A/N: Chapter 10. In which the plot thickens. /Umberto Eco

Hope you enjoy... ;)


Although they had spoken only briefly, she could tell that he was going to be trouble. She had a sense about these things. He had cold-called her and in a squeaky, breathless voice explained that he had information, that it was about the financial irregularities the IRS were investigating at EcoCon, and that he thought the Daily Planet might be interested. Lois agreed that they might. Unfortunately, she had been unable to talk him out of the all-night diner part, or, for that matter, meeting him there at six am.

The last thing he said before hanging up was that he wished to be known only as 'Mr Black'.

Lois had rolled her eyes.

She yawned, tired, although she had lost count of the refills. The only people left in the place were the waitress and a man with a hard hat sat at the counter reading a newspaper. Outside the window, the rest of the world hurried to work, their breath and their drink cartons creating wisps of steam in the wintry air. She rubbed at a stain on the formica table with her fingernail. "That's the problem with whistleblowers. They're always twitchy."

It was five thirty and rainy and dark when she had met Jimmy in the lot outside. Now it was after nine, a pale sun was up, the rush hour customers had come and gone. The stain wouldn't come off. She rested her head on one hand. "Too many movies."

"Do you think something scared him off?" Jimmy whispered. Where Lois felt sleepy, Jimmy's eyes were alight with intrigue. He could count on one hand the number of times he had been asked to leave his camera behind and accompany Lois 'out in the field' like this. They had been sat here doing nothing much for the better part of three hours but he had retained his enthusiasm to a remarkable degree.

Lois had not. But then she had been around this block before- some kind of mid-level employee who knows too much lives it up while the going's good. When the going's not so good, suddenly there's a big decision to be made. Usually, it turned out the motivation to pull the plug was less an attack of conscience, and more an act of self-preservation. And it was a certain type of person who could be that kind of snitch. "In my experience it doesn't take much."

"It must take guts, though."

"To what?" Lois, dubious, raised one eyebrow, "Rat out your lawbreaking multi-million dollar oil company?"

"To do the right thing."

The eyebrow lowered again. "The right thing for all the wrong reasons."

Jimmy hesitated. "Clark used to say that when people listen to their heart, what they hear is good."

Lois nursed her coffee cup. She seemed to think about that. "Clark believes in people."

"It's pretty great about the UN thing, huh?" Knowing he was on tricky ground, Jimmy tried to underplay his excitement about yesterday's news. He stared into his coffee cup. "He's really racking up the gongs."

"Yeah." Lois said softly. She was unspeakably proud of him although she'd rather hula naked through the rush hour traffic than admit that publicly. "He'll have the Nobel Prize in Literature before we know it."

Jimmy grinned. "Rio. I wonder if he'll stop by while he's over here? Be nice to see him- get a chance to catch up."

Lois watched Jimmy turn the cup in his hands. She knew that Clark had called once or twice since he'd been gone, and that they kept up with emails, but he had never come back to see Jimmy. Not as Clark, anyway. Lois sighed. It was probably better that way but it didn't stop her feeling guilty.

"Hey, it was the second Monday of the month yesterday, right?"

Jimmy nodded. "So, do you think he's going to show up?"

Lois looked up, "Clark?"

Jimmy frowned. "Mr Black."

Lois shook her head.

"Maybe that's him?"

Lois lifted her arm to rest it along the top of the booth so she could turn and look behind her. The guy at the bar was folding his newspaper and getting ready to leave. He was a little on the heavy side and he was wearing a fluorescent vest and thick-soled chukka boots. From the stool beside him he picked up his hard hat. She turned back to Jimmy and for a moment just looked at him. "...My gut instinct says 'no'."

When the waitress came over on her pilgrimage with the coffeepot, Lois asked for the check.

"Back to the Planet?"

Lois nodded, "Back to the Planet." She pulled on her coat. "I just want to run a quick errand first."

"What if he never gets back in contact?"

"Clark?"

Jimmy frowned again- "Mr Black."

"Oh." Lois fiddled with her buttons. "He will," she reassured him lightly. "With some things, it's just a matter of time."

--

Richard stepped away from Lois's desk and admired his handiwork. He came forward again to nudge the tiny candy shape a smidge to the left. He stepped back again, smiling to himself; perfect. Maybe Kent had been right all along? With Lois, it really was about the little things. Although it was frustrating that she continued to stonewall his every romantic overture, with this new tactic he felt he was making progress. And at this point, it was crucial to make progress.

Above the noise of the newsroom, he heard Perry calling over to him.

With one more backwards glance to double-check, Richard walked over to his uncle's office.

--

Jimmy waited patiently for Lois to pick out the change from her purse. She had angled her body so that he couldn't quite see over her right shoulder and make out the postmarks on the parcel, but he could see that it was stamped airmail. Lois had been suspiciously coy about what it was they were collecting. Jimmy's eyes travelled upwards to the store clerk. "Cool t shirt."

Bradley looked down. This morning he was wearing one of his Led Zep tees- one of the ones with Rimmer's falling Icarus on the front. He smiled politely, "Thanks," and returned his attention to Ms Blodgett. When he handed over her receipt he laid a rose wrapped in cellophane over the top of the package, mumbling, "And, um. This is for you."

Lois looked up at him but Bradley failed to meet her eyes. He actually blushed, telling his shoes, "It's complimentary, all week."

Jimmy's brow lowered. He had not received a complimentary rose when he had paid for his Diet Pepsi just a second ago.

From inside her coat pocket Lois's cell phone bleeped. She replaced the package together with her rose back onto the counter to check it; an unknown number. "It's him." She poked a finger at her colleague, "What did I say? I'm a people person, Jimmy. I know people." She cleared her throat, triumph in her eyes. "The trick is to handle these things with care. It's all about having interpersonal skills. Watch and learn, Olsen; watch- and learn." She answered the phone: "Hey, buttmunch, what the hell happened back there?"

Jimmy and Bradley stole a glance at each other.

"Cold feet? Look, the deal is, if you want to do this? We do it. It can't be a halfway thing. My paper and I haven't got the time."

She listened for a second. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don't you dare hang up! Hey! Don't you dare hang up! Hey! Don't-"

Lois lowered the phone and licked her lips. She flipped the cell closed, shrugging, "He hung up."

--

Leaning against the wall, looking out into the helter skelter to-ing and fro-ing of the newsroom, Richard stuck his hands into his pockets and whistled. "Early retirement?"

Behind him, at his desk, Perry nodded.

"I'll be honest with you, Perry- the thought had crossed my mind." Richard turned around to face him. Perry looked solemn.

"What about some time off- a sabbatical?" Richard shrugged, "A year on the golf course? Out on the fairways, in the fresh air?"

Perry lifted his thumbs from the desk. "It's not just a health issue. It's an age thing, too." He sighed heavily. "I don't know. It's just a thought. I haven't made a decision yet. I wanted to talk to somebody."

Richard nodded, turned to the window again. "The thing is, I think he's been waiting for you to make the first move."

They were both looking out now, their gaze falling on Big Norm, a staff writer who had been at the Planet almost as long as Perry had. Even as they watched, Norm had to stop what he was doing twice to reach for a handkerchief and hack into it.

"He doesn't want to let you down."

"And I hate to lose him." Perry rubbed his thumbs together. "Sentimentality aside, it punches a big hole in the senior staff."

Richard saw his reflection wince in the glass. He guessed now was as good a time as any. He rubbed at a spot just under his ear. "You know, it's, uh, funny you should mention that..."

But when he looked he was surprised to see that Perry seemed very calm, like he had been anticipating this conversation.

Simply, Perry said, "Chicago."

"You knew?"

Two dark eyes glinted at him, "Who do you think recommended you?"

Richard sagged into a chair, just now seeing the funny side. He ran a hand through his hair, "I haven't slept for weeks trying to figure out how to tell you."

At that Perry scowled, "You care too much." He softened. "It's why you'll make a great editor one day. Why you'll make a great deputy-editor in Chicago."

Richard's cheeks burned. Then his face fell. "Pretty crappy timing, though."

Perry leaned back in his chair. "You've done what you came here to do. I can't ask any more of you than that." He fidgeted with his wedding ring, signalling a shift away from the professional, "It doesn't mean we won't miss you. I guess the two of us have gotten used to having you around."

Richard cracked a smile, "Chicago's not that far away. Gives you an excuse to come back home a little more often."

Perry's brow lifted, "Look who's talking?"

His nephew's expression matched his own, "I'm taking the job, aren't I?"

They smiled together until Richard's face darkened again. "Perry." He cleared his throat, "Part of why I said yes, why I agreed to take the position, is that they've given me my pick of staff. I can bring in who I want, at whatever cost-" Their eyes met. "I've been thinking about asking Lois to come with me."

Again, Perry handled this news with apparent equanimity. His gaze was steady. "She won't."

Richard could only smile that he was probably right. "I thought I'd ask, anyway."

Over at the main doors, Lois and Jimmy had just arrived.

Perry nodded in their direction. With warmth, he said, "You gave it your best shot, kid. More than your best shot. Maybe it's time to give this one up."

They watched Lois. "One last try. I'm taking a different approach." Richard's eyes narrowed in thought. "I just need her to see what's right in front of her."

He flashed Perry a cocky grin before walking out the door, "Quite literally."

Perry watched him go. Into the silence of his office, he mused, "She does have trouble with that."

--

As they walked through the newsroom, Lois was glad they were back where Jimmy could go involve himself in his regular duties. Ever since the store; questions, questions, and more questions. And, frankly, he was starting to get on her nerves.

"And you import them? Every month?"

"They're extremely rare."

"But you're not going to open them?"

"I prefer to wait until I get home."

"Will they be safe, just left in the car like that?"

"They'll be fine."

"It's funny, I never knew you collected stamps."

In the middle of the newsroom, they came to a halt while Lois considered this. Brightly, she told him, "There's alot you don't know about me, Jimmy. And to be brutally honest?" She smiled cheerfully, patting him on the shoulder; "That's the way I like it."

Jimmy shrugged that that was fair enough. Richard came over to meet them.

"Hey, how did the meeting go?"

"It didn't."

Richard looked at Jimmy, "Doctor Death was a no show?"

"Mr Black." Lois corrected him as they all arrived at her desk together. "And big surprise. About a fraction of these calls actually turns out to be an inside-line on anything even remotely newsworthy."

"You don't think this guy's genuine?"

Lois shrugged at the two of them, "I really have no idea, but if he is genuine, he'll have genuine information, and he'll call back. If he is genuine- he's just being twitchy."

Jimmy wandered away to deal with the workload that had accrued in his absence. Lois shook off her coat and settled in her chair. Richard remained, standing there, at her desk. Lingering.

"Hi."

"Hi!"

She squinted at him, then took out her glasses, put them on, picked up a pen and made to get on with her day. "The answer's no."

He smiled, "You don't even know what the question is?"

Lois blew out her cheeks and widened her eyes like this was a tough one and they hadn't been through this a million times before. She threw up her hands, "Is there any chance the question is something like, 'Will you go out with me on a date?'"

Richard thought hard. "No."

She tutted one cheek in disappointment, "I'm slipping."

"The question is exactly 'Will you go out with me on a date?'"

She simply shook her head. The man was like a weeble wobble. He was irrepressible.

He perched himself on the edge of her desk, moving his hands through the air for emphasis as he talked, "I was thinking of taking you to a little place I know, there'll be candlelight, wine, music? And then a movie?" He leaned in, "That way, if dinner turns out to be a disaster and we have nothing to say to each other, we can skip dessert and it won't be awkward."

"Wow," Lois deadpanned. "That's quite the romantic evening out you're painting there, Don Juan."

He treated her to his best movie star smile and winked.

She looked at him with wonder. "Don't you ever get tired of this?"

"Tired of what?"

She gestured the space around them. "This? The knock backs, the turn downs, the 'no, thanks'. This ritual of public humiliation and rejection. In front of friends, and colleagues, and respected peers..." Her brow lowered in sympathy, "...Day after day. After day."

"I'm persistent. It's my best quality."

"Persistent?" Lois sucked in a breath, "That's one word for it."

"Unwavering? Patient? Resolute?"

She busily flicked through a legal pad. "I was going to say 'tedious', but, same diff, right?"

"So, what do you say?"

Lois looked up. "No." She touched her fingers to her thumbs, "I'm not sure how many different ways I can say this and have you not understand. But the answer's 'no'."

Unfazed, Richard said, "What about the sweethearts?"

"Ah yes, this week's weapon of choice." With her pen she poked at the little pink heart shape that had been carefully left on her desk. "Subtle."

He tried to tease a smile out of her, "Come on, as methods of courtship go, you think it's kind of cute."

"Yes, I do think it's kind of cute," she told him earnestly, holding the heart up in the air; "for five year old school children."

Richard scratched the side of his nose and folded his arms.

"-And, frankly, it makes me wonder about the delights to look forward to in a more serious relationship?" She shrugged, "The password to your treehouse, half your peanut-butter sandwich during recess? Free rides on your push bike?"

Richard leaned in. "You want a free ride on my push bike, Lois?"

She shook her head sadly at him, but he simply ignored her. He jutted his chin at the sweetheart. "What does today's say?"

She read it. "Say yes."

His eyebrows waggled.

"No."

He quirked his head in exaggerated frustration with her before sliding back to his feet. "I felt so sure today was going to be the day. I can tell you're warming up to me."

A smile crept onto her face. "Go away and do some work. Before your uncle grounds you for not keeping up with your chores or something."

He disappeared to his office. She was still smiling five minutes later when her desk phone rang. "Aha!" She pointed over at Jimmy, "What did I say?" To herself, she muttered, "Twitchy. I knew it." With Jimmy watching she picked up the handset, "I take it we're through with the fun and games, Serpico?"

On the other end of the line there was a pause. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"Lucy." Lois made a false alarm gesture at Jimmy. "Why are you calling me at work?"

"Ants."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Ants," Lucy repeated more forcefully. "We've got ants. In the garage- an infestation."

"Oh. What kind of ants?"

"Ones that won't stay dead- and they're really starting to piss me off."

"What do they look like?"

Lucy sounded exasperated, "I don't know? Like ants!" She sighed. "David thinks they might be Argentinian house ants or something- I don't know. But we've tried smoking, scalding, baiting... Nothing works. Remember a few years ago? That summer when they got into your kitchen? Can you remember what you used?"

Lois remembered alright: Superman. "Um, it was a special ...cryogenic ...treatment ...thing... I'm not sure it's on the market anymore. Listen, Luce, you have to be careful with some types of insect- sometimes you can make the problem worse."

"I realize that, Lois. That's why my goal is total annihilation and not control."

Lois's eyebrows raised, "O-kaay. You know what? I think the best thing is to call the experts. Give me a second, I've got some numbers here." She began to flick through her rolodex. Clark's fake fumigations were finally going to come in handy, after all this time. "Let me see..."

While she waited, Lucy drummed her fingers. Lois could hear it as a soft background noise. Then Lucy said, "So, I was at my poetry class last night..."

Down the line, Lois sang, "Let it go, Lucy. Let it go."

"...and you came up again. And I have to tell you, time's running out. According to his aunt, he's thinking of getting out of Dodge."

"There you go, then. Me, and this random man that I've never met; it clearly wasn't meant to be. Woe. And, alas."

She heard her sister tut in disgust. "I can't believe you- it's one date. And you're throwing away the chance. What if you went out with him and, you know, something sparked? What if this is your big moment- the start of something special? The first day of the rest of your life? And you'll never even know?"

Lois nodded philosophically, "I guess I'll just have to try and find a way to live with myself."

"What about fate?"

"Fate?" Lois snapped unintentionally. "I don't believe in it anymore." She plucked out a business card, "Now do you want this number or not?"

--

That evening Clark came home for breakfast. As the sun went down over the cornfields, he sat with his mother at the kitchen table munching on ham and toast and drinking coffee while she ate vegetables and a piece of grilled chicken.

When she was done she pushed away her plate and got out her reading glasses. Right now, she was concentrating on the letter Clark had brought to show her. While she wasn't looking, Clark slipped pieces of bacon rind to Shelby. The letter was headed with the United Nations logo. "Goodness, the UN Foundation Prize. Clark, that's amazing."

She put the letter down and frowned, "And what is it, exactly?"

He got up to wash his hands, chuckling. "Basically, it's recognition of all these human rights special reports Frank lets me run." He dried his hands on a dishtowel. "And you get to go to Rio to collect ten thousand dollars."

"Rio?"

"It's hosting the ceremony this year."

"Goodness." Martha shook her head lightly at him. A faraway expression settled on her face. "Your father, he'd be so proud of you, do you know that?"

Clark smiled at her. He didn't sit back down again. Instead he leaned back against the draining board. "Where's Ben tonight, anyway?"

Martha carefully folded the letter back into its envelope. "Oh, I've not seen him all week. His air seeder keeps breaking down."

"Do you want me to go over there?"

Martha scrunched her nose, waving away his look of concern. "You know Ben. He likes a problem to solve."

Clark nodded.

Daintily, she propped the envelope against the pepper and salt shakers. "What?"

Clark eyed her, enjoying her discomfort, the switching of their usual roles. "He's not popped the big question yet, then?"

Martha was a lady, and so she gave nothing away. "If by 'the big question' you're referring as to whether or not he's inquired about repainting the barn this year, then the answer's 'No, not yet'."

He dipped his head, crossing his arms. "That's actually not the question to which I was referring."

Martha took off her glasses and folded them. "I get the feeling he's working his way up to it."

"What makes you say that?"

"Ben doesn't own an air seeder."

Clark chuckled. "What are you going to say?"

"I don't know."

He tilted his head at her, not fully expecting that answer.

She shrugged. "It's been a long time since..." She looked at Clark, "But it's hard to imagine being married to someone else."

Clark put his hands in his pockets. "So don't get married. Co-habitation. All the kids are doing it."

"That's just it. We're not kids anymore." She waved a hand in the air, unconcerned. "Don't worry about us. We'll work something out."

Clark pushed himself forward, "Speaking of work. I better go."

He kissed Martha on the top of her head, "Thanks for breakfast."

She handed him back his letter, "Hey, I bet everyone was pretty buzzed when that came through the mail?"

"Buzzed?" Clark slipped the envelope into his inside pocket. "Frank just about managed to stop short of lifting me onto his shoulders and bouncing me through the streets."

Martha watched him straighten his tie. "Aw, honey. They're all just so proud of you. Like me."

He fussed at the dog, saying goodbye. "I think we got complaints from the next town over about keeping the noise down."

"Well, they've had a day to deal with it," Martha told him confidently. "I'm sure the excitement's worn off by now."

--

Howard did his best to look cool doing it- but it was still pretty much the white man dance, as he Simon Le Bon-ed, "Her name is Rio, and she dances on the saaand! Just like that river twisting through a dusty laand, and something, something, something shows you all she caaan, oh Rio, Rio, Rio; you're going to Rio laand!"

So it turned out that Martha was very much wrong. If anything, the reverse was true and now that they had had the chance to think about the details, his co-workers' delight in his success had only increased. Howard had taken to singing songs with the word 'Rio' in them and, sometimes, just subbing the word in regardless, every time he came by to use the coffee machine. Clark had taken to trying to dampen down the collective enthusiasm.

As he worked at his computer, he patiently told Howard, "You do know that song's about a woman whose name is 'Rio'- it's nothing to do with Rio, the place."

Howard simply did what he always did in these situations and tuned out Clark's natural predilection to party-poop. With his coffee he plopped himself down on the corner of his desk, eyes shining, "Oh, mate. I wish I was coming with you! Have you ever been to Brazil? Such an amazing country."

Tap tap tap. Clark tapped away at his keyboard. His back said, "I can have a word with Frank and you can go collect the award for me if you like?"

"Are you nuts? It's your big night. You deserve it!"

Eko called over, "Come on! Aren't you excited. Even just a little bit?"

Clark stopped what he was doing to turn and address the room. "I'd really prefer to just get on with my work."

Not taking the hint, across the aisle, Sandy- sizing him up with an expert eye, babbled at him,"What are you going to wear? Do you have anything suitable? You'll need a nice suit. Do you have a nice suit? We can go shopping for a suit!"

"I have a nice suit." Clark told her. "I do have some experience in this area."

"So wait," Henry joined in, "you won't be wearing a cowboy outfit?"

Clark had to turn around again just to make sure that Henry was not joking. Apparently, he was not. Clark was baffled, "Why would I be wearing a cowboy outfit?"

Perfectly seriously, Henry said, "Because, you know, it's a ...formal occasion?"

"It's not like a national costume, Henry. It's not like a kilt."

Henry looked crestfallen. "But you grew up on ranch, right?"

Clark didn't want to lie. "It's really more of a farm."

"And you, you never had any problems with train robberies?"

Clark blinked. "No."

"Bandits?"

Softly, Clark shook his head.

Henry's eyes crinkled at the edges, he tried, "Cattle rustling?"

Not wanting to shatter all Henry's illusions in one go, Clark pressed his lips together, thinking. "...A chicken escaped once?"

Henry smiled as Frank ducked his head into the newsroom, "Clark, I just got off the phone with the Mayor's office. He's really excited about this. He wants to send some people to talk to you, maybe get the national press involved. We've set up a big meeting next Wednesday night at the Oceania."

Clark just about managed to stifle a schoolgirl huff. "Is all this really necessary? I'm just doing my job."

"This is big news, Clark. For all of us." Frank grinned, "Kick back! Enjoy the attention."

Frowning, Clark returned to his work.

--

That Friday it was St Valentine's Day. Perry had a card with a big, furry heart standing up on his desk. He was sat at his desk now, watching Lois watching Norm. "So what do you think?"

Lois sounded wistful, "I'm really going to miss the big guy."

"I mean about the vacancy."

She turned away from Perry's window and leaned against the sill. "I know."

"It's you this affects the most."

She could only shrug unhelpfully. "There's no one on staff that matches his experience. Not for the city beat, anyway."

For what it was worth, Perry agreed with this assessment. "Do you think I should look outside?"

Lois didn't answer immediately. For a moment she chewed on her bottom lip. Then she said, "I know how this is going to sound- it's going to sound crazy, I know." She paused, "But have you thought about Richard?"

Perry was confused. To check, he said, "Richard? Richard- for Norm's job?"

Lois winced at her own logic, but she carried on, "I guess it would be kind of a sideways thing for him, sure. But have you talked to him recently?"

Perry's mouth opened and then closed again...

Lois was not paying attention to him, "I mean, doesn't he seem kind of restless to you?"

"Well-"

She put up her hands, "Alright, so it's not exactly jetting off to liaise with the European offices every other week- but the bullpen, a change of pace, a change of scene?" She lifted a shoulder. "Maybe a new challenge is exactly what he needs?"

Perry licked his lips. "Lois ...Richard..." He stopped and looked down. Sighing, he settled for, "Well, I just don't think he wants Norm Palmer's old job, that's all."

"Aren't you at least going to run it by him?"

Perry smiled a little. "It's not that I don't think it's a good idea. It's a very interesting idea-"

"I could talk to him?" Lois offered, folding her arms. "We've worked together before. We make a pretty good team?"

Softly, Perry agreed, "Yes, you do."

His tone had Lois narrowing her eyes at him. It was gone again when he looked up and said, "I think you should talk to Richard."

She frowned at him, "I will."

Perry wiggled his fingers through the air as if to say it's not your problem and it's all unimportant ephemera anyway. "I just wanted to see what you thought. Thanks for your time."

"It's no problem." She put her hand on the door to pull it open but didn't. She half-turned back to him. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he said lightly. She went to go again. "Lois?"

"Yeah?"

"You'd tell me? You'd say something? If you needed a change of pace, a change of scene?"

She regarded him, puzzled at what he was getting at. "I don't."

"But if you did?"

Her head tilted, "What's going on?"

"Because I wouldn't stand in your way. Ever since you've been here, you've given me everything." Under a crinkled brow, ever so slightly, he was shaking his head, "If you wanted to try something new, I wouldn't stand in your way."

Very slowly, Lois began to nod, "Alright, I see what this is. It's a cull! A coup d'état! You're trying to get rid of the old hands, one by one." She poked a finger at him, "But I got news for you, Robespierre; Norm's got forty years on me- I'll be sticking around making your life miserable for a little while, yet."

She watched Perry's face lighten. Grinning, she tipped her chin at the Valentine's card. "Who's the card from?"

His smile turned tender and he chuckled. "It's anonymous, but it's Alice." He nodded at the window, at her desk. "What about you?"

Lois looked at him. "Who do you think?"

From here Perry could make out a relatively harmless-looking card and a medium-sized clutch of flowers. "Just the one bouquet this year?"

Lois was as baffled as anyone. "He seems to have downsized his operation just lately. So far, not even a suggestion of a Cupid-o-gram." She leaned in before leaving. "My fingers and toes remain crossed."

--

In Bali, it was late but when Howard was in the middle of something, he tended to lose track of time. He stepped out of the darkroom and blinked in the light. "Where is everybody?"

Clark was busy at his computer. "It's after seven, How. I think everybody else has these things I've heard them refer to as 'lives.'"

Howard clucked good-naturedly at his friend as he walked to the front of the room and started a new pot of coffee. "I don't know what you're complaining about. Another week and you'll be packing, ready to jetset all the way off to-"

Clark held up his index finger in warning. "One word about Rio. One bar of Duran Duran; I'm out of here."

Howard pulled an imaginary zipper across his mouth in submission.

"And I'm not complaining," Clark complained.

Replacing the carafe of coffee back onto the hotplate Howard inhaled a sigh. He went to pull out Sandy's chair so he could sit directly opposite Clark. "If you don't mind my saying so, you don't seem very excited."

Concentrating on the words in front of him, Clark said, "I'm spell-checking. How excited can you get?"

"I mean about next week."

"Oh." Clark thought about this. "I'm excited on the inside."

Howard watched him interestedly- as a therapist might regard his patient. "You know, Rio; it's not that far from Metropolis."

Clark scoffed. "Just an entire continent."

"If you want it to be."

The softness, the measured lingering in his tone, had Clark looking up.

Howard said, "You're still in love with her." From the nearest corner of Clark's desk he slid off a newspaper- Clark's copy of today's Daily Planet. Howard held it up and pointed at the bolded by-line. "Lois Lane."

Clark said nothing but he didn't need to. The black look on his face spoke for him.

Howard admitted, "Sandy, and Frank and I, we've been talking. About a lot of things; you, your old job, your hot ex co-worker." He was tapping at the by-line again, "I guess we put two and two together."

Annoyed, and a little upset, Clark said, "I'm so glad I'm the subject of such intriguing office gossip."

"Cut the crap, Clark," Howard shot back. "We worry about you."

Clark's lips thinned to a line. When would people just leave him alone? "I'm fine."

"No, you only think you are."

Losing his cool, Clark snapped, "What do you want me to say, Howard?"

But if Clark was upset, Howard was too. "I don't want you to say anything? Look at you! I want you to be honest with yourself!"

Clark briefly touched his fingers to the bridge of his glasses, then let go again. Softly he said, "I told you, it was a long time ago."

Howard shook his head to correct him. "You told me that it was over ...But it's not. Is it?"

The muscles in Clark's jaw worked. He pressed the fingertips of his right hand to his heart. "Here, it's not." He looked across. "But in the real world. Where it counts. I let her go."

"So get her back."

Clark laughed but it was quiet and hollow and humorless. "It's not as simple as that."

"Because you're making it complicated."

His eyes closed, "Howard, you have to understand-"

"No, you're the one that has to understand." There was heat in Howard's voice. His nostrils were flaring. "You don't just let the one you're meant to be with slip through your fingers." He sounded disgusted. "If you do, you're a fool."

Clark swallowed. Steadily, he said, "Then that's what I am."

"If I had another chance to see Sam again? Just one chance? Nothing would stop me. To be with the person that you love?" Howard's eyes were burning. "I'd run through a brick wall!"

Before he could check himself, Clark had rasped, "I'd stop the Earth."

There was a moment, and it was charged with energy. Eventually Howard lifted an eyebrow, a look of satisfaction twinkling behind his eyes. "Like I said, it's not over."

Clark slumped back in his seat. Howard watched him draw breath and sigh. He looked up at the ceiling. "It's our anniversary coming up. In a few weeks."

Gently, Howard nudged, "First date?"

Clark smiled, taken by a memory. He gave a shy, sideways glance and his eyebrow cocked, "The other anniversary."

Howard laughed. He relished the moments when Clark allowed his less repressed side out into the light. He swayed his head, "You know. Sandy thinks you should leave. She thinks you should go back to Metropolis." They looked at each other. "Give it another go."

"I can just see Frank thanking her for that suggestion."

Howard smiled thoughtfully, bobbing his head, "I don't think he's its biggest fan, no. And I'm not saying he doesn't plan to make you the Gazette's first ever foreign correspondent."

Clark chuckled. His face cleared and then he caught Howard's look. He frowned. "You're serious."

Howard shrugged, "We've already decided to club together for your ticket. Becca's pledged the entire contents of her piggybank."

"Are you serious?"

"About Becca? Don't worry about it; she's not much of a saver- it's about enough for two bags of peanuts on the plane." Howard scrunched one eye closed, "Maybe one really big one if you're lucky."

Clark was stunned. "I- I don't know what to say."

Howard touched his lips together. "Say you'll think about it."

Clark laughed, and this time it was rueful. Think about it? Lois; Metropolis; going back home. They were the only things that were ever on his mind. And they revolved constantly, in the background, like a super 8 projection stuck on the reel.

--

That evening, Lois was waiting for the whistleblower to return a call. They had conducted a conversation over her work line at lunch that had involved actual facts, so at least the story was going somewhere. Lois remained unconvinced, though.

Although technically still working, unlike Clark, she had eschewed spending Valentine's evening at the office in favor of spending it at home. On the couch. With ice cream. A rerun of Roman Holiday was playing. Perfectly content, she sat before it, crosslegged, with the ice cream in her lap and both her cordless and her cell phone ready on the arm rest.

When the cordless rang during an ad break, Lois knocked off the volume on the tv before answering cockily, "Mr Black, in the boss's office, with a flashlight and a Xerox machine?"

"Oh good. I thought you'd be in."

Balancing the tub between her knees, Lois carefully excavated a curl of ice cream with her spoon. "Hey Luce."

"Do you always answer the phone like that?"

"I'm expecting a call." She sucked at the ice cream on the spoon like an ice pop. "What's up?"

"Are you eating? I can call back?"

"No, it's fine, it's ice cream, sorry." Catching a chin dribble, Lois put the carton down and licked her finger. "What can I do for you?"

"Zach's lost a power ranger and he wants to eliminate you from inquiries."

Lois glanced left and right. "Am I under suspicion?"

"We're just making inquiries at this stage."

Her forehead dimpled. "Why would I have his power ranger?"

"He thought you might've taken it home with you the last time you were here. He thought it could have slipped into your handbag. ...By accident."

Lois squinted. She placed her hand across her heart, and intoned, "Lucy, as God is my witness, and by the power of Greyskull, I can tell you I did not steal Zach's power ranger. Accidentally or otherwise." Thinking on it, she added, "I'm not sure I even spoke to Zach the last time I was there- he was watching cartoons with that kid from next door."

Lucy sounded businesslike and brisk. "Yes. Okay, thanks Lo. Excuse me."

Away from the phone, Lois heard Lucy yell, "ZACH! SHE DOESN'T HAVE IT." There was a pause. "NO, SHE'S SURE." Then Lucy was on the line again, "Are you sure?"

Lois pressed her lips together in patience and assured her sister, "Yes."

There was another gap in conversation. "YES!"

Lois heard Lucy tut sadly as she came back on the line, "It looks like we were right all along. Dale Stockwell's got sticky fingers."

"Dale Stockwell? Isn't he the kid from next door?"

"And unfortunately, it looks like he might also be a liar and a thief."

Lois blew out a breath. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, we're pretty sure."

"'Cause kids toys must get messed up all the time- maybe he's got it, he just doesn't think he's got it?"

"He was pretty adamant that he doesn't have it. And so was his mother."

"Well, no one likes to be accused of stealing," Lois said, thoughtfully.

"He had no problem suggesting your name."

"Oh." So much for playing devil's advocate. "In that case, if you want to take this thing national- I can help make that happen."

Lois listened to her sister chuckling. "Thanks, Lo. We just wanted to make sure, anyway." She sighed, "I better get back to David."

"Aw," Lois reached for the ice cream again, "are you two doing something special tonight?"

"We're fumigating."

"Romantic!"

"Do you really want to start down this road? Because you are in no position to talk."

Through a mouthful, Lois chirped, "I don't know what you can possibly mean?"

"It's Valentine's and you're alone, eating ice cream." Lucy paused. "I bet you're in your sweatpants."

Lois one-handedly searched around cushions for where ever she'd put the remote. "It's fun to live up to a cliché."

"It doesn't have to be this way- this guy's not left town yet, you know."

"Nice talking to you, Lucy! Thanks for calling." Lois hung up. Before cutting her off, she heard Lucy sigh again.

--

Clark had often walked past the steps of the Oceania, but until tonight he'd never actually been inside. The lobby was alot like he would've imagined- cool and spacious, wide pillars and palm plants, a polished parquet floor. A five star hotel for the businessman set. There were no businessmen around at the moment. Just the four of them, sat in the bar around a table in the corner. Above the counter, on a widescreen tv, a soccer match was being played.

Clark was sat next to Frank. Opposite them, two serious-looking men from the Mayor's office were haggling with Frank over whether a photo-op with the Mayor could be arranged at such short notice. Clark had spent most of the evening desperately trying to talk them all down.

Above the bartender's head, the soccer game suddenly flickered off catching Clark's attention.

A breaking news cue-card flashed on the screen and the bartender reached to turn the volume up, just catching the end of the newsreader's sentence,

"...point nine magnitude, a hundred and twenty miles north of the capital, La Paz. Initial reports suggest that buildings shook with the force of the tremors, and power supplies are down."

Clark straightened in his chair. The newsreader touched his finger to his ear.

"We have these images, live, from the border regions, where mudslide warnings have been issued..."

Fuzzily, at the end of a tunnel, Clark heard Frank say, "Clark? Clark? What do you think? Is the airport good for you?"

Clark was already on his feet. "I uh, I've got to go."

Everyone looked up, surprised. The two men from the Mayor's office caught each other's eye.

Frank was confused. He smiled with his teeth. "Go where?"

In his peripheral vision, Clark was still trying to watch the television. He could hear the cries for help. "Um. I have a library book I need to return." Unconsciously, his hands were already feeling for his collar.

At once Frank relaxed, relieved. "Very funny."

"No, I mean it."

Their eyes locked once more and for a moment they just looked at each other, Clark pleading, Frank glaring. Through his teeth, Frank said, "You can't- we have to do this. We'll be five minutes. Then you can go do whatever you want."

Frank turned back to the meeting, ready to continue the conversation.

But Clark didn't sit down. Frank was totally bemused. He knew Clark didn't relish this kind of side-show but what the heck had gotten into him? "Clark," Frank's eyes flashed a warning, "five more minutes. Please."

It was not framed as a request. Clark lowered back onto his chair, barely managing to keep from ripping off each arm rest.

Frank said, "Thankyou."

Over on the tv screen, the camera was shaking. Another tremor. Rigid with the terrible effort of keeping still, Clark could only sit there and watch.

--

In his room, in the residents' wing of the North Sumatra Center for Medical Care, a man with blond hair lay back on his bed, idly flicking through tv channels. A special news report about an earthquake in Bolivia made him stop. He sat up so he could concentrate on the pictures. He frowned, cocking his head. There was something so familiar about the pictures.

For the first time since he had been here, he felt something buried deep in his memory begin to unlock.

--

All eyes were fixed on the television newsfeed. At times like this, the newsroom simply stopped. People on phones, at the copier, people with their breakfast cup of coffee halfway to their lips, motionless, staring at the screens.

Lois, who had been in the middle of hole-punching a set of notes destined for her file, was now standing, hole-punch in hand, glasses dangling from her neck, head raised to the feed along with everyone else.

The report was being broadcast live. The picture on the screen shifted in and out of clarity, the camera operator struggling to correct and re-correct his focus. But it was still possible to make out the important details. People in the foreground, running, screaming. Behind them, in the hazy distance, a townscape set on a mountainside. Square terraces of white limestone dotting the hills seemed to be disintegrating from the front.

Over the top of the pictures the anchor said, "People appear to be fleeing their homes. Although the country has been placed on high alert, according to defense officials, so far there has been no sign of Superman..."

In horror, Lois realized that the tiny objects moving away from the town in the background were not particles of debris, they were human beings. And they were running for their lives. Behind them, above the town, a rolling, shifting slice of the mountainside itself appeared to be gathering pace, and it was moving fast. There was no way the people were going to reach safety in time. They were going to be overwhelmed, and they were going to die.

And still there was no sign of Superman.

Inwardly, Lois chided him; any time now, Clark. Aaany time now would be good. She could feel her pulse racing watching the dark tide of rippling earth getting closer and closer. From the newsroom there were gasps as people realized what was happening. Lois refused to believe Clark wouldn't get there in time, but now the mudslide was so close you could hear it.

...Where the hell is he?

Suddenly, two red beams appeared from the sky, dissecting the television picture along a diagonal. The beams scanned sideways along the mountainside, carving a deep trench above the town and below the leading edge of the flow. The onrush of earth seemed to vanish into thin air as it disappeared into the artificial gully.

As Superman swooped into shot to shore up the makeshift barrier, a critical point was reached and the newsroom broke into cheering and loud applause. People were looking at each other, rocking back on their heels, rubbing at their necks, regaining their color. Speaking for everyone, Lois heard someone say, "I hate it when he does that."

Drained, she dropped back into her chair. She knew, better than anyone, that when Superman cut it that close, it was because there was a damn good reason. She caught Perry looking at her, the same unsettling mixture of relief and worry on his face.

--

Clark was busy clearing roads and repairing water and power lines all Wednesday night. On Thursday morning he called in sick so he could stay on in Bolivia and continue with the rebuilding effort. By nightfall he was finished. But he did not fly straight back to Bali. He flew north.

No one had died. By some small miracle, no one had died. An elderly gentleman had turned his ankle but somehow, everyone had survived.

But it had been so close.

Clark turned the crystals over and over in his hands. He replaced the first one into the center of the memory console for the fortieth? Fiftieth? One hundredth time that night? He had lost count.

Jor-El's image was speaking, but Clark was not really paying attention anymore. He knew the words, the cadences, the entirety of the conversations, off by heart anyway.

"You are revealed to the world. Very well. So be it. But you still must keep your secret identity."

A two and a half second pause.

"The reasons are two: First, you cannot serve humanity twenty-eight hours a day ...Or twenty-four as it is in Earth time. Your help would be called for endlessly. Even for those tasks that human beings can solve themselves. It is their habit to abuse their resources in such a way."

Another pause.

"Secondly: your enemies will discover their only way to hurt you- by hurting the people you-"

Clark pulled the crystal from its setting, ending the recording. Into the same slot he placed the second crystal, the one that activated his mother. Lara appeared. She looked solemn, as she always did.

"Your father and I have tried to anticipate your every question, Kal-El. This is the one we hoped you would not ask."

Again, there was a polite, meaningless silence for the response long since given.

"And she? The one you have chosen; she feels as much for you?"

Sightlessly, robotically, Clark stopped the recording again. He swapped the crystals, pushing the first back in, to start it from the beginning.

--

The newsroom was quiet, empty, and illuminated only by her desk lamp. Lois pressed CTRL+P and listened to the printer gurgle and buzz into life, but she did not immediately go to collect her copy. She remained where she was and softly tapped at her desktop with the fingertips of her right hand.

Clark had given no interviews, either locally, or to international news organizations. Not even a perfunctory wave to camera or a quick soundbite, and that was unusual after a major incident like this. It had been hours since he'd been seen leaving Bolivia and he hadn't turned up anywhere else. It was troubling.

Eventually, she reached to the floor to pick up her handbag and placed it on the desk. Out of her handbag she removed her purse and clipped it gently open. From one of the credit card pouches she carefully slipped out what she was looking for and folded it open along its crease.

The small scrap of newsprint was still as crisp as the day he had given it to her. The ink of the email address and password- clear and distinct. She ran her thumb over it as if she was reading braille, she could feel the indentation of the words he had written.

She almost got as far as opening her email application before she stopped and folded the newsprint away again. She closed her eyes and put her fingertips to her lips. She stayed like that for a while, motionless except for the steady rubbing of the knuckle on her thumb back and forth, back and forth underneath the curve of her bottom lip.

--

A touch of the flu, a twenty-four hour thing. But he was over it now- that was what he had told Frank when he turned up at the office on Friday morning.

It was unclear whether Frank believed him. The truth was Frank was not sure either, but there was no question that Clark had not seemed himself.

Sensing this, everyone had left him alone to do what he was most comfortable doing- to just get on with work. Even Rebecca, bursting through the door with her habitual after-school joie de vivre, seemed to instinctively recognize that today was not the day to re-create for Clark, in live-action, a slo-motion replay of the injury time diving header she had scored as the bell rang for afternoon class. Instead she went to sit quietly next to her mother, and worked through homework assignments.

At four-thirty pm precisely, Frank stood in the doorway of his office and soaked in the unusually sombre atmosphere of the room.

"Okay everyone, whatever you're doing, finish it up. We're closing early today."

There were noises of happy satisfaction in response. Only Clark didn't say anything. Didn't even move.

When the others were already on their feet, tucking in chairs and collecting up bags and jackets, softly, almost to himself, Clark said, "I don't think I can do this anymore."

Frank, pointing at him, smiled, "My thoughts exactly. Come on, let's go get some dinner- I'm buying."

This provoked even more excitement amongst his staff. Above it, Clark repeated, "No. I don't think I can do this anymore."

Conversation died in the room. Clark either didn't realize or didn't care that he had spoken so loudly. When he looked up, he looked at Howard.

Howard stared back and went to open his mouth. But it was Sandy that found her voice first. "Go. Go to her. You have to."

She sat down so that their eyes were level. "Go back to Metropolis and tell her how you feel."

Even before the words were out of her mouth, Clark was slowly shaking his head. "I can't."

Howard gazed at him uncomprehendingly. "What's stopping you?"

Clark's throat ached. A groundswell of emotion that started in his heart, rose and threatened to spill over. The feeling was so raw, and so potent, that for a moment he thought he might break; his double identity, his big secret, the life he had given up. The sorrow that weighed on his soul and that had become as much a part of him as his desire to do only good- everything- it would all come pouring unstoppably out. But he squashed it all back down and the moment passed, as he knew it would, and instead he was lamely left to gasp, "Nothing. Everything."

Howard's face contorted in a silent grimace of disgust at such paucity, the wishy-washiness of Clark's answer. But he misunderstood. Clark tried to explain, to make them all understand,

"I told her that I'd never see her again. I told her to move on, to forget about me, to live her life without me because I couldn't promise her a future. I told her all those things, and I meant them, and I broke her heart."

His voice was scratchy. The atmosphere in the room was electric. Clark was staring past Howard, into space, gently shaking his head, "I stood in front of her and I watched her cry and I watched her heart break." His voice faltered as the middle of his eyebrows raised, "And then I left."

For a few seconds Howard was quiet. Then, matter-of-factly, he said, "You were an idiot. I don't think anyone's debating that. The question is what are you going to do about it now?"

Clark laughed, closing his eyes. "Howard." He opened them again. "What if it's too late?"

"Then it's too late!" Howard blustered. "You missed your chance! You screwed up! It's over!" He snapped his fingers, "Gone!" His eyes were on fire, "But what if it's not?" He sunk to sit on the edge of his chair, "You can't let her slip through your fingers."

When Clark showed no obvious reaction, Howard smacked his fist against his desk. "Goddamnit, Clark! Don't you know how precious love is?"

Into the tense silence that followed, Eko coughed. He and Henry had been exchanging worried glances- not strictly sure what was going on. But ever since Sandy had mentioned Metropolis, they had been keen to join in.

Everyone looked at Eko who had his hand held up as if in class. Self-consciously he lowered it. "Sorry. Um, I don't know if this means anything, but according to the records kept by our Subscription team, there's a woman in Metropolis who imports the Gazette on a monthly basis. Our only international customer."

Clark stared back at him. "What?"

Henry nodded. "She's kept up an account with us nearly three years now." Frowning, thinking out loud, he said, "Ever since you arrived here, actually."

Heart thumping, Clark said, "Where's our Subscription team?"

Eko raised his hand again. Then he wiggled it between himself and Henry. "Uh, it's... It's us."

"Is. Is there a name?"

"Yeah, I- I'm not sure how you say it..." Eko scooted back round to his desk and opened up the relevant files on his computer screen. He scrolled through the records, "Here it is." He double-checked; "A Ms S. Blodgett."

"What did you just say?"

Unsure of his pronunciation, Eko tried to sound clearer. "A Ms S. Blodgett?" He followed the line of her name with his finger. "Yes, look. The last order shipped just a couple of weeks ago."

Everyone turned their attention back to Clark, breathlessly waiting for a clue from him as to who this Ms S Blodgett was and what this all meant. He looked like a man on the verge of announcing something hugely profound, like he was finally putting the pieces together and now life made sense. They waited. Finally, weakly, he whispered, "She's been reading me."

"Well what else are you waiting for?" Howard blurted, "Divine intervention? A burning bush? A sign!?"

Frank's desk phone shrilled into life and it made everyone jump. Frank ignored the ringing until he could stand it no longer and without saying anything he stepped back inside his office and just yanked the plug out.

The renewed silence and the movement seemed to stir Clark back into action. Slowly, he got to his feet. "I'm sorry. I should have done this a long time ago."

Frank was back in his doorway. Clark strode past on his way to the doors. "What's happening now? Where are you going?"

Clark faced them, his friends. He smiled- a brilliant, handsome, smile, as if just thinking the words tore down walls. Behind his glasses, his eyes shone with determination: "I'm going to get her back."

And then he left. Behind him, there was a pause and then the room erupted in noisy celebration. Sandy hollered "Way to go, Clark," and Howard twirled Rebecca through the air.

When the hooting and cheering had subsided, Frank placed his arm around his wife's shoulders. "I've never seen him like that. Have you ever seen him like that?"

"No," Sandy agreed, thinking about the way Clark had suddenly seemed to take control. "...It was kind of hot."

Frank gave her a sideways glance. Howard was nodding.

Henry extended his index finger, wanting to make sure he was up to speed. "So. He's. He's going to Metropolis, right?"

Sandy frowned. "I think so."

"Is he coming back?"

Frank regarded Henry, "He better be-" He checked his watch, "he's got a photo call and a flight to Rio to catch in about twenty hours."

Sandy tutted at her husband.

"What? I paid for business class."

Eko was scratching the back of his head. "What kind of a name's Blodgett?"

Frank thought about this. He turned to Sandy, "I thought you said her name was Lois?"

Sandy actually had no explanation. Howard simply didn't care. He was hugging Rebecca, a contented, dreamy smile on his face. He wiped away a tear.

The newsroom doors crashed open again but it was just Bertina- with a foul-looking expression on her face. Her accent was always thicker when she was annoyed, "Hey, who cut me off?"

Frank held up his hands, "Sorry Bertie- that was me." He waved his hands vaguely, "We were kind of in the middle of something... Clark-"

"That's great," Bertina said, unmoved. "I have someone on line one- they're extremely insistent."

"Oh, ask them to call back Monday," Frank told her. "Now get your coat, we're going for something to eat."

Impatiently, Bertina elaborated, "He says he thinks he used to work here."

Frank smiled but shook his head dismissively, "That's impossible."

Sandy explained, "Frank's never fired anyone."

"He says his name is Sam."

--

Clark ran home, sprinting the short distance back to his walk-up. He went straight to his dresser to find the engagement ring before opening his wardrobe and pulling out his best suit. He tucked the ring box safely into the inside pocket before gathering it all up, and propelling himself out of his apartment, up out of his balcony, into the cool night air.

He headed north again, back towards daylight, back to the Fortress. As he flew, he felt like he was shedding an old skin, casting away a veil that he had drawn over himself that had filtered light and dimmed colors. Agitated, exhilarated, he could feel himself allowing the light to come back in, could feel something building within him. A sense of anticipation. Of expectation. For the first time in months, in years, he felt alive.

In the Fortress, his fingers fumbled over the memory bank until he found the right crystal. He took a moment and commanded himself to catch his breath and to calm down. He applied pressure and the crystal activated.

"When does a man's obligation to those around him exceed his obligation to himself?"

Once more, Clark stood before his father.

"These are not simple questions. I can only tell you what I myself believe. Even on Krypton there is no precise science which provides us with the answers."

"People nearly died in that earthquake because of me." Clark breathed in, composed. "And before that, they died in the tsunami, and before that, they died when Zod murdered them in cold blood."

Jor-El's image paused and flickered, the recording concerned with recallibrating itself to address this new, unexpected, prompt.

"You are one man among many. The responsibility for every citizen of Earth; their lives, their fate, does not fall solely onto your shoulders-"

Again, Clark interrupted him. "But some of it does. A huge part of it."

"It is unwise and unhelpful to assume total culpability for the twin ordinances of natural science and free will, Kal-El."

Simply, almost with a smile, Clark said, "I'm not."

Jor-El flickered again.

"People get hurt because of me. Because of Clark. Because of my other life." Clark opened his hands, gestured at the chamber around him, "Because I have a life outside of all this."

Father and son eyed each other. Clark was not finished. "Maybe it would be better for the world if I gave that up? All of it? Completely? If I gave up Clark?"

He watched the image of his father blink on and off as its intelligence searched hours, years, of memory files, for the most appropriate response. The best it could come up with was,

"...The reasons are two: First, even you cannot serve humanity twenty-eight hours a day-"

"Yes," Clark agreed. "But it means that sometimes, I'll be too late. Sometimes, I will not be fast enough. Sometimes, I will be stuck in a meeting forced to watch while people die. That's what being Clark and being Superman means." Blue eyes met each other across a distance of millennia, of galaxies. "And that will never change."

Beside his father's face, Lara's image appeared. It was the first time he had seen them together. They both looked concerned. Clark said, "When does a man's obligation to those around him exceed his obligation to himself? When he's forced to make a choice between the two."

His jaw worked. His parents gazed upon him. Before them, he stood, tall and honest, feeling more sure of himself than he had ever been.

They were recordings, nothing more than holograms designed to offer guidance and advice. A trick of the light. And maybe it was a trick of the light, but he could swear he saw the briefest look of real emotion, of pride, play across their faces.

He addressed them. "Father, mother. I'm done choosing. I've had enough. I want it all. I want Superman, and I want Clark." He paused, looked up again, "And most of all, I want Lois."

--

That evening in Metropolis, unusually, Perry was the last to leave. He tidied away his desk so it was clear for Monday, plucked his coat from the stand and clicked off his desk light. He was busy turning the key in its lock when he heard a faint ringing sound from the other side of the door. For a second, he thought screw it and was going to walk away, but in the end he twisted the key and swung back into the darkness of the office to pick up the phone. It was his secretary, asking if he was busy. "No, I'll take it. Who is it?"

At her words, Perry straightened. "Put him through. Right away."

--

Lois was stood in her corridor, going through her purse. Perry was still in his office working when she had left for home. One way or another it had been an interesting day of role reversals. Intending to sound Richard out over her idea to bring him across as a replacement for Norm, last thing she had knocked on his door with an offer of going for drinks tonight. To her surprise, and- she was woman enough to admit- a little disappointment, he had said sorry, but he already had dinner plans.

Finding her keys, she opened the door and then she froze, half in and half out of the apartment. The lights were on. Had she left them on this morning? It was her habit to flip them off as she left for work. She thought hard but she couldn't remember...

There was a noise from the kitchen and her head flicked that way, "Hello?"

No answer. Adding steel to her voice she called out, "Is anyone there?"

With her blood rushing in her ears, holding the door open just in case, she gently bounced her purse in her hands, testing its weight. Deeming it no good she put it down and scanned the vicinity for something more suitable, silently scolding herself for not keeping a baseball bat more handy. Next to her shoe rack there was an umbrella- one of those compact ones you could fit in your handbag. She picked it up and it felt light and not at all threatening. She pulled it to extend the shaft to its full length of about two feet, tops, but it would have to do. She wedged the door open and stealthily edged forward, keeping close to the skirting. There were more noises and her scalp prickled- Oh my God. Someone was ransacking her kitchen and now they were coming this way. Assuming an attack position, Lois cocked the umbrella as if she was at bat, and braced herself to strike...

"Hey you!"

Her sister cheerfully bobbled past with a trayful of food in her hands. Lois felt her entire body slacken against the wall. "Lucy! You scared the living crap out of me!"

Happily oblivious, Lucy went to settle herself on the couch. "Sorry, I didn't hear you come in."

Eyes wide, Lois was still catching her breath back, "How did you get in?"

Lucy shrugged, "My spare key." Only now did she look back and seem to notice anything was amiss. As a disclaimer, a little defensively, she added, "It was an emergency."

Finally relaxing, Lois came inside to take off her coat and put away her things. "What are you doing here?"

A wonderful smell of frying wafted out of the kitchen and an open bottle of Pinot Grigio with a glass filled to the brim was ready on the coffee table. Clearly having made herself at home, Lucy found the remote and flicked on the tv. "The house is being fumigated."

Lois slumped next to her sister so she could inspect what Lucy had conjured up for dinner up close. Fries and a cheesy omelette with mushrooms and chunky squares of onion- she'd raided her kitchen well. Lois stole a fry, "Because of the ants? I thought you guys did that already?"

"Well, we did. But it didn't really work." At her sister's raised eyebrows, Lucy held up her hands, "I know, I know. We should've listened. But it got personal with those little frickers." Lucy took a sip of wine and then gestured in the air, "Anyway, one thing led to another and last night we ended up calling that number you gave me. Now the garage is being sealed and we're not allowed inside the house for another twenty-four hours." She stabbed at a piece of mushroom decisively.

"Mmm." Lois munched on another fry. As if only just remembering, she looked around, "Where's everyone else?"

"David took the kids fishing," Lucy explained as she flicked through looking for the weather channel. "I thought I'd come see you!"

"I'm honored." Lois got up and went to find a glass. From the kitchen she called, "So, did Zach find his power ranger?"

Lucy poked the end of her fork in the air, "Let's just say that at Nina Ludlow's book group yesterday, Dale's mother couldn't look me in the face." She returned her attention back to the information on the television screen. "I hope they're going to be okay up there. Look at that, there's a storm front moving in." She frowned to herself, "I knew I should've forced Elizabeth to take her thermals."

Lois poked around in the kitchen, looking for a couple of eggs to make her own omelette. She was starving. "Hey, did you leave any cheese for me?"

Lucy did not reply straight away. She called, "No. I used it all."

"Oh."

"Actually ...You have ...other dinner plans tonight."

Smiling, Lois came back in with a wine glass and some ketchup, "What are you talking-" When she saw Lucy's face, she stopped. "What have you done?"

Lucy bit her lip. "I met up with a couple of girls from the poetry class in town today..."

A look of horror and then accusation crossed Lois's face. "Oh no you didn't."

Lucy cracked, "I'm sorry! I had no choice!"

"There's always a choice!"

"But he's got no date!"

Lois opened her hands wide, "I don't care! This is- I can't believe you've done this!" She folded her arms petulantly. "I'm not going."

Lucy pushed the dinner tray to one side. "Please, Lois. For me? As a favor?" She clasped her hands together, "It's just dinner. One dinner." She swallowed. "I promised Ali that you'd go."

Lois's mouth moved wordlessly. "Ali?"

"His aunt- she's lovely!"

"Yes!" Lois agreed. "And she's setting him up because he can't get normal women to go out with him!" She appealed to her sister, "Doesn't that tell you anything?"

Lucy hunched her shoulders, "He's been hung up on this one girl- that's all!"

"It's pathetic!"

"Pathetic?" Lucy repeated. "You mean like spending Valentine's in front of the tv, eating Very Berry ice cream straight from the tub?"

Lois gasped in indignation. Lucy simply shrugged one shoulder: yeah, I said it.

With narrowed eyes, Lois dabbed her finger at her sister, "I resent that implication. It wasn't Very Berry, it was Double Fudge."

In desperation, Lucy sighed. "He's very good-looking... Apparently..."

"You don't even know his name!"

Lucy stood her ground, "I know that he sounds like a really sweet guy; unlucky in love, long-standing crush, she's not interested..."

"I know how she feels!"

Face falling, Lucy grimaced at Lois, worried and fretting. "I don't have his number. He'll be waiting for you."

"Let him wait."

"You can't leave him out on the street just standing there?"

"Me?" Lois spluttered, "Me? Why don't you go? You're the one who turned Emma Woodhouse on my ass."

Lucy scowled, "You went out with a string of guys you never had any intention of seeing again, but you can't do this one thing for me?"

"Emotional blackmail?" Lois was nodding, "That's how low you're going to stoop?"

Taking a breath, Lucy reeled it back in in order to placate. "Okay, let's just calm down for a second, and think rationally about this."

Lois simply stared at her, "For the last time, Lucy; I'm not going on a blind date!" She calmly filled her wine glass. "And that's final."

--

About an hour later, showered and changed, Clark arrived in Metropolis just a couple of blocks away from his old place. Overhead, clouds were gathering and rain was in the air. People scurried home to get inside but Clark could only feel freshness, newness, the crisp vitality of the city, and he revelled in it. Feeling light and a little giddy, delighted that the stall was still here, he stopped to buy flowers. A bouquet of red tulips and pearl white snowdrops. In floriography- a declaration of love and of hope.

--

Under a streetlight on the other side of town, Lois clambered out of a taxicab, softly grumbling, "I can't believe I let myself get talked into this."

The taxi pulled away and she puffed out a breath and straightened herself out, getting her balance on her high heels and her bearings on the street. The Italian place was just around the corner from here. Lucy had assured her this guy would be waiting outside. In the distance, the sky rumbled but Lois barely noticed. It was true, she looked gorgeous and she hadn't brought the umbrella, but getting rained on was the least of her worries.

Heading for the restaurant, she questioned why she felt so fluttery and nervous- it was not as if anything was at stake tonight. And Lucy was right, she had been on lots of meaningless dates before now. She just had to turn up and make nice and get this over with. The worst case scenario was simply that her date turned out to be not only odd- but boring.

Who am I kidding? She thought. The worst case scenario? She was meeting up with some random nobody on the strength of his crazy aunt Betty's recommendation and he could be anything; a psychopath? A serial rapist? Who knows what kind of sexual predator? That's why she was nervous.

She slowed down thinking about it. Okay, so it was statistically unlikely, or at least it would be extremely unlucky, if it actually happened that your blind date was any of those things... but on the other hand, she guessed that's what every woman thought- right before she was beaned over the head from behind and came to tied to the headboard with nylon rope and duct tape.

Chickening out, Lois started to turn back around. No, don't be an idiot, the voice of reason said; Lucy knows where you are- if anything happens, she'll be able to tell the police... Lois shook her head to remove herself from this debilitating train of thought- now you're just being ridiculous! And you read way too many Stephen King novels.

When she reached the corner she paused and took a deep, calming breath. Here goes nothing. She rounded the corner so that the front of the restaurant was in view along this side of the road, about thirty feet away. Two green awnings were illuminated with soft yellow light either side of the entrance way. Just as Lucy had said, her date was outside on the sidewalk, just away from the entrance, waiting for her. She stopped. He was facing the wrong way but there was no mistaking who it was.

Lois could not believe her eyes. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."