today ... but Lois' little sister would be an even better source of information, if I can figure out how to word the questions just right.

Now that sounded like a plan... All he had to do now was call them, make sure they would be home, and find some way to fill the hours until dinnertime.

He had just taken his cell phone out of the pocket in his cape when he heard sirens, and lots of them, in Dallas. As if finding something to do would be a problem...

* * *

After dropping Maggie off, Lois headed out to her mother's. All she wanted was to see the twins, to hug them and hold them and forget her confrontation with their father earlier. Her mother had called twice, gotten the new message both times, and hung up without leaving one of her own. Lois hated not calling her, but preferred to wait and talk to her in person. With the twins around to moderate the conversation, of course.

When she pulled up to the house, though, Ella came outside right away. Lois considered that a bad sign and hurried out of the car, trying to smile naturally. "Mom! I figured I'd get the twins early..."

"You're still too late," her mother said crisply. "Richard was here twenty minutes ago to pick them up. If you'd answer your phone once in a while people could tell you these things."

The tone instantly set Lois back twenty years, and she blushed furiously. "Momma..."

"Lois Joanne Lane, I swear you never change. You look just the same way you did when you were twelve and pretended not to hear me call you for dinner." Ella sighed, folding her arms. "Get your butt in the house so we can talk."

The fearless reporter slunk into her childhood home just like that little girl who had tried selective deafness to avoid eating asparagus. Once inside, Ella went right back to her cup of tea, glaring at Lois in utter silence. And wasn't that another great mom trick, letting you anticipate just how awful a talking-to you were about to get. Lois had done the same with the twins when they misbehaved. Ella sighed heavily, and Lois winced because she knew what was next.

"Lois, I'm disappointed in you."

"Momma..."

"Hush and listen," Ella said sternly. "You let your mouth run away with you again, only this time it was on live television. Did you ever even think about what you were saying or who was going to hear it?"

Lois bit her lip. It's not like I blurted out his secret identity or anything. Which I could have done, except I'm too honorable. Another voice added, And still in love with him.

Ella wasn't finished. "Not to mention, the man saved your life two months ago. Have you shown even a speck of gratitude? I didn't think so. You've been perfectly nasty to him ever since that interview!"

Oh, the things you don't know, Lois thought, staring at her toes. I'd say this morning counts as very nice indeed. But I can't give away his secret, not even to Mom.

"I dearly hope that for once in his life he stopped being such a gentleman and told you exactly what he thought of your comments! That was him who snatched you up."

"Yes, mother, we had the apocalyptic argument we've been waiting six years to have," Lois snapped, lifting her angry hazel eyes to meet Ella's. "You can stop treating me like a child, I've heard about it from him, the police, and my boss today, and after this morning I've had enough."

"If you don't want to be treated like a child, then stop acting like one," Ella replied, then swiftly continued, "At least you two finally talked. How did he react to the news, then?"

Lois took a deep breath, glancing away again, and Ella erupted.

"Lois! You had a perfect opportunity to tell the man why you're so damned angry with him, and you wasted it? How long are you going to wait before you tell him he's their father?"

"I'm not!" Lois shouted. "Mother, I am not telling him! After this today, we're at least speaking to each other again, but if I told him that... God only knows what he'll do. I'll kill him myself before I let him take the twins!"

"Please, Lois! That's the overprotective first-time mom speaking. I can't imagine him..."

"You know nothing about him!" Lois spat. "All you know is 'Superman, ' the public persona. There's a lot about him that would shock you."

"Well, my daughter hasn't talked about any of her boyfriends since the one in high school with the earring. Except the shrink."

"You love bringing that up, don't you, Momma?"

Ella just grinned. "I knew Elliot was doomed when he kept trying to analyze you. You're not the kind of woman who enjoys having her flaws pointed out."

"Thank your husband for that."

"Stop trying to lead me off topic, Lois. What exactly about Superman would shock your poor, sheltered old mother?"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Well, for starters, in spite of his world reputation, those twins weren't exactly a virgin birth."

Ella sighed. "Child, there's nothing you did with him - nothing you've done with any man - that I didn't do before you. I'll have you know I'm no stranger to mad, passionate love affairs."

The reporter seemed taken aback. "There was someone before Daddy?"

That brought a torrent of laughter. "Oh, my dear Lois. I'm talking about Sam. Why do you think we stayed together all those years, the way we fought about you? Not that I didn't think about leaving him a time or two."

Lois blinked in surprise at that revelation; she'd always assumed her parents stayed together out of a sense of duty. Love had never entered the equation in her mind. Before she could fully process the new information, Ella was forging onward. "So tell me why you think Superman would try to take the twins away from you. I just have a hard time imagining you falling in love with someone that callous."

Sighing, Lois tried to explain. "It's not really him, Momma. It's his father. The computer-controlled hologram recording of his father. That night, when we ... his father made him give up his powers to be with me. Made him think he was giving them up forever. He was very clear on what he thought about his son, his almighty Kryptonian heir, choosing his selfish desire for a human over the needs of the whole planet." This last sentence was punctuated by a sarcastic tone and eyes rolling heavenward.

Ella scowled. "And you think his father would..."

"According to him, it was a mistake," Lois snapped. The mere mention of Jor-El was enough to make her furious all over again. "What do you think someone with a god complex would tell his son to do about the twins? His bastard heirs sired on a weak, primitive human? The way he thinks of our entire species is creepy enough without adding the fact that his son always does what Daddy says."

That disturbing thought gave Ella pause. "You loved him, though, and you're no fool. There must be something about him besides just following orders. Do you really think he'd do something so cruel to you?"

"He wouldn't see it as cruel," Lois argued. "He erased my memories for my own good - he said as much today - so what else might he do under his father's prodding? No, Momma, I don't trust him as far as they're concerned. You may as well stop asking, because I'm not going to tell him."

"If you don't, eventually I will," Ella warned. "You can't keep him in the dark forever."

Lois raked her hands through her hair. "Fine! When I think I can trust him ... when we've talked a little bit more ... then maybe I'll tell him. But the twins come first, and I will not let them be taken from me."

"Oh, that reminds me, Jason broke two more of his cars tonight," Ella replied, and Lois felt her spine turn to ice. "Seems to me he just doesn't know his own strength."

"Momma..."

Ella put her hands on her daughter's shoulders and looked intently into those hazel eyes. "Sweetheart, you're not going to be able to hide them much longer. What if they get his other powers? What if they start to see right through things? That'll scare them half to death if they glance at someone and find out what a spleen looks like while it's still inside. God forbid, what if they can fly?"

Lois blanched, her knees growing weak. She was suddenly faced by a vision of Jason and Kala soaring up into the night sky, waving goodbye to her, following their father out of her life. Her mother had to help her to the couch.

* * *

Clark couldn't quite conceal his look of shock when Lucy Troupe opened the door. "Lucy! Wow, you look ... radiant."

"Yeah, if I radiate any more Ron will have to buy me a wheelbarrow to carry this baby around in," she joked, taking the flowers he'd brought and kissing his cheek. "C'mon in, Clark. Mind the munchkins, they get underfoot."

Three beautiful children, with café-au-lait skin and coal black hair, ran up to Clark. Little Sam and Nora were old enough to remember him and each demanded a hug; Joanna hung back shyly. She had been born a year or so after Lois' twins and had somehow inherited her mother's merry blue eyes.

Ron stuck his head out of the kitchen. "Well, well, the prodigal returns! I was starting to wonder when you'd take me up on the invitation. Lucy, hon, sit down somewhere, Clark can make himself at home."

"I'm pregnant, not sick," she said tartly. "You'd think by number four he'd be used to it, wouldn't you?"

Clark couldn't help wincing a little at that offhand comment. What kind of a father would I have been?

"Listen, woman, if you keep insisting on staying on your feet all day long, you're gonna regret it," Ron warned. "Even Lois figured out what bed rest was when she was pregnant."

Lucy just laughed. "Ron, she went into labor in a meeting! That's why she had to go on bed rest. Besides, she was a lot bigger than I am."

Oh, this was just too painful already. "Well, Lucy, she was carrying twins," Clark said.

"Yeah, two kids and a swing set for them to play on, from the look of her," Lucy teased. "Hey, Clark, you want to see the only surviving preggers picture of the Fearless Reporter?"

Ron checked on the chicken he was baking and added, "Lucy, she ever finds out you have that, she's gonna kill you. And then I'm gonna have to raise these wild children all by myself."

Lucy rolled her eyes as she led Clark into the living room and took the back off of a picture of Ron's parents. "Can you blame me for wanting to keep the only picture of my sister where she looks like the Goodyear blimp? She was always prettier and smarter, I had to make do with cute and popular. It's nice to see her looking like something other than a Playboy model." Then she handed Clark the photo that had been concealed behind the other one.

A sledgehammer to the heart couldn't have hurt that badly. Lois was still very delicate, but her pregnant belly was very prominent. And the look on her face was so lost and lonely, the camera having captured her looking out a window. Clark sighed. "Gosh, Lucy," he said quietly.

"I know. She's gi-normous. And let me tell you, pregnancy usually makes women happy and joyful, like me. Lois went the other way - her mood swings, brrr!" The pretty blonde shuddered dramatically.

Clark felt distinctly nauseous. The last thing I want to think about is Lois with some other man, Lois carrying another man's children. It's not as if this guy was even important to her. And as much as I'd like to be angry at her, I can't help but feel sorry for her. Just look at how sad she looks in this picture.

He didn't get much time to feel sorry for himself, though. Little Sam wanted to show him a homework assignment he'd gotten an A+ on that day, and Nora wanted to tell him about her upcoming birthday party. Even Joanna was curious about him now, and while Ron and Lucy put the finishing touches on dinner the three kids surrounded him with questions and laughter. The photo of a pregnant Lois was gone from the surface of his mind shortly after Lucy put it back in its hiding place, but the image would remain in his subconscious for quite a while.

* * *

Richard didn't get up when he heard the key in the lock. He was watching the Discovery Channel with the kids, but his mind wasn't on the emperor penguins that fascinated the twins. He'd had several hours in which to stew about Lois and everything that was going - or had long ago gone - wrong in their relationship. It was beginning to feel as though something huge had shifted, deep below the surface, and a widening gulf was slowly opening between them.

Once when he was thirteen or so, his parents had lived in a house with a huge oak tree right outside his bedroom window. Richard had loved that tree. When he climbed it he felt like he owned the world, looking down on the roof of the house and seeing the tiny little oak saplings growing in between the shingles. He had never made the connection between the gnarled roots that reached up under the house's foundation and the crack in the plaster wall of his bedroom.

Richard's parents had spent a couple of years plastering over that crack, sanding and repainting, but it always came back again. He liked to lie in bed and pretend it was a map of some unknown river, and he was flying over it, seeking strange tribes or lost cities. Once he had dreamed that it was a door into another world, one with fearsome monsters to fight and beautiful damsel in distress to save, and that the crack would somehow widen enough for him to slip through.

It never got to that point, although it did widen. After a long, wet spring, he had noticed that the crack in the wall was wider than his thumb. His parents noticed it too, and a lot of serious men in coveralls had come to look at it and the oak tree and the outside of the house. And then one day Richard had come home from school and the tree had been cut down. He was furious, even though his parents explained that the massive tree was lifting the back of the house and might one day cause his bedroom walls to crumble, perhaps even while he was in bed.

The original hairline crack in the wall had actually spread to about three inches wide before his parents finally had the tree cut down, although no one could tell because of the constant repairs. And that was how Richard felt about his engagement to Lois at the moment. They were drifting apart so slowly, covering over the obvious gaps in their relationship, and all the while that outside force kept widening the emptiness between them.

It would be easy to say that it was Superman's fault, but Richard knew the blame really lay with himself and Lois. Too much had been left unspoken, and he had not asked as much as Lois had not told. Only now, with Superman and Clark Kent both back in her life, were certain things coming to light. It seemed he was thinking more frequently, Do I really know Lois at all? At first he'd assumed she was turning into someone new, but the longer he thought about it, the more he realized Lois was simply changing back into the woman he had never met, the one who had flown with Superman.

I fell in love with Sleeping Beauty, he thought, as Lois walked into the house and set her purse on the table, the twins rushing to her. And now she's waking up.


Throwing Stones

Never had she been so grateful to be in the confines of her own home as she was at this moment, even if the reception she got might not be the friendliest. Tonight, it seemed an impenetrable fortress against the insanity of the world. Something she desperately needed at this moment.

Almost as much as she needed the people inside.

Pausing to take a deep breath, she choked back the intensity of emotion rising in her chest. The nap that her mother had forced on her had helped, although it had put her behind by two hours and was making her fidgety. Suck it up, Lane, she scolded herself, the twins are already home and have been through enough for one day. You'll just make it worse, dragging yourself in there looking like this. The last thing they need to see is Mommy falling apart because she and Superman fought. Or seemed to fight. Stop being selfish and act like a responsible mother. They don't need to have a clue about the mess Mommy has gotten herself into.

Although I'm more than a little sure that Richard has already started to form his own opinions.

Despite the way her gut wrenched at that thought, she knew she couldn't stand out here all night. She let out a deeply-drawn breath before putting her key into the lock. Here we go. But for the Grace of God go I...

The moment she opened the door and stepped into the warmth of the entryway, she could hear the television running and the sudden sound of little padded feet on carpet. Tossing her keys into the marble bowl just off from the stairs, she couldn't help but smile as she heard them hurry toward her. It was amazing to her how her heart contracted at the mere thought of the twins, making her eyes water just slightly. They're my miracles, something I never asked for or deserved, she thought just as Jason made the corner first and launched himself toward her.

Kala was not far behind, and Lois nearly fell as her daughter ran full-tilt into her legs and clung there. Both twins seemed determined to squeeze the life out of her. Jason's arms in particular were very tight around her neck... "Sweetheart, Mommy has to breathe," Lois wheezed, and he immediately loosened his grip. Their eyes met for a moment, Lois smiling a little while she raised an eyebrow. Jason nodded seriously, remembering their just-between-us talk about being careful.

"How come you were bein' mean to Superman on TV, Mommy?" Kala demanded.

She resisted the urge to sigh. Ah, the cliché lives. And always out of the mouths of these babes. Lois set Jason on the ground before she answered. "Baby, I had a bad day. Some people at the office were saying nasty things about me..."

"Didja kick their butts?" Jason asked hopefully.

"Honey, fighting doesn't solve things," Lois said, treasuring the image of her stiletto heel buried in Polly's behind. She had learned that high-kick for a cabaret musical in high school...

"But Mommy, the cops fight crime all the time," Kala said. Her skeptical look mirrored her mother's own perfectly.

"That's different," Lois said, trying not to grin. "It's a different kind of fighting, and that's what the police have to do to keep us safe. It wouldn't be fair for me to just beat people up when they're mean to me; nice people don't do that."

"So why were you mean to Superman? 'Cuz he wouldn't beat you up for it?" Kala asked. Those eyes seemed to be watching closely for her answer. Close enough for Lois to wonder.

Why, why do they both have to be so damn smart at this age? Please, God, let Richard not be hearing this. "Kala, I was mad about the people at my office, and I was accidentally mean to Superman. It's okay, I told him I was sorry later. He accepted my apology."

"You got to talk to Superman twice in one day?" Jason said in tones of awe. "Wow! When?"

Lois closed her eyes. You're fighting a losing battle, Lane. They're starting to love just the thought of him. The frustration was almost enough to make her tear up after the day she'd had. "He came to ask me why I had said such nasty things to him, and that's when I apologized."

"Superman's really nice," Jason said, and Kala nodded.

Swallowing bile, Lois agreed with them. Then immediately changed the subject. "Now, come on, what have you two been doing all day?"

"Watchin' a movie with Nana!" "Coloring!" "Playin' a new song on the piano!" "Beatin' Daddy at checkers!" The twins' day off had evidently been quite busy, and it took them a while to recite everything they had done. In the meantime, Lois was walking into the kitchen, getting a soda as both followed behind her, and suddenly getting very tense as Richard walked in. Thankfully, the twins never even noticed.

All he said, however, was, "What do you want for dinner?" And over the twins yelling for burritos - which, given the chance, they would eat for every meal - they very civilly decided to have chicken stir-fry, and started making dinner. Together.

Lois felt very odd about that. Even while she made the rice and Richard started the chicken, they kept a tiny space between them, a distance of exaggerated politeness. Every once in a while, she'd try to sneak a peek at him, just to gauge his mood, only to have him turn away. The worst part was the not knowing. Not knowing what he was thinking, not knowing what he'd seen, not knowing what the gossips at work had said.

* * *

While Clark was being mobbed, Ron beckoned Lucy into the kitchen. "Taste the mashed potatoes, hon. More salt?" As Lucy took the spoon from him, he whispered, "Luce, lay off on the 'my pregnant sister' stuff, okay?"

"Salt's fine, but it could use a hint more garlic," Lucy said in normal tones, then whispered back, "Why? I thought he'd get a kick out of it."

"Lucy! He's always had a thing for Lois, you know that. Showing him pictures of her pregnant with some other man's babies is gonna give him a kick all right - in the teeth!"

She winced as she realized her mistake. "Ouch. Okay, my mistake. Forgive me, love, I'm blonde."

Ron just rolled his eyes at her. "Just chill with it, okay? I don't want the man avoiding us because we remind him of them being together."

The younger Lane sighed. "It is kinda sad that he never got a chance with her, you know? Lois and Clark..."

"Yeah, I know," Ron said. "Would've been a sight to see. Now go keep the man company, beautiful."

She kissed his cheek and took a glass of iced tea back to the living room, where Nora was telling Clark everything she wanted for her birthday.

"An' a pony an' real pierced earrings an' Aunt Lois promised she'd bring me somethin' pretty and grown-up from her trip to Chicago..." The little girl saw her mother listening and hushed.

Clark offered Lucy a smile as she handed him the tea, trying not to let it show that he had heard her conversation. "Wow, Lois went to Chicago? When was that, while I was in Mexico?"

"Oh, no, that was months ago," Lucy explained, settling herself into a chair. "She went with Perry to some conference. My dear sister made the mistake of telling chatterbox there about it, and she's never forgotten. You know the Lane women, we never forget."

Clark had to fake nearly dropping the glass to hide his sudden discomfort. You could say that, Lucy. My life would be so much easier if your sister had stayed forgetful ... or if I never made her forget in the first place. Too bad I didn't think of it six years ago. "Don't I know it," he replied with a forced laugh. "So fill me in. What've you been doing since I left? Still volunteering with the adult literacy program?"

By the time dinner was ready, Clark remembered why he had always been so fond of Lucy. She was such a sweetheart, the perfect foil for her sarcastic older sister, and he had a brotherly affection for her. The children set the table as Ron and Lucy carried in the plates. As they all sat down, Lucy flashed Clark that sunny smile and asked, "Would you say grace for us?"

Her request startled Clark a little. It had been so long since he sat down to dinner with anyone but Martha, and his mother had always said the blessing, ever since he was a child... The family joined hands around the table and bowed their heads. "Dear Lord, we thank you for this food, and our time together. Amen."

"Amen," the Troupes echoed.

In the midst of animated conversation, Clark felt less like an outsider than he had since leaving the farm.

* * *

In a rare deviation from the norm, Lois and the twins were curled on the sofa, watching TV and eating stir-fry off paper plates. Both had seemed extremely loath to leave her side since she had arrived home. Richard watched them from the side chair, his face mostly expressionless, but his mind seething.

What ever made me think I could be a part of that little trio there? Richard took a spiteful bite of his rice. She doesn't need me. Sometimes I wonder if she even loves me at all. Part of loving someone is being honest and open with them, right? Part of loving someone is trusting them, and being trustworthy yourself.

I should've listened to Perry. Hell, I should've listened to everybody in the office. They all told me, "Stay away from Superman's girlfriend, man. She's trouble." And all I saw was the beautiful, slightly lost mother and her incredible kids. I never expected it would come to this... I once compared her to a falcon, but I didn't know how accurate that was. They will stay with you while it suits them, and fly away when they want to. And if you try to hold them back, they'll tear you apart. They keep their secrets, too...

Just then, Jason looked up at him from where his chin was perched on Lois' hip, and saw his brooding expression. The little boy frowned slightly. "Daddy, are you 'kay? You're awful quiet."

Richard shook himself slightly, smiling for Jason's sake. "Sure, kiddo. I'm just a little tired, that's all." Don't be a jackass, White. The kids love you. You owe it to them to fight this through with their mother instead of moping like a high school kid jilted on prom night.

Kala looked at him from where she was laying beside her mother, flat on her back, but anything she meant to say was swallowed by a huge yawn. That seemed to startle Lois out of her daze, glancing over to see Jason starting to look owlish as well, and she sat up. "All right, you two. Time for bed."

"Do we have to?" they whined in unison as she pulled them both up gently. As Lois got them rounded up, and herded them upstairs with a small hand holding each of hers, Richard remained downstairs, flipping through channels. Lois never even questioned his lack of participation. After they're asleep. Then we'll talk. Stay calm, Richard, if you lose your temper with her you'll just wind up screaming at each other. Stay calm if you want answers.

* * *

The Troupe kids were allowed an hour of television after dinner since their homework was done. Clark helped carry the plates into the kitchen, but came to a sudden halt as he walked back out. Hanging in the hall opposite the kitchen door was an arrangement of family photos, and one quite prominently displayed was of Lois and the twins when they were just toddlers. It was taken in Centennial Park, he could tell just from looking, fall foliage in the background. Lois was sitting on the grass, raven hair around her shoulders like a mantle, and she was laughing as she watched the twins throwing leaves at each other about a foot away. That both children were laughing as well was not a surprise nor was how perfectly the three seemed to fit together. Even as his heart ached, what shocked Clark was Jason's almost platinum hair. "Holy... Gosh, Jason's hair was that light?"

"Oh, yeah," Lucy said behind him, Ron having chased her away from the dishwasher, insisting on loading it himself. "It's finally darkening up, though. By the time he's old enough to drink it ought to be Lo's color."

Clark blinked at her in surprise. "You mean you think he'll get that dark? I always thought he got the lighter hair from his father."

Lucy grinned and pointed at her own hair. "We're not sure about the father; my personal guess is black hair, which is where Kala got it. Hers is just a shade darker than mom's. The blond's from the Lane side. Have you ever ... wait right there." She hurried out of the room.

"Now you've done it, Kent," Ron said from the kitchen, sounding faintly exasperated. "She's going for the photo album. You could be stuck here until January."

Lucy was back before Clark could figure out how to reply, and flipped to a page near the front. "Here you go. See these two?"

She pointed at a picture of a girl about Kala's age and a toddler. The younger girl had pretty blonde hair the same color as Lucy's, but the older one was about the same shade as Jason was now. And she had piercing hazel eyes and a slight frown aimed at the photographer... "That's you and Lois?" Clark said incredulously. "Oh, my dear God. I never knew."

Lucy flipped back a couple of pages and pointed to a scowling two-year-old. "And look, she's almost platinum here. Mom says she was the same way. I got my pure blonde from Daddy."

"Why does Lois always look angry in these pictures?" Clark asked, glancing through the pages. Sure enough, Lois was only smiling in one or two pictures, and that was generally a sarcastic toothy grin reminiscent of the one she'd shown more often once she was older.

"Lois was a pissed-off little girl," Lucy commented with a shrug. "Chalk that up to my Dad. You'll notice I have no pictures of her and him together. Thank God her daughter's sweeter-natured, although she does have a temper on her."

Clark couldn't help smiling. "Yes, I've seen Kala pout. She's strong-willed like her mother, too."

Lucy sighed. "Clark ... you're practically family. Could you please learn how to pronounce the girl's name?"

"Oh, dear God," Ron groaned. "Lucy, will you lay off?"

Clark just looked confused. "What? But, I don't call her Kayla..."

"No, Lois will disembowel anyone who does," Lucy said with a trace of annoyance. It was obvious she'd given this speech in the past. "But she lets the other slide, I have no idea why. Once my sister crossed the Atlantic, she started letting people call the girl Kalla. It's Kala. One 'l' like the difference between 'all' and 'Al'. Kal-a. Real simple to correct, but she just lets everyone go on mispronouncing it like she doesn't care."

Clark felt hot, then icy cold. Kala. Like Kal-El. Oh. My. God. She ... she named Kala after me... I wonder if ... black hair from the father... I'm not human, another species entirely, could they really be mine? She would've told me. She would've told me this morning. Lois has no reason to hide that from me if they are mine...

"I'm sorry, Clark, I didn't mean to snap. It isn't your fault..." Lucy's voice seemed to fade as his concentration turned to Lois. He could hear her heartbeat, tune in to it anywhere on the planet, and just now it was racing as hard as his own...

* * *

The story hadn't been quite enough to put the twins to sleep, as had slowly become the case in recent months. They had insisted on sleeping in the same bed tonight, still young enough to oppose being separated at time, even by inches. Now both pairs of sleepy eyes were forcing themselves to stay open, watching her from Jason's bed as she closed the storybook and put it down on the nightstand beside her, shaking her head with a soft smile. It seemed as if they held onto consciousness as long as they possibly could these days. "Okay, munchkins, what do I have to bribe you with to get you to get some shut-eye tonight?"

Stifling another large yawn, Kala murmured out, "Lullaby."

Jason, even now dozing, managed to mumble out, "Yeah, Mommy, lullaby. 'Once 'pona time'."

Still sitting on Kala's bed, Lois had to smile. It really wasn't a lullaby, just a song she had had stuck in her head while she had been carrying the twins. Just a silly little ballad she had heard on the radio that wouldn't leave her. A song that she had gotten into the habit of singing to make herself feel closer to their father. A song that they had continued to want to hear for years. Amazing how something so coincidental could become so important.

Standing up, she moved over to side beside them, and started to softly sing to the twins. "Once upon a time ... once when you were mine... I remember skies ... reflected in your eyes... I wonder where you are... I wonder if you think about me... Once upon a time..." Lois paused for a moment at that, reaching out to brush Jason's cheek as the line whispered off her lips. "When the music plays ... when the words are touched with sorrow..." By this time, those blue eyes were closed, but even in sleep the similarities broke her heart. "...Once beneath the stars ... the universe was ours... Love was all we knew... And all I knew was you..." Sensing Kala might still be awake, she continued, her voice falling to a hush when she came to the end, repeating a line that sounded like her questions on life of late. "I wonder where you are... I wonder if you think about me... Once upon a time ... in your wildest dreams..."

She sat there watching them for a moment, pure fierce love welling up in her heart. There really were no words in any language of the world to describe just how much these two tiny beings meant to her. There really were entire days that she owed them for her continued existence, especially during the period in which she had first sung this song to them. And sometimes just the sight of them had her heart feel as if it would burst in her chest. Some days it didn't even seem possible that they were hers. Silently tracing their features with her eyes, marking each trait that belonged to her, Lois finally turned away to turn on the bedside lamp. Making herself stand up, she leaned forward to both children to press a kiss to their forehead and whisper, "Mommy loves you," before starting quietly for the door, turning off the light, pulling the door closed without a sound, heading back down the stairs to Richard.

He was in the darkened living room, watching an old horror movie on television. As Lois walked up behind him, she recognized the scene where the front door of the haunted house burst open. Keeping her tone light and playful, Lois said, "So you're cheating on me with that actress again, huh? She really does look a lot like me."

On the screen, James Brolin told his wife to stay upstairs. "Like hell," she shot back, and followed him down to the foyer.

Richard, who had taken a deep breath and silently counted to ten after Lois spoke, answered without turning to face his fiancée, "True, she is older than me. And I only know her from movies and stuff like that. But at least she isn't keeping secrets from me."

Lois felt her heart start to beat faster. "Richard..."

Now he looked at her, and the anger that had smoldered in him all day rose to flame. "Why couldn't you just tell me? All those times, all those evasive little answers, all the changes of subject. I actually believed there was nothing going on. Do you have any idea how stupid I felt today, when I was the only person in Metropolis over the age of seven who didn't know that you were Superman's girlfriend?"

"I wasn't Superman's girlfriend!" Lois snapped. Not technically anyway.

* * *

Clark had excused himself, pleading a touch of heartburn, and tuned out Lucy scolding Ron for the garlic in the mashed potatoes. He only heard the first few words of the argument between Lois and Richard, but it was enough to make him feel terrible.

Dear God, what am I doing? I'm tearing them apart just by existing. And I like him, I never wanted to do anything like this to him. I never wanted Lois to be hurt, either. I guess the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions. Look where mine have gotten us.

I have to get out of here. Ron and Lucy are going to think poorly of me, but I need to be by myself for a while. I need to get my mind straight. And I really need to go somewhere where I can't hear Lois and Richard yelling at each other.

* * *

"Oh, really? You were in love with him, though!"

"He was Superman! Everyone was in love with him!"

"Not like you were," Richard replied, standing up. "You know what I mean, Lois, I'm not talking about hero-worship. You loved him. You weren't just his press agent, he wasn't just a story."

"Fine!" Now she was practically spitting the words into his face, the General's Daughter growling, If you want a fight, you'll get one then. "Yeah, I was in love with him. Soppy moony-eyed twittering-lovebirds-circling-my-head in love with him! But that was a long time ago, and he left me. He left me without a word! That ended any possibility of that."

"Are you sure?"

Lois sighed. "Richard, would you like a list of everyone I've ever dated, been involved with, had a crush on, or slept with? Would you like them separated out by blood type or in order by social security number? That happened long before I met you, why the hell do you care?"

"I don't care about everyone you ever slept with or wanted to, I only care about that one! He's a superhero, Lois, that's like saying you were dating the President or the Prime Minister of Canada or something! This is something I should've known about!"

Lois glared at him. "Fine, you know about it! Happy?"

"No!"

"See why I never said anything?!"

"Dammit, Lois! Will you just answer one question with a simple yes or no?"

"Sure! Ask me one that can be answered like that and I will!"

"Did you ever sleep with him?"

Lois blinked. Shit. I can't let him suspect about Jason and Kala. Escaping on a technicality again... "No, Richard, I never slept with Superman." He didn't have the powers when we were together.

Richard stared at her for a long moment, then sighed. "I'd feel a lot better about that if I didn't think you'd lie to me to protect him."

Frustration rose up in Lois until she snarled out, "Goddammit! Richard!"

"Well? How the hell am I supposed to trust you? You hide all kinds of shit from me, you outright lied about him until now..."

"It's none of your business!"

"If you're wearing my ring, you are my business, Lois! How the hell are we going to make a marriage last if we're keeping secrets from each other?"

He just dropped the M-bomb on me again. "Richard! Don't even go there!"

"No, let's go there," he said, stalking toward her. "Let's go there for once. Do you have any intention of keeping the promise you made when you started wearing that ring? Any intention at all of marrying me?"

A red haze seemed to float across Lois' vision. This was the worst time he could've chosen to do this, the terrible morning, the confrontation with the twins' father (who still didn't know he was their father), the scolding from Perry and Maggie and her mother, and the certain knowledge that her name would be in every gossip column on the east coast by morning... "Richard, so help me God, don't you push me right now," she warned.

He was right up in her face, keeping his voice low in a belated effort not to wake the kids. "I want an answer, Lois."

She shoved him, hard, and he took a staggering step back. "Who the hell do you think you are?" she raged. "We've lived together for three years, and you still don't know the first thing about me!"

"No, I don't," Richard said, throwing his hands up in the air in mock defeat. "I don't know why it bothers me, really. Why should I expect to know anything that happened before I met you? I mean, what am I to you? Just the babysitter you can fuck after the kids go to bed."

Shattered. Her anger in shards, shock and pain taking its place, tears rose unwillingly to Lois' eyes. Oh, that hurt ... and it had just enough truth in it to make her feel guilty as well. She wasn't really in love with him, and she had never actually said yes when he proposed...

Speechless, the fury of a moment ago at war with her current desire to curl up into a ball and sob, Lois turned on her heel and stormed out. She didn't even hear Richard calling after her.

A fragment of wrath, her predictable reaction to being hurt, leaped up as Lois reached the foyer. She gave in to it enough to snatch the nearest throwable object, a framed picture on the table there, and fling it behind her. Richard, who had been trying to catch up to her and apologize, take back his hasty words, came to a sudden halt as the photograph exploded at his feet, glass shards everywhere.

As Lois grabbed her keys and slammed the door behind her, Richard stared down at the photo on the floor. Prophetically, it was one of the four of them, seated in one of those Sears special family portraits.

* * *

Lois' mind was full of white noise as she drove back into the city, the car seeming to head back to the Daily Planet building of its own volition. Her head was whirling, and she craved nothing more than peace and quiet at the moment.

The radio was on mostly for background noise, but a song came on that caught her attention. Lois reached to turn it off, the lyrics making her shiver, but stayed her hand and listened.

I try to see the good in life.
The good things in life are hard to find.
We're blowin' away, blowin' away
Can we make this something good?
Well, I'll try to do to it right this time around
It's not over,
Try to do it right this time around
It's not over
But a part of me is dead and in the ground.
This love is killin' me
But you're the only one
It's not over.

* * *

Across town, Clark was sitting in the back of a cab, his hand pressed to his eyes. He'd managed to block out most of the argument while leaving the Troupe house with all the grace he could manage, but it left him with a headache and a sick feeling in his stomach. For the time being, he focused on a song playing on the cabbie's radio, one that seemed to capture his feelings.

I've taken all I can take
And I cannot wait
We're wastin' too much time
Bein' strong, holdin' on
Can't let it bring us down
My life with you means everything
So I won't give up that easily
Blowin' away, blowin' away
Can we make this something good?
Cause it's all misunderstood?
Well I'll try to do to it right this time around
It's not over,
Try to do it right this time around
It's not over
But a part of me is dead and in the ground.
This love is killin' me
But you're the only one
It's not over.

Dear Readers, I think most of you recognize the twins' lullaby as the Moody Blue's classic, "Your Wildest Dreams". And the song mentioned here at the end is Chris Daughtry's "It's Not Over."


The Closing of the Day

The weather had only just begun to show the first signs of the cold front coming through as she had started home only a few hours before. Now it seemed to be mirroring her emotional uproar, Lois thought as the Audi roared up the expressway, the darkened sky occasionally lit by boiling purple and white flashes from behind the shield of the cloud cover. Radio still playing softly in the background, her eyes remained on the cars ahead of her, willing herself to keep it together. Even with the heater on, she shivered. The temperature had dropped, making her wish for her trench coat, left behind in the heat of the moment. But only part of it was the cold and she was all too aware of it.

She had given herself the small luxury of a round of tears on the way out of Bakerline after hearing that song, to wail about her own stubborn fears, about the way her carefully constructed life was falling apart. About how all of this was going to affect the twins before trying to brusquely stem the tears. Oh God, how could we do this with them at home? Especially with Kala's hearing. Oh, my God, what's wrong with me? And after what they saw this afternoon! God, Lois, have you lost your mind completely?

Why? Why had he chosen tonight to dredge up all of this mess? After all that had happened earlier in this long-as-hell, awful day when nothing had gone right? And what had possessed her to give away so much about her relationship with Superman? Especially in light of that damned press conference? If she was being that stupid and loose-lipped, why hadn't she just gone ahead and told him the truth? Told him the reason things were kept hidden and why he had never been able to have her whole heart? Why not just come right out and tell him that Kala and Jason were Superman's children at this rate? Wouldn't that rock his world to its foundations.

Just as she put her hand to her forehead, trying to rub away the tension and threat of another round of tears, a soft, broken voice drifted through the speakers, lamenting, "He says that behind my eyes... I'm hiding... And he tells me... I pushed him away... That my heart's been hard to find..." That drew pained eyes to the lighted console as painfully as if she had been struck. Just as the piano continued the delicate melody, she snapped off the sound. With a disgusted and heartsore sigh, Lois swung the car across the lane and onto the Yellowknife exit.

It always amazed her how alive the city was every moment; even at this hour, Metropolis glittering with vitality even as the evening drew to a conclusion. At any hour, there was something happening, some event fully attended. Never a light dimmed. One light in particular caught her eye as she pulled onto Fifth Street, the blowing leaves dancing across her headlight beams. Ahead of her, slightly hidden by the lower levels of the building, the Planet globe called out to her like a beacon. Something in her calmed even as she pulled into the lot just next door, waving to Evans the security guard as she went past.

Once the Audi was parked and locked, Lois hurried up the steps of the front façade and into the revolving doors to get away from the brisk wind. She could smell the rain in the air, knew a storm was imminent. At least she had gotten inside before it started. The tap of her heels was lonely on the tile floor, devoid of the usual sounds of daylight journalistic hustling, as she made her way into the elevator. With only the hum of movement for company, the musak that usually filtered through turned off for the night, Lois tried to pretend she wasn't deliberately trying to ignore her own teeming thoughts until the bright ding signaled her arrival on the sixtieth floor.

As she made her way up the hall toward the sprawling hulk that was City and International and put on a professional face that hid the chinks in her armor, she called out greetings to several female members of the custodial staff and a couple of the night-time maintenance guys, all of whom smiled back. Almost all had known her from years of her having worked well into the night on some story or another, living on black newsroom coffee and her Marlboros until she had finally put that particular piece to bed. A few of them were old enough to be her mother and had always tried to treat her as such. Even now she remembered Henrietta having snuck a cup of coffee and a couple of doughnuts over to her desk when she had fallen asleep at her computer one night after being up fifty-two hours. But it had been a while since she had been quite that dedicated. That was before the twins. When it had still been their father, her, the story.

Forcing herself to put those thoughts away, Lois stifled the lump in her throat. Answering questions about the twins and how quickly they were growing and how she was eating (so skinny, Isadora scolded as she shook her mop handle at her), she continued on, stopping only a minute to poke her head in and wave to Helen in the mailroom.

With that, Lois made her way through the double-glass doors into her sanctuary, relieved to see no one else had decided to stay late this evening. Unlocking her office door, she strolled over to her desk in the dark and sat down in the padded chair heavily. Sighing, she closed her eyes before unlocking the bottom drawer with a small golden key. Carefully, she drew the flask out of hiding and took a conservative nip before returning it to the place it came from. Closing her eyes, she forced all of her whirling thoughts into a box in the corner of her mind and slammed the lid. It was either disconnect or go crazy, at this point.

Now, get your head screwed on straight, kid, she ordered herself, grateful for the kick of the Russian liquor. That brought her back to reality. Before all of this mess went haywire, you were trying to find any clues you could as to Luthor's whereabouts and just what he was up to with the Widow Vanderworth. You can worry about your family life later. Right now, you need to safeguard the twins.

Moments later, her fingers were flying over the keys, Lois' pale and drawn face illuminated by the computer screen like that of a wraith. Work was the most potent and mood-altering of all substances for her and she indulged as deeply as she could.

* * *

The twins' bedroom door opened quietly. For a moment, Richard's head was silhouetted against the hall light, but seeing the twins still asleep he left without a word.

Several minutes later, Kala whispered, "Okay, he's gone downstairs."

"Are you sure?" Jason whispered back.

His sister just sighed heavily. "Yes, boogerhead."

"Don't call me a boogerhead!" he hissed.

"Don't be one, then," she said primly, sitting up in bed.

After a moment's sulk, Jason sat up too. "Well? What were they sayin'?"

"Bunch of stupid grownup stuff," Kala replied. "I think Daddy's jealous 'cause Mommy's friends with Superman."

Jason wrinkled his nose in horror. "Daddy's not jealous of Superman! That's dumb. Superman's the coolest ever."

Kala gave him her best imitation of Lois' cool, superior look. "Shows how much you know."

Her brother drew himself up and scowled. "Oh, yeah? I betcha I know somethin' 'bout Superman you don't know!"

"Hah! You don't even know how to listen through walls!" Kala replied scornfully.

"Fine, then I won't tell you," Jason said. "A girl would never figure it out by herself."

"Jason! Mom's a girl!"

"Yeah, but she's different. She's Mom. You'll never get it 'less I tell you."

Kala turned her nose up haughtily. "I don't wanna know your dumb old secret. I have one, too, and mine's better 'cause a girl figured it out! A boy wouldn't be smart enough."

"Liar! You don't know nothin'!" Jason hissed.

"You called me a liar," Kala said, eyes widening. "I'm gonna get you, Jason Garen Lane!"

"Ooooh, I'm so scared, Kala Josephine Lane," he mocked, then yelped when she hit him with her pillow.

He quickly jumped out of her bed to race over to his own, grabbing a pillow and swinging it at Kala. In the process of swatting each other, they forgot to be quiet, and one of Jason's backswings hit Captain Jack's cage with a loud rattle.

"Uh-oh," both twins whispered. Kala closed her eyes, but she didn't even need to strain her ears to hear Richard's footsteps on the stairs. "Daddy's coming!"

Jason dove for his own bed and yanked the covers over himself, just as Kala burrowed down into her pillows. By the time their door opened, they once again looked like two little angels asleep. The only evidence of disturbance was the fact that they were back in their separate beds, and the ferret's eyes glowing redly in the half-light.

Richard closed the door again after a while. For several minutes, the silence was only broken by Captain Jack shuffling around in his cage.

"Kala? You 'wake?"

"Course I am," she muttered angrily. "How come you had to make so much noise?"

"You started it!" Jason hissed.

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"Be quiet, he'll hear you!" Kala whispered.

"Fine! Just tell me why Mommy left."

The little girl was quiet for so long, Jason thought she'd gone back to sleep. "They were yellin', tryin' to be quiet but still thinking yellin', and Daddy said Mommy kept secrets from him. He said she lied to him about bein' Superman's girlfriend."

"What?" Jason whispered, awed. "Mommy was Superman's girlfriend? Uh-oh..."

"It was a long time ago, she said," Kala told him. "Mommy sounded mad but scared at the same time. They're both so mad, they used bad words ... Daddy said the really bad word and Mommy broke something and left."

"Oh." Jason's voice was very soft and sad. "Kala, d'ya think Mommy and Daddy will, you know..."

"I don't know," his sister replied. "I don't know, Jason."

"They wouldn't split us up if they did, right?"

"They'd better not!" Now Kala was fierce. "I won't let anybody take my brother away. Even if you are a boogerhead."

He stuck his tongue out, but smiled anyway. "I love you, too, Kala. I'll never let anyone take you away from me either."

...

Clark locked the door behind him, shutting out the cold wind rising outside. He looked around his apartment and sighed. Most of his belongings were still boxed up; the only room he'd managed to unpack was the bedroom, and only because he slept there. He moved silently through the other rooms of the apartment, vowing to finish unpacking. Coming home to something this impersonal just wasn't inspiring.

The bedroom was another story entirely. A framed photo of himself, Jonathan, and Martha hung at eye height just inside the door. His diploma and a copy of the first article he'd gotten in The Daily Planet were also framed and displayed prominently. The quilt on the bed was handmade by Martha, and the nightstand beside it had been a joint project between Clark and his father.

Oh yes, this room was full of memories. Clark gently picked up the photograph that sat beside his alarm clock, and stared at it for a moment, his expression somber. "But why would you lie to me?" he murmured to the empty room, returning the picture to its place. Lois' thousand-watt grin beamed up at him silently from within the silver frame.

Is it even possible? The thought had never occurred to him once he learned of his true parentage. There's no reason to assume that a human and a Kryptonian could... We're analogues of each other, like those two species of snake I studied in biology class all those years ago. Emerald boas and green tree pythons. They look identical to a layman's eye, but they're from different continents, they're different genera entirely. No possibility of hybridization. And I ... I'm not even from this planet. How in the world could...?

But why else would she name Kala after me?

Clark paced the room, scowling. No. It can't be. Dammit, I'm an alien! Jor-El would've warned me if such a thing was even remotely possible ... wouldn't he? Would he have even known if it was?

Who knows what he would've said. Jor-El was none too fond of the idea of me fraternizing with the human race, anyway. Not to mention, I haven't been back to the Fortress since my return, and I'd hate to hear what he would say if he knew I was thinking about Lois. Again.

His eye caught another framed photo on the wall, one of himself with Lois, Perry, and Jimmy. Taken back in the good old days, when the only competition for Lois' affection was ... well, himself. The ex-boyfriend - Elliott or Erik or something like that, the therapist, but not mine as Lois always said defensively - hadn't counted, even if he had sometimes sought 'closure' to their relationship. You want closure? Clark could hear Lois' sarcastic tone in his memory, annoyed that the man had called her at work. It's closed. Closed, locked, deadbolted, security chain on, and a two-by-four under the doorknob. I'm tired of being analyzed, tired of you asking questions about my relationship with my father. If you ever say 'Elektra complex' to me again I'll have to send you to a proctologist to get my shoe back!

Clark grinned, remembering. No, she'd never had any trouble getting over an ex...

Not until you, that is.

That wiped the fond smile off his face. Is that maybe why she named Kala after me? Something to remember me by, since I was never coming back, or so she thought? No one else would get the reference.

I guess it could go either way. If they are mine, she might have lied to me. She lied about remembering - well, she didn't lie so much as omit, but still.

Little as I like to think about it, I have to confront her. Again. Now I just need an opportunity to catch her alone...

Outside the rain began to fall, joining the wind to make it a miserable night for flying. He would've preferred to take to the air and gather his thoughts, but the sound of the rain made him remember just how long the day had been. Clark sighed. Maybe if I sleep on it, things will be a little clearer. I just can't think straight with that possibility rattling around in my head.

* * *

It had worked for a good hour and a half, every suspicion about Luthor or his doings spiraling out onto the screen in a worthy distraction from her life. And then, as abruptly as steam disappearing, it was gone. In panic and disbelief, she had sat watching the monitor as if it were a lifeline, hearing only the wail of the wind.

And twenty minutes later, still staring at her computer screen, alone in the City Room, Lois felt her thoughts wander against her will. It wasn't something she especially wanted to do, but her mind was just well beyond the point of jumbled and weary, making it impossible for her to do anything else. The day had been too long, too tumultuous, and she knew full well that she was running away from everything. Something she had been doing for too long. And the wolf-hour thoughts were finally pounding at the door, demanding to be let in or else they would storm it.

Tenting her fingers against her temples, she let all of the tenseness and confusion make itself know. It was better to do it this way, away from prying eyes. Wasn't that the whole reason she had come here, to the one place in the world she felt safest? To try to work this all out, make some sense of it before she managed to destroy everything?

Here in her darkened office, she had to admit that it had been idiocy to think Richard would be anything less than furious with her, whether it really was his business or not. Maybe it was, in some small way. As much as she had tried to blow off the assumptions the others had made, he would have had to have been a fool not to think it a possibility, as Perry had said. And he may have been kind, but Richard White was no fool. But, knowing her as he did, he would also have to have known that she wouldn't want to talk about it, not with the way Superman had left. Reporter or not, Lois had never been given to blurt out her innermost thoughts and feelings to anyone.

She would never have let him so close if he had been a fool. And she had let him close, let her children grow to love him as they would a father who shared their blood. She had grown more than a little fond of him herself. But had it been more than that, more than warm affection for the man who had looked beyond the twins and still seen her for the woman she had once been? Had it ever been anything even approaching those intense emotions she had felt in the past? Her comment to Kal-El earlier echoed back in her mind, You can't even know for sure what you felt for me was love. Lois felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, her stomach feeling sick.

That was another thing she had been trying to hide from.

Just thinking of him made her rise to her feet, instinctively trying to outrun the thoughts. Pretending that that wasn't what she was doing, she drifted over to the window just as she heard the rumble of thunder. So many stories up, she had a decent view of the city all the way out to Hob's Bay, a million lights like diamonds in the darkness. But she found her eyes scanning the roiling skyline. One hell of a storm was brewing, the weather systems crashing into one another violently before they would meld.

Lois had to laugh at herself, although it was a little shrill. She was looking for him, of course, whether it made her comfortable to admit it or not. All in all, any thoughts of him were making her uncomfortable as time went on. She still couldn't get the stunned look on his face when she had fielded that question at him at the fire out of her mind. The look of upset at that moment had hurt more than any of the puppy-eyed looks she had gotten since he had come back. It seemed to wound him even worse that she was questioning him as a hero than as a man. And it had struck her deep to see it.

Almost as much it had hurt to see the mix of emotions in his eyes when he had questioned her about how quickly she had gotten pregnant. At first it had only infuriated her, the way he missed all of the little tells. Features and expressions of his that were impossible for her not to identify immediately, even at their birth. But there had been more than anger there in his eyes, more than the bitterness that had momentarily crept into his voice. The reminder tugged at her heart now, making her bite her lip. Why didn't he see?

How could he know, Lois? Honestly, isn't that what you had been hoping for? Neither of us thought it possible, she scolded herself. Or are you starting to change your mind? First you never wanted him to know, now you're angry because he can't tell that the impossible occurred. You keep using the same excuses, the same tired arguments. You've been using the twins' well-being as a shield to hide from how you really feel.

Especially when you found that photo of you hidden behind the picture of his mother when you were snooping through his desk the other week. Picked up that old frame the wrong way, and there it was, slipping out from behind the backing. That picture frame was old when he brought it on his first day and so was the one of you. Must have been one that Jimmy shot back in the day, probably eight years old. And he's been carrying it with him.

How was that for a kick to the gut since the only reason you even dropped by his desk was because you missed him? Not Richard's office, mind you, not your fiancé's, but Clark's desk.

What is it you want, Lois, or do you even know? Your feelings for him are as strong as ever, whether you want to face it for not. And so are Richard's for you. You can't keep doing this. Stop hiding from yourself.

For a long moment, the dark-haired woman stood there in the dim light cast by her computer screen, stunned by that last question. A question that really did deserve an answer.

The voice in her head had a point, loathe as she was to admit it. She had come here to find some answers and it seemed as if the only way she'd keep herself from running from the truth was to try an old trick. A moment later, she was out of her office and striding toward the empty hallway. There were some decisions to be made and this had always worked in the past. Lois was grateful that she had been wearing boots when she had left home. She was going to walk the Planet.

* * *

As the night wore on toward morning, Richard sat in front of the television drinking Lois' vodka in Sprite. And brooding. His eyelids felt gritty, but he wasn't tired and couldn't stand the thought of going to bed. The alcohol made his thoughts slightly fuzzy though he wasn't precisely drunk; he drank the odd little cocktail slowly.

The kids were sound asleep, thank God. Even when he'd heard a noise from their room, it had only been the ferret rattling around, and the twins had slept through that. At least they hadn't heard him arguing with Lois ... at least they hadn't heard his last angry words.

Stupid. Lois Lane is not the kind of woman who will break down and tell you the truth just because you hurt her. And that last one scored pretty deep. It's a thought that troubles me at three in the morning when she's staying up 'til all hours on the computer, but I shouldn't have said it out loud. Not the best way to ask someone what you really mean to them.

He took another swallow of his drink, grimacing at the strange sharpness the liquor gave to the soda. That was another reason for this particular mix - he didn't like the taste, and wouldn't be tempted to drink too much and possibly do something stupid, like call Lois up and toss a little kerosene on a burning bridge.

It's not quite that bad yet, Richard thought, looking at Black Christmas on the television screen but not seeing it. We do need to talk. And really talk, not just yell at each other.

Problem is, how on earth am I supposed to stay calm when I have the sneaking suspicion that she's hidden things from me from first to last? When her biggest secret is still uncovered, and I think I know the shape of it?

* * *

Clark felt himself drifting between sleep and awareness, listening to the rain on the window. He was ready to doze off again when he heard another sound, one far more familiar.

Lois' heartbeat. Coming from ... right beside him?

He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and caught his breath at the sight. She was curled into a ball on the other side of his bed, her dark hair spread out on the pillow. For a long moment, Clark just stared at her. Then he closed his eyes tightly, counted to twenty, and opened them again.

She was still there. "This has got to be a dream," he murmured, getting ready to pinch his forearm.

A delicate hand caught his. "What're you muttering about, Kal-El?" Lois asked sleepily, and he shivered. Her voice sounded so real...

"I'm going to wake up now," he said quietly. "This is a dream, and I'm waking up now."

"Silly," Lois said with a yawn, and she rolled over to face him, letting him see that her belly was distended. "Pregnant women - and their husbands - have to get their rest, you know."

"Pregnant?" Clark gasped.

"Yes," she shot back, fingertips brushing her stomach. "What did you think this was, a little overindulgence in the Godiva chocolates? I'm pregnant. With your twins. You were with me at the last ultrasound."

"No, no, no," and now he shook his head, trying to dispel this too-tempting vision. "No, I left for Krypton before I even found about the twins. This is just a dream, a fantasy brought on by Lucy showing me those pictures of you pregnant in Paris."

"What do you mean, you left for Krypton?" Lois asked him, sitting up now. The nightgown she wore was very thin, and he tore his eyes away from her body. "Honey, you never left. I think I would've noticed, you know?"

"I left ... I was gone for six years ... I didn't know, about the twins ... You were so angry at me when I came home..."

"Hey." Lois caught his face and turned him to meet her eyes. Once again he was falling into those mysterious hazel orbs. "Relax, baby. It was just a nightmare, okay? I'm right here, see?"

Baby? Lois had called him many things - some of them unprintable - but never 'Baby'. He so wanted to believe this was real, and that everything else he remembered was the dream, from the moment he stole her memories to their recent confrontation. "I have to get out of here," he whispered, wondering if he was going mad. He sat up and swung his legs out of the bed, grasping the sheets to toss them back, and then halted, and hastily pulled the blankets back over his lap. Since when did I start sleeping naked? The only time was in the Fortress with Lois ... and I know I've dreamed of that more often than I can count.

Lois saw his sudden discomfiture and chuckled richly. The hair rose on the back of his neck as she purred, in a tone he hadn't heard for six years, "Relax, Kal-El, it's not as if I haven't seen you naked before. And done a lot more than look." That soft, knowing laugh again, and he began to blush as he remembered exactly when he had heard it last. Lois' voice dropped as she repeated, "A lot more. Or don't you remember how these little darlings got here?"

"Lois..."

She touched his cheek, turned him to face her again, that look in her eyes, the one he had never forgotten, breaking his heart. "It's okay, love. I think it's sweet that you're still a little embarrassed about your wife seeing you in the nude."

The second time she said it, it finally broke through his confusion. "Wife? When ... no, you always said you never wanted to be married. 'Three kids, two cats, one mortgage, ' remember?"

"That was before you," she said, running the tips of her nails over his shoulder. "Besides, it's two kids, no cats, and a lease. You really do have the strangest dreams, you know it? Imagine dreaming you'd left me! Kal-El, I know that you'd never leave me all alone and carrying your twins..."

"But I did," he whispered. "And it's killing me..."

Lois looked confused, and started to say something else, but her hand flew to her belly as she gasped in surprise. "Whoa! They're getting pretty rambunctious. Here, Dad, I think that's your son kicking."

Caught up in a storm of emotions, wanting so badly to believe that all of his problems were simply a bad dream, he reached out to her. If he could just feel his child stirring in her womb, then he would know this was the reality and all the heartbreak was nothing more than a nightmare...

His fingertips brushed the satin gown, but as he laid his palm on her rounded belly, Lois vanished before his eyes. Kal-El blinked ... he was sitting up in bed, in his pajama bottoms. And he was alone.

It was a dream ... a dream crueler than any nightmare. He rested his head in his palms, feeling more beaten and bewildered than the time he'd been without his powers and tried to take on that jerk in the diner.

* * *

The rain had abated, leaving a fresh, watery scent to the air. The winds were still high, and Lois leaned into them willingly from where she stood on the roof, letting her raven hair and suit get tousled. The five-story walk had exhausted her enough to have knocked down the last of her defenses and given her the answers she sought, although neither of them were ones which she could contend with. I miss him, God knows I miss Kal-El more than anything else in the world. There's no denying that I still love him, not now. But how can I even think about doing all of this again? How dare I even let myself wonder what it would be like to have him back? How he and I feel has nothing to do with it. He's always been a weakness of mine, just as I'm one of his. We're no good for each other, we can only get each other in danger. Didn't he make that clear enough to me?

Not to mention, I would ruin the twins' lives. They don't deserve to be uprooted, to have the only stability they've ever known crumble out from under them. How can I even dream of putting my happiness ahead of theirs? The only sensible thing to do is settle down, marry Richard, and give Jason and Kala some kind of sane, secure family life.

Late lightning lashed the sky, and thunder snarled. The suddenness of it was startling, but Lois couldn't stop her heart from leaping. That sarcastic voice that lived in the back of her mind spoke then. You, sensible? Sane? Stable? Why don't you get a lobotomy so you can keep playing Stepford Lois more easily? The General's Daughter scoffed. Anybody else would've had the sense, sanity, and stability to get the hell off the roof when there's lightning out, but you thrill to it. Face it, Lois, you're wild at heart, as strong in your passions and convictions as anyone. If you wanna be with Richard, make sure he knows that. And if you don't want him, stop playing with him.

And then, as if she had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, the Romantic chimed in. While you're facing facts, have a look at your heart. You will never not love him. There's a part of you that belongs to him, forever and always, whether you act on it or not. And those twins are his - he'll never be out of your life or your thoughts. Don't they deserve to know who their real father is?

Lois squeezed her eyes shut. When the voices in your head gang up on you, that's a bad sign, she thought. Frightened as it made her, she knew what she had to do. No decision needed to be made just now, at this moment, so long as she figured things out soon. But there was one thing she had to do, even if just to keep a promise. Softly she whispered into the wind, "Truce, Kal-El. Truce." She didn't know if he could hear her, although it didn't matter. She had said it and that made it real. There was no going back.

Staring off at the horizon, Lois stayed looking out silently for a bit longer before she was forced back inside by the numbness of her fingers. This time, starting to feel groggy, she managed the single flight of service stairs before taking the elevator back down to City.

The reporter made her way back to her office weary, her eyelids growing heavy with the lack of sleep over the last several nights. Sliding into her chair again, Lois attempted a losing battle with the Sandman. If I just sit down for a bit, maybe I can get my mind in gear again. Just rest my eyes for a moment...

The digital clock on the corner of her desk read 12:03. Her horrible day was over.

* * *

There was nothing to watch on television except infomercials, so Richard turned it off and looked at the clock. Hmm, four in the morning, which meant it was about ten in Paris. Plenty late enough in the day for what he'd decided to do.

He took the notepad beside him and looked at the list of numbers he'd gotten from directory assistance yesterday while waiting for Lois to get home. Four men who had worked for La Tribune Quotidienne six years ago, and seven others who shared Jason's middle name. Garen wasn't all that common a name in France, it seemed, and if Lois had really named the boy for his father, then one of these would know her.

If I have to argue with her again - and I just might - I'd better do my research first. If what I suspect is true, I have to eliminate all the other possibilities first.

Picking up his cell phone, he dialed Garen Lamoureux first.


Stutter Steps

Perry walked in early, secretly pleased at the prospect of lambasting Lane, Kent, and his nephew. Lane and Kent had both snuck out yesterday, and even though Lois had asked to leave and Richard had called after the fact to let him know, Perry could blame them for Kent's absenteeism and each other's. Nothing more delightful than the prospect of winding up three of my best reporters and turning them loose on an unprepared world.

But when he actually walked into the office, he saw a pitiful sight. Lois was slumped over her desk, asleep in the clothes she'd worn yesterday, just one hand and a mass of wavy black hair visible. It's worse than I thought, Perry mused, scowling. Usually it's the man that gets thrown out of the house during a fight. Well, Lois never could do anything expected. At least he had an hour before anyone else came in. That ought to be enough time to put things right...

* * *

Lois woke up very slowly, feeling as if her head was stuffed with cotton wool. Her neck and back and legs ached, too, and the arm she had laid her head on was numb. Oh, God. Now I remember why I don't do this anymore. Eww, I fell asleep without brushing my teeth. Yuck. I'm getting old.

She lifted her head, hair tumbling into her eyes, and focused blearily on the insulated coffee cup in front of her. Fragrant steam rose from it, smelling nothing like the over-boiled mud she usually got at work. Eyes practically crossing, she pulled it closer and took a sip.

"Well, at least we know she's alive," Perry's gruff voice said behind her as she put the cup back down. She whirled as he continued, "Your devotion's admirable, Lane, but you really didn't have to sleep here to be on time for the conference."

"Perry..."

"And don't try to weasel out of it, either. Your name plate says Assistant Editor, you have to go to the meetings. Most of them, anyway. I ought to make you go like that, only I'm too nice."

Perry looked more amused than anything else, so Lois just drank her coffee and looked at him with an eyebrow raised.

He grinned. "Olsen was kind enough to come in early and pick up your dry cleaning, so that suit Kala spewed on is here and ready for you to wear. He also got you some coffee from that froufy little shop on the corner. Now I've got him running down to the convenience store for a toothbrush and toothpaste. Loueen's on her way in, and I asked her to pick up whatever else you'd need. I don't meddle in feminine mysteries, and neither should Olsen. Besides, Loueen's more likely to accurately guess your bra size. She said you'd have makeup?"

"Yeah, I have a makeup bag in my desk," Lois muttered. "Perry, what about the twins? Who's taking them to school?"

"Richard," the editor replied. "I called him and told him you'd slept here and he needed to take the monsters in."

Lois winced. "Lovely. So how much has your nephew told you?"

"Not a damn thing, and I didn't ask," he retorted. "But I think he was glad to know you were here and nowhere else."

Ouch. "Point made, White, now leave it." Lois took another swig of the coffee, glad that Starbucks knew her usual, and raked her fingers through her dark hair. What I really want right now is a nice long bath - I missed my morning shower. Speaking of which... "Perry, if it's going to be a few minutes, I'm going to go down to the gym and have a shower. I feel grungy."

"Knew that free membership for the executive staff would come in handy," he muttered. "Go on, I'll send Loueen down there when she gets here."

Lois got up, wincing when she stretched, and kissed Perry on the cheek as she went by. "Thanks, Dad," she said, and though her tone was light, her eyes were sincere.

"Yeah, like I'd admit to a daughter like you," Perry groused, but he was smiling. "Don't pull this nonsense again or you're grounded."

* * *

Clark woke up late, having been afraid to return to sleep after that dream. His walk to work was further delayed by a car wreck on the way; he didn't have to change out of uniform to unobtrusively pop open a stuck car door and help the fortunately-uninjured driver out. The young man's alcohol-laced breath made the wreck just another statistic for the officers who were arriving as Clark ducked out of the scene.

Lois would have been amused at the number of 'unofficial' rescues he did, and the thought of her made him smile bittersweetly. That dream had been so very real, and even now he wished he could exchange this life for the one he'd led in it. Too late, Clark thought. I have no idea what would happen if I turned back time that far, and it would be unforgivably selfish of me to do so just so I could have a second chance with Lois. Saving her life was one thing, and I only turned back time a little while. But more than six years... No. Never.

At least they had promised to be civil to each other ... and he still had to get the info from Karla Smith-Bennett over to Lois. Last Clark had heard, no one had officially picked up the Luthor/Vanderworth investigation after he left City, so that meant Lois was most likely doing it unofficially. She never would leave a story while there was the faintest hope of getting some answers.

Mulling over the Luthor problem, Clark continued on his way to work, not particularly worried about being late. Perry had always forgiven his occasional disappearances and tardiness as long as he finished stories on time ... speaking of which, he had to wrap up the second article on the trip to Mexico...

* * *

Lois let the hot water blast straight into her face, hoping it would wake her up enough for this damn conference. She'd have to remember to refill the shampoo and conditioner bottles she carried in her makeup case...

"Hello, Lois? It's me, I'm here to rescue your silly butt. Did you really spend the night here?"

The reporter grinned. Marriage hadn't tamed Loueen, apparently. "In here. Yeah, I had a few things I wanted to look up and I fell asleep at my desk."

"Type-A overachiever," Loueen said affectionately, tucking a strand of thick chestnut hair behind her ear. She was right outside the shower stall now, and added, "I hope I guessed your size right ... I brought panties, bra, stockings, slip, and camisole. Everything matches - I figured it was the pinstripe."

"Mm-hmm. Thank you so much, Loueen. You didn't have to."

"Yes I did. That's why you shouldn't marry your boss; you get used to actually doing what he wants."

"No such worries here," Lois replied, turning off the spray and grabbing the towel of the shower door. "You're the one who wanted to get hitched, not me."

"It does have its benefits," Loueen said lazily. "Such as not having to fight over the 'official office hot chick' title anymore. A much better wardrobe. More money in the house. And it has drawbacks, too, I'll admit. He didn't tell me you didn't know about the pets until we were at your house and he wanted to sneak them inside."

"You know," Lois muttered as she finished drying off, "one day, you're going to be a widow because of that little trick, right? The lizard is evil."

"Tell me about it. It got loose in our house and I had to chase it off the curtains with a broom." Lois heard Loueen chuckle, and then the younger woman said, "Everything's right outside the door here. I'm going to go see if Jimmy's back with your toothbrush. Somehow I don't think he'd dare come in the women's locker room even if they let him."

The black-haired reporter grinned to herself, pulling the shopping bag into the shower stall. No, he probably wouldn't have, especially since he knew she was here. Several years ago, Lois had been in the habit of quickly changing clothes in the janitorial closet, which was closer than the restrooms. Jimmy had once walked in on her in mid-change, wearing just a bra and panties, and the young photographer had been so traumatized that he couldn't meet her eyes for days. That, and the life-sized picture of Perry now plastered on the closet wall, had cemented Lois' decision to walk the extra distance to the restrooms to change from then on... "No, Loueen, he wouldn't. Jimmy's too much of a gentleman."

"Like someone else we know," Perry's wife and former secretary replied. "The two that love you the most are the two least likely to subscribe if I set up a pay-per-view webcam over that shower door."

"Loueen! You're terrible!" Lois was glad the other woman couldn't see her blushing at the mention of Clark.

"It's true. Heck, the last time I saw you and Kent together was at that Christmas party, and he saw you over by the mistletoe and didn't even try to trip you so you'd be under it or anything. Jimmy I understand - he'd faint dead away if you kissed him, but Kent's just too noble. Lombard, on the other hand..." Her brown eyes fairly gleamed with amusement.

"You mean the hand I broke three fingers of?" Lois said sweetly, glad of someone else to discuss. "By the way, when did you start drugging your husband with illegal substances? He rehired Grizzly Lombard!"

"Don't blame that on me, he's always been like that. Something you know perfectly well," Loueen shot back, laughing. "Probably did it just for the fun of watching a big burly ex-quarterback hide from someone as petite as you. All right, I'm gonna go get that toothbrush before you blame me for anything else."

"C'mon, Loueen, everyone knows that anything that goes wrong is blamed on the last person who quit. Namely, you."

"Hey, Norm quit after me!" Loueen called from the doorway.

"He didn't quit, he died! There's a difference!"

"Fancy you knowing that!"

* * *

Any hope Clark had of arriving unobtrusively was blown when he walked in. Jimmy and Perry had both beaten him into work, and the editor rounded on him immediately. "Kent! What the hell did you think you were doing yesterday, leaving early?"

Caught off guard, he could only stammer in reply. "Didn't ... didn't Lois tell you? I was sick..."

"Sick of working, more like! First Lois tells me she's leaving early, then Richard skips out, then you just sort of drift out without a word. Got any explanation that won't make me laugh?"

"I had a, um, stomach virus," Clark said, feeling much the same way he had when he and Richard were in Mexico being unexpectedly shot at. "I did ask Lois to say something..."

"Well, I was probably too busy tearing her a new one for her spat with Superman on national TV to hear her if she did tell me," Perry replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, not noticing the way Jimmy hustled to his desk out of Perry's line of sight. "Besides, Lois isn't your boss. You should've called me or Richard. Of course, you couldn't have reached Richard because he took the afternoon off, too! I'm not going to put up with my best reporters playing hooky just because they don't feel like working. Is that understood?"

Bewildered, Clark said, "Yes, Mr. White, sir. I, um, I'd be happy to stay late and make up the hours..."

"No, don't start that. Lois tried the same thing last night and fell asleep here. She hasn't done that since Superman left. Dedication's fine, but when you people start moving in, I start to worry."

"Lois stayed here last night?" Clark's gaze darted to Jimmy for confirmation. At the younger man's silent, wide-eyed nod, he continued, "But the twins..."

"Richard took them to school," Perry said, then did a double-take. "Wait a minute. You told Lois you were sick? Thought you two weren't speaking. Didn't she drive you out of City?" He folded his arms and gave Clark a challenging glare. Behind him, Jimmy's eyebrows rose speculatively.

"Mr. White, I left City for my own reasons," Clark said, beginning to get a little testy. I'm beginning to remember why I thought this could never work. Everyone's always poking their nose in. "And Lois and I are both professionals. I happened to see her yesterday as I was leaving and asked her to pass on the message."

"Well, that explains why I never got it," Perry muttered. "Kent, in the future, call me. Lois didn't get any less vindictive while you were gone."

"Mr. White, I don't think you're being fair to Lois..."

"Fine, fine. She didn't get any less absentminded, either." Perry turned away, making Jimmy quickly start rustling through the papers on his desk in an attempt to look busy, and then the rest of the employees started to arrive. Grateful for the reprieve, Clark hurried to his desk and found the notepad on which he'd written Ms. Smith-Bennett's contact info, and all the background information he'd been able to gather on her in such short notice. As soon as Lois got back, it would make a nice peace offering...

Other reporters trickled in, and Clark's keen hearing was more liability than asset as he heard them still discussing Lois' behavior yesterday. My God, the gossip mill never stops. Don't they have anything better to discuss? They're supposed to be journalists, why are they so excited by hearsay and supposition when the actual facts come down to so little?

Lois swept into the office with Abigail Montgomery, Caroline Biste, and several other reporters. Clark watched her carefully, but he saw no signs of her overnight stay at the office. Only her hair was still slightly damp, curling into a mass of raven waves in the absence of a hair dryer. It relieved him to see that Lois didn't seem as harried as she had been just before he left for Mexico.

Now is as good a time as ever to face her. I just hope Perry hasn't riled her up too much...

* * *

Lois glanced up from her desk, ready to snap at Perry for bothering her about the damn conference again, and saw Clark sidling into her office instead. He was watching the editor as if concerned that Perry might catch him out of his department, and then turned to Lois with a nervous smile. "Um, hi," he said.

She had a brief moment of déjà vu, his coming into the office like that, most especially due to the way that her eyes seemed to no longer acknowledge the disguise. Only that goofy smile stopped Lois' suddenly train-wrecked feeling, the reminder that both the men she had always cared for were behind those glasses. Her heart ached suddenly then, too strongly to ignore, to just forget the consequences and go to him now. Forget Richard, forget the audience they'd have. Just tell him everything, right here and now...

And then she felt like an idiot.

They had promised to leave all that mess behind; she had given her word yesterday that they would get past all of it, not to mention last night's decisions on the matter. For a moment, she couldn't look away now that they were in the same room, but shook it off. Glancing away, she murmured to her former partner in almost her normal tone, "Good morning, Clark. Thank you for coming by. Close the door, would you?" There was a pause as he did so, then Lois dropped of management pretenses to ask cautiously, her gaze averted, "Hi. Feeling any better? No worlds to save on the way home?"

"No, not this time," Clark replied, still a little unsure of where he stood with her. "I... While I was in Mexico, this attorney, Karla Smith-Bennett, called me about the Vanderworth case. I guess she got my number when I worked in City and then took two months to call." He shrugged and laid the notes on Lois' desk. "Did a quick background check, she seems legit. Here's everything I could find on her in a hurry, and her callback numbers. I think she could help."

A fresh lead on Luthor's trail could be invaluable at this point, most of her own having gone dead a while back. And his resources were usually better, whether she had ever wanted to admit it or not. At least these days she knew why. Nonetheless... Lois arched an eyebrow. "Thanks ... but I'm not exactly a beat reporter anymore, you know."

Clark smiled at her knowingly. Sarcasm he could handle. "Uh-huh. That's why no one else is investigating the Vanderworth case, right? And that's why I saw your car parked up the street from the mansion a few days before I left."

Lois tried to look outraged, but it was too true. What did you say to someone who could check up on you with remote vision? At last she simply muttered, "Shut up."

He grinned and chuckled. "You're running it down on your own time, aren't you? Lois, you've never quit on a case. Never. If you think Perry wouldn't let you take it, you just won't tell him. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, isn't that your motto?"

His reaction to the entire thing was a million miles from what Richard's would have been. His light, taunting tone startled a laugh out of her, and for a moment it was like old times. It had been a rare moment when he'd scolded her very hard, she remembered, even when he caught her in a dangerous situation. Even as Clark, her most skeptical critic at such moment, he had always been just a bit exasperated. As Superman, he would only chide her gently, usually touching her cheek. He had always understood her so well, better than anyone else ever had. That was what she had missed the most, if she was honest.

At that laughter, so free and for once without the bitter edge he'd grown used to hearing, Clark's heart broke a little more. Once upon a time, he could've coaxed a laugh from her two or three times a day, been blessed by her fond smile as often. Lately, though, he had missed her happiness...

"All right, smart guy," Lois said in a mock-warning tone, a little half-smile lurking around her lips. As much a soft touch as she felt for letting something so simple affect her, she couldn't dismiss the relief it afforded her. Which she tried to dismiss. Although, there was one thing she need to know...

Reaching for the manila folder, she opened it and glanced at the contents before drawling, "I take it then that you don't plan to rat me out Perry or Richard then? Or make any dire pronouncements about putting myself in danger? Something like that? I mean, it is part of your job." Her hazel eyes came up to look into his, waiting somewhat anxiously for his reply in spite of herself.

"Well, if you already know what I ought to be telling you not to do, and I already know you won't listen, what's the point of actually saying the words?" he asked almost rhetorically. Lois shrugged, lowering her gaze to the folder again. Clark felt almost as though he was pushing his luck to continue their good-natured banter, especially considering what he wanted to ask her later on, when he had figured out how to frame the question. So, Lois, are they mine? just seemed too bald a query. Instead he kept on with the repartee for which the pair of them had once been infamous. "The same goes for telling Perry. You wouldn't listen to him, either; you've had selective hearing as long as I've known you."

Those hazel eyes rocketed back up to his with a hint of affront in them. "I beg your pardon, Emperor of Eavesdroppers, you said something about my hearing?"

Clark wasn't sure if the remark was just mock-vicious or truly venomous, and he hastily backtracked. "I'm sorry, Lois, I had no right to presume..."

"Clark, stop," and her voice was gentler. "I did call truce, didn't I?"

His blue eyes widened at that, the memory of her voice in the night haunting him even after he had woken. "You ... you really said that? I thought I was still dreaming..." Remembering the subject of that dream, of her delicate hand on his arm, her voice so warm and knowing, Clark suddenly blushed and looked away.

What on earth...? Lois thought, her own eyes widening. No, it couldn't be. "Uh-huh. Yeah, well ... I really said 'truce.' Not that it'll be easy, but..."

He suddenly glanced over his shoulder at the door and frowned. "Richard's on his way in. Lois ... I'll talk to you later?"

"Sure," she said, glancing out the door as well. "That's all I need right now. Thanks for the info, Clark."

He was already at the door as Richard walked in on the opposite end of the bullpen. "You're welcome, Lois," Clark replied as he stepped out of her office, pitching his voice to carry. "I know you'll see it gets to the right person."

Lowering her voice so that only he could hear, Lois caught his gaze and whispered, "No, really ... thank you."

The only reply he could make was a smile as he left, followed quickly by a little wave to Jimmy and an innocent, friendly, "Hi," to Richard. Lois, watching him head back over to International, saw the speculative look on her fiancé's face, saw also how exhausted he looked. Jerk, her mind growled with a momentary lack of sympathy for Richard, and she turned resolutely back to her morning's work.

* * *

Richard's eyes felt gritty, and his temper frayed, but he showed up for work anyway. At least the twins had been reasonably good that morning, only squabbling once and briefly; Lois' absence seemed to have turned them somber.

His mood was not improved by the sight of Kent leaving Lois' office as he walked in. But Richard replied to his greeting with what he hoped was a natural smile, and headed for Lois' office.

Perry waylaid him, though, and practically dragged him into the center office. "Just what the hell did you think you were doing yesterday, skipping out like that?" the editor barked.

Richard's eyes narrowed, and the calm façade began to crumble. "Uncle Perry, I do not need this right now."

"Yes, you do, and knock off that 'Uncle Perry' crap when I'm giving you a lecture," Perry snapped back. "Don't think you can get away with giving yourself a half-holiday just because you're my nephew."

"I don't think that, Mr. White," Richard growled. "I think I can take half a day off because I'm the managing editor who rescued your whole International department, and because I haven't called in sick in three years, and also because if I'd seen Lois yesterday we probably would have had our extremely ugly fight here in front of the rumor mill!"

"That wouldn't have been a problem because Lane wasn't here, either!"

"Oh, and I don't suppose you yelled at her like this, did you?"

"No, as a matter of fact, I didn't," Perry replied hotly. "One, she asked to leave - to get the kids. Two, she came in early today to make it up. Actually she came back last night, but regardless, she was here before me this morning, and you're not. And three, I never yell at Lois like this. For her I yell a hell of a lot louder and I use more profanity, too!"

Richard felt all of the anger and frustration and sorrow rise up in his throat like bile, but he bit his tongue and held it back. This was his uncle and his boss, after all. Perry didn't deserve the emotional equivalent of being puked on, no matter how much of a jerk he was at the moment. "Fine. Fine. I shouldn't have skipped out and I won't do it again. Happy?"

Perry crossed his arms and furrowed his brow. "No. I wish I knew what the hell was going on with you and Lois. Better yet, I wish I knew how to fix it." Then the paternal concern vanished beneath the editor's scowl. "I'm getting sick of my best reporters being off their form."

Exhausted, everything he had learned and suspected warring inside him, Richard gave up. You're not the only one who's sick of it, he thought, and offered Perry a crisp Air Force salute. "Sir, yes sir. I will no longer pursue a personal life if it affects my career, sir. Permission to go apologize to my fiancée, sir?"

Perry sighed heavily. The boy had been through the ringer, from the looks of him, and he was now apparently beyond everything but tired humor. "Fine, go on. But don't ever try this b.s. again."

Richard left without another word, glancing over at the international department as he did so. Clark was there at his desk, starting work as usual, looking as if everything was perfectly normal. Richard didn't know whether to envy or pity him, or some mixture of both. Sighing, he went to Lois's office and closed the door behind him gently.

She looked up, hazel eyes stormy, mouth tight with anger, and her whole body gone defensive. "What do you want? Here to take another couple potshots at me?" Lois said in low, even tones that still conveyed her tension.

Holding up both hands, Richard counted to five before he answered. "I'm here to negotiate a ceasefire." Mainly because it's the only way I'll ever get you to tell me who the twins' real father is. And because I discovered I don't sleep well without you in the house at least.

His only answer was a fine dark brow, arching up questioningly.

"Look, Lois, I was a jackass, okay? Sometimes I wonder if you really do care about me or not, especially when you don't tell me things, but that was not the way to start talking about it. I apologize. Can we just sweep last night under the rug and try again?"

Lois groaned, letting her head fall into her hands. "Richard, I wouldn't have moved in with you in the first place if I didn't care about you. I wouldn't have let my twins anywhere near you if I didn't care about you."

He bit his lip again at my twins but let it pass, coming closer to lightly touch her shoulder. "I had a bad day yesterday, and you had an enormously awful one. Let's just let it be for now, okay? For the twins' sake? They were mostly quiet and well-behaved this morning, and they didn't ask where you were. I think they heard us fighting; neither of us wants them exposed to that."

She closed her eyes tightly, knowing Kala had to have heard it. Had to. Nothing else on earth could make her want to curl up in a shivering ball of tears and self-pity quite like the thought that she was being a bad - or even a mediocre - mother. "Fine. I was a little sharp with you, too. Let's just forget about it and move on." She looked up at him, a sheen of moisture in those eyes, but he saw the deep steel in her underneath that. "Richard, no woman ever tells a man all her secrets. If you care about me, stop digging."

"Okay. I love you." For the moment, he would stop. But Richard's mind was filled with the image of his father trying to patch up the spreading crack in his wall, plaster drying on his forearms, cussing the thing under his breath. They'd known all along that patching it was just a temporary solution; the wall would never be sound again with the growth of the tree and the weight of the house both pulling it in opposite directions. "I just worry about us, Lois..."

Lois sighed heavily. "Here, you still want an answer? Yes. Yes, it was romantic. No, we never actually dated, I wouldn't have called him my boyfriend, but yeah, we were more than just friends. Then he left me without even a goodbye, and it was over. There." Even as she looked up at him, she kept her thoughts from showing on her face. In the middle of that, I found out my crush and my best pal were the same person, and we were both so giddy with the end of secrets that we did something a bit stupid, and being together almost cost us the world, literally, so we broke up and he stole my memories. Two months later he was gone, and eight months after that I had his twins. Kal-El's twins.

Some of it showed; Richard knew she was still hiding something, even had an idea what it was. And then you went to Paris to find him, and you found someone else there. Someone who comforted you when you were lonely. And his name wasn't Garen; I proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt this morning. He had lost his taste for confrontation, though, and let it pass. Not that he wasn't still heartsore, still feeling that vague dread like freefall way too close to the ground. Richard just didn't want to fight anymore. He kissed the top of her head and said, "Thank you for telling me."

Lois had reached a similar state of mind, and remembered with an ironic twist the way she had whispered truce to the wind. "You're welcome."

Just then, Perry stuck his head in the door. "Time's up, nephew, if you haven't made up by now you won't succeed at it today anyway. Lane - where's that article on the fire yesterday?"

Lois opened her mouth, froze, and then slowly closed it with an expression of dawning horror. "Oh, shit." She smacked her palm against her forehead, feeling a terrible kind of betrayal - I never miss a deadline, I never let anyone else get to the scene first, and I never sleep with anyone I work with. Now I've screwed up two out of three - nice going, Lane. "Goddamn idiot. Perry, how much time do we have before the afternoon edition deadline?"

"You haven't even started yet?" the editor asked incredulously. "When you were here all night?"

"How much time, Perry?"

He glanced at his watch. "About two hours 'til we have to leave for the conference. You better type fast, Lane. And God help you if I hold a space on the front page for you and you don't get it finished."

In her precarious mood, she didn't dare to answer. Lois only swung away from both of them, booted up her computer, and got out her notes in silence. After a moment, Perry nodded, and took Richard's elbow. "C'mon, son, time to let Lois earn her keep. Something you might want to think about doing today, too."

* * *

Two hours later, Lois' eyewitness account of the fire was finished and proofread, and the reporter herself was on her way out of the city room with Perry. The editor was oozing with smug satisfaction; not only had he goaded his three best reporters into seriously putting their noses to the grindstone, he'd scared the Olsen kid into getting some work done as well. Best of all, Lois was going to an executive conference and for once not complaining about how she was a reporter, not a pencil-pushing middle manager.

He didn't see Kent glance up as they passed International, didn't see Lois meet his look for a heartbeat and then turn away almost shyly, without the frigid glare she would've given him before. Nor did he see Kent's eyes follow them both out of the room and to the elevator, unhindered by doors and walls, though Lois felt his gaze still on her.

None of them saw Richard in his office, watching Kent watching them. He was not entirely happy with the way things had gone this morning; he needed more data before he would let his suspicion become a theory. And then Richard saw the perfect source of info walk past the doors. Olsen. I bet there's not much he doesn't notice about Lois. All three of them were thick as thieves back in the day.

Clark, still looking after Lois and worried by her somber mood, heard Perry ask as they entered the elevator, "Just what were you working on all night if not the fire?" And as the doors closed, Clark saw the wide-eyed look she turned on him, all but saw the words uh-oh flashing neon over her head as she demurred. But he didn't have long to contemplate that incident, because he heard his own name from the city room.

He didn't need his particular vision to see trouble brewing this time. Richard was over at Jimmy's desk looking down at the hanging files full of photos, trying to seem casual but failing. "Looks like you have a bunch of office pictures from way back. Is that Perry before his cardiologist made him stop smoking cigars? Mind if I look?"


Storm Warning

Jimmy Olsen was in the throes of one of his rare fits of organizing. In theory, a better filing system would make finding photos simpler and faster, which in turn would leave him more time for actually taking the shots that would advance his career. In practice, the more organized he got, the harder it was to find things that weren't in their long-accustomed places. That didn't stop the young photographer from occasionally succumbing to the siren call of brand-new file folders with color-coded tabs, however, and at the moment Jimmy had several years' worth of pictures sprawled across his desk as he tried to update his filing system.

At first he didn't even see Richard walk up to his desk, and the international editor's voice startled him. "Looks like you have a bunch of office pictures from way back. Is that Perry before his cardiologist made him stop smoking cigars? Mind if I look?"

Jimmy looked up quickly, almost dropping the handful of folders he was trying to fit into his filing cabinet, and then smiled. "Sure. Some of these go back to before Clark started working here." Go on and look, but don't be surprised at what you see.

Richard started leafing through the photos on the desk, ostensibly looking at his uncle (Perry had never been without a cigar in the old days, even if he didn't always light it, he always had one), but really looking at Lois. Jimmy knew he probably had more shots of her than anyone without a crush ever needed, and Richard noticed that, too.

"You've got a lot of Lois here," her fiancé said offhandedly.

"She's a good subject," Jimmy replied just as casually, twitching an office candid out of the stack. "See here? Terrible lighting, but with her coloring she still shows up well. Good contrast. Besides, Ms. Lane never runs from the camera like some people." He showed Richard a picture of Lois smiling broadly, while Perry tried to skulk out of the frame with a scowl. "She's such a ham sometimes," he added, pulling out a few more.

As if by accident, Jimmy chose another that showed Lois grinning at his lens, having hopped up on a desk and crossed her legs to better show off her white skirt. It happened to be Clark's desk, and the edge of the shot captured his face. His expression was a complicated mixture of surprise and a touch of embarrassment, but his appreciation of the view was also quite clear.

Richard's eyes narrowed and his lips thinned, but all he said was, "It's amazing how much leg she has for someone so petite."

Jimmy didn't smile. He liked Richard well enough; he was a good guy, great with twins, and he adored Lois. But he wasn't Clark. Since realizing Lois thought of him as a cute little brother, James B. Olsen had always secretly hoped that his best friend would finally win her. Have a good look, Mr. White. See what you interrupted. Well, actually, Clark interrupted it himself when he left for six years, but if you hadn't come along and pestered her into going out with you, I bet they'd already be back together. Clark's a lot less shy since he traveled the world, and I've seen some pretty intense looks going back and forth between the two of them. Besides, he loves her so much it practically surrounds him like a halo. If anyone here deserves Lois, it's him.

Jimmy filed several shots of just Lois into their own folder, which was unlabelled. He had to remember to show some of those to Clark, just in case he needed to replace either of the snapshots Jimmy had given him years ago. Even with the best and most attentive care, pictures that old tended to yellow. The newer photo papers lasted much longer.

Richard was now investigating the group candids, what Jimmy thought of as the family photos. There were a lot of shots of Clark, Lois, and Perry in that stack, along with people from all the Daily Planet departments. A majority of them had been taken at various company Christmas parties and other functions. The infamous 'premonition' snapshot was in there, Loueen kissing Perry under the mistletoe, the editor trying to look annoyed but not succeeding in the slightest.

And Richard saw it, smiling as he picked it up, but the smile melted off his face as he caught a glimpse of the shot immediately below it. This was the same Christmas party, from the year just before Clark left, and the same bunch of mistletoe hanging by the door. Lois was caught in the act of dodging away from it, her hazel eyes glaring up at the parasitic plant. At the edge of the frame, Grizzly Lombard scowling in disappointment at having missed her.

Much closer, Clark watched Lois, beginning to laugh at her adept evasion. He wasn't trying to maneuver her under the mistletoe like Lombard had been, just watching. Jimmy sat back and said nothing as Richard perused the pictures, seeing how many of them had Lois either grinning devilishly at Clark or Clark smiling wistfully at Lois. The two years they'd worked here together were chronicled in those snapshots, and they painted a picture of another relationship Richard knew nothing about.

"Wow. I never realized how close Lois and Clark were," Richard said to Jimmy.

"Well, they were best friends," Jimmy explained. "Didn't people tell you about the stories they ran down together?"

"The stories, yeah," Richard muttered. Then he looked seriously at the photographer and said, "You know them both better than anybody, Jimmy. Did you ever think ... something else was going on?"

Jimmy just raised his eyebrows and looked completely innocent. "Something else? Like what?"

"Like maybe they were more than friends." Richard was looking at the pictures now, avoiding Jimmy's questioning gaze.

"Oh." Now how do I handle this? Tell him I don't think there was ever more between them, but I always thought there should've been? Back in those days, Clark was the only one here besides me and the Chief who really cared about her, and Perry and I were disqualified by age. The rest of the guys here just wanted to get in her pants. Clark cared - he still cares. He's the only one who deserved to be with her. But it's not like I don't know that Richard loves her, even if I don't think they're perfect for each other. Jimmy took a deep breath. "They were best friends, Mr. White. They had to be, to work together the way they did. And they cared a lot about each other." He paused, then shrugged. "Clark probably liked her, you know, more-than-friends liked her, but he's always been a gentleman."

"What about Lois? Do you think she liked him, and maybe nothing ever happened just because they had to work together every day?"

No way am I going there. "Hey, if I could read Lois' mind, Mr. White, I wouldn't get yelled at so much. Maybe she did. Maybe she just thought he was a nice guy, and the only one around here she could trust."

"Hmm."

* * *

Clark was bent over his desk, pretending to work, while listening to Jimmy's conversation with Richard. He was also looking at the same photos, thinking that Jimmy's pictures of Lois were clearly framed by Love's eye, and all but reliving the memories those snapshots carried. Jimmy even still had the full picture from which the one on his desk - hidden behind the photo of Ma - had been cropped. That one was from the last Christmas party, Lois lounging in a chair after a couple of drinks, a sweet unguarded smile on her face, that incredible red dress...

She'd walked into the party, fashionably late, wearing that long black coat that covered her from neck to ankles. Someone laughed, someone else kidded her, "A trench coat? Some party dress, Lane!" And then Lois had smiled wickedly and shrugged the coat off her shoulders, letting it land on someone's chair. The exclamations and wolf whistles had startled everyone who wasn't looking her way, and Lois stalked to the punch bowl like a queen moving through a crowd of her adoring subjects. Hair down and wavy, lying night-black over her pale, bare shoulders, the vivid crimson of the dress in high contrast. It wasn't really all that racy; it was just that she wore it so very well... Clark had almost forgotten to breathe while he watched her, love and longing wrapped so taut around his heart he thought it would burst... And as everyone was leaving, she had hugged him tightly enough to leave the scent of her perfume on his clothes, and kissed his cheek...

The phrase "more than friends" yanked Clark's attention back to the present. It made him uneasy to hear them talking about him, especially with the direction Richard's questions seemed to be leading. Jimmy seemed to be avoiding a straight answer, for which Clark was grateful.

While he was wondering what would be the best way to distract Richard from his current line of thought, his phone rang. Momentarily startled, he answered it. "Daily Planet International Department, Kent speaking, can I help you?"

"Kent? C'est Henri Archambault. Parlez-vous français?" The reply had a heavy Quebecois accent, and this was the source he'd been trying to reach for his newest article. The man was notoriously difficult to get hold of ... no way he could pass up this call.

"Oui, je parle français. Merci pour retourner mon appel, Monsieur Archambault. Je voudrais vous demander..."

Clark soon found himself so absorbed in the call that he had to tune out Richard and Jimmy. Hopefully, the photographer wouldn't say anything incriminating...

Several minutes later, he hung up the phone with a sigh of relief. In addition to the immigration story, he now had an extremely knowledgeable source to quote for Quebec's continued desire to secede from Canada.

"I didn't realize you spoke French so fluently," Richard said from the other side of the desk, and Clark jumped.

"Gosh, I didn't even hear you walk up," he replied, keeping his face open and innocent while his stomach churned. "I took French in high school. And college. I like it a lot."

"Your accent's flawless," Richard told him, and there was that intensity about him, that slight narrowing of his eyes. "You'd sound right at home in Paris. Ever been there?"

"Oh, a couple times."

"I used to visit all the time when I lived in London," Richard said. "Hey, what years did you go to Paris? We might've just barely missed meeting each other."

Clark panicked a little then. He'd been to France many times, actually, but not as Clark Kent. The only time he could remember actually using his passport was the time he'd gone to the French observatory outside Paris to see what everyone had thought was Krypton. So he stammered a little as he named the year. "That was my first stop, you know, on my big trip around the world."

Richard's eyes lit up with an almost savage expression of triumph, but he damped it down quickly. For a moment, he'd looked almost like Lois when she'd shot him... Chills ran down Clark's spine. He knows. He knows something. The last public save I did as Superman was that woman who fell into the Seine - how could I be so stupid? How could he not make the connection when I practically drew him a map? Oh, dear God, what am I going to do now?

But Richard's voice was very calm as he replied, "Yeah, I was in London then. Couldn't get away 'til summer, though. Oh well, I guess it's better we met working here, right? I hear enough crap about being Perry's nephew, it'd be worse if I'd been friends with the star reporter years ago, too."

Clark tried to chuckle, but it sounded a little rusty to his own ears. "Oh, no, I'm not the star reporter. Lois is."

"Lois isn't a beat reporter anymore," Richard replied, a glint in his eyes. "A lot has changed about Lois while you were gone."

Clark met his gaze with a faintly puzzled expression, trying not to remember Lois' mouth on his only yesterday, nor the things both hurtful and truthful she'd said to him later. "Lois has always been pretty, um, dynamic," he offered. "Anyone who wants to be her friend gets used to change."

Perhaps they would've said something else, perhaps something they would both regret, but Clark's eyes went unfocused as he picked up a sound he was beginning to dread. Fire engines? Not again!

A moment later, someone monitoring the police bands yelled, "Holy crap! The French consulate's on fire!"

Perry and Lois were both gone. Richard gave Clark a twisted grin. "You're the one who speaks French, Kent. Get down there."

Clark just nodded, grabbing a tape recorder for the look of it. He was running for the air shaft before the reporters in City had even figured out who should go. Richard stuck his head in the bullpen and called out, "Jimmy! Head down to the consulate - I bet Superman will show up there pretty soon. One of you guys from city go, too - I've got Kent covering the international angle."

"Kent?" someone groused. "Great, there goes the whole story. I'm not wasting my time. He's too damned good."

"The international angle?" someone else complained. "What international angle? This's Metropolis' arsonist!"

"Yes, the international angle," Richard said sweetly. "Because the French consulate is technically foreign soil. Your precious pet Metropolis firebug just targeted another nation for the first time. I'd say that's news, wouldn't you?" Into the utter silence that followed his chiding, he continued, "No volunteers? Gil, go for it. Get moving!"

He turned back to his own department just a second too late to see the look Ron had been giving him.

* * *

Lana left Agi's office smiling. One minor detail in the write-up of her fashion show had needed to be changed, something the event organizer had gotten wrong, not the Daily Planet staff. Ms. Vega had been very professional about it, promising to take care of the correction immediately, and getting that done so quickly left Lana with a large blank space on her schedule for the day. On a whim, she decided to go see Clark.

She arrived, unfortunately, only a few minutes after he'd left to catch the consulate story. "Sorry you missed him," Richard told her. He had just happened to be by Kent's desk, not nosing around at all, when she walked up. "I don't expect him back for an hour or two, but I can give him a message for you if you'd like."

"Oh, no, that's all right," Lana demurred. "I was just hoping he was free for lunch. I've only got an hour or so to kill."

"Hey, my lunch offer still stands," Richard said impulsively. It would be nice, for once, to spend an hour with someone who wasn't connected to the Planet, its rivalries, its demands, its gossip... "We can call it a business lunch and put it on the expense account; you're going to have shows in Paris and Milan, right?"

Lana laughed. "I don't think that quite qualifies as international news, Mr. White..."

"Please," he replied. The more Richard thought about it, the better the idea seemed. Lana was pleasant company, and he needed to talk to someone with whom he wasn't involved. "My uncle is Mr. White. I'm Richard. Although around here I mostly answer to Hey, You."

She smiled, and asked a trifle shyly, "Are you sure your fiancée will understand?"

A brief flash of something in his eyes, anger or annoyance, and then Richard chuckled. "At the rate things are going, I doubt she'd notice. Besides, this is business - you're a news source, Ms. Lang."

Against her better judgment, Lana let that handsome grin sway her.

* * *

Superman had never made any distinctions between nations; when the need of him existed, he answered it. The fact that the French consulate was technically foreign soil didn't slow him in the least.

This time, he was on guard, listening carefully for anything that might be a timer. Same nitromethane, but no bombs so far. No delayed ignitions either. Why is his M.O. so different each time?

He had little time to ponder it, though. This fire involved fewer people, but they were less amenable to the idea of fleeing the building and leaving their precious documents behind. All in all, he was kept too busy to wonder about much more than how many people were left inside, and whether the fire had smoldered into life again.

After it was all over, while dodging the press, his worries returned. This arsonist is unlike any other in Metropolis' history. Some of his targets are much more elaborate than others; some seem political, others just seem calculated to create the greatest havoc possible. I'm beginning to wonder if this is the work of one man...

Of course, there's always the possibility that Luthor's mixed up in it somewhere. Though I would expect Luthor's plans to have more rhyme and reason to them.

* * *

Boredom lay on Lois' skin like a swarm of ants, making her irritable and frustrated. The investments representative had been going on for more than ten minutes about the side of the business that interested her the least, and she found herself wondering if there was any way to escape the meeting. If I see one more bar graph, I'm going to find out how far up that guy's nose I can stick this pen. Maybe if I pretend to have a migraine ... or the flu ... or Ebola...

Her cell phone suddenly vibrated in her pocket, and Lois glanced at it under the table. "New text message," the screen read. Intrigued - even a wrong number would capture her attention at that point - she read it.

MS LANE. FIRE, FRENCH CONSULATE. SUSPECT: YSTDY'S ARSONIST. And it was sent from Jimmy's phone.

Lois leaned a little closer to Perry and hissed, "The French consulate is on fire! Jimmy just texted me. Looks like our firebug is at it again!"

"Damn," he muttered. "And I'm stuck here. Well, they'll send somebody."

"What if they send someone like Polly?" Lois whispered. "Neither one of us are there to make sure it's done right!"

"I could've been there if I'd trusted you to come to this thing without me," Perry replied out of the side of his mouth. "Ask Jimmy who went."

WHO COVERING? Lois tapped the little keys rapidly, and got a reply in seconds.

CLARK, GIL, ME.

"Clark? Clark?! He's bloody International!" she muttered. Not quietly enough, apparently, for several of the large men in suits sitting around the table glared at her, and Perry's elbow caught her ribs.

"Continue on, gentlemen, I've got Lane monitoring the pressroom for me," he said aloud, then grumbled, "It's an embassy, Lois, its International's baby."

"It's in Metropolis though."

"Technically, it's on foreign soil..."

"Bullshit," Lois growled. "It's surrounded on all sides by Metropolis, so it's City."

Perry was looking over her shoulder at the tiny screen. "Hell, one reporter from each department and a photographer. What more do you want, Lane?"

Lois glared at him and thought of another question. WHO SENT?

It took Jimmy a minute to work out what she was asking, then he responded, RICHARD SENT US.

Hazel eyes narrowed, and Lois glared at Perry. "I could've been on this one if only..."

"Hell, no, you couldn't," the editor growled. "Last time you went after a story you forgot your car!"

"That was different!"

Just as Perry opened his mouth to reply, he noticed how the rest of the board was watching them instead of the Powerpoint presentation. "Well? Is this a meeting or a spectator sport?"

* * *

Richard found Lana very easy to talk to. Perhaps too easy to talk to. "I just think, if you really love someone, you shouldn't keep secrets from them," he said, and speared a piece of grilled chicken.

Lana leaned on her palm and looked at him wryly. "So you want a dating resume? A list of everyone she's ever seen, all the way back to her first kiss? What would you do if she asked that of you? You went to college after the Air Force - don't tell me your list wouldn't be longer than hers, if you could remember all the names."

Richard paused, thinking, and then said, "Okay, you got me there. I was a stupid kid in college. But I don't want to know everyone she's ever been with, just the important ones."

"Oh. Just the famous ones." Lana chuckled and had a bite of her salad. "Has it ever occurred to you that she might not be trying to keep secrets? She might just be trying to respect his privacy."

"His privacy? He's Superman, he shows up on radar, Lana!"

"I know, that's precisely my point," the redhead replied, gesturing at him with her fork. "Everyone knows Superman. They know everything about him, they think. Don't you hate reading about celebrities in the tabloid papers? Don't you pity the people who have to live like that, everyone taking pictures of them at six AM when they're just trying to run to the corner store for some milk? And if they look awful doing it, the pictures get even more coverage. He has no private life, except with her. Can't you see why Lois would never talk about anything that happened between them?"

Richard opened his mouth to reply, then slowly closed it. Lana soldiered on.

"Furthermore, how could they ever have a real relationship? It's not as if he can take her to a movie or a restaurant. He's a six-four hunk in a bright primary suit. Not exactly unobtrusive, Mr. White. It had to be a very strange relationship, one that probably doesn't fit into any easily-labeled pigeonhole. If she really cares about him, she'll never talk about what happened. Not even to you - not that it's your business, either."

"It's none of my business?" Richard's voice rose slightly.

"None. That was years before you met her. She's not trying to leave you for him, is she? Seems like she's pretty upset with him still, from TV yesterday." Lana leaned forward to make her point more firmly. "He's no threat to you, Richard. You're smart, you've got a good sense of humor, you're handsome, you have a good job and lots of other great stuff going for you. Just let it be! Stop being a reporter for five minutes and ask yourself how you'd feel if she started grilling you about all those awestruck college girls."

Totally nonplussed by the question, Richard could only sit back in his chair and stare at Lana. The litany of his good points was very helpful to his ego, even if it was unexpected. "I ... I guess you're right..."

Lana rolled her eyes heavenward. "The man sees sense! Just don't harass the poor woman into doing anything stupid, and you'll be all right."

His eyes narrowed. "There is one more thing, though."

"Oh, dear God, what now?"

"The twins' father."

Lana peered at him over her glass of iced tea. "What about him? You knew they weren't yours. And he's clearly out of the picture, too. Unless... You don't think..."

"Nah, they're not his," Richard said. "She told me she'd never ... you know. And I kind of believe her. Anyway, he's an alien. I mean, come on. Nobody ever thinks about that because he looks just like us, but who knows if he could successfully hybridize with a human? Even if he could, I doubt the kids would be so normal. Other than being precocious and having some health problems, they're just regular kids. No picking up cars, no laser vision, none of that."

Lana just looked at him interestedly. "Okay, so if he's not the father, why are you so determined to figure out who is?"

Richard sighed. "Because I have a pretty good idea already who it is, and I think he deserves to know. It's no one from the Quotidienne, I know that. She said the father was a guest columnist, and she hinted that Jason's middle name is for him, but that paper has never had a Garen in its byline. The only Garen in Paris that even heard of her worked in the office across the street and happened to meet her for coffee a few times."

"Just how do you know all this?"

"Because I called them all. That last one, his boyfriend of the past twelve years answered the phone, so I know it's not him."

Lana dropped her fork and put her head in her hands. "My God, Richard, if she ever finds out about that, she'll kill you. You do know that, right? I only met her yesterday, and I know that."

"I know Lois," Richard said. "Like I said, I'm pretty sure I know who it is. But before I confront her, I have to prove to her that I know all her explanations are lies. Lois will never back down as long as there's a shred of chance she can brazen something out. I have to have evidence."

"Okay, fine, Sherlock. Who is it?"

Richard sipped his coffee, a beverage he believed complimented every meal including dessert. "Nope. I'm not telling anyone until I know for sure, and then I'm telling her."

The redhead glared at him. "You mean after all that, you're not even going to share your suspicions? It's not like we know any of the same people!"

"I thought you said you hated gossips," he replied.

Lana's green eyes narrowed still further. "Oh, that's low. That's really low. Fine, Mr. Holmes. I was going to split the check, but since you made me eat my own words for dessert, you get to pay."

"I already planned to," Richard chuckled, "I'm putting it on the expense account."

* * *

Richard made it back to the office first, dropping Lana off on the way. Gil and Jimmy were next, claiming not to have seen Clark at the fire at all, but about fifteen minutes after they left to work on the article and develop photos, Clark turned up at Richard's desk with a typed rough draft of his own take on the events. He seemed puzzled that Gil and Jimmy hadn't seen him; he'd certainly seen them, and told Richard that Jimmy's photos would probably be front-page stuff.

Things had barely settled down in the office again when Lois and Perry got back from the meeting. Richard heard their raised voices before they ever got into the bullpen, and steeled himself for a confrontation with one or both of them. The world would be a better place if I spiked the coffeemaker in here with Xanax, he thought.

"Oh, bite me," Lois snapped as she shoved open the door.

"I can't, my cardiologist told me I had to give up cheesecake," Perry retorted.

Lois came to a sudden halt, and whirled to look at him incredulously. Half the reporters in the room instinctively buried themselves in their work, hoping not to attract notice. Perry just walked on by Lois, adding, "I knew there was a reason I don't take you out in public."

After a few minutes, she laughed, surprising everyone who expected to hear another extensive recital of profanity. "Nice one, White," Lois chuckled, a hand on her hip as she leaned against Jimmy's desk. "You're still a jerk, though."

At his office door, Perry shot a glowering look over his shoulder at her. "You're the one who brought the whole meeting to a screeching halt because you couldn't go chase a firebug, Lane. After scaring everyone half to death and then leaving early yesterday, don't be surprised if I start locking you in your own office!"

"Try it and die," she muttered, but she still had half a smile on her face. Once the old man had entered his lair, Lois stood up with every intention of going straight to her own office and getting some work done with what was left of the day, when something caught her eye. On her way out earlier, she had heard Jimmy comment that he was going to try to get some of his older exposures in some semblance of order. Seems he'd been in the middle of that when the story broke. Unable to help her curiosity, she leaned closer for a better look.

Once she did, it was clear that it was old pictures of the Planet employees, from before the twins were even a thought. In a couple of the photos on the top of the pile she spotted a familiar dark-haired girl and smiled. Well, since there are pictures of me in here, not to mention him and Perry, I doubt he'd mind if I looked.

What she saw made a small thoughtful smile come to her lips. As she shuffled the photos around, recalling the events of the pictures, memories of the past rose around her. One snapshot half-buried under the others fell out, Clark's face captured in a moment of absolute shock tinged with moral horror, and it provoked a particularly vivid flashback...

Right after Perry's infamous "most important interview since God talked to Moses" meeting, Lois had been thinking about various ways to snag an interview with the mysterious flying man who had saved her life. Perhaps if she lay down on some train tracks...

Clark's voice, hesitant: "Ah, Lois ... about tonight..."

"Mm? What about tonight, Clark?"

She'd only been giving him half her attention, and he smiled shyly. "Our date. Well, our dinner. Don't you remember?"

Damn. She needed to get that interview before anyone else did. "Sorry, Clark. I must've forgot."

His face fell, and she felt like a heel. The poor guy, it had probably taken every ounce of nerve he possessed to ask her in the first place. "Gee, I planned on it all week..." he said resignedly.

She'd sighed, not having much resistance to the sad, hopeful puppy-eyes, and said, "All right, Clark. I'll go out with you. Might as well get it over with."

Clark had brightened immediately. "You're wonderful, Lois. Where would you like to go?"

Teasing a little, she'd grinned and said, "How about the Gold Room at the Park Towers?"

He'd gulped. "The Gold Room? But that's the most expensive place in town."

Seeing his expression, she'd been ready to say she was joking, to suggest someplace else, but Jimmy Olsen had just walked by, and heard enough to turn a very impressed look on Clark.

"Wow, Mr. Kent, are you really going to take Ms. Lane out to the Gold Room?" His voice had been full of admiration, with just a touch of envy.

Lois had watched with amusement as Clark realized he was trapped. Then he shrugged, and trying to sound suave (not precisely succeeding), he replied, "Oh, I don't know, Jimmy. Maybe ... if she's a good girl..." He dropped a wink to emphasize the last two words, but the poor man had no idea who he was dealing with yet.

When playing poker, Lois always upped the ante, no matter what her hand. Mimicking his self-satisfied wink precisely, she shot back, "And if I'm not a good girl... Let's let Jimmy take the pictures, okay?"

As she walked off, smirking with delight at Clark's sudden blush, she heard Jimmy ask, "Boy. What do you suppose she meant by that, Mr. Kent?"

Ah, old times. Good times. Still chuckling to herself over the memories, Lois continued on her way to her desk, only glancing into International once.

Richard was bent over his desk, reading something intently, and didn't even see her. But he was watching, and though mind-reading wasn't one of his talents, thank God, he seemed to smile at the same thought.


Spinning Wheels Turn

An excited yip, the clatter of claws on tile, and Talia caught up her new toy, bringing it back with her chest fur fluffed out proudly. Kitty whispered, "Good girl," as she threw it again, and the tiny Pomeranian raced to fetch it back.

Is it possible to go completely out of your mind with boredom? Kitty smiled bitterly as Talia pattered after what now looked like a disheveled mop, getting both drool and shed fur on it along with the dust from being thrown to the floor. But the woman and her dog were both amused by their sport, which was more than anyone else here was doing for them.

Lex had spent most of the last three days in the testing chamber with the new crystal console. The few times Kitty had wandered by, she'd heard Jor-El's voice droning on and on about something technical. It was creepy, listening to a dead guy - a dead alien guy - all day. That left Kitty with absolutely nothing to do.

Even if Lex would've let her leave the compound, she knew all too well what was above them. Miles and miles of desert, baking sand relieved only by a few puny bushes. Somewhere nearby were canyons with their own sources of water; the occasional hermit lived in them. Of course, none of them had running water or electricity, and they never noticed the partially-shielded EMP's created by Lex's experiments. But they were no more interesting to Kitty than the recording of Jor-El and his endless lectures.

She was bored, lonely, and beginning to be a little frightened, since Lex refused to tell her anything about his ultimate plans. Using his favorite toupee to play fetch with the dog seemed fitting payback to Kitty.

* * *

The phones over in International were still ringing off the hook as Lois got ready to leave; it looked as though Richard would be the one staying late today, while she got the twins. The dark-haired reporter stopped by her fiancé's department just long enough to let him know that, smiling briefly at Clark on the way out. He also had his hands full with the day's story.

Lois drove through the city, content with life - for the moment. Her working schedule meant that she normally left about an hour after the kids' school day ended, but luckily she'd found someone who would pick up the children and watch them until she or Richard could get off work. What would I do without Barbara? Lois mused as she headed uptown to the Thomas' house. All she originally signed up for was giving piano lessons, and she's become the only person outside my immediate family I trust with those two. Thank God for Barbara's generous heart.

The Audi seemed to skip through traffic, expertly driven as it was, and Lois was soon at Barbara's door. The woman who answered her knock was a pretty brunette of about Lois' own age, with an easy smile and the endless patience common only to saints and teachers. "Well, hello, Lois," Mrs. Thomas said. "I wasn't really expecting you this early, with what was on the news."

"It was the consulate this time, Barbara. We think it's the firebug again. Damage was bad, but thankfully not as bad as the last one. But Richard's department's handling this one, so..." Lois replied with a shrug as she walked in. Kala immediately ran toward the sound of her mother's voice, trailed by Barbara's daughter Ashlyn. The dark-haired little girl did her best to tackle her mom, while Ashlyn hung back a bit, smiling shyly. Lois laughed, picking Kala up, "Hello, munchkin. Mommy missed you."

Kala hugged her neck fiercely, whispering, "Missed you, too."

Lois took a moment to just hold her daughter close, sighing with relief. There were no words for just how much the twins' mere presence calmed her. Then she turned back to Barbara and the little girl half-hiding behind her. Tilting her head to the side, Lois grinned and waved at the child, "Hi, Ashlyn darling."

The blonde smiled adorably, but quickly ducked her head, making Barbara chuckle. "Still shy. Jason's practicing; he probably hasn't heard you yet." The two women and their girls headed for the music room, but Lois froze in the hallway when she heard what Jason was practicing. Her eyes widened as her skin paled, making Barbara ask, "Lois? What's wrong?" But the reporter couldn't answer, swept up in a flashback.

"Heart and soul, I begged to be adored; lost control, and tumbled overboard." Ella Fitzgerald's voice, Kal-El's arms around her, that fateful night ... the notes Jason was picking out on the piano with increasing confidence brought it all back. The memories overwhelming her, and almost kissing Clark in front of a thousand journalists. That terrifying, longing moment when she knew their feelings hadn't died, not completely. That song...

"Lois, are you all right?" The concern in Barbara's tone brought Lois back to the present.

She tried unsuccessfully to laugh it off, ignoring the way the hair at the nape of her neck prickled to still hear him playing it. Shaking her head comfortingly, Lois shrugged. "It's nothing, it's just ... I don't have the best associations with that song. It's silly that I reacted that way, honestly. I didn't even realize Jason knew it."

At that, her friend looked upset. "I'm sorry, I didn't know. He heard Ashlyn learning it and he wanted to play it with her. If I'd realized..."

"It's okay, really," Lois reassured her. "It's nothing terrible, just ... a reminder I hadn't quite expected right now. Don't worry. Knowing Jason, once he has it down pat he'll play it until all I can associate with it is him." And boy, am I looking forward to that.

As soon as the thought entered her head, Jason finally noticed her and looked up into hers with his cerulean eyes as he grinned proudly.

Lois could only smile back, even as her heart ached while recognizing it.

That little kiss you stole, held all my heart and soul.

* * *

When the story of the day seemed to be over at last, Clark headed up to the roof and took out his cell phone, hitting the first speed dial number. The way Martha's social life went, he doubted she'd even be home...

"Son! There you are. How are things in Metropolis?"

Clark had to close his eyes for a second. Just her voice, so warm and always welcoming, soothed his heart tremendously. "Hi, Ma," he replied, smiling. "Busy, that's how things are. What about you?"

"Oh, the usual," she replied. "Nancy got loose this morning and ate a pair of Ben's boots that he left on the porch. We had lunch with the new family staying at the pioneer center; they've got three children. The oldest is a very sweet, shy girl, and the two little boys, well, they're a handful."

"Ah, yeah. Speaking of children..." Clark fell silent for a long moment. How on earth did you tell your mother something like this?

"Clark? Are you there?"

"Yes, Ma," he replied, and sighed heavily. "Listen, I found something out last night, and I ... I don't know what to think now. I need to talk to you."

"Do you want to come over, son?"

This was hard enough on the phone; he doubted he could find the words face to face. "No. Not right now, anyway. Things could get busy again soon. It's just, well ... kinda hard to talk about."

"So, start at the beginning and tell me what's happened. You know I love you, son, and nothing could ever change that."

He took a deep breath, and slowly told her about dinner with Lucy and Ron, and the revelation of Kala's name. "All of a sudden, Ma, I'm not sure. I mean, I confronted Lois about it - she was so angry with me for leaving, and then she has this fling in Paris less than a month after I'm gone? She didn't argue with me saying that; she's the one who told everyone that story. But now I realize that she probably named Kala after me, and it makes me wonder. I never thought ... I'm not even..."

"You think they might be yours?" Martha asked, so gently.

"Well..."

"You did say 'speaking of children.' And if Kala is named for you - for your other name - that's a pretty strong hint."

"But Ma ... it shouldn't be possible. It just ... I'm not human," his voice dropping to a whisper on the last word. "And the twins were born ten months after, you know. Shorter than nine months is common, longer is very rare. Most doctors would've induced labor well before the ten-month mark."

"Clark," Martha said, and he could almost see her rubbing her temples. "You have no idea how long a normal Kryptonian pregnancy is."

"Yes, but why would she let me say that about her affair in Paris? If it wasn't true, Lois would've corrected me. We had talked about everything else, practically."

"Son, is there a reason she would want to hide it from you, if they really are yours?"

"I don't know," Clark groaned. "I can't imagine why she would. It just doesn't make any sense to me."

Martha's voice was clearly reluctant as she brought up the other possibility. "Do think she might've had an affair - since she didn't correct you on it - and maybe she's not entirely sure whether they're yours on not?"

Silence. "It could be," Clark admitted at last. "She's ... Lois has a quick temper. It's something she might've done in revenge. I just ... I don't want to think she'd do that."

"Does it change how you feel about her if she did?"

Another long pause. "No. No, it doesn't. Ma, I love her, but I know her too. Lois is fully capable of being that vindictive - just like I was fully capable of being that blind. I should've known stealing the memories would infuriate her."

"Well, I just hope she realizes how lucky she is. Most men would be angry with her for that, whether they were the ones to leave or not," Martha opined. "But we're left without a clear answer. The twins might be yours, they might not."

"How am I going to find out?" he asked in frustration. "I can't just walk up to Lois and say, 'By the way, are those my kids?' Especially not at work."

"Clark ... have you thought about what you're going to do after you get an answer?"

He frowned. "What do you mean, Ma?"

"Well, what if the twins are yours? Have you thought about what that means?"

"It means I'm not alone," Clark replied, and his voice held a depth of longing that Martha had long suspected but never heard expressed. "It means Kala and Jason are probably going to need me. If they take after me at all, their lives are going to be very confusing, very difficult. They'll need my help to come to terms with whatever ... powers ... they may have."

"But what about their mother?" Martha asked gently. "Even if they are yours, she may still decide to stay with Richard. She's been with him for three years, she's wearing his ring. And it's her choice to make, Clark."

"I know, Ma," he replied wearily. "As long as she's happy... I want to be with her whether the twins are mine or not, but I know that may not happen. But if they are mine, I have a duty to them. It's ... it could get very hard, especially now that I know ... she still cares... I have to do what's right for Jason and Kala. And that might mean standing by and pretending to smile while Lois marries Richard. I'd do it for them." He ignored the way his throat seemed to swell at those words, the picture of that future all too clear: Richard kissing Lois before an altar, while Clark forced a faked smile and offered to watch the kids during the honeymoon. That would be the hardest thing I could ever do ... but it may be what's best for everyone, especially the twins.

Martha was quiet for a long while, knowing the sound of grief in his voice, and then she said decisively, "That's it, I'm coming up there."

That startled Clark out of his contemplation. "What? No, Ma, you don't know Lois..."

"Relax, son, I'm not going to walk up to the woman and demand to see my grandkids. But it sounds like everything is getting to you. Clark, you need someone sane around to keep you company."

At that, he smiled. "Ma, I love you dearly. But you'd hate it here in the city. Besides," and the words burned his throat slightly, "Ben would miss you."

"My son, always thinking of everyone else before himself," Martha sighed. "Well, if you're absolutely certain..."

"I'll be okay. I've just got to find my way through this on my own. But talking to you helps a lot."

"I love you, son," Martha said, "and I wish I could help you more."

"I love you, too, Ma," Clark replied. "I need to go somewhere and think. I'll call you back later on, though, if I get a chance to talk to Lois."

"You do that, Clark. Until then, take care of yourself."

"Yes, Ma," he replied, laughing slightly, and hung up the phone.

As he did so, he noticed the little icon on the screen that meant he had a voicemail message. "Now if I can just figure out how to listen to my messages," Clark muttered as he started scrolling through the phone's menus.

* * *

As she drove the twins home, Lois was lost in thought. Barbara had looked at her oddly when she had thanked her for looking after the kids so often, and it got Lois' keen journalistic mind running.

Normally, Lois would pick up the twins on Wednesdays when school let out early, and then bring them back to the office. The rest of the week, Richard got them when he left work, or Barbara got them and Richard or Lois picked them up as they left for the day. Since Clark's return, however, Lois hadn't wanted them around him, in case he figured out that they were his. Maybe Barbara had simply gotten used to having the twins over every Wednesday afternoon, and didn't think of it as a burden.

"Mommy, I'm hungry," Kala groaned pathetically in the back seat, trying to act as if she hadn't had a snack at Barbara's house. Jason chimed in, too, and the pair of them managed to distract Lois fairly efficiently.

Up ahead, she saw a sign that read "Mr. Dragon," a popular chain of Chinese food take-out restaurants. "How about Chinese?" Lois asked Jason and Kala.

The response was unanimous and vociferous. Next to Mexican, Chinese was the twins' favorite food. Jason suddenly decided to change his mind, however, declaring, "I want Japanese, Mommy."

Kala glared at him. "Eatin' Japanese won't turn you into a big dumb ol' ugly radioactive lizard!"

"Kala! Stop pickin' on me!"

"Stop bein' such a dweeb, then!"

"Mommy!"

"Enough!" Lois said loudly. "Stop that, right now, or we'll go straight home and you can have chicken soup with no noodles."

The silence was, for the moment, golden, though punctuated by Kala's icy glare and Jason's furious scowl. Lois managed to park the Audi before the twins started mouthing names at each other, and as she got them out of their seatbelts she carefully kept one twin on each side of her. This is why the Middle East peace talks never amount to anything, she thought, holding Kala's right hand and Jason's left. If they ever want to make some progress, they need to send a mother of twins up to Camp David. I spend every day trying to negotiate an end to hostilities between two rival powers; I've got to be better at it than a president.

With the way the twins were glaring at each other hatefully, and the short line at the counter, Lois paused just inside the door to catch their attention. "You will both behave while we're waiting, is that understood? One whine, one name called, and we're leaving. I don't care who started it, it stops now."

Kala and Jason both nodded, trying to look as cute and innocent as possible. They knew from experience that Mommy meant it. She'd only once had to walk them out of a restaurant and make the unruly pair wait while Richard finished his meal and boxed hers up. Made to sit in their car seats for fifteen minutes (or forever, to three-year-olds) and then sent directly to bed with no supper, the twins had learned their lesson forever.

Lois sighed. "You're both good kids when you wanna be, you know it? Mommy loves you." After a pause, she added under her breath, "Even if you make her crazy."

"We love you, too, Mommy," they chorused. Jason tried his best to give her a winning smile, but it looked more like a shark on Prozac.

Kala suddenly cocked her head and turned around, her hand slipping from Lois' loosened grasp easily as in a nightmare. As her daughter ran to the front of the line, the dark-haired reporter had only a moment in which to gasp before Kala called out, "Mr. Clark!"

The man at the front of the line turned just in time to catch the little girl who leaped at him, trusting him to catch her. Clark's surprised but very friendly chuckle sent ice down Lois' spine, and she barely registered Jason pulling away to run to him as well.

Oh, my dear God, Lois thought with disbelief. This has got to be a nightmare. He's only met them twice! When the hell did he get so familiar with my kids?!

* * *

Clark could tune out the full range of his hearing; he'd have gone mad long ago if he couldn't. Especially when talking to the soft-spoken young woman behind the counter, unsure of her English, he needed to concentrate on that conversation only and ignore the thousand other things he could hear. Only sirens or a sharply raised voice would've gotten his attention.

But Kala's delighted call did reach him, and Clark whirled, shocked to see her. I was just talking to Ma about the twins... What on earth are they doing here? Surprise turned to happiness as Kala jumped at him and he caught her, laughing at her boldness. A moment later Jason was at his side too, demanding attention as Kala hugged his neck. Only then did Clark realize that he'd been hearing Lois' heartbeat - even her voice - for a few minutes.

The woman herself was walking toward them now, looking at him in wide-eyed disbelief, and the sight of her pierced him. Around the office these days, Lois always had something of an edge about her, a steely aura of competence and drive that kept all but a chosen few from getting too close to her. But now, with her hair down, earrings off, and that predatory news-hawk look replaced by surprise, Lois looked much softer, much more approachable...

"Ah," the young woman behind the counter said, smiling at Clark holding the grinning black-haired child. "Daddy's girl?"

Clark's eyes widened and he stiffened slightly, while Kala turned to glance at the woman with a puzzled frown. Lois all but skidded to a halt, her face going slightly paler, though she didn't say anything. Her reaction wouldn't have been noticeable to anyone other than Clark, who saw her so very clearly.

Well, if that isn't suspicious... Clark thought, but he smiled at the cashier and said gently, "No, I'm just a good friend of the family." And watched as Lois unfroze with a tiny sigh of relief. Hmm...

"Are you gettin' Chinese for dinner too, Mr. Clark?" Jason asked curiously.

Kala rolled her eyes at him from her perch. "Of course," she said disdainfully. "Don' ask him if he likes Japanese; he doesn' wanna be a lizard."

Jason scowled, but hearing Lois' heels deliberately tapping toward them, he refrained from calling his sister any names. Instead he looked at Clark with a long-suffering sigh.

"Yes, I'm having Chinese," Clark said, casting an apologetic look at the people in line behind him. "What do you two want?"

"Cashew chicken," Kala said promptly.

"No, Kala, you can't have nuts," Clark replied, not seeing the look of shock that crossed Lois' face at that casual remark. "What about Moo Goo Gai Pan? It's really good, I've had it from here before. And nothing in it to make you sick." To Jason, he added, "What about Beef Broccoli for you? It's got your favorite vegetable."

The twins chorused approval, and the cashier added their dinners to Clark's bill. Lois had reached the three of them, and controlled her increasing confusion. "I'm surprised you know their tastes so well," she said smoothly.

Clark knew that tone and what it portended, but chose to ignore it for now. A slightly crowded restaurant wasn't the place to confront her. "Hi, Lois," he said awkwardly. "General Tsao's for you?"

He saw her start to reply, saw her expression soften slightly, and thought for a moment that perhaps they could discuss things. And then he heard a voice he'd almost forgotten about.

"Sorry about that, Clark, did you already order?" Lana asked as she came out of the ladies' room. Seeing Kala, and Jason, and Lois, she halted, and said quietly, "Oh."

For a moment, Lois stared at Lana, then turned to Clark with shock and a hint of betrayal written largely on her face. In the next instant, she glanced down, and a veil seemed to fall across her emotions. "Well, hello, Ms. Lang," Lois said politely. "Fancy meeting you here."

"I'm surprised to see you, too," Lana replied just as sweetly. "Clark and I were just going to have dinner and catch up."

That seemed to remind Lois of something, and she turned to Clark with the same overly courteous tone. "By the way, Clark, why are you buying my kids dinner?"

Because I forgot for a minute who I walked in with? Oh, my God. "It's all right, Lois," he said, trying to be casual. "I'll just add it to your tab from all the times I bought you lunch at work. You only owe me about twenty pizzas. And I lost count of hamburgers, hot dogs, salads..."

"All right, all right," Lois said, dropping it. For now. "Hmm, they have a lot of things I haven't seen in a while. Make mine a Bang Bang Ji, then, and a Mu Shu Pork, too. Those two and the Beef and Broccoli and the Moo Goo Gai Pan are dinners - white rice, no eggrolls."

"What about you, Lana?" Clark asked, feeling terribly uncomfortable and trying not to show it. He wasn't even thinking about the fact that Lois had ordered four dinners.

"Sweet and sour chicken for me," she said, glancing at Lois from the corner of her eye.

"Here or to go?" the young woman behind the counter asked.

"Here," Lana and Clark said, while Lois answered firmly, "To go." After a moment, the cashier got the two orders rung up separately, and Clark paid for both.

While the adults did boring adult stuff, Jason looked up at both women with wide eyes, his head swiveling like a spectator at a tennis match. Kala just slithered down out of Clark's arms so he could pay, peering up at Lana curiously. "Who're you?" she asked.

The redhead was momentarily nonplussed, looking into those eyes so like Lois'. "I'm an old friend of Clark's," she replied. "We went to school together. You must be Jason and Kala. I've heard a lot about you."

Clark saw Lois' head whip around fast as a cobra. But it was Jason who asked, puzzled, "From who?"

"Well, actually," Lana stalled, glancing up at Clark, her eyes wide.

He read her look accurately, and covered for her. "Oh, Richard talked about you guys while we were waiting for our luggage at the airport," he said smoothly. It was technically true, though Richard had mentioned them only in passing. Lana must have seen him since the other day in International to have that guilty expression.

"Oh, okay," the twins said in unison, turning their minds to other matters. Their mother, however, was not mollified.

"Really?" Lois said, too pleasantly.

Embroidering only slightly, Clark continued, "Well, I've probably mentioned the twins a time or two myself on the way here. Little rascals do make an impression." He ruffled Jason's hair casually as he spoke.

Lois raised a dark eyebrow as Jason grinned up at Clark. The unpleasant tension continued while they waited for the food, mostly unnoticed by the twins. Kala and Jason were preoccupied with the forbidden lure of fortune cookies, which were made with wheat flour and thus their mysteries were forever unattainable.

Clark felt distinctly uncomfortable, with Lana on one side of him and Lois on the other, trading looks that ranged from guilty to icy. The twins, oblivious to it all, tried to find out if Clark or Lana happened to be carrying any candy or other assorted snacks. "But Mommy an' Nana an' Aunt Lucy an' Aunt Loueen always have sugar-free candy in their purses," Jason told Lana sadly, as if he'd discovered a major character fault.

"You'll be eating in a few minutes, Jason, I promise you won't starve," Lois muttered, facing away from Clark and Lana deliberately.

"But Mommy," Kala started to say, and then the food arrived, blessedly quick.

Taking her bag, Lois smiled thinly at Clark. "Thanks for buying all of us dinner, Kent. See you tomorrow." The twins chorused their goodbyes, demanding a hug each, and only then would they follow Lois out.

Even as Clark carried his and Lana's plates to the table, he glanced over his shoulder at Lois' departing figure. At the door, she turned, and for a moment their eyes met, his troubled, hers stormy and unreadable.

* * *

Lana saw Clark meet Lois' gaze as she left, and the redhead couldn't help an ironic little smile. This is one of those moments in life that needs a soundtrack. A little snippet of the romantic theme, abruptly fading away as the Unattainable Woman exits stage right. I guess that casts me as the Sympathetic Friend slash Girl Next Door.

I don't think so. As Clark sat down with their meals, she looked up at him, assessing the changes. Of course, she realized when they ran into each other at the airport that the lanky, shy teenager she'd known had filled out, but now Lana looked more closely.

Clark was actually quite a big man, over six feet and broad through the shoulders, and under the slightly out of fashion suit was a muscular frame. No wonder he always carried himself with that somehow apologetic air; he'd be intimidating otherwise. Rather than capitalize on that as some men would, he'd chosen to make himself seem harmless, just a geek in glasses. It seemed that his essentially gentle nature hadn't changed, and Lana couldn't help smiling wistfully.

Seeing that look on her face as he got ready to take the first bite of his Ginger Beef combo, Clark hesitated. "So, what's on your mind, Lana?"

"You're in love with her," she said plainly, and dipped a piece of chicken into her sweet and sour sauce.

The shocked expression on his face was priceless. "What? How - Lana, why on earth would you think something like that?"

Because I'm a lot smarter and more perceptive than most people think pretty girls should be, she thought, but out loud she only said, "Clark, you forgot I was here when she walked in."

The poor man actually blushed. "Um, Lana, it wasn't that..."

"And you adore her kids," Lana pointed out. "They like you a lot, too. But then, so does their mother." She chuckled, remembering Lois' quickly concealed look of pure venom, and added, "If looks could kill, she'd have shredded me when I walked up to you two."

Clark was totally at a loss for words, staring as Lana nibbled at her eggroll. At last he said, "Lana, nothing like that is going on. I mean, really, it's preposterous..."

She couldn't help snickering. "Please, Clark. We may not have kept in touch, but we've known each other for years. We both grew up. I'm not the fool who kept going out with Brad just because it's some kind of natural law that the head cheerleader has to date the quarterback. I'm not that blind anymore." Green eyes catching his intently, she continued, "If I'd had a little more self-confidence, maybe I would've admitted what I saw in you back then. Maybe things would be different. But that's long ago and far away. She doesn't have my hang-ups; I get the impression Lois Lane has spent her life avoiding doing all the expected things."

"Yeah, pretty much," Clark murmured, toying with the beef.

Lana pointed at him with her fork. "She's awfully possessive of you, she obviously cares a lot about you, and you love her. So why is she engaged to another man? What happened there, Clark? With the looks you two were giving each other at the takeout counter, it has to be one heck of a story."

"I'd really prefer not to talk about it," Clark finally admitted. "We ... I made some mistakes, in the past, and... Besides, I'm just not comfortable talking about this. Lois is engaged to another man. One I happen to admire, not to mention I work for him."

"I know: Richard," Lana said. "But even he realizes how much she cares about you, Clark."

That brought blue eyes up to meet hers sharply. "I don't recall him saying anything like that at the airport."

Now it was Lana's turn to blush. "Well ... I was trying to find you today to see if you wanted to catch up, and, um, Richard wound up taking me to lunch."

Clark continued to give her his best reporter stare.

Lana sighed heavily and leaned back. "Clark, I can't help it. I like the guy. I'm not trying to steal him from Lois any more than you're trying to steal her from him. We were both raised better; thank God for Smallville."

"I know," he replied. "And it doesn't help that they seem to be having problems. But I still don't think it's right for us to talk about it."

The redhead poked at her chicken for a moment. "I guess I just feel better knowing there's someone else in the same predicament, you know?"

"Yes, but even so, what can we do about it?" Clark replied sadly. "Nothing, really. Just ... hope for the best, I guess."

"You're probably right," Lana said. "The best for who, though?"

"All of us," he told her, and turned the conversation to safer topics.

* * *

Lois found the traffic leaving the city slower than usual, and her mind churned as she waited for other cars to move. God, I'm such an idiot. What the hell was I doing, letting my guard down like that? And of course, the minute I turn my back, he's out with the damn cheerleader. Just another in a long series of Incredibly Stupid things I've done over that man.

However, with four boxed dinners sitting in a bag beside her and slowly perfuming the Audi with the smell of delicious Chinese food, Lois knew she had to distract the twins or they would start pleading to break the no-eating-in-Mommy's-car rule. Just this once. Wrenching her train of thought away from Clark and Lana, she glanced in the rearview mirror and asked, "When we get home, let's learn how to use chopsticks while we eat dinner. How would that be?"

The twins glanced at each other and broke into identical grins. "Swell!" they chorused, and broke into giggles.

Swell. Swell? Swell?! Lois gripped the steering wheel and gritted her teeth. Only one person she knew used that word... "Hey, did you guys learn that from Mr. Clark?" she asked lightly.

"Uh-huh," Jason said cheerfully. "He's really nice, Mommy. He even brought us special no-wheat cookies!"

"Wow," Lois said, still keeping her tone deliberately light. "How did you guys get to know him so well?" In the backseat, Kala had cocked her head and furrowed her brow.

"Daddy brings us up to work on Wednes... Ow! Kala, stop that!"

"Shut up!" the little girl snarled, hitting him in the shoulder again, hazel eyes blazing. "Shut up, Jason, you dummy! That was supposed to be a secret!"

The leather steering wheel cover creaked under Lois' hands. Richard, you sonofabitch. You've got my kids keeping secrets from me! From me, you bastard! How dare you! Not to mention, I've been scared to death of Clark seeing these kids and getting ideas, and he's seen them every week! No wonder Barbara looked at me like I was crazy. I thought she had to watch them while I went to those stupid editorial meetings.

And that's another thing! I started going to the weekly meetings to have a reason for not bringing the kids up to work anymore, and Richard's been doing it behind my back anyway. That's two hours of each week spent bored to tears for no damn reason! Oh, I'm gonna kill him...

"Ow! Mommy! Make her stop! Kala, quit it!"

"Dummy! Boogerhead! Igg-nor-ay-mouse!" Kala punctuated each word with another punch to the shoulder.

It didn't hurt Jason's shoulder as much as his pride. "Mommy asked!"

"Daddy said not to tell, stupid-face!"

Lois took a deep breath and got ready to verbally break up the fight in the backseat. Thank God they generally listened...

Just as she glanced into the rearview mirror again, her lips forming the word enough, a red blur flashed in front of her car. Lois whipped her head forward and felt every hair on her body stand straight up as the low-riding sportscar from the next lane cut in with only feet to spare. Smashing the brake to the floor, she just barely managed to avoid clipping the idiot's bumper. A credit card might've been able to slip between the two vehicles, but nothing larger.

That was too much stress for the reporter after the last half-hour. Her window was already down; Lois leaned out and soundly cursed the driver and his entire family tree, unto the seventh generation. The young man unfortunately had his convertible top down and heard every word, turning to look with amazement at the pretty, delicate-featured source of that profane fury. His girlfriend in the passenger side was equally shocked, but seemed to be in support of Lois' assessment.

"Get that fancy-ass wanna-be racecar piece of shit off my road, or else learn to fuckin' drive!" Lois roared, and sat back down in her seat, still incensed. Traffic opened up in the lane beside them, and she gave the jerk an example of how it should be done, neatly shifting over into the available space without causing anyone to jam on their brakes.

In the long, fuming silence after that encounter, Jason finally whispered, "Oooh, Mommy said a bad word. Mommy said the really bad word."

"Mommy said a lot of bad words," Kala replied in hushed tones, slumped down in her seat and peering over the back of the chair with wide eyes.

Shit. If she hadn't been driving, Lois would've smacked her own forehead. Nice going, Lane. So much for not cussing in front of the kids. Get your mind together before that man and everything connected to him drives you totally insane.

Aloud, she told the twins, "It's okay, you two. Mommy just got freaked out. That guy almost made me hit his car, and somebody could've gotten hurt." Like him. Jackass. Well, at least it made the twins stop fighting. "It's all right, I'm not mad at you."

"You're sure?" Kala asked, and Lois' heart broke at her tone.

"Of course I'm not, sweetheart," she replied. "Jason, Kala, Mommy never talks to you like that. Mostly because you're a lot smarter than that guy in the convertible." They seemed to perk up, and Lois added, "Of course, Captain Jack would probably be a better driver than him."

"He'd need Gazeera to reach the pedals though," Kala said instantly.

"Nuh-uh. Ignatius can drive, your weasel can push the pedals," Jason shot back.

Lois wished she could close her eyes and rub her temples to forestall the huge headache she felt building. Is it too late to take back wishing to be rescued from that helicopter? God. My life, ladies and gentlemen. "No more fighting, you two. I mean it."

The pair hushed up, still in awe of their mother's vocabulary.

* * *

Later that evening, Lois and Richard sat on opposite sides of the couch with the television on and the sleepy twins between them. They had barely spoken ten words to each other; Lois was striving valiantly to keep the tentative truce, not wanting a repeat of last night. The kids didn't need to hear another argument.

Both of their minds were elsewhere. Richard was wondering about everything he'd learned and suspected, but given how tense and unhappy Lois had seemed since she got home, now was not the time to discuss it. He was also thinking about Lana, and thinking that he really shouldn't be thinking of her. Lois was still worried over how much Clark knew, and she kept trying to tell herself not to be so upset that he had taken Lana out to dinner.

When Jason and Kala started yawning, Lois and Richard carried them upstairs and started to tuck them in bed. Almost immediately, the kids whined that they wanted Mommy. "You're not gonna leave again, are you?" Kala whimpered.

Richard touched Lois' shoulder gently, feeling the tension rise sharply as he did. "Go on, hon. Take them to our bed. I'll bed down on the couch."

She looked at him briefly, her eyes unreadable, and then nodded as if she didn't trust herself to speak.

Half an hour later, Lois and the twins were sleeping, exhausted. Richard was lying awake on the couch. Staring across the room.

Staring at Lois' laptop in her office.


Playing With Fire

The next few days were a whirlwind for everyone involved. Richard found himself both relieved and disappointed that he couldn't figure out Lois' password, but then a fresh spate of violence in the Middle East happened to coincide with possible nuclear testing in Asia, and the two stories consumed the entire International department's time.

That included Clark, of course, who found himself working too hard at both jobs to spare even a moment to question Lois further. At least there were no more fires, for the moment. He missed seeing the twins, though - Richard had come in fuming one day after going to get the twins and finding out that Lois' mother had picked them up. Apparently their long afternoons wandering the International department were over.

Lois wasn't idle, either. Things with Richard were tense and prickly, but after working so hard all day, both reporters were more than glad to leave each other be. Perry was watching her more closely than ever, as if forgetting one's car once was a sign of imminent senility, and Lois could barely steal time to run down leads on Luthor. At least she managed to learn the specifications of the Vanderworths' security system.

Lana had her fashion show to organize, and as the actual opening drew nearer, all of the talented, creative people she worked with began to behave in the stereotypical manner of artists confronted by absolute deadlines: they panicked. She spent more time than she would have believed possible soothing egos and damping down tempers, and more time than she would have liked to admit wishing Richard was around.

Of course, none of the hectic events stopped anyone's mental wheels from spinning.

* * *

The long, frustrating days were getting to Lois. Her temper was starting to fray, and she knew that before long, she'd say something she would regret. Luckily, she had a cure for that.

Letting Richard know that she was going out for lunch and he'd have to fend for himself, she headed to the garage. For once he hadn't questioned her, and Lois was profoundly grateful. Her sarcasm wasn't needed at the moment, not at all. Things with Richard were barely hanging on as it was...

But do you really want them to hang on? Lois bit her lip as that voice whispered in her ear as she got into the Audi; her conflicting thoughts had been mercifully quiet of late. It was just the one whisper, though, so perhaps she'd be spared the endless rounds of arguing with herself.

Driving through the city was hardly stress relief, and when she reached her destination the raven-haired reporter was wound as tightly as she'd ever been. But she still managed to show her ID and speak politely to the desk sergeant. Lois was a frequent enough visitor that he let her through with no difficulties.

She left the bustling precinct above and headed downstairs, into cool dim corridors. Her heels echoed off the cement walls; the firing range was a place most civilians never saw, and no effort at decoration had been wasted on it. Functional space, nothing more.

There were forms to sign, ear plugs and protective glasses to borrow, but at last Lois was standing in a narrow booth looking down a long aisle. Overhead, a cable with a clip on it ran between two pulleys. Lois fastened the paper outline to the clip, and ran the cable out to fifty feet. Pretty close, but I need the warm up, she thought, removing the Ladysmith from her purse and unloading the deadly hollowpoint bullets.

As she replaced them with softnose lead ones, another set of footsteps came up the corridor behind her. Flats, hard-soled, a distinctive sharply-striking stride... "All you cops walk like you're British Royal Guards," Lois muttered, clicking the loaded cylinder back into place.

"Better than mincing around like reporters in stiletto heels," Maggie Sawyer replied. A series of metallic clicks came from the booth next to Lois as the lieutenant loaded her service revolver with target ammunition. "So, you wanna see how it's done?"

Lois grinned to hear that competitive edge in her friend's voice. "Please, Sawyer. My Dad had me plinking cans with a .22 while you were still playing cops 'n' robbers with toy guns."

Her answer was two shots from Sawyer's .45, to which she replied with a pair of shots to her own target. Ah, rest and relaxation the General Lane way, Lois sighed.

At least, it was while their guns did the talking. As both women stopped to hang up fresh target outlines, Lois noted that her shooting was a trifle better than Maggie's. However, they were both on the mark every time. It was then, while Lois finally felt the tension melting out of her shoulders, that Sawyer asked casually, "You've been wound pretty tight since he came back, haven't you?"

No use asking which he she meant. They both ran the new targets out to a hundred feet while Lois answered, "Maggie, you're misconstruing things. If I'm wound tight, it's because Luthor's running around."

"That's part of it," the lieutenant replied, placing two bullet holes close together and smiling at her work. "But most of it predates that. You're surly and you throw away a lot of ammo down here lately. Now, terrorists and reluctant sources you can handle, but relationships are apparently something of a challenge. You wanna talk about it?"

Lois answered by drilling two shots through nearly the exact same space in the paper outline's chest. "Sawyer, your cop instincts are wrong. I'm not tense over anything dealing with him."

Maggie sighed, and stepped back out of the booth. While Lois was still looking straight ahead at the target, she reached around at hit the runback button on Lois' side. That made her target suddenly race toward them with a loud whirring of cables.

It startled Lois, and her finger tightened on the trigger, sending a wild shot somewhere up at the roof. That brought an immediate blush to her cheeks, thinking, Idiot! It's just a freakin' piece of paper!

Still, her body had been tensed for an attack for the last two months, and she reacted the way she'd long planned to. No input from her conscious mind was necessary to aim for the middle of the onrushing target and fire twice, pause, and follow up with a shot toward the head area of the outline.

As the paper target came to rest in front of them, both women looked appraisingly at it. Two holes in the center of the chest, and one through the forehead.

"Yeah, Lois, you're not tense at all," Maggie said coolly, and the reporter grumbled under her breath, vowing to show her.

Neither of them noticed the young officer at the other end of the range who had been watching them. His name was Smith, and he knew Lois only by reputation as a hotheaded, nosy journalist. He'd heard the rumors; her idea of self-defense was more like pre-emptive offense; she did unto others before they could do unto her. The wild shot had surprised him, and he looked to see where it had gone.

* * *

Clark dropped his latest copy on Richard's desk and paused. The International editor had an envelope from Sears Portrait Studio on his desk, and Clark couldn't resist a quick glimpse inside.

Of course, he immediately wished he hadn't. A happy family portrait, with Lois, Richard, and the twins. Though it looked like an older shot - a reprint, maybe - it still wounded him. Even if they might be, even if they are, what gives me the right to hope?

He walked back to his desk in a mournful mood. The role of home wrecker didn't suit him; even though Lois and Richard were having problems, even though he knew now that she still loved him, he couldn't silence the low voice in the back of his mind that said, Breaking up an established relationship is just plain wrong. No matter how much you love Lois, no matter how much better you think you are for her, if you actually succeed in breaking them up, you'll feel the taint of having done it for the rest of your life with her.

I have got to start thinking about something else. That was just too difficult a topic, even if he was obscurely pleased by the way Lois had reacted to seeing Lana the other evening. Clark sighed as he opened his desk drawer to get out his notes on the next story.

And there was a good distraction. Jason's drawing of Clark, which he had shyly presented to him a few weeks ago. The reporter grinned; the boy really liked him. And I like him, too, he thought, looking at the picture. Reminds me a little of myself as a kid, even if I never wanted to be a giant lizard. Some of his quirks are Lois', but his seriousness ... his kindness ... his fondness for math and science... I wonder if he gets that from ... me.

What if he really is my son? Is that why we get along so well?

But what if he isn't, and all of this is just wishful thinking? What if I'm just trying to convince myself that my fondness for him is some kind of sign, when really it just means that I desperately want his mother to come back to me?

And where does all of this leave the man he calls Daddy?

Feeling a headache start, Clark realized that no matter how delightful Jason was, he probably wasn't the best distraction from his current situation.

The heck with this, it's past lunchtime. Ma always says I get moody when I don't eat enough. I'm running out for a sandwich.

* * *

Lois was positively light-hearted as she headed back to the office. Wiping the floor with Sawyer helped a lot - Lois' aim had improved dramatically when she began envisioning Luthor's face on the silhouette target, though she wouldn't share that little fact with the lieutenant. And both women's natural competitiveness had forestalled any further discussion of Lois' ex. She was practically whistling as she headed back to the office, taking the elevator up from the basement garage.

A sizeable crowd squeezed into the elevator cab with her on the first floor, and Lois flattened herself against the back wall, momentarily disappearing behind several tall men. The majority of people got off on the twenty-second and twenty-third floors, though; as she expected, they were all one group. No one else would be coming back from lunch this late...

As the last of the crowd left, though, Lois' train of thought came to a screeching halt. The one person she'd least expected was now the only one left in the cab with her.

Clark.

He turned, and surprise lit both their eyes as the doors clicked shut.

A moment, in which that last little secret rose up in Lois' throat and she nearly choked herself with the effort of keeping it down. Not like this ... not yet. Wait, see if you can figure out how he'll react - he broke your trust once before, and broke it badly. And it was nearly as important to you then as this is now. You can't give in to your feelings for him again, not when you're still not sure. Not when the twins are at stake.

"Um, hi, Lois," he said quietly, glancing at her. Something was on his mind, she knew that much, but she couldn't tell what.

"Hello, Kal-El," she replied as if her mind wasn't a whirl, keeping her tone unruffled, and saw him flinch slightly.

"Wow. I keep forgetting how much it surprises me when you do that," he told her, his voice slightly reproachful. His mind was full of questions with no good way to ask them, and it didn't help that she caught him off guard like that.

Lois couldn't resist a smile at him. He really was thrown off by it, almost the same way his mere presence continued to throw her for a loop. She supposed it was only fair. Then, trying to keep him off-balance, she asked almost too lightly, "So did you take any stunning models out to lunch today? That never seemed a habit of yours before. Going for a different image, now, Clark?"

He did a double-take, and laughed at her a little, his nervous Clark chuckle. But two could play at this game, and he was better at it than she suspected. After all, he'd had a master to learn from - Lois herself. "You really are jealous, aren't you? Jeez, Lois." Clark didn't even try to keep the genuine astonishment out of his voice.

"Me, jealous? Of the cheerleader?" It was his turn to surprise her and that he did. It was so very straight to the heart of the problem, yet so incredibly unlike him to call her on it. It was all she had not to blush at being caught. Unsure what else to do, Lois looked up at the ceiling grillwork and tried to laugh. "What on earth are you talking about, Kent?"

"You, Lois," Clark replied. Suddenly it was clear why he was such a good reporter; once she'd shown weakness by looking away, he bored in and refused to drop the topic, but kept his tone factual, not accusatory. "The other night at the Chinese restaurant. And that day we got back from the airport, too. You really shouldn't be so threatened by Lana, you know."

Lois sniffed, crossing her arms as she made herself look at him. I have every reason in the world to be jealous. You loved her once and she's free to have you now. Even if it means that she can only date half a person. Even if it means living a lie. Which I don't have the luxury of doing. "What makes you think I'm threatened by her?"

"For one thing, the way you won't use her name," Clark said. They were rising past the fortieth floor now, and no one else seemed to be getting on the elevator with them. "And the way you look at her - Lois, the look you gave her when she walked up to us at the restaurant almost peeled paint off the wall. I never thought I'd see you so possessive over me."

Speaking of deadly looks, she glared a killer of one at him then, crossing her arms and jerking her eyes from his. "Don't flatter yourself, hero," Lois said, trying to be cold and kicking herself for having been so obvious. It just wasn't in her nature to give her feelings away like that, regardless of the thousand other reasons not to let this man know how much she still loved him. When had she started to get so lousy at this? She just kept breaking cover and showing her face for the stupidest reasons...

Clark raised an eyebrow at her skeptically. I know I'm right, and I won't let go, that look said. After a moment, he continued, "Lois, come on. You're really a lousy liar."

Again she had to remind herself that he couldn't read thoughts. Mentally, she just resumed kicking herself. You idiot. "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked frostily.

"You were really jealous of Lana, and you have no right to be. I mean, she's a nice girl and all, but it was just two old friends going out to dinner. It's not like I'd cheat on you..."

Hazel eyes flew wide as they met his, and Lois's expression went from sarcasm to shock to panic. And then to something else. Clark, realizing he'd said that out loud, tried to stammer his way out of it. "I didn't mean ... Lois, I..."

"Kal-El," she began, but couldn't finish the sentence. He left me, but he never cheated on me. Oh, dear God.

Into that moment, where they might have spoken, might have resolved some of their tensions and questions, the ding of the elevator doors intruded.

Both reporters turned wide-eyed, and saw Jimmy Olsen. Coming from the darkroom on the fifty-eighth floor, he seemed just as surprised to see them.

"Wow, hi, guys," the photographer said brightly. "Hey, you've got to see these latest photos. Here's my Pulitzer, right here..." Still talking excitedly, he boarded the elevator and started rifling through the stack of pictures he carried, riding up to the Planet's floors with them.

Lois and Clark could only look at each other briefly, sharing a moment of mingled relief and dismay. True, they were avoiding a confrontation ... but also prolonging the tension. And as usual, the agent of chaos that kept them apart was James B. Olsen. Some things never change.

* * *

Ella had both twins when the phone rang, and she sighed at seeing Richard's number. Lois had warned her that he was nosing around the Secret Which Must Not Be Revealed, and it infuriated her daughter that he'd been taking the twins to work without telling her. I'm not exactly pleased about it either, she thought, heading into the living room to answer the ringing phone. "Lane residence," was all she said, however.

"Hi, Ella," Richard said. Was that a note of contrition in his voice? Ella's arched eyebrow showed exactly where her daughter had gotten the expression from. "Listen, I wanted to ask you a favor."

Ella leaned her shoulder against the wall, keeping her eyes on the other room where the twins were busy coloring. There was a hint of used-car-salesman wheedle in Richard's voice now; these children constantly forgot that she knew all their tricks, had tried to play them herself years ago. And had had about as much success fooling her own mother. "Mm-hmm. And what favor would that be?"

"Could you watch Jason and Kala overnight? Or at least, until pretty late."

The eyebrow climbed a little higher. "On a school night, Richard?"

"Well..." His voice trailed off, and Ella smiled knowingly. Here comes the semi-truthful plea, dripping with sincerity. My own parents must be looking down and laughing themselves hysterical. "You know Lois and I haven't been, well, getting along," Richard said, and the embarrassment was real. "I was hoping, maybe if we took a night off ... went out somewhere for dinner ... we could maybe patch things up a little."

My daughter is very close to slapping you senseless, and you want to take her on a date? You're either very sure of your charm or not half as smart as I thought you were. "Are you sure that's a good idea, Richard? She is not very pleased with you at the moment."

"I know," he replied. "But I have to try. I love her ... Mom."

Unfortunately, he also knew the one thing that could soften Ella's heart against all reason. "Fine, I'll keep them ... son. Go ahead and play with fire, but if she gets upset with you, don't come crying to me."

Richard actually chuckled at that. "Don't worry. I'm taking her to the Kasbah. No way can she be temperamental in the face of a pomegranate martini."

"Don't be so certain," Ella warned. "Richard, I'm not joking. You're treading awfully close to the edge with her right now."

"I'll watch myself," he promised. "Remember, I've met Lombard. I know what happens to guys who cross Lois Lane, and I don't fancy any broken bones."

"All right," Ella replied, stamping down on the last of her misgivings. She hung up after a few more pleasantries exchanged, and headed into the living room to give the twins the news.

But by the scowl on Kala's face, she'd already heard the news, and thoroughly disapproved.

* * *

Richard hung up the phone and sighed. She's right. I really ought to just drop this while I still can. No matter how carefully I plan this evening, Lois has proven time and again that I don't know her well enough to one hundred percent predict how she'll act.

He leaned his forehead into his palms, trying to rub away the incipient headache. Work had been an absolute beast lately, and living with Lois was no picnic at the moment either. It would've been nice just to let go, relax, stop worrying... But he'd bitten off a huge hunk of this mystery, and to stop chewing was to choke.

I'm a reporter, I can't let something like this go... I know she's lying. Furthermore, I know that the father of the twins is one of two men I admire, and whichever of them it really is - and I think I know - he deserves to know that he even is a father.

Hell, I've been a Superman fan for years. I've even got the tie with the S-symbols on it, but I don't dare wear it around Lois. There are times - usually when we're fighting - that I wonder if half the reason I'm attracted to her is that she's the ultimate Superman collectible. 'Yeah, I have his autograph, the starter jacket, the tie, the 'I circle back for Superman' sticker on my plane, and I've even got his girlfriend, too!' Although I was in denial for years about the fact that she really was his girlfriend. It didn't help that she kept saying it was nothing like that, the media gossips just made a mountain out of a molehill...

Maybe Lana's right. Maybe she had a right to keep that secret from me. I mean, things between us would've been a lot different if she had said stuff like, 'My last boyfriend flew me to Venice for dinner. At about the speed of sound.'

But this - the twins' father - can't be kept a secret. I know if one of my college flings had secretly had my child, I'd be mad as hell to find out I was a father and never knew my own kid. If it's him, well, I can see why we can't exactly announce it to the world, but maybe that's a secret Lois and I can share, one that will bring us closer. It's not as if Superman can really be a father or a husband, not with his life.

Of course, if what I suspect is true, then it isn't the caped wonder I have to worry about. My problems are a lot closer to home, and I have this feeling like something's going on behind my back.

Richard sighed again, and picked up the phone to make dinner reservations. No, I can't drop this. Maybe I'll get to the bottom of all of it tonight.

* * *

Jason ignored Kala's grumbling. Privately, he sometimes thought that some of the things she claimed to hear were imagined. At least the conversations of kids in other schoolrooms had to be made up; nobody could hear that, nobody except Superman.

That was who he'd drawn and was now coloring. Finding the exact right shade of blue for his uniform had been hard, but the rest of the drawing had gone pretty well, and Jason was happy with it. Maybe Nana would put this one up on the fridge; he didn't want to bring it home. Daddy had been pretty unhappy every time anyone mentioned Superman lately. That made everybody else unhappy, and Jason wished the grownups could act more, well, grown-up. They were supposed to be in control of things, not arguing like two kids with one toy.

The little boy deliberately thought of something else, though, because those ideas made him sad. As he added the finishing touches to Superman's hair - careful to draw the special little curl - he hesitated, black crayon hovering over Superman's face. Someone else might've thought he was contemplating drawing a mustache on the hero's face, as a naughty kid might.

Jason was thinking of something far different, though. Just two little circles. Well, and a change of clothes. Put a pair of glasses and a gray suit on, and you magically had Clark Kent instead of Superman. He'd first realized it one day at Mommy and Daddy's job, seeing Clark standing under a big TV screen that was showing Superman. The face was the same, the absolute same. The shock of realizing that Superman was right there in the room with him - and not even the grownups knew it - had caused an asthma attack.

His shortness of breath had kept him from blurting out the obvious to everyone around him, and Jason figured that was a good thing. Superman had to have a reason why he wanted people to think he was Clark Kent. After a while, he realized that he'd never heard of Superman doing normal things, like going out to dinner or watching a movie. So Clark Kent was who Superman was when Superman wanted to be just like everybody else. Jason could see the attraction in that - special could be a burden. Sitting by the sidelines watching the other kids play dodgeball, he'd often wanted to be just like everyone else.

Glancing at Kala, he grinned. Jason was often mistaken for the good twin, but he could be just as devious as his sister. He just wasn't as brazen about it. And he was sure she didn't know that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person. Hah, she thought she knew something special... Girls. She probably just knew something dumb like what his cape was really made out of. Jason felt like the only person in the world who shared Superman's secret...

Except Mommy. Mommy had to know. She knew practically everything anyway, except how to play piano. Besides, she'd told them why she was mad at Superman, but never told anybody why she was mad at Mr. Clark. It had to be because she knew they were really the same person.

Yup, he and Mommy were the only people in the whole world to know Superman's secret... Jason glanced at Kala again, and starting humming smugly as he finished his picture, leaving off the glasses. No way did he want to give his stuck-up sister a hint.

* * *

Lois hadn't seen Richard leave work, and that was fine with her. Tired, having lost the benefit of her target-shooting session, all she really wanted to do was go home and unwind.

So when she got to her car and found Richard leaning against it with a bouquet of hyacinths and a hopeful smile, Lois at first simply halted in shock. He smiled at her, that old charming smile that had worn away her defenses years ago, and proffered the flowers. "Any way I can talk you into going on a date with me, Ms. Lane?"

The sudden wash of memories was almost painful. Have I really been thinking about just giving up on this man and the life we've built? Richard loves me. Sure, we have problems, but he's been there, every day and every night. He's been there for me, and he's been there for the twins. He's the only father they know...

Her expression softened, and she came toward him, taking the flowers. "That's sweet of you to offer, but we do have children to take care of," she replied, tilting her face up for a peck on the cheek.

Richard wasn't content with that; he caught her lips for a quick kiss that still spoke of the attraction between them, and then lightly placed another kiss at the corner of her eye. It was his trademark move, his secret way of saying I love you and no other, and it nearly broke Lois' heart again. "Nah, beautiful, your mom is watching them. She said it's okay for them to stay late. I want to take you out somewhere, Lois. We haven't been spending enough time together lately, and I miss you."

She had to close her eyes. If you're going to try to make this work ... if there's any chance left for you and the twins to have a normal life ... you'd better take the peace offering. "Sometimes you're too nice, Richard," Lois whispered, but her sharper side couldn't resist adding, "when you're not being a nosy jerk."

Instead of yelling, he hugged her. "I'm a reporter," he breathed against her hair. "It's what we do."

Luckily he couldn't see her blush. She had been just as persistent, just as exasperating, in trying to prove that Clark was really Superman. At least Richard hadn't gone to those extreme lengths in his little investigation. "All right, all right," Lois sighed. "So where are we going?"

"That's for me to know and you to find out," Richard teased, and she couldn't help smiling at him as they got into the car. She was driving, of course; the Audi had rarely known anyone else's hands on the wheel since she'd bought it. With the recent exception of a certain lieutenant with car stealing skills...

The drive was made pleasant by the odor of the flowers, and as Richard called out turns, Lois admired them. She wondered if Richard knew that they symbolized apology ... probably the florist had told him so.

At last, they arrived at a pleasant little restaurant set back from the street behind a courtyard. Lois liked the look and scent of it; mouth-watering aromas of spices and something else, something sweet, reached the street.

As Richard followed her in the door, into the warm embrace of flavored smoke and Mediterranean cooking, his expression momentarily hardened. A glass of wine, a martini or two, and we'll even share one of those hookahs - the smoke's a lot safer on your lungs than her cigarettes. I know she's been smoking, but I won't call her on it. Then maybe once she's relaxed, I can get an honest answer or two...

And if we just have a wonderful dinner that reminds us why we're together, that's fine, too. I have almost all the evidence I need to make my point.


Everything Burns

Is that a shadow, or a flaw in the paint? Lois stared up at the patterns of the ceiling and wondered, as she had the last half hour. She was wide awake and sober too soon, the last of the alcohol having burned out of her system. Unfortunately, the soothing effect of the nicotine was gone as well.

I should've known something was wrong the minute Richard offered to let me smoke, she thought. Her gaze shifted to Richard's slumbering form, but she found it difficult to be angry with him. Not after the last several hours, anyway. Herself, was a different matter.

Dinner had been wonderful. The restaurant was fantastic, candles in low red glasses on every table, all the wood stained dark with time and use, everywhere the mellow gleam of candlelight and brass and glasses full of delicious wines.

They'd sampled a variety of Middle Eastern fare: hummus with olive oil drizzled atop it, spicy falafel, swordfish kabobs, and delicious meat pies in flaky pastry. Lois had eaten far too many olives, and downed several glasses of delightful wine. The highlight of the evening for her, of course, had been the hookah. Filled with rose-flavored shisha tobacco and filtered through rosewater, it had lifted the simple act of smoking to a sublime ritual of relaxation.

Combining the joys of the thick, cool hookah smoke with an assortment of sweet baklava and a bottle of chilled ice wine had elevated the evening to exceptional heights. Lois looked back on her behavior and winced; now the pattern of Richard's conversation was easy to define, but then he had seemed innocuously curious. He always circled back to Clark, and like a fool, she'd spoken too freely, her tongue loosened by liquor and nicotine. Lois had reminisced fondly - she cringed at the memory - over the many stories she and Clark had hunted down together, all of the good times they'd had. Even the memory of their first awkward meeting, admitting with a sly smile that she had been testing him with the soda bottle trick.

Was I really that blind? Did I really say all that? Dear God. What kind of moron was I to fall for this, hook line, and sinker?

At least she'd managed to keep the secret of his alter ego. And at least she had made it very clear that, though Clark certainly had feelings for her, she'd kept him at arm's length, kept him guessing. Only when Richard asked about the last time she'd seen Clark did Lois actually stop. The haunted look on her face she hadn't been able to conceal and her muttered comment about not knowing he was taking extended leave had convinced Richard to end that line of questioning for the night. Thank God for small favors.

More wine, sweet and golden, thick with flavor. More shisha, this time flavored with mint. Thick cups of sweetened coffee, and then it was finally time to leave. Lois felt pleasantly off-kilter, though she wasn't precisely inebriated. Just the combination of vices had relaxed her to the point of lightheadedness, and Richard helped her to the car. She'd laughed easily, leaning on his arm, and that laughter had been precious to them both.

The restaurant was set back from the street behind a courtyard full of potted plants and trickling fountains. They'd had to cross in front of traffic to get to the parking lot, which was dimly lit. As Richard tried to unlock the passenger side door, Lois had leaned heavily on him, feeling as though the lovely evening had somehow melted her bones. It was also quite a funny feeling, and she couldn't stop chuckling as she pressed closer to him to hold herself up. Which threw her off-balance and she had slipped just as she was afraid she'd do. But Richard caught her easily.

Now, lying in bed and remembering that moment, Lois still couldn't be sure that she hadn't kissed him first. It was like in dreams, where the scene changes abruptly with no transition, and she found herself pressed against the car, kissing him hungrily as if the last taste of the coffee in his mouth was ambrosia. And Richard clearly felt the same about her, his hands running possessively up and down her sides, pinning her against the car door and kissing her hard enough for her lips to feel bruised.

As his passion became tangible, Lois' mind started to disconnect. Do you really want to do this? the Romantic whispered. With him? With the way you're feeling about someone else right now? It's not right, Lois. Didn't we do this once already, and who felt guilty afterwards?

Shut up, Lois growled back, determined to block the voice out. Shut up, I'm not gonna ruin this... Who cares if it's right? It's no more wrong than those damn dreams I've been having about him. I don't care ... it feels so nice after so long...

And it was nice to just forget about everything else, Richard nuzzling her neck, feeling warmth suffuse her body. Lois murmured incoherently, tilting her head back and letting him kiss her throat with a low moan. So very nice, drifting in a haze of warm pleasure...

Which suddenly shattered. Richard ran his hands down to her thighs and lifted her, pinning her at a more convenient height. An icy shiver of déjà vu ran through Lois as her eyes opened wide; that was a car door handle poking her in the back instead of the drawer handle of a filing cabinet, but the comparison to the other morning couldn't be clearer. And recognizing the similarities, admitting to her feelings for both men, she couldn't go on. Damn you, Kal-El.

"No," Lois whispered, almost moaning with frustration and resignation. "No, no, no, we can't. Not like this, not now, no..." She pressed both hands against Richard's chest as she dropped her head, tormented by memories and promises. "Richard, no, stop."

Richard sighed heavily against her neck, and Lois shuddered at his breath on the sensitive skin. "Why?" he asked. "Why not?"

"We can't," Lois whispered back, not daring to look him in the eyes. Her body ached with craving, but her mind was frozen. "Not here."

Richard let her down gently. "Well, no, not here," he said with a breathless chuckle, desire making his voice rough. "But later..." He kissed her earlobe, letting his warm breath tickle her.

Shivers ran up and down Lois' spine and she leaned toward him, then suddenly pulled back. "No," she said more sternly, clamping down hard on the lightning-quick desire in her veins. In that way at least, he knew her so very well. "Richard ... it's the wrong time." Lois blushed as she offered that last-ditch excuse. Oh, for God's sake, Lois! You couldn't come up with anything better than that?

For a moment, Richard looked confused, then understanding dawned. "Oh," he said, crestfallen. But he didn't question her; no man ever would question that particular reason. However, Lois was acutely aware that even six months ago he would've known she was lying - only their recent estrangement made the excuse plausible.

He kissed her brow, sliding his arms around her gently. "Another time, then," he murmured, and Lois was still enough under the sway of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol to cuddle against his chest and let the rest of the world spin as it would.

Lying awake in bed beside him now, the reporter didn't know exactly what to damn herself for. Part of her wished she'd accepted the affection she craved, having missed it for quite some time. Another part felt that doing so would be a betrayal of Kal-El, who had woken feelings in her heart she could no longer deny regardless of her fears. And still another part felt that making love to Richard now would be a betrayal of Richard as well, since she could no longer make herself believe she loved him the same way.

To make things even worse, Richard chose that moment to roll over in his sleep and slip his arm around her waist with a blissful murmur.

What am I going to do now? Just what the hell am I going to do? How do I get myself into these things? And just how am I going to get myself out of it this time, without destroying everything? Staring up at the ceiling, still unable to decide whether it was a shadow or stain, whether semblance or substance.

* * *

As Richard drove the twins to school the next morning, Kala leaned against the window, staring out and upward. She couldn't see much sky now that they were downtown, only glimpses between Metropolis' concrete canyons, but those few stretches of blue captivated her interest. Had Lois, still in bed miles behind them, known what Kala was thinking, she would have been wide awake and terrified.

Wonder if I'm gonna ever be up there? Kala mused. Maybe I can fly, like Daddy. That'd be really cool.

Several days after overhearing her Nana's urgently whispered conversation with Mommy - Have you told Superman about his twins? - Kala had been up at her parents' job, and talked Uncle Jimmy into walking her down to the break room for some flavored water. They had passed the rows of front-page stories, framed and mounted, which Kala had seen dozens of times before. At six years old, she couldn't read much past the headlines, and had always dismissed them as sort of boring posters. But that day, with Nana's electrifying words still floating in her mind, Kala had skidded to a halt in front of one the stories.

I Spent the Night with Superman, she needed no help with that. The biggest word was one every child in Metropolis knew well. But what Kala had never quite noticed before was the byline beneath it. By Lois Lane, she read, and her hazel eyes grew wide. "Uncle Jimmy, my Mommy went to a sleepover at Superman's house?" she had asked, impressed.

The photographer had chuckled, and explained that the two had spent the evening flying around, which Kala found incredibly exciting. She'd managed not to tell Uncle Jimmy everything she knew, though.

Superman's my daddy, Kala thought, remembering the incident warmly as she gazed up at the brief flashes of sky. My Mommy was in love with Superman. That's the most special-est ever. Then another realization hit, and she sat bolt upright in the back seat. That means Mommy kissed Superman! Maybe more than once! Wow! New respect for her mother shone in the little girl's eyes.

Jason was looking at her like she'd lost her mind, and Kala just glared at him. He doesn't have a clue. Boys. They're all so dumb ... except Daddy. Both daddies, Richard and Superman. They're pretty smart. Hey, Superman was in love with my Mommy! That's so neat.

Such pleasant and intriguing thoughts kept her occupied all the way to her classroom.

* * *

It had not been a pleasant morning for Lois. She'd woken in the wee hours from a dream that left her clammy with sweat. In it, the life she'd worked so hard to build had continued on just as planned. She'd married Richard, they'd lived in this house, and they had come to know each other very well after all and to enjoy each other more with each passing year. Their lovemaking had become more tender than passionate as time went by, and they spent more time together in silence because everything was known between them. But it was a good life, one happier than many women could ever dream of.

So why had she woken up shivering with fear? Lois asked herself that as she crept to the bathroom and rinsed her face, trying to shake herself back into reality - and out of the sudden urge to call Clark.

Staring at the dark shadows under her eyes in the pitiless fluorescent light, Lois had to admit that she wanted more. More than happiness, more than comfort, more than stability. She wanted that level of intimacy that was almost painful in its intensity; she wanted awe and wonder and the occasional feeling that her life was out of her control. For a moment the reporter tried to scold herself, thinking, Life is not a fairy tale, you don't always get magic and princes.

But another voice replied softly, Once upon a time you did - and it's not too late, if you're brave enough to try again. Brave enough to call the whirlwind into your own life and let it blow away everything that isn't bolted down tight. Make the choice, dare to say the things you've been thinking, and when it all dies down you'll see what's left is what's strongest. And you already know what that is - the love you can't deny, can't excise from your heart.

Still she hesitated. Even if her own heart - and finally her mind - were clear on what she wanted, Lois wasn't making a decision just for herself. The twins. Which is best for them: the security of the life they've always known, or the constant uncertainty of life with their real father?

It hadn't been the kind of question she could answer that early, so Lois had crawled back into bed and eventually slept. Later that morning, after Richard left with the twins, she decided to make time to investigate the Vanderworth estate a second time, now armed with both the information Clark had passed on and additional tidbits passed on from Karla Smith-Bennett during their phone conversation. She'd stop briefly by the office, of course, but only briefly. She had to at least show up in the morning, but it would be best if she didn't run into either of the men today...

* * *

One of those mornings, again. Maybe the arsonist planned to plead not guilty by reason of insanity if he was ever caught, or maybe he was inspiring copycats. Clark privately thought it could be either one as he hurried in to work. Certainly this morning's fire was nonsensical, in some respects closely following the firebug's usual M.O., in others widely different.

The same model airplane fuels, but this time the target had been an abandoned warehouse. Virtually no risk to human life, but the same timed ignitions. Of course, the other arson targets didn't fit an easy pattern, unless maximum mayhem was a pattern...

He changed in the ventilation shaft and headed into the newsroom the back way, as if he'd just come down the secondary stairs from the corrections department above. As Clark walked in, something made him look up and across the busy city room to the front doors.

Lois was on her way out, though she couldn't have been in long at this hour. Even across the crowded room, their eyes met, and for a moment Clark couldn't move. He had once stood next to the great bells of Big Ben as the clock struck noon, just to see if the chimes would dampen the thousands of other sounds he could hear. It hadn't worked, but the vibration shocked him into immobility. Standing that close, every cell in his body seemed to resonate in answer, even his pulse and breath keeping the bells' time.

That feeling returned to him as he met Lois' gaze, seeing a kind of stricken look on her face. The sight of his beloved drove everything else out of his heart and mind for a moment, and from the unthinking way she took a step toward him, Lois felt as much for him. What are you thinking, Lois? he couldn't help but wonder.

Then the moment was gone, Lois shaking her head slightly as she turned to leave. What are you thinking? Clark scolded himself as he headed to his desk. Stop it. Just stop it. How much you miss her doesn't matter; what she wants, and what's best for her, does. How the heck can you manage to put the entire planet above your own needs, except when it comes to her?

But he knew the answer to that. Love has its reasons, that reason never knows.

Clark didn't have long to contemplate, however. He'd been at his desk barely ten minutes when he heard a fire alarm. Not again... It might just be a school testing the system; it might just be a homeowner who'd let the bacon sizzle a little too long. He listened a moment longer.

And heard the alarms in one of the main fire stations go off, shortly followed by sirens. I have got to catch this guy, he thought, hurrying out again. Or else he's going to make me lose my job.

* * *

Lois's heart had stopped beating for a moment, catching Clark's glance. There was so much she needed to say to him, her stubborn defiance gradually being won over by the desire to end this secret-keeping. In spite of her resolutions, every time she saw him she wanted to simply confide in him, to take him back into her trust. What are you thinking? Are you really as torn over all of this as I am? Do you really want me back or do you want me just because you don't have me?

Do you dream about me at night, the same as I do about you, and then lie to yourself in the morning?

Is it even possible for us to have another chance? Even now?

They would talk soon, set the record straight on everything, but now wasn't the time. Not with all that was going on at the moment. Soon, she promised herself. For better or worse. Closure or new beginning, it had to be done. But for now, she forced herself to leave, remembering that she probably wouldn't get out of the office at all if she didn't do it before Richard got there.

Thankfully, the Vanderworth alarm systems had a few vulnerable points - vulnerable to someone who didn't mind climbing the property fence and getting in the basement via a cellar window, anyway.

The basement was dark and dusty, forcing Lois to suppress a sneeze. She kept close to the wall, listening intently. Somewhere in the mansion, she could hear the dull roar of a furnace, but there was no other sound. For the moment, she could risk a light. Lois always carried a small electromagnetic flashlight in her purse, the kind that needs no batteries. All she had to do was shake it briskly, and it gave her a strong bluish LED beam.

Dusty was an understatement. Every surface was cloaked in pale powder, giving the room an unsettling shrouded appearance. And it wasn't all the normal dust of neglect - quite a lot of it appeared to be from cracking and shifting concrete, since the floor and walls were buckled. The extent of the damage was incredible - apparently there had once been some kind of train set down here, but now it was in ruins. The powerful light showed toppled buildings, derailed trains, flattened mountains, and everywhere the figures of miniature plastic people lay knocked over and broken.

Lois felt a premonitory chill run down her spine. Whatever caused this destruction, I really hope Luthor hasn't figured out how to scale it up. She couldn't, however, immediately divine the source of the EMP. A great many wires lay tangled in a heap under and around the jumbled remains of the train set, but they could have all been part of the set itself.

Suddenly, a glint from under one of the piles of debris caught Lois' eye. She had to pick her way across to it carefully, stepping over miniature bridges and roads and trees, but finally the reporter knelt in the dust and examined her find.

A tiny chip of glass... no, crystal, no bigger than a grain of rice. Lois sighed disgustedly; it could be part of some kind of timing device for explosives, or a piece chipped out of someone's watch face. Why can't life be more like a novel? Why can't I find a nice big clue, like a book entitled "How to Cause a Massive EMP with Easily-Traceable Materials"? Yeah, open to the page that would tell me how he did it, with his fingerprints on the cover.

Oh well. This might mean something, it might not. Either way, I'm taking no chances. Lois took an envelope out of her purse and sealed the fragment inside. Then she set off to continue her exploration, carefully avoiding the windows so she wouldn't be caught on the exterior security cameras. She wasn't worried about the interior; the specs of the alarm system hadn't mentioned indoor monitoring.

* * *

After dropping the twins off, Richard stopped for coffee. He hated that stuff Perry brewed at the office, it looked and smelled like tar - and tasted worse. He preferred to get his cup of steaming black wakefulness from a corner doughnut shop, at which newsmen from several papers liked to congregate.

As Richard was paying for his coffee, he overheard a wisp of conversation from somewhere in the back of the dingy, dough-scented room. He could only make out a couple of words, but they electrified him: "Lane ... drunk ... Pulitzers..."

The International Editor drifted toward the voice, pretending to be preoccupied with the selection of doughnuts in the large glass case. The speaker was a heavyset reporter Richard had seen here often, but whose name he didn't know. He gestured with a powdered, jelly-filled doughnut, then took a bite, spraying powdered sugar all over the table. "I'm tellin' ya, she was drunk off her ass."

The man across from him at the small table leaned back in distaste. "You obviously don't know Lois Lane. There wasn't enough liquor there to get her drunk. She's made of iron..."

"Nah, she ain't," the large man replied. "Dunno who she thinks she is anyway..."

"She's the next editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet, Harry," his companion replied sharply. "And she knows it perfectly well. Lois Lane won the Pulitzer; she got the first Superman interview back in the day, too. I'd be careful what you say about her."

The other man harrumphed, and sipped his coffee noisily. Richard acted as though he was fascinated by the crullers. "Yeah, right," Harry said. "I'm not scared of her. What's she gonna do, break my arm?"

"Wouldn't be the first time," the other replied. "Don't underestimate her. She looks pretty and sweet and vapid right up until she scoops your story and steals your sources. And don't forget her boyfriend."

Richard kept his face turned away, but he soon realized they weren't talking about him. Harry sprayed more crumbs as he laughed. "Yeah? That guy in International, the pilot? So what, Dan?"

"No, the other flyboy," Dan replied, dusting off his sleeve and glaring at his companion. "The caped one. He wouldn't take kindly to you disparaging his lady love."

Another shower of crumbs. "Hah! Superman? Please. It's been six years and she wrote a bitchy article about him. That's the first time PMS has won anybody a Pulitzer."

"Tone it down, Harry. I'm serious."

The heavyset man seemed not to hear, and Richard began to suspect there was more than creamer in his coffee by his slightly slurred words. "Besides, he's got a lot more to worry 'bout than me. How thrilled you think he's gonna be when he finds out she almost kissed Kent at the Pulitzers?"

"Kent?" Dan's disbelief was clear, and Richard felt frozen in shock. "Clark Kent? Mr. Milquetoast? Her old partner?"

"Yup," Harry replied, relishing his moment of glory. "Kent. Told you she was drunk."

That effectively ruined Richard's day. Kent. She kissed Clark at the Pulitzers? Why am I the last one to find out these things? What the hell else have they all been hiding from me?

Oh, Uncle Perry's in for it now... He stormed out, seething, and headed right back to the office to confront Lois, Perry, and Clark ... whichever of them were around.

* * *

Perry White never quite minded his own business. Everyone else's was so much more obviously in need of experienced minding. At the moment, he was peacefully monitoring what his employees thought were private emails ... in spite of the notice in the handbook that said all emails sent to and from the company server were subject to managerial review.

Grinning at some of the less than savory descriptions of himself - wouldn't they be surprised when he casually remarked on the inaccuracies - he was completely unprepared for Richard to burst into the office. Perry raised a grizzled eyebrow and looked skeptically at his brother's son.

At least Richard let the door shut completely behind him. "What the hell happened at the Pulitzers, Perry?" he demanded immediately.

The editor sat back in his chair, for once in his life stunned. Ah, shit. I knew this was coming. I just hoped it wouldn't be so soon. "What're you talking about, Richard? And don't take that tone with me."

"I'm talking about my fiancée and Kent." Richard leaned across the desk, and completely ignored the warning about tone. "Don't play stupid with me, Perry. You were there, and nosy as you are, you had to know about it."

"What about your fiancée and Kent? What kind of rumor-mill bullshit have you been listening to? And watch your goddamn tone, Richard - you're not too old to feel my belt."

"Oh, come off it," Richard scoffed. "Stop screwing around and tell me what the hell you know about Kent and Lois making out at the Pulitzers."

"Making out? Are you smoking something?" Perry was relieved to be on safe ground here. "I don't know who you were talking to, but they don't have their facts straight."

"So what really happened?"

The editor hesitated, then plunged on. "Dammit, you told her there'd be an open bar. You practically told her to drink."

"So she got plastered?"

"She didn't get drunk; she got a little bit tipsy. I chased them out onto the dance floor so she could finally talk to Kent - which is what we all wanted, so they'd quit fighting all the damn time - and it worked. They were bickering like they used to. Problem is, she almost kissed him at the end of a slow dance."

"She kissed him?" Richard hissed.

"Almost, " Perry growled. "Stop calling yourself a reporter if you can't quote a source accurately! She quit and pulled back well before she actually kissed him, though."

"And you weren't gonna tell me?!"

"Of course not!" Perry barked. "You'd just make an ass of yourself, like you're doing right now!"

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, really! She'd had a few and she was dancing with the guy. So she almost kissed him. There's a shrink in Chelsea who did a whole lot more than kiss her a couple years before you showed up, if you want to be a jerk to someone who deserves it."

"Well, I have good reason to believe she did a whole lot more than kiss Clark," Richard replied hotly. Before he really knew what he was saying, he spilled everything. "I'm pretty sure I caught them making out in the damn supply closet the day we got back - they sure looked guilty as hell. But it shouldn't surprise me, considering that he's the father of the twins."

"What?" Perry stared at him incredulously. "Richard, son, you have completely and utterly lost your mind. Clark Kent no more slept with Lois than I did."

"I'm serious," Richard said, regaining a little of his composure. "Look, Uncle Perry. You sent them to Niagara, posing as newlyweds. Those Kryptonians try taking over the world, Lois is a hostage, Superman shows up in the nick of time to save the day. Next thing we know, Clark's acting all kinds of pained, and Lois is being a little flaky about remembering things. Boom, Superman vanishes. Clark goes on leave the same time - to France. To Paris, actually. Lois heads out looking for Superman, and she winds up in Paris."

"So you're saying they met in Paris? Richard, there was nothing romantic between them before they left. I would've known. Besides, she was nuts about Superman."

"Yes, and thanks so very much for telling me that when I first met her," Richard replied sharply. "Anyway, she was in Paris, just realizing that Superman was gone indefinitely. And then suppose she met Kent, just by coincidence. Kent, who's always had a thing for her. Who's always been there for her. The one man she trusts more than anyone, except you and Superman. You know Lois - can't you see it? When she needed someone who was comfortable and reliable more than anything else, he was there."

"Okay, okay, it's plausible. But what about Garen what's-his-name?"

"No such person," Richard retorted. "I checked. The name Garen never appeared in a Quotidienne byline, as first, middle, or last. The only Garen who ever worked in the area had a stationery shop across the street, and his boyfriend didn't appreciate me calling."

"You called..."

"Furthermore, of the four guys who worked there at the same time as Lois and who claim to have slept with her - none named Garen - none of them actually have. At least, none of them have ever seen her naked."

"What? How the hell do you know that?"

"Because they can all describe, in detail, a birthmark she doesn't have," Richard told him.

Perry stared. Slowly, he said, "If she ever finds out you've been investigating her, Richard, she'll kick your ass. I mean she will literally beat the daylights out of you."

"Yes, well, this is what happens when you lie and evade to the point where someone doesn't trust you to answer a direct question," Richard replied hotly.

"Still..."

"Perry, look me in the eyes and tell me you think I'm wrong," the younger man demanded. "It's the only explanation that makes sense. He was gone, Clark was there. You know Lois better than I do - everybody knows her better than I do, apparently - tell me I'm completely wide of the mark. Go on, do it."

Perry sighed, dropping his face into his hands. For a moment, just a moment, he looked his age, careworn and tired. His voice was low and resigned as he said, "Richard, listen to me for once in your life. Which do you want, the truth - or Lois? Because you're gonna lose her if you keep this up."

His nephew leaned forward, eyes intense. "What if she was never mine to begin with, Perry? Just answer me."

"Fine, shoot yourself in the foot if you want to," Perry barked, some of the old fire coming back. "I didn't want you to get hurt, but I can't stop you if you're this determined. Yeah, I think it makes sense. I don't one hundred percent believe you've hit on the truth, but it's plausible. If you're happy now, do me a favor."

"What?"

"Don't talk to Kent. If what you think is the truth, that's her job. Don't you dare spring this on Kent."

"Why ... not that I'm gonna, but why not, Perry?"

The editor glared. "Because if you're wrong and he never slept with her, you'll probably kill him by suggesting he did."

Richard rolled his eyes, got up, and left the office without a further word. A few moments later, Perry saw the switchboard monitoring program on his computer pick up a call from Richard's cell phone to Troupe in International. At least the boy's figured out he better let someone know when he leaves this office, the older man thought, sitting back in his chair with a troubled glance into Lois' office. She and Kent had both just barely missed meeting Richard, and Perry was damned glad they had. That was not a scene he cared to witness.

* * *

Lois arrived back at the office after Richard had shown up and left again. Perry was giving her a strange look, but he didn't call her into his office, so she ignored him for the moment.

Richard stayed gone, and Clark eventually made it back. Seems like this is the morning for wandering in and out. Typical Friday, she thought, but it was probably better this way. Lois had a chance to work on her editorial due tomorrow, and the Vanderworth story as well. A few minutes of searching on the internet quickly told her that she'd have to find an actual expert to ask about the crystals; half the people online were more concerned with whether a given stone could open your chakras or help you remember a past life. The way testimonials were worded, she couldn't weed out those kinds of search results even by adding explosive, detonate, destruction and similar search terms.

By lunch time, she'd given up in disgust. I'm going to have to talk to an actual geologist. Lovely. Forget this, I'm going to go get something to eat. And no break room vending machine for me today, please. She waved to Jimmy on her way out, and he smiled at her, instantly lightening her mood.

Ten minutes later she was back, her heels striking the carpet sharply, and Jimmy looked up questioningly but knew better than to ask what was wrong. Lois headed to her office without a word and called her car insurance company. "Hi, this is Lois Lane," she said pleasantly, but there was that edge to her voice, the one that those who knew her well learned to hear exquisitely - and fear. The operator replied politely, and Lois continued, "I've got an Audi A3 covered by you guys... Yeah. It won't start."

The man started going through what was clearly a checklist, and Lois replied impatiently. "Right, I tried that... Uh-huh. Nope, it has fuel, I checked the distributor cap, spark plugs are tight. Battery's only a year old..." That seemed to be the end of it; Lois rolled her eyes and suppressed a sigh as the operator finally agreed to tow the car. "Yes, please, take it to the dealership for me. It's in the Daily Planet parking garage, space B12. First floor. Have them call me and I'll meet the tow truck driver at the car... Thanks... You too."

She hung up the phone, sighing in disgust, and then called in an order of pizza. After that she dialed Barbara, "You'll definitely be picking them up today, hon."

"Really? What happened?" Someone was practicing the piano in the background, probably one of her adult students.

"My stupid car died. I have a $450 a month lease and the bloody thing just won't start. I love that car, but right now I could just kick the hell out of it."

"It's no problem, really. I'll get them. You just be glad the car didn't break down while you were driving it, Lo."

"Very true," Lois chuckled. "Thanks, hon. No, really. Thank you. I guess I'd better get back to work...

The student hit a blatantly sour note, and Lois envisioned Barbara flinching as the woman sighed. "Yeah, me too. See you later."

"See you. Bye." Lois hung up and dropped back into her chair, glaring out the windows. Just another lovely day in the life of Lois Lane. And to think people envy me...

* * *

Things in the office had seemed unusually tense that morning, and Jimmy wisely chose to spend it in the darkroom, away from everyone's line of fire. He came up in the afternoon with justification for his pay, plus a couple more pictures from the recent fires to run with an article on the arsonist.

Jimmy was at his desk, keeping a weather eye out for Perry and Richard. One of the other photographers had muttered something to him about a very intense discussion between those two. Sarah Olsen hadn't raised any fools; the way things had been lately, the discussion could only be about Lois, and Jimmy didn't want to be interrogated again.

The coast looked clear, though Perry and Lois were in their offices. Richard had been gone for a while, though Clark was finally back. Maybe nothing was up ... this place was a giant rumor mill, and what the gossips couldn't dig up they made up, the juicier the better.

Still, Jimmy kept an eye on Lois. Anything that went wrong around here would either center on her or drag her into it, always had. Lois was a magnet for controversy.

Her office door was partly open; it wouldn't close all the way unless you tugged it, which Lois blamed on damp weather and Perry blamed on her slamming it. So Jimmy heard her phone ring, and having finished setting up the photos for tomorrow's article, he glanced her way with mild interest.

The raven-haired reporter smiled at first, but then that pleasant expression fell from her face and shattered, like fine china falling from the shelf with a splintering smash. Jimmy sat up, worried, and watched as Lois' expression went from shock, to fear, to absolute terror. And then rage swarmed up to join the horror, and Lois dropped the phone. It swung beneath her desk from its cord, smacking the wood, while she snatched up her purse and bolted for the door.

Uh-oh, Jimmy thought, panicking. He'd never seen her look like this; even when the Kryptonians threatened them and hurt Perry, she'd been furious, but not this frightened. And again, he'd seen her scared, but not simultaneously so wrathful.

As Lois stormed past his desk, her eyes glazed and fixed on the door, Jimmy yelled for help. "Chief! Clark! Somebody stop her! Clark!"

Perry was already out of his office, calling her name, but Lois didn't turn around. No one else seemed willing to get in her way, and Jimmy started to follow her as well. Someone's got to stop her; there's no telling what she'll do when she's like this, Jimmy thought. Where the heck is Clark when...? Oh, thank God.

As he and Perry reached the still-swinging doors, they saw Clark outside, standing between Lois and the elevators. His shoulders were set, but his entire posture spoke of reluctant resignation. "Lois, wait," he said in a low, firm voice neither of them had ever heard him use before.

"Get out of my way now, Kent," Lois growled, and Perry and Jimmy were both shocked by the panic in her tone. The panic, and the fury.

She tried to shove him aside, but he caught her arm. "Lois, you can't do this. You can't run headlong..."

Even if the newsroom doors hadn't still been swinging back and forth after she slammed them open, they would've heard her voice suddenly rise almost to a shriek. "Don't tell me what I can't do! Luthor has my twins! And I'll do whatever I have to do! Now get the hell out of my way!"

* * *

She sits in her corner
Singing herself to sleep
Wrapped in all of the promises
That no one seems to keep
She no longer cries to herself
No tears left to wash away
Just diaries of empty pages
Feelings gone a stray
But she will sing

Til everything burns
While everyone screams
Burning their lies
Burning my dreams
All of this hate
And all of this pain
I'll burn it all down
As my anger reigns
Til everything burns
Watching it all fade away...

-Ben Moody and Anastacia, "Everything Burns"


Cinders on the Wind

Lois had smiled when she picked up the phone, hearing Barbara's voice. But before she could say more than, "Hello," her expression began to slip.

"Lois, listen," Barbara said, and the tension in her voice was enough to send a chill down Lois' spine. In the background, she could hear Ashlyn crying, and Todd's voice trying to soothe her. "Ashlyn's class got held late, so she came out five minutes after everyone else. When she got to the bench where Mrs. Mosley normally waits with the twins, nobody was there."

"What?" Lois' voice was a tiny, strengthless whisper.

"Todd and I got there right after; we found Mrs. Mosley. Someone hit her in the head and dragged her into the bushes; Todd called an ambulance and the police. She's gonna be okay, I hope... She doesn't remember what happened."

Ashlyn's voice rose in the background, petulant with trauma. "I want Jason an' Kala!"

Barbara sighed, and her tone made it clear how much she hated giving this news, how deeply she understood the horror she was about to voice. "Lois ... the twins are missing. They can't be gone long; we already called the police..."

But the reporter heard no more. At those four words, the twins are missing, her vision went abruptly white, her ears deafened by the sudden roar of her own blood beating faster, faster. "Luthor," she whispered, and came back from the brink of fainting, burning with fury. Luthor. You sonofabitch, I'll kill you. Touch one hair on their heads, and I swear, if it takes my last breath to do it, I will kill you.

She wasn't aware of dropping the phone, letting it thud against her desk as it twisted on its cord. Lois just grabbed her purse with the reassuring weight of the Ladysmith inside, and headed for the doors. She tried to keep her emotions locked down inside, but it was little use. Part of her was wailing in sheer terror, howling for this to be merely a nightmare. Another part screamed for Luthor's blood, enraged and knowing instinctively he had to be behind the kidnapping.

Dimly, Lois heard Jimmy yell, sensed him and Perry following her. She had one goal in mind: hunt Luthor down before he could harm her children. God alone knows what he's figured out, she thought, storming toward the doors. I'm not going to let the twins get hurt because of me, because of what I had with their father. I'll strangle that bastard Luthor with my bare hands if he hurts them... Jason, Kala, Mommy's coming...

She was barely aware of her surroundings until she nearly reached the elevators, and then he was there, barring her way. "Get out of my way now, Kent," she growled, his voice unheard. Not even Superman could stop her when her children were at stake...

* * *

Clark had been minding his own business, working on a story and worrying about the arsonist, when he became aware of the absence of a sound that he knew and loved. Lois' heartbeat.

His head snapped up, his expression intense enough to give away his secret if the right people had seen his face. But then her heart began to beat again, and for an instant he relaxed.

The beat was too fast, though, too hard, and it only accelerated. Clark hadn't tuned into the phone conversation yet - he spent most of his time trying not to hear private discussions - but he did so then, catching only a woman's voice as she called out, "Lois? Are you there? The cops are coming ... the twins could be anywhere..."

And his own heart stilled in its great steady rhythm. The twins. Oh, my God. No... Lois went steamrolling across the office, Jimmy yelling for the Chief, yelling for him. Clark forced himself to move past the shock and the horror, and as soon as he was up he found his own pulse hammering. He sped out of the side door that lead to a long-disused hallway to some conference rooms, and beat Lois to the elevators in a blur of super-speed. "Lois, wait," he said, and she was nearly incoherent with terror and rage as she snarled a reply and tried to push past him.

Clark caught her arm, held her fast. "Lois, you can't do this," he said as gently as he could, his heart breaking for her. "You can't run headlong..."

She whirled on him, punching his elbow in a vain attempt to make him let go that probably numbed her hand. Her voice rose as she shouted, "Don't tell me what I can't do! Luthor has my twins! And I'll do whatever I have to! Now get the hell out of my way!"

Lois was hysterical. Clark had never thought he'd see her this far gone into that particular madness, but he couldn't let her go. She'd likely run blindly into some trap of Luthor's, and how would that help Jason and Kala? Clark grabbed her upper arms and lifted her off the ground slightly, setting her down again squarely in front of him so that she had to look into his eyes, not at the elevator doors. It was done so smoothly and swiftly that Perry and Jimmy probably hadn't seen or recognized the immense strength behind that simple move. "Lois, get hold of yourself," he told her firmly. "You can't go running off like this; Luthor has a trap laid for you if you do."

She struggled in his grip, her hazel eyes brimming with tears. "Damn you, let me go!" Her voice was near breaking with the extremes of emotion, but she knew all too well that he was far stronger than she was. She had only one way to hit him hard enough to make him release her, and it was with words. "What if it was you, huh? What if Luthor had your kids, what would you do?" Lois glared up at him defiantly, practically spitting the words into his face. While part of her was reeling in disbelief over how close to the truth that was, the majority of her mind and heart hoped it would startle him into letting her go. Nevermind that he was faster, or that he was probably right. Gripped in the vise of panic, all she cared about was chasing down the maniac who had her twins.

And it did shock Clark, but not as badly as she hoped. I suspect he does, Clark thought distantly, but he held her and let the certainty in his blue eyes calm hers. "If it happened to me, Lois, I'd pray you were around to stop me from doing something like this."

That stopped her; Lois' eyes went wide as she stared up at him, both of them all too aware of the implication in their words, Lois realizing the inevitability of it. Neither she nor Clark noticed Jimmy whispering to Perry, both men turning away from the doors and shooing the other reporters back to their desks. Clark continued softly, "Getting yourself killed won't help them, Lois. Jason and Kala need you alive and free to act."

Then the tears began to spill from Lois' eyes, and she choked back a sob. "It's my fault, Kal-El," her voice low and trembling, and Clark pulled her close, cradled her in his strong arms, and she was unsurprised at that moment to finally feel at home at last. Closing her eyes at the momentary relief it gave her, she could only close her eyes and hold tightly to him.

"We'll find them," he whispered, and guided her out of the hallway, into the maintenance corridor, where the toughest reporter on the Planet could weep brokenly to the one person who had ever seen her that vulnerable.

* * *

Richard had found reasons to stay out of the office. The consulate fire needed following up, some other stories needed a bit of fact-checking, and it never hurt for the International editor to have lunch in the café across the street from the U.N. building. He'd picked up quite a few leads there in the past.

One more thing required his attention, and in the afternoon he went to Centennial Park. A tent city had sprung up in the meadow, and Richard worked his way through the dispersing crowd. He'd timed this just right, arriving after Lana's show was over...

Flashing his press pass got him backstage, where the slim redhead was shaking hands and accepting congratulations from a crowd of admirers and fellow designers. Richard waited, smiling a little; Lana was unfailingly nice to everyone, even the one or two who were clearly jealous of her success and trying to offer a backhanded compliment. He couldn't help comparing the two women: Lois would have had a scathing reply delivered in the same falsely sweet tone, but Lana acted as if the compliment was sincere and defused any potential insult.

What a genuinely nice person, he thought, mentally kicking himself in the next instant. What are you thinking, Richard? And while we're on the topic, what are you doing here anyway? You're engaged!

For how much longer? Was that his conscience, speaking so coldly? Richard shook off the thought, silencing his doubts for the moment. He was just here to congratulate a source on her successful show. Nothing more than that. Really.

The press of people abated somewhat, and Richard was able to make his way to Lana's side. "Hi," he said, turning that winning grin on her. "I wanted to be the first to congratulate you on the show, but it looks like I was a little late."

The redhead seemed startled to see him, but her lips curved up in a smile that lit her green eyes. "Richard! What a pleasant surprise," she said with real warmth. Perhaps she had shaken hands with too many fans and rivals in the past few minutes, because Lana automatically reached out and took hold of Richard's hands.

The spark that leapt between them was tangible to both, and their eyes widened simultaneously. His fingers tightened on hers for an instant ... and then Lana dropped his hands as if she'd been shocked, chuckling nervously. "Well, it is good to see you," she said, and the comment sounded lame to her own ears. Lana scolded herself, Quit fawning over him, you idiot! He's engaged to be married, remember?

Even if he's unhappy... The traitorous little voice that whispered in her ear spoke the truth, but Lana didn't want to listen. He was a nice man and a good reporter; that was all. She couldn't let herself get close to him. "So how are Lois and the twins?" she asked, quickly trying to put some distance between them.

Richard flinched; that was pure icewater, there. "They're okay," he answered automatically. Then he remembered whom he was talking about, the conversation he'd had with Perry that morning, and went on. "I learned something else I wish I didn't know about Lois, but that's to be expected by now."

Lana smacked his arm. "Don't talk about your fiancée like that," she said sternly. "She can't be ... the way you make her sound, or you wouldn't be with her."

Her frankness surprised an uncensored reply out of him. "I might not be for much longer."

Dark auburn eyebrows rose questioningly. "Oh? Did she find out about your extensive background check?" Darn it, can you be any more abrasive? What are you trying to do, make him feel at home? Thank God he couldn't hear the thoughts whispering in her mind. Did I just think that? My God, that was catty.

Richard gave her back a look that was just as cool. "No, I found out she kissed another man," he replied. But this was Lana, so he amended, "Almost kissed him, anyway."

"What?" she asked. "Is this the guy you think is the father of the twins, or someone else?"

"Yeah, it's Clark," Richard replied, and bit his tongue a second too late. Aw, damn. I can't believe I just did that.

"Clark?" Lana's voice rose. "Clark Kent? You're out of your mind! I've known him since grammar school!"

"Keep your voice down," Richard hissed. "Yes, that Clark. Think about it, Lana. Have you ever seen the way he looks at her?"

"I've met her once," Lana replied, "and she was too busy tearing your head off for me to notice anything ... else..." No, wait. He was watching Lois - and that scolding was as much for him as for Richard. She pretty much stalked over and marked them both as hers... Not to mention that day in the Chinese restaurant. Textbook definition of awkward there - and the look she shot me just screamed 'jealous.' Dear Lord, I think Richard's right.

Clark is the twins' father. That cashier didn't know how right she was - Daddy's girl indeed! And oh, what Richard just said he found out... Clark's been fooling around with an engaged woman?

Martha Kent is going to kill him!

There was no more time to talk, or to think, however. Richard's cell phone buzzed, and he muttered, "Let me check this." The screen displayed Perry's desk, and little as Richard wanted to take the call, he knew he should. "Hello, Uncle Perry, I'm with a source... What? What? Who has them? Wait a minute - Perry, where's Lois?" He listened a moment longer, his complexion going pale as chalk, and Lana caught his arm, afraid he would faint. "Thank God. I'll be there as soon as I can," he said into the phone, and snapped it shut.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Lana asked. She didn't need to know exactly what was going on; his face and voice told her it was terrible, and her compassion moved her.

Richard looked at her blankly, as if he'd forgotten who she was and where he stood. Then his wild eyes focused, and she saw a little relief in them. "I don't know, but if there is, I'll call you. Lana, I have to go."

"I know," she replied, and everything left unspoken between them could stay that way for now. Whatever he'd just heard overrode all else. "Is it Lois or the kids?"

"The kids," Richard replied. "They've been kidnapped. Thank God Clark stopped Lois from running after them or she'd have been taken by now, too."

Sympathetic pain tore through Lana, and her sea-green eyes filled with fear and grief. "My God, Richard," she whispered, and squeezed his shoulder gently. "Be safe - and call me if you need me."

Richard placed his hand over hers briefly, mute gratitude in his glance, and then he was gone. Lana was left feeling suddenly alone in a sea of people, her mind in turmoil. It doesn't matter that he's not their biological father, he loves those kids. And to have come so close to losing her as well... My God, please, don't do this; he doesn't deserve it. None of them do. Please, please, let the twins be okay...

* * *

Jason cried out as the big man shoved him into the room, making him stumble and fall. Kala writhed in her captor's grip, kicking at his shins with as much accuracy and force as she could muster. He said a bad word when she connected, and dropped her. Before the girl could whirl on the man who'd pushed her brother, the other man put his hand between her shoulder blades and shoved her hard. She staggered into the room and hit Jason just as he was getting to his feet again, and both twins tumbled to the ground.

It took them a moment to disentangle themselves and get up, and during that time they heard metallic noises on the other side of the heavy door. "They locked us in," Jason said in affronted tones.

Kala muttered one of Mommy's bad words, trying to keep a brave face. "They better leave us 'lone, or I'm gonna bite 'em next time. You okay?"

"Uh-huh," Jason said, looking down at himself. His knees and palms stung from where he'd caught himself in the fall, but the boy had hurt himself worse on the playground. His brand-new shirt was another matter, though. It had a rip in the sleeve, which he picked at sorrowfully. "What about you, Kala?"

I'm really scared and my arm hurts where the bad guy grabbed me, she thought, but she only shrugged and said, "I'm fine." The school fire drills and Officer Safety and her parents had told her again and again to stay calm in any kind of emergency, so that was what Kala would try to do. She needed something else to think about besides the bad men hitting Mrs. Mosley like that, and then picking her and Jason up like they were bags of groceries or something. Some way to keep calm until they could get rescued. If Mommy was here, what would she do?

Look for a way out, maybe. Kala looked around intently. This was a very large room, almost as big as the bullpen at her parents' job. It was hard for her to remember that all of this, and lots more, was actually on a boat. Not much else in it besides the two of them, a piano on a raised dais at this end of the room, and some couches and tables at the other end. This looked like the kind of room where grownups had really boring parties where they danced slow and drank too much. She did see one other door over by the seating area, and started toward it.

A sudden low throbbing caught her attention, and she turned in a slow circle. That noise sounded big somehow, and to her sensitive ears it was quite loud even in the insulated ballroom. It was almost like the roar of a furnace, or Daddy's plane engine...

They felt the movement at the same time, Jason turning to her with wide eyes. "They're takin' us out to sea!" he said anxiously, and his voice hitched as his breath grew shorter.

Kala had had enough asthma attacks to recognize the beginning of one, and she hurried to her brother's side. Those other doors were probably locked, anyway - grownups weren't usually as dumb in real life as they were in the movies. "It's gonna be okay," she told Jason, hugging him. "Mommy and Daddy are gonna find us, and they're gonna beat the snot outta these guys and take us home."

Jason locked his arms around his sister and hugged her back tightly. The painful knot in his chest started to ease a little; as long as the two of them were together, everything would be okay. "Yeah," he replied with false bravado. "An' I won't let them take you 'way from me, Kala. We're safe if we're together."

"Right," she said forcefully. "We'll always be safe as long as we're together. No ugly bald bad guy's gonna getcha while I'm here, either."

In spite of their courageous words, the two children clung to each other, desperate for comfort.

* * *

Richard made it across town in record time, his palms slippery on the steering wheel. The elevator at the Daily Planet seemed incredibly slow, and he paced the confined space. Finally, the doors opened on the sixtieth floor, and Richard rushed out.

Jimmy was waiting for him. "They're in the conference room in back," he said in a low, urgent voice. "Perry's already told everybody we're not rolling on this one 'til the twins are home safe, so it's none of their business."

"Good call," Richard muttered, but his mind was focused on one goal. He hurried down the disused hallway, making Jimmy stretch his legs to keep up, and was at the door in moments. The international editor twisted the doorknob, not slowing down until he was past the threshold.

Lois was sitting at the big conference table, looking very fragile and frightened. Everything he suspected, everything he knew, everything he feared, shattered in the moment that Richard met her gaze. None of that matters now, he told himself as he crossed the room with quick strides. The twins are all that's important.

He had almost reached her when he realized who was standing behind her, his hand on her shoulder. Clark saw Richard, and started to step away, but Lois covered his hand with hers even while her eyes were locked on Richard's. He stayed, and squeezed her shoulder gently.

For the moment, Richard ignored him, ignored Perry at the other end of the table, ignored Jimmy closing the door behind him. He dropped into the chair beside Lois, caught her free hand, and cupped her cheek. "Lois," was all he could whisper, words failing him.

"Richard," she sighed, leaning against his hand on her cheek. "Thank God. Perry told you?"

"Yeah," he replied. "I'm so sorry..."

"It isn't your fault," Lois said, and the guilt in her eyes was heartbreaking.

"Okay, kids," Perry said gruffly. "Save the blame game for later. Right now we need to get those kids back. Any ideas where they are?"

Lois rubbed her temples briefly. "Not a clue. We need to check the Vanderworth and Luthor property records, although I doubt he'll make it that easy. The sonofabitch could be anywhere."

"Are we totally certain this is Luthor?" Richard asked gently. "I mean, Lois, you're a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. You've made other enemies..."

The raven-haired reporter was already shaking her head. "No, it's him. It reeks of Luthor. The timing, the precision, the sheer bastardy of hitting me through my kids - it's Luthor."

"But why now?" Perry asked. "He hasn't made a move since he threatened you at the Pulitzers, and you've left him alone."

Lois bit her lip, her gaze skittering away. Then she sighed heavily and tilted her head back, her raven curls blanketing Clark's hand that was still on her shoulder, still anchoring her. "I went to the Vanderworth estate this morning," Lois said.

"You what?" the four men said simultaneously.

"I checked all the specs on the security system," Lois said sharply in her own defense. "There's no way he should've known I was there. And I picked up an important piece of evidence."

"Evidence is for cops," Perry growled. "What the hell did you find?"

Now she hesitated. "A piece of crystal. Very small, but it was out of place. I wonder if it's part of a detonator or..." Lois trailed off as Clark's hand tightened on her shoulder, and she turned to look up at him, seeing his face, seeing his eyes suddenly full of horrified recognition. It was only then that a possibility occurred to her as well...

"But what does crystal..." Jimmy started to ask, and they were interrupted by Lois' cell phone ringing.

That wasn't the normal ring tone, however, and Lois clawed it out of her purse. Just as she'd suspected, it was a text message, and she hurriedly pressed the buttons to view it.

The first thing that appeared on the tiny screen was a grainy picture from a camera phone. Lois' breath froze in her chest, her lungs squeezed painfully tight, as she looked at Jason and Kala being held roughly by their upper arms, forced to face the camera.

Clark and Richard saw the photo at same moment, and both drew in sharp breaths. That image held all three frozen in shock, fury, and terror, but it soon began to scroll upward. The message that appeared beneath was, if anything, more horrifying.

"Greetings Ms. Lane,

Such lovely children you have. They're fine, for now. Don't involve the police or the military if you want them to stay that way. Come looking for me yourself - or bring the Boy Scout. I've got a little present for him.

It might take you a while to find my island hideaway, but don't worry - I'm aware of your children's special needs. Nobody will feed them peanuts while your back is turned.

Just a reminder: Get your father's military contacts on this one, and I'll mail them back to you in pieces. First Jason's right pinky finger, then Kala's left ear.

Yours,

An Old Friend"

Lois' free hand trembled, and the text began to blur. "Oh, God, Clark," she whispered in a choked voice, holding his hand all the tighter. "The twins... Oh, God, he really does have my babies."

"We'll get them back," he told her, and his voice was firmer than the others had ever heard it. There was an underlying anger to the words as well, something that didn't bode well for Luthor. "In the meantime, let's get started tracing him down. Perry, Richard, and Jimmy can start looking at the property rolls - I'll see what I can do about tracing the phone he placed the message from."

The other three men glanced at each other speculatively; was this Clark Kent, taking command of the situation? They'd seen him protective of Lois before, but never like this.

He wasn't finished, however. "As for you, Lois, I think you need to get in touch with Superman. We can really use his help."

"After what happened last time, do you think he'll be easy to get hold of?" The question came from Richard, clearly reluctant to ask it but voicing all of their concerns.

"Superman would never deliberately abandon Lois Lane," Clark said seriously, meeting the other man's eyes steadily. "Especially not now."

Hearing those words, Lois' hazel eyes met his again, this time with gratitude and something else warring in her expression. Something a lot like love.

* * *

A child's sense of time is flexible. Joyful, exciting moments flash by too quickly to capture, and must be repeated again and again for their impact to be felt. The boring times, however, drag along forever and ever. The five minutes between each query of "Are we there yet?" can seem like five hours - or five years - to an active young mind spinning its wheels while the equally active body endures forced idleness.

Jason and Kala had no idea how long they were left alone. Long enough to thoroughly explore the ballroom, try to take a nap on the leather-covered couches, explore again in the hopes that their first search had overlooked something useful, and then sit for an interminable length of time staring apprehensively at the doors. After a while, the sheer boredom grew so oppressive that the twins felt as though they had always lived in that room, in that state of tension, and always would. There would never be an end to the waiting and wondering.

And then, suddenly, something changed. Kala's exquisite hearing captured the sound of the locks being turned, and she sat bolt upright, facing the potential threat, her heart hammering. What she wanted to do at that moment was bawl, but she screwed her face into an approximation of her mother's best scowl. As the door opened a crack, the little girl made her voice sound angry and employed a threat she'd once heard Lois make. "Th' next one who pushes me or my brother 'round gets a kick in th' jools!" Kala didn't know exactly why the words had such an effect when their mother used them on Grizzly Lombard, but she hoped that it would impress whoever was opening the door.

Jason hadn't heard the sound, but when Kala sat up, he did, too. The person who came through the door wasn't scary except for being a stranger, though, and so he asked curiously, "Who're you?"

The dark-haired woman seemed a bit taken aback by both of them, but she recovered quickly, rushing into the room in a clatter of high heels and closing the door behind her. "My name's Katherine," she said, and her voice had a hint of false cheer in it. That tone is to a child's hearing what cherry flavoring is to cough syrup; instead of sugarcoating the bad thing, it makes it more obvious by contrast. "What are your names?"

Both twins scowled. Probably no one here could be trusted ... but they had been raised to be polite. "I'm Kala," the girl said warily.

"Jason," he answered.

Kitty frowned; these two were much more suspicious than she expected. Luckily, she had a trump card handy. "I'm sorry I can't let you out," she said, and that had the ring of truth behind it. She sensed them defrosting a little, and continued, "Lex - the guy you saw when Grant and Riley brought you on board - he's ... he's not a very nice man."

"He's bald," was Jason's blunt reply.

The twins looked at each other for a moment, and Kala wrinkled her nose as she added, "And creepy."

That startled a laugh out of Kitty, which she quickly stifled. "You're very right," she replied. "But you understand why I can't let you go, right? I mean, we're already at sea, there's nowhere you could go."

"Yeah," Kala said with obvious skepticism. "What do you want?"

That one's her mother's daughter, Kitty thought wryly. I only saw the Lane woman on TV for a few seconds and listened to Lex harp about her longer than I like to think about, but I can spot that attitude already. "Well, you could do me a favor," she said aloud. "Or we can say you're doing me a favor, anyway, so nobody gets in trouble. Do you like dogs?"

The twins glanced at each other again as if silently conferring. "All except the drooly ones," Jason replied cautiously.

"And the ones that bark all the time, even when there's nothing there," Kala added with a roll of her hazel eyes, thinking of Richard's parents and their Yorkies.

"Well, I have a little dog," Kitty said. "Lex doesn't like her - he's mean to her. And she's really lonely; there's no one to play with her anymore. Would you keep an eye on her for me, and play with her with her toys?" As she asked, she reached into the oversized purse on her shoulder and brought out Tala.

The little golden puffball barked twice and wagged her tail furiously, her inky eyes lighting up. Tala loved children; they gave her all kinds of people food, either directly or by dropping crumbs while they ate.

Kala and Jason tried to be reserved and watchful, but they couldn't help brightening up at the sight of the dog. Smiling, Kitty set Tala down, and the Pomeranian ran to the twins. Their wary demeanor dissolved as Tala jumped up on them, licking and wagging, and the twins laughed out loud.

Kitty chuckled, smiling wistfully at them. It was the first time in a long time that she had heard such innocent laughter.

Her enjoyment of the moment would've been seriously lessened if she had known who was listening outside the door.


Lachrymosa

The air up on the roof was bitingly cold, and Lois pulled her jacket collar up, her breath frosting on the wind. Her mind was still spinning from all that had occurred in the past hour. Had it really been an hour? Amazing how your entire world could change in so short a time. If she thought about it much longer, she'd go insane just from being so helpless. Again, she raged at having been held back. She had to go to them...

Dammit. Why does everyone think I have some special way to contact Superman? I don't. I never did, not even before. It's not like we had some kind of signal. He's just always there when I needed him- half the time because Clark was there a minute ago. No wonder I figured it out in the end.

Rubbing her tense forehead, she closed her eyes and sighed heavily. At least I managed to convince Richard not to come with me, which was a minor miracle. That hadn't been easy - he didn't want her out of his sight. But she'd told him she would probably have to fly to the Vanderworth estate with Superman, maybe further afield, and it was difficult to carry more than one safely at his speed. Richard had reluctantly backed down. That's one confrontation I really can't handle right now. I'll deal with everything, every last lie and misdirection, every mixed emotion - but once we have the twins home. There are more important things now than this little love triangle.

Now Lois shivered, eyeing the cloudy horizon balefully, and waited on Kal-El to arrive. There were excuses to be made, an alibi to set up on his part. It would take a few minutes, she knew. He knows something. The look on his face when I said that about the crystal... She bit her lower lip in concentration, trying to puzzle this out. He definitely knows something, and I'm going to get it from him. I know it has something to do with us, with the past. Luthor has to know about the twins, he was gloating too much for him not to. I've seen that kind of crystal before. And at this point, we need to be through with hiding from each other...

"Lois." That one word nearly froze her heart. She whirled, biting back sharp words. Talk about a heart attack. He's always so bloody quiet... Kal-El landed and walked toward her, the brightest object in that gray November day. Why was it that she had always seen him as 'hope' on days like this? Silly, girlish, but undeniably true. "Let me see that crystal, please. I have a very bad feeling about this."

"You're not the only one," Lois muttered, bringing the envelope out of her purse. Her hands felt almost numb with cold, having left her gloves in the car, and she fumbled it. The eager wind nearly snatched it away...

Kal-El caught the light envelope, and Lois' hands, cupping them between his. The warmth of his skin flooded into her, and she closed her eyes briefly. It was only a moment, but one she needed badly. It seemed to soothe her again, in a way little else had.

Too soon, he had to let her go, examining the envelope carefully. The slight frown of concentration told Lois that he was seeing its contents as well. "Oh, no," Kal-El said softly. "Just what I was worried about."

"What is it?" Lois asked him, one brow arched, her curiosity clear. "What are you seeing?"

"I need to go," he said, his voice distracted, but she caught his arm before he even turned to leave.

"No way, you're not leaving me out of this," Lois said sharply, squeezing his forearm. Her gaze nearly nailed him in place. "This involves Kala and Jason. Wherever you're going, whatever it is, I'm going with you."

"Lois..."

"If it has to do with the twins or Luthor or both, and I can see in your face that it does, you're taking me. Or I'll try to find out for myself." Her tone brooked no opposition, eyes stormy as the cold front closing in on them.

Kal-El stalled for a moment longer, then sighed. "Okay, fine. Come here."

Now it was Lois' turn to hesitate. God, what have you done now? Idiot, there's a reason you didn't fly with him last time. This was a brilliant idea, Lane. But she wanted to know, had to know, so she stepped forward, letting him take hold of her waist gingerly. To cover her nervousness, she asked even though she had a sneaking suspicion, "Where exactly are we going?"

"The Fortress," he said, and his voice was a tiny bit strained. Having her in his arms again was no easier for him than for her. Kal-El rose into the air gently, and hid his own discomfort with words as well. "That crystal ... it's of Kryptonian origin," he said, not meeting her eyes. "I thought the damage to the Vanderworth basement looked familiar somehow, but I just couldn't place the resemblance. It wasn't an explosion; it was a crystal expansion like the one that created the Fortress."

She frowned at that. "I knew the shard looked familiar, but I just couldn't place it." Well, that somewhat explained the huge amount of damage at Vanderworth, although it did beg a question. "But if that's the case, it's not as if you left them lying around. Where the hell did Luthor get one?"

"That's what I'm afraid of," Kal-El replied. "He does know where the Fortress is." They were moving north now, the deceptively smooth motion belying their speed.

"But the last time he was there, both us were," she argued, trying not to think too hard on the occasion. There was a reason that event was burned into her mind. And they weren't happy memories. "He never had the chance to gain access to them, remember? You had gotten there before Luthor and the Zod Squad touched down with me. And then you were the one to take him back ... after we..." Lois felt silent then, having trapped her thoughts despite her deliberate avoidance. We can still see each other. All the time. But it...just can't be... Trying to ignore the pain that knifed through her, she cleared her throat and tried to pretend that there wasn't a catch in her throat when she continued, "Anyway, you would have known if he had had them on him. So the question is, how did he get them?"

"I don't know," he replied. "After I used my heat vision on the Fortress, only the rooms below ground were still anything approaching intact, and I had to move a lot of rubble to get in there when I ... well, when I built the ship."

Yes, you left me. I remember, okay? Could we drop it? Please, Kal-El, just rip my heart out all over again. Lois scowled at yet another reminder, and turned her face away from him. Someone remind me how I keep getting myself into this mess? They passed through a large cloud, and only then did Lois realize how fast they were going, and she instinctively flinched toward him, throwing her arms around his neck.

Kal-El stared at her in surprise, his hands on her waist pulling her closer almost unconsciously. Lois' wide hazel eyes looked up at him from only inches away, and the forbidden thought ran through both their minds at the same instant.

But after a moment, both of them turned away with an effort, Lois biting her lip. Oh, yeah, that's how. Oh God, we'd better get there soon, she thought, loosening her grip on his neck. I don't know how much more of this I can take.

* * *

Everything was progressing as planned, from the moment the hidden interior cameras had captured Lois Lane investigating the Vanderworth estate. Lex was humming along with an opera playing softly in the background, studying Stanford's notes, and generally feeling pleased with himself.

The sharp rapping of Kitty's heels down the spiral staircase, then onto the hardwood floor interrupted the flow of the music and his thoughts. Scowling, Lex stood up, wondering what was wrong with her now.

Kitty didn't give him the chance to ask. She simply stormed up to him and slapped him as hard as she could, her open palm cracking across his cheek loud as a gunshot. "How dare you bring kids into this? They haven't done anything to deserve this, Lex! What could you possibly accomplish by kidnapping kids?!"

"Bait," he replied shortly. "For their mother and their father."

"Their father? But she didn't..." Kitty's eyes suddenly widened. "Oh, my God. Lex ... those are Superman's children. That's why she left the blank line for the..." Her voice dropped to a horrified whisper. "Oh, my God...

He just nodded, watching the realization hit her. "Besides, Kitty," Lex said matter-of-factly, "it's not as if they're human. Their father is an alien, which everyone on this planet seems to forget just because he's got blue eyes and a dimpled chin."

"That doesn't matter," Kitty hissed. "They're children. They're just sweet, scared kids!"

"So? Even if they were human, there are six billion more where they came from. The world can stand to lose a few," he said coldly, catching her hand as she swung a second time. "Ah-ah-ah, enough of that."

"You bastard," she hissed at him, struggling in his grip. Lex only pulled her closer and grinned. Too late, Kitty remembered that he loved a woman who hated him...

* * *

The Arctic made the Planet's roof seem positively balmy, and Lois shuddered as she drew her jacket closer around her shoulders as they touched down. Kal-El saw her, and wrapped the cape around her as well. That drew them a little too close together, however, and they walked the several feet to the Fortress in uncomfortable silence.

Kal-El was a little disturbed by the sight of it. It had been in a shambles when he last saw it; after losing his powers in the crystal chamber, the console had been damaged and the entire edifice subtly compromised. As he and Lois left, he'd destroyed the surface structure, knowing that the underground holding cells were secure. Zod and his cohorts had been confined there after falling from the upper levels, and Kal-El had locked Luthor in one of them before taking Lois home. He'd returned to carry the villains to the proper authorities, taking two trips to do it, and at that time the only intact section of the Fortress was the sublevel in which he'd later built the ship that carried him to Krypton.

The Fortress now looked more ... complete ... than he remembered. Unless his eyes deceived him, it had been totally rebuilt. But by whom? It was also utterly dark, and above the Arctic Circle at this time of year, that was quite foreboding.

Lois' eyebrows lifted as well. She stared up at the massive structure before her. The sheer size of it had dazzled her at first sight, the impression one of both palace and the Fortress that it was called. It had seemed quite surreal, impossibly beautiful that night. A place of warmth and light at the icy top of the world. A place perfectly fitting of her impression of him. A place where a miracle had occurred, an utterly impossible miracle. And now those miracles were lost to them. It only seemed right that they would be forced to come back here now, back to the beginning of where the twins had come from.

She'd expected a ruin, her last sight of this place being a mist of ice and crystal shards rising from the leveled ground. Now, it was whole again, though ominous and black. Lois had never seen the Fortress darkened before. The memory of its destruction was clear in her mind. "At least you didn't leave the lights on," she joked weakly.

Kal-El guided her inside carefully, the déjà vu not lost on his companion. "They used to come on when I crossed the threshold... I don't like this. Lois, I didn't rebuild all this."

"You're not alone," she quipped uneasily as she started looked around, and then the end of his remark penetrated her uneasiness. "Then how...?"

Both of them fell silent, the oppressive atmosphere of the place choking them. To think that they had last stood here embracing defiantly before Luthor after the battle was over ... just over there was the spot where Lois had whirled on the de-powered Ursa and decked her, after that horrible moment when she had thought they had both been doomed ... the table at which they'd had dinner was through that archway ... and up there, beyond that ledge...

Lois felt her cheeks begin to burn even in the cold, remembering, and noticed that his eyes skipped away from the hall leading to that particular room as well. At least she wasn't the only one uncomfortable here. But when Kal-El deliberately looked away from places so fraught with memory, his eyes landed on the central section, and he gasped.

Hazel eyes widening, Lois' brow furrowed as she followed him into the central room. The last time she'd seen the console here, it had been blackened and broken by the power flux when Kal-El exposed himself to the red sun's rays. For love of her and in defiance of his father. Now it was whole again and glittering ... but the slots that had held crystals full of encoded information were empty.

Kal-El touched the surface as if he couldn't believe his eyes. Lois was watching his face, and she stepped back at the expression of wrath that crossed his handsome features. For a long moment, it seemed as if he couldn't process it, couldn't cope with the anger more than simply feeling it. Then something in him seemed to break loose. "Luthor, you thieving bastard," he muttered in a low voice, and brought his fist down sharply on the console.

Lois instinctively jumped back as the blow resounded through the crystal structure, making it chime oddly. Kal-El looked up then, and seemed to remember that he wasn't alone. "I'm sorry, Lois," he said, but that slow-burning anger still lurked at the backs of his blue eyes.

Seeing that, how furious he could actually get, made Lois suddenly wonder if keeping the twins' parentage a secret wasn't a very unwise decision. Right now, if Luthor was in this room, she wouldn't bet a nickel on his survival. All it would take would be one blast of laser-like heat from those eyes ... those eyes that were now trained on her... Get over it, Lane, he just essentially had his parents stolen from him. And if he suspects as much as I think, he knows we've lost more than that. Tell me you wouldn't do the same. "For what? Kal-El, stop," Lois said, trying to soothe, "we'll get them back, right? I mean, we know who has them..." For the first time since that dreadful call, she was entirely focused on something other than her children, and she didn't realize how closely her words echoed his back at the Planet.

Only Lois could truly understand what he had lost. And in spite of what she had lost, which was so much greater, she was trying to comfort him. Is it any wonder I love this woman so much? There's no one else I'd rather have by my side on a search like this. But he didn't voice any of that, only shook his head. "It isn't just that. To think the Fortress rebuilt itself just in time for a maniac like Luthor to rob it... The knowledge encoded on those crystal is extremely dangerous, Lois. It's like ... imagine if someone had given Genghis Khan nuclear weapons."

"That's one hell of an image," she muttered. "Scary thing is, it doesn't seem far off."

"I don't know, Khan was said to recognize the worth of his followers," Kal-El said absently, and his gaze at the plundered console was more sorrowful than savage now. Luthor only wants the knowledge, but he has everything that's left of my birthplace, my parents, my childhood ... and he may very well have my children, as well. But this is not the time to ask her...

Lois narrowed her eyes. Oh yes, compare Luthor to Genghis Khan while he has our kids - unfavorably at that. Great. What a way to reassure me. Aloud, she merely said, "Thanks, that's really what I need to hear right now."

Chagrined, he stepped away from the console and came to her. "I'm sorry, Lois. There's this - using the crystals apparently triggers an EMP. That must've been what caused the Genesis plane to almost crash. I never knew that because there's no electrical equipment for miles up here, but it means that wherever Luthor tries to use the crystals, we can find him. And the twins will probably be nearby - he won't want them out of his sight." Kal-El took hold of her shoulders gently, his eyes on hers serious. "We will find them, Lois. And this time, Luthor's not getting out of prison on a technicality."

"I know," she sighed, dropping her eyes, her hair falling forward to shield the worried expression on her face. But my faulty memory was what got him out last time. And it's my fault he has them in the first place. Me and my stupid 'need to know'. God, they're just tiny babies yet. Please let Kala not smart off to him. Please don't let either of them have a panic attack. Please don't leave them in the dark. She had to fight back tears. "It's only a matter of time."

Please be right, Kal-El, please be right.

* * *

Island hideaway. For all we know, that could be a ruse. Richard rubbed his eyes, staring at the list in front of him. The Vanderworths - and the dozen or so corporations they'd set up to dodge taxes - owned an obscene amount of property. Most of it was turning out to be office buildings, warehouses, apartments, and condominiums. None of them were islands, or hideaways for that matter. This was maddening work, but it was their best lead on Luthor so far. Too bad it was going so slowly with just the three of them, Clark having left to see if he could figure out where the text message had originated. He had figured he'd get a faster answer if he went in person, and Richard could see the logic in that. Perry was also right - they didn't really trust too many of the others to keep quiet about this. Besides, someone had to do the actual reporting to keep the paper in business.

But you know someone with some free time, don't you? Someone who's already volunteered to help, at that. Richard sat up, thinking. They did need all the help they could get, but he would have to be very careful... "Uncle Perry, I'm calling Ms. Lang. She's got the free time, she can help us."

"Ms. Lang? The designer?" Perry's brow furrowed, and then he scowled. "Richard, you - Olsen, get us some coffee, will you?"

"What, Chief?" Jimmy looked up in surprise, but quickly accepted the task as a way to escape the endless fine print before him.

Once they were alone, Perry sighed heavily. "You're mixed up with her, aren't you?"

Richard tried to look blank. "What? Uncle Perry, what the heck are you talking about?"

The editor glared at him, growling, "Drop the stupid act, boy. What's going on with you and the designer?"

"Nothing," Richard said forcefully. And for the moment it was true. "Listen, she's an old friend of Clark's; we know she's trustworthy. And given the way he acted when he got the news, don't you agree I was right earlier? He is their father - and I think he suspects it, if he doesn't already know."

Perry considered, and Richard pressed a few more reasons into his pause. "We need some more help here. Just going through these lists - the Vanderworths have property stashed all over the place. And there's no guarantee we'll find it here. You're right, we can't pull reporters off stories, but Lana's show is over now and she's got spare time."

His uncle leaned forward, met his eyes, and said calculatingly, "Fine, call her. But I'm not saying a word when Lois sees her here."

Richard rolled his eyes as he got out his cell phone. "I'll burn that bridge when I come to it," he muttered, his mind still preoccupied with worry. As soon as the words left his lips he heard the slip and corrected, "Cross that bridge. I meant to say cross."

Perry just raised an eyebrow as Jimmy walked back in with the coffee. Richard glared as he opened his cell phone and dialed, thinking, I don't need his approval anyway; what I need is help, and Lana volunteered.

* * *

The flight back was ... interesting. He'd slipped an arm around her waist as she stood next to him this time, and taken her hand to balance her as he took off. It was much like their first - well, first planned flight together, with him flying leveled out and Lois held by his side.

Lois and Kal-El were both wrapped in thoughtful silence. They had each lost someone dear to them. Even if he wasn't yet certain that the twins were his, he adored them, and beyond that, Luthor had robbed him of his childhood memories. He and Lois were both feeling violated and vulnerable at the moment, knowing that Luthor had taken what they treasured. Worse yet, they were both plagued by memories: of the last time they had been in the Fortress, of their last days together before he left.

It was in that mood that Kal-El suddenly said, seemingly apropos of nothing, "I'm sorry I left you, Lois."

She turned to look at him, eyebrow rising. Was that 'I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was leaving, ' or 'I'm sorry I split up with you'?

The look was lost on him. A part of his mind was charting their course, flying low to avoid radar. The less Luthor could track their movements, the better. But the majority of his thought was centered on those last two months. That was a terrible time for me. Lois suspected nothing - not yet anyway - and I couldn't give her reason to. I had to keep seeing her, in both guises. And every time she'd flirt with Superman, every time she'd smile at Clark, my heart died a little.

It was almost a relief when I stumbled across that article in the back of Science Monthly. The new satellite telescope had been discovering new stars and even planets for months; it wasn't front-page news any more. Only when I saw just where this latest planet was found did my hair stand on end. And the possibility of non-natural formations on the planets surface ... a few of the new planets looked like they might have evidence of intelligent life. The majority of scientists agreed that those were probably like the supposed 'face on Mars' that everyone's been talking about for decades; just an accident of form. But on that planet, in that particular section of the sky? I had to go.

At least, that's what I told myself then.

Lois' voice brought his attention back to the present, her tone striving for merely curious. "Did you know, the last time you saw me? Not as Clark - I know you wouldn't have told me as Clark. But did you know you were leaving that last time?"

He sighed. "Not ... precisely. I kept telling myself building the ship was an exercise, that I'd have it if I needed it. I always thought that it was about fifty-fifty, stay or go..." I really was in denial about it. I kept thinking things like that right up until the moment the ship's hatch closed behind me. Taking a different tack, Kal-El told her, "I tried to tell you once. I went by your apartment meaning to tell you everything - this was after I'd seen the images myself in Paris. You remember, the woman who fell into the Seine and Superman just 'happened' to be there? The observatory outside Paris was getting some of the clearest images from the space telescope at the time. I kept going back there while the crystals were growing..."

Lois remembered. He'd been in Paris? Well, of course, she knew he'd been in Paris, he'd saved that woman not a week after the last time she had seen him. And come to think of it, he had been a little on edge at that last meeting... "Why didn't you tell me, then? The last time we talked. You say you went there specifically to tell me. Why didn't you?"

He took a deep breath, and she felt the expansion of his ribs beside her as he held her close while they flew. "I couldn't figure out how to start ... and then you, you didn't remember anything that happened. You said something sweet and flirtatious, the way you always were with me, and ... I couldn't. I just couldn't. If I'd said anything to you, I probably would've wound up definitely not going." Kal-El sighed at himself. "I'm rambling, I know. I was ... very torn, then. Seeing you hurt worse than anything I'd ever felt, but I still thought I'd done the best thing for both of us by erasing your memories." A low, sarcastic chuckle. "It took six years and an Ella Fitzgerald song to show me how very wrong I was."

"You loved me too much to tell me you were going," Lois mused, and then her tone turned a trifle sharp. "But not enough not to leave me wondering. And waiting, like a fool." And just about the time I got over the abandonment, I started gaining weight. Surprise!

Kal-El winced. "Lois ... I am sorry. Sorry I didn't tell you what was going on, and sorry I ever left at all."

To that she had no reply, other than to reach out with one hand as they flew close to the river, and let her fingers skim the water's surface. Here's a miracle, a man who can fly and the woman lucky enough to have reached the heights with him ... and to the rest of the world it has no more impact than those ripples.

Abruptly she turned back to him, and there was a flash of fire in those hazel eyes. "You hurt me," she said, and with that simple, painful declaration the last of her long-cherished anger evaporated.

"I know," he whispered, pulling her closer against his side. "I know that, Lois. And I'm sorry for it. But I also hurt myself by hurting you - I didn't forget, not even for a moment."

Lois sighed. Like a rotten tooth, her grudge had finally been extracted. Closing her eyes, she rested her cheek on his shoulder.

* * *

The hour was growing late. The twins had eaten dinner, though they had little appetite. A large man had brought it to them, not one of the ones who'd dragged them onto the boat. He had smiled and said hi, but Jason and Kala had only watched him warily. Kitty hadn't been back, and though they trusted her only tentatively, they were still cautious of everyone else on the ship.

This large room was lit by a skylight high above. Jason had played a few tunes on the piano before he realized that it was growing dark, and he looked up with trepidation. "Kala?"

She was already by his side, looking upward as well. "It's gettin' late."

"Yeah," Jason replied. Neither child spoke of it, but they had never liked the dark. Nor had they ever had to face its coming alone. Mommy and Daddy weren't here, neither was Nana or Uncle Perry or Uncle Ron and Aunt Lucy. They didn't even have Tala to keep them company, as the little dog had eventually scratched at the door, needing to go out, and one of the men had opened it for her.

They needed something to distract them, but Jason didn't have it in his heart to play just then. Kala turned her gaze away from the lengthened shadows, and looked into the clear blue of her brother's eyes instead. "Jason, there's something I gotta tell you."

He turned away from the worrying sight and looked at his sister. "What, Kala?"

"Remember when we were fighting that night when Mommy left the house? An' I said I had a secret?"

Nodding, Jason said, "Uh-huh. I've got one too. But you wouldn't tell 'cause you were being a boogerhead."

Kala rolled her eyes with a long-suffering sigh. "Anyway," she said, "I'm gonna tell you now, okay?"

Jason just nodded.

"We're gonna be okay 'cause our real daddy's gonna come save us," Kala said softly. "That's what he does ... our real daddy is Superman."

Much to her surprise, Jason gave her a perplexed look. "Nuh-unh, he can't be! Superman's Mr. Clark. I mean, Mr. Clark is Superman."

It was Kala's turn to startle back, shaking her head. "Nuh-uh! Mr. Clark can't be Superman! 'Cause if he was Superman then he'd be our daddy..."

"Kala, look," Jason said. "They're the same! He just combs his hair different and wears glasses when he's Mr. Clark!"

His sister opened her mouth to reply, and really thought about it. Her jaw gradually shut, and she frowned. "But ... yeah. Yeah. But then if he's Superman why would he pretend to be Mr. Clark?"

Jason huffed. "Haven't you ever wanted to be normal? All that stuff you can hear, radios in other people's houses, Mommy and Daddy yelling?"

"Well, yeah," Kala admitted. "Sometimes it makes my head hurt. But that's just the way I am."

"Sure, like I'm strong. I wish I didn't hafta be so careful with my stuff all the time. Sometimes it's nice just to be normal." Then something dawned on him, and his eyes widened. "Kala! The reason we can do stuff - me being strong and you hearing really good - that's probably 'cause Superman's our daddy!"

Kala rolled her eyes. "Well, duh," she replied, never letting on that she had figured out the same thing only recently. "Just like me being so smart is 'cause Mommy is our mommy."

"D'ya think Mommy knows? That Mr. Clark is Superman?" Jason asked.

Kala sighed explosively. "Of course Mommy knows! She kissed Superman, you dweeb! That means she was in love with him. Don't you know where babies come from?"

Affronted, Jason wrinkled his nose. "Eww, that's kinda gross. Superman and Mommy kissing ... yuck."

Raising one eyebrow, Kala gave him a look. "You're such a boy, Jason."

"Well, duh."

Another few moments passed in silence, and both children eventually looked up. The skylight had grown even darker; the sky outside was now a deep blue, nearly black. Kala glanced longingly at the light fixtures above them; she hadn't been able to find a switch or a pull chain or anything. Desperate for something to say to distract them both, she wondered aloud, "How come nobody else figured out that Mr. Clark is Superman?"

Jason shrugged. "They didn't want to, I guess. People think that bein' Superman is so cool, he'd never wanna be anything else." He glanced at Kala and offered her a wan smile. "You didn't figure it out, and you're pretty smart. For a girl."

Hazel eyes narrowed, but in the deepening shadow Kala couldn't summon an angry reply. She settled for another of her trademarked sighs, looking elsewhere in the room.

That only emphasized the growing dark, however. Kala scooted closer to her brother, and in a small voice said, "I want Mommy."

Jason put his arm around her shoulder and whispered back, "Me, too."


Chiaroscuro

No words between them when he dropped her off on the roof; Lois turned to him mutely as he let her down, and he smiled sadly. Touching her cheek once, so lightly, Kal-El left before he couldn't bring himself to go, not trusting himself to speak.

Lois had turned her face into his palm, closing her eyes for a second to savor his touch. Oh, yes, when all of this over, we have a lot to talk about. All of us.

Shaking off her melancholy mood, Lois headed downstairs. She had much more important things to think about at the moment. Like where the twins were... Lois had to suppress a shudder. God, please.

Hurrying the rest of the way down to the Planet offices, Lois kept her mind turned resolutely forward. She'd no sooner stepped into the conference room, however, than she stopped cold.

Four heads turned to look at her. Jimmy, Perry, Richard ... and Lana. Lana? What the hell is she doing here?

For one instant her expression must have been obvious. Jimmy cringed, Perry looked away, and Richard flinched. Lana, however, met her eyes frankly.

Whatever unfortunate thing Lois was about to say was forestalled by the door behind her opening - and knocking into her arm. "Oops! Gee, sorry, Lois," Clark said earnestly. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she growled, thinking I know you could see me right through that door! But then she realized how much of a hypocrite she was being over Lana. What right do I have to be territorial? "Hi, Ms. Lang. Thanks for helping us."

"If I'm going to be helping you find the twins, Ms. Lane, I think we ought to switch to Lana and Lois, don't you?" The tone was perfectly friendly, her sea-green eyes without a trace of irony. "Sit down; let's bring you up to date. Clark, what have you found?"

Perry looked a little nonplussed; having his authority usurped twice in one day - and not by Lois - was a record. Clark adjusted his glasses as he sat down, and said, "Well, the number that the message was sent from belongs to a woman in Schenectady. But when we called it back, she answered. The phone wasn't stolen or anything; apparently there's some kind of program where you can set up a cell phone to give out a different number each time it dials. The false callback number can be anyone from the network."

"So it's a dead end," Lois sighed, biting her lip. What did you expect, Lane? The poor man only had a couple of minutes anyway.

"Well, not totally," Clark said. "The phone he actually sent the message from is GPS-enabled. So we can find out exactly where he was."

"All right, then, let's do it," Lois said. "Who do we have to call?"

"That's the problem," Clark replied. "It's private information. Only a police officer or a properly authorized government official can access it."

"Neither of which we can contact," Richard griped. "Dammit."

"The police already know, and there's nothing we can do about it," Lois said, remembering suddenly. "Todd Thomas called them when he found the twins' teacher hurt... My God, I left the phone hanging. Barbara must've panicked..."

"I took care of that," Perry said. "The hospital's gonna keep us updated on Mrs. Mosley. And as for the cops, I told Lieutenant Sawyer about Luthor's threat. Maybe she can help with getting the cell phone information."

"Let me try first," Lois said earnestly, and glanced at Clark. "I can usually wheedle any kind of confidential information from a source. And the less we involve the police, the better. I don't trust Luthor not to have some way of knowing exactly what we're all doing."

"Speaking of you, I assume you got a hold of Superman?" Perry asked. "What did he have to say?"

Lois managed to keep from glancing at Clark, though it wasn't easy. "Well, my hunch about that little chip of crystal paid off. It's Kryptonian - Lex Luthor has been to Superman's Fortress of Solitude. The bastard stole ten crystals containing a vast amount of information about science and technology."

That left all of them silent with foreboding; even Clark managed to seem shocked by the news. "Where?" Richard asked, and Lois shook her head to let him know it was confidential.

"His ... retreat, I guess you could call it. And no, I can't say where it is," Lois told them. "Unfortunately, the only other human being who knows the location is Lex Luthor. Superman just found out about the theft today, when he saw the chip of crystal I found."

"I know," Lois said grimly. "Taking the twins is just a ploy to buy time, I'll bet. Once Superman - or I - found out about the missing crystals, all hell was sure to break loose. This is Luthor's way of keeping us busy while he does God-alone-knows-what."

"Us?" Richard interjected. "Superman is going to help us look for the kids?"

Lois hesitated for a fraction of an instant, and this time couldn't stop her eyes from darting to Clark. A tiny mistake, but one Richard would be sure to spot. To cover it, she replied quickly, "Yes, he's forgiven me for being a complete bitch to him in print, as Toby Raines would say. And I've forgiven him for leaving the entire planet without a forwarding address. So yeah, he's going to help."

Everyone at the table shared a speculative glance. Of them, only Lois had seen Superman with any kind of frequency. Jimmy and Perry had each met him once or twice, but for Lana and Richard seeing the superhero was going to be a novel experience.

"First things first," Perry said gruffly, "we'll see if we can narrow down this list. I know he can see through anything except lead, but that doesn't mean he's got the time to look over every square inch of the city. If the twins are even still in Metropolis. Lane, Kent, grab some paperwork. We ought to be able to knock this out pretty quickly with all six of us."

* * *

"Okay, boss," Stanford said. "Here we go." Riley and his camera hovered in the background. Lex merely nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak.

On the lighted worktable in front of Stanford lay fragments of the meteorite. The outer pieces were black and charred, but the ones from the center of the rock were a deep, translucent green. The largest remaining piece was a smoothed cylinder about the thickness of Stanford's bicep, and it was currently fitted into a padded vise with a large-bore drill bit just touching one end.

He took a deep breath, glancing at Lex again as he started the drill. Now everything he knew about mineralogy was being put to the test; if he'd calculated the flaws in the stone, its stress lines, incorrectly, the whole thing would shatter.

And Lex would probably kill him. Trying to ignore the trickle of sweat running down his spine, Stanford touched the drill to the stone.

Slowly, slowly, the diamond-tipped bit polished its way through the kryptonite. Riley leaned in close, and Stanford bit his lip; this was not the moment to distract him! Didn't that idiot realize this was incredibly delicate work?

Probably not - none of these guys had any appreciation for things that required more dexterity than pressing buttons. Not even Riley, with his camera obsession, had any true technical skill. Even as he guided the drill further into the kryptonite cylinder, slowly boring a channel into its center, Stanford couldn't quite stop himself from reflecting on the difference between himself and the other three men Lex had brought on this mission.

They're thugs, plain and simple. Hired for their muscles, not their brains. And I shudder to think too much about what goes on in their minds, anyway - never again will I try to make friends with these goons by going to one of Riley's movie nights. He suppressed a slight tremor at the memory of those films, which Riley called his little documentaries. They all followed one theme, and it wasn't one that Stanford, whose worst offense had been fraud, could possibly enjoy. Even Brutus stays away from it, which is really saying something. Of all the 'security' guys, he's the oddest. Never talks about what he did time for; never talks about anything much, really. And he doesn't get in on all the macho strutting the rest of them spend so much time and energy on. Maybe he doesn't need to, since he's the biggest and burliest of them?

More than halfway through, and Lex was still watching with almost reptilian concentration. Did the man ever blink? Speaking of people who made Stanford nervous, Lex topped the list. I may be useful to him, more so than these guys, he thought, slowing the forward progress of the drill even more. But he made it plain that he takes no prisoners. 'Your life expectancy is directly proportionate to your usefulness multiplied by your loyalty.' One hell of a quote, and I bet no one else realized that the way it's worded, the minute either your usefulness or loyalty drops to zero, you die.

Of course, he's paying everyone well. Very well. But he asks a lot, too. No outside contact. No women at the facility in Nevada - and that was pretty unpopular. No fighting amongst each other, which is practically a hobby for some of them. And no questions, ever. Do as you're told and you'll end up rich. Defy Lex, and die.

The drill bit stuttered, and Stanford hastily backed it out an eighth of an inch. Oblivious to Riley and Lex, he walked around the vise, peering at the crystal. It had only struck a tiny flaw in the kryptonite that ran counter to the rest of the planes of crystal growth. Stanford backed the drill the rest of the way out and started to blow the dust off of it.

"Don't," Lex said. "Save it. It doesn't exactly fall from the sky like manna six days a week, you know."

The mineralogist glanced at him again, but carefully tapped the kryptonite dust into a tray. As he did so, Stanford noticed that one of the large shards was missing from the worktable. The one that happened to be shaped a lot like a blade...

I'm not thinking about that, he told himself as he put in a fresh, sharp bit and eased it into the nearly-completed channel, Riley's camera practically on his shoulder. This with using those kids for bait is bad enough, but I don't want to speculate on why Lex needs a kryptonite shiv. Questioning the boss' motives is bad for your health around here...

* * *

At last they'd sorted the likely locations from the probable and merely possible ones. The lists were still depressingly long; there were so many places that Luthor could hide a couple of frightened kids. Many of them could even be easily soundproofed. Lois looked at the list of Vanderworth properties in and around Metropolis, and for a moment her heart quailed. They could be anywhere ... and we still don't even know if his hint was genuine or a red herring.

But then that fighting spirit rose. Lex is just arrogant enough to give us a real clue. And I'll see to it he regrets that before I'm done. "Okay, people, let's split up. We'll each take a section and start searching." In her mind she was already planning which sectors Richard should search, which she would take, and which Clark ought to handle.

Suddenly, as everyone seated at the table reached for the lists, Lois remembered Perry's heart, and Jimmy's naïveté. And Lana - she had no idea what she was getting into here. But before she could even decide what to say, Clark intervened.

"We ought to go in pairs," he said. "And someone needs to stay here and monitor the situation, keep us in touch with each other. Keep checking the news and keep an eye out for Luthor's next move. Chief - there's no one better to command headquarters."

That was ... pretty damn deft for the clueless goober he pretends to be, Lois thought, but Perry accepted it for now. "Sounds reasonable. Olsen, you're here with me."

"But Chief..."

Perry cut him a glare that was somehow still fatherly. "Olsen, what're you gonna do if you're stuck alone in an alley with Luthor? Beat him with your camera?"

Jimmy glanced around the table, and replied, "Well, are Lois and Ms. Lang going?"

"Lois'll shoot him," Perry said sharply. "As for Ms. Lang..."

"I have no intention of being caught alone in an alley with a maniac," Lana said quickly. "Isn't that why we're going in pairs? At least I'll have company."

"Lana, you don't have to..." Richard began, but she silenced him with a look.

"I said I'd help you," the redhead said with quiet composure. "And I will. Besides, Lois has her gun - I've got a can of Mace in my purse. Girl's best friend in the big city. That seems to make us the only ones armed around here - although I definitely bow to Lois' superior firepower."

The four glanced at each other, and Lois realized just how this would have to pan out. "Fine. Richard, you and I will take everything on this list north of 51st. Clark, you and Lana take everything south." At least he can keep her safe. Lana shouldn't be in on this ... neither should Richard. Neither one of them have any idea just how low Luthor will sink to get back at the both of us.

Richard glanced at her, then looked out the window. "C'mon, let's get moving. Daylight's wasting."

Perry and Jimmy watched the three reporters - and one brave fashion designer - head out. The editor-in-chief cursed his age, but mostly his heart; cursed every steak he'd eaten, every cigar he'd smoked, every cup of coffee he'd drunk. He was paying the price for those decisions now, forced like an aging bloodhound to remain at the kennel while the younger, stronger dogs took up the hunt.

Jimmy sighed heavily. "Well, Chief, I guess it's up to us to see what else we can track down on Luthor."

"Course it is," the older man said, feeling an echo of pride and valor rise in his chest. "And I'm the best one for it, the kids know that. Nothing like an old reporter for digging up secrets. C'mon, kid, let's go down to the archives."

* * *

Lois headed for her parking spot, and then remembered that her car was out of commission. And that seems so very coincidental now. Feels like it happened days - months -ago. Damn Luthor. He's plotted this from beginning to end. She refused to let herself think what that meant for their chances of finding the twins. Luthor's been beaten before. He may be smart, but he's no match for Lois Lane and Superman on the warpath, she told herself.

Beside her, Richard was already fishing his keys out of his pocket, and she mentally added, And Richard. He went to his car, a gunmetal-gray Saab Aero Sport Sedan which he adored about as much as Lois loved her Audi, and paused by the driver's side door.

Blue eyes met hazel. "Do you want to drive?" Richard offered.

Lois smiled sadly. "You don't want me behind the wheel right now, Richard. But thanks. I understand..." What an amazingly good man he is. Offering to give me control of something, even if it's just a steering wheel. And I know how he feels about his 'born from jets' car. But no...

"Okay," he said quietly, and unlocked the doors for both of them. "You want to head for the furthest out and work our way in?"

"Sounds good," Lois muttered, looking at the list. "Go up Bond Avenue to Neill Street, then."

Silence ruled between them for a long time, each busy with their own tumultuous thoughts. Richard was finding it surprisingly awkward to be with Lois at the moment, questions about her meeting with Superman nibbling at his mind. Lois was swinging between anger and anguish, trying to be strong for the twins, but terrified for them.

After a while, Richard asked, "So what else did you find out?"

"Huh?"

"You were gone a while," he replied, not accusingly, his voice just curious as he kept his eyes on the road. "Since we've got a few minutes, tell me what happened."

Oh, like that's not awkward as hell. My conversation with my ex is so not any of your business. Lois sighed in aggravation, and said simply, "He recognized the crystals, and I made him take me with him to the Fortress. I've never ... I never realized he could be so furious. Luthor's in for a surprise."

Richard's eyebrows rose, but he changed the topic a little. "The Fortress. That's twice you've mentioned it. What, does he have some castle up in the Himalayas or something?"

At least it made Lois chuckle. "No, nothing like that. Well... It's kind of... The Fortress of Solitude is where he keeps the remnants of his Kryptonian heritage. More a museum and library than a home. And no one - except me and that bastard Luthor - knows where it is."

"How'd Luthor find out?" Richard was trying to keep her talking, stop her from plunging back into despair.

That worked; Lois bristled, her hazel eyes brightening with spite. "Somehow Luthor tracked him. And he led those Kryptonians - General Zod and his little friends - right to the Fortress. With Non carrying me as bait."

Richard glanced at her. "But Luthor's trial..."

Lois cleared her throat angrily. "I had amnesia; I'd seen Superman very nearly killed, or so I thought, and I'd been held prisoner by three psychotic intergalactic criminals, each with his powers. It was post-traumatic stress or something that made me block it all out. By the time I got the memories back, Vanderworth's fancy lawyers had already gotten my testimony blocked, and Luthor was out of jail."

Richard's hands tensed on the wheel. "God, I hate how much money can do in the wrong hands."

"Tell me about it," Lois said softly, staring out the window as they threaded their way through traffic.

* * *

Perry's eyes weren't quite up to the microfiche, he grudgingly admitted, so he let Olsen search the archives while he handled the phones. Before he could even place the first call, however, his direct line rang. "Daily Planet, White," he said gruffly into the phone.

"Peregrine White, you tell my daughter to drag herself off of whatever story you've got her chasing and get home right this instant. She and the twins are missing Nora's birthday party!"

Perry winced. "Elinore..."

"Don't even start with me, Perry. Lois isn't answering her cell phone, and you'd think she would learn her lesson after what happened earlier this week. Don't make me drive up there to get her..."

Perry closed his eyes, remembering that the phone was now in his desk drawer, turned off. "Ella, listen," he said, his voice getting a little hoarse. God, he could hear the other kids in the background, and it just made the present situation all the worse.

"This had better be good," she replied sharply, as Lucy called her name admonishingly from somewhere near the phone.

"It's isn't," Perry told her, and something about his tone finally silenced her. "Ella, I think you should take the call somewhere away from the kids. I'll hold."

"Oh, God..."

"Ella, go pick up the other extension. Do it." None of his usual jocular flirtation now. Perry was all business.

Elinore Lane had been a general's wife, and she coped. The phone clacked against the table briskly, and he heard her say to Lucy, "Hang it up in a minute; I'll take this in your room."

"Mom?"

"Lucy, do as I say."

In a moment, Perry heard another receiver picked up, and after a pause, the first one was replaced in its cradle. "Well, Mr. White?" Ella said.

Perry took a deep breath and ground his knuckles against his eyes, hating what he would have to tell her.

* * *

"Your car or mine?" Lana said in the elevator, lifted an auburn brow at Clark.

"Well, you know, I only live a few blocks from work," he replied with only half his attention. The rest was listening to Lois, trying to decide if she was going to be all right. So far it sounded promising.

"Ah. My car by default." Lana nodded, reaching into her purse for the keys. "I warn you, it's a rental. One my assistant picked, no less. I don't normally drive a Cadillac."

"A what?" Clark said, turning to look at her with a slight frown.

"She says I'm supposed to travel in style. I vetoed the red convertible, so she had to get a high-end Cadillac DTS instead. I mean, really. How pretentious can you get?" Lana said.

"Couldn't you exchange it?" Clark was having trouble reconciling the Lana he knew, whose parents had been well-off by Smallville standards but were strictly Oldsmobile drivers, with the fashion designer who was presently walking up to a pale green Cadillac.

"All they had left were SUVs and a couple of sports cars. This was the most sensible option," Lana replied. In spite of her disparaging remarks, she smiled fondly at the car. "It looks good with my hair, too. The color's called Green Silk."

Clark just stared, and she chuckled at him as she unlocked the doors. As long as he'd been in Metropolis, he was still a bit overwhelmed by a car that was probably worth as much as his first year's salary with the Planet. "Sorry, having a designer moment. Where do you want to start?" Lana turned somber again as she thought about their mission, the twins' peril suppressing her normally cheerful personality.

Looking at their list, Clark quickly figured out which ones were closest and which were more distant. "Let's start nearby and work our way out," he replied. "The first possibility is this office building just over on Stamp Avenue."

Lana nodded as they both buckled their seat belts. "I think I knew which one, too. The 'for lease' sign in the front window looks fairly old." As she steered the Cadillac out of the garage and onto the street, she glanced at Clark and asked, "How do you plan to get in, anyway?"

Clark hadn't thought about that one. He was pretty sure that Lois had sent Lana with him so he could keep her safe, knowing that his x-ray vision meant they didn't actually have to break in. "Oh, I wasn't planning on going inside," he replied diffidently. "We ought to be able to tell if there's been any, uh, recent activity without having to break and enter."

Lana nodded. "Sounds wise. Of course, Lois is probably planning to shoot locks off doors and God knows what else."

"Richard won't let her," Clark said quickly. "Not to mention, she wouldn't make all that noise when she could just pick the lock."

"Easy, boy, you don't have to get all defensive," Lana said, raising an auburn brow at him.

"Lana, I didn't mean..."

The redhead sighed. "Clark, I know ... you're in love with her." It was on the tip of her tongue to say I know you're the father of her children, but she paused and demurred instead. That wasn't her place to say, if he didn't know; and if he did know, she'd wait for him tell her.

"Lana..."

"You made your feelings on this topic perfectly clear at the restaurant the other day," Lana said, forestalling his objection. "But even if you're uncomfortable admitting you love her, it's still true."

"And Richard's still her fiancé," he pointed out, rather abruptly.

"Clark ... he's not blind, either," she said, not noticing the alarmed look on Clark's face. "As a matter of fact ... Clark, he thinks..." Lana brought the car to a halt in front of a stop sign at the corner, and turned to look at him. "Just how involved were you with Lois Lane?"

Blue eyes opened wide, and for a moment no answer was forthcoming. "Lana ... I don't know what you're talking about..."

Oh, the heck with it. If he's searching for them, he ought to at least know. "Clark, please. You do know. Richard ... he thinks the twins are yours."

* * *

The glass floor was black as pitch now, and the twins stayed away from it. It just looked way too creepy, like anything that wanted to could just swim up from underneath and take a bite out of them. Of course, that forced them away from the skylight and into the deepening darkness.

After several minutes of tense silence, Kala whispered, "Jason?"

"Yeah?"

"You scared?"

"A little." His tone was so hushed that only she could've heard it.

Another pause as they watched the shadows grow, seeming to pulse with malevolent life. "Me too," Kala finally murmured, and leaned against his shoulder.

In the moment before absolute blackness descended on them, before hope of salvation vanished forever, the overhead lights suddenly came on. Instead of cheering, the twins flinched, the bright lights stinging their eyes. "Ow," they complained in unison, trying to shade their faces with their hands.

The main door opened, and a friendly voice called, "Hey, it's getting kinda dark in here. Thought you guys could use the light."

Blinking rapidly, Jason recovered first. He recognized the man who entered the room and locked the door behind him as the same one who'd brought their meals. "Thanks," Jason said cautiously. "It was gettin' dark."

"Me, I don't like the dark," the man told them. "You never know what's in it, right? Better to have lights on at night. I even keep my lamp on in my bedroom - the guys tease me about it."

"That's mean," Kala opined. "How come they tease you?"

"Well, 'cause I'm a big guy," he replied as he moved toward the couches on the other end of the room. He was carrying several blankets and a couple of pillows, and he started to arrange these items into beds for the twins. "They think I'm a scaredy-cat because I'm a grownup and I don't like the dark."

"They're mean," Jason said sullenly. "They hurt me an' Kala when they brought us here."

The big man went still for an instant, then turned around. His eyes were suddenly scary, but his voice when he spoke was more outraged than angry. "They hurt you?"

"Squeezed my arms, threw us in here," Kala replied, intrigued now.

"I didn't sign up for no job that involves hurtin' kids," the man said. "And it ain't gonna happen where I can see it, lemme tell ya. I'll have a little talk with those other guys, and they'll leave you alone from now on."

"Mister, can you get us out of here?" Jason asked, trying not to let his voice tremble at the thought.

He came over toward them, not too close, and sat down at the piano bench. "Kids, there's nothing I'd like more than to jump this ship and take you both with me," he said sincerely. "But we're already out to sea, and I don't know how to steer this boat. The only other way out is the helicopter, and I can't fly that, either. We're stuck."

That news depressed the otherwise irrepressible twins. For a few minutes they sat in silence, absorbing the inevitable. But eventually the thought of their father - their real father - coming to their rescue cheered them again. He could fly, after all.

The man touched the keys of the piano lightly, playing a few notes. "You know, I never even got your names. I'm Brutus."

The twins hesitated a moment longer. He didn't seem mean, like the others. He was trapped in this situation, like the twins; he was afraid of the dark, just like them. Kala was the first to give her name, and Jason followed suit.

Brutus nodded. "Nice to meet you, kids. Well, do you need anything else?"

"You're leaving?" Jason asked.

"Well, Mr. Luthor has stuff he wants me to do," he replied. "That guy ... I wouldn't want to upset him, you know?"

They both nodded. "Are you coming back?" Kala said.

He grinned at them. "With breakfast in the morning. I'm gonna switch the side lights on and the overheads off, okay? Make it easier for you guys to sleep. It won't be too dark, though."

"You're sure?" Jason's voice trembled a little, though he tried to hide it. Kala scooted a little closer to him, looking up nervously.

"Nah, it'll be fine. See that bar along the wall? There's a light set under each one of them, every couple feet. You'll have plenty of light. They're dimmer than the ones overhead."

The twins nodded, both still a trifle wary. Brutus went out, giving them a brief wave, and they heard the door lock.

What they had both thought was a merely decorative strip of metal, running along both walls at about shoulder height to an adult, now proved to be a low-intensity light. A moment after those lights switched on, the brighter overheads went out.

It was dark ... but not too dark. With the reassurance provided by the lights, the grand ballroom became intriguing and mysterious instead of forbidding. The light also began to attract fish to the glass. Not giant, scary, child-eating fish, but pretty little darting fish. The twins dragged the sofa cushions, blankets, and pillows over the glass floor and stared into the magical underwater realm.

A casual observer might have thought the children were enjoying a holiday, but no one who knew them well could mistake the signs of strain. Jason wasn't taking the opportunity to show off his science knowledge by naming the various types of fish, and Kala wasn't claiming that he made some of them up. In fact, both of them were nearly silent, and not arguing with each other - a sure sign to those who loved them that things were far from normal.


Somewhere

Lana was being pushy, and that made Clark anxious. This wasn't the sweet, pretty girl he'd known years ago; Lana thought for herself now, and she didn't let go once she'd decided to pursue something. A little bit like someone else I know, he thought, chagrined. I guess it's no wonder I fell in love with Lois at first sight, practically. I was looking for an echo of her in Lana before I ever came to Metropolis and met Lois...

The redhead pulled the car to a stop at the corner and turned in her seat to look at Clark. "Just how involved were you with Lois Lane?"

He fumbled for an answer, trying to put her off that train of thought. She'd caught him unawares, however, and he could only pretend typical Clark cluelessness. "Lana ... I don't know what you're talking about..."

An auburn brow arched at him, and sea green eyes bored into his blue ones. Then she sighed, and shook her head slightly. Lana's expression was concerned and sympathetic when she said, "Clark, please. You do know. Richard ... he thinks the twins are yours."

Clark's jaw dropped. Richard thinks... Oh my God. And his brain vapor-locked on that thought for a long moment. Here was yet another indicator that he might actually be a father. Though Clark would never dare to treat the thought with any certainty until Lois herself confirmed it - he would be crushed if he convinced himself that Jason and Kala were his own children, and then found out otherwise - it was becoming a more and more likely possibility. Me, a father. A father to those two, whom I already love so much...

Meanwhile, Lana touched his shoulder, looking worried. "I'm sorry, Clark. I just ... I thought you should know, with them being missing. Richard and Lois are both going out of their minds, and it's only a matter of time before he blurts it out to you or to her. I wanted you to hear it from me first before one of them confronts you."

"Lana..." He couldn't get any further than that. And Lana doesn't know who I am. So Richard thinks that Clark is the father of the twins? Holy... How the heck did he dream that one up? I never had a chance with Lois until she knew the whole of who I am.

"I don't care whether it's true or not," Lana said, although Clark saw the curiosity she was trying to deny. "That's your business and hers - not mine. Not even Richard's. But the way you've thrown yourself into the search wholeheartedly, I thought you at least suspected they might be..."

"Even if I was absolutely certain they aren't mine, I'd be here," Clark said, unaware that he'd dropped the nervous vocal mannerisms that distinguished this persona. "Lois is, first and foremost, my closest friend. I'd help her when she needed me, no matter what."

Lana nodded slowly, temporarily satisfied with that noncommittal answer. After a moment, she replied slowly, "She's a lucky woman, to have friends like you and Superman to count on no matter what."

Clark nodded thoughtfully as she put the car back in gear and drove off. He had so much to think about... When Lana spoke again, the sound of her voice surprised him almost as much as her words.

"If they are yours ... I won't want to be anywhere around when Martha Kent finds out she has a pair of six-year-old grandkids she's never met."

* * *

"I don't understand why we had to be in pairs," Lois muttered as she picked the lock on the warehouse door. Richard stood by, keeping a nervous lookout and growing increasingly irritated at her constant grumbling. The lock's tumblers finally succumbed, and Lois swung the door wide, still fuming. "We could've covered the lists in half the time and been working on the next set outside Metropolis by now."

They had been sniping at each other ever since they'd walked out of the Planet offices, both troubled by their own secrets and those they suspected each other of keeping. They also each blamed themselves for the twins' being missing, though they both tried to ignore that and concentrate on finding the children. But with Lois' constant grumbling, Richard finally lost his temper as he followed her inside. "Lois, the whole point of us going in pairs was so that we could watch out for each other. Personally, I think it was brilliant. And about the only way to stop you from doing something stupid."

Lois all but skidded to a halt, whirling to face Richard. Her flashlight beam seared his eyes, making him wince. "What?" she hissed.

Richard crossed his arms. He realized that he could've said that more diplomatically, but backing down wasn't in his nature. "Tell the truth - if you were alone, you'd still break in, wouldn't you? Knowing Luthor could be in any of these places, lurking around any corner, you'd still go in. Hell, if you knew for sure he was there, you'd run faster."

Her lip curled in a sneer. "Hmm, let's see. He has my kids - of course I would! You have no idea what this man is capable of, Richard! Not a frikkin' clue! They're six - and it's dark now!"

Chagrined, Richard remembered all the times he'd had to inspect the twins' closets for monsters. "Honey ... please. It's bad enough them being gone - I couldn't lose you, too. Luthor would snatch you up in a heartbeat..."

"Only if he can dodge bullets," Lois snarled. "Besides, even if he did manage to get me, it'd put me a little closer to where the twins are, wouldn't it?"

Richard stared at her. "Lois ... he'd kill you!"

"Not while he can use me for bait," she said coldly. "Alive I'm a hostage. Dead I'm nothing but trouble. Luthor won't harm one hair on my head unless he has a death wish."

Disbelievingly, Richard shook his head. "My God, Lois. You're talking about your own life like it's just a bargaining chip..." He hadn't known how utterly cold-blooded she could be. Once again it was all too clear that Lois had secrets Richard had never even imagined.

"I'd gladly risk mine to spare theirs," Lois replied hotly. "Richard, let's split up before we get into an argument."

"Lois..." he began, but she was already moving off, and he had little choice but to let her.

The black-haired reporter stalked away, practically steaming, swinging her flashlight in wide arcs through each room before she entered it. All the while, though she was irritated with Richard, her mind swung back to Luthor and the twins.

Luthor held a grudge against Superman, and he spared no mercy for Lois. She also had an awful feeling that he knew or guessed whom the twins' real father was. What he might do to them was beyond her capacity to imagine. Please, let Kala keep her mouth shut. If she smarts off to Luthor, God only knows what he'll do. In a way, it's a good thing that Jason's with her. Maybe he'll keep her calm. Keep them calm.

Oh, if he hurts my babies, that son of a bitch won't have to worry about prison. I'll kill him myself. And God help Kal-El if he stands in my way.

There was another sore spot eating away at her. As distant as she had been in these last months, how vocally dismissive she had been to him, from the moment she had received the phone call, he had been right there. Stopping her from running headlong into Luthor's clutches, soothing her tears, telling her that they would find the twins no matter what. And he meant it, she knew, better than anyone else. The guilt over her past actions stung now, in spite of the reconciliation they were gradually coming to. No matter how angry she had been, how true her accusations had felt, Kal-El had yet to even do more than even slightly raise his voice to her.

Her emotions overwhelmed her, so strong that she could no longer hold back her tears. Biting her lip to keep from sobbing aloud, she berated herself for all of the wrong choices she had made and the ones that she stubbornly refused to make. If she had given more thought to her car suddenly breaking down ... if she'd been there to pick the kids up herself... Something. Anything. Why did life have to be so unfair, so intent on taking everything she had been so slow to realize that she wanted? When she already knew that only things she wanted now were impossible? Was this punishment for her traitor's thoughts about the man she had loved, to have an exchange? Him for her twins? Is this what it was?

...And gnashing your teeth like a repentant idiot is doing nothing for anyone, especially you, most especially not for those kids. You're human is all, impossibly capable of mistakes in some cases. Stop behaving like a fifth-grade drama queen. Snap out of it, Lane, and act like a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, commented a sarcastic, somewhat disgusted voice. Seemed that the General's Daughter had had enough.

And Lois knew the voice was right. This wasn't the time or place to fall apart. Brusquely, she rubbed away her tears as she forced herself to breathe more slowly. Shaking her head to clear it, she focused on the narrow, dark hallway ahead of her. Right now the twins were counting on her, more than ever in their young lives. Any personal issues she had could wait until they found Kala and Jason.

Being as cautious as she knew how, despite the urge to just go barreling onward, Lois made her way through several of the huge abandoned building's storage rooms. With the exception of river rats, of which Luthor was one only in Lois' system of classification, the area was deserted.

Her growing desperation showed in the way Lois startled at every sound and, instead of playing it safe and moving away, she headed directly to it. According to her watch, it had now been four hours since Barbara had called her after finding Mrs. Mosley unconscious on the entrance walkway, two hours since Lex's message arrived on her cell phone. It had been more than twelve hours since she had last seen their faces, barely awake as they bounded into the bedroom for a kiss goodbye before leaving for school. And the dark had closed in fast.

They had only recently been allowed to play in the yard until just after dusk, something that seemed to have a forbidden thrill to it. Yet they always seemed to come in before the allotted time. Her twins had never been alone in the dark, not even in their bedrooms. They had nightlights, both of them, still being at that age that they were afraid of the Boogie-Man...

Well, Lex certainly fits that description, her mind commented disloyally and that was enough to turn her back in the direction of Richard's car. She had to get more batteries for the weakening flashlight, had to keep looking, no matter how hopeless the area looked. Even if Kala and Jason weren't here, maybe there was a clue. One of Kala's hair-ties, maybe one of those goofy-looking Godzilla pens from Jason's bag. Maybe one of the backpacks themselves. She had to keep looking...

Lois froze. There, in the hallway leading to this area, a shadow that hadn't been there before. An elongated shadow, like a man's. Lois' hand crept into her purse, seeking the familiar rosewood grip of her Ladysmith.

* * *

Brutus finished his meal in the galley and set his plates in the sink. Stanford, Riley, and Grant were playing cards, cheating each other as usual. "Hey, Brutus, I'll deal ya in," Grant said with that funny sideways grin.

The bigger man glanced at him and shook his head slightly. "Nah. Not tonight. 'M gonna check on the kids. Luthor says they gotta be watched."

Riley chuckled. "Watch the girl, man. She's a fighter. Like to see her again in about ten years."

Brutus didn't have to move fast or be overtly violent to make a point. He simply sauntered over to Riley, caught the front of his shirt in one fist, and lifted the man gently out of his chair. "Don't touch them kids," he said quietly. "I see a kid in one of your home movies, Riley, we're not gonna be friends no more."

"Yo, chill, man," Riley said with a nervous laugh, as Brutus slowly lowered him to his seat. "I didn't mean nothing by it, it's just talk, ya know? I'm not like a child molester or nothin'."

"I don't like people who hurt kids," Brutus said slowly, for emphasis. Riley laughed again, but he wouldn't meet Brutus' gaze. Grant was trying to watch him without seeming to, eyes skittering up to his face and away like a cornered rat trying not to see the cat approach.

And Stanford, who probably had the least to hide of any of them, looked up once and then back at his cards. Well, he might've been in stir with them, but Stanford wasn't like them. The mineralogist didn't get involved in stuff like this.

Brutus just looked at Riley for another long minute, and walked away. He took his time heading for the grand ballroom, shaking his head in contempt of Riley and Grant as he went. They had fought with the kids, opting to use force to get them on board. That was dumb. Kids were pretty easy to win over, if you were nice to them. Even smart, wary kids like these. There just wasn't any such thing as a six-year-old cynic - although that Kala got pretty close.

Brutus paused at the door. Gertrude's conceit had been to make every single door on the ship have a porthole in it. Not too great for privacy, and after a while all those little circular windows got on your nerves. But times like this they were pretty handy.

He cupped his hands around the window, peering into the darker room. The lights were still on, and in the dimness he could see them lying on the glass floor. Kinda cute - kids watching the fish. Brutus stepped back to unlock the door, and felt something brush his ankle.

It was only Tala, that powder puff of a dog. Brutus grinned at her. "Hey, fluffy-butt. Did she leave you out again?"

Tala stared up at him with dark, unreadable eyes. The tip of her tail wagged slowly.

"Wanna go keep the kids company?"

Tala knew the word 'kids', and her tail wagged faster. As soon as Brutus unlocked the door and opened it for her, she darted inside.

He followed more quietly. The kids were actually asleep - not even Tala's cold nose expertly applied to Jason's forehead woke him. The Pomeranian ran around the twins, her claws clicking on the glass, before leaping over Kala's back and settling down in between them.

"Good girl," Brutus whispered. Kala and Jason had made themselves a pretty comfy nest there, and they'd probably sleep all night. Good enough. Brutus put a couple of mints - the sugar-free kind - on the edge of the piano bench for them.

As he walked past, Jason moved restlessly in his sleep and murmured, "Mommy, I don' wanna go t' school t'morrow..." Kala's hand came out of the pile of blankets she'd burrowed under, and clasped his shoulder.

Brutus couldn't help smiling at them. "Wish granted, kiddo," he said softly. "Tomorrow's Saturday anyway, but there's no school on this ship any day of the week." Kneeling, he lightly ruffled Kala's tousled ebony curls, all that was visible of her other than her hand on Jason's shoulder.

* * *

"Lois?" the shadow's owner said, and the voice was so very familiar ... and so very not Lex Luthor's.

Lois had already slipped her index finger along the guard, preparing to pull the weapon from her purse, when the realization of her stalker hit her. Dammit! Why couldn't he ever be bothered to warn her when he did that? Stiffening at the embarrassment of his having startled her, the dark-haired woman clenched her jaw as she snatched the first thing that came to hand out of her purse, and hurled it at his broad chest. Her lighter only made a weak thump as it hit him, but that was quickly drowned out by her frustrated snapping. "Would it kill you to even let me know you're here? Instead of popping out of the shadows like some kind of psycho killer?" she hollered, holding her flashlight up at him like a nightstick. There was a moment of sadistic joy as she shined the light up into his face. She really did feel as though she had nearly had a heart attack. "For God's sake, Kal-El, I could have shot you ... how would you explain THAT?! What are you doing skulking around here in the dark instead of looking for the twins? Other than scaring the hell out of me?"

He didn't respond to her anger or her accusations. Superman, for he was in uniform now, simply walked up to Lois and enfolded her in his arms. The strength that could crush coal into diamonds drew her gently close to him as he murmured, "Lois, we're going to find them, I promise."

"How do you know that?" Her voice broke even as she struggled to pull away, hating herself for behaving this weakly. They didn't have time for this. Not with Richard somewhere in this building. Not with the stakes so high. God, please ... let them be alright. I'll slit Luthor's throat where he stands once I find him, but please protect my babies. Let them be right. I beg you.

Giving in, leaning against him, she sobbed, "You can't be sure of that! He wants revenge and from that note, he plans to take it from both of us. He knows about the Fortress, he knows what we were to each other. And he used it. He has my kids, Kal-El." Our kids. Her face came up then, the pain in her eyes sharp enough to cut. "They're so little. Still afraid of the dark, even. Especially Kala. And they've never been alone overnight before. They're scared, I know it. And it's all my damned fault."

"It's not your fault," he told her, a note of sternness in his voice. "It's Luthor's doing, Lois. If anyone should take the blame for Luthor's work, it's me. He's my nemesis; he wouldn't have done this if he didn't know what you mean to me." Superman sighed, his breath ruffling her hair. "As for the twins, they'll be strong. They might be scared, but they'll stay strong. Look at who their mother is - the woman who cold-cocked a Kryptonian criminal. Not even the entire Council of Elders made that much of an impression on Ursa."

That seemed to calm the hysteria somewhat. Unable to help herself, she reacted to his cautious teasing with a soft laugh between sniffles. It would have been easier to think on it if she didn't have to remember what had led to that battle, but her memory of that moment was clear as day. She had owed that monster Ursa a shot after nearly breaking her arm defending Perry hours before. Nothing had felt more satisfying than that haymaker. Well, short of the look of unfathomable shock on the other woman's face as she fell into the holding cells below the Fortress itself. And the expression on Kal-El's face, his amazed laughter, when she turned to him afterwards. At that moment, I hadn't the slightest doubt in the world that he loved me.

Head leaning slightly against his chest now, she tried to absorb a bit of his calm, his power. The urge to tell him was strong enough to weigh her down, his compliment arguing that she return it. But she couldn't, not now. Not like this. "Yes, well. The difference is that Kala has a hard time with authority that isn't me or Richard, as well as the fact that she will tell you exactly what she thinks of a situation. You've heard her. Jason will behave, for himself and Kala, but ... with my daughter... I shudder to think of what her smart mouth might provoke him to do." Closing her eyes to push back the fear starting to swell again, she allowed herself only these few moments with him.

"We're going to find them, Lois, we'll get there in time," he told her again, stroking her hair lightly. How could he explain to her what he had done once before to save her life, what he would do again to save her children if he had to? Once upon a time, Lois, I wasn't in time for you. You died in that desert, and I sent myself back in time to save you.

The touch of his fingertips was light over the strands, but she felt it as if he had run that warm hand down her cheek. Her eyes closed at that delicate touch. Unable to help herself, Lois felt herself snuggle into his comfort. It still seemed the most natural thing in the world, the way she seemed to gravitate to him as much as he did to her. After all, wasn't he the father of her children? It was clear to her that she still loved him, painfully clear. Couldn't he see that? He had to, if spite of all she had tried to deny it. How could she keep lying to him, to herself? To Richard?

That simple thought threw her eyes open, a flush rising to her cheeks as she pulled out of his embrace to step away. Almost immediately, everything in her protested. Even the General's Daughter gave one of her rare silences. It was dark enough in the building to assure that he couldn't see her torn expression. Neither could anyone else, for that matter, she thought with a mix of relief and knowingness. Already feeling guilty, she said firmly in a quiet voice, avoiding his gaze, "This ... this isn't getting the twins found. Richard and I made it through our list - this is the last stop. What about you and Lana?" Thinking for a moment, she added, "Where is Lana, anyway?"

"We finished our list - I didn't have to actually break in - and I sent her home," he replied, watching her with a faintly puzzled expression. One moment she was in his arms, the next, distant. His father had always said that no man would ever understand women - Pa Kent, that was, not Jor-El. Funny how the most useful advice came from the farmer and not the scientist renowned for his wisdom. "She was getting exhausted, and she needed to get some rest. So do you, Lois."

Those eyes, which he could see much better than she thought he could, narrowed then. Her reply came quietly, firm as he had ever heard it, despite the many hours she had been awake and running. "I'll sleep once Jason and Kala are safe and sound, asleep in their beds."

"Lois, you can't run on nerves forever."

"I can do anything I damn well want to, Kal-El," Lois snapped, all the more vehement. "Are you trying to tell me I'm too old for this? Because I used to do it all the time. And long before you showed up."

Before Kal-El could try to reply, a beam of light entered the room. "Lois? Who are you ... talking..." Richard stopped, staring, as his flashlight found Superman.

Kal-El turned to look at him, reminding himself that he'd supposedly never met this man before. "Mr. White, I presume," he said, emphasizing the richer timbre of this persona's voice. "It's good to meet you at last, although I wish it were under other circumstances."

Lois' flashlight beam swung back and forth between the two men as she bit her lip. Richard was staring ... hopefully he was just surprised by the sudden appearance of the hero, hopefully he didn't have a clue that he'd been working with Superman for several months. When he finally spoke, Richard allayed those fears. "Yeah ... always wanted to meet you, but not like this." He seemed to shake himself slightly, adjusting to the presence of this superhuman being, and continued, "No luck?"

"I haven't found them yet, no," Kal-El replied, and genuine sorrow colored his words. "I scanned this building, too - the twins aren't here."

Lois' shoulders slumped in defeat. "Dammit. Well, come on, there's still upper 86th street."

"I've already been there," Superman told her gently. "I got a complete copy of the list from Mr. Kent and Ms. Lang, and I've checked all the addresses within the greater Metropolis area. There's nothing more you can do tonight."

"No, we can head back to the office," Lois said, shaking her head. "Perry and Jimmy will have stayed late digging up more leads."

"Ms. Lane, you need to get some rest," Superman said, glancing at Richard as if seeking his support. "Go home - I'll look into the out-of-state and foreign properties you found."

"I told you I'm not going to bed until they're found," she replied, glaring. Get off the 'Ms. Lane' nonsense, Kal-El.

"Lois, he's got a point," Richard said. "I don't like leaving the search tonight, either, but we can start again early."

"It's safer for you both in daylight," Superman added. "Searching these warehouses at night is very dangerous, Ms. Lane, as you know."

"When has that ever stopped me?" Lois challenged. She would never let either of them see the exhaustion that dogged her, a weariness born as much of constant anxiety as of physical and mental exertion.

"Lois, go home," Kal-El said to her, and completely missed Richard's sharp gaze flickering to him. "You don't want to pass out halfway through tomorrow. Go home and try to get some sleep. I'll keep on trying."

She began to argue it, but the fatigue weighing on her prevented it. Brow furrowed, Lois demanded, "Promise me."

He had always understood her so well. "Lois, I promise you I won't stop searching. Whatever it takes ... we'll find them. Somewhere."

Finally she nodded, and Richard took her arm. "We'll see you in the morning?" he asked the hero.

Kal-El's deep blue eyes met his, and he nodded. "Until then."

As Richard and Lois left, she turned one last time, and the fear that shone in her eyes was no longer under her control. It broke Kal-El's heart to see it ... and strengthened his resolve to find the twins.

* * *

Brutus left without waking the kids, looking back into the room as he opened the door. Only Tala's eyes glowed red in the faint light, and he smiled for a minute. Kids and a dog - it was a nice picture.

What waited for him outside the door was not. As he closed it, hand on the lock, he revealed Kitty standing behind it. Brutus' pulse raced, but he didn't let it show. Instead he simply locked the door casually, sparing the dark-haired woman no more than a glance. Her full lower lip was even more swollen than usual; would she ever learn not to defy Lex? You just didn't cross a man like that.

"How come you were in there, Brutus?" she asked, trying to sound demanding, but her voice came out skittish. Weak. Brutus could break her neck one-handed, and they both knew it.

"Checkin' on the kids," he replied. "They're sleeping."

"Why?"

"Luthor said to." She didn't need a lengthy explanation; the shorter and more matter-of-fact his responses were, the less likely she was to guess his fondness for them.

Kitty seemed to accept that. She almost walked away, but halted, glancing up at him nervously. I'm not Riley, the big man thought of saying to her. As he looked back silently, Kitty added, "Have you seen Tala? My dog?"

Brutus jerked his head at the door. "In there. I guess she likes the kids, and they're good with her. You put her in the last time, right?"

"Yeah ... yeah, she likes them." Kitty looked at the door again, and Brutus saw some unnamable emotion flicker across her face. Just another thing about women he'd never understand, apparently. "She's better with them ... Lex doesn't like her much."

Brutus just nodded, filing that fact away for future reference. "G'night, Miss Kowalski," he said, and turned away.

Kitty remained, looking through the portal at the sleeping children, for a moment longer.

* * *

Richard's mind was spinning throughout the drive home, barely conscious of Lois beside him with her forehead pressed against the window, staring out into the tumultuous night.

He'd been a Superman fan pretty much ever since the hero had made his famous debut. The mere thought that a man could fly, without needing a plane or a jet or a glider, was intoxicating. To soar as the hawk soars, to scythe through the air like a falcon - no, even more free and powerful than the raptors, able to hover motionless or accelerate past the speed of sound in a moment, laughing at gravity and glorying in never-ending strength ... that was the stuff of Richard's boyhood dreams. How could the man that boy had become not idolize this living symbol of everything heroic, when Superman could fly?

Meeting the superhero today had been ... weird. He hadn't been this in awe since he met Lois - which, if he was brutally honest, had been partly due to her connection to Superman. Good one, Richard, he thought to himself with an ironic internal chuckle. You got the ultimate Superman fan's collectible: his girlfriend.

That had been the next thing to cross Richard's mind, after the head trip that was meeting his idol. Suspicion. Lois had been speaking very familiarly to Superman; she'd actually been quarreling with him, from the sound. As he'd looked from one to the other, a tiny jealous part of his brain had whispered, He's awfully friendly with your fiancée.

Immediately on the heels of that thought had come chagrin. She was his girlfriend before I ever came back to the states. If anyone's the interloper here, it's me.

More than enough to leave any man confused and melancholy. If that wasn't enough, the loss of the twins gnawed at him. Even more so when they arrived at the house and saw everything as it had been that morning, before their world had fallen apart. Both twins' drawings on the refrigerator door, Kala's hair tie on the table, Jason's other sneakers by the coat rack - those things seemed fraught with meaning, haunting Richard. It hadn't quite been real to him until that moment, a part of him still believing that this couldn't possibly happen to people he loved.

Lois froze in the hallway, shivering, her eyes lingering on each of the twins' belongings as if concentrating could bring them home. Richard slipped his arm around her shoulders wordlessly; nothing he could say would comfort her.

For a moment she accepted the touch, but then Lois moved away slightly. He let her; both of them had too much to feel, too much to think about. She went into the kitchen and got something out of the fridge. Food didn't sound very appealing at the moment, but Richard supposed he'd have to eat something too.

He paced through the darkened house, his mind full of the twins - Kala's laugh, Jason's smile, their silly arguments, and the absolute seriousness with which they would suddenly unite in defense of each other. God, the house felt empty. Everywhere he looked was heartbreak - the couch that was often bereft of its cushions when the kids played at building forts, the piano Jason practiced on, the stereo system Kala sang along with.

And as awful as this was for him, it had to be infinitely worse for Lois. The twins were the most important part of her life, and her love for them was greater than any other emotion she'd ever known. She'd raised them basically alone through their infancy and toddler years, and only trusted a few people to look after them even now. Richard's throat closed in sympathetic pain.

Enough of this. We need to get some rest and get back to the search tomorrow morning. Richard headed upstairs to look for Lois.

His heart broke again when he found her in the twins' room, sitting on Jason's bed. She hadn't gone into the fridge for herself, Richard now saw. She had gotten out the mix of raw vegetables that Jason gave Gazeera every evening, and was hand-feeding the iguana. Wonder of wonders, the lizard was accepting the greens from her without trying his usual tricks; it seemed the pets knew something was wrong, too. Captain Jack's food bowl had been freshly filled, but he was ignoring it, standing in the corner of his cage closest to Lois and pressing his nose against the wire.

Richard started to come in; she didn't need to be in here, where the reminders of the twins' absence were a thousand times stronger. But when Lois offered Gazeera a piece of zucchini, he saw her reflection in Jason's mirror, saw the tears streaming down her cheeks silently.

Lois wouldn't rest that night. Richard knew it to look at her; she'd stay up, pacing and worrying, until she collapsed from exhaustion. That would do them no good tomorrow. Something had to be done, and Richard went downstairs silently to do it.

Her sleeping pills were in the downstairs medicine cabinet, well out of the twins' reach. Richard took down the bottle and shook one pill into his hand. He paused, thinking carefully, and added another. He'd seen her take two at once before, but not the way he planned to give them to her.

Richard replaced the medicine bottle and dropped the pills into a glass. He added a generous splash of Scotch and swirled until the pills dissolved. Then he topped up the glass with milk and carried it upstairs to her.

Lois had finished feeding the lizard, and accepted the drink gratefully. If she noticed anything funny about the taste, she probably attributed it to an extra dose of alcohol. Still without speaking, Richard sat beside her and rubbed her shoulders as she watched the animals move around their cages, probably wondering where their true owners were.

Within fifteen minutes, Lois's eyelids were flickering. She had already been tired, and Richard caught the empty glass just as it tumbled from her hand. He was just fast enough to support her as she slumped against him.

She'd gone under awfully quick, and Richard felt her pulse as he held her close, worrying. The beat seemed steady, and her breathing was deep and even, so he must've dosed it just right. Gathering her into his arms and marveling at her lightness, Richard carried Lois down the hall to their bedroom.

Now all he had to do was figure out a way to make himself fall asleep.


Tipping the Scales

Lost in the darkness, hoping for a sign

Instead there is only silence,
Can't you hear my screams...?
Never stop hoping,
Until I know where you are
But one thing's for sure,
You're always in my heart...

~Within Temptation, "Somewhere"

Lois clawed her way up from sleep stubbornly, ignoring the heaviness in her limbs and the gentle insistence in the back of her mind that it would be so much easier just to lie here... The reporter forced her eyes open and tried to sit up, but her head felt fuzzy. She yawned, and immediately shuddered; her mouth was dry and tasted awful. What the hell was I doing last night? Lois wondered, but her mind was blank. Thinking felt weird ... furry somehow. Like her tongue.

Gagging at the thought, she quickly climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom. Lois splashed her face with cold water, rinsed her mouth, even drank straight from the tap. She took twice as long to brush her teeth, even scrubbing her tongue to get rid of the last foul taste of whatever she'd been drinking. Now she felt somewhat refreshed, and took a shower, letting the hot water pound on her skin and restore her a little more. It had been years since she had been able to imbibe the way she had in the old days, but those were instincts you never forgot, especially for a military brat.

Her mind was still rather hazy, but at least she felt better. As soon as I find out what I was drinking last night, I'm swearing it off forever. That would have to wait for her thought processes to start functioning a little better, though. As it was, Lois couldn't seem to remember much of anything.

Force of habit took her downstairs and past the study to the kitchen. She could hear Richard talking on the phone, his voice muffled by the closed door. Odd, for him to be up and on the phone this early on a Saturday ... was it Saturday? Usually the kids were up by now, concocting some culinary horror for breakfast. Maybe they were already watching cartoons. Lois went into the living room, but they weren't there, either. Strange.

Slowly, she turned around. The house was awfully quiet. A deep sense of unease was working its way past her hangover. Lois methodically went through each room downstairs, excepting only Richard's study. He was still on the phone, and they couldn't be in there with him - Jason and Kala just couldn't keep quiet while a phone call was in progress.

Upstairs, the eerie silence continued. She stopped outside the twins' bedroom, locked in place by a disquieting feeling of loss. It was as if, by opening the door, she would cause something irrevocable to happen. Lois felt certain the kids were just sleeping in, but the gooseflesh prickling along her arms seemed to tell her that if she opened the door to check, they would somehow vanish.

That was absurd. Lois shook herself and turned the doorknob stepping in. Her gaze landed on Jason's empty bed.

The memory of sitting there last night, tears running down her cheeks as she fed the godforsaken lizard, returned with all the force of a hurricane. Lois staggered, her hand flailing to catch the edge of the bed, and she fell against it instead of to the floor.

Sudden remembrance blew apart the haze in her mind, letting in all the terrible details of yesterday. The Vanderworth estate, her car, Luthor, the twins ... the twins. He had them. Realization dawned horribly bright on her.

* * *

In the conference room at the Daily Planet, the rest of the team listened carefully as Richard murmured into the phone, "No, she's still out, I think I'll let her sleep as long as she can."

"Sound decision," Perry replied. Lana, Clark, and Jimmy all nodded; Lois had been running on nerves and rage. Best to let her get what rest she could. "You sure she's okay, though?"

Richard laughed ironically. "Oh, yeah. Our friend in the cape dropped by last night. Apparently he can hear her heartbeat from anywhere and wondered why it was so slow. He said she was all right, I didn't... Oh, shit."

They were left listening to the phone thump against the desk, and in the background, a rising howl of anguish, terror, and rage. Clark closed his eyes, grief burning in him. The very sound hurt his ears to hear it, hurt his heart to know the pain that caused Lois to scream.

Lana's hand covered her mouth, and tears glistened in her eyes. That didn't sound like a woman, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. It sounded like a wounded bear, like a wolf whose pups were taken from her... My God. Oh, my God, how can such a thing happen?

Jimmy looked away while the scream rose, wavered, and broke off. Presumably Richard had gone to her, but there would be no comforting Lois, not until they had the twins safely back. The best he could hope for was her fighting spirit to rise, the anger to overcome the despair. In the meantime, his chest felt tight with sympathetic pain.

Even Perry had to blink rapidly, forcing back tears. He more than anyone else knew how strong Lois was, how terrible this must be to make her cry out like that. A sound like that shouldn't come from any living creature - it seemed a portent of death. Only a handful of times in all the years he'd known her had Lois even wept - to hear that long, agonized wail rising from her throat made him wish he could bear this and not her. Even if it killed him.

* * *

Brutus brought the twins' breakfast and let Tala out. Jason and Kala looked up at him blearily, their necks still stiff from sleeping on the floor. "Hi, kids," he said warmly, setting down the tray. "Did you see any big fish last night?"

Kala met his eyes, her hazel gaze sharp. "You came in while we were sleeping," she said.

"Yup," Brutus replied affably. On the inside, he applauded her. This one had rare maturity and insight. "I let Tala in for ya. She needed the company."

"How come she doesn't sleep in Miss Katherine's room?" Jason said with a frown. "Tala's her dog, right?"

"I wouldn't want Captain Jack to sleep anywhere but in my room," Kala added.

"Yeah, Tala belongs to Katherine," Brutus told them. Then he let his mouth droop into a slight frown. "She can't stay with her at nights, though."

"Why not?" both twins asked in unison.

Brutus sighed, looking down as if embarrassed. "Well ... Luthor doesn't like her much. He's mean to the little dog - it's best if Tala sleeps somewhere else."

Both twins were scowling now. "Why'd Mr. Luthor be goin' in Miss Katherine's room, anyway?" Jason asked.

"She didn't say?" Brutus asked. When they shook their heads, he pursed his mouth, pausing for a long moment. The kids waited for him to decide to tell them whatever it was, both of them antsy at the thought of a secret. Finally, the big man gave another heavy sigh. "Well, I don't know if you guys will really understand, but Katherine is Mr. Luthor's girlfriend."

Cocking her head to the side, Kala figured it out first. Her face showed shock and disgust as she said, "You mean ... Miss Katherine is Mr. Luthor's girlfriend? Like grown-up girlfriend?"

"Like Mommy and Daddy?" Jason's nose wrinkled in horror, his expression mimicking Kala's.

"That's gross," Kala added. "Ewww!"

"But he's the bad guy!" Jason complained. "Nobody ever wants t' be the bad guy's girlfriend!"

"Miss Katherine can't be his girlfriend," Kala added. "She's nice, and he's mean."

Brutus merely shrugged. "I don't understand it either. But that's the way it is."

The twins just shook their heads, still in denial. Jason voiced both of their opinions when he said, "But we like Miss Katherine."

"Kinda." Kala's sharp eyes were on Brutus again, and he forced himself to look merely puzzled.

* * *

Lois hated being merely a passenger. Especially now. With her breakdown firmly behind her - never mind the tremor in her hands or the shiver in her soul - she wanted to be doing something. Sitting here while Richard drove them both to the office, where the others were already assembled and gathering more information, was nearly unbearable.

She darted a look at him, caught by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, Lois wanted to knock him senseless for daring to drug her - that was the only explanation for how quickly she fell asleep last night, and how groggy she'd been this morning. On the other hand, she would never have gotten any rest if he hadn't done it, and Lois knew that Richard had her best interests at heart. What a Hallmark moment. 'A man who cares enough to slip you a Mickey.' My God.

Richard sensed the look, and glanced at her. "You okay, Lois?"

"Fine," she replied, deciding not to call him on the doctored drink. However, that didn't prevent her from poking at him about it. Yawning theatrically, she added, "Still a little hazy. You must've put the good Scotch in my drink last night."

He avoided her eyes then. "You needed the sleep. I didn't want you up all night, pacing and worrying. We've got a lot to do today."

"Mm-hmm," Lois replied, stifling another yawn, this one genuine. "Did you get any sleep?"

Just an instant's hesitation, then Richard said, "Only after I borrowed one of your sleeping pills. You're almost out of them, just so you know."

Lois made a noncommittal noise, staring out the window, and thought, They aren't as good or as fast, but I can always use Tylenol PM. Those usually help me fall asleep.

By then they were approaching the office, and Lois steeled herself. She couldn't let her demeanor show the others how close she'd come to utterly breaking down this morning. She had no idea that they had heard that awful cry, and no one would let her find out, either.

Although the way they all looked up concernedly when she stepped into the conference room was a little suspicious. It might've just been the fact that she was dressed casually - jeans and a blouse instead of her usual suits. Perry was the first to speak, and his gruff tone sounded like everything was normal. "Well, now that you've had your beauty rest, Lane, we can get to work."

Lois just rolled her eyes as she dropped into a chair, stifling a yawn along with the urge to flip him off. "So bring me up to date, old man."

Perry glared, but she saw a hint of a relieved smile on his face. "All right, this is what's happened so far. First of all, your mother called yesterday, and I told her what's going on. She and Ron are keeping it a secret from Lucy - she's too far along to upset with news like this. But your sister's pretty pissed at you for missing Nora's birthday party."

"Let her be mad," Lois said. "It's better than telling her what happened. Okay, what else?"

"Well, it turns out we've got two things for you to check out. First, that Karla Smith-Bennett is in private practice, but she does a helluva lot of work pro-bono. Usually on behalf of kids." Perry raised a grizzled brow.

"Sounds like someone's got a guilty conscience," Lois said, her hazel eyes glittering. "One of us should drop by her office in person and see what she knows."

Perry nodded agreement. "Next up is the phone company. That one has to be in person, too. Lois, I think you ought to go with Kent and talk to the same woman he spoke with yesterday. You're the kids' mother, and the call went in to your phone. You can probably convince her to bend the rules."

Lois agreed. "So that leaves Richard and Lana to talk to Ms. Bennett. What about you, Perry? Find anything else in the archives?"

Now the editor-in-chief looked disgruntled. "Olsen's run up a couple possibilities, but nothing concrete. I got a call from that girl at the Daily Star, Raines. Apparently Sawyer tipped off the competition, and Raines is going over their background information to see if they have anything we don't. It's gonna take longer because she has to do it herself - obviously we don't trust just anyone over there. Not even sure if I trust Raines, but the lieutenant does, so I have to bow to her judgment."

"All right," Lois said. "Let's get going."

* * *

"Be careful," Lex said unnecessarily, and Stanford bit his lip yet again. As if I didn't know that one drop of seawater on this thing will start it growing. He carefully fitted the kryptonite cylinder, with one of the large crystals from the Fortress inside, into a steel sleeve. Trying to ignore Riley filming and Lex looming, the mineralogist screwed the sleeve together tightly. It was almost watertight - simulations showed that it would take about half an hour for enough seawater to reach the main crystal to make it expand and burst the sleeve. That gave them time to get away.

Not enough time, in Lex's opinion. The resulting EMP would knock out every electrical system on the yacht, and Lex would take no chances of their computer simulations being wrong about the speed of crystal growth. He insisted on being well out of range, so Stanford had chosen the simplest delay method possible.

A life raft, spray-painted dark blue just in case someone happened to see it, was lying on the deck nearby. At first Lex wanted to fire the crystal with a missile launcher, but the stress of hitting the water at such speeds might have caused the seams to widen, letting in water faster and causing the crystal to expand prematurely. Stanford punched a few tiny holes in the life raft, enough to let the air out very slowly, and placed the canister inside. Grant and Brutus lowered it - "Gently!" Lex cautioned - and they watched the unassuming device bob away on the waves.

"Not exactly the historic moment I envisioned," Luthor muttered. "It lacks the panache of a missile launch."

Only Stanford dared contradict him. "Safety or panache, Mr. Luthor? I'll admit, the missile launch might've gone fine. But if one seam of that sleeve cracked early, we might've foundered this ship."

Lex's dark eyes cut to him, and the boss gave one of his rare smiles. "True. Not that I don't intend to spend a lot of time on my island, but I'd prefer to keep this mobile base as long as I can. Gentlemen, you're dismissed. Grant, bring us around south by southwest."

The others looked bored as they headed downstairs. Only Kitty, clutching her dog, remained on deck with Lex and Stanford. She looked troubled, and Stanford spared her a pitying look as he passed her. Poor girl had no idea what she was getting into on this ride, he thought. But considering the fates of others was counterproductive on this trip. All Stanford wanted to do was get back to the desert lab and his experiments there.

* * *

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I really can't..." The customer service representative trailed off as Lois pulled out her wallet and held it open so the photos were right in her face.

Clark squeezed her elbow gently, and Lois modified her tone. "You see these kids, Ms. MacKenzie? Look very closely."

"Yes, well..."

"Now look at this picture." Lois held up the cell phone with that damned text message on the screen, and saw the woman's eyes widen. The wallet photo was recent, and the grainy phone picture was obviously of the same two kids. "Pay particular attention to the end of the message," Lois added dryly, controlling her temper.

Ms. MacKenzie's mouth slowly opened in dawning horror. "But ... no one would..."

"Ma'am, we're reporters," Clark said gently. "We see all the statistics. Unfortunately, people do that and worse to children every single day. I'm afraid the threat is genuine."

Lois swallowed hard. That wasn't a reminder she needed at the moment. All she said was, "You can see why I won't involve the police or the military in this, then."

Ms. MacKenzie nodded. "I'll run that trace for you now, Ms. Lane. It may take a few minutes."

"Thank you," Lois said with sincere relief. "We'll wait."

Clark seemed about to add his thanks as well, but something in his pocket chirped. Lois arched an eyebrow at him as he excused himself and walked out into the lobby. "Hello?"

"Son? I haven't heard from you in a few days, other than the news. Is everything okay?"

Clark gave a shaky laugh. "No, Ma, far from it." He lowered his voice and turned away from Lois to continue, "Luthor kidnapped the twins."

"What?" Martha exclaimed. "That lowdown, no-good cowardly son of a... Oh, Clark. My poor boy! When - how? My God, what about Lois?"

"He nabbed them after school. Lois and I - and Richard and Perry and Jimmy and Lana, of all people - are trying to track him down. We can't let the police or the military in on it." He didn't have to tell her why, and lowered his voice even further to add, "Lois isn't taking it very well. I really hope I find him before she does - Ma, she'd shoot him. In a heartbeat."

Martha huffed. "That's normal, Clark. Any mother would protect her children. Heck, I'd be tempted to take a shot at him myself. Speaking of which... Is Lois there with you?"

"Yes," Clark murmured, noticing Lois watching him keenly.

"Has she said anything about what we talked about last time?"

"No," he replied. "But, well, I'm starting to think it's a strong possibility."

"Hmm," Martha mused. "And you said you're all working on it? Even Lana?"

"Even Lana," Clark said. "She's really thrown herself into this."

"Because of you?"

Now that was a question he really couldn't answer with Lois anywhere nearby. "No ... it's complicated. But it's not about me."

Martha heard the hesitation, and sighed. "Son, I know you have to be busy. And she must be listening to you, too. Call me when you can, please. I'll be praying for you."

"Thanks, Ma," Clark told her. "I love you."

"I love you, too. Please take care of yourself, Clark. I know you'll find them."

He had no reply to that, and hung up with a soft "Goodbye."

Lois was still waiting for Ms. MacKenzie, and she pounced on Clark as soon as he walked back to her. "Well?"

"My mother's praying for us," he replied.

Lois started to say something sarcastic, then halted. "Tell her I said thank you next time you talk to her. We need all the help we can get, including divine."

* * *

Brutus set down the tray, saying, "It's not much, but it's breakfast."

"Oatmeal?" Jason said. "But there's no jicama..." Kala wrinkled up her nose; she wasn't particularly fond of oatmeal.

"Sorry, kids," Brutus said. "We don't have a lot of choices around here." He looked so dejected on their behalf that the twins hushed and ate their breakfast anyway.

For once, Brutus didn't leave immediately. He sat down at the piano, idly plinking a few notes. Jason watched him thoughtfully as he finished his oatmeal. Swallowing the last bite, he asked, "You okay?"

Brutus seemed startled by the question. "Huh? Oh, yeah. I'm fine."

But he didn't act fine. He acted sad. And Jason had always known at least one sure way to cheer up any adult in his vicinity. Putting his spoon and bowl back on the tray, Jason went over to Brutus and hopped up on the bench beside him.

Kala, eating more slowly because she really didn't like oatmeal all that much, paused to grin at the sight of them. Jason picked out a now-familiar tune, and Brutus grinned at him, playing the accompaniment. The big man caught Kala watching them, and gave her a cheerful wink.

Heart and soul, I begged to be adored. Lost control, and tumbled overboard...

"Mommy likes this song," Jason said.

"It's a neat one," Brutus agreed. "You play it really good."

* * *

"Thank you for seeing us without an appointment," Lana said, giving Karla Smith-Bennett her warmest smile.

"This is about Luthor, isn't it?" the attorney asked. She looked weary and sounded disgusted. "I'm sure you're aware of attorney-client privilege."

"We are," Richard answered, his voice a trifle sharp. "However, I don't think that you are aware your former client kidnapped my fiancée's twins yesterday."

"Allegations like that..."

Richard flipped open his own phone and showed her the forwarded text message. "Admittedly, he wasn't kind enough to send his thumb print or signature, but we know it's Luthor. He's the only person with enough of a grudge to take it out on children. Children, Ms. Smith-Bennett. They just turned six this month. And their favorite presents - an iguana and a ferret, God help my uncle - are pining for them."

The woman bit her lip, and for some reason glanced at Lana. "I'm sorry ... this must be very stressful for you."

Lana caught on before Richard did. Rather than deny the attorney's assumption, she leaned forward and caught the blonde woman's gaze demandingly. "Unless you have children, you have no idea. If you know anything that might help us find them ... please."

Her gaze, trapped between professionalism and ethics, shifted between the two of them. Richard held his phone out. "Read the message. He's not kidding - my fiancée has dealt with him in the past, and she'll tell you he's perfectly capable of such a thing."

"I don't need to tell you, do I?" Lana said shrewdly, watching Ms. Smith-Bennett's face go pale as she read the part about returning the twins in pieces. "You already know. That's why you quit the firm. That's why you do so much pro-bono work now, isn't it? Trying to atone?"

"You know as well as we do that Luthor's guilty of murder, at the very least," Richard chimed in. "Prison didn't rehabilitate him; if anything it made him worse. You couldn't go on aiding a psychopath, and now you're trying to expiate your guilt for your part in setting him free, aren't you?"

Karla Smith-Bennett suddenly rose from her chair, turning her back on them both and pacing to the window. Her voice was taut when she replied, "If I help you, I could be disbarred."

Lana touched Richard's wrist lightly; this line belonged to her. "If you don't help us, you could be a party to the murder of two young children. Jason and Kala need you."

The blonde gave a short, bitter laugh. "All those damn lawyer jokes ... sometimes I wish I was as self-interested as they portray us. You're right - I'd rather lose my license and wash dishes for a living than have this on my conscience. Fine." She came back to her desk and sat down, defeated. "I'll tell you everything I know."

* * *

Lois was pacing, twiddling a pen instead of raking her fingers through her hair. Nothing Clark said could calm her at this point. Truth be told, he was anxious, too. This was their best chance at a lead...

Ms. MacKenzie came back out with an apologetic air. "I'm so sorry. My manager says I can't track that down for you. It's against the law..."

"What?!" Lois began, but Clark saw the look on the woman's face and caught Lois' wrist tightly. Her dark head whipped around, and she glared at him in outrage.

"Is there any way you can help us, Ms. MacKenzie?" he asked softly ... very softly.

She gave a slight nod, nearly imperceptible. "I'm afraid not. But I have your mobile number, Ms. Lane, and if I can get an authorization from the police department I'll be glad to call you with that information."

Still hanging on to Lois, and ignoring the look she was giving him, Clark replied, "Thank you very much for your help, Ms. MacKenzie. We'll have our contact in the police department call your manager directly. When would be a good time?"

"He's on-duty until eight o'clock," the representative told him, a glimmer of relief in her eyes. "However, he takes lunch around five-thirty, so I wouldn't call between then and six-thirty."

"Thanks again, ma'am," Clark told her, and hustled Lois outside.

She was still blinded by fury. "Dammit, Clark, I do not want Maggie calling here..."

"She won't have to," Clark murmured, practically pulling Lois to the curb where she had left Richard's car. "She'll call us when her boss goes to lunch."

Lois blinked at him, and felt extremely sheepish. "Clark..."

"You're wound tight," he said, giving her a small smile. "C'mon, let's see what Perry and Jimmy have found for us."

Before going around to the driver's side, Lois stood on tiptoe and kissed Clark's cheek briefly. "Thanks. You've always kept a cooler head than me."

Clark actually blushed. A compliment, a kiss on the cheek, and the sight of her in jeans - to which he still had not adjusted - were enough to render him speechless as Lois fished the spare key to the Saab out of her purse.

Just as she was putting it into the lock, her cell phone rang. Lois tried to grab it, nearly dropped the keys, got the phone out and nearly dropped the purse, started to fumble in her haste - and Clark was suddenly by her side, catching the purse in one hand and the phone in the other. Since it was on the third ring, he flipped it open and said brusquely, "Kent."

"Hey, Clark," Toby Raines said, her normal cheerful sarcasm subdued by the circumstances. "I see you've signed up as Lane's secretary?"

Lois could hear her voice, and snorted derisively as she unlocked the car. Toby continued without waiting for an answer, "I've got a live one for you, I hope."

"Go on," Clark said. He didn't need a note pad - his memory was keen enough.

"Way back when Gertrude Vanderworth's husband was alive, they owned a vacation house in Nantucket."

"We found that in the tax rolls; it was sold last year," Clark told her.

"Aha, the house was, but what about the land?" Toby said. The phone started to beep as she continued, and Clark ignored it. "We've got a notation in our files about a sizeable acreage somewhere in the Cape Cod area. In fact, the reporter who worked this story thought the Vanderworths might own a whole island. One of the smaller ones, sure, but still..."

"Toby, you're a lifesaver," Clark said. "Any idea where exactly the island is?"

His tone and his words made Lois snap to attention, holding the door partly open and staring hard at him. Toby sighed in aggravation. "Unfortunately, no. My guess would be somewhere in Buzzard's Bay. The Elizabeth Islands are mostly privately owned, so it wouldn't surprise me if some of the others are too."

"It's good enough for me," Clark said. "We may have a little, um, help on this one, so we can search a wide area."

"Caped help? Good deal," Toby said. "I'll keep looking, but that sounds like your best bet."

"Thanks, Toby," Clark said. "We'll be in touch." She hung up, and he turned to Lois. "The Vanderworths may own an island north of the Vineyard, somewhere in Buzzard's Bay."

"Let's go," Lois said. "That's about six hours by car, so we'd better fly."

As Clark got in the passenger side, he said, "I'll get us there, but you'd better leave the car at the airport to prevent questions. It's only a forty-five minute ride..."

"Fifteen," Lois said dryly as she revved the engine and looked at the traffic. "Twenty, tops. Buckle up, Kal-El."

"Oh, dear," Clark muttered, as she made the 'born from jets' brand motto live up to its name.

* * *

"Dammit," Richard growled, flipping the phone closed. "She never answers the bloody phone."

Lana, in the co-pilot's seat beside him, eyed the instrument panel warily. "Richard, are you sure it's a good idea for us to just fly out?"

"She's with Clark," he replied, flipping a sequence of switches and knobs with familiar swiftness. "They're probably chasing after their own lead by now. I left her a voicemail and I called Perry to update him; that's the best we can do. Here, put on a headset."

Lana settled the large earphones delicately, and her voice came over the mic as Richard started the seaplane's twin engines. "I just hope they're not after the same lead as us."

His reply crackled with static as he taxied out onto Hobb's Bay. "Probably not. The land north of Mackinac Island was never officially owned by the Vanderworths, but Luthor definitely knows it's there."

Lana had been half listening to him and half bracing herself against the bumpy acceleration the waves caused. When Richard pulled back on the yoke and the nose of the seaplane began to rise, however, she was silenced by the immediacy of this flight. Nothing like a big jet, where everything was smooth and gentle... The designer's nails clenched in the leather-covered seat, and her eyes widened.

* * *

Breakfast was long over, lunch too, but Brutus came back with the twins' dinner. He'd somehow managed to make burritos for them, and Kala and Jason were overjoyed. The last of their reserve seemed to have dissolved, and Jason was more than happy to sit beside the big man and go through his repertoire of songs. Brutus even managed to teach him a new tune, Chopsticks.

Kala was getting a little bit bored, though, and she wandered over to the couches across the room to draw. Brutus had also managed to sneak some copier paper and colored pens in for them - not the best artistic materials, but they'd made do with all kinds of office supplies at the Planet before.

Jason had nearly gotten the new song perfect, and Brutus patted his shoulder. "Good work, Jason. You're a natural; you pick this stuff up way faster than me."

"Thanks," he replied, beaming. Of course, the distraction made him miss a note, and Jason scowled as he started over.

Brutus just chuckled. "You work on that for a minute, okay? Let me see how your sister's doing."

At first Jason watched him sitting beside Kala, the pair of them leaning over her drawing. But then the little boy got caught up in the music, trying to make the notes perfect. He was getting really good at it; pretty soon he'd be almost as good as he was with Heart and Soul.

The first hint Jason had of trouble was Kala's voice rising shrilly. "No!" she shouted, leaping off the couch, but Brutus had hold of her wrist and she couldn't leap far. "Lemme go!"

Jason stopped playing, standing up to see what was happening. His eyes felt like they were bulging out of his head, and his breath started to whistle in his throat. Why was Brutus, who had been so nice, suddenly holding Kala's arm so tightly? He was telling her, "Shh, shh, it's okay, it's just a game, don't yell..." Jason didn't like it; didn't like the way Brutus was bending over his sister, didn't like to see Kala throwing her whole weight against his grip on her wrist.

"Hey, it's all right, hush now," Brutus said, and Kala kicked him in the shin, hard.

At nearly the same moment she brought her little fist down on the hand that held her opposite wrist and Brutus's grip loosened enough for her to eel away and run, still yelling. "Don' touch me! Don't you ever touch me!"

Brutus followed, and now he was scary-quick, Jason's chest tight, seeing the large man's powerful hand clamp down over Kala's face. Her eyes wild, fighting for air, Brutus holding her arm and shushing her, but his hand covering her mouth so she couldn't breathe, and Jason's heart thumping loudly, his little hands squeezing down on the piano, squeezing...

Over the roar of his own pulse, Jason heard a few faint pops, the source of which he couldn't trace. His vision was growing dark from lack of oxygen, his throat closed in terror. Kala tried to scream, but her voice was muffled, her eyes so full of fear...

Echoes from the recent past. Kala's voice: I won't let anybody take my brother away. Even if you are a boogerhead. And Jason's own: I love you, too, Kala. I'll never let anyone take you away from me either.

Nobody hurts my sister! With that thought renewing his determination, Jason managed to take a noisy, rasping breath.

Brutus turned at the sound, just in time to see the piano, airborne...


Come Undone

Who do you need...?
Who do you love...?
When you come undone?

~Duran Duran, 'Come Undone'

"You almost hit me!" Kala wailed, her eyes huge and accusing as she looked from the piano to Jason and back again.

Jason couldn't reply, fumbling his inhaler out of his pocket. But when he held it up to his mouth, he realized his breath was coming freely now. Weird. "I didn't hit you!" His voice was wounded.

"But you almost!" Kala replied, still anxious. She ran to her brother's side, and then he could see she was shivering. Jason just hugged her, and they clung together for a long moment.

At last Kala got herself under some kind of control and stepped back. "You saved me," she said quietly.

Jason just nodded. "Did he hurt you?"

Kala looked at her wrist, where the faint red marks of Brutus' hands were fading. "No ... he was scary. Creepy-scary."

"Yeah," Jason replied, looking nervously at the wreck of the piano. At any moment he expected the big man to push it off him and come toward them again.

Just then, the door opened, and the twins leaped back, Jason putting a protective arm around Kala. Kitty stepped in, and gave them her usual too-bright smile...

... which quickly faded. "What happened to the ... piano ... oh." The dark-haired woman saw it now, on the other side of the room, and her eyes grew very wide when she saw Brutus' feet sticking out from underneath it. "How ... what happened?"

"He tried to hurt my sister," Jason said, and his tone carried a hint of belligerence. "I knocked him down."

"Yeah, you certainly did," Kitty muttered. She finally tore her eyes away from the piano, and returning her full attention to the twins, she asked, "Do you two know who your daddy is?" It was a dangerous question to ask, perhaps, but with that display of superhuman strength...

Jason and Kala both looked shocked by it, and they glanced at each other for an instant before answering nervously, "Richard."

Kitty nodded slowly. Any normal kid would've looked puzzled and replied Daddy. But these were clearly not normal kids. Just as clearly, they were hiding whatever they knew about their true parentage.

The kids were still eyeing her warily, and she seemed to come to some kind of decision. "You know, you guys were never supposed to be in here. They had a nice room all set up for you, but Grant and Riley were such chickens they dumped you here. How about we go to your room so we can get the piano fixed?"

"Nuh-uh," Jason said sternly. "We're not going anywhere with you."

Kitty looked at their accusatory glares, and asked, "Why not? I'm not like Brutus."

"No, but you're the bad guy's girlfriend," Jason shot back. For once Kala was being quiet, just giving Kitty a withering stare of disappointment and betrayal.

"Wha..." Kitty shut her mouth before she said something foolish. Obviously Brutus had been trying to alienate them from her - why, she could guess, and the thought sickened her. She came toward them, but the kids backed up, and Jason tried to look as menacing as possible.

Kitty stopped, sighing. "Listen... I didn't know how bad Lex was when we started going out."

"So break up," Kala retorted. "Suzie broke up with two boyfriends in one day, and she's only in second grade."

"Things are complicated for grownups," Kitty told them, unaware that she was echoing Lois' own words to them. "It's kinda like ... why doesn't your Mommy break up with Richard to be with your father?"

Kala bit her lip in sudden realization, and Jason started to nod before catching himself. "Richard is our daddy," he said, a little too loudly.

"I mean your father," Kitty said gently. "Superman."

The looks of panic that crossed their faces wounded her, but Kitty just kept her questioning gaze on them. There was no other way a little boy could throw a grand piano, after all. Especially not one as frail as Jason seemed to be.

The strain of the secret was too much for Kala on top of everything else that had happened in the last few minutes. Not only had Brutus scared her, but then Kitty made her realize for the first time that she couldn't have her real father and the daddy she loved at the same time. Leaning against Jason's shoulder, she started to sniffle.

He hugged her protectively and cut Kitty a look that could've been Lois in miniature, full of anger and frustration. "Leave us alone - you're mean."

"No, no," Kitty tried to soothe. "Listen. I didn't mean to upset you guys. It's just - I can't break up with Lex. He wouldn't let me. Plus we're on a boat and I can't get away. I'd never hurt you."

"Don't believe you." Kala's voice was muffled against Jason's shirt.

"Your mommy knows who has you," Kitty whispered, glancing over her shoulder. If Lex walked in and heard her telling them something like that, she wouldn't have to worry about breaking up with him. "Your mommy's going to come get you. And then Superman will come too and rescue you. Lex thinks he's a lot smarter than he is ... the bad guy doesn't ever get to win, does he?"

Jason looked over at the piano. Brutus hadn't moved, but he really didn't want to be in this room when the big man finally woke up. "Fine. But if you try anything funny..."

"I'd never hurt you," Kitty repeated, shivering a little at the thought of being threatened by a six-year-old with superpowers. She held out her hands, and after a minute, the twins came toward her cautiously.

Kitty took a deep breath of relief. Now all she had to do was get them to the stateroom without anyone seeing them, and then tell Lex about the piano.

* * *

"Dammit," Richard muttered, glaring at the airport clock. "What are we gonna do now?"

"Richard," Lana said, with a little force in her words. "You can't fly anymore today - you're over the amount of time you can legally - safely - pilot the plane. Furthermore, you're exhausted. We have to stop for the night."

"I know, but Perry says Lois is running a lead out toward Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts. If she called to check in with him, then she reserved us rooms out there, and I've got no way to get there without leaving the seaplane here." His voice was full of frustration, and he paced the lobby of the private airport incessantly.

"I can cancel my room," Lana said. "Or heck, I'll pay for it. Whatever. This was a bust, but it needed to be checked out. We'll meet Lois and Clark there tomorrow, and we can survey from the air while they cover surface streets."

Richard smacked his palm down on the table. "Dammit! Lana, I didn't want the kids to spend another night away from us!"

Lana caught his wrist, held it until he turned to face her. "Richard, we're going to get them back. There's just nothing else we can do tonight, okay? C'mon, let's get a cab. Gotham's only a half-hour away."

"Gotham?" His blue eyes were faintly puzzled, still troubled by his worries over the kids.

"Gotham City," Lana explained patiently. "Where I have an apartment and a sleeper sofa. I don't trust you to stay in some hotel and actually sleep."

Richard's eyebrows lifted in surprise. He'd never expected Lana to invite him home ... even if she was prominently mentioning the sofa. "Lana..."

"Oh, knock it off, Richard," she said. "The way you are now, someone has to be around to slip you a Mickey."

A little chagrined, Richard finally allowed himself a chuckle. What was he worrying about, anyway? Lana probably wasn't interested in him as anything more than a friend, no matter what he tried to read into her intentions. "All right. Just let me try Lois' cell phone one more time, so she at least knows where we are." Not that he would mention just where they would stay tonight...

* * *

Lois flipped her phone shut and sighed heavily. "Isn't that fantastic," she muttered.

"What?" Clark was watching the weather; a cold front was moving through the area, hampering their search with high winds and icy rain.

"Richard can't fly out to meet us tonight. After we choreographed everything through Perry, he's stuck out somewhere near Gotham City and can't fly until morning. Worse, they didn't find anything in the lake islands."

"Another red herring," Clark said glumly. "Luthor's got more layers than an onion. And every one smells as pungent."

Lois couldn't help chuckling tiredly. "Well, I guess we can go look at another of the islands before we turn in. There's still time..." Her voice trailed off into a forcibly stifled yawn, and Clark touched her shoulder.

"Lois, you need some rest. C'mon, let's go to the hotel."

"This will be their second night in his clutches," she whispered in wounded frustration. This was tearing her apart, the not knowing, the instinctive fear for them. "I can't. I have to keep looking. There might be something we missed...

So very gently, Clark caught her chin and made her look at him. "Lois, I'll keep looking. I don't need sleep, really, as long as I can get sunlight. You have to get some rest."

"I slept last night," Lois began, and her voice trailed off into another yawn that she couldn't hide. Clark just looked at her steadily, and in the face of her body's betrayal, she had to relent and drive to the hotel. But when she parked the rented car, she turned to Clark and said with guilty misery, "I want them home. I need them home. God, Kal-El... "

Clark squeezed her shoulder, his blue eyes as melancholy as hers. "We'll get them home, Lois. I swear it." Nodding, she got out of the rented car and grabbed the overnight bag she had hastily packed that morning, then headed for the hotel they'd reserved earlier in the day.

Lois walked into the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn with none of her usual sense of purpose, exhaustion weighing heavily on her even as she fought to keep her eyes open. The dreary overcast day had been as dark and threatening as her emotions, as her outlook. Clark followed her, with more energy but the same weary look. Frustration had gnawed at both of them all day, and the news about Richard being stuck in the lakes region did nothing for their morale. The thought tolled through both their minds: Another night away from home. Another day trapped somewhere with Luthor.

Silence reigned as they checked in and then took the elevator up to their floor. Lois trudged to her door and flicked the key card through the little scanner, but there was no welcoming click of the door unlocking, just a flashing red light. "Damn," she muttered, and tried it again a little slower. Still nothing. Maybe it was too slow ... nope. "Goddamn piece of..."

Clark reached around her, took the card, reversed it, and scanned it. The green light blinked and the lock clicked open. "Dammit," Lois groaned, leaning back slightly against his chest to look up at him. "I hate you."

"No, you don't," he said gently, opening the door for her. "You sure you're going to be okay by yourself?"

"As long as I can remember not to stick quarters in the electrical outlets, Kal-El, I'll be fine," Lois answered in a quiet but cranky tone not too unlike Kala's after a long day. "And I swear I won't play with the plastic garment bag in the closet that has 'DANGER OF SUFFOCATION - NOT A TOY' printed on it."

"Okay, okay. I just worry about you. This is ... it's hard on all of us, but you most of all."

"I'll be fine; I'm a big girl," Lois told him, trying to keep her mind straight enough to not start bawling yet again. The twins needed her to be strong, not ringing her hands like a hysterical mother. The only thing that was keeping her from continuing the search even now was the fact that the man beside her was clucking at her like a mother hen - and would be going out again to look for them. Moving forward to hold the door for herself, she arched an eyebrow as she glanced up at him again. The exhaustion she had denied was starting to take its toll, and his concerned look was starting to get on her nerves. She'd gotten along without him for more than six years; she could survive one night alone. "You're not going to have stay in here to keep guard, or keep me distracted, so don't get any ideas."

He looked down at her, dark eyebrows raised. "That was the furthest thing from my mind. Who do you not trust, Lois? Me or you?"

In spite of her fear for her children, the deep-down truth of his statement hit a little too close to home. There had not been a moment the entire day that she hadn't felt their attraction stronger than ever and knew that the steel walls she had built were in ruins. That she hadn't just wanted to break down and just confess all...

Calling herself a fool, her hazel eyes narrowed. "Doesn't matter. I'm going to take a bath." She seemed to think on that for a moment before almost teasingly adding, with a tiny smile, "And no x-ray vision or I'll kick your butt."

"Lois!" Clark realized how tired she was with that remark; her smart-aleck attitude had been wired directly to her mouth, without passing through the brain first. "Anyway, I'm not going to my room yet. One more flyover, remember."

"Yeah, you promised, despite the rain. Maybe there will be something else, anything else. When you get back, come in and tell me what you find." Lois held the door open and handed him her key card.

"I think you'd better just go to sleep," Clark said, trying to refuse the key, but Lois caught him with that steely glare.

"If you find anything - anything - or nothing at all, I want to know," she said, rallying her strength. Her will had always been indomitable, and determined as she was now, the fatigue barely showed. "And when I hear you come in without coming over here, which I will, I'll find a way to get over to your room. I mean it. I want to know the minute you find something out. Understood?"

"All right, Lois, I'll let you know," he said gently. "Try to get some rest, okay?" Impulsively, he hugged her tight to his chest and rested his cheek on her hair.

For an instant, she stiffened in surprise, and then her resistance melted. Lois all but slumped against him, all of the snappishness drained from her, only fatigue in its wake. This had been something she had needed for hours now, something no one else had seemed to think mattered. She sighed heavily, gratefully, luxuriating in the relief of finally letting down her façade. Unable to help it after all this time, Lois simply let herself surrender to the one she had always been safest with and snuggled closer with the relief of simply being able to finally do so. "I'm starting to worry..." she whispered with a tone of bitter amusement.

"Lois, we'll find them," he murmured, trying to envelop her in his warmth and strength. She was so small, so fragile, and it was only when she was in his arms that he remembered it. She's practically a force of nature when she's angry, but like this... I'd give anything to protect her. Anything. "I promise we'll rescue them."

"Good," she said softly against the fabric of his shirt, "because you can't lie to me... If you say we'll get them back ... has to be true..." For the second time in as many days, she was struck with how absolutely right it felt to be so close to him. Home. It feels like home.

There was no reply, no words for how much he treasured her renewed faith in him. All he could do was hold her, letting his arms around her waist and his heart beating beneath her ear speak for him.

After a long moment, Lois forced herself to pull away and headed into her hotel room reluctantly. Just before she stepped over the threshold, their eyes met long enough for her to say softly, "Thank you. For being here ... for me..." Her gaze, so full of mixed emotions, held his for a heartbeat longer before she slipped through the doorway, closing it behind her.

Clark watched her go, and then went into his own room to change. As he flew off the balcony, he prayed as he had been praying for the last two days: Please, let me find them. Let me find the twins safe and sound. Let them still be okay.

* * *

Kitty rarely came into the galley when the men were playing cards, so her appearance today drew notice. She didn't look at them, however; her eyes were only for Lex, in the formal dining room just off the kitchen. "We had a problem," Kitty told him, "but I handled it."

Grant snorted, and Riley guffawed, but Lex just turned to look up at her, his eyes somehow flat and reptilian. "What kind of problem?" His voice was silky and dangerous.

"Brutus," she replied succinctly. "I don't know what he was doing around the kids all the time, but it wasn't good. He pushed them too far, and one of them threw the piano at him."

"Threw the piano?" Lex repeated, his eyebrows rising. Kitty could almost see the gears in his mind suddenly whirring to new speed as he came to the galley door.

"Told him they were vicious," Riley said under his breath. Louder, he continued, "Boss, what do you wanna do?"

Kitty was faster. "You don't have to do anything," she said with mock sweetness. "I already moved the incredibly dangerous six-year-olds into the room they were supposed to be in all along. They're fine, so you brutes don't have to go dragging them around and scaring them all over again, and getting someone else killed."

"Thank you, Katherine," Lex said. "That was very neatly done. Stanford, the surveillance equipment is in place?"

"Yes, sir," he replied.

"Excellent," Lex said. "Grant, Riley, I want Brutus' body removed. Just put him overboard. The piano too - I doubt it's repairable."

The two men were a bit nonplussed, and glanced at each other. At last Grant said cautiously, "That's it? Just chuck Brutus over the side?"

"You can have a funeral service if you want," Lex said sarcastically. His dark eyes bored into the men's before he added, "Of course, you do realize why they killed him, don't you? He never told anyone why he was sentenced, never complained about the lack of women in Nevada. I suppose we know why, now. Throw him to the sharks, gentlemen. They're not so choosy."

* * *

Richard was supremely uncomfortable in Lana's house. The sofa he was lying on wasn't the problem, nor were the cozy furnishings in the room. No, the two things that kept him staring at the ceiling long past the hour when he should've been asleep were both troublesome thoughts.

First, the twins. For the past three years, he had been there for them most nights, tucking them in, talking to them, and reading them stories. True, he'd shared that time with Lois, but now the twins didn't have either of them. The thought of Jason and Kala, alone somewhere with only each other for comfort, gnawed at the back of Richard's brain.

The other thought that simply would not go away, no matter how hard he tried to banish it, was a comparison of Lois and Lana. As often as Richard told himself it wasn't fair to either woman, his mind kept returning to the contrast between them. Under pressure, Lois became tense and tended to lash out. Anytime she felt herself to be under attack, she fought back - and she generally won out of sheer stubborn refusal to accept defeat. Lana, on the other, would ignore anything short of a physical attack. She seemed to personify the playground advice so many parents gave their children: Don't stoop to their level.

Lana was gracious where Lois was abrasive, and yet both of them always seemed to emerge the victor of any situation. Contemplating the vast differences that led to such similar superiority, Richard still couldn't fall asleep.

And now it seemed he wasn't the only one. A moving shadow caught his eye, and Richard sat up to see Lana standing in the hallway in a long bathrobe, as if his guilty thoughts had somehow conjured her. She was completely covered from neck to ankles, but the tightly-belted robe still followed her curves, and Richard's traitorous mind seized on the image. He blushed in spite of himself, thinking, Idiot, it's not like she can read your mind. Quit acting like teenage boy caught peering into his neighbor's windows with binoculars!

Lana looked at him silently for a moment, her auburn hair merely dark in the dimness. "Having trouble sleeping?" she quietly asked at last.

"Yeah," Richard replied, his voice as hushed as hers. Stop being a fool. You're just trying to distract yourself from the real problem. She's not at all interested in you...

"Me too," Lana said, and chuckled softly. "Let me see if I can do something about that, hmm?"

Richard's eyes widened as she walked toward him and past the couch, leaving a trail of some light, floral scent in her wake. Half unable to believe what she'd just said, he watched her disappear through the door.

After a moment he tossed the covers aside, his expression dazed, and stood up. In only an undershirt and boxers Richard padded after Lana, wondering if this were some kind of dream.

* * *

Lois moved with a deliberate slowness born of despair and the knowledge that, in her exhausted state, she could easily do something forgetful. Like climb into the bath with her blouse on - she'd done that once, after staying up for sixty hours chasing a story. But she soon sank into the comforting embrace of the hot water, immersing herself up to her chin and letting her hands fall to her sides.

Something went clink faintly. After thinking about it for a moment, Lois realized the sound was her engagement ring hitting the porcelain. Hot water with lavender bath oil in it would soon make the ring slide off her finger, so she took it off and set it beside the tub. Then she slid back into the water until only her eyes and nose were above it, and tried to clear her mind of everything.

It wasn't working. As tired as she was, her mind was still spinning crazily, running on fumes and fear. Where were the twins right now? Who was giving them their nightly bath, or were they being forced to endure grime along with captivity? Had they had dinner tonight? Had anyone spoken kindly to them since they'd been taken? Were they scared, right now, had that bastard left them in the dark?

The water gradually became saltier as Lois' silent tears slipped from her eyes. I can't do this. I need to sleep; I have to be rested tomorrow. In the makeup bag beside the bathtub were several essentials of Lois' life, and she reached for the Tylenol PM. Swallowing two pills dry, Lois set about getting herself cleaned up. No sense in soaking now that she had taken the drugs. She knew from experience that in about half an hour, she'd be totally unconscious and stay that way until dawn. Or until something woke her, preferably Clark telling her that he'd found the twins and accidentally dropped Luthor onto a sidewalk from two thousand feet.

When Lois finally slid between the sheets, her mind had gone pleasantly foggy. All the things she worried about seemed to be at a distance, and she closed her eyes gratefully, ready to sink into slumber. She was falling into a deep black well, letting sleep rise up and close over her, sweet respite...

Normally, she remained in that state until morning. But this time her nerves were still wired, and she began to rise toward awareness. For a long time she hovered in blessed darkness, and then after several hours she started to dream...

...the silver material was cool and smooth against her skin, like the finest silk and yet not like it. He was beside her, so warm, and she curled closer to him, the circular design of the bed making it easier for them to cuddle in the center of it. Kal-El, she was finally lying beside Kal-El with no more secrets between them, no more hesitation. Lois sighed softly and burrowed closer. In some way, she knew this for a dream, a memory more than six years old, but she let it comfort her anyway. Drifting as she'd drifted that morning, she felt peaceful and content and loved as she never had before. Her sleep deepened...

...he moved beside her, tucking the sheets around her. It was cool in the Fortress, not cold but cool, and even with his warm body beside her she would've been uncomfortable in just the thin nightgown. How sweet of him to do that...

...his lips brushed her forehead once. So brief a touch, and yet her desire woke purring like a sleepy cat. Lois turned her face up to his, caught his lips with her own, and kissed him with all of her adoration and satisfaction. Kal-El kissed her back softly...

...Lois ran her fingers into his thick dark hair, pulling him down closer to her. His very mouth tasted faintly sweet - was there nothing about him that wasn't perfect? She smiled against his lips, thinking, No, of course not, he's always been breathtaking, and kissed him again. And pulled his glasses off, tossed them aside, and kissed him again. And again...

...Kal-El drew back from her slightly, and Lois rose up with him, letting the sheets slide down around her. Her arms around his neck, his hands on her shoulders, even that simple touch making her skin tingle. Now he was sitting up on the edge of the bed, running a hand down her back, and she could feel his fingertips trace each vertebra...

...Murmuring wordlessly, Lois slipped free of the sheets and into his lap. He gasped, and she took advantage of it to deepen their kiss. Wonderful, it was as amazing as kisses in dreams should be, and a deep part of her grieved that this was only a dream, that she would wake alone. The rest of her concentrated on melting into him, her skin finally as hot as his, knowing that her nightgown was riding up her thighs and not caring. Only thin satin panties under it, but no matter. Let him see, let him touch, let him lift her up as he'd done six years ago and kiss the hollow of her hip...

...Lois drew back from the kiss to catch her breath, and started to unbutton his shirt, purring as his bare skin came into view. He caught her hands, his blue eyes serious, and murmured, "Lois, no." She silenced him with another kiss and took his hand and placed it on her breast, letting him feel her heart beating so fast and her nipple rising for him...

...Moaning into his mouth because oh, God, she missed that so much, arching her body against him, so what if this's a dream it's a good one so let it be. He tried to whisper, "We can't," and she ground her hips against him and his hand caressed her breast and she moaned again, feeling her pulse beat between her thighs that were wrapped around his waist now...

...His voice so husky, "Lois, wait... Don't, Lois, we shouldn't..." and no matter what he said, she knew he wanted her, no way not to know given where she was sitting. Ignoring her waking life, she wanted this moment for her own, if she could have him only in dreams then by God she would have him here...

...Moving her body against him seductively, the gown almost up to her hips. Holding his hand against her breast, she whispered back, "This is my dream, Kal-El, things have to happen the way I want in my dreams, it's only fair... Nothing else matters now but the dream, and in my dreams you don't ever say stop..."

"You're not dreaming," his voice so low, the need in it. "Lois, please... We shouldn't... Please, Lois, wake up, this isn't a dream."

Everything stopped as Lois woke up fully.

No silky silver sheets, only white cotton ones. No magnificent Fortress of Solitude, just the Hilton Garden Inn's generic décor. But the man whose lap she was straddling was real, as real as the ache in the pit of her stomach. It was all real, from the kiss, to his hand on her breast, to the feeling of him pressed against her just there. Clark's eyes were wide and his breath was fast, but he hadn't simply picked her up and moved her off of him.

Lois realized then that the damn drugs had made her think she was dreaming; Clark had come in as requested to tell her about his search, and had gotten a whole hell of a lot more than he expected.

She also realized that he was still disconcerted, so much so that he hadn't taken his hand off her breast. For a long instant, she stared at him, full of the knowledge that five little words would bring him to her with no more hesitation, words she'd breathed into his ear six years ago. Just say it... You can have this, it worked then to conquer his fears and it will work now. Just look him in the eyes and whisper "I want you inside me," and you can have him...

No. No matter what the possibility felt like, the reality was that it wasn't worth making Superman an adulterer. He'd tear himself to pieces over the guilt. It wasn't worth betraying Richard like this, either. Even if she knew that things were nearly over between them. But oh dear God how she wanted it ... she was literally trembling with desire...

Lois slithered off his lap, curling herself into a ball with her back at the headboard. Her hazel eyes, so wide she looked almost frightened, never left his, never looked away from the terrible yearning in those blue depths. After a long, breathless moment spent staring at each other, Lois whispered shakily, "I guess it's still too late to play hard to get."

That broke the spell slightly, the memories of six years ago close to the surface of both their minds. He laughed a little, running his fingers through his hair nervously. "Yes, well, it's not like you didn't always know how I felt about you," he replied, voice just as unsteady. "Even in that first interview I was grinning like a fool every time I so much as looked at you. And you're still the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

That felt like a knife twisted in her heart. How can I say no to this? Why am I even trying to deny it to either of us? Again she cursed herself mentally for having anything resembling a conscience. "I had no idea back then. And... I... I'm sorry, I got a little ... carried away... I was dreaming ... about..."

"I know," he whispered. "I dreamed about it for three years in that damned ship, heading to Krypton. I should've realized then that, even if I had a home waiting for me there, it would never really be home without you. Even though I was sick from kryptonite radiation on the trip home, I still dreamed of you. And I never said stop in my dreams, either."

Lois had to close her eyes. One more second, looking at him, and she'd lose control of herself entirely. No more bullshit, Lane. Not when you've come this far. "Kal-El ... I'm still in love with you. I've always loved you. Angry or not, I've never stopped."

He took a deep, shuddering breath. "Oh, Lois... I love you, too. I had guessed ... hoped ... but you don't know what it means to hear you say that face to face."

"Oh, I know what it means. I remember the first time you said it to me." Their eyes met again for a painfully intense moment that made her again regret her restraint. With a shuddery sigh, Lois pulled herself together, and finally began to say what she'd gradually realized she had to tell him. But it was so hard. "Kal-El, the twins..."

"I know. We shouldn't even be thinking like this while they're missing," he said, rerouting his train of thought with visible effort. "No sign yet, Lois. I looked everywhere within a hundred miles of our last lead."

It was on the tip of her tongue to correct him, but she bit it back. He's got a point. Not now, not here, not like this. Not when we're both still shivering with need for each other. But I have to tell him they're his. He deserves to know now; I was wrong to keep it from him for so long. It doesn't leave me any less frightened of what he'll think or what he'll say, or what his bastard father will do ... but it's time to give up the last of my little secrets.

"Kal-El," she murmured, biting her lip briefly before finally look up at him. Her mind was made up. He had to know now. "There's something I have to tell you in the morning."

"Is it something important?" he asked nervously.

"Yes," Lois replied seriously, the look in her still-dark eyes still worried. "Something I probably should've told you a long time ago. But it just...it's been difficult to make the decision. Now's not the best time for either of us, but tomorrow..."

"I'd probably better go," he said huskily. "Before... We both need some rest."

Not like I'm going back to sleep anytime soon, she thought. "Even if it makes me sound even more like a scarlet woman ... does it make you feel any better to know I don't want you to leave?"

Her sad little chuckle was echoed by his own. "Yes and no. We both care about Richard, though. I guess this is the price of being the good guys, huh?"

"I can never claim to be one of those, especially these days," Lois told him with a pained look he completely misunderstood. "And yes, I do ... care ... about Richard...but..."

"I know. You're a better person than you think, Lois."

She gave a soft snort of bitter amusement at that. Would I be an entirely awful person if I said I don't care at all at this moment? That all I want is you? All I ever wanted was you? The yearning in her eyes was clear when she whispered back, "Actually, to be honest, I feel like I'm being more selfish than ever. And I wish I cared."

He had no reply for that, just a longing look. "Goodnight, Lois," he said as he rose awkwardly to leave.

It seemed like Lois would say something more, but she tore her gaze from him as he left.

After the hotel door closed, Lois sighed. Unable to help herself, she said it again, just to hear the words out loud. "I love you, Kal-El."


Heart and Soul

Be my friend...

Hold me

Wrap me up,
Unfold me...
I am small
And needy,
Warm me up
And breathe me...

~Sia, 'Breathe Me'

Clark leaned against the door of his own hotel room, breathing raggedly. Inwardly, he cursed his eidetic memory for filling his mind with images of Lois, both the long-cherished ones of that night in the Fortress six years ago and the more recent ones of six minutes ago.

My God, all I did was go in to give her an update, he thought, but that wasn't totally accurate. When he'd seen her lying so still, breathing so deeply, he had known almost immediately that she had taken something to help her sleep. There were times when she had come to the office still groggy after taking a dose the previous night, so waking her up should've been impossible.

He shouldn't have counted on it. She looked so beautiful and vulnerable that he couldn't help coming closer, letting his eyes feast on her. Lois, always so fragile in sleep, like a porcelain doll, an exquisite mask of perfection liable to shatter if touched too roughly. But the opposite was really true, and he knew it, but he couldn't help feel protective of her while she slept. So he had tucked the covers more closely around her, and bent to softly kiss her forehead.

And that was when the trouble started.

He could've stopped it then. He knew he was more than strong enough to hold Lois away from him. But it wasn't the strength of his arms in question, rather the strength of his heart. And he was simply too weak not to kiss her, not to respond to her desire.

It would've been both better and worse if he could've let himself think she was expecting Richard. But no, she'd said his name even while she slept. So now it was undeniable, Lois still wanted him, still loved him - for no mere physical lust would make her voice shake like that, make her eyes go so wide with longing and a little fear of her own emotions.

The memories came back, haunting him, rising from every corner of his mind. One night and one morning they'd had, and within that short time an intimacy so total it was almost frightening. He remembered it perfectly, remembered telling her how often he'd wanted to simply reveal everything, especially when he had to sit next to her at work every day and listen to her talk about Superman. Listen to how much she loved him...

Kal-El had trailed off then, realizing just how much he had been eavesdropping on her while he was Clark. Lois had merely smiled at him over the champagne and said, only half-teasing, "I guess it's a little late in the game for me to play hard to get."

That had lead to them talking about Clark, and about secrets, and finally she had said, "It's kind of confusing," and he had taken her hand and looked into those amazing eyes and replied, "Not for me it isn't. For the first time in my life, everything's clear."

To see her understanding dawn, to see Lois Lane actually surprised, was priceless. She who had made a hobby of startling people with her boldness was now almost shy of him. And then the hesitancy from both of them, that initial nervousness when he blushed all the way to the roots of his hair and whispered, "Lois, I've never..."

Thank God, she'd understood. She'd silenced him with a kiss, a gentle one. "It's okay," she'd told him. "Let me."

And he had, letting her set the pace, letting her lead the dance. No other moment in his life was as sharply etched in his memory as watching her unzip the back of the dress and let it slide down off her shoulders, revealing the delicate silk slip underneath, seeing her look at him so very seriously as he drew in his breath with wonder. At a loss for words, he'd slid one arm around her, pulled her close, and she had deftly guided his other hand to cup the swell of her breast...

* * *

Lois' mind had drifted to the same place as his, lying in bed staring at the ceiling, listening to the patter of the storm that had finally begun. It had been threatening all day, but only now had decided to make good on its promise. Every nerve twanged, her body still alive with need, as if with lightning running through her veins. And it didn't help that this tonight - which she refused to think clearly about - was bringing back her once-lost memories in even clearer detail.

Like the way his eyes had widened, the first time he'd touched her, his hands so warm, Lois herself so very conscious of the dress lying puddled on the floor beneath her. Even now, she wondered what she had been thinking, wearing blue chiffon when she could have worn anything else for him. She had been worried, wondering if she looked good enough, but the hungry rapture on his face convinced her. Lois had tried to ignore the way her hand shook as she had taken the clip out of her hair, letting the dark length of it fall past her shoulders. And all the while a little voice in the back of her mind whispered, The first, you're the first, he will remember this forever so stop mooning like a silly teenage girl! For one time in your life you can be a goddess, so get a hold of yourself. Forget about being in awe of him for once and let him just be a man. Show him what love is ... show him how much you love him.

He'd been so gentle, so scared of hurting her, his kisses were like whispers on her skin. She had been more bold to reassure him, running her nails over the perfect muscles of his back, letting him feel the hint of her teeth when she kissed his neck. Just getting the clothes off had been an excruciating torment, her pulse beating so hard it made her ears ring when all that was left to remove were her thin slip and his pants.

Both of us were as scared and awkward as a couple of schoolkids in the back seat of Dad's car, she thought. Me, with my sophisticated views of love and sex, reduced to wishing I could turn off the lights before he saw me - gasp! - naked. Like he didn't have x-ray vision, like he hadn't taken a peek inside my lungs before. He could have seen me naked any time he wanted.

But Lois had to admit the results were a lot better than the teenage fumblings she'd experienced and he had completely missed. He had been a quick learner, oh yes indeed...

* * *

At the first, every time Lois had breathed in sharply he had thought he'd hurt her. His powers were supposed to be gone, but what if they weren't entirely gone? Besides, she was so much smaller than him, so much more delicate. He had shivered in fear of hurting her with each sudden sound, in spite of her reassurance, until she had spoken huskily into his ear and pleaded that he never stop. Pleaded.

Until that moment he had never dreamed of Lois sounding so needy, had never imagined she could plead for anything... Of course, since then the image of her face haunted by desire, the sound of her voice gone molten with it, were branded into his memory.

I want you inside me...

The surprise he'd felt when she slipped onto his lap, the shock of actually... For a moment sensation had overridden all else, he even forgot to be afraid when she cried out sharply and clenched her nails in his skin. And then, holding her while she trembled, that mysterious fey look in her darkened eyes, and Lois had whispered so huskily, "Trust me, that didn't hurt me." He'd had no words then, just kissed her, let his mouth and his hands speak of his desire for her. It had been the most overwhelming pleasure of his life for a minute or two, quickly surpassed when she started to move against him...

He shuddered, pressing his palms against the wall, and willed the memory away. I can't think about this, if I do I'll wind up walking right back into her room, and God only knows what will happen. I have to get my mind off this...

* * *

Richard stopped in the kitchen doorway, perplexed. Reality and his half-hopeful expectation simply didn't jibe. He'd followed the lovely redhead assuming ... what, really? Now he felt like a fool.

Lana looked up at him with a knowing smirk, stirring a saucepan of milk on the stovetop. "Richard, I'm not Lois," she said quietly. No hint of rancor in her tone, but her point was made.

Richard winced. No, she wasn't Lois. If Lois had tossed off a line about helping him sleep, she surely wouldn't mean a cup of warm milk. And furthermore, Lana also wasn't Lois in that she was not his fiancée, and he had no right to make such presumptions. "Lana..."

"Hush. It's late, you're exhausted, I'm not exactly bright-eyed myself," she told him. "I just wanted to let you know ... things aren't any different just because I invited you into my apartment. To sleep. On the couch."

"Okay, point made," Richard muttered. "I'm sorry, all right? I just... You're right, it's late. I'm sorry I assumed ... you've got no reason to be interested in me..."

"It must be late," Lana said casually, tipping a few drops of vanilla extract into the milk. "Because I know you're not normally this ... this unobservant."

He looked blankly at her, wondering what the hell was going through her mind.

Sea-green eyes met his, the frank honesty in them incredibly attractive - and just a little frightening. "Richard, I am interested in you. But you're engaged to Lois. The fact that she's possessive and licensed to carry a gun means nothing next to the simple wrongness of trying to steal someone else's man! Furthermore, even if you were single, we barely know each other. I don't even kiss on the first date, Richard - and we aren't even close to dating."

"I know that," he replied earnestly. "Lana, I don't want you to think I'm just some kind of unfaithful, lecherous..."

"Oh, faithful and pure-minded, parading around my house in your underwear?" Lana had to bite her lip to keep from smiling.

Richard looked down. "Boxers and a t-shirt!" he protested.

"Underwear, Richard. If a woman walked around the house that way, it'd be considered obscene."

Unfortunately, Richard had a very visual imagination. "That's not obscene, that's sexy."

"On you it's obscene," Lana replied sweetly, and now the smile couldn't be hidden any longer.

"That was cold," Richard complained, trying to suck in an already flat and toned stomach.

"This is warm," Lana shot back, pouring a mug of milk and handing it to him. "Now drink up and go to bed. To the couch. We have to get up early."

"Yes, ma'am," he muttered, sipping the hot, sweetened drink as Lana poured one for herself.

For a moment silence reigned between them, each alone with their own thoughts and fears. Richard wondered about the twins, about Lois - alone somewhere with Clark, who was probably the father of her children - and about the woman beside him. Lana worried that she had protested too much - did Richard guess how much she already cared for him, how his dark blue eyes sent chills down her spine?

With both of them so preoccupied, it was no surprise what happened next. Richard finished the cup of milk first and reached around Lana to set it in the sink. She drained the last sip only a second later than he had, and the way he leaned into her personal space unnerved her by how much she welcomed it. So she stole a glance at his face as she started to put her own mug in the sink, and knocked it against the counter by accident, jarring it from her grasp.

Lana gasped, already imagining the ceramic in shards on the floor. But even this late, Richard had a pilot's sharp reflexes. He caught the falling cup before it could shatter, but then he was face to face with Lana from only inches away.

One solemn moment looking into each other's eyes, one chance to back down. Neither did. Before she was even totally aware of what she was doing, Lana kissed him. Richard slipped one arm around her waist and kissed her back.

It was not the simple little brush of lips they'd both imagined. This was passion, sudden and enveloping and utterly in disregard of propriety. Lana ran her fingers into his hair and delighting in the sweetest kiss she'd had in a long, long time. Richard reveled in the tenderness of it, the slowness. It had been some time since he'd had a kiss that wasn't just a brief brush of lips or a fiercely-burning expression of momentary lust.

All good things must come to an end, and it was Lana who pulled away, breathless. "Richard..."

"I know," he breathed, and kissed her forehead once. "But later ... after all this is settled..."

"Maybe," she replied, firmly closing the door on that topic. "Right now we have more to worry about."

"Yeah, we do," Richard sighed, and then with the ghost of grin added, "So much for not kissing on the first date, Ms. Lang."

The slap surprised him, though she didn't hit him hard, just enough force to show him his error. "Good night, Richard," Lana said with a hint of frost. "I'm going to my room - and locking the door. I'll see you at 5 AM." With that, she turned on her heel and left.

Looking - and feeling - like an errant schoolboy, Richard slunk back to the couch, thinking, What the hell am I doing?

And some deep, uncensored part of his brain caught a glimpse of Lana in the hallway, and replied, Not what you want to be doing...

"I'm going to sleep," Richard muttered, dropping onto the couch and pulling the pillow over his head.

* * *

Lois was still not in control of her own mind, her defenses swamped by Tylenol PM and aching need. She'd curled herself into a ball with her face buried in the pillow, trying to muffle her pleading whimpers. Why the hell did I send him away? He's all I want right now, all I ever wanted, all those sensible reasons we can't be together look so flimsy measured against this.

And if was only that, the way we fit together perfectly, maybe I could forget all of this again somehow. Could shrug it off. But looking into his eyes that night, seeing the way he watched me with nothing but stark emotions. It felt like a dream to me then, too, from the moment I pushed things farther. From the moment I felt him move.

There were no words for the firestorm that rained down on her then, the feeling of reality and fantasy blurring as they moved so closely together, the intimate dance between them reaching its zenith as she had quickened her pace, her cheek rested against his hair. He was here, he was with her. He had chosen her. Had given up all just for the sake of being hers.

Her breath was coming in throaty whimpers now, his just as harsh, the sensations almost painful in their intensity. She just couldn't stop touching him, reassuring herself that he wouldn't disappear abruptly to leave her alone in her lonely bed with yet another dream to torment her. Until that moment her mind was still somewhat rational. Then he was caressing her breasts more boldly, the sensitive skin of her belly, and she was lost with a husky wordless murmur of need. The pleasure was almost painful, nerve endings afire.

Starting to gain surety that he wouldn't hurt her, she felt him catch her hips, responding to her arches with tentative thrusts of his own, a slow and irresistible rhythm that he even now tempered. Lois bit back a moan as she felt him deep inside, his movements rocking him within her, his hands on her hips so careful but with a degree of possessiveness she had only hoped for.

Her arms slipping around his neck in a gesture all too familiar to their flights, her cheeks and chest flushing as the intensity between them rose, Lois did something she had never done with a lover before in her life. As the tension built higher, the fire stronger every second they moved together, the urge was too strong, and as the first shivers ran through her, Lois raised her head. Wide eyes caught his and stayed riveted to their stormy cerulean depths as he moved inside her, their connection even more immediate and intimate. And in a more profound way than ever before between them, Lois fell. Plummeting in free-fall. Only this time it was with vulnerable and desperate cries of pleasure, although his arms were there to catch her as they had always been.

And in the present, she was alone in her room, with her face turned into the pillow to muffle her sounds while the storm outside her window raged. As the world exploded around her, Lois ignored the tears slipping down her cheeks. In her memories, she lay against his chest as his arms came up around her, holding her tightly. Nuzzling closer, she had felt her heart seize when he whispered I love you against her ear. Dear God, she loved him, too, she thought as her memories began to blur, raising the fire lit within her even higher.

* * *

He could hear her breathing rapidly in the next room, despite the thunder that had begun to rumble, and to be so close to Lois tormented him worse than the memories of the past. Memories ... if only they weren't so achingly clear...

Kal-El fled the room, seeking the sky, putting distance between himself and the swift beat of Lois' heart. The temptation was far too strong...

Temptation. Waking that next morning to find she'd rolled slightly away from him, seeing her body bared to him while she slept, he had been unable to resist the temptation of her perfect form. At first he had simply admired her, his eyes lovingly tracing her curves, but soon his hands moved to follow the path of his gaze.

He stroked the plane of her cheek, her long dark lashes lying over her porcelain skin, concealing those jeweled eyes he loved so well. And then he caressed the hollow of her throat, where her pulse beat slow and steady, satisfied and sleepy. With each breath, her chest rose, inviting him to run his fingertips along the curve of each breast, tracing a leisurely spiral path around to the peak, which stiffened to his touch.

That had brought a smile to his lips, and smiling he had kissed her there, brushed his lips against the silken skin. Lois had sighed softly in her sleep, turning her head, arching her shoulders up toward his mouth. Slowly, gently, he had begun to suckle, his tongue touching her nipple softly, evoking a soft moan from somewhere deep in her throat. Still mostly asleep, she ran one hand into his hair, cradling his head closer.

Lois slept very soundly, as Kal-El was learning. He was free to explore her body, sometimes with feather-soft kisses, sometimes with a bolder caress. She made an inarticulate murmur of pleasure as his kissed the back of her neck, but wasn't fully awake yet. Gradually he moved from the sweet fullness of her breasts down to her softly curved belly, nuzzling his face into the curve of her flank. Such bliss, to lie there with her, Lois asleep still and in total surrender to him. He could lick a wet line of warmth from the top of her hip up to the tip of her nipple; he could stroke his fingertips across her sides until she whimpered in protest at the tickling sensation.

Her legs, so impossibly long on someone built so delicately, were utterly fascinating. The strong muscles in her thighs and calves contrasted with her dainty ankles and feet, the sleek curves suggesting power as well as grace. Kal-El adored her, kissed the top of her thigh... and then a wicked thought came to him.

Last night, the first time had gone swiftly, his fear of hurting her mixed with his overwhelming desire. Neither of them had been exhausted by it, and Lois had roused him to passion again with something he'd never expected. Her raven-black hair lying against his thigh, her mouth... He shuddered to remember. The sensations had been so incredible, so far beyond anything he ever imagined he could feel. Now his blue eyes darkened at thought of bringing her such pleasure. Surely she couldn't sleep through that...

Lifting her had been so easy, even without his powers, Lois was so light. Her legs curling naturally around his shoulders, he'd kissed the thin, soft skin of her inner thighs first. Anxiety gave way to desire; could there be anything more erotic than this, his breath on the most sensitive part of her body? And then to taste deeply, feel her shudder, see those eyes fly open wide with shock even as she cried out huskily...

In the present, high above the earth, Kal-El tossed his head back and pressed his hands to his eyes, trying in vain to block out a vision that was branded in his mind. Please, no more, he begged of his faultless memory. Oh, his recall was perfect in all five senses: her breathy cries, her hips arching helplessly in his hands, the faint trace of desire perfuming her skin, her hazel eyes stained with need, and the taste of her... No more specters of the past, no more reminders of what I gave up. I can't bear this, not now. The rain beat against him, but could not cool his skin or his desire.

The past overwhelmed him again, the memory he'd been trying hardest to avoid. His tongue had teased Lois until she cried out in desperation, her nails clawing his shoulders to pull him up to her. "Please," her voice rough and needy, "please, Kal-El ... please, I need you..."

He had never heard her beg for anything before that night, never imagined the pleading note in her husky voice or the craving it woke in him. Kal-El had slipped one arm under her shoulders to support his weight and caught her hip to steady her. Looking into Lois' eyes, those eyes he thought he knew so well, seeing the wanton hunger there, hearing her whisper, "Yes, please, oh yes, please," he had taken her then, gasping at the molten heat of her desire.

Lois' eyes had slipped closed, a long low moan breaking from her throat, as she shivered and wrapped her legs around his waist. "My God, Kal-El," she'd murmured against his ear when she could speak, lifting her hips to his next thrust. His hesitancy forgotten, he had done as he had dreamed of doing, spurred on by Lois' breathy cries of rapture. Even then he had held back a little of his strength, though with every move Lois sought to draw him closer, pull him deeper.

The first two times the previous night, Lois had mostly been in control of their lovemaking, and that experience had been beyond Kal-El's most explicit dreams. Still, though, he had expected her to take the lead - had expected to offer her his tenderness and inexperience. Now, though... Lois was helpless, utterly surrendered to his will, and he found that more erotic that he could ever have imagined. This woman, whom he loved for so many reasons but chiefly for her fiery independence, now writhed under his touch and begged wantonly for more. Kal-El would never have guessed how Lois' craving and capitulation affected him; inflaming his desire for her as well as his need to protect her and care for her. Love and lust had twined together in his heart as Kal-El watched her stormy eyes, his own growing hazy with passion.

* * *

Her breathing was all the swifter now, almost shuddering painfully in the present as her mind swept back over that moment. Eyes closed tight as her brow furrowed deeply, the teeming images of the last time they made love tearing at her exquisitely. She was biting her lip so hard, her dark hair tossed and rumpled again the white sheets, soft sounds escaping her nonetheless...

The searing look in his eyes that once again trapped and held her as thoroughly as his body held her own. That night on her balcony, all of the almost childish fantasies she'd had of this man, from the first time her gaze had locked with his own, were nothing compared to the reality that they now arrived at. Never had she thought this possible, that he could ever want her with the same unbearable intensity that she had always known for him. But just one gaze in those cerulean depths ... oh God, the expression on his face... To see the same need in those eyes, to feel him closer and closer, deeper and deeper, enveloping her, driving her utterly mad in sensation...

Even now she could hear her own voice, so breathy and broken and desperate as she urged him on, "Please, oh dear God, please... Kal-El... Fill me up ... I need more..."

* * *

No denying the end of it, the force of emotion and sensation that threatened to drown him in shattering intensity. Kal-El had gone so far beyond anything he could ever have imagined or dreamed that words would have failed if he'd ever tried to describe that morning. The only light in the Arctic pre-dawn hours was the faint illumination of the crystals themselves, their glow limning Lois' face and gleaming on the tears that began to slip from her eyes.

Tears? Oh yes, this was a moment so sublime he could weep for the perfection of it, lost in a sea of passion, so close now... The only experience that came anywhere close to this was flying, the moment of intense pressure and striving urgency just before he broke the sound barrier and soared. Lois threw her head back, her body arching completely up off the bed to meet him, her nails raking his back as she tried to pull him even closer.

And then, the finale, at last Kal-El had found a force stronger than himself, more powerful than the sun's hot rays - and found it in the arms of Lois Lane. He drove into her one more time, shuddering with the strength of sensation. Lois caught the back of his neck, pulling his face down to hers, and he felt the dampness of her tears when she pressed her cheek against his and cried out softly, lost in a fog of passion...

Memory. All a memory, more than six years old, and the reality was this: a man not from this earth, shivering at the mercy of his perfect recall as he hovered far above his adopted planet's surface. Even the thin, cold air at this height didn't chill his ardor or slow his racing heart.

I can never forget, he thought, feeling tears on his own face, freezing in the upper atmosphere. No matter what I do or where I go, she'll always be in my heart. Even if she never comes back to me - just because she loves me doesn't mean she will - Lois will always be mine...


Revelations and Famous Last Word

The new room was smaller than the grand ballroom, but much cozier. Kala and Jason cuddled together in the bed, arms protectively around each other, the comforter pulled up to their ears. It had taken them awhile to fall asleep last night, and Kala in particular had woken up several times for no reason apparent to the two men watching the closed-circuit television.

"I'm not sure," Stanford said, wishing Lex would leave so he could take another gulp of Mylanta. Just knowing about the kryptonite hidden in the vent above the bed made him queasy; this was no way to treat children, half-alien or otherwise. "They were complaining about headaches and blurry vision last night. And they seem not to be sleeping well."

"Inconclusive," Lex murmured, watching the pair with a keen aquiline gaze. "It might be affecting them, it might not. The sample's too small."

"We didn't want to risk more," Stanford replied, thinking, I didn't want to use more. I really don't want them hurt - but what can I do? "Prolonged exposure could have unforeseen effects."

"Hmm." Lex's mind was now obviously occupied elsewhere, and Stanford returned to nervously watching the two children and counting the minutes until his boss left the control room.

* * *

When Lois thought back on that morning later, she wasn't even sure what made her wake in the half-instant before it happened. As her eyes opened slowly, still dozy from the fog of the Tylenol PM, Lois heard the keycard in the lock, and then the door opened. She blinked hazily as she slightly tossed her loose locks out of her face, still more than half asleep, and saw the broad-shouldered shadow filling the doorway. He had come back after all, several hours having passed. Unable to help herself, she lay there on her stomach and watched him move forward, heat flaring within her even as she felt a chill of nervousness. Dammit, Kal-El, I hope you know what you're doing coming back in here... I only have so much self-control.

Last night's storm of memories and emotions circled back to haunt her, and she couldn't control the sultry smile that rose to her lips even as she shaded her eyes from the light spilling into the room. Anxious as she was, fully aware of how wrong it would be, a part of her had hoped desperately that he would return to finish what they'd started.

"Lois?" His low, concerned voice sent a spike of shock down her spine as Lois snapped fully awake. Oh my God, you stupid woman. It's Richard, not Kal-El. Oh, shit. Thank God I didn't open my big mouth and say... Her mind raced to the previous night, hoping nothing in the room seemed amiss, even as she reflexively clutched the sheets to her chest.

* * *

The room was black when Richard stepped inside, having used the keycard the desk clerk had given him. Thankfully the room had been reserved in his name as well, or he would've had to wait while the clerk rang Lois. The way she slept, he'd be here 'til noon waiting for her to answer.

He'd seen Clark in the lobby, nodding off in front of a newspaper and looking as though he hadn't slept a wink. Richard's hand on his shoulder started the poor man so badly he almost leaped out of his chair, and hurried to get his own room packed up so they could all leave. Poor devil. He looks as tired and achy as I feel - the Lang couch was not designed for comfort.

And his awakening this morning had been far less than pleasant. Perry had called, seeking Lois, and the editor was less than pleased to learn that Richard had spent the night at Lana's apartment.

Once in the room he should've shared with Lois last night, though, Richard had to pause. Something just seemed ... off. She was sitting up hastily, drawing the blankets up around herself and wincing in the bright light coming from the hall. "Richard?"

He didn't answer right away. Richard's journalist instincts were on high alert. The covers were tangled, as if Lois had spent a restless night thrashing in her sleep, and her hair was similarly rumpled. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first glance, though... "Hey, honey. It's almost seven. If you want to start getting dressed, I'll pack up for you."

Lois' voice was still a little rusty with sleep, her eyes still closed against the sunlight. "Yeah ... thanks, Richard." He had reached the bedside by then, and bent to kiss her forehead, noticing the way she stiffened slightly at his touch. Something was definitely up. "I hadn't realized what time it was. I need a shower before we go," Lois muttered.

"Give me a minute," Richard said. "I need to shave - my razor's in your bag."

Lois blinked at him and started ask a question, realizing only then that they'd never quite gotten around to packing separately. She wouldn't have thought yesterday that she would be spending the night with Clark, not Richard...

The thought made her blush, which Richard fortunately didn't see. He had already gone into the bathroom, annoying stubble making his face itch - this was the last time he went anywhere without a razor. The absolute last.

As he stretched his neck, running the Norelco over his chin, Richard caught a glimpse of gold in the mirror. He turned, frowning, to see the ring he'd given Lois sitting on the edge of the tub. She always does that, he told himself firmly, ignoring the chill of apprehension at the nape of his neck. She's lost some weight the last couple months; it'll slip off in the shower, or when she washes her hands. You always find it lying by the sink, so don't let your guilty conscience read anything into it this time.

Richard tucked the ring into his pocket, intending to give it back to Lois later, and finished shaving. If only the nagging feeling of wrongness could be as quickly disposed of as stubble...

Lois was waiting outside the door when he opened it, leaning against the wall and seeming lost in thought - and wasn't that odd, her reluctance to come into the room while he shaved? She even startled slightly when he came out and said her name, her thoughts obviously a million miles away. And she looked ... in the nightgown that fell only to mid-thigh, with her wavy hair lying in rumpled waves over her shoulder, Lois looked utterly seductive. Why then was she so distant, so suddenly shy of his touch? Hadn't they maneuvered around each other's morning routines in smaller spaces that this, with the twins underfoot as well? Richard chose not to reflect on that as he watched her go to take her turn, either, telling himself they had more important things to worry about than Lois acting a little odd.

While Lois hurried into a quick shower, Richard started picking things up around the room. From the looks of things, she hadn't bothered to completely unpack last night. Getting ready to leave was fairly simple - all Richard had to do was put away her clothes from yesterday; gather up her hairbrush, keys, Tylenol PM, and put them next to her purse; and then find her boots. That was Lois' one annoying traveling habit; she tended to kick her shoes off and let them lie wherever they fell, which had been the cause of several near-falls and much cursing on Richard's part.

Richard knelt beside the bed, fishing one black boot out from underneath, and looking around for its mate. Glancing under the bedside table, he froze...

What the hell are Clark's glasses doing on the floor? At first the thought was just absurd, but then a suspicion began to form in Richard's mind, one that explained the strange feeling he'd had since he walked into the room. Rumpled sheets, tousled hair, engagement ring hidden ... and the twins' father's glasses on the floor beside Lois' bed.

Picking up the glasses slowly and slipping them into his pocket, Richard muttered aloud, "I'll give her one chance to explain this. One."

* * *

Downstairs, Clark was giving Lana a slightly confused look. Packing up his own room had only taken a few minutes, and he was on his way to check out when he met Lana in the lobby. She'd been oddly hesitant, distracted and uncomfortable talking to him. What on earth happened to make Lana act this way? Clark wondered.

The elevator dinged behind them, and Lana looked past him, wincing slightly. "Hmm. I think I'll meet you outside, okay?"

"Sure," Clark replied bemusedly, heading for the counter to check out. Now he could hear Lois' heartbeat behind him, and further speculation on the cause of Lana's distress was cut off by his own discomfort in Richard's presence.

He couldn't help seeing Richard walk up to the counter next to him, nor keep from noticing the way Lois avoided his gaze. The air around her seemed entirely too warm, and Clark tugged at his collar as he handed one clerk his credit card and room key.

Richard placed his MasterCard on the counter in front of the other clerk, giving the young woman a brief distracted smile as he asked Lois for the room key. His mind, like Clark's, was elsewhere until Lois caught both their attention by muttering a curse. "Dammit. I don't have it - did you see it in the room, Richard?"

"No," he replied, giving her a look. "Good Lord, Lois, did you lose another one?"

"I've only had to pay for about ten of those stupid things," Lois muttered under her breath, then directed a bright and slightly frazzled smile at the clerk. "I'm sorry, I guess you'll have to replace the key for room 306."

"306?" the other clerk said, puzzled. She held up the keycard Clark had handed to her, and continued, "But it's right ... here... Oh."

Lois glared at her; Richard stared at Clark; the two clerks looked at all three of them with raised eyebrows, and Clark slowly took his own keycard out of his other pocket. "Um..."

"That is the last goddamn straw," Richard growled. He hadn't confronted Lois in their room, wanting to wait until they were alone, but this was too much. "Somehow I'm not surprised by her, but I thought better of you, Kent."

"Shut your mouth, White," Lois spat. "You don't know the first thing about..."

Richard whirled back on her, his patience evaporated. "No, this is about the fifth thing. One, the bed was wrecked. Two, you're wearing the sexy nightgown, and you looked rumpled. Three, the ring I gave you was hidden in the bathroom. Four, his glasses on the floor! C'mon, Lois - entertain me. How're you gonna defend that? Try a new excuse - I'm tired of the ones you've been using for months now."

His vehemence had shocked everyone into silence; even Lois was open-mouthed at the conclusions he'd drawn. Only now did she remember pulling Clark's glasses off last night in the depths of her 'dream'. And in spite of how bad this all looked, in spite of how difficult explaining herself was going to be, she couldn't stop a traitorous thought from running through her mind. If I'm going to be damned for it, I really wish I'd actually done it.

"You stop entertaining the staff and pay for the goddamn room," Lois growled back finally, her fury barely checked, and continued only in her mind, You wanna paint me as a Scarlet Woman, we can do it outside.

As if Clark had heard her thought, he finally shook himself free of his horrified surprise and spoke. "Lois, go wait in the car. Richard, we'll discuss this outside."

Richard turned back to him, ready with a scathing retort, and the words died on his lips. Clark had unconsciously drawn himself up to his full height, and some deep instinct spoke in Richard's mind. He's bigger than you ... dunno why you never noticed that before, but he's taller, broader through the shoulders, and that's muscle under the secondhand suit. He could pound you like a tent stake, so maybe you ought to shut up and think for a second here...

"No," Lois replied sharply. "I'm not gonna let him stand there and talk about me like that. Or you, for that matter."

Another uncomfortable realization for Richard. This wasn't the woman he'd known and loved, lain down beside and worked with, for the past several years. Sleeping Beauty was wide awake - and furious.

"Lois, wait for us in the car," Clark restated gently. For the first time that morning, his eyes met Lois', and in spite of the circumstances, a spark leapt between them. "I'll handle this - we don't need to waste time bickering. Just go wait in the car, honey."

Defiance in her eyes and the set of her jaw, but against his calm insistence she finally let out a sighing breath and rolled her eyes in defeat. Still growling under her breath, Lois turned and left, sending one more venomous glance Richard's way as she did so.

* * *

Outside the hotel, Lana had realized that she didn't know what type of car Lois and Clark had rented. So she waited just outside the doors, hoping to just sort of fall in with the trio when they walked out and follow them to the car, not meeting anyone's gaze. Even Clark suspected something now...

The automatic doors slid open, and Lois stormed out of them, radiating frustrated fury. She knows was the first thought on Lana's mind, but the reporter didn't even glance her way, heading out into the parking lot.

If it's not that, then what has her so angry? Lana followed, having to hurry to keep up. "Um, Lois?" she began tentatively.

Lois' head whipped around so fast her dark hair flew out as if it were in some kind of shampoo commercial. A faintly puzzled look crossed her face, and she said distractedly, "Oh. Lana. Hi." She slowed down a little as she spoke, but kept heading out toward the far end of the parking lot.

So she doesn't know, Lana thought, biting her lip. "Is everything all right?" she asked.

A blunt "No" was her only answer, and she was forced to quicken her stride again. Guilt gnawed at Lana; she hated to think about kissing Richard, hated to be jealous of his ring that Lois wore - though not at the moment - and before her conscience could tear her heart in half, she had to say something.

Lana reached for Lois' wrist and thought better of it at the last second. "Lois..." she began, and her courage faltered.

The reporter cocked her head, staring curiously at the redhead. "Yes?" Her voice was clipped and impatient, her mind clearly elsewhere.

"Listen, I don't feel right about this..." Lana trailed off again before taking a deep breath and forcing herself to meet Lois' sharp hazel stare. "I wanted to apologize to you... I didn't mean to, it was sort of an accident, but ... IkissedRichardlastnight. And I'm really sorry about it." The actual words came out in a rush, and Lana winced, waiting for Lois' reaction.

Silence. Lois stared. After a moment she blinked. "You kissed Richard."

"Yes." Lana closed her eyes, waiting for the inevitable explosion. Lois would probably slap her... No, this was Lois. She'd probably punch her.

"That's all? You just kissed him?"

"Of course that's all," Lana replied, affronted. "I'm not... Look, I didn't intend to do that when I brought him to my apartment, Lois - I just didn't trust him by himself. I didn't think... I didn't mean to, I just ... kissed him."

Fleeting emotions crossed Lois' face: disbelief, irritation, possessiveness, and then a cynical kind of acceptance. "Fine. Good for you." With that, the shorter woman turned on her heel and stalked over to a burgundy PT Cruiser.

Lana's green eyes widened. That was all? She'd expected a much more violent outburst, based on Lois' reaction to seeing her talking to Richard that day in the Planet offices. "Something else is going on," Lana muttered, and wondering what it was, she followed the other woman to the car.

* * *

After paying for the rooms in stony silence, Richard and Clark went outside. Richard, actually, would've continued their confrontation in the lobby, but Clark caught his elbow and gently but irresistibly propelled him out the door. Yet more confirmation of the fact that Clark was far stronger than he looked. That kept Richard silent in spite of his seething resentment and suspicion. She let him call her honey? And she actually obeyed him?!

Once outside - and neither of them saw Lois and Lana sitting in the car at the far side of the parking lot - Clark turned to face Richard and spoke in a low, serious tone. "Look, I know you and I have some ... issues to work out, but the priority now is the twins. Luthor would want us to be divided; we're less effective that way. Once Jason and Kala are safe, you and I can ... arm-wrestle in a bar or something, but 'til then we have to be on the same team."

No one else could've pulled that off, but Richard did sincerely like and respect Clark. It also helped to know that the man was honest as the day was long. And utterly incapable of lying... "Fine," Richard replied, banking the simmering fires of jealousy and guilt for now. "For me to be a team player, though, you have to answer one question."

Clark sighed. "Okay, go ahead."

"Have you been sleeping with Lois?"

Though he had been expecting something of the sort from the moment he realized he'd handed the clerk the wrong keycard, Clark was still shocked by the bluntness of Richard's tone. And by the implication that this was some sort of affair, not the accidental collision of dream and reality that last night had been. "What? No! Richard, I can't believe you'd think that of me or Lois!" His denial was made even more fervent by his longing for Lois, by the desire both physical and emotional that he had denied since his return.

The sincerity of Clark's reply, the vehemence of his moral outrage, made Richard feel even guiltier for having kissed Lana last night. And stung by that awareness of his own duplicity, he added vindictively, "Have you ever slept with her?"

Clark's eyes widened, and before he could consider his response he blurted out, "You said one question." Oh, no. That was almost as good as saying yes ... sometimes I really wish I could lie... "Um, Richard, I didn't mean... I mean, I wasn't trying to say..."

Richard held up one hand to block any further explanation. "I get it, Kent. Enough. That's all I needed to hear. Just ... enough. You're right, we can deal with all of this later. Let's just get to the car."

"But I..."

"The car, Kent. I don't want to talk about this anymore. Let's just get on with it, okay? The kids need us. All of us."

Reluctantly, feeling the weight of everything left unsaid, Clark led him to the PT Cruiser.

* * *

Lana sat down gingerly behind Lois in the driver's seat, and the dark-haired woman could see her concerned gaze in the rearview mirror. "So, what did you guys find?" she asked, effectively forestalling any more discussion of Lana's transgressions. Lois found it hard to believe anyone could be so upset over a simple kiss.

Pausing to organize her thoughts, Lana delivered the bad news. "We didn't find a thing. There's some evidence Luthor has used one of the islands up there at some point, but not recently. Only a few buildings big enough to hide a person, and we checked those - the locks are rusted shut."

"What about underground?" Lois asked.

"Richard thought of that," Lana replied. "But the water table is so high, and the area so marshy, that it would be very hard to build anything below ground. Still, there are no signs of recent human activity on any of the islands we searched."

Lois swore under her breath. "He misled us again, the conniving bastard," she growled. "When I get my hands on Luthor, he's a dead man."

Lana opened her mouth to say something comforting, and then saw Lois' hazel eyes in the mirror. She was absolutely serious - this woman was utterly frank about her intention to commit cold-blooded murder. No one could say she wasn't provoked, but Lana still felt a chill down her back.

Just then, the two women noticed the men leaving the hotel. They stopped, and not for a friendly chat. Lana's brow furrowed, and she asked aloud, "What's that all about?"

Lois' eyes narrowed. "Richard's damn guilty conscience." She started rolling her window down, prepared to lean out and yell something to get their attention, but just then Richard held up his hand in a gesture that was undeniably stop. Clark seemed unsure of himself as he walked toward the car, glancing at Richard worriedly. Lois sighed then, shaking her head. "Oh, for the love of God. What have you gone and done now, Mr. Morality?" Lana heard her murmur to herself.

No answers were forthcoming as the two men got into the car, their silence awkward. Clark met Lana's surprised look with a guilty expression quite foreign to his features, and Richard didn't even look Lois in the eyes as he sat down in the passenger seat beside her. "All right, everyone," he said, his voice tightly controlled. "Priorities. Let's go get some breakfast, trade information, and figure out where to go from there. Sound good?"

"Um, sure," Clark replied.

"Fine by me," Lana added.

That left Lois. She didn't look at Richard, either. "There's an IHOP up the road. Let's go."

The drive, though short, was nearly unbearable. The front seat seethed with tension; the back was rife with guilt and questions. Once they actually arrived at the restaurant, a smiling waitress told the sullen group, "My name is April, and you all need to cheer up." She actually managed to startle a chuckle out of them before seating them in a booth.

Lois felt a little nauseous and excused herself before April could take their drink order. Clark spoke first. "Let's have an endless pot of coffee, and to balance that out, a glass of orange juice apiece - sound good?"

Richard shook his head sharply, mouth twisting up in a wry grin. "No way. Lois hates orange juice. She can't even look at the stuff."

Perplexed, Clark said, "But she used to drink it freshly squeezed - even bought a juicer for her office."

"Not anymore," and now the smugness in Richard's tone was undeniable. "She drank so much orange juice when she was pregnant, she loathes it now."

Lana shot him a dirty look and kicked his ankle under the table. They chose the coffee instead and started browsing the menu. When Lois didn't show up to order, Richard sighed heavily. "I'm gonna go find her," he muttered. "Send the search dogs if I'm not back by the time the food gets here."

"Ah, Richard, don't you think I'd better go after her?" Lana