By Sheila Harper (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Summary: Lois and Clark have been married for a few months, but marriage certainly hasn't cooled the passion between them. As they discuss their plans for a weekend together, a shocking interruption occurs that will change their lives forever, and it takes all the love and determination and creativity they possess (as well as some helpful suggestions from their mothers) to put their lives back together. Be warned: The story starts with a serious WHAM, and the resolution of the A plot contains a little bit of violence (a very little bit).
Author's note: This story starts with a serious WHAM, but don't worry: I love WAFFs as much as the next person, and when I borrow someone else's toys, I try to return them in the same shape that I found them. The characters in this piece are the property of December 3rd Productions, WB, and ABC, but the rest of it is mine, so please do not redistribute this without my permission.
From the roof of the apartment building across the street, the couple could be clearly seen in the colored glow of the Chinese lanterns that were hanging around the sidewalk cafe. They were relaxing over dinner and wine, their newly married status apparent in their frequent touches and easy laughter. Attractive, young, and visibly in love, they drew smiles from other customers and passers-by alike.
Crouched on the roof, Whitman was smiling, too, a grim expression that promised retribution, and he touched the rifle at his side the way the man across the street touched the woman's cheek. "Soon," he whispered.
Clark Kent watched his wife with tender amusement, enjoying the play of colored light on her satiny camisole top as she moved. Lois was enumerating the reasons they couldn't go away for the weekend, but the sidelong glance she gave him would have told him she was teasing, even if her exaggerated list hadn't made it clear. "… and paying bills and washing the windows and getting out my spring clothes and then dry cleaning and packing up the winter ones. And we probably ought to air out the mattress and pillows—no sense wasting such nice weather—"
"I agree." He reached across the remains of the pu pu platter to take her left hand and press his mouth to each knuckle. "And while they're airing, we can go on a picnic."
"A picnic? You mean where you sit on a blanket in a patch of poison ivy and eat cold fried chicken and warm potato salad and fend off ants and someone's muddy dog and huddle under a tree to get out of the rain?"
Clark grinned. "Personal experience, Lois?"
"There's a reason I don't do the outdoors thing."
"You just didn't have the right person along. I know this great little spot in the mountains: grassy meadow, big shade trees, no weeds, no bugs—no people or pets—"
"Accessible only by helicopter—" she lowered her voice—"or Superman?"
"You got it. And chicken and potato salad are okay for a family outing, but …" He hesitated. "Actually, I was thinking more of 'a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.'"
"Omar Khayyam. I haven't read that since high school." She studied his strong hand covering hers, and a tiny smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. When she glanced at him from under those impossibly long lashes, the look in her sultry, dark eyes ignited him like a torch. "Should I bring along my seven veils?"
The smile lines deepened in his cheeks. "You do and we'll never get around to lunch."
"Just how private is this place?"
"Like being at home behind a locked door." Clark cupped her cheek with one hand, tracing the outline of her lips with his thumb. He leaned across the table, his dark gaze hot enough to scorch her. "Except I'll be able to see the sun on your hair and taste it on your skin."
As his mouth approached hers, Lois murmured, "What happened to the man who was embarrassed to kiss me when other people were watching?"
Grinning, he brushed his lips over hers. "He got married."
Her laugh was soft and throaty, a puff of air across the inch separating their mouths. "I'd have asked you sooner if I'd known it had that effect." She closed the space between them with a brief kiss.
A murmur of pleasure rumbled in his throat. "I don't know—I think waiting was good for us. It gave us a chance to work some things out so that when we finally got together, it was—"
Desire flared in his dark eyes. "That, too." He sobered and brushed away a strand of hair that was stuck to her cheek. "I meant, very special."
When he met her gaze again, her eyes were liquid with tenderness. "Clark—"
He closed his eyes as his lips touched hers, and his fingers curved around the back of her head to draw her deeper into his kiss. God, he loved the feel of her soft mouth moving against his, the sound of her little sighs and moans as he kissed her. His control began to disintegrate, and his breathing quickened as their public, if loving, kiss became heated and engulfing.
Lois eased her head back, drawing a wordless sound of protest from him. "Let's wait," she whispered, "until we get home."
He took a deep breath to agree—and lost his resolve when he saw her flushed cheeks and kiss-reddened mouth. His hand tightened on the back of her neck, and she leaned toward him—then jerked and fell sideways across the table just as Clark heard the whine of a bullet and the distinctive crack of a high- powered rifle.
"Lois!" He vaulted across the table to shield her from another shot, and the hand he placed on her back grew slick with blood. Clark moved his hand and scanned her injury. Tears blurred his vision, but he saw enough. Moving her wasn't going to make any difference now. As a crowd assembled, he slipped away and, returning as Superman, gathered Lois gently into his arms and lifted into the air.
Clark was alone in the surgery waiting room, pacing restlessly as he spoke into his phone. He had shed his jacket and unfastened the top button of his dress shirt, loosening his tie a couple of inches. "I already called Sam and Ellen, and they're on their way." Since his and Lois's first attempt to get married, her divorced parents had been doing more things together to support her.
"Have you heard anything?" Martha asked.
"No. The doctor hasn't come out yet." He lowered his glasses to run a quick x-ray scan of the operating room, then shoved them back onto his nose. "They're still working on her."
"Honey, do you want us to come to Metropolis?" his mother continued.
"I wish you were here now." He had to swallow twice before he could go on. "But I'm not sure it'd do any good for you to come out. By the time you get here, Lois'll be out of surgery and recovery, and you probably won't even see me. 'Cause I'm not leaving her until she's—" his voice cracked and he started again— "until she's out of danger."
Jonathan's slow, deep voice came on-line. "Son, you know we'll do whatever you want."
"I know, Dad. It's just—I feel so helpless. I'd do anything—give anything—to keep Lois safe, and now … There isn't anything I can do. I can't even be with her until she gets out of the O.R." Clark's breathing was uneven as he struggled for control, and he took off his glasses and pressed his fingers against his eyes.
Jonathan changed the subject. "Do the police have any leads on the person who did this?"
The rage Clark had buried since Lois was shot burned past his fear and grief. "No, they—they think it's some random gang thing. But I'm going to find out who it is—and when I do—" A movement caught his eye, and he broke off. "Just a minute, I think it's—" He turned back to the phone. "Mom, Dad, I've got to go. Lois's doctor's here."
Drifting in the dark … It was like one of those dreams where she couldn't open her eyes. The alarm kept beeping, but Clark didn't shut it off, and she couldn't feel his shoulder under her cheek or his strong arms around her. She sighed, wondering what disaster had called him away this time, and she opened her eyes reluctantly.
Instead of the painted bricks of their bedroom wall, Lois was greeted by dim lights and beeping, humming machines. Her dry lips formed a "what?" but she didn't voice it before her eyelids fell shut again. She was awake this time, though, trying to make sense of what she had seen. A hospital? An emergency room? What had happened?
Her eyes opened—slowly, so slowly, and they didn't seem to have any other speed. Some kind of hospital bed, she was sure of it. And somewhere, pain waited—or the memory of pain, but she couldn't think about that now. Not until she knew what was going on. Her gaze slipped down her arm. Monitor wires, IV tubes … and tumbled black hair against the white gauze of a bandage.
The tension poured out of her muscles. He was here. Whatever had happened, they would face it together. Lois whispered, "Clark."
He jerked awake, as if her faint murmur had been a clarion call in his dreams. "Lois?" He looked up to see her watching him, and he smiled, joy replacing the exhaustion in his face. "Sweetheart."
Her eyelids fell shut, but she tried to smile for him and tell him how she felt. "Clark … you're here."
He smoothed her hair away from her face, and then she felt the warm touch of his lips on her cheek. "I won't leave you, Lois." His voice was a husky whisper, and he kissed the palm of her hand and placed it against his face. "Go to sleep, honey. I'm here. I'm right here."
Funny, she thought, her thumb was wet where it touched his cheek. She started to ask Clark about it, but the languor that weighted her eyelids silenced her voice, so she drifted until the warm dark took her back.
No more gentle drifting up out of sleep. This time, a monster came for her, claws tearing into her nerves. Lois erupted from the painless dark into hot, red agony. A moan ripped past her clenched teeth. She tossed her head, writhing away from the coals burning in her back— —Except, nothing happened.
Shock nearly overrode the pain in her back. She pushed with her legs and she didn't move. Nothing moved. And her legs … She couldn't feel the sheet touching them.
"Lois, honey, try not to move," Clark said, laying his hand on her cheek in that familiar gesture of love and support.
She opened her eyes to see his beloved face a few inches away. "Clark—my legs—" Her voice sounded hoarse and unused, and the pain flared up again so her words tightened into a groan.
Eyes closed, she didn't see the muscles clench in his jaw as he reached for the call light, didn't see the despairing helplessness in his eyes. But she felt his lips touch her forehead and heard him respond to the intercom with, "She's awake, and she's hurting."
Lois fought her way out of the red, dark pain and opened her eyes again. "Clark—"
He didn't change his expression quickly enough, and what she saw in his face was the confirmation she didn't want. "What happened?"
His dark eyes searched hers while he stroked the hair away from her face; then he bent and kissed her gently. "You were shot, Lois. And the bullet hit you in the back."
Her eyes filled. "I can't feel my legs."
He swallowed repeatedly. "I know. The bullet severed your spinal cord. You were in surgery for … hours, but the doctors couldn't reconnect it."
"I'm not going to walk again, am I?"
He hesitated, and she wondered if he were under orders not to talk to her about it. "Tell me. I'd rather know."
She had seen that look in his eyes once before: when he had agreed to freeze her. "Probably not."
A plump nurse, comfortable in a brightly colored Rugby shirt, bustled into the room with a hypodermic in one hand. Clark moved out of the way as she checked Lois's pulse and blood pressure, injected the medication into one of the IV tubes, and added a notation to the chart. Looking up, she noticed him and smiled suddenly. "Oh, good. You can give me a hand turning her."
Following the nurse's instructions, Clark turned Lois from one side to the other, with no bending or twisting. Then he lifted her the same way and set her back in the center of the bed while the nurse tucked pillows around her to support her.
"There," the nurse said at last and turned to eye him thoughtfully. "You must be pretty strong to lift her at arm's length like that."
He shrugged. "I guess. But she isn't very big, either." His smile glimmered briefly as he looked down at his wife, whose small hand clung to his large one as if to a life preserver.
"Well, Mr. —?"
"What? Oh—Kent. Clark Kent."
"Mr. Kent, visiting hours in the ICU are for ten minutes at the start of every even hour. Since it's seven a.m., it's time for you to go to the waiting room. You can come back at eight."
"I'm not leaving my wife." Clark didn't use that voice very often, but it was effective even without the blue-and-red costume.
The nurse hesitated. "Mr. Kent, she needs rest, and having you here will just keep her awake."
Whether the painkiller was beginning to work or she had finally recovered from being moved, Lois felt up to joining the conversation. "Please, I want him to stay."
He glanced at the nurse's name tag. "Evelyn. I wouldn't do anything that might hurt Lois," he said, his thumb stroking the back of his wife's hand. "I just want to stay with her."
Evelyn was no more immune than any other woman to Clark's particular combination of earnestness and devastating good looks, and she gnawed her lower lip in indecision. "Don't tell her doctor I said you could."
His smile thanked her, and he sank into the bedside chair when she left. "I thought she was going to call security to throw me out."
Lois didn't respond to his lighter tone. "Clark, what're we going to do?"
He answered seriously. "What we've always done, Lois: face what we have to and find a way to beat it."
"What if—what if there isn't a way to beat it?"
Clark kissed the slender hand that gripped his. "Then … we'll find a way to live with it. Together."
Lois had fallen asleep again, this time with her cheek pillowed on his hand. Clark watched her with a faint smile; then he pulled out his cell phone and dialed the familiar number with his thumb. "Hello, Jimmy?"
"Yeah, CK. How's she doing?"
He hesitated. "She came through surgery okay, and she's sleeping now… Jimmy, I need you to track something down for me."
"See if any of the news or police helicopters got footage of the area around the cafe last night."
"Why? —oh, I get it. Maybe someone got a picture of your shooter."
"If we're lucky," Clark said. "Tell Perry that the school privatization story is on my computer if he wants to run it today."
"He's out right now, but he'll be at the hospital in a couple of hours, so you can tell him then… CK, I'm really sorry about what happened. Tell Lois that we're all pulling for her."
"Thanks, Jimmy." After they hung up, Clark closed his eyes for a minute and rested his head on the edge of Lois's bed. It had been a long night.
But he had another call to make. "Hello, this is Clark Kent from the Daily Planet. I want to talk to the officer investigating the Lane shooting."
"You do come in handy at times," Lois said as Clark scooped her up from the bed.
Her high-spirited courage made him ache with love and tenderness, and he held her close and kissed her.
"Mmmmmm … What was that for?" she asked.
He smiled and set her into the wheelchair. "A man likes to be appreciated."
After three days in the dimly lit ICU and another day under the indirect lighting in her room, the hallway seemed almost too bright. Clark pushed the wheelchair past the nurses' station, greeting several nurses by name as they rolled by.
Lois mentioned it as they continued down the hall. "What is it that makes people open up to you?"
"Small town friendliness, probably." He paused to speak to an elderly woman who was sitting in a chair by her bed. "It's good to see you up, Mrs. Gracechurch."
"Thank you, Clark. Did you bring your pretty wife to visit me?"
He smiled. "Just to say 'hi.' This is her first time up, and the doctor doesn't want her to get too tired. Mrs. Gracechurch, this is Lois."
As Lois murmured, "Pleased to meet you," Mrs. Gracechurch said, "Aren't you the prettiest little thing? No wonder they can't pry Clark away from you with a crowbar." She leaned toward Lois and whispered, "That boy thinks the sun rises in your eyes."
Eyes shining with laughter, Lois looked back at Clark, who was studying the ceiling and pretending he hadn't heard. "Thank you, Mrs. Gracechurch. I'll have to come by again when I can stay longer."
The older woman's "bye" followed them down the hall as they continued toward the atrium. "You look cute when you blush, Clark."
He rubbed his offending cheeks. "I don't blush."
Lois smiled to herself but didn't contradict him. Marriage had taught her that she didn't need to have the last word if she was right.
In the squalid rented room, Whitman opened the Daily Planet and poured over the police report. Halfway down the page, he sucked in his breath with a furious hiss and stabbed his finger at the offending paragraph. "No!"
He crushed the paper between his hands. "She can't be alive!" he howled. For eight lonely, bitter months after Sophie's death, he'd clung to the thought of his vengeance, and now that had been frustrated, too.
Maybe it was a sign. Maybe murder was too easy— the survivors didn't blame themselves. Not like suicide. Oh, God—not like suicide …
By the time they reached the atrium door, Lois's face was as white as the blanket over her legs. Clark locked the wheels and squatted down beside her so he was eye-level with her. "Should we go back to the room?"
She leaned her head back against his arm. "No. I want to go in where I can see the sun and get away from all those beeping, clicking machines."
"Can you sit up that long?"
Lois smiled faintly and traced a finger across his muscular shoulder. "I wasn't planning to sit."
Inside the two-story room, sunlight poured from a wall of south-facing windows, and groupings of potted trees and plants made a garden of the space, creating little zones of privacy. Clark steered the wheelchair toward the back of the room and laid Lois onto the couch. "How's that?"
"Well … actually I was thinking of a more solid— maybe even steely—backrest."
He grinned as he easily raised her and slid between her and the seat cushions. It felt good to tease her again and even better to set her between his legs so she lay against his chest. He tightened his arms around her and kissed her temple.
Lois relaxed against him, secure in the cradle of his arms, and waited for the pain to die down after all the moving around. Clark didn't press her to talk but contented himself with nuzzling her hair and face. After the horror of seeing his wife shot, it seemed little short of miraculous that he could still hold her and touch her silky hair and soft skin with his lips. "I love you, Lois," he murmured against her hair.
"Oh, Clark." His tenderness made her want to cry. Being loved by him was the most wonderful thing that had happened to her; how could she bear it if— But she couldn't voice her real fear yet, not even to herself. "I don't know how I can keep being a reporter if I'm in a wheelchair."
He answered as if he had spent some time thinking about it. "Honey, it's that clever, quirky, dogged brain of yours that makes you a brilliant reporter, not your legs… Your legs are—pretty spectacular, but you don't write with them."
Her expression lightened a little at his compliments. "But what about our undercover stuff?"
"You'll still do some of it. And I'll do what you can't." He felt her protesting movement and continued, "That's what we've always done anyway. 'I fight the bad guy; you write the story.' Remember?"
"That was a long time ago."
"Back when you used to like being on top?" he added, pointedly looking at her lying on him.
Remembering that first assignment with Clark, she smiled. "I'd almost forgotten that." She turned her face toward his shoulder and whispered, "We've done so much together… Clark, what if you—if you—get tired of a wife who … can't walk?"
"Oh, no, no, Lois—" He saw that no protest would convince her, and he managed a quick smile. "Lois, I don't mind that you can't fly. Why should it bother me if you can't walk? Besides—" he kissed the side of her neck— "it gives me a good reason to hold you."
Instead of smiling, she was quiet for a long moment. "I never thought of it that way. To you, all of us must seem—" She gestured toward the wheelchair. "You're so strong. And fast. Physically perfect. And I—I can't even feel anything below my waist. Clark—" Her voice broke into sobs, and she covered her face with her hands. "I don't think I can do this."
Clark held her and let her cry, and his heart broke for her even while his buried rage blazed up. What could he say to fix the unfixable? When her weeping finally died away, he said, "Sweetheart, you're the bravest, most competent woman I've ever met. You'll do what you have to. And I'll be there—I'll *always* be there for you."
Lois raised huge, tear-drenched eyes to him and smiled tremulously, her breath shuddering on little sobs. "Smartest, loveliest—now bravest and most competent, too. No wonder I married you. You think I'm perfect."
He closed his eyes and hugged her, moved to tears by her gallantry, but he couldn't refuse the gift she gave him. "Perfect? I don't know," he teased. "'Headstrong' and 'foolhardy' aren't on *my* list."
She tipped her head back and smiled, more naturally this time, and he bent forward to kiss her. As their lips clung together, Clark brought up one hand to support her head while his other hand slid from her waist to settle possessively below one breast.
"Clark," she murmured against his mouth, "you make me forget we're in public."
"Are we?" He captured her lips with five days of pent-up longing.
"Lois, there you are—oh!"
Clark lifted his head, his mouth still positioned to kiss her, and met his mother-in-law's scandalized eyes. "Definitely in public," he muttered and unobtrusively eased his hand down to Lois's waist. "Hi, Ellen." He nodded to his father-in-law, who was hovering behind one of the potted trees. "Sam. We didn't expect you so early."
"So I see," Ellen said.
"Hello, Mom," Lois said. Her muscles tightened to move, and Clark clamped an unyielding hand on her shoulder.
"Don't," he said softly. "You're fine where you are— unless you're starting to hurt."
"Not yet," she murmured, while her mother burst out, "Lois, what are you doing? You just got out of intensive care after being *shot*, and here you and Clark are, sprawled on the couch, groping like a couple of teenagers at a drive-in!"
"Mom, you do have a way with words," Lois said, and Clark murmured, "Groping?" and rested his cheek against hers.
"Sam! Come here and talk some sense into these two!"
Sam Lane shuffled forward. "Now, Ellen—Lois is a grown woman and she knows what hurts her and what doesn't. And if she thinks she's comfortable laying on Clark, then she is." He smiled at the younger couple. "Besides, all I saw was a little kissing, and that never hurt anyone. In fact," he added, taking advantage of the chance to share a home-truth with his ex-wife, "being kissed more often might do some people good!"
Ellen had drawn a breath to continue her tirade, but Sam's retort stopped her short. Clark turned to Lois with eyebrows raised in inquiry. She shrugged slightly—and winced.
"Is it time to go back?" he asked.
"I think so."
Sam turned at their low-voiced exchange and frowned at what he saw in his daughter's face. "Let me give you a hand." He supported her back while Clark slid out from under her, then adjusted the reclining wheelchair and held it when Clark set her into it.
"I told you this gallivanting around wasn't a good idea," Ellen said.
"Mom, I'm just a little tired, and it's about time for another painkiller."
"Honey, I'm going to talk to your doctor," her father told her. "I have a couple of ideas that will have you on your feet and walking in no time."
"Daddy—please. I don't want to be a cyborg." Lois's face was wan with increasing pain, and she looked to Clark for help.
"While I'm getting Lois settled," he said, "could you stop by the cafeteria and get some coffee? I sure could use a cup."
For all his history of familial neglect, Sam was quick to pick up Clark's implication that Lois didn't like her parents seeing her in pain and being handled like a baby, and he shepherded a protesting Ellen out the door. "We'll be back in fifteen or twenty minutes."
"Thanks," Lois breathed when they were gone.
Clark smiled, pushing the wheelchair out of the atrium. "That's what husbands are for."
Whitman slowly pushed the cleaning cart down the hallway, head drooping like some tired old man. In his coveralls and stolen ID tag, he blended into the background of the busy hospital, and he took advantage of his invisibility to do some reconnaissance. He stopped outside room 418, gathered a few cleaning supplies for the bathroom, then knocked on the open door. "Housekeeping."
When he stepped inside the room, he was greeted with a woman's laughter. "Clark, you're cheating!"
"I don't cheat. I'm just a better poker player than you are."
"Oh, yeah? Then why are your glasses halfway down your nose?"
"Not to look at your *cards*."
Whitman ducked into the bathroom to escape that soft feminine giggle. This was the third time he had checked out her room, and he was beginning to feel frustrated. Kent's wife was never alone, not for long enough to kill her and set up a believable suicide, and if she kept laughing and acting cheerful, no one would believe a suicide, even if he managed to set one up.
He raised a fist to strike the mirror before him but thought better of it. If he were patient, his chance would come. Sooner or later she would leave the hospital, and then he would get her, and justice would finally be served. Kent would know what it was like to lose his wife, too.
After the janitor left, Clark picked up a file folder and handed it to Lois. "What's this?" she asked.
"Everything I've dug up on the shooting."
She pulled out a dark, grainy 8 x 10 photo. "An aerial shot…" She squinted at the picture. " … of the cafe?"
"And the building across the street. If you look here, you can—at least, *I* can—see a man lying on the roof. And this—" he pointed to a smaller dark blur— "looks like a rifle of some kind." He lowered his glasses and studied it with his enhanced vision, but he shook his head in defeat. "That's the best I can get out of it."
"That's more than I can see." Lois looked up from the picture to meet her husband's eyes squarely. "What you're saying is that someone was lying in wait for us—for me. And he's still out there."
"Yes." As Lois picked up the typed copy in the file, he continued, "That's the police report. They didn't find anything. No one saw anything or heard anything."
"So all we've got is a picture of an unidentifiable man."
"And this." Clark pulled a plastic bag out of his pants pocket and held it out. "I found it on the roof last night after I got the picture from Jimmy.
"A rifle cartridge? Did it have any fingerprints or anything?" She held it gingerly, trying to examine it without touching it.
"A couple of smudges. I thought Sergeant Zymeck might run it through the FBI files for us."
She studied the base. "Union. Is that a common kind of shell?"
He nodded. "You can buy them at hundreds of places in Metropolis. Jimmy's tracking down lists of purchasers for the last three months."
"You'll have a stack four inches thick. So, who's going through it?"
"You're the one who was shot—"
"—so one of the names might mean something to me. I guess it beats watching soaps when you go back to work."
Clark looked up quickly. "How—?"
"Perry told me after you talked to him."
"Do you—do you mind?"
Lois stroked his chin between her thumb and forefinger. "How can I when I'd give anything to be back at the Planet myself? I'm so much better that you really don't have an excuse to stay here any more. Besides, I think it's time we started getting back to normal—or something like it."
"That's pretty much what Perry—" He broke off, raising his head to listen to a news bulletin on a radio in the next room.
"What is it?" Lois asked.
"A fire in an apartment building … Some people are trapped. Lois—"
She pulled his head down for a quick kiss. "Metropolis has been without Superman long enough. Go." She slapped her hand down on Clark's file so the notes wouldn't scatter everywhere in the wind of his passing. "Back to normal," she murmured.
Yeah, she thought. Like anything was ever going to be normal again. Like she was ever going to be a full partner with Clark again—at work or in their marriage. Not only would he be running off and leaving her when someone needed Superman, but she could look forward to the same thing at work: "Sorry, Lois, I have to meet a source—or visit the crime scene—or whatever."
Without Clark, the room seemed too quiet, too empty, and in the midst of the impersonal bustle of the hospital around her, it looked like life wasn't going to be worth living for a very long time. Unfair though it was, she was furious with Clark for not keeping her safe, and she wished he had let her die rather than live like this. The tears that Clark's loving presence had kept dammed up spilled over, and Lois started sobbing, hating herself, pitying herself. No one came, and the long night stretched out endlessly.
"All right, Lois. Again," Tracy directed.
Lois bit back a snarl and tasted the salty sweat on her lips. After three hours of physical therapy, she was exhausted, but she already knew that Tracy wouldn't let her stop for something as trivial as being tired. "My back hurts."
"It will for a while. You haven't used it for a month, and you're not used to this kind of activity. Come on, Lois. You've got to improve your upper body strength, and it's not going to get any better if you just sit there looking at me."
Lois managed to swallow a scream of rage, but the snarl slipped out. "I *hate* you."
Tracy shrugged, her strong hands supporting Lois. "A lot of people have told me that. Now pull yourself up. We still have half an hour till noon."
A little after seven that evening, Clark walked quietly into Lois's hospital room, that day's copy of the Daily Planet folded in his hand. When he saw her, he stopped, and his mouth curved in a tender smile. She sat in a halo of light in the otherwise dark room, a pencil tucked above one ear while she read the computer printout Jimmy had brought over. She made a notation on the page, then sighed and, looking up, saw his shadowy silhouette in the doorway. "Oh, Clark, you're here!"
The delight on her face drained away his bitter sense of defeat, and he quickly crossed to her side and bent down to kiss her. "Mmmmm … I've been wanting to do that all day," he said against her mouth.
"Me, too." When he drew back to sit down on the edge of her bed, she continued, "What *did* you do today?"
He handed her the folded newspaper. "Take a look."
Lois opened it and found a rose tucked in the fold. She smiled, her mouth twisting a little like she was fighting tears. She was *always* fighting tears. "So that's why you were late."
Clark took her hand and laced his fingers between hers. "That, and a robbery."
"How did it go?"
Regret darkened his eyes. "I got the bad guy—" he took a deep breath— "but I was too late to keep him from shooting the store owner. He's—he's downstairs in the E.R. right now."
She placed a gentle hand on his cheek. Just before their engagement, she had had Clark's powers for a few days, and she still remembered the pain of knowing that people died because she hadn't been fast enough. "Clark, I'm sorry."
"I wish—bullets weren't faster than sound. By the time I hear the shot, it's too late. No matter how fast I am." He turned to kiss the palm of her hand, and she saw the shine of tears in his eyes. "Like with you."
He needed what only she could give him: a safe place to share his defeats, to face and accept his limitations, knowing he'd done what he could. But his failure to protect her had hurt him at a level that she couldn't reach. "Clark, don't do this to yourself. I know you would have taken that bullet yourself if you could have. Don't feel guilty for not being God."
He drew an unsteady breath, then leaned forward and kissed her. "Thanks, Lois. I guess I need to hear that sometimes." He nodded toward the newspaper on her lap. "Tell me what you think."
Nothing had changed. He had just pushed the pain and guilt and feelings of inadequacy out of sight again. But she couldn't force him to deal with it, any more than he could come to terms with her disability for her, so she let him change the subject and began reading his article. "This is a good piece, Clark. No wonder Perry led with it." She put the paper down. "I wish I could get back to work. I haven't been this idle since … since I was in grade school."
"I know. Lane and Kent isn't the same without both partners on the job. But … I thought you were starting rehab today, and from what I've heard, those therapists are real slave- drivers."
"You heard right. I was beat. But rehab ends at noon, and they expect me to sit in my room and watch television for the rest of the day. Clark, I'm nearly done with the list Jimmy brought, and I'll go crazy if I don't have something to do. Is there any word on those fingerprints?"
He shook his head. "No, I've been calling Zymeck twice a day. He's dodging me like a crooked politician." He thought for a moment. "But as far as something to do … I could bring your laptop and cell phone tomorrow, and you could start after therapy."
"Our next story. You can do the phone interviews and confirmation calls, and I'll e-mail you Jimmy's research and my notes so you can start writing it up."
The blazing joy in her face threatened to blind even his Kryptonian eyes, and she flung her arms around his neck. "Oh, Clark, I love you."
He gathered her into his arms, cradling the back of her head with his fingers. After a month in the hospital, she felt so tiny and fragile that he was almost afraid of breaking her. "Ditto—my little tornado."
Her short laugh broke on a sob, and Lois tilted her head to look into his eyes. "You really understand, don't you?"
A faint smile pulled at one corner of his mouth. "Like you understand my chronic do-gooding."
She buried her face against his neck. "Clark … I want to go home tonight."
He was already shaking his head. "God knows I miss you, but, Lois—you're not ready yet."
"I don't mean, to stay. I mean, go home at night with you and come back in the morning when you go to the Planet."
Clark frowned uncertainly, and she continued, "They're trying to rehabilitate me for life outside this place, so they should be glad to let me get some more practice. And it's not like I'd be home alone."
"You would be if I'm called out as Superman."
"I'll yell for help if I need it. Your hearing works as well as their call lights." Her big dark eyes were pleading. "Clark, please. I want to sleep in your arms again."
Desire blazed to furious life in his blood, and he swallowed hard, struggling for control. Holding out against something Lois wanted was hard enough without pressure from his treacherous body. "Lois—"
"Besides, I'm sick of hospital food at every meal." She gave him her best lost-little-girl look. "I miss your cooking."
Clark laughed, releasing both sexual and emotional tension. At least he knew his Achilles heel. "All right, Lois. You win. We'll ask your doctor about it when he comes by tonight."
The next evening, Clark carried Lois from the bathroom and gently set her down in their bed. Arms still locked around his neck, she smiled up at him. "I didn't realize you were as good at putting my nightgown on as you are at taking it off." When her teasing only provoked a quirking of one corner of his mouth, she dropped her bantering tone, and her voice shook. "It's hard, isn't it?"
"Taking care of me like a baby."
He sat down on the edge of the bed and smoothed her dark hair behind one ear. "No. I like doing things for you. I mean, I've been cooking and cleaning for you for months." Smiling, he gave her a brief kiss and stood up. "Speaking of which, I need to pick up the bathroom. I'll be right back." Her puzzled look was lost on his retreating back.
In the bathroom, Clark wiped out the tub and hung up towels, but the ache in his groin didn't diminish. He started to hang up Lois's robe when her gentle scent wafted from it, and he buried his face in the satiny folds. God, he wanted to take her in his arms and welcome her home properly. Be thankful for small mercies, he told himself. At least he could hold her again, and after their chaste engagement, he should be used to dealing with the frustration of celibacy.
Her soft call drew him irresistibly to her side, where she took his hand. "Come to bed. I don't want to sleep alone anymore."
"Lois …" Stripping off his clothes, he slid into bed beside her and took her in his arms. Her body was soft and yielding against him, her hair sweet-smelling next to his face, and she nuzzled his shoulder as she found a comfortable place to lay her cheek.
"Goodnight, Clark," she whispered.
Trying to quiet his thunderous heartbeat and ragged breathing with her slender hand on his chest was like trying to stop an earthquake. It was going to be a long night.
But then Lois added, "I love you," and it didn't matter anymore. They had survived trials that would have broken most people and relationships, and they would survive this one. He kissed her forehead. "I love you, too."
"Uh, Clark, you and Lois are doin' what?" Perry's southern accent seemed to grow stronger with incredulity.
"We're working together on the chief-of-police resignation story." Clark indicated his computer monitor and phone. "You know—telecommuting."
Perry, who still thought of computers as fancy typewriters, shook his head and retreated toward his office. He stopped and turned around. "I want that copy on my desk before you leave tonight."
A few steps further, Perry stopped again. This time, he was smiling to himself. "Clark, you and Lois pull this off, and I'll take out ads announcing that the best news team in the business is back in business."
Clark was already dialing Lois's number, but he nodded. "We are."
Whitman poked his head around the door of 418. "Housekeeping," he announced. The old man continued to snore softly, his thin body barely lifting the covers above the mattress. Whitman stumbled out of the room, his mind in turmoil. Forgetting his cart, he approached the nurses' station. "What happened to the pretty lady in 418?"
The busy nurse didn't even glance up. "Mrs. Kent checked out yesterday."
Checked out? This was what he had been waiting for. Whitman abandoned his cleaning cart in front of 418 and strode down the hall, stripping off his ID badge and stuffing it in a trash can by the elevator.
From the corner of the living room sofa, Lois addressed the whirlwind clearing the table and washing the dishes. "After Tracy finished torturing me, Meagan decided that I should work on cooking meals and washing dishes from a wheelchair. I asked her why I should do it now, when I never did before."
Clark slowed down and handed his wife a glass of wine. The kitchen and dining area were spotless. Sitting next to her, he stretched his arm behind her on the back of the couch and dropped a kiss on her dark head. "What'd she say to that?"
"That it was about time I learned."
He laughed and reached for his wine glass. "She didn't take 'no talent' as an excuse?"
"She wouldn't even let me off when I said I had a really terrific husband—" she pressed a kiss against his rock- hard shoulder— "who handled the cooking and cleaning." Lois sipped her wine and leaned back against his arm. "I finished the list of ammo buyers today, but I really didn't find anything. I mean, I recognized a few names, but none of them are people who might be angry at me."
"Let me take a look." Clark got up and crossed to Lois's desk, where he picked up the stack of purchasers' names and scanned through it at super-speed. He frowned. "There's one name …" He stared at the floor, trying to bring up the memory. "It was a story I wrote …" He shook his head. "But I can't …"
The doorbell rang, and with a shrug, he put on his glasses and took the stairs two at a time and opened the door. "Sergeant Zymeck," he said, surprised.
"Hello, Kent." The police sergeant held out a sheaf of papers. "The results of the FBI check on those prints you found. I was in the area, so I thought I'd drop them by."
Zymeck turned to go, then looked back. "We've been looking, but your man's vanished into the woodwork with the other cockroaches."
Clark closed the door after the plainclothes officer, shaking his head thoughtfully. As he started down the stairs, he looked up and saw Lois's expression. "So, what'd you have to do with this?"
"You're the only one here with cream on your whiskers." He flipped through the file and handed it to her.
"Well, he's been so uncooperative lately that I wondered if there might be a reason. So I called him and … said we were doing a follow-up on the police chief scandal. You know, what investigations had been stone-walled, that sort of thing."
He bent down and kissed her. "Blackmail, Lois?"
She smiled and returned his kiss heartily. "Do I look like the kind of person who would blackmail a police officer?"
"Never." He sat down so they could go over the file together. "Whitman—Ralph Whitman—that's the name I recognized from the other list."
"And his fingerprints are on file because … because he did some jail time over a retirement scam."
Clark nodded. "I wrote an expose uncovering the operation. Michael Brenton was the big gun—his plan, his profits. I didn't remember much about Whitman because he was one of the little guys, more involved in the legitimate front than the scam."
"Then how'd he end up in prison?"
"Brenton convinced the police that Whitman was a silent partner, and the evidence seemed to support it. But it seems like there was something more—just a minute." He got up and turned on his laptop, then tied in to his computer at the Planet. "That's what I thought. Just before he was released from prison, his wife committed suicide."
"Clark, you don't think that he's taking revenge for her death, do you?"
"Going after you to get back at me? It sounds crazy, but he could be." He sat down beside her and sighed. "If he's staying away from his old friends and haunts, we may not be able to track him down unless we get lucky."
Lois kept her eyes down as if she were reading the file. "If nothing else works, we can try luring him to us."
"No!" Clark tipped her chin up so he could look at her, his expression fierce. "He came within an inch of killing you, Lois. I'm not going to let him have another chance."
Her gaze slid away from his. "It was just an idea."
"Everything you do starts that way." His voice softened. "Lois, I love you. I couldn't bear … to lose you. Please."
What aggressiveness and orders couldn't do, his gentle pleading did. She stroked his cheek, her mouth twisted in a smile as she tried not to cry. "You know, you don't play fair, Clark."
He bent toward her, his mouth an inch from hers. "This is too important." He captured her shuddering sigh in his mouth, and for a little while, they forgot the world outside.
"What do you mean, you don't have anything? Bobby, you're just not trying. How hard is it to find one ordinary man?" Lois asked, fingers clenched painfully on the phone.
"Harder than you'd think. This guy's climbed into a hole and pulled it in after him… 'Sides, you haven't been very openhanded lately."
"Bobby—" She sounded exasperated. "I'd offer you my lunch, but I'm not sure even you would eat it." She poked the rubbery gray meat with her fork.
"Hospital food? You're offering me hospital food? And you want some information?"
"Tell you what—you get me a location, and I'll buy you a gift certificate to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet."
"Deal." And he rang off.
Lois pushed her tray out of the way and buried her face in her folded arms. Bobby's sources had struck out, and Clark had checked every place two inventive and desperate minds could come up with. He'd interviewed nurses who'd been delighted to help such a sweet, romantic, handsome man, and he'd followed up on the cleaning cart abandoned in front of her old room, the mysterious janitor. But they had still drawn a blank. The blurry mug shot was no help. No one around his old haunts or at the convenience store where he purchased the shells or around the hospital or their apartment recognized it. It was as if Whitman had vanished from Metropolis.
But that crawly sensation up her back—what Clark called her investigative reporter's instinct—told her that they were under surveillance, that Whitman was staying close. And for all her bravado about luring him into a trap, she was terrified of facing him.
God, she wanted Clark: his comforting arms; the calm, reassuring presence she had always run to when she was hurt or afraid. She looked at her watch. It was hours before he was due.
And they had work to do. Resolutely, she picked up her phone and dialed the Planet. If she couldn't see him, at least she could hear him. "Clark Kent, please."
With a practiced motion, Lois turned her chair to face the doorway and pressed the call button for the nurse to take her tray. "Clark Kent," she heard in her ear. She smiled and answered, "Hi, stranger. What's Perry got for us today?"
Her skin was warm and silky under his lips and had that salt-sweet taste that was uniquely Lois. He traced the soft curve of her throat with his mouth, while her hands slid up and down his back and neck, clutching his head closer to her. Her little moans of delight mingled with his, and they panted, mouths clasping and parting and dragging hungrily across each other's face and neck. Her clinging, stroking hands on his body kept his desire wild, and hot waves of pleasure exploded through him—
Clark woke up abruptly, his heart slamming in his chest, his body a clenched ache of longing. He lay still in the dark, trying to sort out what was real and what was dream. Lois's gown was twisted around her waist, and one of his hands pressed her into the cradle of his hips, while the other cupped one of her breasts.
He slowly withdrew his hands and rolled onto his back. It was getting worse each night. Floating slightly, he eased out of bed and put on his Superman suit. Maybe some laps around the planet would burn off his sexual energy. He started to slip away, but a backward glance at his wife's face changed his mind. He bent down to kiss her sleep-warm cheek. "Lois, honey, I'm going out for a while," he whispered. "I'll be back soon."
Her voice was blurred with sleep. "Be careful."
He kissed her again, and an instant later, a sonic boom rocked the apartment. The bedroom curtains swayed, and a streak of gray, pre-dawn light fell across the bed and glinted on tears slipping down Lois's face.
Whitman watched the front door of the apartment building, wishing for the thousandth time that Kent was the athletic sort. An early morning jog would be the perfect opportunity to get to his wife and finish this business. But Kent never showed his face until it was time to take her to the hospital, and then he never left her side until she was in her therapists' care.
Whitman still didn't know what had made them suspicious, but Kent had been sniffing around and twice had come uncomfortably close to his hideout. And now this: a dawn visit from Superman. The Kents were supposed to be good friends with that alien do-gooder; maybe they had asked for his help.
Superman was more than he could deal with, and Whitman started his car. One thing was for sure: he wouldn't be going to the hospital again. Patience, he told himself, was the key. If he waited long enough, they would get careless, and then he would be ready.
"Hi, Dad." Clark floated gently down beside his father.
Jonathan Kent jerked, startled, and the cross-rail he was repairing the corral with slipped from his arms. "Clark! What're you doing here? Did you bring Lois?"
"No." He caught the rail, picked up a few fencing nails and absently tapped them into place with his finger. "That's kind of—I mean, I wanted to talk—to ask you—" Clark stumbled to a halt and raked his hand through his hair. "It was a lot easier planning this on the way over."
"Would it be easier to talk to your mom?"
"Ahhhh." Jonathan nodded wisely. "Son, what's happening between you and Lois that you can't talk to your mom about?"
"Well, it isn't so much what's happening—as what's not happening." Clark picked up another rail and nailed it where his father indicated.
"You haven't—um—slept together since she was hurt. Is that it?"
"Sort of. I mean, she's been home—with me—every night for the last month. But we haven't—" Clark paced several steps away, and when he turned back, he looked at the ground rather than his father's face. "Dad, I want her so much it hurts. But she still has to take something for pain some days, and …"
"And you're afraid it's too soon, but you feel like you're going to explode if you don't do something."
He lifted his dark-eyed gaze to Jonathan's face. "Yeah," he whispered. "Or worse. I dream about her—us—" He broke off. "It's like sleepwalking. I've started acting out my dreams. So I thought maybe I should sleep somewhere else."
"You can't make a decision like that on your own, son. Talk to Lois. She loves you and—"
A new voice entered their conversation. "And she'd rather know what's going on than imagine all kinds of horrors. Hi, honey."
"Oh, Mom, hi—" Clark bent down to give his mother a hug and hide his blush. "What do you mean, 'horrors'?"
"That you pity her … or don't want her … or are repulsed by her … or—"
A hurricane roar of wind followed by a sonic boom covered the rest of her words. Sweeping her hair out of her eyes, Martha moved into Jonathan's arms. "Do you think Friday would be a good night to have them over for supper?"
From the hospital hallway, Ellen heard Lois yell, "And if I need something, I'll use the call light!" A sharp thud punctuated her statement. A nurse pushed out the door at the same time Ellen reached it, and the two women nearly collided. "Excuse me," Mrs. Lane murmured, but it was to the nurse's stiff, outraged back.
Maybe this wasn't a good time for a visit. She peeked around the edge of the door … and saw Lois staring at her laptop computer, a look of bleak misery on her face. Ellen's hesitance fell away. "Oh, Lois—what's wrong?"
Lois looked up and tried to hide her expression behind a social smile. The nurse wasn't the only one who'd felt the raw edge of her temper. If she didn't stop exploding at Clark, she was going to drive him away, and who could blame him? "Hi, Mom. Did you hear my fight with that nurse?"
"Just the end of it." Ellen picked the cell phone off the floor and handed it to Lois when she sat down in the recliner near her daughter's wheelchair. "What were you so upset about?"
"Thanks." She started to explain, then shrugged. "She was trying to clean up my 'mess'—" she indicated her computer and notes— "and get me to take a nap."
"So? Isn't that what nurses do?"
"I don't know—I guess. It wasn't what she actually said but how she said it. Like I was some poor, helpless cripple." She blinked away tears angrily. "I can get used to the chair. I'm not sure I can get used to the way people treat me." She saved what was on the screen and snapped the lid shut. "Mom, do you think of me as a cripple?"
"Of course not, Lois. None of the people who love you do."
"I think … I think Clark does." Maybe that feeling was what was triggering her tantrums. Tears welled up in her big, dark eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
Ellen got up and put an arm around her daughter's shoulders. "What makes you say that? He's always thinking of ways to get you back into your normal life."
"I know, but …" She took a deep breath and said the words in a rush so she wouldn't start crying again. "I've been home at night for a month, and he still hasn't touched me. What with the chair and the catheter and having to take care of me like a baby, I don't think he … he finds me attractive anymore." Her voice wavered on that last, and she bit her lower lip to stop the wail waiting in her throat.
Ellen used her "mother knows best" voice. "Lois, that's ridiculous. Don't you remember that day in the atrium? He didn't look like a man who was having to *force* himself to touch you. Not to me, anyway."
"I think he forgets sometimes, and then … when he remembers, he pulls away, and it's like … like …" She covered her face as a sob broke from her throat and tears started streaming from her eyes.
"Oh, sweetie." Ellen held her crying daughter, rocking her gently and murmuring nonsense to comfort her. She wished Sam hadn't sworn her to secrecy about the project he and the neurosurgeon were working on. But, irritatingly, he was right: raising false hopes would be worse than anything. Yet even if it did work out, knowing about it would keep Lois from dealing with her situation now. Then she would never know if Clark really had lost interest in her or not. Better to find out before kids were involved, Ellen thought cynically.
When the storm finally died down to snuffles and shuddering sighs, Ellen handed Lois some tissue and a damp washcloth and waited for her to regain her composure. "Have you told Clark that your doctor has okayed it?"
Lois shook her head, confused. "Mom, what are we talking about?"
Ellen patted her daughter's hand. "It just occurred to me that maybe Clark's been waiting to get an okay from the doctor before he … you know. You *have* talked to your doctor about it, haven't you?"
Sudden hope gave way to determination, and Lois pressed the call light. "Not yet. But I'm going to change that right now."
Smiling, Ellen sat back in the recliner. At least Lois was going to deal with it. And maybe Clark really was holding back for fear of hurting her. She hoped so … for Lois's sake.
Lois leaned against Clark's shoulder while he played with the silky hair at the nape of her neck. The coffee table in front of the couch was littered with empty boxes of Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine. She took a sip from her glass. "Do you want to watch a movie?"
He swept the bangs out of her eyes with a gentle finger. "No. I want to take you dancing."
She looked down at her legs then back up at him, her eyes dark and troubled. "Dancing?"
Sliding his hand along her cheek, he kissed her upturned face. "I've told you before that that earth-bound stuff isn't dancing." Clark set down his wine glass and got up to turn on the stereo, and the soft strains of "Fly Me to the Moon" filled the room. He returned to the couch and held out his hands. "Would you like to dance?"
Smiling, Lois placed her hands in his. "Yes."
He lifted into the air, and they pressed close as they drifted with the music, his jaw against her temple, their clasped hands against his chest.
"Mmmmm … I've always loved flying with you," she said.
"I love taking you." Then he heard what he'd said and added, "Flying … and any other way I can get you …" He lowered his head to trail kisses from her temple to the corner of her mouth, interspersing them with mention of places where they'd made love. " … on the couch … in the shower … on the beach … in the clouds …"
Her mother was right, after all. Lois felt like melting with relief. So when Clark would have captured her mouth, she touched a finger to his lips to stop him. "I need to tell you something," she said, brushing a kiss along his chiseled jawline. "I talked to my doctor today … and he and I both think it would be good for me to be more … active."
He closed his eyes against the image that filled his mind, but that only made him more aware of her body pressed against his. He had staged this evening to assure her that he wanted her, not to lose all control and throw her down on their bed. "Lois … "
"We discussed weight training and swimming, but I decided that I wanted something more *one-on-one*," Lois said, emphasizing each syllable separately. While that sank in, she trailed her fingers from his strong shoulder, down the hard curve of his chest, and over the washboarded stomach muscles that clenched at her touch. She paused at the snap of his jeans and smiled into his hot, dark eyes. "I don't know, I was thinking of … pumping iron with the Man of Steel."
Her double entendre left Clark speechless as laughter and lust and appreciation of this woman he had married fought for control. "Oh, God, Lois—" he finally managed and kissed her.
She giggled, her lips still touching his as she asked, "Does that mean you'll help?"
Between kisses, he answered, "Yes!" and drifted into their bedroom.
For all his eagerness, Clark set her down on the bed as if she were fragile, priceless china, and he only let part of his weight rest on her. Lois tore her mouth away from his. "No fair flying if you're not taking me, too."
He laughed and strung a line of kisses down her throat as he settled his body fully on hers. "We should practice a bit … before we try acrobatics again," he said.
Lois turned her head to one side to give him better access to her throat while she raised the hem of his muscle shirt to his chest and upper back. "Practice away."
Lois held her husband tightly in her arms, feeling the thunder of his heart against her breasts as he relaxed onto her. She had delighted in the sweet torment of his lovemaking, but pleasuring him satisfied her on another level, and she rained kisses along the curve of his high cheekbone. "I love you, Clark," she murmured.
He sighed and lifted his head. "Lois." He said her name like a prayer and kissed her, long and lovingly. "It hasn't been like that in a long time."
The love in his eyes brought a painful lump to her throat, and she resisted the tears by teasing him a little. "It's just *been* a long time. Good thing we hadn't forgotten what to do."
"Forgotten?" He grinned and play-nipped at her neck. "Forgotten?"
"Well … you were the one who said we needed to practice—ooops!" Lois cried, clutching his shoulders frantically as she suddenly found herself lying on top of Clark, three feet above the bed. He held her hips securely against his, and the hot light in his eyes told her that he wasn't finished practicing. "Are you okay?" he asked, searching her startled expression.
She relaxed and, cupping his face in her hands, kissed him. "Very okay. Show me how to fly, Clark," she whispered.
He lifted one hand to the back of her head and deepened their kiss, his tongue thrusting between her parted lips and tangling with her tongue until she was moaning into his mouth. He was on fire for her, burning out of control, and he broke off the kiss to trace a wet trail down her throat. His breath warm and hurried on her skin, he promised, "I will," and the heat of his mouth swept away every thought except their desperate need to possess each other beyond any possibility of separation or loss.
They lay entwined in each other's arms, sleeping heavily, while outside the window the eastern sky lightened to pearl. A distant cry for help reached the silent room, and Clark awakened instantly, lifting his head to listen. He sighed and kissed Lois on the mouth.
She stirred at his touch. "Clark … ?"
"I have to go, honey," he whispered.
Reluctantly, she released him. "If you can get out of bed after last night … you *must* be Superman…"
He grinned and got up, spinning into the blue-and-red suit, then took off in a rush of wind. Behind him, she buried her face in his pillow and, comforted by his lingering scent, drifted back to sleep.
When Clark returned, Lois was fixing bacon and pancakes at the table on the electric griddle. He came up behind her, gently grasped her shoulders, and bent down to kiss the side of her neck. "Isn't coffee and juice your idea of breakfast?"
"Yes," she said, "but I thought you might be hungry." Her nose crinkled up. "Ick. What's that smell?"
Clark sniffed his hands and blue-clad arms. "Sulfuric acid. A tanker tipped over on the freeway. I cleaned it off, but … just a sec … "
He zipped away, and Lois heard running water in the bathroom. She had flipped the pancakes and lifted the bacon onto paper towels to drain when a pair of strong arms slipped around her waist. "Is that better?"
He kissed her cheek, and she looked over her shoulder at him. Clark wore a towel around his hips, and water drops glistened on his graceful, muscular body. She swallowed and managed, "Much better."
He cupped the side of her neck with a large, masculine hand, and his dimples deepened. "If you keep looking at me like that, those pancakes are going to burn."
"Not after I went to the trouble to fix them! If you'll get the coffee and juice, we can get started." She looked up to see his dark eyes twinkling merrily, and she added, "Eating breakfast, farmboy."
After they ate, Clark put the dishes in the sink and washed off the table. "It's nice to be able to finish a meal together once in a while," Lois said. "Whatever we're doing, it seems like we always get interrupted, except … " She frowned thoughtfully. "Except … when we're making love." She tilted her head, puzzled. "Why is that?"
Shrugging, he said, "I don't know. I don't seem to notice anything but you then." He traced a finger over the outline of her lips and smiled. "Maybe I just keep my hearing tuned to you … so I don't miss any of those cute little sounds you make."
"I do not."
"Mmmmm … You do." He bent over, hands braced on the wheelchair armrests, and kissed her. As their kiss deepened, Lois sighed, a soft murmur of pleasure which Clark echoed. Impatiently, he scooped her up and carried her to the couch, their lips still seeking each other's hungrily. He set her down on his lap and cupped her face between his hands while he continued to kiss her.
After a heated moment, she giggled and drew her head back. Clark blindly sought her mouth for another instant; then he opened his eyes. His breathing was uneven, his gaze urgent and aroused. "What?"
Lois shook her head, laughing to herself. "And I thought you didn't want me any more."
To clear his head, he took a deep breath. "Not want you? That's what my mom said you'd think." He shook his head in disbelief. "Lois, I've been *dying* for you."
She buried her face against his throat. "That's what *my* mom said."
They looked at each other for a long moment as they both realized what the other had said. "We didn't talk to each other …" Clark began.
"… but we talked to our parents. I know. I can't believe it either." Lois caught the corner of her bottom lip in her teeth, her eyes huge and dark. "I was scared," she admitted. "Scared that you were repulsed by me … physically …"
"Never." He kissed her hair and eyelids and cheek and throat. "Never, never."
"… but didn't want to hurt me by saying so," she finished.
He considered that for a moment. "I felt bad," he started slowly, "for even thinking about sex when you … when you were so hurt … and then …"
"And then?" she prompted when he stumbled to a stop.
"… and then I felt like … an animal … for wanting something so much when you couldn't even feel it," Clark said in a rush, looking away.
Lois laid a slender hand against his cheek and tilted his face toward hers. Tears glittered in his gentle brown eyes. "Clark, don't. I still enjoy making love with you. You make me feel beautiful and sexy and … it feels *really* good and … and I love touching you and being able to … please you." She brought her other hand up to cup his face. "You crazy man. Don't you *dare* go all noble on me."
He smiled as she had intended and turned to kiss the palm of her hand. "Honey, I'm sorry. I keep promising that I won't be overprotective, and I keep finding new ways to do it."
"And I keep saying that I'll trust you and open up, and …" She shook her head. "Old habits don't just go away, do they?"
"I guess we keep trying, and maybe by the time we're old and gray …" He sighed and hugged her tighter.
She stroked the side of his face, noticing that he had shaved when he showered. He smelled of soap and the light scent of his aftershave. "Clark … ?"
"Are you okay with this?"
"This whole wheelchair thing."
He answered her as seriously as she had asked. "I'd give anything if it hadn't happened, but I'm not going to stop loving you—or wanting you—just because your legs don't work like they used to."
It was her turn to fight back tears. "How do you know the right thing to say to me?"
"Mr. Always Right … remember? You said you felt sorry for my wife."
"I was crazy."
He gathered her closer in his arms and kissed her throat. "So we're a good match. Both crazy."
"Mmmmm … both something," Lois said, trailing her hands down his back and bringing them up his chest where she rubbed her palms over his solid pecs.
The phone rang, evoking identical groans of frustration from husband and wife. Clark reached for the cordless phone while Lois planted kisses along his collarbones, so his greeting was distracted. "Hello … Oh, hi, Bobby."
She lifted her head sharply. "Does he have something?"
Nodding, he held up one hand. "Are you sure? … okay … yeah, sure, whatever you worked out with Lois … all right. Tonight. Bye."
"He's found Whitman?" Lois demanded.
"Someone who knows him. Oh, and you're supposed to set up dinner at that all-you-can-eat seafood place. Tonight."
*** "What do you mean, I'm not going?" Lois was incredulous. "This is *our* investigation—yours and *mine*."
Clark paused to pull on a faded muscle tee. "Lois, you're too conspicuous in the wheelchair … especially in that area … and it wouldn't be safe."
"Is this how it's going to be? 'Sure, hon, you can work undercover. Maybe next time!'"
Frustrated with her stubbornness, he turned away, raking his hand through his hair, and she angrily threw a comb at him. He glimpsed the movement and flicked out a hand to catch the comb in midair. Her lips tightened at that unconscious demonstration of his reflexes and coordination. "Clark Kent, you may be my husband, but that doesn't make you my boss. You have no right to decide what I'm going to do or not."
"Lois, be reasonable. If Whitman's had us under surveillance, he knows you're in a wheelchair. What's he going to think if he sees us going into that diner?"
"That's absolutely ridiculous! What's he going to think if he sees *you* going in?"
"I have a better chance alone of getting in unobserved than we do together. It's not like we can get you unloaded and into the diner in a few seconds."
God, she hated it when he wouldn't be sidetracked from his logical arguments! If she had gotten him to react emotionally, she knew she would have won, but now … Damn her helplessness! She couldn't just go anyway when his back was turned, not when they hadn't moved to a wheelchair- accessible place yet, or gotten a car set up with a lift and hand controls. She was still working on transfers, and without his help, she was effectively grounded.
"Lois?" Her expression troubled Clark, and he wanted to comfort her, but he *couldn't* give in on this. Bobby Bigmouth had found Whitman's employer, a Pete Michaels who owned a diner in the Hobbs Bay area. Clark and Lois had gone to places in seedy neighborhoods a hundred times, but not when she couldn't protect herself or run for help. Memories of the chances she'd taken, alone and with him, flooded his mind, reawakening the sense of sweating, gut-wrenching fear he'd felt every time she was in danger.
And yet he'd let her go—or gone with her. So why not now? It *was* the chair, he reluctantly admitted. As much as he loved Lois, as much as he wanted her to be independent, he still saw her differently now. But if he insisted she stay on the sidelines, stay safe, their marriage would never survive her struggles to be free of the loving restraints that smothered her. He closed his eyes. It was impossible. "Lois …"
"Clark …" she began at the same time.
He gestured for her to go first; he still didn't know what to say, anyway. "Okay," Lois said, "you're right."
"About me being too conspicuous this time. There's no way you can sneak in with me along … and if we lose him this time, we may lose him for good." She waved him toward the door. "So, go."
He stared at her. This wasn't Lois-type logic … unless she was planning something.
She saw his disbelief and laughed briefly. "Clark, don't look so surprised. Sometimes even *I* can be reasonable." The laughter drained away, and she bit her lip, tears burning her eyelids. "We've been acting like this—" she gestured toward her legs and chair— "is temporary … like I'm just convalescing and sooner or later everything will be normal again… But it won't be … and I need to start facing that."
"Sweetheart." Clark gathered Lois into his arms and held her, her tears hot against his neck, his rough breathing shaking them as much as her sobs. They clung to each other, seeking and giving wordless comfort in their grief.
Lois finally drew back, half-laughing. "Oh, Clark, I love you … but I need a tissue … and you need to go meet Michaels."
He gently wiped away a mascara-streaked tear with his thumb. "I love you, Lois." After he set her down in her chair, he went to their room and returned with a box of tissue and a mirror. "You may want to make a few repairs," he said.
Her horrified gasp confirmed his suggestion, and Clark smiled to himself as he put on a pair of sunglasses and a backwards-facing baseball cap. Lois paused in her mop-up operation and looked her husband over critically. The ragged cut-offs, faded muscle-tee, and old gym shoes belonged to the Hobbs Bay resident he was trying to imitate, but on his powerful, athletic body, they looked like a fashion statement rather than the result of apathy or neglect. "*That's* your disguise?"
He looked down at himself, unaware as always of his very masculine beauty. "You think Whitman'll recognize me?"
Just because *she* couldn't mistake the smooth curve of his biceps or the swell of his pecs under his shirt didn't mean anyone else would notice. And since she had looked into both Clark's and Superman's eyes for two years without noticing anything, Whitman wasn't likely to connect this Hobbs Bay refugee with the usually dapper Clark Kent. "No, you're fine. Just don't wait around where he might see you."
Clark touched a finger to his cap and grinned. "Ay, ay, ma'am." He bent down to kiss her goodbye. "Yell if you need me."
"Be careful," she whispered.
The bedroom window overlooked Pete's diner, so Whitman always knew who was inside before he went to work. If he could have gotten by without a job, he would have, but the landlord was sticky about things like rent payments, so Whitman had to go outside, to make that much of a connection with the community. It made him vulnerable, so he was especially diligent about checking out the clientele before he went to work. He didn't like surprises.
Waiting for his shift, Whitman watched the street below through binoculars. It was a quiet day for a Saturday. Even at noontime, Pete didn't have many customers. So when the young man strolled down the street, Whitman zoomed in on him.
Dressed like any other guy on a hot summer day. Older than the gang bangers. Too healthy and active for the stoners. Might be an ex-con who'd spent his time in the prison weight-room … but he didn't walk like a con.
Whitman frowned. He didn't like people who didn't fit. Turning the zoom up to its highest power, he focused on the man's face—and caught his breath.
How had that nosy reporter found him? Whitman picked up his escape bag: a gym bag with a few necessities in case he had to run.
Then he set it down again.
This was it, he realized. Kent was out nosing around, and it was a *weekend.* No therapy for his wife. Whitman would never get a better chance.
He hurried downstairs and through the alley to his car.
The diner was dark, too dark for sunglasses, and Clark took them off. He made his way to the bar and said, "Where's Pete? I gotta talk to him."
The bartender shrugged. "He'll be back in a few. Whatcha drinkin'?"
Correctly interpreting that as a suggestion to order something or wait elsewhere, Clark ordered a beer and took it to a table in the corner. Cooking odors floated in from the kitchen, competing with the stench of old sweat and backed-up drains. Even Clark's stomach balked at the thought of eating in this place, and he let the beer in the indifferently cleaned glass grow flat while he watched a few customers drift into the diner.
Bored and restless, Lois switched on her computer. God, she hated waiting. Clark had always been better than she at stake-outs, with their hours of waiting: when he wasn't running off as Superman, he could be as patient and immovable as the earth. Her farmboy, she thought fondly, growing up with cows and chickens and crops that wouldn't be hurried, learning to wait while they grew or ripened or birthed on their own time schedules. A lifestyle light years away from her frenetic urban upbringing.
A very patient man, she had called him, and she smiled, remembering when he finally reached the end of his patience. Mmmmmm … *that* was a memory to savor, one that made her itch to have him in her arms again.
But that train of thought wasn't doing a thing for her restlessness. Lois decided to fix herself a cup of tea, and she shut off her computer and turned toward the kitchen.
A sound from the balcony stopped her. Maybe wishing hard enough *did* help. "Clark, did you have any luck?" she called.
The janitor from the hospital stepped into the kitchen, the automatic pistol in his fist pointed unwaveringly at her. "No, but I did," Whitman answered.
"Yeah, he works here. Kitchen help—washes dishes, mops floors, that stuff." Pete was a big man whose belly hung over his belt, and a cigarette slowly turned to ash in the corner of his mouth. Unconcerned, he let the cinders fall onto the floor and waited for Clark's next question.
"Will he be in today?"
Pete looked over his shoulder at the clock on the water-stained wall and shrugged. "Shift starts in 10 minutes."
Clark pulled a five from his pocket and paused. "Does he come in the back or the front?"
Eyes on the cash, Pete jerked a thumb in the direction of the back door, and Clark added another five. He handed the money to the owner, then returned to his seat in the corner. Fists clenched, he tried to control the eagerness and long- buried fury that welled up in him. He extended his senses to watch the kitchen and alley and listen to Pete talking with the man in the kitchen. He glanced at his watch. "Soon," he promised himself.
Her mouth was suddenly dry. "Whitman," she whispered. It was hard to see anything but the round black hole pointing at her.
"Smart lady," he said, advancing across the kitchen. Lois rolled back around the dining table, trying to keep it between her and him.
"But I forgot," he continued. "You're a nosy reporter like your husband." He said 'reporter' like it was the worst kind of obscenity.
Thinning gray hair; a pallid, unhealthy complexion; Whitman looked much older than the 45 she knew him to be. But the pistol was rock-solid in his hand, and his light eyes never left hers as he circled to her right. Lois kept turning to face him, wheeling back into the living room. She would have given anything to see Clark burst into the apartment, but she didn't dare scream for him, not if she wanted to keep living after the echoes died. Keep him talking, she thought.
"What do you want?" she asked.
He stopped stalking her for an instant and shook his head. "I'm disappointed in you, Mrs. Kent. I thought you were smarter than that." He started toward her again.
"Vengeance," she said.
Whitman smiled, his lips stretching in the most terrifying expression she had ever seen. "That's better, Mrs. Kent."
He was closer, and she couldn't keep the sofa between them. "Clark didn't send you to jail," she said, desperately trying to get through to him. "If—if anyone did, it was Brenton."
"And Clark didn't kill your wife."
"Shut up! *Shut up!* SHUT UP!" The veins in his face and throat stuck out like blue-green cords, and the gun came up, aiming for her face.
Lois closed her eyes against her death, and when she reopened them, Whitman was a little calmer, the gun back at waist level. "You don't know anything about it."
Clark followed Pete's voice into the kitchen, where he waited impatiently while the man finished telling a disgustingly obscene joke to the cook. Grinning at his joke as he broke across the cook's snorting guffaw, Pete said, "He isn't here."
"Do you have his address?" Clark felt an uneasy sense of urgency.
"Somewhere," Pete mumbled.
"Could you get it for me?" the younger man persisted.
Pete Michaels was lazy and disinclined to be helpful, a two-hundred fifty pound immovable object, but he was no match for Clark's irresistible force, and a few minutes later, Clark was outside the diner, address in hand. He should have been pleased, even excited at the thought of locating Whitman and removing the threat to Lois. Instead, he felt uneasy, like he was forgetting something important. Looking at the address again, Clark frowned, shuffling through locations in his mental map—
—and suddenly the sick feeling in his stomach made sense. Oh, God, it was the apartment building across the street. And he had casually walked in full view of those 4th floor apartments. He lowered his sunglasses to scan #406. Binoculars by the window, but no Whitman.
*Lois*! He dove into the nearest alley and rocketed into the air as a streak of red and blue.
"All right, Mrs. Kent," Whitman growled in triumph, yanking her head back by the hair at the back of her scalp. He brought the gun up to her right temple.
Lois froze. Once she realized he wanted to stage a suicide, she had done her best to keep her left side to Whitman, knowing that a rightie like her couldn't shoot herself in the left temple; therefore, he wouldn't shoot her there, either. But eventually he had tired of stalking her, and a swift leap put him directly behind her, in perfect position for a staged suicide.
Talking hadn't worked. Neither had avoiding him. That left going on the attack—and she only had an instant left. Tightening her right hand on the wheel of her chair, she yanked that wheel violently. The chair swung around, driving the right handlebar between Whitman's legs.
He let go of her hair to grab his groin, and Lois, panting with fear and adrenaline, ducked and reached for his gun hand. The unexpectedness of her attack worked in her favor, and she managed to get the pistol out of his hand.
But her luck gave out, and the gun spun out of her hands, across the floor. Whitman was already scrambling, crab- like, for it before she got her chair around the sofa. She looked for a weapon, a shield, *anything* to stop this maniac from shooting her. Nothing. She took a deep breath and screamed, "Help! *Superman!*"
Clark was hurtling through the sky like a missile when Lois's cry reached his ears. Fear wrenched at his guts. He focused his gaze on the tableau in their apartment, seeing the action like a slow motion tape.
Whitman was holding a gun on Lois, and even as Clark watched, Whitman's finger tightened on the trigger. Oh, God! Clark prayed, and he strained for every bit of speed he had.
Lois stared in horror while Whitman drew the gun down on her. She had run out of time. Barring a miracle, she was dead. Oh, Clark—
The balcony door smashed open, and the violent rush of wind nearly yanked her from the wheelchair as a blue-and- red streak flashed into the room between them and stopped at the foot of the stairs. Clark held the crushed gun in one hand and a flat disk of lead in the other, and he tossed them aside and advanced deliberately on Whitman. Simple, common actions for Superman, but the look on Clark's face terrified Lois. Even across the room, she could feel the fury burning through him. His eyes were almost red with rage, and he clenched and unclenched his fists as if he were squeezing Whitman's neck.
If he killed Whitman, he'd never be able to live with himself. "Cl—" she began, then coughed to cover her slip. "Superman, don't … please, don't give in to vengeance. Look what it's done to him."
He hesitated and slowly turned to look at her. "Please," she repeated, her soft mouth quivering.
Clark closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, his eyes were as hard as pebbles, but the scorching redness had died down, and Lois could see that he was in control again. He turned back to Whitman and shot forward in a blur too fast to follow. When Superman reappeared an instant later, Whitman was trussed like a chicken for roasting. Tossing the cordless phone to Lois, Clark said, "Call the police, would you?"
Lois and Clark sat in Dr. Trotta's office, holding hands as they listened to the neurosurgeon's offer to give them back their lives. "You do understand that this is a very experimental type of surgery, don't you? All the tests show that Dr. Lane's spinal splice should work perfectly, but we've never tried it on a human being."
Lois's hand was trembling beneath Clark's, and he squeezed it reassuringly. She raised troubled dark eyes to his, and he smiled and mouthed, I love you, then turned back to Dr. Trotta and asked, "What happens if it doesn't work?"
"Nothing. Mrs. Kent, you'll be no worse off if it doesn't work than you are right now. That's why I think you're the perfect candidate for this procedure."
"So you don't think there's any risk?" Clark persisted.
Dr. Trotta leaned back in his chair. "Other than the ordinary risk from any surgery? No."
Clark looked at Lois questioningly. They had already discussed their fears and wishes; it was her decision now.
Apparently, she didn't agree. "What do you think?" she asked in a low voice.
Memory of his father's voice stilled his instinctive protest: "Bottom line is, you make your decisions together." Clark gently cupped his wife's cheek with his free hand. Her skin was soft, and if he paid attention, he could feel the thrumming of blood under the delicate surface. She was so alive, so beautiful, so necessary to his existence. After so many threats to her life, how could he risk her needlessly?
How could he not? *He* was the one who had risked her life to free them from the Lakes' zoo. Was the injury that tied her to a wheelchair any less a prison than the cage had been?
His thumb stroked her cheek as his fingers curved behind her neck, and he smiled faintly. "Take the chance," he said.
Her eyes glittered with tears; her smile went awry. Regardless of their audience, Clark bent down and kissed her as he had wanted to when he first told her that taking a chance was what they were about. Her lips were soft under his, and they tasted of salt. He lifted his head and touched the tear track that ran to one corner of her mouth, then dropped his hand as she turned to look at Dr. Trotta. "When can we schedule the surgery?" she asked.
The open, dim room, the clicking and humming of monitors and medication dispensers: it was like reliving one of the nightmares he'd had for weeks after Lois was shot. Clark took off his glasses and set them on the edge of Lois's bed while he rubbed his eyes wearily. This second surgery had taken even longer than the first one, and when the doctor finally let him see Lois, she looked so pale and hurt and frail that Clark would have called the whole thing off if it had been possible. As it was, guilt and regret put a lump in his throat too big to talk around, and the nurses had given up trying to talk with him.
If only it worked. If only she hadn't gone through all this for nothing. Tears stung his eyes, and he lay his cheek against her motionless hand. The slow, steady throb of her pulse reassured him, and gradually he relaxed, his heartbeat falling into a matching rhythm.
Sometime later, her accelerating pulse rate roused him, and he raised his head expectantly. "Lois?" he whispered.
Her eyelids flickered. They opened, then fell shut again.
Clark tried again. "Lois, honey, I'm here." His hand closed around hers, and he felt her fingers flutter within his grasp. Her head turned toward him, and her tongue pushed against her dry lips. "Clark?"
He kissed her hand and stood up, and behind him, something clattered to the floor. "Damn." His glasses had fallen to the floor. Clark bent down to retrieve them, balancing himself with one hand on the bed.
He put his glasses on and turned quickly at her tone. "Yeah?"
"Your hand's on my leg."
He looked down. On her thigh, actually. "Yeah … ?"
"I can *feel* it!"
His head snapped around. "Oh, God, Lois! You're sure?"
She was nearly weeping with joy and relief as she nodded, and Clark tenderly cupped her face with both hands and kissed her, long and sweet. "Oh, honey, I love you … I love you," he whispered against her mouth, and this time, he didn't know if the tears he tasted were hers or his.
Lois laughed and cried, and all she could say was his name over and over until the painkillers reclaimed her. Holding his hand and smiling, she drifted back to sleep as the surge of adrenaline passed.
Clark collapsed into the chair by her bed. It was either sit or fly, and he couldn't bear to stop touching Lois long enough to fling himself into the sky in celebration. He smoothed an unruly lock of hair away from her eyes and leaned forward to brush a kiss across her cheek. His eyes blurred with tears again, and he closed them briefly. "Thank you," he murmured to Whomever was listening.
She was burning for him, sobbing his name as he pushed her to the edge and held her there, minute after minute. It was so intense it was beyond pleasure, and she dug her nails into his back, convulsing again and again, in turn driving him higher, helplessly out of control, as he carried her with him to that unending "now" of need and satisfaction and explosive delight.
Later, a long time later, Lois lifted her head from where she had collapsed against Clark's chest. Her body was still vibrating with the aftershocks of their lovemaking. "Oh, God, Clark … is that what it's like for you?"
He stroked her damp hair, a satisfied smile curving his beautiful mouth. He loved being able to give Lois some of the joy and delight she had brought into his life. She had completely recovered from the implant surgery, and she was as responsive as ever, maybe more so. His smile broadened into a grin, thinking about that responsiveness. "I guess so."
She felt his smile against her neck. Clark had a strong sense of the ridiculous, and he often laughed at things she didn't notice. "What's so funny?"
His voice was muffled against her skin. "Nothing." He turned his head to suck on her earlobe. "I'm just … happy." His hand slipped down her back and rubbed gently over her incision. "Are you okay? You were arching back pretty far."
She shrugged. "A little stiff. But Tracey wants me to do a lot of bending—both ways." She giggled. "And this sure is more fun than the exercises *she* gave me."
Clark grinned and kissed her, savoring the taste of her mouth. "Hmmmmm … I wonder if Perry would let us start coming in an hour later so you can get some … physical therapy."
Lois snuggled against him. "Mmmmm. You have great hands. No, don't stop. You know Perry: he'd probably ask to see your PT credentials." Lois idly traced her fingers over one hard pectoral muscle. "So, tell me," she began, smiling up at him, "at two positions a night, how many more nights would you say we have to go?
He considered it. "About three months worth."
She giggled again. "Clark Kent! Are you telling me that you know almost two *hundred* different positions?"
"I told you I was a speed reader." Lois swatted his shoulder, and he laughed. "Well, that's with all the flying variations and some repeats … for practice."
Lois snuggled back into his arms. "You and your 'practice.' How long is *that* going to take?"
Clark dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "About sixty or seventy years."
(never) THE END :)