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Author's note: As ever, thanks are due to a number of people. To the many people who read and commented on this on both Zoomway's message boards and the fanfic list, and whose enthusiasm helped the writing process along - thank you! More particularly, thanks to my beta-readers, Kaethel, Yvonne and Sarah, and my cheer-leader, Anne. You guys gave me ideas, caught my mistakes and, I hope, made this story much better as a result.

Just in case anyone needs a specific time-frame, this story is set immediately after the end of Witness, although that becomes clear at an early stage.

Finally, the characters in this story are the property of DC Comics and Warner Brothers. No infringement of copyright is intended by their use in this work of fiction, and no profit has been or ever will be made from this story!

----------- Story: Nightmare on Clinton Street Author: Wendy Richards wendy@lcfanfic.com Rated: PG-13 Submitted: August 2002 -----------



~ Nightmare on Clinton Street ~

Clark Kent was a pretty okay guy. In fact, Lois would even go so far as to say that he was good to have around. He'd been incredibly sweet over the last couple of days, even if his over-protectiveness had made her feel smothered now and then. And it really wasn't his fault, she supposed, that he'd been missing in action when Barbara Trevino had made her final attempt to kill her.

Anyway, he'd more than made up for that by saving her life that morning when Sebastian Finn had almost strangled her. Though she still couldn't work out just how it was that Clark had been there. He'd come so quickly - surely he couldn't have just coincidentally arrived to pick her up right at the moment that Finn had tried to kill her?

Or maybe... Maybe he'd been keeping watch over her all night.

That was the weird thing about Clark. He was incredibly loyal and, it seemed, caring - and yet at the same time he could be clumsy, and sometimes simply never around when anyone wanted him. And yet she hadn't been able to resist asking him to walk her home this evening. Like a perfect gentleman, he'd escorted her to her door, then wished her goodnight and left. He'd given no indication that he expected her to invite him in, something which certainly set him apart from any other man she'd ever known.

The world's last decent guy, she thought with a wistful smile.

Despite her annoyance when he'd first been hired, despite her irritation at having to work with him, Clark Kent had managed to make her like him. Even their bickering was fun, because he never simply let her win, but he didn't play dirty either. He teased her frequently, which she claimed to hate, but secretly she loved that about their working relationship as well.

Clark was becoming a friend.

The thought, to her surprise, pleased her. Smiling at the notion that Lois Lane would actually regard a man - and a man in competition with her at work - as a friend, she climbed into bed and prepared for sleep.

********

A loud, irritating ringing noise punctuated Lois's sleep, and she groaned and turned over, pulling the pillow over her head and muttering about noisy, inconsiderate neighbours. Then it dawned on her that the sound was coming from the telephone.

Reaching one hand out from under the quilt, she groped for the receiver. " 'Lo?" she muttered grumpily.

"Lane? Is that you?" A voice she recognised, but couldn't immediately place, answered her.

"This is Lois Lane," she said, somewhat more coherently, but no less grumpily.

"It's Henderson, Lois. I need to talk to you. So do you think you can wake up?"

Muttering to herself, she dragged herself into a sitting position and snapped on the light. "Okay. What's so important that you have to call me at - " She checked the bedside clock. " - 4.30 am?"

"Lois, from what I've been able to find out, you left the Daily Planet with Clark Kent this evening, right?"

Frowning, she said, "Yes, I did. But what - ?"

"And what happened? How long was he with you?"

"He wasn't 'with me', as you're suggesting!" Lois protested. "He walked me home, saw me to my door, then said he was going home and that he'd see me tomorrow. Look, Henderson, what's this all about?"

She heard the detective sigh. "Lois, I'm trying to find out if there's a chance that Kent was anywhere other than in his apartment tonight. There was a gas explosion a couple of hours ago."

Lois felt her blood run cold. It was a very peculiar sensation, and one she'd always before put down to Gothic fantasy. After all, it wasn't possible for blood *really* to run cold, was it?

"A... gas explosion?" she echoed shakily.

"Yes. In Kent's apartment block. As far as we can tell, no-one got out alive. So we're busy trying to track down anyone who knew the occupants, to see if there's any chance that any of them weren't there." Henderson's tone was harsh, but there was an undertone of weary sadness and acceptance. Of course, Lois thought with some detached part of her brain, he was used to this sort of thing. He'd have to cope with grief-stricken relatives all the time...

Clark.

Clark was dead.

That was what Henderson was trying to tell her.

"I'm sorry... I... I can't..." Lois jerked out, then had to let the phone fall from nerveless fingers. Then she realised that she was shaking, and that her teeth were chattering.

Clark was dead.

Her partner... her *friend*. He was dead.

He couldn't be dead! She'd only been with him, said goodnight to him, less than eight hours ago! How could he be dead?

There had to be a mistake. Henderson must have got the address wrong, she decided.

It was so cold all of a sudden... She reached down to the floor for the robe she'd dropped there after her shower. As she draped it around her, she became aware of a tiny voice which seemed to be calling her name; after a moment, she realised that the phone was still off the hook and lying on the bed beside her.

She picked it up. "What?"

"Lois! I thought you'd... Are you okay?"

It was Henderson again. Why was he still there? Then she remembered what she'd wanted to say. "You're wrong. You have to be. It can't be Clark's apartment."

"Lois." His voice sounded concerned now. "I shouldn't have called. I should have come round... Look, 344 Clinton, that's Clark's apartment building, yeah?"

344 Clinton. Clark's apartment.

She tried to take a breath, choked, then realised that there were tears streaming down her cheeks. "No... Clark..."

Henderson's voice was in her ear again. "Lois, I'm sorry. I didn't think you liked him that much. If I'd known you'd be this upset, I'd..."

"He's my *partner*!" she yelled at him, refusing to follow the detective's lead in using the past tense. "And anyway," she continued, struggling to regain some composure, "what's with you doing this? Gas explosions aren't your area!"

"I was in the precinct when people were running names through the database to see who lived there. When Kent's name came up, someone realised that I knew him." The detective's voice was heavy. "I volunteered to check it out."

Henderson wasn't as detached as she'd thought, Lois realised as she became calmer herself. He'd never shown any particular liking for either reporter, but then that was his style. He liked to portray himself as a cynical, hard- bitten homicide cop; someone who'd seen too much of the dark side of life to let anything affect him. Yet he seemed regretful at Clark's...

No! She refused to accept that Clark was dead. Not yet. Not without proof. Not without... a body.

A body. Clark's body.

Though there'd been a gas explosion, and a fire, and Henderson had needed to call her to try to find out whether Clark had been home...

Would there be any body to identify?

Oh god...

Choking back new tears, Lois made herself refocus on the phone. "Thanks for... for calling me, Bill. I... I'm going to go now."

"Lois, I'm sorry. I wish it wasn't true, but..."

"I'll believe it's true when I have proof," she said, cutting across him.

"Lois, you don't..." But the detective trailed off, and she suspected that he simply hadn't wanted to remind her of the realities of disasters like this. Not that he needed to; she'd covered enough herself, and conducted enough interviews with Coroner's office staff, to know the score.

They'd probably never find a recognisable body.

As her tears flowed once more, she hung up.

*********

She dragged herself out of bed and pulled clothes at random out of drawers and closets, donning an old sweatshirt and jeans. Without pausing even to run a comb through her hair, she hurried through to the living-room, grabbed a coat and her keys, and ran down to the Jeep.

The smell of smoke started to fill the air from a few blocks away from Clark's apartment... where Clark's apartment had been, she realised dully as she pulled into the kerb behind the emergency vehicles on Clinton Street.

The whole area was a mess. Where Clark's building had been there was a pile of rubble, with jagged edges and blackened debris everywhere. Arc lights provided visibility for the emergency workers, lighting up the area like a football stadium. Fire crews were still pouring water on stubborn flames, wearing masks because of the thickness of the smoke and, she was sure, lingering gas. And a lump of cold lead seemed to fill Lois's stomach.

There was no way that anyone could get out of that alive.

Her cellphone rang shrilly, breaking the cocoon of near-silence inside the Jeep. Absently, her gaze not shifting from the scene in front of her, Lois picked it up and hit a button before raising it to her ear. "Yes?"

"Lois! Where are you? Are you okay?!"

It was Perry. She sighed, then said dully, "Clinton Street."

"Henderson thought you might have gone over there," he replied, his voice sounding heavy with concern and sadness. "Lois, what's it like? Is there any way...?"

"That Clark might be alive?" she finished. "I don't think anyone could've got out of there alive, Chief. So unless he wasn't at home..."

"At after two in the morning?" Perry asked rhetorically. "Lois, what are you doing there?"

"I had to see," she said quietly. "I had to know... Chief, he saved my life only this morning - yesterday morning," she amended quickly. "And he walked me home last night... I just can't believe he's dead!"

"I know." The weariness in Perry's voice matched her own feelings too well, she thought. "Lois, don't torture yourself by hanging around there. Why don't you come on down to the newsroom instead?"

She shook her head quickly, then repeated, "I have to see..." An awful thought occurred to her then, and she asked abruptly, "What about his parents? Martha and Jonathan...?"

She heard Perry sigh. "Bill Henderson asked me for his next-of-kin details. I gather they'll get a visit from the Smallville sheriff."

Rachel Harris. At least they wouldn't be hearing from a stranger, Lois mused bleakly, wondering whether she should offer to contact them to break the news. She decided against it, knowing instinctively that she couldn't possibly cope with that responsibility. She would call them later, or in a day or two.

Ending the call, Lois rummaged through the Jeep's glove compartment to find the notebook and pen, and copy of her Press pass, which she kept there in case of emergencies. She had to find out how Clark had died, and the best way to do that without breaking down was by switching into professional mode. She was a reporter, and she could cover the incident.

Incident. The word rang hollowly in her thoughts, and she shuddered, reacting violently against her own use of it. Clark's death was not an 'incident'. Yet she knew that was how it would be described in the news reports. She had to stay objective. And she could do this. She was a professional, a three-times Kerth award winner. And she owed it to her partner - her *friend* - to tell the truth about how he died and why it had happened. Therefore she *would* cover the 'incident'.

********

She walked carefully past the emergency vehicles until she came to the police cordon, where a uniformed officer stopped her. Once she'd shown her press pass, she was waved forward and directed towards one of the firefighters, who seemed to be in charge.

The smell of smoke was acrid, and Lois's eyes were already stinging. She couldn't smell any gas, she mused; but then the supply had probably been shut off as soon as the police contacted the gas company. And anyway, the smoke and the smell of burning would have drowned out any remaining odour.

Lois picked her way through slowly, looking around as she did so. The scene of devastation in front of her would have been heart-rending, even if this hadn't been her friend's apartment. Bits of charred debris which had once been parts of people's lives littered the road; a torn scrap of fabric here, pages of a book there, and on the edge of the gutter what remained of a photograph.

A flash of light made her look around; a photographer she recognised, who worked for the Metropolis Star, was taking pictures of the devastation. She wanted to scream at him, to rip his camera away from him and call him a vulture, a gutter-raking paparazzo without a conscience...

...but how could she? This was a story. To every other reporter in the city, this was no different from any other disaster they'd covered. The human cost was something they portrayed with a photo of just the sort of thing she'd been looking at, or through an interview with a survivor.

It was only for her that the human cost, this time, was the death of her best friend.

Lois pulled herself up sharply. She *wasn't* accepting that Clark was dead. Not yet. Not without proof...

She took a deep breath and concentrated on what she was there to do. The fire chief was just in front of her now, and she hurried up, showing him her press pass. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."

He glanced at her. "I guess I can give you five minutes."

She was a professional, she told herself. "How did it start?"

"Gas leak, but I guess you know that," he said. "We won't know until the forensic guys get in there, but given the strength of the explosion and the ferocity of the fire by the time we got here, I'd estimate that it'd been leaking for some time. We may never find out what ignited it, but it could be as simple as someone switching on a light." He shook his head. "We're still trying to put out the fire - well, you can see that. And the flames you can see aren't all of it; there's fire smouldering underneath. It'll take several hours at least to put all that out."

"And... are there any survivors?" Lois asked. Her voice came out in a rasp, and she quickly coughed in an attempt to disguise the reason for it.

He shook his head briefly. "There was no way that anyone inside could have got out alive, Ms Lane. The explosion was too sudden, and from what we could see by the time we got here, the fire was too intense. The best we can hope for is that it was quick."

Lois looked away, swallowing. That wasn't news to her, she reminded herself harshly. Henderson had already told her that. Maybe Clark wasn't there. Clark hadn't been home, she repeated. Clark was somewhere else.

At two o'clock in the morning? she asked herself incredulously.

He was somewhere else. He had to be. Clark couldn't be dead...

Her gaze was caught then by a small group of people, dressed in nightclothes and blankets, huddled close to one of the ambulances. "Who are they?" she asked abruptly.

"We had to evacuate them. They live in the buildings either side of this one - the fire was spreading. The police are supposed to be taking them to hotels - I don't know why they're still here." The fire chief's voice was weary.

Lois, her notebook forgotten, stared over at the flames again, then said slowly, "Where's Superman?"

Superman. Superman could have saved Clark - where was he? Why wasn't he here? What was he doing that was so important that he couldn't even come to save his friend's life? Lois swallowed again, another lump having appeared from nowhere to block her throat.

"Dunno. I guess he can't be there every time we need him - and anyway, if he was, my fire crews would get too darned complacent to do their jobs properly!" the fire officer said harshly. Then he sighed and added, "It wouldn't have done any good. Even if he had come as soon as the explosion happened, it would've been too late. There's no way even Superman could have got people out in time."

Even if that was true... he still should have been there, Lois thought savagely.

"Ms Lane, if there's nothing else, I really need to get back," the officer said abruptly.

"Wha - Oh, yes, thank you," she said quickly, forcing her attention back to what she was supposed to be doing.

Left alone, she watched the flames licking around what was left of 344 Clinton Street, as if compelled. Clark was in there somewhere, a tiny voice persisted in telling her. He'd been burned to death... Had he suffered any pain? Had he known what had happened to him? Had he...?

"Lois? I thought I'd find you here!" a weary, long-suffering voice came from beside her. She jumped slightly, then turned to see an unshaven, tired- looking Bill Henderson standing next to her.

"I'm working," she said bluntly.

"Oh yeah?" He looked her up and down. "Busy taking notes, I see," he commented sardonically. Then, more quietly, he added, "You shouldn't be here, Lois. Go home. There's nothing you can do, and you know it."

She shook her head. "I had to come, Bill. I had to see for myself..."

"I know," he said, sighing. "I've seen it so many times... I can understand why you'd want to be here."

"He's not in there," she said suddenly, flatly. "I won't believe that he's there."

"Lois, think about it," the detective said tiredly. "It was the middle of the night. You said he was going home. Where else would he be? If he'd gone out on a story, Perry White would know about it - and you would too, since you're his partner. If he had just gone out to the all-night store or something, he'd be back by now, probably standing and staring at this in despair just like you are." He paused, then laid a hand heavily on her shoulder. "Lois, you're not stupid. You have to face facts. He was in there, and he's dead."

Lois swallowed again, blinking back tears. "I'm going home," she announced jerkily, turning away to head back to her Jeep. Then something on the ground caught her eye, and she paused.

Bending, she stared at the piece of charred paper she'd noticed lying in the gutter. Another half-burned photograph, but this time one she recognised.

It was of Jonathan and Martha Kent, with Clark standing beside them and hugging both of them. Lois knew that photo; she'd seen it in Clark's apartment on many occasions, in its polished hardwood frame. The expressions on the senior Kents' faces made clear how proud they were of their son. And the look of fondness on Clark's face made his love for his parents very clear. A loving, close family; a family Lois had envied Clark.

She picked up the scrap of paper, staring at it through eyes blurred with tears. Only half of Clark's face was still visible, the rest blackened and burned.

Destroyed. Vanished. Wiped out by flames in less than a second - just like Clark himself.

********

Lois opened her satchel to put the fragment of photograph inside, but found her arm gripped by Henderson. "What are you doing?" he asked sharply.

"What does it look like?" she retorted fiercely, tears still stinging at her eyes.

"Lois, you can't just take something from an accident scene! That could be evidence!" he objected.

"It's a photograph!" she almost yelled, stung and hurt beyond words that he could want to stop her taking this tiny, precious remnant of her partner and friend. "And if I hadn't picked it up, someone would've stood on it and probably destroyed what was left of it! What possible use could this be to anyone?"

Henderson shrugged. "His parents might want it, you know," he suggested dryly.

"And if they do, I'll give it to them!" Lois retorted. "But for now, I'm taking it. You want to stop me?"

He sighed. "I guess I can pretend I didn't see it - this time."

"Right," she said flatly, and turned to head for the Jeep again. But he came with her.

"Sorry, Lois, but there's something else I need to ask you," he said, in a tone of voice which Lois had never heard from the world-weary detective before. He sounded distinctly uncomfortable and unhappy.

"What?" she asked shortly.

"We need a DNA sample," he replied quietly.

She halted abruptly, feeling the blood draining from her face yet again. "A... what?"

"Lois, I don't have to tell you that we're not going to be able to identify anyone by normal means," Henderson said, sighing again. "I want to know if you can get a sample of Clark's DNA - a hair, a cup he drank out of yesterday that hasn't been washed; you know the kind of thing."

She did; she'd covered enough stories on the subject to know exactly what Henderson meant. But she still flinched at the thought of doing what he asked.

"Lois, I didn't want to ask you, but would you prefer that I asked his parents?" Henderson added sharply.

Oh god... Martha and Jonathan! She couldn't have him asking them! It was bad enough that they would be getting the worst news any parent could get about their child. She couldn't imagine their feelings on being asked to find some scrap of him so that his remains could be identified.

As she knew the detective had intended, she shook her head. "No. Not that. I'll find something."

"Good." Henderson leaned forward and held open the door of the Jeep. "Go home, Lois. There's nothing you can do here. You have my word - as soon as there's any news, you'll hear it straight from me, okay?"

She nodded. Such kindness, in both gesture and tone, from a man who normally considered it a point of honour to treat her as if she was an interfering nuisance, was almost too much to bear. "Thanks, Bill."

*******

Lois didn't go home. There was nothing to do there; she wouldn't have slept, and she needed to be where she could be doing something, no matter how trivial. The newsroom was still fairly empty, but a light burned in Perry's office.

He looked up as she hovered in the doorway, his expression grim. "Lois, honey."

"Perry. I just can't believe it!"

He nodded. "I know. It's hard to take in. Seems like only five minutes ago I watched him fall over that desk as he offered to walk you home."

"He saved my life twice in the last couple of days, Perry. The second time was only yesterday morning..." Lois broke off, tears threatening yet again. "And now he's dead," she managed to choke out. "It's so... so... unfair!" she finished, collapsing into a chair and sobbing.

"Yeah," the editor said quietly. "He was one of the good guys, all right."

It dawned on Lois that Perry was talking about Clark in the past tense, and all her instincts immediately revolted. There wasn't any proof yet that he was dead! And it wasn't as if there was no room for doubt. Of *course* there was room for doubt! No-one had found Clark's body. No-one could prove that he'd been in his apartment.

Well, they could, she reminded herself. Henderson wanted a DNA sample.

Wiping away another stray tear, she got up and walked out of Perry's office, ignoring his attempt to call her back. She didn't want to talk any more. There was nothing more to be said.

His desk was in shadow, since it was still dark outside and the main newsroom lights weren't on. It suited Lois's mood; she traced a hesitant line across the surface of his desk with one finger as she steeled herself to do what Henderson had asked.

Clark's desk. Just across from her own, where he'd sat and worked directly in her line of vision for over six months. And where he would never sit again.

She could see him now, in her mind's eye; leaning forward and staring intently at something on his computer screen as he paused in his typing. Or talking quickly on the telephone. Or leaning back in his chair, smiling as if at some pleasant thought. Or even laughing, sharing a joke with colleagues. Or with her.

Never again.

She picked up his nameplate, still shiny and new.

Clark Kent. With the tiny Daily Planet logo in the corner.

He'd been so proud of that nameplate, she knew - not that he'd actually told her so. In fact, she was well aware that he'd done his best to hide it from her, clearly expecting that she would have made some cutting remark if he'd actually showed her how much it meant to him to be employed by the Planet.

She'd made cutting remarks at his expense too many times. And now it was too late to tell him that she'd never really meant them, that they were only a cover for her own insecurities, a means of ensuring that she always got her rejection in first. With most men, it was the most effective survival strategy.

With Clark... it had just been unkind. And she knew it, too.

Now, it was too late. He was dead.

And yet it had been less than nine hours ago that she'd stood in this very newsroom and told him to walk her home. He'd done it too, looking surprised and almost touched that she'd expected it given that the threat to her life was past. And he'd held her coat for her, and insisted on walking on the kerb-side of the pavement, made pleasant, undemanding conversation and been a gentleman in every way. He'd seen her to her door, flashed her one of his endearingly warm and open smiles, and said that he'd see her tomorrow.

It was tomorrow. And she would never see him again.

He'd said, just before he'd left, "Well, guess I don't need to play bodyguard any more, do I? You're safe tonight."

Oh god. She'd been safe. And so he'd gone home. If only Finn and Trevino hadn't been caught... if they'd still been out there, he'd have stayed to watch over her, she was sure of it. And he'd still be alive.

You could have invited him in. You could have offered him coffee

But it had only been around nine pm when he'd left her at her apartment door! Inviting him in for coffee wouldn't have kept him there for five hours. No, but she could have suggested sharing a takeout, and then she could have challenged him to a game of Scrabble, or something like that... shared some off-duty time together, as friends, relaxing and recovering from a few stressful days.

Instead, she'd let him go home. And now, as a result, he was dead.

No!

She wasn't going to accept it. Not without proof. And proof, Lois reminded herself grimly, lay in DNA. There, on the back of Clark's chair, were a couple of dark hairs. Picking them up carefully, she placed them on a piece of clean paper on his desk. Then she looked around to see whether his coffee-mug was in sight. It was... but it was clean. Naturally; Clark was so compulsive about that sort of thing. He didn't like working in a messy environment. Unlike her, of course. She always teased him about his obsessive desire to tidy up everything around him.

She *had* always teased him...

Oh, Clark...

Taking a deep breath to force herself to remain calm, Lois simply went to find a small plastic bag, carefully placing the strands of hair inside it, putting the bag into an envelope with a scribbled note. Then she called for a runner and told him to ensure that the envelope was taken to Bill Henderson at the MPD.

Now, one way or another, she would find out whether Clark had been in that building. And whether he was dead.

********

The atmosphere in the newsroom was melancholy all day. The part of Lois which was capable of recognising it was surprised: journalists were a notoriously cynical and hard-bitten profession, and each and every one of them had covered their share of depressing stories. Death, destruction, loss, massacre on a grand scale... almost nothing could surprise a seasoned reporter, and emotions were something all good reporters learned to bury at a very early stage in their careers.

This was different. This was one of their own. And Clark had been liked.

The mood was sombre. And Lois noticed how everyone seemed to avoid passing anywhere near Clark's desk, and - other than Perry's brief announcement at the morning news conference - no-one mentioned his name.

It was almost as if they were pretending that he'd never existed. Except that not many people were talking to her either.

She was Clark's partner; Clark was dead; it was almost as if Lois herself was dead - or taboo in some way. They didn't know what to say to her. It wasn't as if she'd lost a husband or a lover, after all; she'd lost a partner, and a partner with whom she'd frequently appeared not to get along all that well.

Except that he'd become her best friend along with being as her partner...

There'd been a report of the explosion in the Planet's afternoon edition. A small photo of Clark was on the front page, and Perry had written a short article about him. "Not an obituary," he had informed everyone during the news conference. "That would be premature. But Clark was one of ours, and I'm going to make sure people know that." Perry had shown her the piece before sending it to the subs; it had been as much as she could do to nod and tell him that it was a suitable tribute.

Not that it had said much; but then, Perry was mainly writing about Clark Kent the journalist. When it came to Clark Kent the man - the best friend, the caring companion, the good listener, the comforter, the gentle, intelligent, modest and funny guy she'd worked with and argued with and spent time with for eight months and ended up feeling closer to than anyone else she'd ever known in her whole life - well, no newspaper article could pay tribute to that Clark Kent. Only she could - in her heart, and in her tears. And in her determination to prove that he *wasn't* dead; to find him and bring him back to her.

What was so *frustrating* was that there was nothing at all that she could do. She couldn't do anything to find out whether he was alive: she'd already called just about everyone she could think of to see whether anyone had seen Clark, or had any idea where he might have gone last night. And she'd come up dry.

No-one had seen him. No-one could think of anywhere he might be. And no-one had heard from him either.

There was only one more call Lois could think of making, and that was one she wasn't ready to make yet. She knew that Perry had talked to Martha and Jonathan Kent, and he'd told her that they were upset, but - like her - trying to hold on to some small amount of hope that Clark might not have been in his apartment. It was clear that Perry thought they'd all be better just facing reality and accepting that Clark was dead, but he was being tactful and not saying so openly.

Maybe Clark's parents could think of somewhere he might be. But right now she felt unable to intrude on their grief.

She just wished that there was *something* she could do!

If Clark had been murdered, or if he'd died as the result of a hit-and-run or something like that, she'd have been out pounding the streets to find his killer and see that whoever it was got brought to justice. But this... it was so senseless. So futile... A *gas explosion*!

A gas explosion. So it was down to inadequate maintenance somewhere. There must have been a leak, which implied that either the gas company or Clark's landlord were to blame.

Well, it was a start. Something she could do while she waited to hear from Henderson about the DNA.

********

Lois hadn't intended to go to Clinton Street again, but found herself turning the corner to Clark's apartment block on her way home. It was dusk, and street-lights were already illuminating the road and pavements.

Most of the emergency vehicles had gone now. Remnants of smoke still hovered in the air, however, and the area reeked of it all. A small crew of uniformed officers seemed to be working their way very slowly through the debris, picking out items and placing them in containers; other workers had a stretcher and were using it to ferry what Lois could only assume were human remains to a solitary ambulance.

She shivered, knowing exactly what the current task involved; she'd covered several such aftermath situations in her career.

Did any of those fragments of human bodies belong to Clark? she found herself wondering ghoulishly, then cringed in rejection of the thought. Oh, she knew that if he'd been in there, then sooner or later they would be bringing out his remains, and some body part or other would be identified as Clark.

But it wouldn't *be* Clark. Not some remnant of bone or tissue, not some fragment of DNA... even if they, somehow, managed to recover his body, miraculously unmarked by the scorching, poisonous flames, it wouldn't be Clark. Not the Clark she knew; the patient, humorous, teasing, intelligent and gently caring man who'd smiled at her and argued with her and made her groan at his jokes; not the man who'd uncomplainingly put up with her foul tempers and arrogant insistence that she didn't need a partner and didn't need *him*.

That Clark, she was coming painfully to accept, was gone. And that was why she'd come here, back to Clinton Street. To say goodbye.

The ruins in front of her didn't look anything like an apartment building, she thought. There were no walls left fully standing; it was a mass of crumbled brick and charred debris.

Clark died in there, she thought harshly; then turned to get back into her Jeep before the tears could overtake her once again.

*********

Back at her apartment, Lois didn't feel like eating, but she made herself a sandwich and forced herself to eat it while watching the news on LNN. None of the stories seemed particularly interesting or newsworthy to her, though, and she was just about to turn the TV off when the picture changed and a flash of red and blue showed in the corner of the screen.

Superman. Where had *he* been all day? Didn't he know that a friend of his was dead? Had died because *he* wasn't there to save him? Didn't he care?

"...and news just in: it seems that Metropolis's own Superhero has been very busy helping with the clean-up after last night's earthquake in northern Indonesia. We don't have a report from the scene yet, as communication systems haven't yet been restored. But our reporter in Jakarta tells us that he's had several eyewitness accounts of Superman's heroic activities, saving dozens of lives getting people out from under collapsed buildings. As soon as we have more news on Superman's life-saving efforts in the Indonesian earthquake, we will bring it to you..."

Lois's focus switched off as the news anchor moved to another story. Superman was on the other side of the world? And he'd been there since last night. It was no wonder that he hadn't been around to help Clark. She supposed that dozens of lives - probably hundreds by the time he was finished - saved in Indonesia was more important than the lives of under a dozen people at Clark's apartment building.

But she still couldn't help wishing that Superman's priorities had been different, no matter how wrong it was of her...

She wanted her partner back. Her friend.

Knowing that she'd put it off for too long, she slowly went over to the phone and began to dial the number she'd memorised earlier that day. It rang three times before being answered by Martha Kent. "Hello?" the voice said cautiously.

"Martha! It's... it's Lois."

"Oh, Lois." Martha's voice sounded concerned. "How are you?"

"How am I? How are *you*?" Lois exclaimed, near to tears again hearing the kindness in Clark's mother's voice.

"Oh, we're okay. Shocked..."

"Of course!" Lois answered immediately. "I just couldn't believe it, Martha! I was only with him last night. We said goodnight, and he said he'd see me tomorrow - today, I mean, and now... now he's gone..." She had to break off, her voice cracking with renewed emotional pain.

"We couldn't believe it when Sheriff Harris came over," Martha said quietly. "It's such a terrible thing to happen. All those poor people... we can only hope that they were asleep and didn't know anything about what was happening."

Lois agreed silently, wondering why Martha wasn't mentioning Clark. She was probably too upset even to say his name, she decided, then hesitated over what to say next. She didn't want to cause Clark's mother any more pain.

"If... if there's anything I can do, Martha, please let me know," she said quietly.

"That's kind of you, Lois. But I don't think there's anything - "

"I could send you Clark's things from the Planet," Lois interjected quickly. She needed to do *something*, and there wasn't much else she could think of. "Or if you're coming to Metropolis, I could..."

"We haven't decided when we're coming yet," Martha answered, sounding calmer. "There are things to take care of here, and... well, you know that nothing's been found yet to prove that Clark was in the building. Actually, I thought Perry told us that you were insisting that Clark wasn't in there?"

Lois sighed, admitting that her resolve on that was crumbling - had been crumbling more and more as the day went by. After all, if Clark *had* been somewhere else last night, he'd have turned up by now. She'd practically held her breath as the clock had ticked around to 9am, hoping and even half- expecting that Clark would come bounding out of the elevator, completely oblivious to the fact that hardly anyone had thought they'd ever see him again.

But he hadn't appeared, and as time had ticked slowly by she'd felt the tiny crumbs of hope slip away.

It simply wasn't rational to go on believing that Clark could be alive. Well, not without imagining other scenarios in which he'd gone out for milk (at one or two in the morning?!) and been mugged and hit over the head... well, if that had happened, he could have gone out much earlier, she supposed. And maybe he'd been left for dead in some alley somewhere... or maybe... well, it wouldn't be the first time he'd had amnesia...

But then, standing staring at the ruined building in Clinton Street, she'd felt her heart accept what her head had been refusing to believe all day, and she'd all but given up that last faint thread of hope.

"I don't know, Martha," she admitted miserably after a pause. "I want to believe it... I don't want to believe that he's dead! But there's just no... I can't think of any way he could be alive."

"Don't give up hope yet, Lois," Martha said gently. "Nothing's proven. Not until the police get the DNA results."

"Thanks, Martha," Lois said, but inwardly she was asking herself if it wouldn't be better simply to accept the inevitable. To accept reality.

Clark was dead. He wasn't coming back. He wasn't just going to stroll out of the elevator and grin at her and say, teasing, "Worried about me, were you? See? I *knew* you cared!"

"You take care of yourself, Lois," Martha said. "And I'll call you in a couple of days to let you know what we're doing, okay? Thanks for calling. It's good to know how much you cared about Clark."

How much she cared about Clark...

His death left a gaping hole in her life. He'd filled an aching gap she'd never even realised was there; he'd become her best friend, when she'd never even known that she needed one.

He'd become the most important person in her life; he'd meant more to her even than Superman. After all, Clark had been there for her every day, working beside her, teasing her out of her bad moods, on the other end of the phone when she needed someone to talk to. Superman just flew in and out of her life as and when he wanted to, and he never stayed long.

Clark, though, had always been there. He'd cared about her, more than she'd ever known anyone to care about her before - that had been obvious from his behaviour towards her, however much she'd preferred to pretend that she didn't know. And she...

She'd cared about him, too. *Still* cared about him.

Barely capable of saying goodbye to Martha, she mumbled something indistinctive and ended the call.

********

"I hated pretending with Lois. Especially when I could hear how upset she was."

Jonathan patted her arm, then drew her into a hug. "You couldn't help it, Martha. We can't tell anyone the truth, you know that."

"I know. I know we have to protect his secret. But they're all Clark's friends, and they all think he's dead." She sighed quietly. "If only he wasn't in Indonesia - then we could at least talk to him and find out what he's planning to do."

"If he's been in Indonesia since last night, he probably doesn't even know what's happened," Jonathan pointed out. "We just have to carry on the pretence for a while longer, that's all. And anyway, we don't even know if he can return to Metropolis, do we?"

"True," Martha agreed. "He's got to explain why he wasn't in his apartment. And, as Lois just said to me, it's not easy to come up with convincing explanations for where he might have been in the middle of the night, and why he hasn't been seen since."

Jonathan let out a slow breath. "All the more reason to pretend that we think he's dead too. No matter how hard it is. We have to protect Clark's secret."

********

He was kissing her. She couldn't believe it; they were in Trask's plane, and they were only supposed to be pretending to kiss, a ruse so that she could whisper his instructions to him. But his lips were on hers, devouring her as if he thought she really had wanted to kiss him goodbye. His strong hands held her steady as his mouth opened under hers, as if inviting her invasion.

It was so tempting... and yet that wasn't what they were supposed to be doing. It took almost super-human effort to break away and whisper to him...

...and then her surroundings faded away, and suddenly she was in the newsroom, waking up at her desk in the middle of the night. And Clark was saying something crazy about leaving - quitting to take up some stupid editor's job at some hick newspaper back in Smallville. But he couldn't! She wouldn't let him... and then he was bending over her, brushing her lips in the sweetest, most poignant kiss she'd ever experienced.

She didn't even have time to respond; he straightened immediately, whispered a soft, painful-sounding, "Goodbye, Lois," and walked away. And she sat there, like an idiot, touching her fingers to her lips and wondering why the kiss had moved her so much, instead of getting up off her butt and running after him to tell him that he *had* to stay, that he couldn't leave, that she needed him... wanted him...

...and then everything was hazy again until she recognised the bedroom of the honeymoon suite at the Lexor Hotel. She was being pressed into the enormous bed by the hard body of her partner, and his hands were cupping her face, and he was kissing her. And she was kissing him back, forgetting all about the impulse to struggle. She didn't want to struggle... not when he was kissing her so wonderfully, arousing feelings she'd never imagined that she was capable of experiencing. Not when his hard body felt so *right* on top of hers, and when clothes just seemed to be getting in the way.

But then Clark broke the kiss and turned suddenly to look over at the door, and she realised why he'd kissed her. The maid had come in. It had been a ruse... only a ruse...

...just like her feelings for him the week before which hadn't been real. The pheromone had made her believe that she was crazy about Clark... and then suddenly she was back in his apartment, throwing herself at him and begging him to take her. But he didn't; he kept pushing her away, telling her that he couldn't, *they* couldn't, that she didn't really mean it and that she'd regret it later... but what he was really telling her was that he didn't want her...

...just as she had effectively told him the same thing a few weeks later.

And in that thought she was there again, on the street outside Clark's apartment, a few hours before Nightfall would strike. And he was asking her a question. Wanting to know why he had this feeling that she was special to him, why he was convinced that there was something more between them than what she'd told him. And she, again, cowardly, was refusing to admit what she already knew were deeper feelings. And finally, knowing that death was approaching, she told him some of the truth. "I want you to know that I think you're terrific." He said he thought the same of her... and then she chickened out. "I mean, I love you . . . like a brother."

Like a brother. And he was hurt; she could see it in his eyes just as the mist swirled again and he was torn away from her once more.

And then she was on the floor in the kitchen of her apartment, choking for breath after Sebastian Finn, disguised as her landlord, had tried to strangle her. She'd almost died... lying, gasping the fresh, clean air, on the floor, she watched Clark hurry to her, thinking that she'd never seen a more welcome sight... he was gathering her into his arms, holding her so securely and reassuringly. Now that he was here, everything would be all right... he wouldn't leave her... never leave her... he'd promised...

He'd promised...

She sat up in bed suddenly, breathing heavily and with the tendrils of her dreams still fresh in her memory. Clark had promised... and he'd left her anyway. He was dead.

And she was going to miss him terribly for the rest of her life. He'd meant so much to her... she'd loved him. Like a brother.

No. No, that wasn't true. It hadn't been true even when she'd told him that.

She knew. Even without the reminder of how she'd felt every time he'd kissed her, held her close to him. Made her feel that she was special to him.

She loved him. The way a woman loves a man.

And she'd realised it too late. He was dead.

********

Two days later, there were still no results from the DNA tests. Well, no result that Lois was interested in, anyway. She'd called Henderson several times a day, despite the detective's assuring her that he'd asked, as a personal favour, for him to be notified as soon as Clark Kent's DNA was identified from remains taken from the scene, and that he would call her as soon as he received any news.

Other residents of the apartment building at 344 Clinton Street had been identified and their families informed. But the fire investigators had concluded that the leak had originated in Clark's apartment, and that the explosion had occurred either in that apartment or the one next to it. As such, Clark would have been in the most devastated part of the building.

Her only comfort was that he wouldn't have known anything about what happened.

She'd spoken to Martha again; the Kents were holding on waiting for news, Martha told her. "There's nothing we can do in Metropolis right now. All we can do is wait for news, and we can do that just as well right here. It's not easy to leave the farm, you know."

Lois could understand that; it would make sense that Clark's parents would come when there was something to come for.

In the meantime, she was also spending some time investigating the various companies involved in supplying gas to residential property in Metropolis. The cause of the leak was not yet known, but just in case it was down to inadequate maintenance on the part of supply companies, Lois was prepared to write a blistering account of poor safety standards putting citizens at risk. It wouldn't bring Clark back, nor would it even begin to help her get over his loss, but it would give her some small sense of satisfaction.

Now, all she wanted was to know for certain what had happened to her partner and friend. And once she knew for sure, she could mourn him properly and then try to get on with her life, without him.

********

~ Northern Indonesia ~

Clark stretched wearily and looked again at the devastation around him. He'd been working non-stop for three days trying to save lives and rescue trapped victims, and he felt drained, at the limit of his energy resources. It didn't help that he'd spent a lot of time tunnelling underground to reach those who were trapped; he hadn't had as much sunlight as normal.

It had been a bad earthquake. Over a thousand people had lost their lives, and many times that number had been injured. Hundreds of thousands of homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, and many, many people were currently sleeping rough or in whatever temporary accommodation had been quickly made available. Clark's task had been to help with the life-saving efforts, and he'd flung himself into the role with as much dedication as he could summon, refusing to rest when the rescue teams changed shifts.

And now he felt that he'd done as much as he could. His last very careful X- ray scan of the five-mile radius which was the earthquake area had showed him that there was no-one left alive among those who were still trapped. He'd recovered dozens of bodies in the process of pulling out the injured, of course, but those remaining could be retrieved by the emergency services.

It was time for Superman to leave.

He spoke to the co-ordinators of the relief effort and the Indonesian interior minister, brushing aside their thanks and assuring them that he would do everything in his power to ensure that the West was better informed about the needs of the disaster area. Then, taking off, he headed straight for the Indian Ocean and plunged deep into its waters, enjoying the cleansing and soothing effect of the warm sea.

And only then he started to ponder over what lay ahead of him. He'd been away from Metropolis - and his job - for three days, which was the longest he'd ever vanished on Superman business. And he hadn't even thought to leave a message for his boss before he left. There had been no time to fly home and pick up the phone; once he'd heard that news report about the earthquake, he'd known that he had to get here as quickly as Super-humanly possible. He didn't regret leaving; he'd do it again in a heartbeat. There was no way that he could have failed to help. But it left him in a difficult position: he was going to have to explain his absence to an editor-in-chief who had every right to fire him for it.

He'd have to think up a convincing explanation on the way back to Metropolis...

Once he was feeling clean and somewhat rested, Clark dragged himself out of the sea and took off again, this time heading north-east. He was looking forward to getting back to his apartment, a hot shower and a change of clothes, and a decent cup of coffee.

Ten minutes later, Clark was hovering, aghast, in the darkness above the pile of rubble which used to be 344 Clinton Street.

********

There'd been an explosion of some sort, he worked out after a couple of minutes. The distinctive smell still lingered in the air, even with the strong smell of smoke. Clark was pretty sure that he could detect gas.

The tattered-looking police tape, and the fact that the site was deserted, told him that whatever had happened had taken place at least a couple of days ago.

His apartment was destroyed. And so was the entire building. What had happened to his neighbours? Were they okay? Had they managed to get out? What about Mrs Tang on the floor below him, with the arthritic hip? Or Mr Ramirez, who was nearly deaf?

Of course they weren't okay. The place was devastated. Unless they'd had warning that the place was going to blow, no-one would have been able to get out alive.

Clark gave a shuddering sigh as his neighbours' likely fate became obvious to him.

The people he'd lived among for the past six months, who'd become his friends and neighbours, were dead, their lives snuffed out prematurely by an explosion. And he hadn't been there to help.

He *should* have been there to help. These were his friends; he owed it to them.

Hovering in the night sky, he took a harsh, painful breath, searching the rubble with his special vision as if looking for the bodies of his neighbours. He knew that it was a useless exercise; he was no more likely to find anyone alive here than he was now in Indonesia, but he somehow couldn't stop himself. He hadn't been here when they'd needed him.

But, even if he had been there, could he really have done enough? He'd been around explosions before, as Superman, and he was well aware of how quickly everything happened. Sure, he might have been able to get one or two of his neighbours out, but then the rest of them would have been engulfed in the blast, unable to escape and instantaneously killed.

And he'd been needed elsewhere, he reminded himself, thinking of all the Indonesians who were alive because he'd been there. It wasn't as if he'd been doing nothing...

Tell that to Mrs Tang he thought savagely, then regretted the thought instantly. Mrs Tang was one of the most unselfish people he'd ever met. She could barely get around on her own, and yet she'd never felt sorry for herself. She'd always been ready to help, to listen to anyone in need of sympathy or to offer whatever she had to someone in need. She'd have been the first to tell him to go where he was most needed.

Nonetheless, they were dead.

And, he realised, he was probably considered dead too. Or at least missing.

Great, he thought resignedly. So instead of having to explain his three-day absence, he was going to have to explain a miraculous resurrection from the dead. Then he immediately chastised himself for thinking of something so banal in the circumstances. His neighbours were most likely dead, and he was busy wondering how he'd explain his own survival. Great priorities, Clark! he told himself angrily.

He needed to find out what had happened - and a shower and a decent meal wouldn't go amiss either. Swooping upwards again, Clark headed for Smallville.

********

"So they were all killed?"

"Looks that way, son. From what we've heard, there wasn't no way anyone could have got out of there alive," Jonathan Kent replied heavily.

"I should have been there!" Clark muttered angrily, for about the fifth time since surprising his parents by walking into the farmhouse kitchen.

"Oh? And what about the hundreds of earthquake victims you saved?" his father immediately threw back at him, his expression concerned. "They don't matter? Or they matter less than half a dozen people in your apartment building?"

Clark flinched. "Of course not! But... but I can't hold one life of more value than another anyway, you know that!" All the same, he was aware that his parents felt that he was starting to over-obsess; that was obvious from his father's shift to shock tactics. His parents only ever did that when every other attempt to get him to see sense had failed.

"Hundreds of people in Indonesia, six in your building... it seemed that way for a moment, Clark," Jonathan said dryly, but his eyes showed all the sympathy Clark knew that he still felt.

"I didn't mean it that way," he said defensively, knowing even as he said it that his father hadn't really believed that he had. He was well aware that he was beginning to obsess about something he was also aware that he couldn't change, and probably wouldn't change even if he could go back in time. But he simply couldn't help it... "I just meant..."

"That you wish you could've been there to help them. We understand, Clark!" his mother said, coming over to hug him. "We wish things had been different too. But as it was, you were where you were needed most."

"Yeah," Clark agreed quietly. "Doesn't mean I don't feel bad about it, though." He hugged his mother back hard, then murmured softly, "You know, Mrs Tang always insisted on giving me a fortune cookie every time I passed her window. She wanted to know when I was going to meet a nice girl and settle down... And then there was Mrs Westin, on the floor above - she baked brownies every weekend and she used to send me down a tray if I was there. She claimed that I needed fattening up. And Mr Ramirez used to..."

"Oh, honey," his mother said softly as he trailed off. "Oh, Clark..." When he didn't continue, she stroked his hair in silence for a few moments. Then she added, "We do understand, sweetheart. The important thing is that, according to that police officer who called us, nobody would have suffered. It would have been quick."

"And you wouldn't be our son if you didn't feel bad about it," his father added with a sympathetic smile. "That's the way we always brought you up to think."

Clark nodded, stepping away to stare unseeingly out of the window, silently grieving for his friends and neighbours and coming to terms with his failure to save them. Finally, he turned back to his parents, who were watching him with identical expressions of concern.

"What happened to Clark?" he asked abruptly.

His mother blinked. "Clark...? You're right here!"

"No - sorry, Mom. I mean, what do people think happened to me?"

"Oh! Well, it's assumed that you died with everyone else," Martha explained, looking concerned. "We couldn't say anything, of course, so we let the police think we believe it too. So I don't know what you're going to do about that. I mean, whether you can just come back as Clark and... well, come up with some explanation for where you've been for the past three days," she continued, sounding anxious.

That was what he'd thought. He was missing, presumed dead - just like everyone else in his apartment building. Which meant... what, exactly? He hadn't been sure then, and still wasn't sure now. Of course, no-one had actually *seen* him in his apartment just before the explosion, and the investigators were certainly not going to find his body there, which had to mean that there was some way out of it, didn't there?

"And..." Martha hesitated, which made Clark frown.

"And?"

"And Lois gave them a hair she found on your chair at the Planet, so they could use it for DNA," Jonathan said, sounding unhappy. "We didn't know she'd done it until afterwards - seems she and the police wanted to spare us having to find something the forensic people could get a sample from. But I'm not at all happy about your DNA being out there."

Clark paused, letting the implication of that sink in. Was his DNA that different from that of humans? Sufficiently different that the police scientists would know that he wasn't any ordinary guy? There was no way that they could link it to Superman, surely? He was pretty sure that there was none of Superman's DNA out there, and even if there was, why would anyone decide to compare it to a sample belonging to a presumed accident victim?

But, anyway, surely if it was the case that the forensic people were suspicious, something would have been said already... "How long ago did she give it to them?"

"The morning after the fire," Martha answered. "She went straight into work and found it. That'd be nearly three days ago now."

Clark rubbed the bridge of his nose absently. "If anyone had figured anything out, I think they'd have been asking questions by now. And anyway, you know, I'm not sure that my DNA would be that different from humans'. I mean, I look human, and I... well, I guess everything about me works in the way a normal guy does, except for the powers, so..."

"Well, we can hope so, Clark," his mother said, sounding concerned. "But what if they have found something suspicious?"

Clark shrugged. "I could always claim that it wasn't my hair, I suppose," he said, thinking aloud. "But then I guess they'd ask me to supply another one to prove it..."

"I'm not so sure about that," Jonathan replied. "I mean, they wanted the first one so they could identify your remains. Once they know you're alive, why would they need a DNA sample?"

"That's true," Clark agreed. "But..." There was still the other problem, of course.

"But people think that Clark Kent is dead," Martha finished. "What are you going to do about that?"

"I'll have to think of something..." Clark said, running a hand through his hair. Explaining how he'd survived an explosion at his apartment in the middle of the night which had killed every other occupant of the building would *not* be easy. But on the other hand, he had no intention of leaving Metropolis to start again somewhere else. He'd had enough of moving around every few months. And that one time when he'd tried to leave had shown him that Metropolis was his home. It was where he wanted to be - working at the Daily Planet, spending time with his friends... and working with Lois.

Lois... the one reason, above all, why he would move heaven and earth to make sure that he didn't lose the life he had. He would find an explanation for his miraculous survival. And he'd have to come up with something convincing, unless he wanted people to start asking questions he'd no desire to answer. The less attention Clark Kent garnered from officialdom, the better.

"Lois is very upset," Martha added, jerking his attention back to his surroundings. "She's been calling us every day since, and I'm pretty sure that she's been crying. I hear it in her voice, though she tries to pretend that she's okay. It's been very difficult to pretend to her, though of course we did what we had to."

"Lois has?" Clark was stunned. His partner, Lois? The same Lois who'd rarely lost an opportunity to taunt and run him down in the first few weeks of their acquaintance, and who even now frequently behaved as if a partner was the last thing she wanted? The same Lois who'd sneered at the very thought that she might have been attracted to him - and who'd told him that he was *way* out of his league when he'd indicated, just after they'd met, that he was attracted to her? The same Lois who'd laughed at him when he'd been trying to protect her against Sebastian Finn? *Lois* was distressed because she thought he was dead?

But, he told himself instantly, he was being very unfair to her. This was also the Lois who had actually asked him to walk her home the evening he'd gone to Indonesia - not because there was any further threat to her, but simply because she'd wanted his company. He'd also read into her request an unspoken thanks for his care of her over the previous few days. And he knew that she hadn't wanted him to leave that time he'd quit the Planet during the heatwave. She'd also been very solicitous of him when he'd lost his memory a couple of weeks ago.

And she *had* made it clear on a number of occasions that she considered him a good friend. Of course she'd be upset to know that a friend was dead. She'd be equally upset if Jimmy had been killed, he knew.

"Yes, she has," Jonathan confirmed. "Seems like she's pretty fond of you."

Fond of him... Well, she had told him, only a couple of weeks earlier, that she loved him like a brother. He'd been disappointed at the time, wanting more than that from her - but he'd never really stopped to think just what that meant. Lois had said that she *loved* him. Platonically or not, that was quite a gesture from Lois Lane, the woman who gave the impression of caring about nothing and nobody unless it was to her advantage to do so. He was pretty sure that the L-word did not come easily to Lois. And yet she'd used it about him.

And she'd said that she loved him like a brother. Clark was well aware that Lois and her family had a very ambivalent relationship. She wasn't close to her parents; her relationship with her father was very much love-hate. Clark had worked out some time ago that she was still subconsciously hoping for his approval, and hating him for the fact that he seemed to be withholding it, while at the same time hating herself for caring. And as for her mother... well, Clark had yet to meet that member of the Lane family, but he'd figured out that for some years when she was a teenager Lois had had to take over the mothering role in her family. That had to have left scars.

But she was very close to her younger sister, Lucy. And if what she'd said meant that she considered Clark in the same category - that she cared about him as much as she did for Lucy - then he felt honoured.

And his parents were right. She would have been very upset to think that he was dead. And, of course, she still thought that, didn't she?

He couldn't let her believe that any longer, not if she was as devastated as his parents were suggesting. He couldn't bear the thought of Lois crying, in any case.

He straightened, saying quickly, "I'm going to go see her."

"What are you going to tell her?" his mother asked, concerned. "How are you going to explain being alive after all?"

"I'll think of something," he said. Then, as an idea struck him, he added, "In fact... back in a minute."

He sped up the stairs to his bedroom, quickly changing from his Superman outfit to a pair of old jeans and a long-sleeved polo shirt, then went out to the yard and brushed some dust and dirt over his clothes before returning to the kitchen.

Briefly explaining his plan to his parents, he spun back into the Suit and took off for Metropolis.

*********

Lois couldn't settle in her apartment that night. Although she tried to concentrate on things - the news on TV, an old movie favourite, her current story - she couldn't stop her mind from drifting. As had happened almost continually over the past three days, images and thoughts of Clark kept interrupting her concentration.

She was going to have to stop thinking about him. Clark was dead; she'd come to accept that now, despite her initial refusal to believe it. Even though there'd still been no DNA confirmation of his death, she had no reason left to hope that he might be alive. As the chief investigation officer had told her at least twice, since the explosion seemed to have originated in Clark's apartment, his remains could well be the last to be found. Clark was dead. Obsessing about him all the time wasn't going to help her come to terms with his death and move on.

Not that moving on was as simple as everyone seemed to suggest it was! She still worked at the Daily Planet, after all, the same place where she'd worked with Clark for eight months. Her entire daily routine for much of that time had become enmeshed with his. They'd worked together on stories, but it was more than that.

Now, every time she got up to refill her coffee mug, she was reminded of how, more often than not, Clark had done it for her. Every morning he'd brought her coffee and a doughnut anyway, but during the day, when they were in the newsroom, she'd frequently simply waited until he was passing close to her desk for some reason, then held her mug out in his direction. He'd usually acted indignant or made some protest about not being her slave, but he'd always got her the fresh coffee she'd wanted.

Working on a story wasn't the same either, without her partner to bounce ideas off. Even though it had been only three days, there'd been so many times when she'd raised her head, intending to call a question to Clark or to demand that he came over to talk to her. She'd had to stop herself, almost biting her tongue to prevent herself saying his name.

And her work wasn't as good as it had been. She missed his input. She missed the way they would argue good-naturedly - and sometimes not so good- naturedly - over the content of a story or the focus and conduct of their investigation. For all her objections to Clark Kent in the beginning, he'd turned out to be no rookie. She'd never had to carry an inexperienced greenhorn, despite her protests to Perry and to Clark himself.

They'd worked extremely well together. Almost... a perfect partnership. And she missed him in many more ways than she'd ever anticipated.

Even now, sitting alone in her apartment and unable to settle, she was only too aware that in recent months her first thought in such circumstances would have been to pick up the phone and call Clark, to invite herself over to his place for pizza and a movie.

He'd been an integral part of her private life, as well as her career. And his absence had left a gap she wasn't sure she would ever be able to fill.

And, of course, she'd been in love with him, despite her stupidity in not realising it before it was too late. But she kept telling herself that just because she'd been stubborn and blind, it would be a mistake to build this up in her mind as the one grand passion of her lifetime. If Clark had lived and if they'd ever got around to dating, how did she know that they'd have been happy? It probably would have turned out just like every other romantic relationship in her life: yet another federal disaster.

And if that had happened, their friendship would have been ruined forever. So it was probably just as well that they'd never got beyond being best friends. She needed to be realistic about Clark, Lois told herself. Okay, she'd loved him, but there was absolutely no reason to believe that he would have been any better, any more trustworthy, any more faithful than any other man she'd known, was there?

Clark wouldn't have let me down. He was no Claude. Or Paul

He was still a man, Lois reminded herself bitterly, returning to the present; then found herself having to brush away yet another unwanted tear. Yes, Clark was a man - *had been* a man - but he'd been nothing like any other man she'd ever been close to. He *had* been reliable and trustworthy, and sincere in his caring for her. She'd lost something incredibly special in that explosion on Clinton Street. And nothing - *nothing* - was ever going to make up for the loss of Clark Kent.

Clark...

Forcibly swallowing yet another lump in her throat, Lois crossed to the kitchen and started filling her coffee-filter. She didn't really want coffee, but the mundane task gave her something to do for a few minutes, and she'd often found that the smell of coffee stimulated her creative processes. Writing articles for the Planet had not come easily over the past few days.

She was still working on a story critical of the city's utilities and their maintenance record; the explosion at Clark's apartment building was by no means the only accident in the city attributable to faults on the part of the utility companies. Of course, she'd had to remind herself, the investigation into the 344 Clinton Street explosion was not yet complete and she couldn't therefore draw any public conclusions before it was published - but she intended that her article would be ready to go once the report was in the public domain.

The coffee-machine had just about completed its perking when a knock came at the door. Surprised, Lois went over to check through the spyhole; it was late for visitors, but on the other hand Bill Henderson had promised to contact her immediately as soon as he heard any news, and she thought it very likely that he'd come to see her in person rather than delivering the bad news they were all expecting over the phone.

But the man outside her door wasn't Bill Henderson. Slightly turned away from her, he was tall, dark, unshaven, unkempt and his clothes actually looked filthy. At first Lois was tempted not to open the door; then she wondered whether it could be one of her sources. But she couldn't remember anyone with that height or build...

Then a second look made her think again. The man's build and carriage was definitely familiar, and as for the shape of that jaw... But it couldn't be! It wasn't possible...

"Clark?" she whispered incredulously.

As she watched through the spyhole, he turned, almost as if he'd heard her, and she got a view of his whole face.

It couldn't be... Clark was dead. Wasn't he? But take away the stubble, and the untidy hair and the appearance that he hadn't washed for several days, and it *was* him. Plus... well, she'd imagined him wandering homeless in some deprived area of the city, not knowing who he was or where he lived, and that was exactly how he'd look if he'd been doing just that.

It *was* Clark. He was alive!

"Clark," she repeated, her heart leaping in pure joy. She rushed to undo the locks and bolts on the door, fumbling in her haste, until finally she was able to wrench the door open.

"Clark!" she shouted, half-sobbing, as she stood facing him. A huge smile creased over his scruffy features, and he immediately reached out to enfold her in his arms. Lois went, too stunned to do anything but register the fact that Clark was alive after all and that he'd come home to her.

She'd been given another chance. And this time she wouldn't waste it.

********

Clark had been a little tempted to believe that his parents might have exaggerated about Lois's reaction to his supposed death - but as soon as she opened the door and cried out his name, he knew that, if anything, they'd underestimated her feelings.

The Lois who stood in front of him looked gaunt, with dark rings under her eyes. He barely recognised her as the well-dressed, stylish professional woman he'd worked with for the past six months; she wore a baggy sweater with a pair of disreputable sweatpants, and her hair looked as if it needed washing. She gave the appearance of a woman who simply didn't care what she looked like, and who hadn't slept for several days.

His heart turned over, thinking of the pain she'd clearly been through. And he opened his arms wide to hug her.

She ran to him, emitting a little sob as she did so, making his heart twist again. It was believing that he was dead which had distressed her so badly. *He* had caused her pain... but at the same time, he was discovering, to his great surprise, just how much Lois cared about him.

They needed to talk... but not in the hall outside her apartment. Breaking the hug, he wrapped his arm warmly around her and led her back inside. Lois went, silently sliding her own arm around his waist and leaning her head against his shoulder, as if unwilling to let him go.

"Clark? It's really you?" Lois asked once they were inside, her tone suggesting that she was still finding his reappearance hard to believe. To his amazement and dismay, tears were shimmering against her eyelashes.

"Yeah, it's me all right," he assured her, hating that his absence had upset her so much - and yet delighted that he clearly mattered so much to her. "Lois, I'm so sorry - I had no idea that you thought... I'd never have left you believing..."

"Clark," she interrupted him, sliding out from under his arm and standing directly in front of him. Ignoring the dirt and dust on his clothes, her hands slid up his chest, investigating the solidity of his body as if she'd feared that he might be a ghost. He stood perfectly still, somehow knowing that this wasn't the time to launch into his carefully-prepared explanation of where he'd been for the past three days.

And then her hands moved up to caress his face, moving over his jaw and across the rough, stubbly planes of his face, and his breath caught.

He and Lois frequently touched each other, these days; simple gestures, such as him putting his hand lightly against her back as they exited a room, or her laying a hand on his chest to emphasise a point in discussion. If one of them stood reading the other's computer screen over their partner's shoulder, they'd lay a hand on the seated one's shoulder.

This was different. Those other gestures were casual, an everyday contact between friends who worked together and who were both pretty tactile people. This was very different. This was... intimate. Her fingers traced his face as if she was committing it to memory, needing physical as well as visual proof of his continued existence.

Then she moved to stand on tip-toe; Clark's arms shot out to support her as she wavered for a moment. He wasn't sure what she was trying to do, but the intent look on her face told him that he was probably better off not interrupting. Gripping her gently but firmly at her waist, he stood motionless, waiting for her next move. Touching his hair, perhaps?

Her fingers delicately traced the outline of his lips. Her dark gaze watched the movements, apparently fascinated. And then she leaned towards him and, as he held his breath, her lips met his in a feather-light whisper of a kiss.

Taken aback, at first he wasn't capable of a response; then, as she faltered, unsure, his hands slid upwards, unable to resist her. One cupped her chin, and he took over, sliding his lips over hers warmly, affectionately... lovingly.

"Lois..." he whispered against her mouth, unsure whether it was a protest or a plea. She shook her head slightly, sliding her arms around his neck to pull him closer to her. Her mouth sought his again, this time kissing him as if she was desperate... as if afraid that he was going to vanish from her arms at the stroke of midnight, he suddenly realised.

And he was loving every second of it... her lips tasted sweet and so essentially Lois. He badly wanted to sweep her off her feet and carry her to the sofa... no, those couches were instruments of torture. The kitchen counter? The bedroom? Anywhere they could continue kissing in comfort and uninterrupted...

But much as he was loving kissing her, *really* kissing her without any deception in the embrace, he knew that he was going to have to make her talk to him. She might be kissing him now, behaving as if she was never going to let him go ever again, but once she came to her senses she'd be embarrassed at what she'd done. After all, she wasn't in love with him. She wasn't even attracted to him.

She'd just... been devastated because she thought he was dead.

He tore his mouth away from hers, holding her away from him. "Lois, we need to talk. I need to... explain..."

"No! Clark... please... don't go," she pleaded softly. "I couldn't bear to lose you again..."

"Hey, I'm not going anywhere," he assured her instantly, his gaze not moving from her beloved face. It pained him to see her so distressed, and it hurt him even more to know that he was the cause of it. "I just think we should talk. And... well, I'm pretty scruffy, and stubbly..." He raised a hand to caress her cheek gently, noting with regret the red rash which was developing on her smooth skin. "Come on. Sit down and we'll talk."

What was he doing? For the first time since he'd known her - well, apart from the time when she was under the influence of the pheromone - Lois wanted, freely and without any pretence, to kiss him. And he was stopping her? But he knew that it was the right thing to do. She needed - deserved - an explanation, and anyway, he was well aware that she'd regret the kisses they'd shared once she'd recovered from her shock at seeing him again. She only loved him like a brother, after all.

Though he knew that he would never forget how her kisses had tasted, what those moments in her arms, hearing her soft whimpers and feeling her holding him so close to her, had felt like.

She allowed him to lead her to the sofa; he'd barely sat beside her when she grabbed his hand and held it captive in both of hers. "So talk, Clark," she said roughly, her voice husky from, he thought, crying. "Where've you been for the past three days? And why did you let me think you were dead?"

********

Lois held onto Clark's hand, needing the tangible connection with him as reassurance that she wasn't imagining his presence in her apartment. He really was here, she told herself. He really was alive; alive and well, though looking pretty much the worse for wear. Not that that mattered; the important thing was that he was *alive*!

He was very much alive, too, if his response to the kisses she'd plastered all over his face was anything to go by. She ducked her head as a wave of embarrassment flooded over her: how could she have done that? She'd just... just grabbed him and made him kiss her! Her *friend*! It wasn't even as if they'd ever kissed before - well, other than for ruses or things like that.

But she'd seen him, spoken to him, heard him speak to her... and she'd known that she hadn't been building bittersweet fantasies in the aftermath of his loss. She *was* in love with Clark Kent. And suddenly it had seemed like the most important thing in the world to kiss him, to feel him kissing her back - a tangible proof that he was alive. Living, breathing, in her arms. No, it had never been a habit between them, and yet to her, just then, nothing had ever seemed so natural.

And... he hadn't seemed to object. And if she'd meant her resolve not to let this second chance she'd suddenly been given slip away, then it had to have been the right thing to do, even though she hadn't even been thinking in those terms when she kissed him. It had been sheer impulse, a conviction somehow that it was the right thing to do, a driving need from somewhere within her to feel his lips against hers, to let his kisses drive out the nightmare of the last three days.

Kissing him also meant, she supposed, at least meant that he couldn't help but know that she was interested, and maybe she could find out if she had a chance with him. Their frantic kisses - well, her frantic kisses, to which he'd responded with enthusiasm - seemed to suggest that they were pretty compatible, at least in that respect. Clark Kent was a darned good kisser! In fact, if he hadn't made her sit down, she might well have fallen down anyway.

All the same... where *had* he been for three days? Considering the state of him, it looked as if her fanciful imagination of him wandering around in Suicide Slum with amnesia wasn't such a crazy idea after all. She'd never seen her partner looking quite so disreputable, even after that time when he *had* actually been found in Suicide Slum without his memory.

Although, in a way, it almost didn't matter where he'd been, and once again she was seized with the desire to tell him that she didn't care. The important thing was that he was here with her. That she had another chance.

Another chance at having, and keeping, the best friend she'd ever had.

Another chance to be honest with Clark about her feelings and to tell him that she loved him.

If she dared... if she thought that he could love her back...

Now that he was here, sitting beside her and holding her hands with his, she suddenly began to question the likelihood of her yearnings turning to reality. After all, she was the kiss of death to relationships, wasn't she? And anyway, why would she even imagine that Clark could love her? After all, he hadn't been affected by the pheromone the other week, and he'd told her afterwards that it had to mean that he wasn't attracted to her.

He is so attracted to me! she protested silently, reminding herself of the way he'd looked at her in their first week of working together. And the way he'd looked when she'd told him that they were partners, nothing more, and that she loved him like a brother. There had to be a chance for them! And besides, the way he'd kissed her back just now *had* to mean that he felt something for her. She'd bet anything that he wouldn't kiss his sister - if he had one - like that.

"Lois?" Clark's voice cut across her thoughts. "You okay there? You look as if you're miles away."

"Uh..." She shook herself mentally. "No... No, I'm fine. Still a bit shocked, I guess. I mean, I'd just about accepted that you were dead, and then you turn up on my doorstep..." She felt tears threatening again at the memory of her pain at his presumed death, and blinked them away. Everything was all right. He was alive.

"I guess it was a bit of a shock," he said, sounding apologetic. "I... uh, well, there wasn't really any other way to do it. I mean, I'm not sure how you'd have reacted if I'd just called you..."

"No! No, I'm glad you came over," she said quickly. "*Really* glad, Clark."

"Me too," he said softly, squeezing her hands and giving her a smile which made her heart turn over. "Anyway..." he continued slowly, blinking a little. "I need to tell you what happened, don't I?"

"Would be nice," she teased.

He didn't respond immediately, instead simply looking at her, his gaze meeting hers as if searching for something in her expression... or seeing something there and wondering what to do about it. She got the impression that he was considering something very carefully, but she had no idea what.

Then he smiled, the warm, affectionate smile which she loved seeing on Clark's face. "Yeah. It would." Then he ran his free hand through his hair and said, in a different voice, "Well, did you know that there was an earthquake in Indonesia?"

Lois nodded, puzzled at the apparent non-sequitur. "Yeah. I saw it on the news the other night. Superman was there."

Clark nodded in return. "Okay. The official explanation is that... well, Superman came by late that night on his way to Indonesia, and he offered to take me out there on the understanding that I'd write about it, to persuade Western governments and people to send more aid. I... I guess I should have left a message for Perry, but it all happened so quickly..."

*Superman* had taken Clark to Indonesia? Lois took a sharp intake of breath as she understood just how fortunate Clark had been. She'd give her eye teeth for Superman to offer her an opportunity like that. It was incredible...

But... wait a minute...

He'd said that was 'the official explanation'. So...

Her gaze searched his face. He was looking steadily back at her, meeting her eyes, an expectant expression on his face. It was obvious that there was more to what he'd said.

"The *official* explanation...? So... what's the real explanation?" she demanded.

Clark released her hand and got to his feet abruptly and took a deep breath. "I guess the easiest thing to do is to show you."

********

Standing facing Lois, Clark hesitated. Was he really going to...? Here? Now?

But it was the right thing to do. He'd been sure of it when he'd taken that split-second decision to make it clear to Lois that the explanation he'd decided on back in Smallville was for public consumption only. He owed her the truth, if for no other reason than that he'd put her through the hell of believing that her best friend was dead. Even if he hadn't done it deliberately, even if he'd had no way of knowing what had happened and that everyone believed him dead, it made no difference. The effect had been the same.

And so Lois would learn the truth. He had no qualms about it now, anyway. The Lois Lane who'd become both his partner and his best friend wouldn't run with the news straight to the Planet; he knew that she'd keep his secret. And the thought of her being in on the secret was suddenly exciting, as well as nerve-wracking. How would she react? Would she be angry? Would she lose interest in Superman, once she knew that he was just an ordinary guy called Clark Kent? Or would she suddenly decide that she liked Clark a lot more than before?

Those were the risks, of course. But he couldn't help feeling sure that there would be far more advantages than disadvantages to having Lois in on the secret. No more lying, for a start. No more worrying that his very sharp-eyed partner would notice something and work it out. And she could help to cover for him too, he was sure.

Clark smiled broadly. He was very happy with his decision. And so he started to spin.

********

What was he doing? He was spinning, whirling himself around right in front of her. But why? What on earth was he...?

And then she began to see traces of blue and red, and a tiny bit of yellow, in the whirling dervish which stood before her, and she caught her breath in shock.

Those colours - or the precise shade of those colours - were very familiar to her. And suddenly it all made sense.

Clark's disappearances. His excuses and inability to explain himself. The anxious looks he got before running off. Just how he'd managed to do so many of the weird things he did - and how he always seemed to know when the bad guys were coming. Why he was never around, anyway, when danger struck.

And why Superman was never to be seen other than in an emergency situation, other than for a brief minute or two.

Two guises... one man.

One Super man.

And now he was standing in front of her, arms folded across his chest in the familiar pose... but he was watching her with a strangely uncertain expression on his face. And she realised that he was anxious about what her reaction would be.

And... she didn't know what her reaction was. She found suddenly that she had to slump back against the sofa cushions, because her muscles were refusing to hold her upright.

Superman was *Clark*? She'd worked beside Superman day after day for the best part of a year and she'd never known?

He'd never told her, never even given the slightest clue... and she'd been too busy looking at the externals to see what lay underneath. And in fact... hadn't she actually said something of that kind to Clark when they'd first started working together? About looking beyond the external? Some judge she was!

And talking about things she'd said to Clark when they'd first met... she didn't even want to go there. Embarrassed, she covered her face with her hands, unable to bear the thought of meeting the gaze of the man she'd insulted, sneered at and compared unfavourably to his alter ego - the alter ego who now stood in front of her.

"Lois?" He sounded puzzled, she thought, surprised. And even a little worried. Worried about *her*? "Lois, are you okay?"

She jerked her head up again and stared at him. And then spoke aloud the first thought which came into her head. "How do you do that spin thingy?"

He blinked. "Well, it's kind of a combination of Super-speed movement and using physics to keep everything up in the air until..." He trailed off, shaking his head. "You don't really want to know about that... Lois, are you - ?"

But she didn't want him to ask her any more questions. "Superman..." she started, more instinctively than anything else, then struggled to find words to explain what she was thinking, what she wanted him to explain.

But before she could say anything else, he interrupted her. "I'm Clark, Lois. I... uh, I suppose it'd be better if you called me Superman when I'm dressed like this, usually, but... it's just me, you know."

*Just* him? Lois found herself trying to stifle hysterical laughter. How could Superman be *just* anyone?

And how could Clark think that he was *just* anyone, when he could do so many wonderful things, save so many people's lives? He was *Superman*! He was the most powerful being on Earth! And he was the person so many people looked up to.

He was also the person who'd worked with her for eight months, who'd put up with her terrible moods, who'd brought her coffee - and accepted her treating him like her personal slave, too! - and who'd been comforter, confidant and protector to her. Clark wasn't a Super guy only when he was out saving the world.

"But you're not, Clark!" she protested. "You're not 'just' Clark - do you have any idea of how special you are?"

"Me?" He looked taken aback, and she wondered if there was a flash of remembered hurt as well as disbelief in his expression. Of course, she had treated Clark as an irritant for quite some time, while all the time she'd been fawning over Superman - Clark in another guise. "I'm not that special. I have some powers, sure, but Clark Kent's a pretty ordinary guy."

"How can you say that?" Her shame about the way she'd treated him temporarily forgotten, Lois jumped to her feet and caught hold of his arm. "Clark, you are not ordinary in the slightest! You have no idea... over the last three days, I kept remembering so many special things you did for me, or ways you made my life nicer... ways you made things nicer for everyone. You're the most special guy I know - and that was true even before I knew you were Superman."

"Really?" He seemed very surprised at that, and she quickly nodded.

"Clark, I... I'm not sure I could ever put into words just how I felt when I thought that you'd been killed. And it wasn't just when I found out, either - it was going on, day after day, and remembering - realising - just how important a part of my life you were. And knowing just how much you did for other people as well. There haven't been a lot of smiles in the newsroom this week."

Lois was watching him as she spoke, and she caught the quick blink and swallow which indicated that he was moved by her words. "I... I'm touched, Lois," he said after several moments.

She shrugged. "I'm just telling it like it is."

"Yeah." He took a deep breath, then said, "Lois, you haven't really said anything... about me being Superman, I mean."

"Uh... no, I didn't," she agreed. "It's not... Clark, I mean, I'm not... I guess I'm just still stunned."

"You're not mad, are you?" he queried, sounding concerned.

Mad? Lois knew that she was struggling with several emotions, but she wasn't sure that anger had been one of them. Okay, he'd never told her before tonight that he was Superman, but then he could just as easily retort by asking why he should have. This was clearly a very big secret; as a reporter, she could see only too easily the implications of people knowing Superman's secret identity.

And, after all, she had by no means been the obvious person for him to tell, always assuming that he would have told anyone. She'd been dismissive of Clark while fawning over Superman. Why would he even consider telling her?

And yet he had told her tonight.

"No - no, I'm not mad," she told him hastily. "I'm... well, kind of shocked, but I'll get over that. But, Clark, I think tonight's kind of put things into a different perspective. I mean, I know you being Superman is a huge deal, and any other time I'd be pretty excited about that, but it's nothing like as important as you being alive. You... I really don't care what other identities you have, as long as you're here with me. If that makes any sense," she finished awkwardly.

He nodded, a wondering smile creeping across his handsome features. "It makes a lot of sense, Lois. And... I'm very happy to be here with you."

********

Clark opened his arms and tugged Lois against his chest, delighting again in the sensation of having her in his arms. In his Suit, there was less clothing to get in the way, and her slender body felt warm and delicious against his chest.

He'd hugged her many times before, but this was different. Very different. Now, it was obvious that Lois had deeper feelings for him than he'd ever imagined. The way she'd run to him, hugged him, kissed him when she'd found him on her doorstep had given him a pretty big clue, and her comments about how much she'd missed him made it evident. All the time he'd been standing in front of her as Superman, she'd been talking about what a major part of her life Clark was.

She might not love him, not the way he loved her... but he was special to her. And, for now, that was enough.

Unable to resist, he dropped a kiss on the top of her head, then released her and stood back to spin into his normal clothing, dusty as it was. He saw Lois blink at his repeated execution of the manoeuvre, but then she smiled at him, her tears gone. "Sit with me?" she asked him. "You don't have to... well, go anywhere, do you?"

He shook his head. "No-one seems to want Superman at the moment."

"I do," she said instantly, but immediately looked embarrassed. "I mean... I don't want you to leave. Clark. I don't want *Clark* to leave."

Was she worried that he might think she was only interested in him as Superman now? Of course, that had been one of his many reasons for not telling her the truth before. Strangely, now he felt that it wasn't even an issue. But then, her rapturous greeting when he'd arrived, added to her heartfelt statement that having Clark safe and alive meant far more to her than the knowledge that he was Superman - and whatever that entailed for their friendship or any other kind of relationship which she might have wanted with Superman - told him that he had nothing to worry about.

"I'm not going anywhere," he promised. "But..." He rubbed a hand across his chin and glanced down at his clothes. "I feel pretty scruffy. I should do something about it."

Lois gripped his hand, shaking her head. "Not yet, please? I... I'm not sure that I want to let you out of my sight just yet."

Her words sent a thrill of pleasure through him, but he protested, grinning at her. "I'm Superman, Lois. I could be back here, clean and presentable, in about two minutes, you know."

"I don't care," was her instant response. Her smile died away, to be replaced by an expression of remembered sorrow. "I can't help it, Clark - I'm afraid that if I let you out of my sight I'll wake up and find that this is all a dream. That you're still dead and I'm never going to see you again."

Unable to say anything in response, he simply gathered her to him again, holding her tightly against him and stroking her hair in the only gesture of comfort he could make. "Lois," he murmured to her. "I'm here. I'm safe. I swear to you," he promised passionately, "I'll never let you have to think that about me ever again."

"You didn't know what I thought, did you?" she asked him, her voice muffled because her head was pressed into the crook of his shoulder. "You were on the other side of the world - you didn't even know what had happened until you came home, did you?"

"No," he confirmed. "I suddenly found myself hovering over a wreck of rubble... I flew straight to Smallville to ask my parents what had happened. And then," he added quietly, "I came straight here once they told me that you thought... I couldn't let you grieve for me a second longer when I could do something about it."

Lois drew back from him a little, still standing in the circle of his arms but now able to look up at him. "Why did you tell me the truth, Clark? You had the perfect cover story - you know I'd have believed it."

"For a couple of reasons," he admitted with a wry smile. "First, I... well, the way you looked when I got here. I had no idea that you'd be so upset to think that I was dead. So, given what you'd gone through over me, I couldn't bear to lie to you about this."

He shook his head, then continued. "I was going to tell you the story I'd come up with. That's why I'm like this," he explained, gesturing at his appearance. "The stubble, looking dirty - I came back from Indonesia like that and I was going to shower and shave at my parents' place. The ocean's okay for getting rid of surface dirt, but it's no substitute for a proper shower. Then when I knew I had to come to see you, I had the idea of telling you that Superman had taken me to Indonesia, and I thought I should look suitably dirty and untidy - that way I could say that he'd only just brought me back. I changed into these - " he indicated the jeans and polo shirt with a wry grin - "and rolled in the dirt wearing them."

"It was a good excuse, Clark. A lot better than some you've come up with!" Lois informed him, a glint in her eye. "I'm glad you told me. In fact, I'm... honoured, Clark. And... you know I'll keep your secret, don't you?"

He nodded. "I know you will. I trust you, Lois. And I'm glad you know. As we've got closer, become good friends, I've really hated lying to you."

"You had to," she said quickly. "I can understand that."

Clark hugged her again for that, and she nestled against him once more as if she belonged there. He wished that she did - but then, this new deepening of their friendship seemed to suggest that they might be doing a lot of hugging in future.

But then she pulled back again and gave him a quizzical look. "You said there were a couple of reasons?" she questioned him.

There had been another reason, but he wasn't sure that he was ready to tell Lois that he'd told her the truth because he loved her. She cared for him, he knew, but love was something different again. And he was well aware that she'd considered herself in love with Superman. Could he really bear to see her swear that she loved him in return, or that she thought she could fall in love with him, when it was only a short time since he'd heard her swear undying love and devotion to his alter ego?

But he'd also said that he didn't want to lie to her any more...

Although perhaps there was a way out, he realised suddenly as he remembered a little piece of curiosity of his own.

"I'll tell you the other reason if you tell me why you kissed me," he told her with a quick grin. Despite the apparent lightness of his question, though, he was holding his breath.

Lois flushed and tried, for a moment, to bury her head against his shoulder again. But then she took a deep breath and pulled away from him.

"Clark, I meant it when I told you how much I'd missed you. How I discovered just how special you are to me. I... what I didn't say is that even though when I was standing outside your apartment building watching it burn I finally admitted to myself how much I cared about you, even then I hadn't a clue what you'd really meant to me. Every minute of every day since, Clark, there's been something that reminded me of how much you do for me, how much I've come to depend on you, how important you've become to me... how much I need you."

She turned away, but not before he'd seen tears glittering afresh on her lashes. Silently, he wrapped his arms around her, tugging her against him but letting her keep her back to him. He was stunned. Even with everything his parents had said, and all that he'd seen for himself since arriving at Lois's apartment, he hadn't begun to realise just how much she'd suffered from his apparent death. What could he say to Lois that would even begin to make up for her pain? He'd had no idea that he'd even come close to meaning that much to her.

"I... Clark, a week or so ago I told you that I love you... like a brother. I realised that I was wrong," she whispered, so quietly that he had to use a little of his abilities to hear her. "I don't... I could never love a brother the way I love you. I realised that I was in love with you, Clark - and you were dead and it was too late to tell you. I... I'd lost you for ever, and it was too late."

Lois *loved* him? And not as a brother? She loved him the way he loved her? Barely able to process the knowledge, he simply held her more tightly and focused on the rest of what she'd said. Realising only after his apparent death that she loved him must have been awful. He couldn't begin to imagine how she must have felt.

She swallowed again, and a tear splashed onto Clark's hand. Now he couldn't stay silent; as he bent his head to brush her cheek with his lips, he promised her, "It's not too late, Lois. I'm here. You'll never lose me, I swear it!"

She nodded. "I... I hope not, Clark. And," she continued after another pause, "I bargained with myself in my dreams, I think. I swore that if I could only get another chance with you, I wouldn't throw it away this time. I'd be honest with you about my feelings... I wouldn't keep you at a distance, pretend that I felt nothing for you. I... I was scared, Clark. I've been hurt before..."

"I know," he murmured. "Men who didn't appreciate you, who thought they could treat you like dirt... I'll never do that to you, Lois, I swear it."

She twisted in his arms suddenly so that she was facing him, looking up at him from eyes that still shimmered with tears, although she was no longer crying. "When you came back, Clark... when I realised that you were alive after all - I kissed you because I love you."

And, of course, that cynical side of him now had its proof. She had loved him as Clark before knowing that he was also Superman. But that didn't matter to him at all. The only thing that mattered was that Lois loved him.

Though the thought of Superman did remind him of something...

"Lois," he said softly, gazing down at her with, he was sure, all of his feelings for her reflected in his eyes. "You wanted to know the other reason why I told you the truth about where I was."

"Yes?" she questioned, looking puzzled and even dismayed at his apparent change of topic.

"I told you who I am because I love you," he told her emphatically. "Lois, I have loved you since the moment we met. Even if you didn't love me back, I wanted to do something to show how much I love you. Lois, I love you."

She was silent for a moment, the only sign of her reaction the fact that her eyes widened sharply. Then she gave a little cry of "Oh, Clark!" and she was straining up to kiss him again.

This time, he had no reason to hold back; sweeping her even closer to him, he returned her kisses with all the love and passion and yearning which he'd been hiding inside since he'd met this wonderful, special woman.

Where their relationship was going in the future, or even what was going to happen in the next hour, didn't matter. The only thing of any importance was that he was in Lois's arms and that they loved each other, and that kissing her was suddenly his favourite pastime. Even better than flying.

Or perhaps, he conceded some time later when he happened to notice something about their surroundings, even better *when* flying.

*********

~ Epilogue ~

"I thought I'd find you here."

Trying not to let the concern she felt inside show in her expression, Lois came up to Clark and slipped her arm around his waist. He responded by wrapping his arm around her shoulders, tugging her even closer to him.

It was three weeks after the explosion, and although most of the time Clark appeared to be back to his normal cheerful self, he still had occasional spells when he would sink into gloom because of his regret over not being able to save his neighbours and friends. He was learning to deal with it; privately, Lois thought that, horrible as what had happened was, coping with the aftermath would help Clark in his Superman role. After all, if he allowed himself to become depressed when he failed to save people, he'd find it impossible to continue his hero role.

He'd been welcomed back to work with open arms - literally, in some cases. Perry, Jimmy and - somewhat to Lois's chagrin - Cat had rushed to embrace him when he'd walked in with her the morning after his return. Perry had accepted the explanation for his absence with barely a grunt, brushing it aside with an injunction to write up his eye-witness account so it could be considered for publication. As Lois had suspected, people were too pleased to see Clark alive and well to pay too much attention to any gaps in his story.

And Bill Henderson had cracked a rare smile when they'd called into the precinct. The police had already been informed that Clark was no longer a missing person, but when Lois had seen Henderson offer Clark his hand together with a rare, genuine smile, she'd realised that the dour, cynical cop had actually needed to see her partner to believe in his survival. The little matter of Clark's DNA had been resolved easily; Clark had pointed out to the detective that he saw no reason for his details to be kept on record in the circumstances, and Henderson had agreed to ensure that his wishes were carried out.

She knew that Clark had been very gratified, as well as surprised, to see how pleased his colleagues and friends were that he was alive. It had astonished her to realise that he really had very little idea of how valued and liked he was. But then, that was her partner all over. He was friendly to people with no desire for anything in return; but in return he earned respect, liking and genuine affection.

And with her, of course, he'd found love. And not a day had gone past since his return that she didn't count herself the luckiest person in the world. She'd got a second chance. She had Clark back; he loved her in return, and she had no intention of messing this one up. Clark was the most amazing guy she had ever met - not just because he was Superman, although she had to admit that his abilities made her jaw drop. No; because of all the special qualities which made him Clark. And, incredibly, he loved *her*. And, unbelievably, she loved him more with each passing day. She had no intention of ever letting him go, if she could help it.

The question of a place for Clark to live had been a little more difficult to resolve. Of course, as he'd said, he could easily commute from Smallville, but that wouldn't do as an explanation for anyone else. He'd instead decided to take a room in a hotel, paid for by his insurance company, which had settled his claim for loss of property with impressive speed - and which had led to a very enjoyable shopping expedition for new clothes - while he looked for a new apartment.

Lois smiled as she remembered the conversation that had led to. They'd been in her apartment, sharing a delicious Mexican meal which Clark had flown in from Tijuana. They'd been surrounded by the details of several apartments which Clark was considering, and she'd suddenly had an idea. "Why don't we get an apartment together?" she'd suggested.

He'd blinked, clearly taken aback by her proposition. "Lois... but I thought... I didn't think you'd want to move in together. I mean, not this soon."

Realising that he'd misunderstood her suggestion, she'd hastened to explain. "Not like that, Clark. I mean... yeah, I'd prefer to wait a while longer before we make love... uh, if you don't mind, that is." It wasn't that she'd had - or still had - any doubts about her feelings for him, or his for her. It was just that, as much as she trusted Clark never to hurt her the way she'd been hurt in the past, she didn't feel ready to take that step yet.

He'd quickly smiled in reassurance, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her in that slow, tantalising way he teased her with sometimes, which drove her mad with wanting more. But he'd drawn back before she could deepen the kiss. "Sure. I'd prefer that too. I mean, we have as much time as we want. I want you to be sure about us, Lois. I mean, I love you and I know I want to be with you, but that doesn't mean we have to make love yet. I *want* to - you have to know that I want to... but I want us both to be ready first. And I'm not sure that I am. Or that you are."

So unlike any other man she'd ever known... that had been further proof that her instincts were exactly right where Clark was concerned. He hadn't said so, but she had a suspicion that he was thinking forever where their relationship was concerned. And, for the first time with a man, so was she.

"Yeah, me too," she'd told him softly. "I mean... I love you more than I could ever imagine loving any man, and I know that I do want you that way... but I'm not ready. Living together like that isn't what I meant. It's just that... well, you're my best friend as well as my boyfriend, and I love being with you, and I thought maybe... well, why don't we find a bigger place, with two bedrooms, and share? And... see what happens, in time?"

He'd looked very surprised at that, but she could see approval of the idea in his face. "But... well, I thought you were used to living on your own, Lois. You like your privacy."

"I think I only ever said that to put guys off," she'd said thoughtfully. "It does get lonely sometimes. But apart from that, if we're going to stay together then chances are that at some point we'll want to live together. Properly, I mean. As... lovers." She'd flushed a little at that, avoiding his interested gaze briefly. "So, since you're looking for a new place now, why not look for one for the two of us?"

Clark had smiled warmly at that. "I love that idea, Lois. You can't imagine how wonderful it sounds to me to think of sharing breakfast *and* supper with you every day, and for saying goodnight only to mean that you're in the next room. I think it's a great idea."

And so she'd given notice on her apartment immediately, before they'd even found a place to move to, and then just the previous week they'd found the perfect apartment. It had two large bedrooms, a living-room twice the size of hers, a separate kitchen and a third, smaller bedroom which they could use as a study/office for the two of them. Even more perfect, one of the bedrooms had a balcony which was overhung by trees and from where Clark could depart and return as Superman completely unobserved. There was also a closet to which, he said, he could easily add a hidden compartment - for his Suits and, he'd told her, a certain globe which, fortunately, he'd accidentally left at his parents' place a couple of weeks earlier. The rent was quite a bit more than either of them had been paying separately, but between the two of them they could afford it easily. So, even though Lois's own lease had a couple of weeks left to run, they'd moved in over the weekend, Clark's Super abilities making quick and effortless work of the process.

So far, living with Clark had been even better than her imaginings. He cooked for her or fetched take-out from any corner of the world she wanted, and he could clean up in mere seconds. Having her own personal Superhero around was an added bonus; although most of the time Lois had never felt especially unsafe living alone - at least, as long as she had secure locks - now, she knew that her personal safety would never be an issue if Clark could help it.

And she was loving getting to know the real Clark: the man who was a combination of Super-powered hero and ordinary farmer's son. Just as Superman wasn't all that Clark was, the Clark Kent she'd known wasn't all of him either. Seeing Clark walking across the ceiling to fit a replacement lightbulb was as much of a shock to her as seeing Superman making coffee.

She knew that he loved being with her as well. They'd spent a couple of evenings working together in their study on current investigations, enjoying the intimacy of their own workspace. They could argue and banter and discuss their work together, unhindered by Planet colleagues. He still edited her copy, and she still argued that he should lose some of his softer edges. Clark could also use his abilities openly around the apartment, something she loved seeing him do.

And her presence gave him someone to talk to about his Superman exploits. He'd always had his parents, of course, but he'd told her a couple of times that it was by no means the same thing as being able to come home - or to Lois's apartment - and be able to hold and be held by someone he loved while talking about some of the amazing - and at times soul-destroying - things he had to do as Superman. She'd wondered once before whether Superman ever needed someone to talk to and support him when he was down or upset after a rescue which had ended badly. Now she knew; he did. And now he had someone.

Best of all, they both loved the unlimited opportunities for kissing and hugging and cuddling that living together afforded them. Watching a movie with Clark had never felt better, although, strangely, Lois couldn't remember actually seeing the ending of those they'd watched since Clark's return.

Kissing goodnight was fast becoming an exercise in learning to stop; neither of them wanted to end the kiss and move to their separate bedrooms, and the previous night Lois had fought very hard against the longing she'd felt to follow Clark to his bedroom and share his bed. Just to sleep; she knew that they both still felt that making love was a step they weren't quite ready for, but she longed to sleep in Clark's arms. That had its own risks, of course, and she didn't think it was fair to Clark to put temptation in his path. Perhaps soon, though. She knew that she was finding it increasingly hard to find reasons to say that she wasn't ready.

Life was very, very good indeed. Except that Clark was still coping with his sadness over the death of his friends, and she ached for him in his grief.

Recalled to the present and his sadness as he stood beside her, she laid her head on his shoulder, silently offering sympathy and comfort by the gesture.

"I'm sorry; I should have figured you'd be wondering where I was," he apologised softly.

Lois shook her head. "It's okay, Clark. Just because we're dating, it doesn't mean that I have to know where you are every second of every day," she teased him lightly.

"Naah. You just like to," he teased back.

They stood in silence for several minutes, gazing at the boarded-up gap in the row of buildings, where 344 Clinton Street used to be. The site had been cleared and sold to a construction company which had permission to build an upmarket apartment block, part of a project to revitalise this area of town. The building work would be finished in another couple of months, and the first group of apartments had already been sold.

"I can't help wondering what Mrs Tang would have made of all this," Clark murmured after a while. "She wouldn't have lived in a modern apartment building, that's for sure."

"I guess not," Lois said, unsure of how to respond. She'd never really met Clark's former neighbours, but she knew only too well how upset he still was at their deaths. "Sometimes, modernisation isn't such a good thing."

"No," Clark agreed quietly. "This is going to be one of those places where tenants vote on who gets to buy or rent vacant units - I can't see Mr Ramirez being considered 'acceptable' to anyone. How many people these days want to live next to an old guy who's almost deaf and who keeps his radio on full blast all day?"

"They're changing the demographics of the neighbourhood," Lois commented wryly. "Old people, kids, animals just aren't going to be welcome any more."

"No, they're not," Clark answered bitterly. "I should have saved them, you know."

"Clark, we've been over this," she reminded him gently. "How could you have saved them? You were in Indonesia - and you know you agreed that it was more important to be there!"

"I could have prevented it happening," he said sadly. "I read the report - you know that it said the leak was in my apartment!"

"That doesn't make it your fault!" she protested instantly.

"I know. But, Lois, I'm Superman! You know that my senses are far stronger than other people's. If I'd been home any time in the twenty-four hours before the explosion, I'd have smelt the gas. And I could have done something about it. The explosion need never have happened."

If he'd been home... But he had been, hadn't he? "Didn't you go home after you walked me back to my place that night?"

He shook his head. "I went out on patrol - there were a couple of break-ins and an accident that kept me busy for a while. And then I was flying back home and heard the news report about the earthquake. I went straight to Indonesia. If I'd gone home first..." He sighed heavily, looking down at the ground.

Or, Lois thought, if he'd gone home the night before instead of keeping watch outside her apartment...

She hugged him tighter. "Clark, there's nothing to be gained from what ifs, we both know that. If I hadn't been so stupid and let myself become a target for Sebastian Finn..."

"That wasn't your fault," he insisted automatically. Then, sighing again, he added, "I guess you're right. I just wish..."

"I know." Lois reached up and kissed him lovingly, willing him to accept her comfort; after a moment, he responded with a brief, forceful kiss which left her breathless.

"I love you," he said, his voice rough with emotion.

"I love you too, Clark. Come on, let's go home."

Together, hand in hand, they walked to the Jeep, their backs to a past neither of them would ever forget. It had shaped what they were now, individually and to each other - but it had also given them their future together. Lois knew that one day, for Clark, grief would fade; while he would never forget, he would stop blaming himself. She, and Martha and Jonathan, were determined on that.

They loved each other. And, while Lois couldn't quite believe that love could conquer all, it could make a darned good try.

~ The End ~