Disclaimer: The recognizable characters and settings in this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros. December 3rd Productions et al. The scenes from the episode The Green, Green Glow of Home are credited to the writers of the show. The changes in the story are mine.

A Matter of Ethics by Nan Smith "This is Clark's room," Martha told Lois, opening a door near the head of the stairs. Lois followed her in and looked around.

"It looks like him," she said, surprising herself. The room had obviously belonged to a boy, later a young man. On the dresser was a picture of a much younger Clark, standing between his parents and grinning at the camera. The walls were decorated with posters, pennants and framed awards for both academic and athletic excellence. Several trophies were arranged on a shelf situated on one wall, along with several carefully assembled plastic models of planes and cars.

Martha chuckled. "We keep it like this. When he visits, he likes to see it the way it was when he lived here." She stepped out into the hall once more. "Just make yourself at home, Lois."

"Thanks."

The door closed behind her hostess and Lois sank down on the bed. Clark's mother was such a nice person--especially after Lois had virtually called her a hick by explaining to her what a fax machine was, only to discover that the Kents owned one. Her opinion of the unsophisticated country people had undergone a couple of abrupt shocks in the last few hours. Clark had set her up for one, she recalled in mild irritation, when he'd told his mother that Lois thought the chef at the barbecue might be a cross-dresser, only to have Martha Kent burst into laughter and inform her that the cook was Clark's father. And then there'd been the business over the fax machine, and she had to admit she'd stuck her own foot into her mouth with that.

Well, no more. Lois Lane wasn't caught making the same mistake twice.

The window was closed, and Lois crossed the room to open it, to let in the warm, autumn breeze. Clark and his father were crossing the yard below her toward another building, a barn or a shed or something. Parts of their conversation drifted up to her on the evening air.

"I want to show you something, son. It's in the storage room." The two men went into the structure by a side entrance, and his voice was cut off by the closing door.

Lois stood by the window for a moment, breathing in the scent of some late-blooming flower. The night sky was clear and black, the stars, undimmed by city lights, were brighter than she could ever remember seeing them before. This place explained a good deal about Clark; his calm, laid-back attitude, not to mention his trusting nature. She shook her head at that. How Clark had ever survived as long as he had in the big city was a mystery she hadn't yet solved, but somehow he managed.

She had turned from the window with the intention of opening her suitcase, preparatory to getting ready for bed, when she heard the alarmed shout: "Martha!"

It was Jonathan Kent's voice. Lois turned back to the window in time to see Martha Kent emerge from the side door and hurry across to the barn. She disappeared inside. Lois paused for a moment, undecided, then her curiosity got the better of her, and she half-ran out of Clark's room and down the flight of stairs. A few minutes later she was crossing the yard to the same building where all three Kents had vanished.

Martha Kent had left the door partly open, and Lois was able to peer inside around the door frame. What she saw brought her up short, and she all but held her breath, trying to be silent. Her ingrained instincts as an investigative reporter told her that the Kents might not want observers.

Jonathan and Martha were bent over something she couldn't see, hidden from her by a pile of fertilizer bags. On the work table, behind them, and partially obscured by their bodies, was an open metal box. Inside that box was... something. She couldn't see it clearly; but whatever it was, it glowed a brilliant green in the dimness.

"Close that thing!" Martha commanded her husband in a voice sharp with fear. He turned to obey, and the woman leaned over, apparently speaking to someone concealed by the stacks of bags.

"Honey, wake up! Clark, open your eyes." She knelt down, and Lois retreated slightly, afraid that she might be seen. Something was going on here that she didn't understand, but she had the feeling that the Kents wouldn't welcome an observer.

Someone moaned, and she recognized Clark's voice.

She heard the voices of both elder Kents speaking, and then the rustle of motion. Quickly, Lois retreated to the corner of the building and watched as the three Kents emerged from the door, his parents supporting Clark between them, and it was obvious that, without their help, he would not have been able to stand on his feet. They crossed the yard and entered the side door. It closed behind them.

Cautiously, Lois approached the door and slipped inside. The light was off; she didn't quite dare to turn it on and the green glow had disappeared. Slowly and carefully, she felt her way across the cluttered little room. Once she barked her shin painfully on some hard object, but finally she reached the work table.. The metal box was no longer where she had seen it and in the dark it would be impossible to find. She reluctantly exited the barn and made her way back to the house. Perhaps later she could return with a flashlight

As she entered the side door she could hear the soft murmur of voices in the kitchen.

"...Doesn't work like other people's." That was Clark. What didn't work like other people's? She froze just short of the kitchen door, listening.

"How do you feel?" Jonathan's voice was clearer than Clark's. "That's the important thing."

"Better." Clark's voice again. "I think I feel better."

Didn't he know? Lois shifted slightly. Concern for Clark warred with curiosity. He must have been taken ill very suddenly, for this afternoon he had been the picture of health. Whatever had caused it somehow must be connected to the green glow she had seen in the shed. Something very odd was going on here. Almost like a scene out of those grade Z science fiction movies on the late, late, late shows on television.

A popping sound, and there was a faint scream, then Martha's voice exclaimed, "Oh, my...!"

What had happened? Lois strained her ears to hear. Something clinked, and Jonathan's voice said, "What do you mean, you 'think' you feel better? Don't you know"

"He's never been sick before, Jonathan," Martha said. "It's a new experience!"

Lois frowned, trying to make sense of what she was hearing. Never been sick? Everybody got sick at some time or other!

More sounds, then Clark's voice again: "I've lifted a rocket into orbit before. Now I can't even lift this."

What was she hearing? Was Clark crazy? No one could lift a rocket into orbit except Superman! The thought hit her with such a shock that she missed the next part of the conversation.

"...Bounce right back," Martha was saying.

"I don't understand," Jonathan Kent's voice said. "How can a rock that probably came from the same planet as Clark make him sick?"

*What*? Lois couldn't believe what she was hearing. Clark was from another planet, or his parents believed he was. That could only mean...

"Because it's poison, that's all we need to know," Martha said. "We're not going to let it near you again."

The sound of the fax machine in the other room brought conversation to a sudden halt. Lois moved quickly and as quietly as she could away from the door to retrieve the fax, her mind working furiously to process what she had just heard. Clark was from another planet, and had never been sick until he encountered this green rock. That could only mean one thing, and it wasn't something she could accept just yet. It was easier to believe that the Kents were somehow crazy, but...

She looked over the sheet of paper for a moment, then made a decision. She had to look at Clark right now, see if he had somehow changed. She turned and headed back for the kitchen, not trying to hide the sound of her footsteps this time.

The three Kents looked around simultaneously as she entered, and she could see the apprehension on all their faces. She waved the paper in the air, at the same time looking closely at Clark. "Look at this!" she said. "A working list of all the clean-up sites from the Environmental Protection Agency, and guess what? Smallville is not on it."

Clark's complexion was pale, and she could see his hands shaking. "Clark?" She took his chin in her hand, turning his face up for a closer look. "You look horrible!" In spite of what she had heard, she felt a pang of concern. He really did look sick. But now something else was striking her, something she had never noticed before. Except for the glasses, Clark Kent bore a very close resemblance to Superman. How had she managed to miss that before?

"It's... my allergies," Clark said.

"You never said you were allergic to anything," Lois said.

"They always kick up when he's in the country," Martha said, quickly.

"Real bad this time of year," Jonathan chimed in.

"Oh." Lois regarded him again. "Well, I tried to warn him about those amber waves of grain." She rested a hand on his shoulder, feeling the slabs of hard muscle under his shirt. "I better get right on this." She looked back at his strained expression. "You...feel better."

She exited the room, and headed back up the stairs, her thoughts in whirling confusion. Had she really heard and seen what she thought? Had she? If it was true, if the Kents weren't crazy, then Clark Kent was Superman!

The whole idea was impossible. Clark couldn't be Superman... could he? Her purse lay on the bed where she had dropped it, and on impulse she pulled it open and fumbled inside for her wallet. She had acquired a photo of Superman some time ago, and now she extracted it, holding it in the light of the bedside lamp, examining it. Clark? What would Clark look like without those horn-rimmed glasses?

The picture of Clark and his parents on the dresser drew her, and she picked it up, comparing the two. There was a resemblance, all right, and a strong one. The child in the photo had those same brown, faintly Asian eyes, and the same heavy, well-shaped brows as Superman. And the birthmark on his upper lip...Why hadn't she noticed before that Clark had Superman's birthmark?

The more she looked, the more certain she became. Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same. How could she possibly have missed it? The similarity was unmistakable.

And what a story it would make! The thought was riveting. Superman had to have been raised on Earth for at least part of his life., and was masquerading as a human man. And what about Martha and Jonathan Kent? Were they from Krypton, too? No, only Clark had been affected by the green rock; his parents were probably human. So when had Superman really arrived on Earth? Maybe she could get him to answer the questions once his secret was out, and he realized he couldn't hide anymore...

That stopped her in her tracks. If she exposed his big secret, how likely was it that he would ever want to have anything to do with her after that? He must have a reason for what he was doing. Why would a being as superior as Superman try to hide who he was behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses?

Well, thinking about it, that wasn't all that hard to understand. Celebrities were constantly hounded by the press and curiosity seekers. He was probably looking for privacy. All well and good. But didn't she owe it to the public to tell them the truth? Besides, this had Pulitzer written all over it. The reporter who exposed Superman's secret life...

Of course, she needed proof, and that was going to be hard to get. And, of course, she would have to explain to him why she felt it was her duty to write the story. Didn't the public have a right to know? It wasn't up to her to ponder the rights and wrongs of that, or the consequences of her action, was it? She was a reporter; it was her job.

But, a small part of her argued, his secret wasn't harming anyone. Did she have a right to destroy what privacy Superman had by telling his secret to the world? How effective would he be at his job if he never had any respite from the press, or the curiosity seekers? It was something which she didn't want to think about with the lure of such a story before her eyes, but it tugged at her, insidiously. What would Perry think of her? What would *Clark* think of her?

There *was* no Clark, part of her argued. He was Superman!

Is he? that irritating little voice answered. Superman only appeared a few months ago. Judging by the history in this room, *Clark* had been around a lot longer. If she wrote the story she had in mind, Clark Kent's life, as he knew it, would certainly be destroyed.

Not to mention the life his parents had here on their Kansas farm.

Was it something she really wanted to do? Was it something she *should* do?

The debate raged in her head, back and forth, pro and con, long after the Kent household had settled down for the night. At last, in exasperation, she shelved it. She needed more information before she made a final decision, so she would wait.

But it was along time before she actually slept.

********************

The scene at Wayne Irig's farm seemed little different today than the day before. The bulldozers were still busy, turning over the ground, digging for so-called pesticides. After last night, Lois wasn't so sure that was what was going on anymore. This place wasn't so far from the Kent farm.

Wasn't it something of a coincidence that Jonathan Kent had that green rock in his shed and the Feds were here at a neighboring farm, obviously looking for something--especially since this site wasn't listed on the EPA's records? Lois looked at the activity with narrowed eyes. There was something very strange about this whole thing.

She had tried to return to the barn or shed or whatever it was, early this morning, only to discover that the elder Kents were up long before her. Clark, Martha had told her cheerfully, was still sleeping. Those antihistamines had really knocked him out.

Lois hadn't said anything, but the thought of Clark's pale face of the night before bothered her. Whatever that green-glowing rock was, it seemed to have a very bad effect on Superman. Now, looking at all the activity before her, something else occurred to her--something that she had been trying not to think about. There was that group that would give anything to lay their hands on something that could harm Superman. They hadn't seen or heard of Bureau 39 since their one encounter with them, not long after Superman's appearance, but she had no doubt that it was still around.

Well, when she wrote the story she didn't need to mention the green rock, did she? That would be irresponsible, after all, letting potential trouble-makers know that there was something that could harm, perhaps kill, Superman. Besides, she didn't really know anything about it.

She glanced at him as the car came to a stop. His face was preoccupied, as if something was bothering him.

"You coming?" she asked.

"Go on," he said. "I'll just be a minute."

Lois reached over to rest a hand on his forehead--*Superman's* forehead! her mind screamed at her-- but he didn't look all that super right now. "You feel normal."

"I *am* normal," Clark said.

"So everything's okay, right?"

"Everything's okay," Clark said. He didn't sound as if it was, though.

"So, let's go," she said.

They got out of the car and Lois walked on ahead a short distance. Clark hadn't kept up with her, she noticed, and on glancing back, she saw him surreptitiously place a hand under the bumper of the car. He was trying to lift it, she realized, and he couldn't. Quickly she turned and continued on, but the thought bothered her. Superman had lost his powers, it seemed. If they didn't come back, there went her Pulitzer, but the loss to the world would be even greater.

And if she wrote the biggest story of her career and exposed his secret, wouldn't she effectively be doing the same thing? That small, nagging corner of her mind wouldn't give up prodding her, it seemed.

Nonsense! she told it, firmly. Actors and other famous persons continued to function with the press and others pursuing them. There was no reason Superman couldn't, too.

Yes, it replied, but they didn't do the kind of thing he did. And what about groups like Trask and Bureau 39? What about the criminals he put into prison?

Well, police had to put up with the same dangers to themselves and their families, didn't they? And they didn't even have the luxury of being invulnerable. Besides, it wasn't her problem, it was his.

But, it wouldn't be his problem if not for her, that small voice reminded her, relentlessly.

Nag, nag, nag. She told her conscience firmly to shut up, but she was conscious of a small tug of guilt when Clark jogged up to join her before they went to confront Carol Sherman of the E.P.A. The thought that she would be betraying Clark's trust was an uncomfortable one. What would he think of her for such a betrayal?

He's a newspaperman, she told herself. He'd understand that she felt it was the public's right to know the truth.

But would he? People didn't have the right to know *everything* about everyone else, especially the intensely private things. Clark wasn't a public official; even Superman had no official standing, really. Did she really have the right to destroy a man's life so she could win that award? Nunk of the National Whisper would think so, of course, but he was a bottom-feeder anyway. No serious journalist had any respect for him.

But she was no Nunk! She wasn't one of those sensationalizing scandal-mongers!

She wasn't going to think about this anymore. She hadn't made any irrevocable decision, yet, after all. First she had to come up with proof, anyway, and that wasn't going to be easy. Clark and his parents had apparently gone to a great deal of effort to conceal his origins...

Again that twinge of guilt. No! She wasn't going to let personal feelings get in the way! This story could make her career!

And shatter three lives, that little voice reminded her.

She was still debating with herself as they got back in the convertible after a short and unsatisfactory talk with the E.P.A. liaison. The list was out of date, Sherman had said. Lois wasn't sure she believed her.

She was even less sure four hours later when she and Clark settled into a booth at the little town coffee shop. They had spent the hours in City Hall researching ancient and dusty records, and found that in twenty years there had not been one permit or citation on the Irig property. Nothing had happened that would attract the attention of the Federal government. So why had they turned up in such force?

"Clark, it just doesn't make sense," she said finally, setting the cellular phone down in the middle of the table. "The federal government doesn't just charge in out of the blue like this. There's usually some kind of triggering factor."

"One would think." He glanced around as a waitress approached and set two glasses of water on the table. "Hi, Maisie."

"Clark Kent! Your mom said you were here for the Daily Planet. So this must be Lois?"

Of course. Lois was beginning to understand small towns. Anything one person knew that was of the slightest interest was all over town in no time. "How'd you guess?"

The woman smiled. "I'm Maisie. How's the writing coming? I just love to read a good romance novel."

"How did..." Lois looked accusingly at Clark. He looked a little guilty.

"I must have accidentally mentioned it to my mother. She must have..."

"--Accidentally told the whole town," Lois said.

Maisie smiled at her. "Oh, that's just Smallville for you honey. Everybody knows everything about everybody else."

Not everything, Lois thought. "So why haven't I heard any dirt on Clark, here?"

"Oh," Maisie said, "with Clark here, what you see is what you get."

She laid out two napkins and smiled. "Here you go. Back in a jif."

When she had gone Lois looked at Clark across the table. He was turning the pages of his notebook, scanning the copious notes he had taken while they searched the old records. "What you see is what you get", huh? And Clark probably was hiding the biggest secret of anyone in town. Superman had been raised as a small town boy, and hidden what he could do with great care. Again that twinge of guilt, carefully pushed away.

"Ow!" Clark's exclamation startled her. He was staring at his finger in open astonishment. "I'm bleeding!"

Lois glanced at the injury. "Haven't you ever had a paper cut before?" With a shock, she suddenly realized what she was saying. He probably hadn't! This was all new to him.

"Not that I can remember," he said.

"Put it in your mouth and suck on it," she told him.

Still, it was a revelation. Superman, without his powers, was as easily hurt as anyone else, and perhaps even more vulnerable, because there were certain things he had never needed to learn. Again she pushed away the guilt, but it was getting harder to ignore the voice in her head that kept telling her that what she was planning to do was wrong. Lois Lane had exposed many wrong-doers in her career, but she had never ruined the life of an innocent man before.

It was the job of a journalist to strip away the veil of secrecy and expose the naked truth. How many times had she heard that in journalism class? But did that mean that no one was entitled to any secrets, even if they harmed no one? Should everyone's entire life be laid bare for anyone who cared to to gawk at? There were plenty of things about her life she didn't care for anyone else to see.

But, part of her argued, this was different! This was big, in capital letters! Didn't the world deserve to know who its hero really was?

Her internal argument was interrupted with the ringing of the cellular phone. Lois reached quickly over to snatch it up, accidentally upsetting the paper cup of water into Clark's lap. With a grimace of apology, she raised the phone to her ear. "Hello?" The voice on the other end made her sit up straight. "Mr. Irig?"

"He said it was Salt Lake City," Lois repeated, "but it could have been anywhere. And he sure was in a hurry to get off the phone."

************

"I noticed," Clark said. They were strolling between the booths at the corn festival, talking over the strange phone call. "He acted nervous, too. If I hadn't recognized his voice I wouldn't have thought it was Wayne at all. He's one of the calmest, steadiest men I know."

"Well, he didn't act calm," Lois said. "His voice was shaking."

"I noticed that, too."

"And I've noticed something else," Lois said, quietly. "We're being followed."

Clark didn't glance around. "How can you tell?"

"The same two guys have been watching us ever since we were at the coffee shop," Lois said. "One of them looks familiar. I've seen him before."

"Lois..."

"Stand right there," Lois directed, gesturing at one of the displays.

"Look at the reflection in that big glass. See those two guys standing beside the popcorn stand? Don't tell me you don't recognize the one on the left."

Clark obeyed, and she saw him freeze infinitesimally. "I was right, wasn't I? We've seen him before."

"I'm not sure."

"Well, I am. That's one of the men who invaded the office of the Daily Planet when Jason Trask was trying to track down Superman. Clark, we *aren't* dealing with the E.P.A. here. We're dealing with Bureau 39!"

***********************

"Clark, why would Bureau 39 be tearing up your neighbor's property?" Lois asked, bluntly. They were seated in the rental car again, using the rear-view mirror to keep an eye on the two men who now stood thirty feet behind them, apparently engaged in vigorous argument.

"Lois, are you sure?" Clark's voice lacked conviction, and she knew why. If Bureau 39 was here, then they were probably after that green rock in Jonathan Kent's storage barn, and a way to harm Superman. And Clark was trying to keep her from finding out--which was reasonable, she figured. He couldn't know whether he could trust her... which, she realized, with a pang, he couldn't. Not if she was considering doing... well, what she was considering doing. It wasn't an image of herself that she cared to contemplate, but something had to be done to protect Superman from these goons. If she knew government types, sooner or later it would come to their attention that Wayne Irig and Clark's father were friends, and then the Kent farm would be searched as thoroughly as the Irig farm was being gone over right now, and they would find that dratted green rock!

"Yes, Clark, I'm more than sure. I'm absolutely positive. Bureau 39 is looking for something, and it probably involves Superman. And the chances are that they've got your neighbor, too, so what are we going to do about it?"

Clark sighed. He looked absolutely hunted, she thought, which in a way he was. "Clark, do you have any idea what they're looking for?" she asked.

He glanced at the mirror, than seemed to make a decision. "Yeah, I think I do."

"Then what is it?"

Clark put the car in gear and backed out of the parking spot. "Let's see if they follow us. I'm just going to move the car down two blocks and park again. Watch to see what happens."

"One of them's got a cell phone out," Lois reported after a moment. "My bet is they're notifying another team to take over."

"Great. See if you can spot them." Clark moved the car slowly out into the street and drove down a couple of blocks to park across from the husk-off that was now going on full-tilt. Lois kept an eye out and shortly was able to report.

"Two guys just picked us up on the corner."

"It sounds like Trask figures if he follows us we might lead him to Superman," Clark said.

"In that case, I've got an idea." Lois grinned. "Let's give these guys the most boring day they've had since they came here! Come on, Clark! You're going to show me around the Corn Festival, and we're going to lead them all over town! But first, what do you think they're after at Wayne Irig's farm?"

"A rock."

"A *rock*?"

"Yeah. There was a storm last week that blew over one of his trees, and under it he found this rock. He'd never seen anything like it, and he thought it might be valuable, so he sent a piece of it to the lab in Wichita. They told him it was a meteorite. Then a few days later these people showed up and started tearing up his farm. The thing was, he had already brought it to my dad for safe-keeping. But if this *is* Bureau 39, sooner or later they're going to realize what Wayne probably did with it, and then they'll do the same thing to our place. They'll find it."

Clark had followed the same reasoning she had, she thought. Somehow they had to get that thing out of there. But first they had to do what they could to avert suspicion. "I want to know more about this, later," she said, "but we can't do anything right now with them following us. Let's go. If we run into your parents you can warn them and maybe they can get rid of the rock while we keep the snoopers busy."

He nodded. "I guess we can manage that," he agreed.

"Come on. I'll show you the Corn-o-Rama."

"I can hardly wait," she said, and opened the car door.

*********************

They spent the rest of the day moving from one entertainment to the next, ending with the line dancing. The only thing that spoiled Lois's enjoyment of the day was the knowledge that they were being followed everywhere they went, and the knowledge that the man they sought was the one escorting her about the Festival.

How much did Trask know, she wondered. Clark had lived here in Smallville growing up. Did he somehow know that Superman had come from this area? And what would he do to Jonathan and Martha when--if--she wrote the story that exposed Clark as Superman? It wouldn't be merely a case of inconvenience then. It could be life or death. Trask wasn't the sort of man to let something like the law stop him from doing what he wanted to do. What would he do to a couple of people whom he saw as traitors to humanity simply because they had raised the man who had become Superman as their son? Did she have the right to expose Jonathan and Martha Kent to that kind of danger for a story, no matter how big?

She was still debating that when Clark asked her to dance. Lois hesitated, then saw Rachel Harris, the petite sheriff whom she had met the day before, making a straight line for Clark.

"Sure," she said. "Let's go!"

"Do you know how?" he asked, as if in afterthought.

"Oh, sure. Last year I had a friend who convinced me this was a great way to meet guys."

They took their places in line. "And was it?"

She laughed. "Define 'guys'." Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rachel watching them, and smiled to herself, only to have the moment's enjoyment disappear, when she realized that what she planned meant that this would probably be the last time she ever danced with Clark. *Could* she do this? Last night it had seemed possible, but it was beginning to feel more and more as if she was letting down a friend. How many times had he saved her life in the last few months? At least three that she could think of right off hand. What was Clark going to think of her when he found out that she was responsible for destroying his life and his parents' lives? For she could no longer deny to herself that it was exactly what she would be doing. The answer was simple; he wouldn't want anything more to do with her. But how could she pass this up? A story of this magnitude came along maybe once in a lifetime! Surely Clark would understand that!

Yeah, right, that little voice responded. In his place, would she understand someone writing a story, no matter how big, that wrecked her life? If she was completely honest with herself, the answer was no. She wouldn't, and she would never forgive that person, no matter who it was. The bald fact was that if she did this, Superman--Clark--would probably leave Metropolis and her, and begin life somewhere else. He would never want to see her again, and with good reason. But she would have her story.

"You look worried, Lois," Clark's voice said in her ear as he whirled her around in one of the steps of the dance. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," she lied. "Just thinking about this thing, that's all."

"Our two tails are standing over by the door, still watching," he told her.

The dance finished with them both out of breath. The left the dance area a few moments later, the two men in tow.

The carnival booths were a short distance away, and Lois gestured at the attraction where men were swinging a hammer in an attempt to ring a bell at the top of a column. The levels were labeled all the way from "Wimp" at the lowest to "Top Dog" at the top, but someone had crossed that out and replaced it with "Superman". Lois grinned at Clark. "Here, let's make this an evening to remember." She handed the barker a quarter.

Clark laughed. "Oh, no." He picked up the hammer, positioned himself and swung.

To Lois's surprise he reached the level of "Hercules" just below "Superman". Clark regarded it for a moment, then dug out another quarter. "Let me try that again."

The little ball went higher this time. Lois handed the man a third quarter. "Come on, Clark. Once more."

Clark was really straining, she thought as he slammed the hammer down with everything he had. The ball shot up, faster and harder and the bell clanged triumphantly. Lois found herself clapping as the barker held out a choice of prizes: a Superman doll and a teddy bear. Without hesitation, Lois took the bear and saw the surprise on Clark's face.

That look remained in her mind as she lay in bed at the Kent farm that night.

Clark had clearly expected her to choose the Superman doll. He knew she had a crush on his alter ego, and now she thought she understood his attitude. There was no Superman--not in his own mind. Superman was simply his way of keeping his life as Clark Kent separate from the things his alter-ego did. That was why Superman hadn't appeared until a few months ago when Clark had gotten his job at the Daily Planet. Her sometime partner wanted to help people, but he didn't want all the problems that went with celebrity status. He wanted a normal life that didn't involve constantly fending off curiosity seekers, fans, nutballs and cranks. It was that normal life that she was planning on taking away from him. Did she really have the right to do that to him, even for the story of the century? She didn't know anymore. It had seemed a lot simpler at first. The longer she thought about it, the more complicated it became, and the harder the little voice of her conscience prodded her.

What was she thinking? She couldn't just throw everything away because of a scruple! Maybe she could talk to Perry when they got back, sort of quiz him without actually giving anything away and see what he thought.

Satisfied that she had settled that for now, her mind switched to the other worrisome matter of the day. They hadn't managed to find the Kents until just before they were ready to come home. The mysterious rock must still be out there in the barn unless Jonathan had decided to do something else with it that he hadn't told Clark about. There was something wrong with that sentence structure, but her tired mind didn't seem to be able to straighten it out.

At last, exhausted by a tiring day after too little rest the night before, she drifted off to sleep.

*******************

"Come on, get out of that bed!" Lois found herself being yanked roughly out of bed by two burly men in fatigues.

"What?" she mumbled.

"Get up!" the voice repeated, impatiently. A powerful hand pushed her, stumbling and protesting, out the door. Clark's voice, downstairs, was raised in anger, and she could hear the voices of Martha and Jonathan Kent as they were herded into the living room by more armed men in camouflage gear.

"Lois, are you all right?" Clark started forward as she reached the bottom of the steps. One of the men casually pushed him backwards onto the sofa.

"Shut up, Pretty boy. Speak when you're spoken to."

One of the men who had hauled her out of her bed gave Lois a shove toward the sofa. "Sit down, lady. We've got some questions to ask you."

The outer door opened as he spoke and another man was propelled through the door, followed by two more Bureau 39 agents.

"Wayne!" Jonathan exclaimed. "Are you all right?"

"Shuttup, Grandpa," one of the invaders said. He pushed Irig over beside Clark so the three of them were lined up on the couch. "Sit still."

Another military figure appeared in the doorway, and Lois started forward with an exclamation. "Trask! I was wondering when you were going to crawl out from under your rock!"

"Those are fighting words, Miss Lane!" Trask said, with cheerful mockery. "Especially from someone in your precarious position."

"What do you want, Trask?" Clark demanded. "You can't come barging in here without a warrant!"

"I wouldn't worry, Mr. Kent," Trask said. "My warrant is the good of the American people. You've been holding out on me. I didn't realize that your family and Mr. Irig were so close. But then I started to think. What would Wayne here have done with something he didn't want someone to find? Since it wasn't anywhere on his property then it must have been taken somewhere else! That's when I thought of you!"

"I told you, there wasn't no more!" Irig said. Lois looked at the older man and saw how he held one of his hands, his fingers wrapped in a handkerchief.

Trask chuckled. "You know, these small town ties are so touching," he said. "Mr. Irig here took sodium pentothal and three broken fingers and wouldn't talk. I tried to explain how I was trying to protect the world from an alien invasion and he still wouldn't cooperate. But then I realized he must be trying to shield someone else, and that's when I discovered his closest neighbor was you, Mr. Kent!" He jerked a thumb at Clark. "Take him outside. I have some questions to ask him."

"What are you going to do to him?" Jonathan asked.

"If he cooperates, nothing," Trask said, cheerfully. "I'm trying to stop an alien takeover of Earth and you're worried about one man. Whatever happened to loyalty?"

Another man in camouflage gear entered the living room. Trask glanced at him. "Anything?"

"No, sir, not yet."

"Keep looking."

"Yessir."

Two of Trask's men grasped Clark's arms and dragged him, not without difficulty, out the door. Trask glanced at his remaining prisoners. "You know what to do with them."

"Yessir."

Two men took Jonathan Kent and hustled him into the kitchen. Martha and Irig were also seized, and then it was Lois's turn. She was dragged, struggling uselessly, after the others, through the farmhouse kitchen and out the back door into the yard.

A nondescript van was parked in the middle of the open space, and men were swarming around the area. Trask's men took the four of them to the barn and proceeded to bind them with merciless efficiency.

Lois squirmed, but their captors pulled the ropes so tight that she felt her fingers beginning to turn numb, then proceeded to splash the area thoroughly with gasoline. The fumes made her eyes water and she heard Martha coughing.

"My God!" Irig's voice said from behind her. "They're gonna burn us alive!"

Where was Clark? Lois twisted her neck, trying to see where they had taken him. As she did so, Trask pushed him around the corner with one hand, holding a pistol pointed squarely at his back with the other.

"All right, Mr. Kent," he said. "Let's be straight with one another. I have the three people in the world who matter the most to you. I want Superman. If you want to save them you'll tell me what I want to know."

"Sir!" The shout came from a nearby field. "We've found it!"

"So," Trask said, "you thought you could hide it by burying it? But you see, Mr. Kent, I already allowed for that possibility. Now, I want this alien creature, Superman."

"What makes you think *I* could give him to you?"

"Superman came to Smallville around the time you were born. There has to be a connection. Tell me and I'll let you live. I'll let them all live."

"There's nothing to tell. I'm learning all this for the first time, right now." Lois saw Clark glance sideways as one of Trask's men arrived with the metal box.

"That it?" Trask asked.

The man nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Set it down here and the rest of you go. We'll meet at Delta point. I'll finish this."

"Yessir." The man saluted, glanced once at Clark and the bound prisoners, executed a perfect about face and hurried to the van. Trask turned back to Clark as the van doors closed and the engine started up.

"Now, Mr. Kent, I want Superman! I'm trying to save humanity from an alien invader."

"You have no proof of that."

Trask raised his eyebrows. "There's another possibility. Perhaps the alien has taken over your mind, infused you with its power."

"Nobody's infused me with power. Nobody's taken over my mind."

Trask smiled. "Very well. Then these people die. If you give me Superman, I'll let them live. I'll let you all live."

Lois saw Clark glance at her and swallow. "All right. But you have to promise to let them go."

The eagerness in Trask's voice couldn't be disguised. "I do! I absolutely give you my word."

"No, Clark!" Lois cried.

She saw him swallow again, visibly. "I'm Superman."

Lois closed her eyes.

"Are you, now?" Trask said. Lois opened her eyes in time to see the man point his weapon straight at Clark.

"No, Trask!" Clark said.

Trask chuckled. "That was fear, Kent. Superman doesn't fear guns. Nice try, but I want the real thing." With his free hand he reached into his pocket and withdrew a match book. "Time's up, Kent. It's now or never. Do you give up the alien or do you watch your parents and Miss Lane die?"

"I mean it, Trask! I'm Superman!"

Keeping his pistol centered on Clark, Trask carefully extracted a match and struck it. With a final glance at Clark he started to flick it through the air toward the trail of gasoline on the ground. Clark charged.

The match went out and whirled into the puddle of gasoline. Clark and Trask tumbled to the ground after it and the gun went off.

"Clark!" Lois found herself screaming his name. "Clark, no!"

For a moment there was no movement of the two men on the ground, then, gradually, Clark began to stir. Slowly and painfully, he pushed himself off Trask, and Lois could see blood running down his face from an ugly cut at the hairline. The federal agent didn't move. Clark seemed to stare for a long time at the man, then he got unsteadily to his feet and made it across the short distance to the barn. He dropped to his knees in a puddle of gasoline and began to fumble at the ropes that bound Lois, his parents and Wayne Irig together. As her bonds came free, Lois's arms flopped numbly to her sides, but after a moment she felt the fiery ache of returning circulation. She stared dumbly at Clark, then past him at the unmoving figure of Jason Trask.

"Is he..."

"He's dead," Clark said, his voice flat and without expression. "The bullet must have hit... something vital. I don't know..."

Slowly, the five people got to their feet and moved away from the barn and the gasoline. Wayne Irig said, "I'll call the sheriff."

"They cut the wires," Jonathan Kent said, staring at the dead man.

"The cell phone's in my purse, upstairs," Lois said.

She was watching Clark's stunned face, and suddenly she couldn't stand the expression she saw there. She put her arms around him. "Come on, Clark. Let's go inside."

*********************

"Sit still, honey," Martha said.

"That's a bad cut." She was dabbing carefully at the long, bloody slash on Clark's forehead with a clean damp rag.

Lois stood behind him, hands on his shoulders, strangely reluctant to move away. Clark's sheer, raw courage in the face of a madman with a gun had awed her more than she could have believed, and the stricken look he still wore tore at her. He might not believe that Superman was real, but she had watched Superman in action today, and what she had seen told her better than words ever could the kind of man Clark Kent really was. She could hear the sound of sirens in the distance, approaching rapidly, and she glanced down at the dirty, gasoline-spattered pajamas she wore in sudden realization.

"The police will be here in a few minutes. I better go change."

Martha glanced up from her ministrations to Clark's injury. "You better just throw on a robe, Lois. Rachel will need to see what that maniac did to us before you get rid of the evidence."

Evidence? Oh, yes. Trask had died in a fight with Clark. Martha wanted to be sure that he wasn't blamed for the man's death, and so did Lois. She nodded and ran up the stairs.

******************

It was several hours later. The police had finally gone and Lois was at last able to take a much needed shower. She had changed out of the pajamas earlier and sponged herself off, but she wanted to get the smell out of her hair and feel clean again. In those hours she had watched Clark. She thought she had never seen him so quiet and at last she had walked up to him and taken his hand in both of hers.

He was standing still, just staring out over the yard where the traces of their ordeal still remained, and she had to make him look at her before he saw her.

"Clark, what's wrong?" she asked. "You act like you lost your last friend. Rachel said she doubted the D.A. will bring any charges. The man was killed by his own weapon while he was trying to commit murder. It wasn't your fault."

"Wasn't it, Lois? If I hadn't jumped him like that, the gun wouldn't have gone off."

"If you hadn't jumped him your mom, dad, Mr. Irig and I would all be dead, and you probably would be too, Clark!

It wasn't your fault he had his finger on the trigger! He was trying to kill us and you did the only thing you could, at the risk of your own life! I don't want to see you blaming yourself for something that you couldn't have helped, do you hear me? You saved all our lives!" She shook him slightly. "Clark, listen to me! You just have to realize that! It was *not* your fault!"

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "You mean that, don't you?"

"Of course I do! Clark, we're here right now because you did what you had to. It was just bad luck that Trask was killed. You couldn't have done anything differently. You have to trust me on this! Will you, please?"

Slowly he nodded, and she thought his body relaxed slightly. "Okay."

"Good! Now--" She surveyed herself with distaste. "I'm going to go upstairs and get a shower. I'll be back in a little while and we'll talk about it, all right?"

But upstairs, she reviewed what she had said and grimaced at her own wording. Trust her? When her intentions for the last two days had been so utterly despicable? What had she been thinking?

She stared at herself in the mirror of Clark's old dresser as she was brushing her hair into its usual style and her eyes filled slowly with tears. Was this what she had become--someone no better than one of those tabloid reporters she so despised? She had been ready to ruin this man's life for something so transitory as a story!

She had seen first hand what had happened simply because one madman thought Clark *might* know how to find Superman. If he had known the truth what would he have done?

How many *more* Trasks were out there? There were little groups all over who feared Superman as some kind of invader, and criminals who feared him for other, far more concrete reasons. She had been ready to hand those people a potent weapon against a man who had just proved to her beyond the shadow of a doubt that he genuinely deserved to be called a hero--not for his incredible powers, but because of the incredible courage that had led him to attack an armed madman with his bare hands to save them all.

She was still standing before the mirror, the tears pouring down her cheeks in a flood when Martha opened the door a crack to peek into the room. "Lois? Are you all right? I thought I heard..." She broke off when she saw Lois's face, then opened the door wider. "Oh, honey. May I come in?"

She didn't wait for an answer, but entered the room, closing the door carefully behind her, and crossed to Lois's side. "Come over here and sit down on the bed, Lois."

Lois began to sob in earnest. She felt Martha patting her back comfortingly and cried even harder. The older woman sat down beside her and said nothing, waiting for the storm to die out on its own.

Eventually it did. Martha still said nothing. Lois became aware that she was still sitting patiently next to her, waiting. When the sobs had subsided to a few sniffs and hiccups, Martha handed her a tissue.

"Better?"

"No." Lois shook her head, refusing to look at her. "I don't think I'll ever be better. I could have ruined everything for all of you, and all I could think of was my stupid story! Clark's going to hate me, and so will you when I tell you what I nearly did."

"Lois..."

"No," she said resolutely, then gulped. "I saw the meteorite night before last, Martha...when Clark collapsed.

I heard what you said. After I figured out what it meant, that Clark was really...well, Superman, all I could think about was what a story it would make if I could prove it. I didn't want to look at what it might do to Clark and you and Jonathan. And then this happened, and I had my nose rubbed in it. What have I turned into? How could I be so horribly selfish?"

Martha Kent's face had paled as she spoke, and for a moment she said nothing. Then she patted Lois's hand and gave a rueful little smile. "I don't suppose it would help to point out that Clark has no super powers, would it? You saw that cut on his forehead."

"The meteorite took them away. I heard most of what you said later in the kitchen, too," Lois confessed, miserably.

"But I'll never tell anyone now; I don't care how big a story it would be. It's too important."

Martha drew a shaky breath. "Then I guess there's no real harm done, is there?"

"But I almost did," Lois said, unwilling to let the fact go by unnoticed.

"I knew it was wrong, but it was such a big temptation that I'd nearly decided to print it."

"But you didn't, did you?" Clark's mother said. "I don't think you would have, either; not after you'd had more time to think about it." She took another deep breath, obviously trying to accustom herself to the fact that Lois knew, and that there was no going back. "Lois, I think there's something you need to know. You didn't know that Jonathan and I couldn't have children, did you?"

"No."

"We'd been turned down for adoption, too. We'd resigned ourselves to it, I guess, but it's not something you ever really accept. And then, one night we were driving past Schuster's Field when we saw what looked like a meteor in the sky..."

When Martha Kent finished speaking, Lois was silent for a long time. "So you're the only parents he's ever known. He said his mother made the costume--I remember that now. Martha, how am I ever going to tell him what I nearly did? I want him to know that his secret is safe with me, because I swear to you that it is!"

Clark's mother smiled at her. "Just tell him. Clark isn't the kind of person to hold grudges. If you tell him the truth, he'll believe you."

She nodded and swallowed nervously. "I guess I know that. Maybe I'd better take him for a long walk."

"I think that might be a good idea," Martha said. "I'll tell you what. You wait here, and I'll send him up to you."

A few moments later Clark knocked softly on the bedroom door. "Lois? Mom said you wanted to talk to me?"

Lois took her courage in both hands and opened the door. All the cold water and makeup in the world couldn't disguise the fact that she had been crying, but right now she didn't care. All that mattered was that she make things right with Clark, and that meant telling him the whole truth. No more prevarications, no more lies of any kind. Not now. He deserved the full and unvarnished truth, and the truth was what he was going to get.

"Lois, are you all right?" He looked worried. "You've been up here for ages, and you've been crying, haven't you?"

"Yes," she said, "but that doesn't matter right now. I've got something important to tell you. Let's go for a walk, shall we?"

"Sure." His forehead puckered slightly. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"No, but I will be. Come on." She led the way down the steps and out the kitchen door into the afternoon sunshine.

*********************

They had walked together in silence for several minutes while Lois tried to formulate what she wanted to say. Clark remained silent, although he was watching her closely with a worried expression on his face. The cut at his hairline was turning a spectacular purple, she noted. He still didn't have his powers back, and if they never returned, then what? Then Superman was in retirement, but it wouldn't change her new opinion of Clark. The powers didn't make Superman what he was. It was the man, himself.

"Clark," she said finally, "I have a confession to make, and it doesn't make me look very good, I'm afraid."

He took her hand. "Lois, I don't think anything you did could ever make me think less of you."

"Don't be so sure." She pulled her hand away and he let it go. The worried look on his face deepened.

"I almost did something pretty horrible. Looking back at it now, I can't believe I was going to do it, but I nearly did."

"What do you mean? I can't think of anything..."

"Clark." She turned to face him and put a hand on his chest. "Wait until you hear about it, then you can judge. If you never want to speak to me again, I'll understand."

"All right."

"Two nights ago, I heard your dad yell for Martha to come out to the barn. I followed her." She found she was staring at her shoes, unable to look him in the eyes. "I saw the green meteorite and I saw what had happened to you. And I overheard what you said in the kitchen. I know that you're Superman."

"Lois..."

"No, wait. I'm not finished." To her distress, tears were beginning to leak from her eyes again, and she kept her face down so he wouldn't see them. "The first thing I thought of was what a story it would make. I'm sorry, Clark. I knew it would cause you problems, but the temptation was almost too much. I've been arguing with myself ever since, and I hadn't made up my mind yet when Trask's goons grabbed us, but I hadn't decided not to. It was only when I saw first hand what could happen, and how you saved us that I realized what I'd nearly done. Clark, I'm so ashamed. I want you to know that no matter what happens I'll never tell anyone. Ever! And if you never want to see me again I'll understand." To her dismay her voice broke on the last word, and she scrubbed a hand across her face to wipe away the tears that were blinding her.

Clark didn't answer at once, and her despair deepened. She had been right; he would never forgive her, and only now did the reality hit home that she really didn't want to lose Clark's friendship. She must have been insane to even think of writing that horrible story, considering what it had cost her. She turned away, her eyes so full of tears that she couldn't see, and as a result nearly fell over a tree root that protruded from the soil. A pair of large, masculine hands caught her and prevented a fall that would have been painful in the very least.

"Lois," Clark's voice said in her ear, "I understand, and I believe you."

She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What?"

"Lois, it's okay," he said. He used a handkerchief to wipe away the tears and the now-smeared makeup that she had used to try to cover her first crying jag.

"Come on, let's sit down over here. There's a clean patch of grass."

When they were both sitting, he handed her the handkerchief. "Here. You better blow your nose," he suggested.

She obeyed, and mopped at her face again. Clark didn't speak while she was trying to recover some shreds of self control, and after a few moments and several deep breaths, she ventured to look up at him.

He had taken off his glasses. It was the first thing she saw, and he was looking soberly at her, waiting for her reaction.

"You don't hate me?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I could never hate you, Lois. But I'm glad you decided not to write the article."

She swiped at her face again. "I haven't cried this much in years. I'm so sorry, Clark, I..."

"And you don't have to keep apologizing," he said softly.

"The important thing isn't what you *were* going to do, but that you decided *not* to do it. I don't think you really would have. Not when it came right down to it."

"I'm not so sure of that," she said.

"Well, I am," he said.

"I just have one question."

She sniffed again and dabbed at her eyes. "What's that?"

"If I never get my powers back, do you still want to be my partner?"

Lois gulped and wiped away more tears. "You mean you still want me?"

He smiled tentatively. "More than anything."

"Clark, of course I want you for my partner! I'm no good working with anybody else!"

"I sort of doubt that."

She gave a watery giggle. "Just ask Eduardo what happened when Perry tried to team us up. Besides, I've gotten used to you." She looked at him a little timidly. "Are you sure..."

"If you don't stop being so humble I'm going to wonder who stole my partner and replaced her with an alien clone," Clark said.

"Lois, let's forget it. It's over and done with." He put out a hand. "Friends?"

She took it. "And partners," she said. "Powers or no powers. But if they do come back..."

He grinned. "Ms. Lane, you wouldn't be suggesting we use them illicitly to get scoops, are you?"

"Of course I am," she said, archly.

"It's a deal." Clark began to laugh, and she joined in. She had never felt so relieved in her life.

*********************

"And, in the end, Jason Trask's obsession caused him to search for a mystical rock he alone imbued with destructive powers. He came to see Superman as his enemy and to seek his destruction without regard to the cost. It was an obsession that for Jason Trask would prove fatal...'" Perry White laid the paper down and shook his head. "I've been in the newspaper business over thirty years and this is the damnedest story I ever saw."

"You should have been there, Chief," Lois said.

"The man was so far around the bend that he nearly killed us all. If it hadn't been for Clark, he'd have succeeded."

Perry turned his attention on Clark. "Kent, I usually tell my reporters to stay out of their stories, don't get involved. But since you had to fight this nutcase, I'm just glad you came out on top." He clapped Clark on the shoulder. "Good job."

"Thanks," Clark said.

"You're sure you don't want to share the by-line on this one?" Perry asked.

Clark shook his head. "No, thanks, Chief. I'm too close to it. Lois can tell it the way she sees it." His gaze rested on Lois for a moment, and she felt her face growing warm. Then he smiled at her. "I'm sure she'll do a better job than I ever could."

"Well," Perry said, "in that case, I've just got one note for you. This rock that Trask convinced himself was gonna hurt Superman. What's it called?"

"Called?" Lois said. "You want a name? Nobody can even find it. Even the sample Irig sent to the lab disappeared. I'm not sure the whole thing wasn't just a figment of Trask's imagination."

"Even so," Perry told her, "this copy would sing a whole lot sweeter if you gave it a name."

Lois shrugged. "Well, Trask thought it came from Krypton. I don't know...Kryptonium?"

"Sounds good to me," Perry said.

"It was a meteorite, right?" Clark interjected. "How about Kryptonite?"

Perry chuckled. "You two fight it out. I've got work to do." He handed the copy to Lois and headed back toward his office.

Lois glared at Clark and whapped him with the paper. "You are always editing my copy!" Then she laughed. "Okay, Kryptonite!" She tossed the paper down onto her desk and turned back to Clark. "Let's get some coffee, partner, then I'll put in the changes."

"Okay by me," he said.

Lois glanced at him as they walked together toward the coffee machine, and her gaze flicked to the spot on his forehead which only the day before had shown a deep cut and a colorful bruise. It was unmarked now, and there was no sign that the damage had ever existed.

"So, how are you feeling now, Clark?" she asked him. "Better, I hope?"

"Yeah," he said. "To be honest...I'm feeling..." He met her gaze and smiled. "I'm feeling pretty Super."

She stared at him for a moment, in shock at his audacity, then giggled. "I'll bet you are, partner," she said. "I'll just bet you are."

The End