Timeless by Becky Bain

Part 2 of 3


Shock. It must be shock, or reaction from the beating, that made her legs so shaky. Only dogged determination kept Lois trudging along behind Catherine through sewer pipes ("storm drains," Catherine had corrected her tersely, the one time she'd said it aloud) and brick tunnels and now these cave- like passages that seemed to be carved out of solid rock. At least, she hoped it was solid rock, thinking of the tons of earth that must be above their heads by now. She had no idea what was keeping Catherine, whose beating had gone on longer, on her feet.

But Catherine never hesitated, striding along as if she knew exactly where she was going. After a while, the dim electric lights gave way to flickering torches in sconces, and candles set into niches. The passages through which they traveled widened and the floors smoothed. And then Catherine turned into a wide-mouthed opening, almost like a door. They came into a room about the size - and curiously, about the configuration - of Clark's old apartment. As in the apartment, the entrance opened onto a wide kind of landing that stood above the main level.

Below, the hum of voices stilled as at least two dozen faces turned their way. Suspicion blossomed as they caught sight of Lois.

"It's all right," Catherine said quickly. "She's with me. Pascal, how is he?"

A short, balding man with prominent ears came to his feet. "He's in surgery. Father and Peter... but we don't know yet how it's going. Father said he lost a lot of blood..."

Catherine nodded once, jerkily, and descended a short flight of wrought iron stairs to reach the level where the others had gathered. They parted before her, some reaching out to touch her shoulder or press her hand, then closed ranks behind her, leaving Lois standing, a bit bewildered, at the top of the stairs.

Then she spotted Clark, hands deep in his pockets, leaning against the wall nearby. Gingerly, expecting at any moment to be accosted or questioned, she crossed to him. He watched her progress, lowering his head as she neared.

"Are you okay?" One hand came out of his pocket to gently trace the side of her face.

"It aches," she admitted. She wouldn't tell him about the pounding in her ears, or the alarming way her vision blurred at the edges. "But I'm okay."

His eyes closed. "After they got Vincent into surgery, I went back for you, but you were gone. I knew you'd make Catherine bring you here."

She laid her head against his shoulder and nodded.

"I hated leaving you there, especially with you hurt. But he was bleeding so much...

Had bled much, she could see from the state of Clark's t-shirt. The front of it was soaked through, stiff around the edges of the massive stain, damp and sticky-looking in the middle. Some of the dark stain had spilled down one hip, to mark Clark's jeans. "My God," she murmured, making it a prayer. "So much blood."

"If I'd taken any longer getting him here..." Distress was evident in his voice, and she slid her hand into his and squeezed. "He'd have died. He may still die." He nodded toward the far side of the cave-like room. It was partitioned off with white curtains; behind the curtains shone bright light, incongruous in the otherwise dim place.

"I can hear them," he whispered, more to himself than to her. "They're having trouble reaching the bullet, they're afraid of him losing any more blood."

"They're going to help him," Lois said, with more assurance than she felt. "He's going to be fine."

"I hope so."

"You saved us today," she reminded him. "Catherine and me. It was only going to get worse, the beating, because she couldn't tell them what they wanted to know. If she had told, they would have killed us. I don't know how you found us, but..."

"It wasn't me."

"What?"

"I didn't find you. I heard you call for me, but you were cut off, and I wasn't sure where you were. Vincent found you. Somehow he knew Catherine was in danger, somehow he knew where she was. I only followed." He looked down at his hands. "I think, if I hadn't been there, he'd have managed to save both of you all by himself."

"With a bullet in his chest."

His glance was full of irony. "Yeah. With a bullet in his chest. The man has an incredible will, Lois. He should have died right there. He was bleeding so much that even as fast as I could bring him, I didn't think we'd be here in time. I tried to cauterize the worst of it, but I was afraid to stop for long, and there was so much blood, and I was afraid of doing more damage than good... I don't know if I helped."

"You did. Of course you did. He'd have bled to death on that office floor if not for you. Catherine and I could never have moved him by ourselves."

Someone nudged her elbow. She looked down to see a child of perhaps ten or eleven holding out a cloth-wrapped bundle. "Olivia said to give you this," the boy said. "For your face."

He was trying to be polite, she thought, but the marks on her face were too compelling. He stared, looked away, then stared again.

She held out her hand, let him put the bundle into it. It was cold... an ice pack, she realized. "Thanks. Um, Catherine could use one of these, too."

The boy pointed. "She has one."

Lois looked. Someone must have brought Catherine the ice pack while Lois was absorbed in talking to Clark.

The boy still stood at her elbow.

"Did you need something else?" Clark asked gently.

The boy looked embarrassed. "I'm supposed to ask if she's okay. If her face is okay."

Clark managed a smile. "Yeah. She's going to be fine. Thanks."

In the lower part of the room, a woman was going from person to person with a big steaming pot, dispensing streams of dark-colored liquid into proffered mugs and cups.

"Coffee," Lois murmured longingly, then wondered if the hot drink would sting the cuts on the inside of her cheeks.

"It's tea," the boy said, sounding apologetic. "Do you want some? I could get you a cup..."

Tea was better than nothing, and maybe it'd wash away the metallic taste of blood.

The boy darted off, returning moments later with a heavy mug and a chipped china cup. "I'll tell Olivia you want some," he said, handing them the vessels. He hurried down the stairs and crossed to whisper into the woman's ear. She glanced their way and nodded, then kept pouring. Someone brought her a second big teapot to replace the first, which must be nearing empty by now. Eventually she reached the upper level where Lois and Clark stood in relative isolation.

"Geoffrey said you wanted tea," she said, offering the pot.

"Please," Clark answered, and held out the mug and the cup.

The woman filled the cup, then hesitated, looking at Clark's shirt. She leaned up and murmured in his ear.

He nodded, then handed Lois her cup of tea, whispering, "I'm going to go change my shirt."

The blood-soaked shirt must be sticky and stiffening; probably he could even smell the blood as it dried. It was kind of the woman to offer him a change of clothes.

She almost asked to go, too, but her head was aching and she didn't want to alarm Clark by doing something stupid, like swaying or stumbling. "Okay," she whispered, instead.

"I'll be right back," Clark promised, and followed the woman out.

Lois pressed the ice pack against her temple and looked at Catherine Chandler.

More and more people had trickled into the room over the past hour, until now it was a seething, if reverentially silent, mass of waiting humanity. Except for a small, polite circle around where Lois stood... and an equally polite circle around Catherine.

She could understand the space here. She and Clark were strangers, not a part of this strange community. But Catherine was one of them... wasn't she? Of course she didn't live down here, but then Lois's reporter's eye already told her that many of the people crowded into the chamber didn't. There was a clear distinction between the clothing worn by people like the boy and the woman with the tea, and the clothes worn by those who lived in the city proper.

Maybe it was out of respect for her grief; everyone must know how she felt about Vincent. Or maybe they blamed her for his injury. After all, he'd been hurt while saving her. They must all know that by now. But she remembered the quiet murmurs, the simple touches when Catherine had first gotten here. Even now, new arrivals pressed forward to pat her shoulder or nod in mute sympathy before withdrawing into the crowd.

Suddenly Lois wanted very much for the fearsome creature behind the curtain to live. Not because she could write a story about him, nor even because he'd led Clark to where she and Catherine were, and saved them. No. She wanted him to live for one reason; because Catherine Chandler loved him.

"Excuse me."

She looked down. The boy was back, looking up at her uncertainly. "Lena says you don't look so good, and you should come sit down."

She followed the boy's gaze to the lower level, where a wispy young blonde woman stood with an equally blonde baby on her hip. The young woman smiled, and gestured toward the empty chair she was guarding.

Lois hated showing weakness, but her head ached, her face hurt, and every once in a while the room tilted a little. Sitting down probably wasn't the worst thing she could do. She stretched her bruised mouth into a smile and followed the boy to the narrow wrought iron stairs that led to the lower portion of the room. The way was crowded, but the boy led her through with ease.

"Hi," the blonde woman greeted, when they reached her. "I'm Lena, and this," she hitched the baby higher, "is Cathy. I hope you don't mind me saying so, but you look pretty bad."

"I'm okay," Lois said stubbornly.

"Yeah?" Lena looked skeptical. "Well, I'm sure you'd be more comfortable here than leaning up against that wall."

"I guess so." Lois made the concession grudgingly, and eased herself into the offered chair. It did feel good to sit down. "Thanks."

Lena crouched beside her and balanced the baby on her knees. "Geoffrey, bring her some more tea, would you?" The boy vanished and Lena transferred her attention to Lois. "So, what's your name?"

"I'm Lois Lane." Habit made her give her full name.

Lena smiled. "I'm glad to meet you, Lois Lane. Except you'll find we don't use last names much, here. It's okay if we call you just Lois?"

She managed a little smile. "Yeah. It's okay."

"You came with Catherine, didn't you?" Lena went on. "Is she a friend of yours?"

Lena's expression was curious. Well, Lois hadn't seen much of this underground world, but she supposed there wasn't a lot to do down here. Gossip was probably a prime entertainment.

"Not a friend," she said carefully. "Just someone I know."

"Oh."

"Excuse me, Lena? I believe William's looking for you. You have kitchen duty this afternoon?" It was the woman who'd been serving the tea, the one who'd taken Clark off to change his shirt.

"Oh. Yes, right." Lena flushed and scrambled to her feet. "Here, Livvy, could you take Cathy to Brooke for me? I appreciate it." She handed off the baby, gave Lois an apologetic smile, and hurried away.

The older woman watched her retreat, then turned to Lois. "I'm sorry about that. Lena hasn't been with us long and sometimes she forgets we don't ask many questions here." Her gaze softened. "I don't know your name. I'm Olivia."

"I'm Lois." Mindful of Lena's comment, she gave only her first name.

"Oh," Olivia said, in recognition. "You're Clark's wife."

"That's right," Lois answered cautiously. Clark must have been talking about her.

"He should be back here any time," Olivia continued. "Are you comfortable? Can I get you something?"

A place to lie down would be nice, but Lois would rather die than ask. "No, thanks. I'm fine."

"All right. If you're sure. Keep that ice pack on your face, it'll help with the bruising and swelling."

"Okay." Lois pressed the cold pack to the sorest part of her cheek. "Thanks."

"Well." Olivia looked across the crowded room. "I'd better get Cathy to the nursery and then see about taking care of all these people..." She drifted away.

Even with the ache in her head, the growing stiffness of her face, Lois couldn't help observing and making mental notes about everything that went on around her. The throng of people constantly shifted and surged, although they did it so quietly, and kept their voices so hushed, that it seemed almost surreal. She caught occasional glimpses of Catherine, who sat not far away, but there was no chance to exchange so much as a sympathetic look, much less a word.

Clark came back a few minutes later, dressed in his own jeans - she could still see the dark splotch down one hip - but wearing a light-colored shirt with full sleeves and a dark tunic-like thing that made him look impossibly romantic. Lois couldn't help a little smile as he paused in the entry and swept the room with his gaze. He found her, and visibly relaxed. He came down the stairs quickly and threaded a path to her side.

"Hey," he said, hunkering down beside her. "You moved."

"Yeah. Somebody named Lena found the chair for me, and then tried to pump me for information, but somebody else named Olivia ran her off."

He smiled. "Olivia. She's the one who found these." He plucked at his sleeve.

"Yeah. Same one. She seems nice."

"They all seem nice." His expression grew distant.

"What? What do you hear?"

He refocused on her and shook his head. "Vincent. I think they've got the bullet..."

"And he's still...?"

"Yeah. So far."

"Good. That's good. Isn't it?"

"Yeah. It's good."

He rose and stood beside her chair, a protective hand on her shoulder.

Someone came by and filled his teacup, someone else proffered a plate of cookies and small cakes. Clark took a cookie, but didn't eat it. Lois, swallowing the faint beginnings of nausea, declined.

Time crawled.

And at last a man, gowned in dark-spattered white, emerged from behind the curtain. He pulled his surgical mask down with a sigh that was clearly audible in the sudden hush.

The room seemed to lurch toward him as people shifted, straining to see and hear. Lois came to her feet and was swept forward before Clark's arms came around her, steadying her, his bigger body shielding her from the crowd. They came to stand not five feet from where Catherine stood poised as if holding a precarious balance.

"How is he, Peter?" asked a lone voice, near the front.

"We removed the bullet," Peter answered, pulling off his surgical cap and running a hand through his hair. "It nicked several major blood vessels, and he had lost a lot of blood by the time we could get in to repair them. But he's strong; he's holding on."

A second man, similarly gowned, stepped out beside Peter. "I'll need four of you to help move him to his own chamber," he ordered. "Peter will supervise." He pulled off his own cap and moved down, into the crowd. It parted for him, making a path straight to Catherine. He stopped before her.

"Is he going to be all right, Father?" she whispered, her voice strained. "Is he?"

The man she called Father looked drained and weary. "I don't know, Catherine," he answered. "I hope so. You'll stay with him?"

"Of course," she answered swiftly. "As long as he needs me."

"Good." He nodded to where the other doctor was overseeing a small knot of men in moving the stretcher. "Go along with Peter," he said. "I'll have a look at your bruises later."

She didn't have to be told twice.

Father swung around, scanning the crowd. "Now, where's that young man who brought him here?"

"Here, sir." Clark moved forward, taking Lois with him.

Father looked at him. "What's your name?"

"I'm Clark Kent. I'm sorry about what happened to Vincent, sir..."

"You can call me Father," Father interrupted. "If my son lives, it is because you brought him here so quickly. I want to thank you for that."

Clark went utterly still; for a moment, Lois thought he wasn't going to answer. "I'm glad I could help," he said, finally.

"If ever you need anything we might be able to provide," Father went on, "you have only to ask. We are in your debt."

Clark shook his head. "Thanks, but I don't need anything."

Father swung Lois's way, fixing her with a steely gaze. "Young woman. I haven't seen you before, have I?"

Before Lois could answer, Clark put his arm around her shoulders. "This is my wife," he said, sounding proprietary and protective. "Lois."

Father looked vaguely puzzled. "But she wasn't with you..."

"I was with Catherine," Lois said, working to keep her voice steady. Clark's grip on her shoulders tightened.

And Father's expression softened. "Ah," he said, nodding. "How's your jaw?"

The ice must have had an effect; it hurt, but not as much as it had at first. "I'm okay," she answered.

"We'll have a closer look after we've seen Vincent settled," he said. "Before you go back."

He turned and gestured; a young woman of perhaps twenty appeared at his side. "Yes, Father?"

"Jamie. These are our new friends, Clark and Lois. Please take them to William and find them something to eat, and when they're finished, take them to the hospital chamber. Peter or I will be along to attend to Lois's injuries. After that, you may escort them up top, and give them instructions on how to contact us in the future."

"Sure, Father," Jamie answered. "Father... is Vincent really going to be okay?"

The strained, grim look came back to Father's face. "I hope so, Jamie," he answered. "I hope so."

He patted her shoulder, then moved off through the crowd, but his progress was slow; people thronged around him, all of them asking after Vincent.

"Come on," Jamie said, after a moment. "I'll take you to the kitchen."

It seemed almost like charity, and that stung Lois's pride, but she was dead on her feet, and her face hurt, and Clark probably had saved Vincent. She was too nauseated to be hungry, but Clark probably wanted to eat, and she didn't want to be rude. So she allowed Clark to accept for both of them, and permitted him to guide her in Jamie's path with a hand in the small of her back.

"Clark!"

The voice was familiar, and Clark's hand dropped from her back as he stopped. "Mr. Schofield?" He sounded incredulous.

The print shop owner edged out of the crowd. "Clark," he said again. "And Lois, too. I waited at my shop for you, you know."

Clark looked dismayed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Schofield, I forgot all about it..."

"It's all right," George Schofield answered. "I heard about what you did. We're all very grateful." He looked past Lois to where Jamie waited. "I hear Vincent's doing okay."

"So far," Jamie agreed. "I think it's too soon to tell. But the council meeting's been canceled. Your candidates will have to wait. I hope that's okay."

Schofield's quick glance took in both Lois and Clark before returning to Jamie. "Well, as it happens... they're here."

"Here?" Jamie sounded horrified. "You brought them down? George, you know the rules..."

He held up a hand to stop her. "I do, and you know I would never endanger the community that way. In fact, I was on my way to tell Father that my candidates hadn't come when I heard about Vincent. Imagine my surprise to find that my candidates hadn't shown up at the shop... because they were here."

"Here?" Jamie wasn't stupid. "You mean..." Her gesture took in both Lois and Clark.

"Yes. Lois and Clark Kent. Hard workers, proud... and in desperate need of a place to stay."

"But..." Clark began.

Schofield shook his head playfully. "Don't tell me different, Clark," he said. "I know the pair of you have been sleeping on the street, or in a shelter. You have that new job at the Sentinel, but you're still down on your luck. I thought you could use a little help to tide you over."

Jamie looked at them. "Why didn't you tell Father you needed a place to stay?" She sounded genuinely bewildered.

Clark shuffled his feet, and Lois might have grinned, if she weren't all but swaying on her feet. So he did have his pride, after all.

George Schofield answered for them. "It's difficult for some folks to accept a helping hand," he explained. "I'm betting that right now, these two are trying to figure out how to offer to pay for anything you give them."

"Pay?" Jamie's eyebrows went up. "You mean, like money?"

Clark's feet shifted again, and Lois felt her cheeks warming beneath the bruises.

"Except I'm guessing that might be considered insulting?" Clark said, sounding sheepish.

"Don't worry, Clark, you'll pay for anything you receive," George Schofield assured him. "Only you'll pay for it in friendship, and by helping when you can."

"Like you've already done," Jamie added. "With Vincent."

"I didn't really..." Clark began, but stopped when Lois put her hand on his arm.

If she didn't shut him up, there was no telling what he'd say. She knew he felt bad about Vincent, but saying he should have stopped both bullets wasn't going to help now, and it would give away his secret. Their secret.

"Clark was glad to help Vincent," she said.

"Yeah," Clark agreed, catching on. "I'm only sorry I couldn't do more. But we're glad to accept any help you can give us."

Lois supposed that if said help included a place to lie down, she was glad to accept it, too.

"I'll catch up with the two of you later," George Schofield promised, and disappeared into the crowd. Jamie led Lois and Clark the other way, taking them out of the crowded chamber and through a warren of intersecting rock-walled passages to a warm room full of mismatched tables, chairs, and benches. There she introduced them to a florid, beefy man called William, who fed them steaming bowls full of hearty stew. Nausea kept Lois from doing more than nibbling at hers. "Just tired," she assured Clark, when he looked at her worriedly. She didn't want to tell him how her head pounded, or her jaw ached.

Afterwards, Jamie showed them to a small, cave-like room furnished simply and lighted with candles.

"Here," she told them. "You can stay here. As long as you like."

It was spare, but it was neat and it was private. "It's very nice," Clark said. "Thank you."

Jamie left, and Lois leaned against Clark's arm. "A real bed. I'm so tired I could sleep standing up, but we can sleep in a real bed."

"Yeah." He sounded distracted. "Lois, honey, are you all right?"

She peered up at him. "Yeah, sure. Why?"

"You're not acting right."

"I'm just kind of fuzzy," she assured him. "And my face hurts, but I guess the reason for that is obvious."

"Yeah." He touched her cheek. "Here, let me help you."

Moments later she was tucked under layered blankets and quilts. "Hey," she murmured, summoning her most seductive tone. "Wanna join me?"

He grinned and kissed her forehead. "Not right now, honey. Later, okay? You need to rest."

She affected a pout, but already her eyes were drifting closed. "Not fair," she muttered, into her pillow. "We haven't been in a bed together in weeks."

"I know. Later, I promise."

"Hmph." She would have argued with him, but sleep came up and silenced her.

*****

Vincent was so still. He lay flat on his back, his head elevated by a single pillow. An IV line went into one arm; the other arm, like the rest of him, was hidden by a sheet pulled to his chin.

Catherine held his exposed hand in both of hers, stroking, kneading, trying to warm it with her own too-cold fingers.

Behind her, Father and Peter conferred quietly, while Mary fussed over things that had been brought in and placed on Vincent's writing table. Catherine didn't acknowledge them.

Instead, she watched Vincent's slow and shallow breathing, too quick for him, Father had said, and agonized through the interminably long second at the end of each exhale, before his broad chest lifted again.

My fault, she thought numbly. He's here because of me. Because I was in danger. All my fault.

Incredible that it should have happened now, after she'd made the conscious decision not to endanger herself any longer, after she'd insisted Joe pull her off investigations.

Except this last one. She'd let him talk her into this last one and now Vincent might die.

Her head and jaw ached from the beating she'd taken; Father and Peter had both prodded her bruises, peered into her eyes, and checked her reflexes before diagnosing a mild concussion in addition to the various swellings and discolorations. Rest, they had advised, but she couldn't. Not until she knew Vincent would be okay.

And how could she know that when he lay so terribly still?

She should have protected him. Should have kept herself safe.

Then she thought of Virginia Stevens, whose face was no less battered than her own. Her fingers tightened convulsively over Vincent's still ones. How could she have left the woman in such a dangerous situation? Even if doing so would have kept Catherine - and by extension, Vincent - safe? How was she supposed to make that kind of choice, valuing one life above another?

She let out a weary, pained sigh and put her head down on the bed.

Jamie arrived at just that moment, entering the chamber cautiously. Her first glance was for Vincent, lying so still in the bed, before she turned to Father. "The new people, Clark and Lois... they've eaten and I've put them in the guest chamber, but Clark's worried about his wife and wonders if somebody can come look at her?"

Father ran a weary hand through his already mussed hair. "Of course, I said I would. But what are they doing in the guest chamber? I thought they'd be on their way home by now."

"Because George said... oh, that's right, you weren't there for that part," Jamie remembered. "George's candidates... they're them."

"What?" Father looked bewildered. "The young man who brought Vincent to us, the young woman Catherine brought down... they are the young couple George planned to present as candidates for residence with us?"

Catherine had thought she'd used up all her body's reserve of adrenaline coping with the day's events, but Jamie's words dredged up another surge from somewhere; her heart quickened and her throat constricted. Beside her, Vincent stirred restlessly, moving for the first time since emerging from surgery. She tightened her hold on his hand and fought for calm.

"I'll stop by on my way out, Jacob," Peter was saying. "You need to be here with Vincent."

Father nodded acquiescence; Peter gathered up his coat and his medical bag and followed Jamie out.

"Here, what is it?" Father asked, coming to Vincent's side. He took Vincent's hand from Catherine's grasp and turned it, pressing his fingers to the wrist, laying his other hand against Vincent's forehead. "He's agitated, but there's no fever..." he muttered, and reached toward his bag.

"Father, don't." Catherine caught his arm. "It's not him. I mean, he's okay. It's me. He's reacting to me."

Father stopped dead still. "To you?"

"To my fear."

Father's expression softened. "Oh, my dear, you mustn't be frightened. He's badly injured, yes, but if there are no complications he should be able to make a full recovery..."

"No. I mean, I am scared for him, but that's not what... it was what Jamie said. About the Kents."

"Clark and Lois?" Father went tense and wary. "What about them?"

"It's what I know about them. What I know that no one else knows."

Father's face couldn't have turned any whiter. He pulled a chair close and sank into it. "What do you know?"

"That they're reporters... newspaper reporters. For the West Side Sentinel."

Father relaxed perceptibly. "Yes, I believe George mentioned that. The young man also has a way with computers, and works afternoons in George's shop."

"I don't know about that. But I do know they were planning a story - were researching a story." There wasn't enough air in the chamber; she fought to fill her lungs. "About the series of slashings, of killings..." she gasped for breath "...following me..."

Even though she couldn't quite manage all the words, Father got it. His fingers gripped the arms of his chair. "What?" He very nearly roared the word, and Catherine bent her head.

Vincent writhed on the bed, almost pulling loose the IV needle that went into his arm.

Father reached out and caught that arm, restraining it, just as Catherine seized the other hand. It took a minute or two to calm him and get him tucked back under the blankets; when he was settled, Father snatched Catherine's wrist and hauled her bodily to the far side of the chamber.

"Are you telling me," he hissed, "that we have newspaper reporters, intent on exposing Vincent as a murderer, living among us?"

"I don't know!" It burst out of her before she could stop it. "I don't know," she repeated, more softly. "The woman... Lois... she was saying something about Clark looking for Vincent and about a secret when Callahan and his buddy..."

"And you brought her down here? Are you mad?"

"Clark was already here!" she shouted back. "What difference did it make?"

Vincent let out a strangled growl and lurched off the bed. He tangled in the blankets and fell.

Catherine reached him first, dodging a flailing hand and throwing herself to her knees beside him. Father was almost as quick, bending to place a comforting hand on Vincent's head. Vincent shook him off. Catherine caught at his arm, but he threw her off, too, and tried to struggle to his knees. The glazed, unfocused look in his eyes frightened her.

"Please, Vincent!" She lunged, wrapping her arms around him as far as she could, holding on hard. "Please."

He quieted, rolling toward her and burying his face against her. His eyes closed and his big body went limp.

"Oh, thank God," Father muttered. "He could have pulled out his stitches..." He busied himself setting Vincent to rights, then heaved himself to his feet. "If you can hold him for just another minute, I'll summon help, and we'll get him back into bed."

Catherine nodded, though Vincent was heavy and supporting the weight of his head and shoulders made her arms ache.

Father was back a half a minute later with what looked like a small army. A closer look revealed it to be four of the community's older teenagers, plus Matthew, an adult whom she knew only slightly.

"Be careful of the IV," Father warned. "And don't jostle him... watch out for those bandages..."

While Father fussed, Matthew took charge, directing Zach, Joshua and Stephen; Catherine eased herself away as Matthew bent to take his share of Vincent's weight. Lea, the sole girl in the group, kept the IV line from tangling or getting in the way, and in moments Vincent was once more ensconced in his bed. Catherine tucked him in, smoothing the blankets.

"Thank you, all of you," Father said, behind her. "How fortunate you were passing by just as you were needed..."

Catherine turned in time to see Lea and Stephen exchange glances; Matthew cleared his throat. "Actually, Father, we weren't passing by. We were coming to see you."

Father's eyebrows rose. "To see me? What for?"

Again the exchange of uneasy glances among the teenagers.

"The kids..." a sweep of Matthew's hand took in the four at his side, "...were on sentry duty this morning. Lea was up near the northern Broadway entrance; the boys were strung out along a series of passages leading to the docks on the south side."

"And...?" Father prompted.

"And they saw some things. Some things that sound really strange, maybe even impossible. But they insist they saw what they did, and so I thought you ought to know."

"Go on."

Matthew turned to Lea. "You start."

She nodded and visibly braced herself. "It's about the stranger who brought Vincent back after he got shot. That man."

"Clark?" Father asked.

Lea nodded. "Yeah, him. He was down here before, this morning. In the north tunnels, where I was. There was an intruder alert, you probably heard it, and Vincent came."

"Yes?"

"And I left my post to check on where Vincent was, to make sure, and..."

"And she saw the stranger do some weird things," Matthew offered.

"What sort of weird things?" Father asked.

Lea swallowed. "After Vincent came... he... the man... he floated."

"What?"

"In the air. He floated. And then he turned so he was lying on his back, but it was the middle of the tunnel, not the floor and there wasn't anything under him or any wires holding him up or anything, he was just floating! And he stood on his head that way, not touching anything, just there."

Father stared. "Lea, when was the last time we had your eyes checked?"

"There's nothing wrong with my eyes!" she burst out. "Vincent saw it too! And he talked to him - the man - and they went off together."

"To Vincent's chamber," Zach added. "Mouse saw them."

Father's eyebrows all but disappeared into his hairline. "Vincent brought Clark here?"

"And then later, I saw them." That was Joshua.

"So did I," chimed Stephen.

"Me, too," said Zach.

Father ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Tell me what you saw." He jabbed a finger at Stephen. "You first."

"I saw Vincent run by; in a hurry, you know? Like he gets sometimes." The boy carefully did not look in Catherine's direction, but it was clear that everyone in the room knew why Vincent got like that sometimes.

Father nodded understanding.

"And the other guy... Clark... he was with him. Running with him."

"Running behind him, surely," Father interjected.

Catherine had seen Vincent run, knew how fast he could be. No one could keep up with Vincent when he was in a hurry.

"Right behind him. Right with him."

Father's sharp glance flicked to Zach. "Is that what you saw?"

Zach nodded. "The other man keeping up with Vincent. Running with him."

Joshua had seen the same.

Father ran that same thoughtful hand through his hair once more. "I suppose it's possible for someone to be as quick as Vincent. A world-class runner, perhaps, one who is in top condition... this Clark is built like an athlete..."

"There's more, Father," Matthew said soberly.

Catherine fought the sudden urge to sit down. At least Vincent was quiet, seeming impervious to the tension filling the room.

"Go on, then," Father said.

"When he came back, when Clark came back, carrying Vincent..." Stephen stumbled over his own words and paused, swallowing visibly. "He wasn't running anymore. I swear to you, Father, when he passed me, his feet weren't touching the ground."

"That's impossible!" Father burst out, echoing Catherine's own instinctive response. "Stephen, you've imagined this..."

"But I saw it, too," Joshua insisted. "And he was going fast. Faster than when he and Vincent were running. Way faster. Almost a blur..."

"Same when I saw him," Zach echoed. "Father, he was flying. I don't know how he did it, but he never touched the ground. And he was going faster than Vincent can run. We all saw it."

"People can't fly, Zach," Father said kindly. "You know that. You all know that."

"That's what I told them," Matthew said, "but they insisted. And with all four of them seeing the same thing..."

"Yes, I see what you mean," Father agreed. "Now, children, this isn't some practical joke you've dreamed up, is it? Zach?"

All four shook their heads vehemently. "We wouldn't joke about something like this, Father!" Lea sounded more angry than defensive. "We all saw it. He can fly."

"Father." Even to herself, Catherine's voice sounded thin. "What if they're right?"

He swung her way, his expression incredulous. "Catherine, think what you're saying! It's impossible..."

"That's what Vincent said to him... to Clark," Lea said quietly. "That it was impossible. And then Clark said that's what some people would say about Vincent."

*****

Lois woke slowly; her head felt stuffed with cotton, one eye wouldn't open all the way, her jaw ached, and her mouth tasted faintly of blood. She struggled to focus, blinking until she could mostly see. Flickering candlelight and bare rock walls reminded her of where she was, and she pushed to one elbow.

"Clark?" She turned to look for him, but though his side of the bed was mussed, the pillow still indented where his head must have been, he was gone.

She sank back down on the pillow. She remembered Jamie showing them to this chamber, remembered climbing into bed, but the rest of the night was a jumbled blur. She had a dim memory of Clark waking her, of another man prodding and poking at her face and shining a bright light into her eyes, but sleep had seemed to be the important thing at the time.

And she had to admit, despite the way her face hurt, she felt better for the rest. If only she knew where Clark had gone.

Slowly she sat up, surprised to find her muscles, especially in her neck and shoulders, stiff and sore. Gingerly she stretched as far as she could, then slipped out from under the covers and onto the thickly carpeted floor. A pair of moccasin-like slippers waited for her; she scowled and slipped her bare feet into them. It was too cold down here to be choosy, even though the moccasins showed clear signs of previous wear. At least they looked clean.

A similarly worn but clean-looking dressing gown was draped over the foot of the bed and she sighed and put it on. She wished Clark would get back; she could send him for their own things, which were safely stashed... well, wherever it was that Clark stashed things.

Not that her own things here included warm slippers and a thick robe.

A white square of paper propped against a candlestick on the dresser caught her eye; she moved closer and read her own name... in Clark's writing. Fury began to build even before she snatched up the paper and unfolded it to read Clark's apologetic note.

'Lois, I'm sorry I'm not there to see you wake up, and to take care of you. But Dr. Alcott -' that must be the man who'd been poking and prodding last night - 'promised you weren't seriously hurt, and if at least one of us doesn't show up at the paper, we'll lose our job.' And they needed the job desperately. 'Jamie promised to look in on you,' the note continued. 'Please do what Dr. Alcott said, and rest today. I'll see you tonight. I love you.' It was signed with a scrawled initial C.

She'd bet a dollar - not that she had a dollar - that Clark was keeping an ear out for her. She put her hands on her hips and addressed the ceiling. "You rat! Going off and leaving me... I'll get you for this, Kent, see if I..."

She broke off, suddenly aware she was no longer alone.

The girl called Jamie stood in the doorway, her expression at once confused and amused. "Talking to somebody?"

Lois vacillated for an instant, wondering what to say, then decided to go with the truth. "I was yelling at my husband," she admitted. Jamie didn't have to know she actually expected Clark to be able to hear her. "For going off and leaving me here."

"Oh." Jamie's grin reflected understanding. "He didn't want to, you know. But he said..."

"We'd lose our job if he didn't. I know." She fingered the note in her hand. "He said you'd be looking in on me, too."

Jamie moved closer. "Are you feeling okay? You look pretty..." Her voice trailed away, her hands fluttering wordlessly.

"I haven't looked yet," Lois confessed. "But I feel okay, yeah. Kind of sore."

"I'll bet. Are you hungry?"

Lois thought about it. Last night's nausea was gone. "I guess so."

"If we hurry, we can just make it."

"Make it where?"

"To the dining chamber. William serves breakfast from six-thirty until nine, and not a minute later. Or so he says. Actually, he feeds anybody who's hungry. But if we're there before nine, we won't have to listen to him complain."

Lois looked down at her borrowed robe. "I'm not exactly..."

"Oh, right. There should be some things in the dresser over there." Jamie pointed. "Olivia said she took care of it."

"Oh." Lois crossed to the dresser and found the right-hand drawers full of patched sweaters, darned blouses, and mended skirts. The clothes on the left side were larger and definitely masculine - for Clark, obviously. She remembered how dashing he'd looked last night in the shirt and tunic Olivia had given him to wear, and wondered if these worn and patched garments would suit him as well.

Behind her, Jamie cleared her throat softly and Lois hurried to choose a skirt and sweater.

"Dress in layers," Jamie advised. "You'll be warmer."

Jamie's words made Lois conscious of the chill creeping in through the thick robe; quickly she chose a soft, longsleeved shirt to go under the sweater. Remembering the layers that everyone down here seemed to favor, she added a long knitted vest to the stack and stepped behind the wooden screen standing in the corner. She dressed quickly, fumbling only a little with the unfamiliar ties and fastenings, emerging a few minutes later to Jamie's approving look.

She had to admit the unusual fashions made her feel feminine and pretty. That lasted just until she looked in the mirror to comb her hair.

"Oh, no," she murmured, touching fingers to her bruised and swollen cheek. A trail of dried blood showed where her split lip had opened during the night.

"It's not too bad," Jamie encouraged her. "Catherine looks worse."

"I'll bet she does," Lois answered, remembering yesterday's brutal beatings. Catherine had absorbed a lot more blows than she had. She bent over the china basin and splashed a handful of tepid water over her face, then swilled another handful around in her mouth to wash away the bloody taste. She spit carefully into a china mug sitting beside the basin, and grimaced.

"We'll get you a toothbrush," Jamie promised. "Are you ready?"

Lois took another look in the mirror. "I guess so." She thought of something else. "How's Vincent?"

Jamie lifted one shoulder in a shrug that was meant to be casual, but Lois could see anxiety beneath the surface. "He's okay, I guess. Sleeping, mostly. He does that when he's hurt." She pushed away from the wall where she'd been leaning. "Come on, I'll take you to breakfast."

After breakfast, Jamie showed Lois the way back to the guest chamber and left her there. Lois tried to rest, but sitting back passively while things went on around her was not her style. Unfortunately, she was also a guest in this place, and further, she had no idea where she was. The tunnel world, she was discovering, was a maze of intersecting passages that turned, climbed, and dropped with no discernable pattern. Lois wasn't even sure she could find her way back to the dining chamber where she'd eaten; she certainly couldn't find her way to the top, where things were happening.

So she paced. Five steps took her from the rough-hewn doorway, across a faded carpet to where an antique cherry dresser stood against the far wall. Five paces took her back.

She'd lost track of the number of times she'd crossed the room when a voice, male, British-accented, and more than a little frayed, called her name. She looked toward the open archway. "Come in!"

The man called Father entered slowly, leaning on a stick. His face looked worn and haggard. "I'm sorry to be so late," he began. "I wanted to see to your injuries."

Lois touched her cheek; she'd been so busy fuming over Clark's going off and leaving her, and fretting over what to do with the next few hours, she'd almost forgotten about her face. "I must look a sight."

"A bit battered," Father agreed with a smile, setting a worn black doctor's bag on the round pedestal table that stood in the corner. "But quite beautiful, nonetheless."

Beautiful? When she knew she was unkempt and bruised? Was the guy hitting on her? But his expression was open and caring, his smile warm and friendly. So maybe he just wanted to make her feel better. She smiled back, cautiously, careful of her hurt lip. "Thanks."

"Sit here, my dear." He patted the back of a straight-backed chair. "Let me look at you."

She sank gingerly into the chair. Father moved an oil lamp from the nearby dresser and turned up the wick. "There," he said, and put gentle fingers under her chin, tipping her face toward the light.

"So," she said, as he studied her bruises, "what's a doctor like you doing in a place like this?"

He sat back and looked at her in consternation. "I beg your pardon?"

Geez, she hadn't meant to upset him. She was just making conversation. "I mean, you are a doctor, aren't you? You operated on Vincent..."

He studied her for a moment. "Yes. I'm a doctor. As for why I'm here - this is my home. For over thirty years."

That piqued her curiosity. "You've been down here for that long?"

His smile was kind. "Not everyone enjoys the hustle of the city," he said, prodding gently along her jaw. "Some of us are happier with a slower pace, more traditional values."

"I guess so," she said doubtfully. She couldn't see spending more than a few days in all this peace and tranquility, herself.

"You have some cuts here... and here." His fingers just brushed her cheek. "I'm sure Peter disinfected them when he looked at you last night, but I'm going to do it again, and leave you some salve to apply. I'm as sure as I can be, without an x-ray, that your jaw isn't broken."

That possibility hadn't occurred to her; her jaw ached, but not sharply enough, surely, to be fractured. "Maybe when Clark gets back, he can..." She broke off, appalled that she had been thinking aloud.

"Ah. Clark. Your husband is... a very unusual young man." Father took a small brown bottle from the bag and opened it. Pungent fumes wafted up, stinging her nose and eyes.

She went cold and still. "Not really. He's pretty average."

"Is he? This will smart a bit," Father warned, and dabbed at her cheek with a bit of gauze soaked in the pungent liquid.

"Ow." She tried not to flinch.

"Some of the sentries seem to think your Clark is more than average," he went on. He produced a small glass jar and used a narrow wooden paddle to scoop out a bit of yellow salve that soothed the sting of her cheek. Father capped the jar and placed it on the table. "I want you to put some of this salve on those cuts twice a day, and let me know if there are any signs of infection. Redness, swelling..."

"I know what to look for," she answered. Maybe they'd gotten off the topic of Clark and his oddities.

But no. Father sat back and looked at her. "I have a feeling your Clark is as far from ordinary as my own son."

Stonewalling seemed the only option. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, I think you do." Father busied himself putting away the bottle of disinfectant and tidying away the gauze and wooden paddle.

Maybe a change of subject was in order, and there was certainly something she wanted to know more about. "You called Vincent your son?"

"Not my natural son, of course," he said, snapping his bag closed. "But my son in all ways that count."

"Clark is adopted, too," she said, then could have kicked herself for bringing him back into the conversation.

"Ah." Father set the bag aside and settled back into his chair. "So Clark is as ignorant of his origins as is my son."

"No, he knows where he comes from," she answered automatically, then clamped her mouth shut. All those blows to the head must have addled her brain; what was she thinking? Worse, what was she saying?

Father gazed back at her. He looked tired, she thought, and worried, but there was a gleam of curiosity in his eye that she'd seen too often in her own mirror.

"Is Vincent going to be all right?" she asked hastily, hoping to distract him.

Father rubbed a hand over his face. "It's too soon to be sure," he answered. "He lost so much blood... and there's always the danger of infection. But if he stays quiet, and heals cleanly... Peter and I both believe he will make a full recovery."

"Good. That's good."

"No small thanks to your Clark," he added. "He brought Vincent to us so quickly... I wonder how he did that." The look he gave her was openly speculative.

"He works out a lot," she improvised. "So he's pretty strong."

"Yes, I imagine he is." He shook his head and levered himself to his feet. "I'm sorry; I've kept you talking when your head must ache - I'm not entirely sure you don't have a concussion. You should rest, my dear, and I should go check on my son."

*****

Catherine floated in a haze of exhaustion; in the two days since Vincent had been shot, she had slept only in snatches, mostly sitting up beside him. Twice she had been persuaded to go to a nearby chamber to rest, but each time she had managed only an hour or two of fitful sleep before anxiety brought her back to Vincent's side.

She'd hoped - they'd all hoped - Vincent would be awake by now, and on the road to recovery. Instead, he seemed weaker than ever.

Catherine sighed, roused herself, and reached for the compress laid across Vincent's brow. She turned to dip it in the basin of water at her elbow, but someone took her wrist and removed the compress from her hand.

"I'll do this, Catherine." Mary's voice, soft and caring. "You need to go lie down for a bit."

"I can't." She was so tired, she could scarcely form the words. "Not until he's better. I can't."

"You've been hurt, you haven't rested, you've scarcely eaten. What good will it do Vincent for you to make yourself ill? Please, Catherine. Go and rest, just for an hour or two. I'll watch over him for you."

The thought of putting her head down for a few minutes was tempting; it still ached from the beating she'd taken two days earlier. But Vincent was so very sick, and she was so scared for him.

"Go on, Catherine." Father, looking as weary and heartsick as she felt, added his encouragement. "You can't go on the way you have been. When he's better, Vincent will need you to be strong."

If he gets better. She stifled the traitorous thought as quickly as it came, and felt guilty for even letting herself think that way. If only he weren't so terribly still. If only he'd wake up.

Finally, reluctantly, she nodded. "For an hour," she said. "I'll go rest for an hour. Send someone to wake me up?"

"I'll send someone right away if there's any change," Mary said, and Catherine knew that was as much promise as she was going to get.

She nodded, and lifted Vincent's hand, pressing her lips to his fingers. It made her heart ache to put his hand down, to untangle her fingers from his. She lingered a moment, smoothing the ruffled fur with her fingertips, then finally, wearily, turned toward the exit.

Father wrapped an arm around her when she passed him. "Nothing will happen in the next few hours," he said, his voice gentle. He seemed to know how much she was hurting. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Go on."

She was so tired that walking took most of her meager concentration; she rounded a corner without looking and ran head-on into someone coming the other way. Embarrassed, she stumbled back.

Strong hands caught her wrists, steadying her. "You okay?"

The voice was only vaguely familiar; she looked up to see who it was.

Clark Kent, still wearing a coat and tie from his day's work, looked down at her. "You okay?" he repeated.

She managed a nod. "Fine. Just... really tired."

"I'll bet. Come on, I'll walk you to wherever you're going."

"It's not far," she demurred. "I'll be all right. The guest chamber where I'm staying is just down this passage. I'm supposed to get some rest."

He nodded. "No offense, but it looks as if you could use it. You look worn out. Please, let me help you."

He seemed genuinely concerned for her, and she had no strength to resist him. "All right," she conceded, and took the arm he offered. A moment later she stumbled, too tired to pick her feet up properly, and felt his arm slip around her shoulders, holding her up. It felt good to lean on someone. He guided her gently, not hurrying her.

"How is Vincent doing?"

"He's... still pretty sick."

"I'm sorry. Is there any change? Any improvement at all?"

She shook her head; her eyes filled with sudden tears. "He's worse. He's started running a fever; Father says there's an infection. He's been trying antibiotics, but they aren't working..."

"Oh, no." His eyes, when she looked up at him, were stricken.

Instinctively she reached to pat his hand. "Don't blame yourself, Clark," she said tiredly. "You did everything you could for him."

They reached the entrance to the guest chamber. "This is it. Thank you for your help. I'm so tired, I'm not sure I'd have made it on my own."

Behind the wire-framed glasses, his eyes were sad. "You get some rest," he told her. "Good night."

"Good night, Clark."

*****

Lois looked up as Clark came into the room. Chamber, she reminded herself. Down here they call it a chamber. After two days' confinement in the tunnels, she was beginning to get the hang of things. "Hi."

"Hi." He bent and kissed her. "Payday. I brought you a present."

She all but clapped her hands. "A present? For me?"

"Yep." He pulled a flat paper bag from his pocket. "Here."

She opened it eagerly; she hated surprises, but she loved presents if they were from Clark. Inside the bag were two wide, flat bars, wrapped in bright blue and white. "Candy?"

"Chocolate crunch bars," he explained. "They don't seem to have the Double Fudge Crunch brand here, so I got you these."

"Nestle's Crunch," she read, from the wrapper. "Chocolate! Clark, I love you." She already had two fingers inside the colorful outer wrapper, tearing the paper.

"Yeah. Because I bring you chocolate."

"Among other things." She stopped unwrapping the chocolate long enough to give him her best seductive look - they'd spent two nights in a real bed and still hadn't done anything but sleep.

"Yeah." His answering smile didn't quite reach his eyes.

She put the candy down. "Clark? What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

She recognized evasion when she saw it. "It's not nothing. Did something happen at work? A story?"

"Today I wrote a story about graffiti, and what the city's doing to remove it."

He was trying to divert her. "Clark?"

He looked at the candy bars in her lap. "I was thinking, next payday, I'd like to get something for the community. Like a thank you."

So he was determined to be cheerful. Well, she could be determined, too. But for now she'd follow his lead. "I thought Jamie made it clear they didn't want us to buy them things."

"I know, and I'm not talking about something big. We couldn't afford that, anyway. But the kids have so little in the way of small pleasures - little toys, candy, that kind of thing. So I was thinking, maybe we could get something for the kids. But I couldn't think of anything appropriate. That all the kids would enjoy, but that wouldn't be too expensive, or seem like charity, you know? Maybe you could think of something, you've spent more time here than I have."

She had to smile at his generosity. "Yeah, I felt better this afternoon, and ended up helping wherever they needed help - did you know they make their own candles down here? And that melted wax is really hot, hot enough to burn?" She held out her hand so he could see the faint pink burn on the back of her thumb.

As she expected, he picked it up and pressed a gentle kiss to the spot. "I'm sorry you got hurt."

She grinned. "That's all right. It's better now. Did you know they gossip a lot down here, too?"

"My mother always said I shouldn't listen to gossip," he answered automatically.

"Hard not to, when it's going on all around you," she muttered. "Okay," she added more clearly, "I'll think about what we can do for the kids. Maybe together we can come up with something. But you know, the way they look at it, they owe us. Because you saved Vincent."

There. That was it. She could tell by the way his expression changed, turning vulnerable and a little hurt. And so very sad.

"What is it?"

He ran a hand through his hair and let out a long sigh. "It's Vincent. I ran into Catherine on the way home tonight... or rather, she ran into me. She was exhausted, so I helped her get to the chamber where she's staying. And she told me Vincent isn't doing well. He's running a fever now, there's an infection. She looked really scared, Lois. And I kept thinking about you."

"Me?" She rubbed one hand across her cheek; it was still sore, but most of the swelling was gone and the bruising was starting to fade.

"And when I was so sick that Christmas, you remember?"

Of course she did. A creative genius had resurrected a Kryptonian virus and infected him with it; he'd nearly died. And she'd been so frightened. "Oh."

"And I just feel so guilty."

"Don't. You tried to save him. You caught the second bullet."

"I should have caught the first one. But I was distracted... I followed Vincent through the wall, and the first thing I did was look for you. Not for the danger, the threat, but for you. And Vincent might die because of it."

"You looked for me because you were scared for me," she said, laying her hand on his. "Because you love me, and you knew I was in danger. I don't know how you could have expected to do any different."

"But I do expect it. I'm Superman, Lois, I'm supposed to protect people. And I didn't. So many times, I didn't..."

"... Clark?"

His gaze had gone distant, focused on something neither of them could see.

She touched his arm. "Clark?"

He made a quick, impatient gesture, asking for quiet. Then he blinked, breathed, and came back to her.

"Trouble?" She knew that look, that gesture.

"In Vincent's chamber. There's something wrong in Vincent's chamber."

Lois lurched up out of her chair and followed him at a dead run. She lost ground with every step, but he couldn't move as fast here in the close confines of the tunnels as he could up top in the open, so she could almost keep up and Vincent's chamber wasn't far.

She could hear the commotion long before she actually reached the small knot of people gathered outside the entrance to Vincent's chamber. Apparently everyone within earshot had been drawn by the noise - it sounded like a combination of scalded cat and angry lion in there, accompanied by a half-dozen more human voices shouting a frenzy of instructions or just plain yelling.

The entrance itself, a low, narrow tunnel about four feet long, was jammed with bodies; the ones Lois could see seemed to be straining forward, trying to get in. She couldn't make out what was stopping them.

Clark yanked down his glasses and peered at the wall; he must not have liked what he saw, because he jammed them back up his nose, reached for the nearest obstacle - a young man dressed in the patched layers that were endemic in this community - and pulled him out of the way.

"Get back!" The voice that emerged was Superman's, bold and commanding. "Let me through!" A few people were startled enough to obey. Meanwhile, the roars and snarls continued from inside the chamber. She couldn't see over the people crowding the doorway, and headroom was scarce enough that Clark couldn't fly or float over, either. And of course he couldn't bore straight through the wall with so many people around - rock chips would fly and someone would get hurt.

She had just caught up with him when Clark seized another person blocking the doorway and moved him aside. She caught hold of Clark's jacket and hung on, following closely as he cleared a path. Once the people trying to get in were moved, the tide changed; those already inside the chamber were trying to get out. Clark flattened against the wall of the tiny passage, flinging one arm back to protect Lois. As soon as the bottleneck cleared, he charged through.

Lois followed.

Inside, pandemonium reigned. Vincent, not looking nearly as sick as Lois had been led to expect, half-crouched, half-sprawled beside quilts and pillows tumbled from a high, narrow bed. His face contorted savagely; the roars and snarls she'd been hearing were issuing from his throat. Two men circled warily to either side of him, feinting forward and dodging back, trying unsuccessfully to get hold of him.

Father filled a hypodermic needle with trembling hands. "If you can just hold him, just for a minute," he said. "I can try to sedate him..."

Vincent rose from his crouch to strike, fast and deadly, at the man nearest him. The man leaped back, stumbled over a chair, and fell. Vincent advanced, letting out a low growl as he went.

"Dear God!" Father cried. "Matthew, get him!"

The other man moved forward, but Clark was faster. "Get back!" he commanded, sounding even more like Superman than he had outside. "I'll get him."

"Clark, you mustn't, he isn't himself..." Father began, speaking quickly.

But Clark never hesitated. He caught Vincent's arm in mid-strike, holding it fast, then caught the other flailing arm, as well. "Where do you want him?" He was speaking to Father, but his hard gaze never left Vincent's frenzied face.

Father's mouth opened and closed once before he managed speech. "On... on the bed, if you please," he said at last.

Clark nodded once, curtly, and moved Vincent back.

Vincent didn't go quietly. He arched his body and bared long, vicious teeth.

"Someone stop him!" Father called. "He's going to break open those stitches... he can't afford to lose any more blood..."

But by that time, Clark had Vincent to the bed. He pushed him down, still holding his wrists. Vincent bucked and flailed, kicking and struggling, wild-eyed and snarling like a vicious animal.

"Stop him!" Father pleaded again.

The man called Matthew moved forward, but Clark spoke sharply. "No," he said. "I have him."

He rolled Vincent back and pinned him with his own body. Vincent arched again, trying to fling Clark off; Clark applied more pressure, holding him down with visible force.

Father, filled syringe in hand, approached cautiously. "If you can just keep him still for another moment..." he muttered, and reached for Vincent's arm.

Vincent was effectively pinned to the bed, unable to move arms or legs. Snarling, he bared his teeth and snaked his head toward Clark's throat.

Father jumped back. Behind Lois, someone gasped.

Vincent closed his jaws on Clark's neck and jerked; the motion, Lois was sure, would have ripped an ordinary man's throat out. Clark merely grunted and shifted his hold on Vincent's wrists, pinning Vincent's head to the mattress with one forearm.

Clark must have consciously relaxed the muscles in his neck; Vincent's teeth looked undamaged and still very, very deadly.

The main casualty seemed to be Clark's glasses - they'd been knocked askew by Vincent's lunge, and now hung half-off his face. He tossed his head to try to get rid of them, but the glasses clung tenaciously.

"Lois." His voice, like the look he gave her, was pleading.

She gave a wary look at Vincent, who was still struggling as best he could, considering it was Superman holding him down, and stepped forward.

"No, you mustn't go near," Father said, catching at her arm. "He could break free..."

"He won't," she told him, with assurance. "Clark can hold him." Clark would never summon her unless he was certain of that. She stepped closer and reached out, grasping the glasses by one temple and plucking them away. Vincent emitted a savage snarl and she stepped back quickly, folding Clark's glasses and tucking them into her pocket.

Father gave her a look of disbelief, and stepped forward himself, wielding the loaded hypodermic.

"Let me through. Let me through!" The voice was female, and very determined. The people - there were only a half-dozen or so, Lois realized now - in the entrance shifted and Catherine slipped in.

She looked frantic. Even Father didn't try to stop her from hurrying to Vincent's side. She spared one incredulous glance for Clark, still exerting a great deal of effort to hold Vincent in place, and then slid her hand under Clark's arm and placed it against Vincent's temple. "It's okay," she crooned, softly. "I'm here now."

The result was instantaneous. Vincent was pinned so effectively he couldn't move, but he let his breath out in an audible sigh, and all the fight went out of him. His eyes fixed on Catherine's for a moment before they slowly closed.

Clark released his hold on Vincent's wrists and climbed off. He stepped back from the bed, running a hand over his ruffled hair and straightening his tie. His jacket, Lois noticed, loose enough not to be completely protected by his aura, had been torn in the scuffle.

Catherine knelt beside the bed, soothing Vincent with murmurs and touches. Now that the danger was over, the people gathered in the chamber entrance pushed inside, spreading out. All of them stared at Clark.

Father finally managed to close his mouth and bustle over. "Are you hurt? Let me see your neck..."

Clark warded him off with a raised hand. "I'm fine, Father. He didn't hurt me."

"He had your throat in his teeth," Father said sharply. "He struck at you."

"Yes, but he didn't hurt me. See?" Clark turned his head, letting Father - and everyone else crammed into the little room - see the smooth, undamaged skin of his throat.

The murmurs became louder, and Lois could pick out a phrase here and there. "...should have torn his throat out..." "...not possible..." "...stronger than Vincent..." "...who is this guy?"

Father stepped back. "Yes, I see. Well." He hesitated, as if searching for the right words. "I'm rather surprised you were able to restrain Vincent by yourself. He's quite strong..."

"Oh." Clark looked momentarily flustered. "Well, I work out a lot... I guess I'm stronger than I look..."

"Do you know, some of the sentries had some rather startling stories to tell about you, the other day. When you brought Vincent back."

"Oh." Clark's expression turned wary. "They did? I don't know why..."

"Father." Catherine interrupted, looking worried. "You'd better come here."

Father turned to the now-quiet patient on the bed. "Yes? Let me... dear God, he's burning up." He spun toward the small group gathered to watch. "Matthew," he snapped. "Go up, right now, and fetch Peter. Tell him Vincent's infection has spread, his fever's higher, and he's suffering from delirium. He'll know what to bring."

The young man nodded crisply and pushed his way from the chamber.

Father addressed the others. "The rest of you, I do appreciate your concern for Vincent, but he needs quiet now, so if you could all be on your way..."

"Is there anything we can do for him, Father?" The voice was young and earnest.

"Yes, Zach. You can pray for him. You can all pray."

*****

Clark, sitting quietly with Lois at Vincent's round table and trying to keep out of the way, watched Peter Alcott straighten and run a weary hand through his hair. "It's as you said, Jacob. The infection's spread. It's not responded at all to the antibiotics."

Father looked dismal. "I was hoping you might have something new, something more powerful..."

Peter shook his head. "We've already tried the most powerful antibiotics I know. This infection is very resistant..."

"There's nothing more you can do?" That was Catherine, looking frail and weary, and very, very scared.

Peter dropped a gentle hand on her shoulder and shook his head. "Do what you're doing. Try to keep his fever down, keep him calm..."

"Keep him calm." Father's voice was resigned. "Easier said than done, Peter. You weren't here earlier, when he was raging... it's lucky he didn't pull loose any of his stitches, though we did have to re-start the IV - he'd pulled the needle right out."

"I know, Jacob. I'm sorry. I wish I could be of more help." Peter turned away, folding his stethoscope and tucking it into his bag. Only then did he seem to notice Clark and Lois. "Hello, young lady," he greeted Lois, and came closer, peering intently at her face. "Looks as if those are healing up nicely."

"Yes, thank you. I feel much better."

"You and Catherine both took quite a beating the other day. How's the jaw?"

Lois opened and closed her mouth experimentally. "Okay, I guess. Still a little stiff. Father says he's pretty sure it's not broken."

"If the stiffness continues, let me know, and we'll see about getting you some x-rays," Peter said.

Alarmed, Clark eased his glasses down and took a surreptitious peek. But not, evidently, surreptitious enough.

"So, is it?" Lois inquired, without bothering to lower her voice.

"What?"

"Is it fractured?"

"How would I know?" He could hear the pitch of his voice rising.

"Come on, Clark, I saw you..." she mimed peeking over glasses. "So is it fractured?"

His glance at the others in the room bordered on frantic. "Lois!"

The look Lois gave him was half weary, half amused. "Give it up, Clark," she told him. "I've been hearing all kinds of stories about you the past couple of days. Four sentries saw you bring Vincent back, and I hear there's a girl telling everyone she saw you stand on your head in midair. Not to mention what you did in here a little while ago, when Vincent was... well, you know. This was just the last straw. You're not a secret anymore."

"Secret," Father said flatly. "I knew there was something..."

Peter was frankly staring. "What's going on here?" he demanded.

Lois rolled her eyes and lifted her hands in a tiny I-give-up motion. "He just x-rayed my jaw."

Peter's mouth dropped open. "What? That's impossible."

Clark looked at Lois in horror. "No, I..." he began, but stumbled to a stop. What could he possibly say now?

Lois said it for him. "He's not what he seems to be," she said. "He's different."

Clark stood up, flustered by Father's intense gaze. "Sir, I'm sorry. It's just such a habit, to keep the things I can do... to myself."

"Things you can do," Father repeated. "Like x-ray your wife's jaw, just with your eyes."

Any minute now somebody was going to want to dissect him. Like a frog. "I know it sounds impossible..."

"It is impossible. Except that I watched Vincent try to tear your throat out, and you don't have a scratch. So maybe it isn't so incredible that you can x-ray things with your eyes."

"He can do Catherine's, if you want," Lois offered. "She was beaten worse than I was."

Catherine, listening from her place at Vincent's side, gingerly touched her bruised cheek and looked at Clark with disbelief.

He fingered his glasses but didn't pull them down. "Would you mind?"

"If you x-rayed my face. With your eyes. Just your eyes."

"Yeah."

This time, Catherine's glance went to Vincent, who hadn't moved once. "Sure," she said finally, in an I'm-humoring-you tone. "Whatever you want."

Clark lowered his glasses and looked. Catherine stared back at him. When he made a little "move, please" motion with his fingers, she turned her head, but her eyes never left his face. Finally he pushed the glasses back up his nose. "You've got something right here..." he ran a finger over his own cheekbone, under his right eye. "But I can't quite tell..."

"My God," Catherine whispered. "You really can see through things with your eyes."

"Cathy?"

She touched her cheek in the place Clark had indicated. "It's an old fracture, Peter... you remember, when those cops came to my apartment..."

"I remember." He turned an incredulous gaze on Clark. "And you could see it. Just by looking."

Clark all but squirmed. Dissection seemed more and more likely. "Well, it takes a little concentration..."

Catherine had thought of something else. "You really did catch that bullet."

"Uh..." Clark glanced at Lois, who openly grinned at his discomfiture. "Well, yeah." His gaze went briefly to Vincent, lying so still. "I wish I'd caught both of them."

Father's look was incredulous. "How can you be fast enough to catch a bullet? And why didn't it tear up your hand?"

"For the same reasons I can see through Catherine's skin, I guess. Because I'm not from here, and my biology's totally different than yours."

"Like Vincent," Peter suggested.

Right. Like Vincent. Maybe he wasn't in for dissection, after all. "Well, different from humans like Vincent's different from humans. But I don't think Vincent and I are anything alike, really."

"You are, in your willingness to help others," Father observed. "Don't think we aren't grateful for that, Clark. It seems we owe you so much already, I hesitate to ask for one more thing..."

"Whatever I can do," Clark answered instantly. "Anything."

"You're evidently stronger than Vincent is..."

Clark nodded cautiously.

"...and he doesn't seem to be able to hurt you. His fever's so high, he could go off in another delirium at any time. I know you worked all day, you must be tired. But if I had a cot brought in for you, would you be willing to stay here tonight, with him? Just in case? If you don't, I fear what he might do..."

"Catherine seems to have a calming effect on him, sir," Clark observed, glancing that way.

"So she does," Father agreed, "but in his delirium he might not know her, and she isn't strong enough to hold him. Nothing would devastate him more than to recover and learn he'd hurt her..."

Lois sighed. "Another perfectly good night in a bed, wasted," she muttered under her breath.

*****

After Vincent's outburst, Catherine refused to leave him again, even to get some much-needed sleep. Clark made her take the cot brought in for him, pulling it close to the bed so she could reach out and touch Vincent without getting up, but she slept scarcely more than he did, waking every time Vincent grew restless, touching him and speaking to him in soft, unintelligible murmurs until he quieted.

At first, Clark tried to help, but it soon became clear that Vincent didn't tolerate Clark's touch as well as he did Catherine's. They both feared the resulting agitation would offset any benefit, so Clark settled for being Catherine's support system, bringing her water, making sure she was covered when she napped. In between, he sprawled in a chair and dozed.

Morning brought Father, who bent over his patient with a worried scowl. He answered Catherine's questioning look with a slow shake of his head. "His fever's up, his pulse is racing. There's no question the infection is still raging; the antibiotics seem to be having no effect at all..."

"What happens now?" Catherine's voice held just the faintest tremor.

"We wait, and hope he is strong enough to fight it off," Father answered. "We pray. We... I just..." he broke off, burying his face in his hand.

Clark had seldom felt so helpless. Father's fear for Vincent was palpable; clearly he believed Vincent might die.

Catherine recognized it, too; fear and the faint beginnings of grief shone in her eyes.

"Hello?" It was Lois's voice, calling from the outside passage.

Clark started for the entrance, but on this occasion Father was faster. "Come in!" he called.

Lois came in dressed in her best business clothes, with the air of someone on a schedule.

"Where do you think you're going?" Clark demanded.

"To work," she answered.

"No, you're not." He said it despite the defiant gleam in her eye.

"Yes. I am. You've been up all night, Clark, and besides, you've been working the past two days while I got better. Now it's my turn."

"You're still hurt," he protested. "You're still healing. You look awful."

She put a self-conscious hand on her cheek, where bruising was still visible. "I feel fine. Perfectly capable of writing a story about whatever fascinating subject Alex has for us today."

"Pigeons," Clark said.

"What?"

"He said he was going to send us out to talk to a boy who raises pigeons on his tenement's rooftop."

Lois closed her eyes and sighed. "Pigeons. Right. Express story, straight to a Pulitzer." She opened one eye and looked at Catherine. "Er, you have Pulitzers here, right?"

"Huh?" Catherine looked blank for an instant, but tiredness must have kept her from noticing the true oddness of the question. "Yeah. We have Pulitzers. You should do something about those bruises first, though."

"I'm going to tell people I got mugged," Lois said, sounding just a bit defensive. "I won't say what really happened."

"No, I meant to cover them up. They're pretty... stark."

"Oh. I tried, but the makeup I use isn't really made for..."

"I have something that works pretty well." Catherine crossed the chamber to where her briefcase was propped against the wall. She rummaged inside, coming up with a small bottle of flesh-colored liquid. She squinted at it critically in the flare of candlelight. "My skin tone's lighter than yours, I think..."

"Let me see..." Lois reached for the bottle, turning it in her hands. "Yeah, but maybe if I cover it with my own..."

The discussion of makeup ended with Catherine's bottle tucked into Lois's purse. "I'd better hurry, I'm going to be late."

"You're not going," Clark said again. "I can..."

She spun sharply and glared. "I... Am... Going... To... Work," she said, emphasizing each word. "You," she stabbed at his chest with a finger, "are going to stay here and get some rest. Got it?"

He knew when to give up; he raised his hands in surrender. "Got it. But you be careful!"

She nodded, kissed him quickly, and hurried out.

*****

Over the next two days, Vincent's temperature soared even higher as his body fought the infection raging through him. He slipped in and out of a delirium that frightened everyone and kept Catherine within arms' reach. Clark stayed close, too, when he could, but circumstances conspired to draw him away more than once.

First he diverted a minor flood created by a city water main break. Then he helped clear a tunnel whose saturated roof had collapsed, trapping some of the tunnel folk beyond it. Later, he helped the tunnel engineer, a mild man named Kanin, shore up the passage so it would be safe. After that, he rescued a little girl who'd taken a dare to climb up a near-vertical wall and was unable to get herself back down. Most of these jobs, he came to understand, would have fallen to Vincent, had he been well.

He wondered how Vincent did it. Even Superman had limits, especially down here in the dark, and Clark was tired in body as well as spirit when Peter Alcott came on the second evening to examine the patient and confer with Father. Clark tried not to overhear, but even their quiet murmurs carried to him clearly. Both physicians believed Vincent was at the end of his strength. The antibiotics had made no difference to his condition. Barring a miracle, Vincent would die.

*****

Lois hurried through the tunnels in the wake of her long-legged teenaged guide. She wished she'd paid a bit more attention when the boy had come to get her; if she knew his name, she could ask him to slow down. But she didn't know it, didn't want to yell, "Hey, you!", and pride wouldn't let her give up. She was breathless and footsore when they reached the hub of the community. She'd asked to be taken to wherever Clark was; that, apparently, was still Vincent's chamber. She wondered if he'd had a chance to rest today at all. She knew he hadn't slept much the past two nights, and while Superman didn't need as much sleep as the average human, he did require some rest.

The boy left her at the entrance to Vincent's chamber, which this evening was guarded by a middle-aged man Lois hadn't seen before.

"Excuse me," she began, but the man cut her off.

"Sorry. You can't go in. No one can go in. Vincent's really sick and Father doesn't want him disturbed."

Habit and inclination made her bristle, but memory of Vincent, lying so still this morning when she'd stopped by to see Clark, moderated her reply. "You don't understand," she began, working at staying pleasant. "My husband's in there, and I think I have an idea..."

The man was stubbornly shaking his head, standing by his instructions, and she was considering bopping him one and dashing past when Clark appeared in the entrance behind him.

"It's okay, Marc," he said quietly. "She's with me."

It didn't surprise Lois at all that in the few days they'd been in the tunnels, Clark had already become someone who was listened to, and obeyed.

Marc nodded a sketchy apology and stepped aside. Lois went past him and into Clark's open arms.

The way he held her told her the gravity of Vincent's condition. She hugged back hard, offering her own strength to supplement his. It was a long time before he released her.

A quick glance over her shoulder showed the sentry, Marc, studiously ignoring them. She turned back to find Clark looking into her eyes with a sadness she could feel. His face was drawn; she'd seldom seen him look so drained.

She took his hand in hers and squeezed; he squeezed back gently, then led her into the quiet chamber.

Catherine slumped in a chair, her head pillowed against Vincent's forearm. Father and Peter conferred quietly, sadly, on the far side of the room.

Both turned when she and Clark came in. "Lois," Father said, not unkindly. "Perhaps this isn't a good time to visit... Vincent isn't well."

What was it with these people and their attempts to keep her from her husband? She quelled the sharp retort that sprang to her lips, and said instead, "I know. And I've been thinking."

"Thinking?" That was Clark, behind her; did she detect the faintest note of alarm in his voice?

She turned to him. "You remember the article we wrote a couple of months ago? About an experimental treatment for infected wounds that resisted antibiotics?"

His brow puckered for a second, then cleared. "Oh, yeah. Laser therapy."

It was Peter's turn to look perplexed. "Lasers? They've been used for many things in the medical field, but treatment of infected wounds? I haven't read anything..."

"As I said, it's very experimental," Lois rushed to say. She didn't want to get into interdimensional time-travel right now. "They use a laser beam to sterilize and cauterize the wound. If I'm remembering right..." She looked to Clark for confirmation.

"I think that's right," he answered; she could see he was thinking back, remembering.

Peter's hopeful expression fell. "Even if this treatment would work, we don't have access to the kind of laser we'd need... and if we did, how would we get Vincent there?" He put a kind hand on Lois's arm. "We do appreciate your thinking of ways to help, but..."

"No, you don't understand. Clark could do it."

"What?" Both men spoke simultaneously.

Catherine, awake now, stared from her chair.

Clark looked at her with incredulity. "Lois, have you lost your mind? I don't have the knowledge to do what you're suggesting... I could do him irreparable damage... I could kill him."

"Wait, are you saying Clark... can somehow produce a laser beam?" Excitement crept into Father's voice.

"Yes, but I don't know enough!" Clark repeated, more loudly. "I haven't studied anatomy, I wouldn't know how much, or for how long..."

"But if you don't, he'll die." Catherine was standing now, swaying slightly. "He's going to die. The infection is killing him." There was no question, no doubt in her voice. Lois wondered how long she'd known the grim truth, and more, how she stood there quietly when inside, she must have wanted to scream.

Clark's resistance faltered. "I know," he answered quietly.

"If there's a chance... even a small chance... you have to try, Clark. Please." Hope spawned desperation. Catherine's hands wound together in supplication. "Please."

Clark's fists clenched helplessly. "I don't know what I'm doing," he repeated, with a glance for Vincent.

"If you can really do this, he has a chance." Peter's voice shook with fervor. "Any chance is better than none."

Clark's desperate glance returned to Lois. "How much do you remember from our notes? About intensity, or the amount of time... anything?"

She shared what she could dredge from memory; it wasn't much, but added to what he remembered, it might be enough. It had to be enough.

Father produced a battered medical text and opened it to a color-plate diagram of a man's chest, showing Clark nerves and blood vessels, things to be avoided. "We think Vincent's anatomy is very similar," he said at last. "But there are differences, you'll have to be careful. Will you be able to see what you're doing?"

"Yes," Clark assured him. "I can x-ray him first. And intermittently as I go along."

"Soft tissue injury won't show on an x-ray..." Peter began.

Clark shook his head. "It will for me. I think I'll be able to trace the path of the bullet, and possibly even see the infection, or rather the signs left by the infection."

Father shook his head in disbelief. "It's not possible," he murmured, even as he moved to the bed and began to unbutton Vincent's shirt. "Catherine, you'd better step back," he advised.

"No," Clark objected. "I want her here. He'll be quieter if she's holding him. If he moves..."

Lois had seen what an intense blast of his heat vision could do; she shuddered to think how it would affect flesh and bone. But of course he could control the intensity; more than once he'd used a mild burst to warm her when she was cold.

Catherine crouched at the head of the bed, cradling Vincent's head in her hands, crooning to him. Father stepped back, giving Clark room at the bedside.

Clark removed his glasses, folded them, and placed them carefully on the table. He stepped forward and spent agonizing long minutes simply staring; using his x-ray vision to assess the wound and plan the best approach for the use of his heat vision, Lois was sure. Finally he moved, placing one knee on the bed at Vincent's waist, and bending over him. He reached out, taking Vincent's wrists in his hands, and narrowed his eyes.

Lois, standing between Father and Peter, waiting breathlessly for something to happen, saw Catherine go even whiter, if that was possible. Catherine grimaced and swallowed hard, but kept her hands against Vincent's skin, kept up her low, wordless crooning.

The stench reached Father, Peter, and Lois a moment later. It smelled like burning, rotted meat. Lois's stomach roiled; she didn't know how Catherine stood being so close to the source.

Vincent bucked suddenly, letting out a sharp cry that sounded more human than animal. Clark lifted his head for an instant and murmured something to Catherine, who nodded briefly and moved her hands down so that her palms were in full contact with the bare skin on Vincent's neck. Vincent quieted, and Clark turned his gaze back to the angry wound on Vincent's chest. When he looked up again, it was to release Vincent's arms and back away from the bed. The edges of the wound were charred and the whole chamber reeked with the stench of burnt flesh.

"There," he said quietly. "I think I got it all. I hope I did."

Father hurried forward to tend to his son; it was Peter who lavished Clark with effusive thanks.

He shook it off, shaking his head. "Don't. I don't know if what I did will make a difference. I don't know if it will save him..."

"But he has a chance now," Peter answered. "He has a chance."

*****

Catherine had never smelled anything quite so nauseous. She'd been close enough, too, to see the swollen, reddened flesh of Vincent's wound bubble and sear as Clark stared, to hear the hiss that reminded her of broiling meat. Only the knowledge that Vincent needed her to be close, to be touching him, kept her there.

It had hurt him, the cauterization. He'd stiffened immediately, trying to lift his arms against Clark's restraint, but he'd listened to her half-voiced pleas to be still, to let them help him. Only once had he given in to his desire to fight this new agony, arching helplessly against a man who was stronger than he.

"Touch him." Clark's voice, a frantic whisper. "His skin with your skin. So he knows you're there."

He knows I'm here, she thought, but nevertheless she did as Clark asked, sliding her hands from Vincent's wild, tangled mane to his neck, her fingers grazing the soft fur on his shoulders. He seemed to hear her then. He stilled, holding himself rigid as Clark continued his gruesome task.

Relief surged through her when Clark finally let go of Vincent's wrists and stepped away from the bed. Vincent relaxed slowly, letting his big body go limp.

Catherine let out a long sigh and lowered her head to the pillow beside Vincent's. He turned his face toward her; he always knew where to find her, even in the depths of illness. She stroked his cheek and wished she could just close her eyes and sleep right here.

It had been so long since she'd slept; exhaustion oozed from every pore in her body.

Father bent over the bed, examining Vincent's wound, checking his pulse, listening to him breathe.

Catherine blinked gritty eyes and swallowed a yawn. An hour's sleep... just an hour.

She must have dozed off; when she next became aware of her surroundings, her neck ached, and only Clark and Lois, standing close together on the far side of the room, were there.

"Where... where are Father and Peter?" she managed thickly.

"Peter's gone home," Clark answered, coming toward her. "He has surgery in the morning. Father's gone to get some sleep."

Catherine nodded. Father had spent nearly as much time at Vincent's side as she had, and he was older. "How long was I asleep?"

"About two hours." That was Lois. Her smile was tentative, as if unsure of her welcome.

Catherine rubbed at her face with her hands, then winced.

"Still sore, huh?" Clark asked, sympathetic.

"A little." She shrugged. "It'll heal."

"Maybe I could speed that up a little bit," Clark offered. "For Lois, too. I've been thinking about it."

"How?" Lois looked suspicious.

He touched the edge of his glasses. "I think a little heat vision might help. It couldn't hurt."

Lois, at least, was willing. "I guess not," she agreed. "Now?"

"Now's as good a time as any. If you want me to try."

In answer, Lois pushed her hair back and lifted her face. "Go ahead."

Clark pulled his glasses down and gazed intently at Lois's face for a few seconds. "There," he said, pushing the glasses back up. "How's that?"

"Warm," Lois answered, smiling. She touched her bruised cheek experimentally. "Better, I think."

"Good." He gave her a soft smile full of love and tenderness, and brushed his fingers along her jaw.

Lois smiled back and said, "Now Catherine."

Involuntarily Catherine drew back. Whatever he'd just used on Lois was the same thing he'd used on Vincent earlier, the same thing that had burned away the infection in Vincent's wound. Now he wanted to use it on her face?

"It's okay," Lois said. "He won't hurt you."

Had she been that obvious? Embarrassment overcame exhaustion. "I'm sorry, I just couldn't help..."

"Remembering," Clark finished for her. "I won't if you don't want me to, but I really think it will help with the bruising."

She'd seen her reflection in a mirror only that morning. Most of the swelling was gone, but the bruising, faded now from vivid pinks and purples to ugly greens and yellows, was still clearly visible. Anything that minimized it could only be good. And Clark, she reminded herself firmly, wouldn't do anything to hurt her. He'd already used the technique on Lois.

"All right," she said, and lifted her face.

Clark took his glasses off completely and laid them on Vincent's table, then turned to face her.

Catherine closed her eyes and waited.

Her first perception was simply one of warmth, like the sun. It did feel nice, but not particularly healing. Then, suddenly, the sensation changed, moving deeper somehow, soothing aches she didn't know were there. Too soon, the warmth faded. Catherine opened her eyes to find Clark putting his glasses back on.

"Better?" he asked.

As Lois had done, she touched her cheek. "Actually... yes. That's amazing."

"It should look a lot better by morning."

"Thanks." When she rubbed at her face this time, it didn't hurt.

"You look exhausted. Why don't you lie down and sleep?" He gestured toward the cot.

She shook her head. She hated the low, narrow cot. It was hard and uncomfortable and she had to stretch to touch Vincent without getting up. She'd rather nap in a chair. She flatly refused to leave the chamber. "I'm going to sit with him a while longer..."

"Okay. But come around here..." He moved her chair from the bed's head to its side, so she could not only stroke Vincent's face, but also hold his hand.

"Thanks."

Clark ran a hand through rumpled hair. He looked nearly as tired as she felt. "Listen, if you're going to be awake for a little bit..."

She owed this man Vincent's life. Whatever he wanted, whatever he demanded, she would do. Even if it killed her. "What?"

"I kind of need to get out for a while." He glanced at his wife, who looked no less puzzled than Catherine felt. "I think I could use a little sun."

From the look of it, that made sense to Lois, but Catherine was still perplexed. "Sun?" She glanced automatically at her watch. "But it's dark up there now... isn't it?" She'd been awake for so long... had she managed to confuse day and night? But no, it must be evening because Lois had arrived from work only a few hours ago.

Clark offered a small grin. "Don't worry, I can find sunlight when I need it. But I don't want to leave Vincent unless you're here."

Vincent didn't like Clark touching him, anyway. "Sure," she agreed. "I can stay awake."

"Just an hour or so..."

"Sure," she repeated. Anything. She'd do anything.

"Lois will sit with you, if you like..."

The look Lois flashed him might have been one of alarm, but Catherine was far too tired to take offense. "If she wants," she answered. "I'll be okay by myself."

"No, you need someone to sit with you," Clark said. "Lois will stay. Won't you?"

Lois looked rebellious, then glanced at Catherine and softened. "Sure," she said finally. "I'll stay."

"Thanks, honey." He kissed her so tenderly that Catherine felt like an intruder, watching.

She looked away, trying not to wish that once, just once, Vincent would kiss her that way. That Vincent would kiss her at all.

"Be careful." Lois looked more sad than truly worried, and Catherine found the energy to wonder just how powerful Clark was, anyway.

He touched her cheek with his hand. "I will," he said, making it sound like a promise. "I love you."

*****

Lois watched him go with just the tiniest twinge of panic. She wasn't good at sickrooms, she wasn't good at comforting. What should she say? What should she do?

Well, she'd have to do something. Resolute, she turned to face the sickbed.

Catherine was watching Vincent, stroking his arm with absent fingers.

"Can I get you anything?" Lois offered, feeling awkward.

Catherine shook her head. "I'm fine. Just thinking."

"Oh." Lois wondered what she should do now. "Thinking about anything in particular?"

Catherine seemed to feel Lois's gaze upon her. Without turning, she spoke. "About something Clark said. Vincent never would have said that to me." Her voice was very quiet, very tired.

"What?" Lois ran back over everything Clark had said to her, and fixed on the most recent. "That he loves you?"

Catherine's mouth twisted in a small, wry smile. "No, actually, he's said that. Finally. Bolstered with qualifications and circumstances, but he said it."

"What, then?" Curiosity drove away discomfort. Lois drew up a chair and sat, leaning forward.

Catherine looked at her. "Something he said yesterday morning. When you were... disagreeing about whether or not you were going to work."

"Oh. What did he say?" Lois tried to remember the conversation. "That I wasn't going, but he says that kind of thing all the time, and I never listen."

"No, not that. He looked at your face, and said you looked awful."

Lois grimaced and touched her face self-consciously. "He didn't mean it that way. He was just..."

"I know how he meant it." For a moment she looked wistful. "There was such concern in his voice when he said it. And such affection. But Vincent would never tell me I looked awful, even if I did." She managed a small grin. "Even though I do."

Lois answered with a smile of her own. "Neither of us would win any beauty contests this week, that's for sure," she agreed. "But I'm not sure what you're getting at."

Catherine sighed. "What you and Clark have between you - it's so easy, so comfortable. I love Vincent, more than I ever thought it was possible to love anybody, and I know he loves me, but we don't have that. He's always so worried about who he is, what he is, and I'm always afraid I'll say the wrong thing and he'll leave, or send me away."

"Send you away? Would he do that?"

Catherine looked to where her hand entwined with Vincent's large, alien one. "He would. He has."

Lois leaned her chin on a fist. "Really? Just because he's different?"

"Yeah. Just because he's different."

Lois pondered that. "I guess Clark's done that, too," she said finally. "He broke up with me once, before we were married. Because he said that his being involved with me was putting me in danger. Which was really stupid, since we work together, we're partners! How was his loving me going to put me in more danger than I was in already? But he can be really hardheaded sometimes."

"Vincent, too. He worries about me... and some of that's my fault, I guess. I've done some stupid things..."

"Most of the trouble I get into is my own fault," Lois admitted. "But if you tell Clark I said that, I'll deny it."

Catherine managed a tired smile. "I won't tell."

That topic exhausted, Lois kicked into reporter mode. "So, tell me about you and Vincent?"

The look Catherine flashed her was wary. "Tell you about...?"

"You know, how you met."

"I'm not sure I want to share that with a reporter..."

Lois rolled her eyes. "You know my husband's from another planet, and you're worried what I'll say about your boyfriend?"

Catherine stared. "Another planet?"

Oops. Hadn't they said that before? She was sure Clark had said something... or maybe not. Well, the cat was out of the bag now. "Another planet," she repeated firmly. "It was called Krypton. It exploded when Clark was a baby, but his parents sent him to Earth, so he didn't die when they did."

"Another planet," Catherine said again. She looked stunned, or maybe that was just the exhaustion.

"I said that." Lois tried not to sound irritated, but she was tired, too. "You don't think ordinary humans can do what Clark does, do you?"

Catherine's smile was faint but genuine. "No," she admitted. "I never thought that."

"Well. We think it's because Krypton had a red sun. He has a dense molecular structure, and somehow he draws energy from the Earth's yellow sun, and nobody knows why he can do the rest of the things he does."

"The sun? That's why he wanted to go up and find sunlight. He was tired."

"Yeah. Pretty drained, I guess, from the stuff he'd been doing down here, and not seeing the sun at all for a couple of days. I don't think he's ever gone this long without seeing the sun."

"Oh. And you're sure he can find some."

"He'll just fly west until he finds it," Lois answered. "He's probably in California by now..."

"So fast?"

Lois couldn't resist a grin. "He was probably in California ten minutes ago," she answered. She glanced at her watch. "It's later than I thought, maybe he's in Hawaii..." She blamed the twitch of nostalgia on exhaustion. "We were supposed to spend our honeymoon in Hawaii..."

"Why didn't you?"

"Oh, well..." To her amazement and horror, Lois felt herself blushing. "I guess we got sort of... distracted. It was our honeymoon, after all. Don't you and Vincent get caught up in each other like that?"

It was Catherine's turn to blush. "He doesn't... that is, we don't..."

It took Lois a moment to figure out what it was that Catherine and Vincent didn't do; then she blushed even more. "Oh. Well, Clark and I waited. Until after we were married. It was hard, but I'm glad we did."

Catherine looked away. "This is different."

Lois frowned. "Different?"

She nodded slowly. "Because there isn't going to be a wedding for us. He isn't ever going to ask me..."

Lois had never felt quite so bewildered in all her life. From everything she'd heard and seen, if any two people loved each other, Vincent and Catherine did. "Why not?"

Catherine shrugged, making light, but Lois could see the deep, unrelenting hurt. "Because of who he is. What he is."

"He's different. So what?"

"He's afraid."

Lois thought of those deadly claws, those long, sharp teeth. "Oh." And then she thought about Clark, bending iron bars and lifting cars. "Just because he can hurt you doesn't mean he will."

"I know that. I know." Defiance was in Catherine's voice, and Lois remembered how, even when Vincent was in the depths of rage, Catherine hadn't feared him. She'd gone to him, touched him, and brought him back.

"I'm so tired..." Catherine's voice was so low, Lois wasn't sure at first she'd heard it. "When do you think Clark might be back?" That was stronger, but weariness still showed.

"I don't know, but you don't really have to wait for him, do you? Vincent can't tell if you're asleep or awake, just that you're close or not close. Right?"

"Yes. Well, I think so. All the times I've been asleep, I've been away from him, too, so it's hard to tell."

"No, you haven't," Lois disagreed. "Clark and I watched you sleep for two hours with your head on the pillow there and Vincent never moved."

"I can't sleep that way for long. I get so stiff..."

"Vincent's bed isn't that narrow. If I were you," Lois said decisively, "I'd just crawl up there beside him and go to sleep. The IV line's on the other side, so you wouldn't have to worry about tangling with it."

Catherine's glance at the spot Lois had indicated was longing, but she shook her head. "I couldn't. Father would have a fit."

"Let him."

"What?"

"Let him have a fit. I don't know what he's thinking, anyway. You're exhausted. It's been four and a half days and you haven't slept in a bed at all, have you? Plus you took the same kind of beating I did. Peter made a point of telling me I needed to get extra rest because of it and you haven't had any rest at all. Whatever Father's afraid of, it isn't going to happen any time soon, what with you so tired and Vincent sick, and..." She shut up abruptly. "Sorry. I get carried away sometimes..."

Catherine was smiling. "It's okay." She took a deep breath. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I should lie down here and sleep a little bit."

"Not a little bit. The whole night." Lois got up and crossed to the bed. "Maybe we can move him over." She put her hand out to try pushing, then thought better of it. "He won't mind if I touch him, will he?"

"I don't know," Catherine answered. "Try and see."

"What if he...?" She left the thought unvoiced, but Catherine understood.

"He won't. I'm right here. He'll be all right."

Lois put a tentative hand on Vincent's shoulder. He shifted a little at her touch, but didn't seem to mind. His body, through the thin nightshirt, was big and muscular... bigger and more muscular than Clark's, even. She tried not to think about that. "Here, you push and I'll push and we'll see if we can scoot him over."

They moved him a little bit, but Vincent really was solid, and dead weight besides, and they couldn't get much leverage.

"I wish Clark would come back," Lois muttered, panting. "He could move him with one hand."

"Vincent doesn't like Clark touching him," Catherine answered. "I guess because he held him down. Or maybe just because he doesn't know him. He doesn't seem to mind you, though. Let's give it another try."

They shoved again, and succeeded in moving Vincent another couple of inches.

"I don't know." Lois was skeptical. "It's not much room."

"As tired as I am, I'm not going to be doing any tossing and turning," Catherine answered. "There's enough space."

"Lie down, then," Lois said, "and I'll cover you up."

"Tuck me in?" There was a hint of laughter in Catherine's voice as she stretched out on the bed beside Vincent.

Lois wrestled a pillow out from under Vincent's shoulders and positioned it to support Catherine's head, then took a quilt from the foot of the bed and spread it over her.

"Thank you, Lois." Catherine's eyes were closed, her voice barely discernable. "Good night."

"Good night."

Catherine was asleep in seconds. Lois stood by the bed a moment, wondering what she should do. She couldn't just leave - Clark would be disappointed if he came back and she wasn't here. Anyway, she wanted to see him again before she went to bed and he'd be back soon. But if she stayed, what would she do? Watching Vincent and Catherine sleep wasn't exactly exciting, and anyway it felt intrusive.

Before she could turn away, Catherine sighed and shifted, settling against Vincent's side; reflexively his arm came around her, holding her close.

They're like us, Lois thought. Like Clark and me. In the way they love each other, in the way they take care of each other.

Abruptly she turned away, unwilling to intrude on their privacy any longer. She selected a book from the many in the chamber, turned her chair firmly away from the bed and sat down to read.

The book she'd chosen was Jane Eyre. She'd read it in college, for one of her classes, but she seldom had time to read for pleasure these days. She moved the candelabra closer, opened the book, and soon was engrossed in the story.

She didn't hear Father until he cleared his throat. She jumped.

"I'm sorry, my dear," he apologized. "You didn't seem to hear me." He looked around the chamber. "They haven't left you here alone, have they?"

"No, Catherine's here." Lois set the book aside and stood up.

Father's glance went to the cot, then darted to the bed. "Has she lost her mind...?" He stepped forward, as if to wake her.

"No," Lois said quickly, and caught at his arm. "Don't."

"You don't understand, it isn't safe..." He tried to shake off her restraining arm.

Lois held on. "Of course it's safe," she answered. "You trust Vincent not to hurt her when she's awake, why do you think he'd hurt her when she's sleeping? And he's too sick for you to be worried about anything else."

He spun around, glaring at her.

Lois glared back, and finally he deflated. "I suppose you're right. It just shocked me, seeing them like that..."

Like what? Lois looked to see that while she was reading, Vincent, still on his back, had shifted himself, giving Catherine more room on the single bed. For her part, Catherine had rolled onto her side, facing him; one arm was draped across Vincent's waist, and her forehead was pressed against his shoulder. The quilt that covered her had shifted, and Lois moved to straighten it.

"They look fine," she whispered, coming back to where Father stood. "Catherine was exhausted, and she wouldn't leave him. I don't blame her," she added, with a touch of defiance. "If that were Clark, I wouldn't leave, either. She needs to sleep," she added, belatedly trying to make her voice conciliatory.

Father sighed. "Yes, I can see that," he answered. "But how can I examine him with her..."

"Reach over her," Lois said firmly. "I'll bet ten dollars she doesn't wake up."

She'd have won the bet, if Father had taken it. When he finished his cursory examination, Father sighed again. "He's holding on," he said. "Perhaps the treatment was effective after all..."

"When will we know?"

"He heals fast. Faster than anyone I've ever seen."

He'd obviously never seen Clark heal. But then, without any green Kryptonite around, Clark wouldn't be getting himself wounded any time soon. "So..." she prompted, when Father seemed to stall.

"So we should know something tomorrow. He'll either be appreciably better, or..." He didn't finish his sentence. "I suppose your husband will be back soon?"

Lois nodded. "Any time now. He just went out for a little while."

"It must be difficult for him, cooped up in this sick-chamber as he has been..."

"I don't think it's that. Clark likes helping people. He just needed... well, he just needed to go up top for a little while."

Father's keen look said he suspected there was more to Clark's excursion than simply a need for fresh air, but he didn't press the issue. "It's very late," he said instead. "I can sit with him - with them - if you'd like to return to your own chamber."

Her own chamber, where she'd spent the past two nights in solitary splendor. Not likely. "Thanks, but Clark will come here when he comes back. I'll wait for him, if that's all right."

Father rubbed at his eyes with a tired hand. "Of course," he agreed. "I'll be in my chamber, just down this passage if you need me."

"There's a sentry right outside who can call for help faster than I can," she pointed out. "It'll give him something to do besides keep out visitors."

"So it will," Father agreed. "I'd forgotten he was there. You'll be all right by yourself, then?"

"Fine," Lois answered.

He stumped out, making enough noise with his walking stick that she wondered how she'd missed hearing him come in. Must have been the book.

Clark came back not five minutes later. "Hey," he said softly.

"Hey," she answered. "Find the sun?"

"Yeah. Somewhere over the Pacific." He grinned.

"You look better. I didn't know being out of the sun would drain you that fast."

"I didn't, either. I guess this is the longest I've been without seeing the sun at all. Plus I've been using a lot of my powers. X-raying, and cauterizing Vincent's wound and stuff."

"Stopping a flood and clearing a cave-in and shoring up the roof," she added, and smiled at his look of surprise. "Not to mention the rescuing of small children. I heard."

"News travels fast around here," he said.

"Yeah," she agreed. "I'm glad you're back. I was getting lonely."

"Lonely?" His gaze finally strayed from her face. "Where's Catherine?"

"There." Lois pointed.

Clark's eyebrows went up. "Father's going to have a fit," he predicted.

"That's what she said. And he kind of did."

"He's been here?"

"Right before you came. But I talked to him..."

His grin said he could guess how she'd talked.

"... and he finally went away again. He said to call him if I needed him, but neither one of them has moved. Catherine's so tired..."

"She'll probably sleep into tomorrow," Clark agreed. "Wish she'd thought of crawling in bed with Vincent sooner, but I suppose she was afraid of what Father would say."

"She didn't think of it this time, either," Lois announced. "I did. It was just plain silly for her to sit there, too tired to think, when the bed's big enough for both of them." She glanced at it. "Barely."

She adopted her best coquettish expression. "So since Catherine's here and Vincent's sleeping, can you come sleep with me tonight? We have that nice, big bed..." She couldn't have made the hint any broader, but regretfully he shook his head.

 

"I can't, honey. You know I'd like to. But I promised Father I'd stay with Vincent until he was better."

"You could be here in less than a second," she cajoled.

"If I knew there wasn't going to be anybody standing or walking in the passages, or the entry," he agreed. "But the tunnels are narrow, the turns tight. I wouldn't dare fly anywhere near my fastest in such close confines, when people are around. If I ran into somebody..."

"Oh." She hadn't thought of that. "Yeah. It'd be messy."

"Right."

"Then I'll stay with you."

"No, you won't, you need your sleep."

"I can sleep just fine right here," she insisted. "There's the cot..."

"And where will I sleep?" he inquired. "The cot's not big enough for two."

"You can float beside me," she decided. "Right close beside me. It'll be almost as good as the bed."

"No, it won't," he answered. "There's a sentry right outside that door, and Father or Mary or one of the others could come in at any time. Nothing's going to happen."

"Well, I know that. What do you think I am, an exhibitionist? All we'd need is for Catherine to wake up in the middle..." She reached up and caught hold of a fold of his long, soft tunic, and pulled him toward her. "But we can neck a little bit."

He smiled. "Good idea."

*****

Vincent opened his eyes slowly, to muffled pain and soft candlelight, and a feeling of peace so deep he didn't want to move for fear of dispelling it. He blinked quietly and things slowly came into focus.

He was lying on his back, in his own bed, in his own chamber. The last thing he remembered...

His breath caught in his throat and he tried to heave upward. "Catherine," he murmured.

"Shh." Strong hands pressed him back down. "She's right here."

The face that hovered over him was only vaguely familiar - dark hair and kind eyes partially masked by wire-rim glasses that glinted in the candlelight. He struggled for a name. "Clark?" he managed, finally.

"Yeah. I've been sitting with you while you were sick." He grinned. "Father thinks it's safer with me here, but I'm thinking that as long as she's with you..." He nodded toward something at Vincent's side.

Vincent craned his neck to look.

Catherine, soft and warm and deeply asleep, curled against his side.

"Let's not wake her up," Clark suggested, keeping his voice low. "She's been sitting with you for days now..."

Vincent stirred, trying to edge away, but the movement made the muffled pain flare sharply. He gasped and sank back down. "She should not... it isn't safe... I might..."

As little sense as he was making, Clark seemed to follow it. "You already did," he said, shaking his head. "Your wound is infected and your fever went so high you became delirious."

Vincent closed his eyes and rolled his head away.

"Nobody got hurt," Clark said, as if he knew what Vincent was thinking. "I got here quick and held you..."

Vincent rolled his head back to stare; Clark, by himself, had restrained him?

"...but that was all I could do, keep you from hurting somebody, or hurting yourself. I couldn't calm you down. Then Catherine came back, came running in... and as soon as she touched you, you quieted. I think you missed her, knew she was gone, and maybe flashed back to right before you got hurt, when she was in danger. I think you wanted to go to her, and it enraged you that you couldn't."

He mustered words with effort. "I could... have killed..."

"You didn't," Clark said flatly. "When I got here, there were a half-dozen other people in the room, and you hadn't hurt any of them. You were just roaring and flailing and trying to get up. You were just trying to help Catherine, that's all."

"Catherine." He thought back to the danger she'd been in, the fear she'd felt, and found the strength to speak again. "...all right?" Muddled memory gave him a blurry image of the scene when he'd burst in to rescue her. "And... another woman..."

"My wife," Clark told him, and nodded toward the far side of the chamber.

Vincent looked, and saw a dark-haired woman sleeping on a narrow cot set up against the bookshelves.

"They're both going to be okay," Clark assured him. "They were seriously beaten, but there's no lasting damage."

Vincent went inside himself, to the link he shared with Catherine, examining it closely. There was sadness and exhaustion, but no thread of physical pain. "Yes," he agreed, aloud. Just staying awake was tiring; talking, even in abbreviated sentences, was wearing him out. But he had to know if Catherine was all right. "She grieves..."

Clark looked surprised. "You can tell that?"

He nodded. "...connected... I know... always."

"What she's feeling? Father said something about that, but I thought I must have misunderstood."

Vincent managed a small shake of his head. "No..."

"That's how you knew she was in danger," Clark said suddenly. "That's how you found her?"

Vincent nodded, grateful that Clark seemed to be making these leaps by himself, that he didn't have to find the words to explain.

"You can feel where she is." There was wonder in his voice, and awe.

"Grieving now..." Vincent reminded him. "Sad..."

Understanding shone in Clark's eyes. "That's for you," he explained. "She's grieving for you. Because until a few hours ago, we all thought you were going to die."

*****

Vincent slipped back into sleep. A healing sleep, Clark hoped. But he supposed he should call for Father, just in case. He cast a regretful look at the cot where Lois lay giving every appearance of enjoying a good night's sleep. Clark wasn't sure how she managed that - he'd lain on the cot himself, and found it narrow, hard, and lumpy. But then, Lois was half his size and scarcely more than half his weight. Maybe that made a difference. He didn't know. In any case, he wasn't likely to be joining her any time soon.

He was right. Father came at once when Clark sent the sentry after him; he was still pulling his robe on when he entered the chamber. He crossed directly to Vincent's bed and bent over him in a swift examination that ended with him grasping Vincent's hand and calling his name.

There was no response, not even the flickering of an eyelid.

Father spun sharply. "Marc says you told him Vincent was awake?"

"He was," Clark answered, and wondered why he felt defensive. "For just a couple of minutes."

"Did he say anything? Did he seem lucid?"

"Very lucid. He asked about Catherine, mostly. Almost entirely," he amended, remembering. "Talking seemed to tire him out, but he wouldn't relax until he knew she was okay."

Father grunted. "I'm surprised he couldn't tell without asking."

"I guess she's still pretty upset," Clark offered. "Vincent seemed to think she was... grieving." It was a strong word, but it was the one Vincent had used.

"Grieving. Well, of course. None of us knew if he'd get better or not, even after you... treated him. She must have gone to sleep thinking about him, worrying about him."

"Probably," Clark agreed.

"I should have thought of that," Father chided himself. "Well, I can do something about it now."

He bent over the bed. While Clark was still wondering if he should interfere, Father laid a hand on Catherine's arm and shook it gently, calling her name.

She came awake with a start and a gasp.

"Catherine, my dear," Father said. "I'm sorry to wake you."

"Vincent? Is it Vincent?" Panic was in her voice. "Is he..."

"He's better." Father said it quickly, overriding whatever she'd been about to say.

She stared at him, uncomprehending.

"He was awake for a little while," Clark told her, crouching at Father's side. "He talked to me."

That brought her bolt upright. "He did?" She looked over her shoulder. Vincent hadn't moved. "What did he say?"

"That he was worried about you."

"Oh." She rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. "I was dreaming... a nightmare, almost, except it wasn't scary, only sad..."

"I thought you might be," Father said kindly. "I wouldn't have awakened you otherwise."

"And he's better." She looked from one of them to the other, her eyes beseeching. "He's really better."

"I'm not the doctor here," Clark said softly, "but he really seemed better to me."

"I am the doctor," Father added, "and he seems better to me, too."

"He's better," she said again. "Oh, thank you." This last was directed to no one in particular; Clark thought it might have been a prayer. "I guess I should get up." She sounded sheepish, even embarrassed.

"Don't you dare."

Clark spun. Lois stood behind him, sleepy-eyed but with all the signs of being ready to do battle.

"You've only been sleeping..." she paused and leaned over Clark, picking up his wrist to look at his watch, "...a little over four hours. It can't possibly be enough. So you just put your head right back down on that pillow."

"I recommend you do what she says," Clark said mildly. "You don't want to see her get mad."

Lois smacked his shoulder, as he'd expected she would.

"See?" he asked.

He wasn't sure, but he thought he heard Father suppress a chuckle.

The look Catherine gave Father was wary, but when he didn't protest, she gingerly lowered her head. After an interminable moment, Father pulled the quilt a little higher over her shoulder. "You go back to sleep," he told her. "We'll keep watch over Vincent."

*****

Catherine woke slowly, consciousness creeping in like morning mist. She was warm and safe, and for the first time in days, completely rested. She blinked in the hazy candlelight, and then caught her breath, remembering where she was.

She lifted her head to find Vincent wide awake... and watching her, his expression solemn.

"Hi," she whispered.

"Good afternoon," he answered.

Stricken, she rubbed at her face with both hands. "Oh, no, is it that late?"

"I'm afraid so."

She looked at him. "You're better."

"Yes."

"Really better."

"Yes. Father's been in half-a-dozen times to examine me today, and he concurs."

"I slept through Father examining you?" Self-consciously she eased away from him, just a little. "I must have been more tired than I thought."

"You've been sitting with me for a long time," Vincent answered. "Father says you scarcely slept."

"You were so sick, Vincent." She shuddered, remembering. "So sick, and I was so scared."

"I'm fine now."

"Not fine, but certainly on the road to recovery." That was Father, who entered briskly. "Catherine, you're looking refreshed."

"I feel refreshed, Father, thank you." She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, trying not to feel guilty. After all, Vincent said Father had been in and out all morning, and besides, she had a dim memory - or maybe it was a dream - of Father actually tucking her in.

But now he was all business, opening his black doctor's bag and pulling out instruments.

"Well," she said, embarrassed. "While you do that, I think I'll go freshen up."

"Good idea," Father murmured absently. "Vincent, would you open your nightshirt for me, please?"

Catherine fled.

There was time enough, while Father examined Vincent, to not only make use of nearby sanitary facilities, but also to stop by the guest chamber assigned for her use and wash her face and brush her hair. That done, she examined her reflection critically. Clark's heat treatment the night before seemed to have done some good; the bruises were visibly lighter. In a couple of days they'd be gone. Her split lip was nearly healed, too. The dark circles had been erased by sleep, and the tight lines around her mouth had been eased with relief. All in all, she'd looked worse in her life - and she knew Vincent's love wasn't dependent on how she looked, anyway.

So why, when she was lying beside him, did he hold himself so tensely? Why did he shrink away, almost imperceptibly, when she laid her hand on his arm?

She shook her head. She knew why. He was afraid. Once, she'd accepted his fears, and the limits he set. Now, envy of Lois Lane, whose husband's differences were on the inside, who'd been able to marry the man she loved, rose up hot and ugly. She fought it back as she fought the tears prickling her eyes. Envy didn't do anybody any good, least of all her.

If she stood here feeling sorry for herself much longer, Vincent would try to come to her, so she took a deep breath and forced composure. The simple truth was, she loved Vincent with all her heart, all her soul. And if loving him meant accepting limits, then she'd accept them. No matter what.

*****

Clark stayed near for the rest of the day, just in case, but Vincent grew better rapidly. That night, he was able to sleep in his own chamber, which made Lois happy. Catherine spent a lonely night in her own chamber.

The next morning, the second following Clark's radical treatment of his infection and cauterization of his wound, Vincent was able to sit up.

Catherine spent the morning with him, reading aloud just as he'd once read to her when she was recovering from injury, and watching over him when he napped. After lunch, Father came again to examine Vincent, and Catherine tactfully retreated to her own chamber for a few minutes.

She allowed enough time for Father to finish his examination, then made her way back to Vincent's chamber. She had just reached the entrance when she heard voices from within. She paused, uncertain. She didn't want to interrupt Father or embarrass Vincent if the examination wasn't over.

"Catherine?" Clark's voice, soft and questioning, preceded his appearance in the doorway. He smiled at sight of her. "Hi."

"Hi," she answered, and moved past him, pausing in the doorway.

Lois was here, too, standing stiff and awkward at Vincent's bedside.

Vincent was propped up on pillows, just as she'd left him. The look he gave her was puzzled. "You didn't come in," he said, and she understood that was how Clark had known she was there. Unless, she thought suddenly, he'd divined her presence through one of his mysterious powers. The idea made her shiver inside.

"I heard the voices," she explained, feeling suddenly as awkward as Lois looked. "I didn't want to intrude..."

"We just stopped by to see how Vincent's doing," Clark explained, looking perfectly normal, perfectly human.

Once more she fought down unreasoning resentment. Clark couldn't help who he was, any more than Vincent could. And besides, she liked Clark, who was kind and gentle and, she'd noticed, very nice-looking. "Thank you. I think he's much better now."

"We can see that," Lois said. She looked to Clark. "We should probably be going..." she began.

"Please don't," Vincent said. "You've only just come."

Lois seemed reluctant, but Clark smiled. "Sure. We can stay for a little while, as long as we don't tire you out."

Catherine gave Vincent an appraising look and decided he was probably as strong as he looked, which meant he was good for an hour or so. She stepped easily into the role of hostess. "Sit down," she invited. "I'll get us some tea."

"Geoffrey's already gone for it," Vincent told her. "He tells me there are freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, too. He's going to try to filch some."

The note of conspiracy in his voice made him sound like a little boy; it was such a contrast to the way he'd been only two days ago that she almost laughed. "And you're encouraging him?"

"Let's say I'm not discouraging him," Vincent answered. The tips of his teeth showed in a small smile. "I think William would be disappointed if he baked and no one tried to make off with the results."

"It's like a game," Lois suggested.

"Yes," Vincent agreed. "Why else would William leave baked goods out on the kitchen tables when he has a perfectly good cupboard that locks?"

They all smiled; just about that time, Geoffrey called out from the corridor.

"Come in!" Vincent called back, his voice surprisingly strong for someone who'd been at death's threshold not forty-eight hours earlier. He really was better.

Geoffrey and two other children carried in laden trays and set them carefully on Vincent's writing table. "This is regular Earl Grey," Geoffrey explained, pointing to a flowered teapot with a mismatched lid. He indicated the other steaming pot, its surface crazed by tiny cracks in the glaze. "And this is an herb tea. Father says Vincent should only drink this one, but everyone else can drink what they want."

"I brought cookies," Samantha announced. "We didn't have to steal them, either, William said we could bring them. He sent some carrot cake, too."

"I got to bring the cups and plates!" young Jeremy announced, his face aglow.

"You did well," Vincent approved, while the others hid smiles behind their hands. "Would you like some cookies before you go?"

Geoffrey could take a hint. "Come on, you guys," he said, taking charge. "Get your cookies and let's leave the grownups alone."

"Yeah," Samantha chimed. "Come on."

Each of the children took a handful of cookies before running out. When they were gone, Catherine spent a few minutes serving tea and offering cake and cookies, while Clark moved chairs to include Vincent in the circle.

When everyone was served, Catherine settled into the chair nearest Vincent with a cup of Earl Grey and groped for small talk. Relieved of worrying over Vincent and with two good nights' - and the better part of the intervening day - sleep behind her, she could spare the energy now to be curious. "So, Clark," she began. "If you have all these powers, how come no one seems to have heard of you? Or your abilities?"

Clark and Lois exchanged glances.

"Well," Lois said, too brightly, "It's not exactly the kind of thing we'd want to make public, is it?"

"People who are different are a curiosity," Clark added. He looked at Vincent. "You know that."

Vincent nodded. "Someone would demand answers, and the only way to get them would be from you."

"Yeah. I wouldn't especially like that." Clark's grin was crooked, and quite endearing. "My dad used to tell me that if people found out about me, they'd dissect me like a frog."

Vincent chuckled. "My father tells me much the same thing. Repeatedly."

"Guess fathers are all alike, huh?" Clark's grin widened.

"Is your father... like you?" Catherine asked. "Different, like you?"

Clark shook his head. "No, I'm adopted. Like Vincent is. My folks are completely normal. Completely human. I grew up in Kansas. Which," he added, "is a lot like the Kansas you have here."

"What kind of statement is that?" Catherine remembered something from the haze of time when Vincent was so sick, and she so very tired. She turned on Lois. "Wait a minute, you said something like that, didn't you? Except you were asking about Pulitzer Prizes."

Lois actually looked flustered. "Oops."

"Oops?" Catherine repeated.

Vincent spoke. "Is there something... about your past... that you might wish to share with us? We don't mean to pry, but..."

Clark lifted a hand. "No, that's okay, we don't mind if you know. We're just not sure anybody's going to believe us."

"Hey, we believe you fly," Catherine told him, to lighten the moment.

Clark obliged with a grin. "Okay. Then let's talk about parallel universes."

"Parallel... what?" That was Vincent; she'd seldom heard him sound so bewildered.

"Parallel universes. The real reason you haven't heard of me and the things I can do is because we aren't from here. Not just from New York, but from your whole world. We're from a parallel Earth, from a city called Metropolis. And we're from nine years in the future."

Only great dint of will kept Catherine's jaw from dropping. "What?"

"He's telling the truth," Lois said, with a trace of belligerence. "We're reporters, we know how it sounds... but it's true. About five weeks ago, we were walking down the street outside our newspaper in broad daylight... and the next thing we knew, we were on a New York City street at night, with no idea how we got here. And instead of being 1998, it was 1989. We've been here ever since."

It was incredible, yes, but after all, was it really any more astonishing than a man who could catch bullets with his bare hands? "Can't you get back?" Catherine asked.

Lois looked down; Clark reached across the small space separating them and took her hand. "Not so far," he answered. "We're still not completely sure how we got here."

"Oh."

"Would it be so terrible," Vincent asked softly, "if you had to stay?"

"Not terrible, I guess," Clark answered slowly. "But this isn't our home. We have our families, our friends."

"Our jobs, our house," Lois added. "And I really, really miss my car!"

That evoked a laugh, as Lois had clearly intended it to.

"And," she added, "I'm kinda starting to miss Superman."

"Superman?" Vincent raised his eyebrows in a question.

She grinned. "Yeah. Big guy, nice pecs, blue tights."

Clark rolled his eyes. "Lois..."

"Oh, and did I mention he flies?"

Vincent's puzzled expression turned to one of amusement. "Blue tights?" he asked, managing to sound skeptical.

"Hey, my mother made the costume," Clark answered, smiling. "And she says it..."

He broke off abruptly; his face went still and distant.

Vincent's expression was similarly intent. A moment later he threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

Catherine caught hold of his arm. "Where are you going?"

"Intruder," he answered, and tried to shake her off. "I must..."

"Vincent, no! You're still weak..."

"I'll go," Clark interrupted. "A man... following a woman?" He gave Vincent a questioning glance.

"You understand our pipe codes?" Vincent asked him.

"I'm sort of good with languages." Clark looked almost embarrassed at the admission. "But there are some parts I didn't quite understand."

"Ginny Stevens. There's a man following Ginny Stevens."

"So she's here," Lois said. "We should have guessed."

"I knew," Clark told her. "She was there, in Father's study, when Vincent was in surgery. You've never seen her, so you wouldn't have recognized her."

"The lady with the baby and the black eye," Lois guessed. "I remember her, sort of."

"Right. And the man who's following her now is probably her husband," Catherine said.

"Possibly," Vincent answered.

She looked at Clark. "He's a police officer - he may be armed."

Clark grinned. "Don't worry. Bullets don't have any more effect on me than Vincent's teeth did, remember?" He vanished in a puff of wind that left the candle flames fluttering.

Behind him, Vincent said, "My teeth...?"

*****

Clark streaked through the tunnels as fast as he dared, using every aerobatic trick at his disposal to make the tight turns. This part of the tunnels was unfamiliar to him, so he followed the insistent sound of the intruder alert that vibrated through the pipes. Long before he reached the upper level, he could hear a woman crying and pleading. Fury leaped in him and he increased his speed. A low cornice shattered into pebbles and dust when his shoulder brushed it at high speed, but he didn't slow down. An instant later he was there. He dropped to the ground and ran.

Ginny Stevens, her baby clutched in one arm, tugged futilely to free the other. Her husband held it in a hard grip. "What do you mean, trying to run from me?" he growled.

"Gary, no, please!" she begged. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! Please, Gary, the baby!"

"You don't run away from me!" he thundered, and pulled his hand back.

Clark leaped forward. "Hey!"

Stevens dropped his hand and turned, still holding his wife's arm. "This is none of your business, pal," he snapped. "So just keep moving."

"I don't think so," Clark answered, planting his feet and crossing his arms. "This stops now."

Stevens was obviously spoiling for a fight. "Yeah? And who's going to stop me?"

"Please, mister! It'll be okay. Just go away, and it'll be okay." There was real fear in Ginny Stevens' voice as she pleaded with him not to make things worse.

Clark remembered Lois's battered face and struggled for control. No man should hit a woman. Ever. "Let her go," he commanded.

"This is a family thing, so you just go on to wherever you were going," Stevens retorted.

"No," Clark answered. "Let her go."

"Okay." Stevens shoved Ginny away; she cried out as she stumbled against the rock wall, twisting to protect the baby. "Come on," Stevens challenged. "Let's see what you've got."

Clark could take Stevens out with the flick of a finger, but he had to make it look hard, and he didn't want to misjudge and really hurt the man. Easy, easy, easy, his mind chanted. He swung his arm in a lazy arc, tapping Stevens on the chin with his fist. Stevens dropped like a stone, out cold.

Rapid footsteps echoed down the tunnel and a moment later Zach, breathless from running, reached them. "Oh, good, you got him," he said to Clark. He turned to Ginny. "Come on, let's get you where it's safe."

Ginny held back, looking at her unconscious husband. "Gary..."

"Clark will take care of him," Zach said. "Won't you?"

Clark didn't have any good ideas about how to do that; at home, he'd just drop the fellow off at the police station. Superman's word was all the police needed to effect an arrest. Here, things were different. Nobody knew who Superman was, and the man at his feet was a police officer himself. He nodded anyway. "Yeah. I'll take care of him."

"You won't hurt him, will you?" Ginny Stevens' voice was pleading.

I'd like to, he thought. I'd like to show him how it feels to be at the mercy of someone stronger. I'd like to make him that afraid.

But doing so would go against everything he believed in. "No," he said, sighing. "I won't hurt him."

"You promise?"

Amazing that the woman could trust in promises after all she'd been through. "Yes," Clark said gently. "I promise."

"Come on," Zach urged. "I'll take the baby..."

Clark waited until they were out of sight before bending to scoop Stevens, still unconscious, into his arms.

*****

The pipes had been repeating one insistent message; Lois picked up on the repetition after about the first three rounds. But suddenly the familiar pattern changed. Vincent cocked his head, listening.

"It's over," he said. "Clark stopped him, Ginny and the baby are safe." He gave Catherine a quizzical look. "What was she doing topside?"

"I don't know. I haven't talked to her since she came down..." Catherine sounded regretful, which made Lois wonder; after all, Catherine had scarcely had time to breathe in the past few days. When did she think she should have been seeing Ginny Stevens?

Catherine stood up. "I should go make sure she's all right." She sounded regretful about that, too, which Lois could understand. Leaving the man you loved to attend to duty was always cause for regret.

Alarm blossomed in her as she realized that if Catherine left, she'd more or less have to stay; it would be rude to just walk out and leave Vincent alone. Not that she had trouble being rude when circumstances - like a breaking story - warranted, but this was different. This would be rudeness to cover discomfort and she was trying really hard not to do that any more.

"Come back," Vincent said to Catherine, "after you've seen to Ginny."

She nodded. "I will." She threw a quick glance Lois's way and then bent to give Vincent a brief, chaste hug. Lois wondered if it would have been more, maybe even a kiss, if she hadn't been here watching.

Catherine hurried out, leaving Lois feeling awkward. Stupid to feel this way about Vincent, who had so recently hovered near death. Who was still so weak he needed to be helped out of bed.

"You're upset," he observed quietly.

She stiffened with surprise and embarrassment. "No, I'm not."

"Is it Clark?" He went on as if he hadn't heard her denial. "All the messages say the intruder has been subdued. Is there something there that might harm him? I know he's impervious to bullets... and teeth..."

She was surprised to hear him bring up the teeth... Catherine had a hard time explaining Clark's last remark to him, and even after she did Lois wasn't sure Vincent was comfortable with it. She knew she wasn't. If Clark wasn't invulnerable, he'd have died right there in a gush of blood.

"I'm not upset," she insisted, as if saying it could make it so.

"You are," he answered softly. "I can feel it. If it isn't worry for Clark..."

"I thought you could only do that with Catherine," she broke in, alarmed.

"I can only do it all the time and at a distance with Catherine. But I am sensitive to strong feelings in people nearby... and I feel you now. Are you... afraid of me?"

Shame made her rush to deny it. "No! Of course not..." The remembered image of him bursting into the warehouse, roaring defiance and scattering bricks, tossing a grown man aside with a casual backhand blow, rose up in her mind's eye; involuntarily she shivered.

"You are. You're afraid of me." He looked away. "You've seen me... at my worst." He worded it delicately, but she suspected his thoughts were darker, more explicit. "I'm sorry."

"No, I'm the one who's sorry. I'm not afraid, exactly... it's more like nervous, and I'm ashamed of how I feel, because I know that most of the time, you're kind and gentle and good. Like Clark."

"But Clark doesn't lose himself in rages so dark he cannot control them." Bitterness edged his voice. "Clark doesn't try to tear out the throats of men who are only trying to help."

She swallowed hard. "No, he... his parents made him learn to keep his temper. Because he could do so much damage if he ever lost it."

"Yes," Vincent agreed. "I know. Even though he is stronger than I, you've never been afraid of Clark."

She blinked, remembering. "Actually, I have been. Sort of..."

"Sort of?" he repeated. His look was questioning.

She sighed. "Things happen in our universe that don't seem to happen in yours. Like time travel, and parallel universes, and alternate dimensions."

"Like men who can fly," he offered.

"Yes. And once... there was a small-time crook who needed to get close to a big-time crook... only the big-time crook had a contract out on him. So the small-time crook had to change his appearance. He did this... by switching bodies."

"Excuse me?"

"Switching bodies. He took possession of another body, and the person, the soul, of that body ended up in his."

"All right." Vincent sounded cautiously accepting, so she plunged on.

"The body the small-time crook switched with... was Clark's."

He looked distinctly startled at that. "So for a time, Clark was completely human? Or did his abilities transfer with him?"

"No, it's the body that has the superpowers. And anyway, Clark has been without powers before, that's not the point. The point is, here was this small-time crook inside of, in control of, Superman's body. And he got angry because I wouldn't tell him where to find Clark, the real Clark in the other body..."

"Yes, I see," Vincent said, encouraging.

"And he came toward me... with such malice on his face. I knew he could kill me, probably without even meaning to, because he wasn't used to having that kind of strength. It was worse because it was Clark, I mean, his face, his eyes, his expressions. Only he'd never looked at me that way before. I was sure he was going to kill me."

"And you were frightened."

"Terrified," she admitted. "I've never told Clark about it; I never wanted him to know I was afraid of his strength, his abilities."

"But it wasn't really Clark."

"No. And so I don't have to be afraid of him now. Of the real Clark, body and soul together."

"But I am not always in control," Vincent said softly, looking at his hands. Those strong, furred hands with their deadly claws. From his expression, he was looking inward, brooding. She wondered if sometimes he frightened himself.

She swallowed. "Vincent, can I ask you something?"

That shook him out of introspection. He looked up. "Of course."

She forced herself to meet his steady gaze. "What would have happened to me, when you burst into the warehouse, if Clark hadn't been there, if they hadn't shot you? You came to save Catherine, because she was afraid. But what would you have done to me?"

His fists closed tight around the blankets; if he was easily able to walk, Lois thought he'd be pacing now. "Nothing," he insisted, quickly. "Have you been thinking I would have... no. You weren't a threat, not to me, not to Catherine. I would have known that. I wouldn't have harmed you."

"How can you be sure?"

Despite his earlier instinctive protest, he had to think about it. "I just... I have never harmed anyone who was not threatening harm to others. Never."

She'd seen the rage at its fullest; it left little room for cognizant thought. "But how do you know? How do you tell who's a good guy and who's a bad guy?"

He looked thoughtful, perplexed. "I don't know. I just do."

"Even when you're..." She let the words trail away, unsure how to say it.

But he knew. "Yes. Even then."

She let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. "So it's not the same."

"Not the same as what?"

"As when Clark... wasn't Clark. Even when you're... the least you, there's some you left. Some control."

He looked surprised, and then thoughtful. "I don't know..."

"Catherine does." Lois's words surprised her as much as they did Vincent. She hadn't known she'd been thinking this way, but once said it made perfect sense. "She knows who you are, Vincent. And she's not afraid."

He looked again at his hands, pensive. "Perhaps," he said quietly, "she should be."

*****

Clark waited patiently, arms folded. A soft night breeze briefly lifted the folds of his cape. It felt good to be wearing the red and blue again. At his feet, Gary Stevens moaned and stirred. He was waking up.

Before Stevens regained full consciousness, Clark grabbed a fistful of his leather jacket and lifted off. When Stevens opened his eyes, they were hovering a good thousand feet above the city. Clark tightened his grip; much as he despised the man, he didn't want to make a mistake and drop him.

Stevens blinked hazily a couple of times then came to alertness with a jerk. "Uhhh... what... oh, God, we're going to fall!" He flailed like a panicked drowning victim, grabbing any part of Clark he could reach.

Clark held him carefully at arm's length. "No, you're not. I've got you."

Stevens grabbed a fistful of cape and pulled one side loose from Clark's neck. This seemed to panic him even more and he pinwheeled his arms and legs frantically.

Clark had begun with little patience for the man; now it ran out. He gave Stevens a shake. "Stop that," he commanded. "I won't drop you on purpose, but if you keep struggling like that..."

He switched hands on Stevens' jacket and used his newly freed hand to tuck his cape back into place.

Stevens got a death-grip on Clark's forearm, which was all he could reach, and hung on. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Get me down from here!"

"I'm a friend," Clark said. "Here to give you a piece of friendly advice."

"Friendly?" Some of Stevens' bluster came back. "This isn't too friendly."

"I didn't say I was your friend. As a matter of fact, I'm a friend of your wife's."

"That bitch..."

Clark cut him off with another shake. This one was rougher than the last, and Stevens gasped, his grip on Clark's arm tightening convulsively.

"Real men don't hit women," Clark said, keeping his voice even only with effort. "Real men don't hit anyone who's smaller or weaker, and if they can help it, they don't hit at all. There are other ways of resolving conflict."

He didn't wait for Stevens to respond. "So you're not going to hit your wife anymore. You aren't going to bully her. I don't care what she does, or how angry you get, you aren't going to respond with violence. You're going to find another way."

Stevens responded with reflex bluster. "She's my wife, she does what I say! And if she doesn't..."

Clark cut him off. "I know who you are, I know where you live. And if you touch your wife again in violence, if you touch any woman," Lois's bruised face flashed in his mind's eye, and his voice hardened, "I'll know, and I'll come and find you."

Stevens made the mistake of looking down; he jerked convulsively at the end of Clark's outstretched arm. "You..." he gasped, struggling for words. "There's nothing holding you up!"

"Nothing but me," Clark agreed.

Stevens' eyes rolled back in his head; the acrid stench of urine rose between them. Overcome by terror, Stevens had wet himself - and fainted.

*****

"We trusted you!" Father was in full rant. "We took you in when you had no place to go, and you repay us with betrayal!"

Catherine tried to intervene. "Father, she didn't mean..."

Father turned on her. "And you! You brought her here. You promised she would obey our rules..."

"And she will! Father, she made a mistake..."

"A mistake that could cost our community dearly!"

Ginny Stevens cowered, in tears, in a nearby chair. Father had been lecturing, with increasing passion, ever since Catherine and Zach had brought her back. Thankfully, Mary had already come and taken the baby to the nursery. "I'm sorry," Ginny sobbed, for the dozenth time. "I'm so sorry... I didn't mean..."

"It doesn't matter if you meant it, it happened! Our secret's been exposed..."

Catherine couldn't stand it any more. "Father, that's enough."

He broke off to stare at her in shock. "I beg your pardon?"

"I said, that's enough. She knows what she did was wrong, and she's sorry. Now, if you're going to kick her out, say so, so I can find her someplace else to live."

Father's mouth worked, but it was a minute before any sound came out. "Kick her out? Of course we're not going to kick her out, Catherine, you know that."

Satisfied that she'd succeeded in jolting him out of his tirade, she softened. "Yes, I do know it, but Ginny doesn't. Look at her, Father, you've scared her half to death."

Father looked, and his expression went from fierce to tender in an instant. He drew a chair up beside Ginny's and took her hand. "My dear, I'm so sorry I frightened you. Vincent frequently warns me about my temper..."

Ginny lifted her tearstained face. "I'm sorry I broke your rules. I didn't think it would hurt anything, I tried to be careful!"

"But, my dear, if you're happy here, and safe, why did you go?"

Ginny swallowed a sob. "I had to see my mother."

"Your mother? She lives above, in the city?"

Ginny nodded.

"And alone," Father went on, guessing.

Ginny nodded again. "I'm all she has, and... her mind's not quite right anymore. I help her with cooking and cleaning, and I do her shopping once a week... she needs me!"

"Why didn't you say something? One of our helpers could have gone to see about your mother, and done so without putting the community at risk."

"I don't know." Ginny started crying again. "I didn't think of it. She's my mother, she's my responsibility. Gary always said that."

"Gary was wrong." Catherine made her voice firm and sure. "You have a larger family now, Ginny. There are lots of people who will help you. All you have to do is ask."

"But she needs so much... and she's all alone. She knows me, and she wouldn't know your helpers."

Father cleared his throat. "If there's truly no one else, then perhaps we should consider inviting your mother to live with us."

Ginny gaped. "Really? You'd let... but she can't work, not any more..."

"That doesn't matter," Father said. "She can do as much... or as little... as she is able. That will be enough."

"Oh. Oh." Overcome, Ginny pressed her fists to her mouth and tried not to burst into fresh tears. "Oh, Father... Catherine."

As usual, Father responded to gratitude with gruffness. "I'll speak to Mary in the morning... I wouldn't be surprised to find your mother here with us by evening!"

"Oh, but what if Gary tries to follow her..."

"Don't worry," Catherine said. "We have a friend who will see to that."

"But he knows about the tunnels now..."

"The passage he used is even now being closed off," Father said. "He may find his way down, but he won't find his way to us. I promise you."

*****

Vincent watched Lois prowl his chamber with increasing restlessness. "He'll be back soon," he offered, in an attempt to comfort. "I'm sure of it."

The smile she offered him was wan, but at least there was no longer any wariness in it. "I know. I just can't help..."

"Wishing he was here?" He finished the sentence for her. "I know. I can feel it."

"I just... miss him," she explained. "I don't so much at home... where we're from, I mean."

He nodded to show he understood.

"But here... I miss him." She shrugged, as if that was all the explanation there was.

And perhaps she was right. "When you've been apart, and you see one another again... what you feel in that moment is very strong, and very beautiful."

"Oh." Her cheeks went pink. "I guess so."

"You love him very much."

"Of course." She looked surprised.

"Sometimes..." he felt suddenly shy. "Sometimes what Catherine feels... when she sees me... is very like what I sense in you..."

"When I see Clark?" she finished for him.

He couldn't meet her steady, sympathetic gaze. "Yes."

"Well, she loves you, Vincent. Don't you know that?"

The torrent of feeling that was his love for Catherine rushed through him. "Sometimes I know it," he said softly. "Other times..."

"You're afraid."

He looked at her quizzically.

She smiled. "Catherine said you were. You shouldn't be."

"You have a faith I cannot seem to find," he observed, avoiding the point.

The smile she gave him was playful. "Well, you have to remember, I'm the one who's married to an alien."

"Alien?" he repeated. Odd, how he hadn't thought of Clark in that way.

"You know, extra-terrestrial. Not from around here."

"Yes," he agreed, and would have said more, but footsteps sounded in the corridor outside.

Clark came in, looking none the worse for expelling the intruder. Lois went into his arms for a brief embrace; Vincent closed his eyes, partly to give them a moment of illusory privacy, and partly to savor the rush of emotion that suddenly filled the little chamber. There was so much love between those two.

And then his own love rose up as Catherine came in. "Hi," she greeted Clark. "You took care of him?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I left him at his apartment. I hope he'll leave Ginny alone now."

Catherine sank into a chair. "His kind isn't likely to be put off by you telling him to stay away," she said in disgust. "If he thinks he can terrify Ginny, he'll be back."

"I hope not," Clark answered mildly. "I tried to put a good scare into him. He's afraid of heights."

The look Lois gave him was startled; she slid a hand through the air and lifted her eyebrows. Clark smiled just a little and nodded.

"Oh," Lois said, and settled into a chair.

Catherine hadn't noticed. "I'm getting a lot of domestic violence cases lately. I think Joe - that's my boss," she explained in an aside to Clark and Lois, "I think Joe's assigning them to me on purpose."

"Because he knows you have compassion," Vincent said gently.

"I suppose," she agreed wearily. "I wish I could do more to help. I have a homicide sitting on my desk right now that's probably a domestic violence. Almost certainly, now that I know the husband better." She glanced at Lois. "He's one of the cops who picked us up that day. Dave Callahan."

"The mean one," Lois said, running a hand along her jaw. "I remember."

"Right," Catherine answered. "But you and I can't bring charges against him without exposing Vincent..."

"...and Clark," Lois added.

"And Clark," Catherine agreed. "And the police don't have enough hard evidence on his wife's murder to make an arrest."

"Could we help?" Clark asked. "We're pretty good investigators."

"I'd love to be able to put that guy in jail," Lois added.

Vincent could sympathize.

Catherine looked worried. "I really can't let reporters work on a criminal case. Joe would have a fit."

Lois looked at Clark. "Well, we could work on it on our own. Wouldn't be the first time we cracked a case before the authorities did."

Catherine looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Can't you just let me..."

Lois shook her head. "No. Look what happened when you just tried to help Ginny Stevens. The man's vicious. He needs to be put away. You can't trust the police to do your investigating for you, if he's one of them, and we can't wait."

Reluctantly Clark nodded agreement. "But it'd be easier for us if we had access to the same information you do. We can request the reports, but it takes a while to get them and we haven't developed any contacts in the police department yet."

"No," Lois agreed. "Just you."

Now Catherine looked surprised. "Now I'm a contact?"

"Sure, why not? Back home, we have a police lieutenant and a couple of detectives who are happy to help us out when they can. Why should you be different?"

"Catherine." It was Vincent, speaking up for the first time. "If it's true you cannot call upon the police..."

Reluctantly Catherine shook her head.

"...and it is also true that Clark and Lois have experience in this kind of investigation... I think you must let them help you. Lois is right, this man must be brought to justice. It can't wait."

Catherine hesitated a little longer, then gave in with a gusty sigh and a shrug of her shoulders. "Sure, why not? Let me get my briefcase from my chamber..."

She was back quickly, briefcase in hand. Vincent's round writing table took up the center of the room; she placed the briefcase there and opened it.

Vincent settled back into his pillows to watch. He seldom got to see Catherine working.

She was absorbed as she took folders and papers from the case and sorted through them. "Here," she said a minute later. "Here's the file on Lucille Callahan's death. Joe wanted me to back off while the police conducted their investigation, so I haven't spent a lot of time on it."

Clark pulled the file around in front of him and began to flip through it rapidly.

"Is Callahan the only suspect?" Lois asked.

"As far as the police are concerned, he's not a suspect at all."

"What? The man's brutal..."

"I know that, and you know that, and his wife knew that, but apparently his buddies on the police force don't."

"He enjoyed hitting us," Lois remembered.

Vincent saw Clark's fist go white at the knuckles. He supposed it was a blessing of sorts that he'd had only an instant in which to take in the details before the bullet from Callahan's gun felled him.

"This man is the one who shot me," he said aloud.

Catherine's gaze met his, nearly blistering him with its intensity. "I know," she answered, and Vincent understood that her determination to put this man away was magnified by what Callahan had done to him.

Clark went back to his perusal of the file.

"And he beat his wife so viciously she died of it," she went on. "It had to have been him. Why else wouldn't she have called for help?"

"The police report suggests she was too severely injured," Clark murmured, without looking up. He had several eight-by-ten photographs spread in front of him. "Is this all there is?"

"It's all I have with me; I should have gotten copies of the coroner's report, the forensic results, stuff like that, as a matter of course, but I haven't seen them yet. Of course, it's been a week since I was in the office. The reports are probably on my desk."

"I'd like to see those reports," Clark said. He set the police report and photos aside.

She sneaked a glance at Vincent. "I was thinking about going back to work tomorrow, anyway..."

Vincent forced a look of approval, though his heart pounded at the idea of her going above when he was too weak to protect her.

"Lois and I have to work tomorrow, too," Clark said. "But tomorrow evening, maybe we could meet you somewhere..."

"Right here is good," Catherine answered quickly. "I'll be coming down to see Vincent, and of course you live here now..."

"Okay, we'll meet here," Clark agreed. "After work."

"After supper," Vincent interjected.

"After supper, sure."

"I'll bring everything I have on the case," Catherine promised. "We can all go over it."

Clark looked at Lois, who had picked up the police report and was absorbed in reading it. "Is that okay with you?"

He had to ask again before she looked up with a blank, "Huh?"

He reiterated the plan. "Is that okay?"

"Yeah, I guess so." She glanced down at the police report in her lap. "Clark, are you sure about Stevens backing off on finding Ginny?"

"Not completely sure, no," Clark answered, sounding surprised. "Why?"

"Because if I were him, and I was still interested in finding my wife, I'd still be looking for the last person who saw her."

"Oh." His gaze, like Vincent's, went to Catherine.

"I'll be fine," Catherine argued. "I'm only going to the office, I don't have anything scheduled in court this week."

"But you have to get to and from the office," Clark said. "Lois is right, it could be risky."

"I'll be fine," Catherine insisted.

"Callahan took us right off the street in front of the courthouse," Lois reminded. "Stevens probably still has Callahan to help him. They wouldn't have to be particularly creative to get to you even inside the Criminal Justice building. I've been kidnapped in all sorts of ways, so I know."

"I have to go back to work." Catherine's voice was low; Vincent could feel her determination. His heart quailed, but he kept his silence. Lois, apparently, was on his side.

"I know," Lois said, and from her expression, she did. "I'd feel exactly the same. But maybe you ought to take along some protection."

"My gun...?" Catherine guessed.

"I was thinking of something a little more personal. Like a bodyguard."

Catherine's glance went to Vincent, who struggled to keep his face impassive.

"Much as I hate to volunteer for this," Lois continued, "I'm thinking I should handle the Sentinel tomorrow by myself. Clark can go to work with you."

Vincent let out a long-held breath at the suggestion. Clark would be perfect. He would never let anything happen to Catherine, and he was the only man Vincent knew who could do a better job of protecting her than he could himself.

"Go to... no. I don't need a babysitter."

"It's not babysitting." Lois sounded very serious. "It's more like... being careful. Watching out for yourself. In this case, by letting Clark watch out for you. Vincent couldn't come to you if you got into trouble right now, and think how awful we'd all feel if something happened to you..."

Clark's expression showed something very like disbelief, and Vincent could sense it as an undercurrent through the haze of determination from Lois and stubbornness from Catherine.

"I know how weird this is, me advising caution," Lois told Clark in an aside. "Call it a temporary aberration."

Clark grinned. "And here I thought you were maybe turning over a new leaf..."

"Nope. Not a chance." She looked back at Catherine. "What do you say?"

"Okay!" Catherine sounded annoyed. "Okay, Clark can come to work with me tomorrow. Though I have no idea how I'm going to explain him to Joe."

*****

None of them stayed in Vincent's chamber much longer; it was getting late, and all of them were tired. Now, Clark lay beside Lois in the privacy of their own chamber. She breathed in the quiet rhythm of sleep and he wished he could join her in slumber, but tonight the smallest, most insignificant sounds made themselves known to him. Water dripped steadily a couple of passages over; small, cautious feet - mice, he guessed, or maybe rats - scurried along a wall. Nearby sleepers murmured and snored and mumbled. Somewhere farther away, a couple were making love...

He turned over, trying to shut out the sounds. He hated intruding, even when he couldn't help it. The small sighs and whispers, the creak of a bed, all served to trigger memory. At least he and Lois had finally found the opportunity to take advantage of their new bed and privacy. He put out a gentle hand and stroked a finger down her cheek. She sighed and rolled toward him, draping an arm around his waist. He pressed his cheek against the top of her head and breathed quietly, loving her.

After a while, a new sound intruded. He couldn't quite identify the dry scratching noise, but it came from the direction of Vincent's chamber. He narrowed his focus. In fact, it most likely came from inside Vincent's chamber. Another crisis? But Vincent had seemed so well just a few hours earlier. Carefully he disengaged himself from Lois's embrace and slid from the bed.

Accustomed to his leaving unexpectedly in the night, she merely sighed and turned over, burying her face in the pillow.

Clark dressed silently, quickly, and hurried out.

The glow of many candles reached from Vincent's chamber, spilling into the corridor outside. Clark paused there, listening. There was only one heartbeat, slow and steady, the quiet rustle of fabric as someone shifted weight or posture, and still the dry, irregular scratching. He hesitated, then called out, careful to keep his voice low.

The scratching stopped. The heartbeat accelerated. "Who is there?" Vincent's voice, low and cautious.

"It's me," Clark answered. "Clark."

Again the rustle of fabric, louder this time, and footsteps. Vincent, looking startled, appeared in the doorway. "Clark? It's very late..."

"I know. I'm sorry if I'm disturbing you. I heard something and thought I'd better check..."

"Heard...?"

Clark was starting to feel foolish now; clearly there was nothing amiss here. "A kind of scratching noise. I couldn't place it..."

"You heard this all the way from your own chamber?"

He squirmed; it made people uncomfortable to know how much he could hear. "Um, yeah," he admitted, finally. "Sorry."

"Don't be." Vincent stepped back from the opening and gestured him in. "I thought I was the only one who could hear things happening from far away."

Clark stepped past him, into the chamber. A book, its right-hand page pristine, the left half-covered with sharp, spiky writing, lay open on the table. "It was you," he said. "You were writing. But what kind of pen makes that sound?"

"A fountain pen." Vincent held it out for his inspection. "I'm sorry if it disturbed you."

Clark shook his head. "Most times, I can shut it out, shut it off. But once in a while..."

"And tonight was such a time."

Clark nodded.

Vincent offered the ghost of a smile. "Don't tell Father; such things upset him."

"I won't... I didn't hear anything I shouldn't... not much, anyway."

"I trust your discretion, Clark," Vincent answered. "But as we're both wakeful, will you join me for a cup of tea?"

Tea and a bit of companionable conversation sounded great. "Sure."

Vincent lifted a shiny copper kettle and set it on an iron grate over a coal-burning brazier. "It will take a little while for the water to heat."

Clark gestured him back. "Let me..." He aimed a moderate burst of heat vision at the kettle; it obliged with a rattle of the lid and a gout of steam from the spout. "There."

Vincent's glance seemed one of admiration. "You did that the same way you cauterized my wound."

Clark nodded.

"I can see such a gift could come in handy at times." He poured the steaming water into a china teapot and replaced the lid. "The tea will take a moment to steep... unless you have a way to hurry that along, as well?"

Clark laughed. "No, that's got to happen on its own." He took the offered chair. "Should you be up?"

"Not according to Father," Vincent answered. "But I'm much stronger this evening. I have always healed quickly."

"I'm not sure quickly is the word for it," Clark answered. "I'm impressed."

"Don't be. It is not something that requires any effort on my part - it simply is."

"Yes." Clark knew what that was like. "So why are you awake and writing in the middle of the night?"

Vincent sank into the chair opposite and shrugged. "I've slept so much the past few days," he said. "Healing. Now, I find myself unable to rest."

"What are you writing?" Clark looked toward the open book.

Vincent reached out and closed it, then glanced at Clark curiously. "I suppose you could still read it if you wanted to."

"I could, but I won't. If you don't want to tell me what it is, you don't have to."

Vincent sighed. "It's just my journal. I was recording my thoughts, my feelings. Trying to make sense of them. Trying to find some resolution..."

"Resolution?" Clark hesitated. Surely Vincent had friends he could talk to. He didn't have to bare his soul to someone he'd known only a few days. But on the other hand, could any of those friends truly understand what it was to be different? He wasn't sure what he should do. "Does writing help, when you're like this?"

"Sometimes," Vincent said. He poured tea into mismatched cups and handed one to Clark. "I could easily envy you, Clark Kent."

Clark accepted the cup and sipped carefully at the tea, a soothing herbal blend. "Why?"

"Because of all the things you have..."

"That you don't?" Clark finished the sentence. "But you have so much, Vincent."

"And yet there are things I have never known... things I ache for, sometimes... the touch of a mother's hand. To know where I came from, who I am. Why... I am."

"Oh."

Vincent's expression had gone distant and unfocused. He seemed unable to stem the stream of longing. "To be able to love Catherine as she deserves to be loved... as she longs to be loved..."

Clark shifted in his chair, bringing Vincent's gaze and attention back to the present.

"I'm sorry," he began. "I didn't mean to..."

Clark stopped him with a raised hand. "No, it's okay. I'm sorry I can't help you out with a mom... you'd love mine, she's terrific. She'd like you, too, once she got over..."

"The initial shock?"

"Well, it's kind of hard to shock a woman who raised a kid who floated in his sleep," Clark answered, grinning. "But yeah, I guess that's what I mean. And I don't know any more about your origins than you do... but that last thing..."

"Is the most impossible," Vincent finished, in a whisper. "I know this."

Clark rocked forward in his chair. "Well, I'm not so sure. I've been where you are, remember? Trying to love a human woman, when I know I'm not human. Can never be human. No matter how hard I try."

"Yes." Vincent's expression showed not the slightest glimmer of hope.

"I made a lot of mistakes when I was courting Lois," Clark went on. "One of them, a big one, was forgetting that a relationship is two people, a partnership. I tried to make decisions for both of us - in what I thought at the time were Lois's best interests - without consulting her. She was furious, and for a while I was afraid she'd never forgive me. I'd hate to see you make the same mistake with Catherine."

Vincent seemed about to say something, then checked himself. When he finally did speak, Clark had the feeling it wasn't what he'd originally been going to say. "Catherine... does not react in anger."

"The way Lois does," Clark finished for him. He let the unspoken comment pass. "No, she doesn't seem to, does she? But it's hurting her, the way you keep her at arms' length."

Vincent's gaze sharpened. "Did she tell you so?"

"No. But she's talked with Lois some. And I think it's pretty easy to see."

Vincent bowed his head. "How can I put her at risk?"

"In our universe, Lois is at risk every day, just because she knows me," Clark said softly. "She's been threatened, kidnapped, hypnotized, tied to bombs, pushed out of airplanes..."

Vincent's head came up; his eyes were wide with alarm. "Bombs... and airplanes..."

"So far, I've gotten there every time... in time. But it terrifies me to think that one day I might be too late."

"I know that fear. But I have as much fear... for what I might do to her with these." Vincent studied his hands with an expression that might have been loathing.

"Maybe," Clark suggested, keeping his voice very soft, "you should fear what you might do to her heart. Because if you keep on the way you have been, always pushing her away when she gets too close, someday it may be too much, and you'll lose her."

"But she'll be safe."

"There's more to life than physical safety," Clark said quietly. "Much, much more. For both of you."

"If she left, perhaps she would find a man, a better man..."

"She can't do that, Vincent. She won't. Any more than you're going to find a better woman; any more than I am. We aren't the kind of people who love easily, carelessly. When we love, it's deeply and completely, and for always. Isn't it?"

Vincent let his breath out in a long sigh. "Yes. Always..."

"So maybe you just need to talk to her about this. About loving each other."

"She will say she doesn't fear me."

"She doesn't. You didn't see her when you were delirious. Everyone else kept back, but not Catherine. She came right to you. She knew you wouldn't hurt her. And you didn't."

"Because you were holding me," Vincent countered.

"No. You started to quiet even before she touched you. Just because she was near. Once she did touch you, you completely relaxed. I could... and did... let go of you right away. After that, if you got restless, all she had to do was reach out. You knew it was her, even in your delirium, and you couldn't hurt her. You never will."

Vincent's eyes were very wide, and full of sudden, impossible hope. "If only I could believe that..."

"You can," Clark answered firmly. "You have to."

*****

Long after the candles had been extinguished, Vincent lay awake, staring into the darkness. The things Clark said had given him brief hope. If he could be sure of not hurting her...

Only in the silence did the shadows in his soul return to haunt him. He was a creature of the night. He killed... and gloried in the killing. How could he touch Catherine in love with the same hands that had slain in blood?

*****


Continued in part 3