By Shayne Terry <email@example.com>
Submitted: June 2001
Summary: Superman has returned, but Clark must deal with his sense of loss and a dangerous government conspiracy. Meanwhile, Lois heads for Metropolis, determined to take her destiny into her own hands.
Author's Note: I'd like to thank some of the best beta readers in the business. Wendy Richards, Dr. Klein's Labrat, Ann McBride, Jo March and Susanna (AnneOvena) gave their unflagging support, and they were quick to provide feedback, even when it wasn't convenient.
I'd like to thank Labrat again for helping inspire this with her own story "Are you Lonesome Tonight". While I might have ended up with something entirely different, my inspiration began with that story.
Jo March was there from the beginning, through the brainstorming sessions that eventually evolved into this story.
I'd also like to thank the readers at Zoom's Message Boards. I've been overwhelmed by the warmth of their response to this story. Their support motivated me to write far more than I ever expected, and their comments were both eloquent and enthusiastic. No one could ask for a more dedicated group of beta readers.
Rights to all recognizable characters in this story belong to DC Comics and Warner Brothers, and no infringement is intended by their use in this story. Other characters are mine.
Memory was both a blessing and a curse.
It had been nearly ten years since Clark Kent had visited his parents' farm and nearly twenty since he had lived there, but the place was still thick with memories. He landed silently in the midst of a pasture and began walking toward the barn.
He could almost see his parents in the window of the house, his mother laughing gently at a comment his father had made. His parents had loved each other, they had loved him, and that was something that he'd held close to his heart during the dark days that had come later.
He refused to look in the direction of the curve in the road leading to the house. The memories associated with that spot were too dark to contemplate. Today he wanted to remember the good things; he needed to remember his parents and the love they had given him. They'd taught him right from wrong, the responsibility of power, and a love for his fellow man.
Their influence had given him the strength to get through his teenage years. He'd drifted from family to family without love or hope that things would ever get better. He'd been happy on the Kent farm; as time had gone on, that happiness had become an increasingly distant memory.
The farm had become run down with the passage of time, like the memories he'd reached for less and less as time had gone on. It hurt to see the contrast between his life as it was, and what it had become.
Clark wasn't sure when he'd started wanting to run from his life, but the urge had increased when he'd met the Lois Lane of another world. He'd settled for the minimal emotional support that Lana had been capable of offering, believing that it was all he could reasonably expect after life. After all, people like his parents came along once in a lifetime. He'd been lucky to know them for ten years.
From the moment he'd met her, Lois Lane had turned his life upside down. He'd felt something for her that he'd never felt for anyone else, and even after she was gone he'd continued to feel a shadow of it. It was as though he could sense her across the boundaries of time and space; he could feel her in the distance. If the Lois Lane of his own world hadn't been dead, he might have ascribed another meaning to his feelings, but she was.
He pushed the door to the barn open. It hadn't held animals for many years, but the faint scent of years past was still detectable, even by a human nose. To Clark's enhanced sense of smell, it seemed as strong as ever.
Jonathan Kent had been a big man, and as a boy, Clark had felt that his father could do no wrong. As an adult, he knew better than to make his parents into saints; no person was perfect. He knew that his parents had been some of the best. The glimpse he'd had of the other Clark's parents had shown him a hint of what he'd missed, and it had been like a dagger to his soul.
If meeting Lois had been hard, meeting them had been both a blessing and a curse. He'd spent much of his life feeling numb; it had been hard for him to deal with the emotions meeting his counterpart's parents had brought him. Yet he treasured the memories of that meeting, held them close to his heart. He'd had a glimpse of a better life, and he wasn't willing to lose that memory.
It was frightening that he'd lost it all in the wake of the Nightfall asteroid. The memories of his parents, Lois, Lana… his whole identity. He'd lost every memory that had made him who he was. As far as he was concerned, he'd vanished as he left the atmosphere, and had reawakened in the middle of a battlefield in the Arizona desert.
Clark allowed himself to float in the air until he reached the hayloft. The ladder had long ago succumbed to age and erosion, making the loft even more inaccessible than it had been when he was a child. He had often come here when he needed time to think and dream, when he needed to be alone.
It was much smaller now than it had been then. Clark had to stoop a little as he stepped onto the loft. The wood groaned beneath his feet, and he was careful not to exert too much pressure. Some memories were fragile, and had to be handled carefully.
Everything had seemed so unreal since he'd returned from the dead. The world had mourned his passing and gone on, and the media frenzy in the wake of his reappearance still hadn't died down. Clark had barely noticed the furor in the wake of the strange mood that had gripped him, but the strain was beginning to show on the faces of the people closest to him.
He needed to overcome the sense of melancholy that had almost overwhelmed him since the first moment he had awakened. It felt as though he was in mourning, and he didn't know why. He hadn't had to perform a Superman rescue since he'd been back; the world was still in a celebratory mood in the wake of the Nightfall Asteroid. He wasn't sure how he'd feel about becoming active again. Everything was so confusing.
Nothing was the same. The farm was smaller, more run down than he remembered it. His life was more confining than he'd ever realized. He was off balance, and the only thing he knew to do was start from the beginning, which was why he'd come home.
He needed to find out what had happened during his fugue. The FBI agent who had found him in the middle of a battlefield had been extremely helpful in that regard. Jim Creed had taken him through the investigation step by step, and Clark had an abstract idea about what had occurred.
Many questions remained. Why had an entire group of U.S. soldiers gone AWOL from the local military base, taking millions of dollars of military equipment and weaponry, all for the sole purpose of attacking an unknown drifter and his female companion?
Who was Jane Alexander? The woman had a valid social security number, which had been applied for five years earlier, but there was no other record of her existence anywhere preceding that time. Very little was known about her except that she'd written three books and that someone had been looking for her.
She was missing, and no one knew what had happened to her. Clark needed to know that he had protected her, even while he was confused. The thought that a woman might have died when he'd had the power to stop it was almost more than he could bear.
Clark closed his eyes, and allowed himself to drift for a moment. Memories were a tricky thing. If he allowed himself to drift, he could almost smell the scent of his mother's apple pie and fried chicken set out on the kitchen counter. He could almost hear his parents laughing gently with each other. It almost seemed as though he could reach out and touch them.
It took him a moment to realize that he really smelled apple pie and fried chicken, and that he was hearing the gentle sounds of laughter. He turned slightly and looked through the roof of the barn.
A young couple was laying a picnic blanket out beside the creek three miles away. Clark grimaced. His parents had loved to spend time by the creek, and he'd loved being with them.
He sighed. Although the couple had no way of knowing he was there, he knew he couldn't stay. Someone else owned the Kent farm now; it had been deserted for a long time, but he'd recently learned that it had been bought. He hoped the new owners were people who would restore the farm, not merely in the physical sense, but as a home filled with love.
He glanced at the young couple once more and quickly averted his eyes. They seemed oblivious to the world around them, and that was how it should be.
He allowed himself to float to the floor again, and he took one last look around. The house had already been moved into but the barn had been left the same as it was the day he'd left. It was empty, and yet it was a place thick with ghosts.
Everything changed. Life was like that, and it was something one had to prepare for.
Perhaps it was a sign. Winter was inevitably followed by spring, desolation was followed by renewal. If anyone had believed in the power of hope, it had been his parents. Everything changed, and sometimes the change was for the better.
He slipped out the barn door, and carefully shut it. Looking around to see that no one was looking, he allowed himself to float into the sky. He spun in mid air into his outfit, and he was off.
He'd waited long enough. It was time for him to retrace the steps that had led him to the Arizona desert. He'd had a curious sense of reluctance since the moment the idea had occurred to him, but he knew it was the right thing to do.
Still, he allowed himself the luxury of flying slowly. It felt good to fly when there weren't any emergencies to take care of. The two years since he'd put on the suit had been filled with a constant need for the services of Superman.
He'd been impressed in his visit to the other world. Even in the midst of Tempus inspired madness, the other Metropolis was lighter and more hopeful than his own. It was only in recent months that he'd seen things beginning to get better in his own city. Perry White had made changes for the better, and he liked to think that his own actions had helped as well. The world had needed a symbol, and he and Lois Lane had given them one in the form of Superman.
The fact that things were improving worldwide had kept him from escaping to an island somewhere. He was making a real difference in the hearts and minds of people all over the globe, and he couldn't stop. His parents had taught him better.
It didn't take long to reach the small town of Last Chance, Arizona, even at what he considered to be a leisurely speed. He'd memorized a map of the town before he'd set out on this trip, and so he knew where he needed to go.
He landed in a vacant lot near the ruins of what had once been an adobe house. The walls were still standing, but the roof had collapsed inward, and the interior was blackened by fire. Everything had burned hot, leaving very little behind; what was left was barely recognizable.
It was in a poorer section of town. A glance showed Clark that the area seemed deserted at this time of day. He quickly spun back into his normal clothing. While he could have flown in his normal clothing, he always did everything he could to separate the identity of Superman from that of Clark Kent. What small chances he had at a normal life lay in not being easily recognizable as Clark.
Clark scanned for any signs of human remains. There weren't any. The place had been uninhabited when it had been burned. That it was an act of arson was clear; the fire had burned too hot for it to be anything else. Clark could smell slight traces of chemicals that were used by the military, designed to burn furiously when exposed to oxygen.
He floated silently over the cracked and burned remains of the red tile roof that had collapsed to the floor. Clark wondered for a long moment whether he had caused Jane Alexander to lose her home. There had been reports of men claiming to be federal agents circulating through the town with her picture, but that didn't necessarily mean he hadn't been at fault somehow.
Clark continued to look the area over carefully with his x-ray vision. It took almost a minute to find a compartment recessed deeply into the thick stone of the adobe wall. The contents were burned into ash, but Clark could smell the faint remnants of the ink used on American money. From the amount of ash that was left, he'd have guessed there to be a great deal of cash left behind.
It took three more minutes of careful examination before he could admit to himself that there was nothing left to find.
He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to see if the area felt familiar. He was reluctantly forced to admit that it did not. He'd hoped that old, familiar places and familiar sights would help jog his memory. He sighed.
He allowed himself to float until he reached the place where the door had once been. He stepped out onto the ground outside. He looked around, and it took him a moment to get his bearings related to the maps he'd seen of the town. He'd seen the town from overhead, of course.
He began to walk quickly. It would take time to reach his next destination, but he wasn't averse to walking. He had all the time in the world, and he wasn't feeling rushed. It felt good to be alone, away from all the people who had expectations that he had to meet.
According to the reports of FBI agent Jim Creed, there had been only one witness to the attack on Clark and Jane Alexander while they were eating at a Mexican restaurant. Apparently, he'd been having an early dinner with her when they were attacked.
He wanted badly to know more about his relationship with Jane Alexander. He'd traveled with her, and there were reports that he had spent a night in a hotel with her, leaving only one bed unmade.
Clark had never been the sort of person to share himself sexually without being in a committed relationship. In truth, his only experiences had been with Lana Lang, his former fianc‚. His therapist told him that increased sexual assertiveness during fugue states wasn't uncommon.
He could have been making love to women all across the country and the odds were that he would never know. No matter how certain Jim Creed was that his investigations were complete, Clark knew that it was impossible to really say what had happened.
He could have a child somewhere, conceived by a woman who wasn't aware of the possible consequences of an alien genetic code in their offspring. Of course, it was likely that he couldn't reproduce with a human woman even if he tried. His counterpart and the Lois Lane who was his wife still hadn't conceived the last time he had seen them.
It took fifteen minutes to walk the distance to his destination, but Clark was satisfied. It felt good to be away from the press of the crowds. He'd been impressed by the energy of the big city, but he'd felt a little claustrophobic recently, with reporters crowding him from every direction when he went out in public.
He turned a corner and walked along a series of storefronts. There wasn't much business at this time of day; many businesses were just barely opening. He quickly spotted the door he wanted and quickened his pace.
He entered a dimly lit store, which was filled with an oddly familiar scent of spices and herbs. It was large for a small town bookstore, filled with shelves which sagged under the weight of all the books they carried. A bell tinkled as the door slowly closed behind him, and he heard the sounds of someone moving around in the back.
A woman in her forties stepped out from the back of the store. She stopped in place and stared for a moment, gaping at him.
Clark's heart sank. He'd hoped to be unrecognized in this part of the country. It would slow his investigation down if he were recognized.
He was startled as the woman enveloped him in a tight hug.
"Kade! You made it!"
Clark remained motionless for a long moment, shocked into speechlessness.
The woman released her tight hold on his neck, and pulled back, looking him in the eye. "I thought they got you for sure."
She looked over his shoulder. "Where's Jane?"
Clark froze for a moment. It hadn't occurred to him that Jessica Paxton had been anything more than a fellow restaurant patron who had witnessed a gun battle. Jim Creed's men had missed something.
"We got separated," he said.
Jessica sighed and shook her head. "I don't know what the world is coming to these days." She walked past him, and peered out the doorway. Apparently satisfied, she locked the door, and set a closed sign in the window.
She gestured for him to follow her into the back.
"When those government goons barged into the shop, I didn't know what to think. It reminded me of the bad old days, back when I went to school at Kent State. They didn't give a damn about our rights then either."
She led him into a small back office.
"It's funny. In those days, I would have protested in favor of gun control. These days I carry just like everyone else." She turned toward him. "Do you need money, weapons? When I see the government trying to assassinate American citizens, it really sticks in my craw."
"You don't read the papers much, do you?"
Jessica shook her head. "I don't even own a television, and I've been busy with the move. Your having to leave left me short handed."
"So you don't know anything about what happens in the outside world?"
"Oh, I hear people talking about things when they come into the shop. A lot of them are angry. The FBI came a few days after you left and tried to claim that the men who visited us weren't authentic agents." Jessica shook her head. "Everybody knows better. Men who work for the government tend to have a certain look about them… it's something in the training, I guess. The men who came into my shop had it in spades."
"They had a picture of Jane Alexander… " Clark trailed off. Jim Creed's men had gotten as much from other storeowners in the area. Whoever had been after them had access to a great deal of manpower and equipment.
"It was an old picture… Jane looked young, and her hair was shorter and straighter. I told you as much when I tried to warn you in the restaurant."
Clark sighed. "I've been a little confused, and the events of a week ago are a little hazy."
"Were you hurt?" Jessica looked concerned.
Clark shook his head. "You heard about Superman turning up alive, didn't you?"
Jessica nodded. "It's hard to believe anyone would want to kill him, after what he did for all of us. The poor man, wandering around the desert lost and confused. It's hard to believe he was so close… "
Her voice trailed off, and she stared at him.
Clark sighed and nodded. "I've been confused for a while, I guess."
"I should have known… " Jessica sighed. "There were things about you that didn't add up, but… who could have known?"
Clark smiled ruefully. With everyone believing Superman was dead, people would have tended to overlook all sorts of clues.
"You worked for me for a couple of days, helping me move inventory from across the street to here."
"Why didn't you tell any of this to the FBI when they interviewed you last week?"
"I didn't have any more reason to trust them than I did the goons who showed up in the first place."
Clark nodded and sighed. They were both silent for a long moment. Finally, Clark spoke. "What was I like?" He hated the plaintive note in his voice.
Jessica frowned. "You don't remember any of it?"
Clark shook his head mutely.
She stared at him for a long moment, as though trying to see traces of the person she had once known in his face. She sighed.
"You… were always polite. You didn't talk much, but you were a hard worker, and when you did speak you always had something important to say. You were really interested in Jane Alexander… the first time you came into my shop was to buy copies of her books."
"So I seemed to be close to Miss Alexander."
She smiled slightly, her expression a little bit sad. "You were on your first date when everything collapsed."
It disturbed him to know that he'd been so close to a woman and yet could now remember nothing. He needed to find her, if only to assure himself that she was still alive. If anyone could answer his questions about the time he'd lost, she could.
He frowned. "You've known Jane Alexander for a while, I gather?"
She nodded. "About as well as anyone in this town, I guess, which is not much."
"Do you think you could describe her face to me?"
She nodded. "Sure. One of the FBI people asked if I could sit with a police artist, and I told them I couldn't… I didn't want to make it any easier for them to catch Jane."
The people chasing Jane Alexander already had pictures. Clark felt irritated for a moment, but let it go. With any luck, he'd soon have what he needed.
"Do you have any paper… and a pencil, maybe?"
"I have the paper I use with my fax machine… I fax orders to customers… " Jessica allowed her voice to trail off, then she rose from her chair. She returned after a moment and smiled nervously at him as she handed him a small stack of fax paper and a pen.
During his two years as Superman, Clark had seen police artists work many times. He'd taken mental notes, because while it was easy for him to sketch a drawing of someone's face from memory, it was harder to do without a mental picture.
He carefully asked her about the shape of Jane Alexander's face, the look of her eyes and her nose, the curve of her lip and the line of her jaw and cheekbones. He was careful to sketch a number of different alternatives for her, creating pages filled with alternate types of noses and jaws and mouths. A professional police artist could have worked from the descriptions alone, but Clark was being cautious.
When Jessica was finally satisfied that he had the pieces correct, he began to assemble them onto one sheet of paper, sketching at superhuman speed. As the picture began to form, he felt his stomach clench with realization. By the time the sketch was done, he was sure of it.
Jane Alexander was Lois Lane.
It was going to be harder to reach Clark Kent than she had originally thought. Reporters and paparazzi were camped out at the door to his apartment, and they also mobbed the entrance to the Daily Planet. Lois had no doubt that members of the group who were after her were posing as reporters, probably as members of the foreign press corps. Superman's return was a story of worldwide interest.
She checked her reflection in the floor length windows at the base of the Galaxy Communications Building and nodded grimly. In her gray jumpsuit and matching cap, she looked very much like a repairwoman. She'd have to bluff her way inside, but the cap would keep her face out of the security cameras.
Clark Kent had influential friends. Between Perry White, who was now the mayor of Metropolis, James Olson, a young software billionaire, and the staff of the Daily Planet, no one had spoken to Clark Kent since his return to Metropolis. Even during his one press conference, he'd looked distracted and terribly sad. Lois's heart had gone out to him. It was widely reported that his former fianc‚ Lana Lang hadn't even bothered trying to contact him, in spite of her position as a television news anchor.
Calling him on the telephone was impossible; the Daily Planet was fielding all his calls. It would have been advisable under any circumstances. The odds that his telephones were tapped was high, and for Lois's plan to be successful, she had to contact him in secret.
Lois dreaded looking into Kade's face and seeing a lack of recognition. Deep down, she hoped he'd know her when they met, but realistically she couldn't count on it. She didn't have any choice but to contact him; she was tired of spending her life on the run, and Clark Kent was the only person who could help her. The fact that she was in love with the person he had been complicated things.
She had to remain firm; there was time to mourn later, and there was always the hope that he might be Kade in all but memory.
She was tempted to find an out of the way part of town and simply yell for Superman until he came. It might be difficult to determine how far out she could be and still be heard, however. Furthermore, she ran the risk of attracting human predators, and if she was in a deserted part of town, she could get in trouble.
If she chose a more inhabited part of town, she ran the risk that people might actually try to help. Inspired by the example set by Superman, entire communities had formed neighborhood watch groups. At the very least, the police would be called.
Lois would keep it in mind as a last resort, but in the meantime, she needed to do a little research on Clark Kent. The more she knew about him, the easier it would be to find a place to contact him. She'd already begun the process, learning about his personal history, reviewing the news stories about his actions as Superman over the past 24 months, and finding out everything she could given the available resources.
She needed more information, however, and the Galaxy building was the one place that could provide it. It was the building where Superman had been revealed to the world, and it held more footage of him at work than anywhere else.
She took a deep breath and stepped inside the building. She walked toward the security desk, hoping that the nervousness she was feeling didn't show. It had been far too many years since she'd been on an undercover assignment, and she was out of practice. She'd spent too long as Jane Alexander; switching roles at the drop of a hat wasn't as natural as it had once been.
"I'm here to… "
"Running a little late, aren't you?"
Lois felt like gaping at the security guard; instead she smiled and said, "You know how it is. The boss sends you off to do an hour's work in thirty minutes. Something's got to give."
The guard scowled. "If you people would fix the copier right in the first place, we wouldn't have to keep calling you back."
Lois shrugged and handed him her repair kit, which he opened. She passed through the metal detector, and she noticed the guard visibly relaxing. It was his job to take the weapons of people entering the building. Despite the fact that they were returned when people left, many people preferred to argue.
He jerked his head toward the elevators. "Try to get it right this time."
She stepped into the elevator, and as the doors closed, she sagged back against the wall in relief. She kept her cap low so the elevator security cameras wouldn't have a clear view of her face, but it still felt good to not be directly in someone's eye. Most people weren't aware of the security cameras and so the people behind the cameras were used to odd behavior.
She felt the old familiar grief welling up from deep inside, and she grimaced. She had to stay focused on her goal; reflecting on what she had lost in Kade would lead inevitably to the other losses in her life, and she'd end up wasting a day weeping in her hotel room. She didn't have time for that.
She'd deal with her pain later. First, she had to stay focused on what she was doing. It was a relief to finally be able to focus on her work; it was a coping mechanism she'd developed as a child. Rather than wear her heart on her sleeve, as Lucy had, she'd retreated into schoolwork, books, and her ambitions. It had worked, too, except for the silent times when her pain almost overwhelmed her.
She'd been numb for a long time, and the pain she felt now seemed more intense in contrast. That was what she told herself anyway; it seemed impossible that ordinary people went through this sort of pain every day.
Of course, ordinary people didn't get involved in government conspiracies. Lois would simply have to focus. The same focus that had gotten her off the battlefield in Arizona would help keep her alive now.
She'd managed to drive the Ryder truck for over a mile, even with one wheel gone and all the other damage that had been done. A bullet must have nicked something in the engine, however, because the engine had quickly overheated.
The battle had been easily visible from even that distance, and cars coming from the north had been pulling to the side of the road, pulling onto the lane divider and turning in the opposite direction. While some drivers had simply stopped to watch the action as though it were an air show, most had attempted to turn around. It hadn't taken Lois long to hitch a ride with one of the drivers. He'd found a route into Flagstaff, though it took almost three hours.
The driver had dropped her off at a bus station. Lois had suspected that the enemy wouldn't still be searching when it was thought that she was found, and she'd been right.
She'd worried about Kade not being able to find her, but she hadn't had a choice. He'd known her eventual destination, and he could have been waiting for her at the end of the line. In a better world he would have been. It hadn't even occurred to her to worry about him being hurt. Anyone capable of shattering an asteroid seventeen miles wide wouldn't be bothered by anything short of a nuclear weapon.
The elevator door opened, and Lois stepped out into the hallway beyond. It was the work of a minute to walk down the hall and slip into the morgue. Lois had been inside the Galaxy building once before as a young reporter, and she was relieved to see that the format of the room hadn't changed.
Row after row of videotapes sat on shelves. Lois was familiar with the layout from the summer she'd spent interning. Looking quickly to check that no one else was in the room, she quickly pulled a short list from her pocket. Checking the dates listed, she quickly began scanning the shelves.
She wasn't as familiar with the system as she'd thought; it took her several minutes to find the tapes she was seeking. She knew that the odds of being caught increased the longer she stayed, but there wasn't any choice.
She found the last of the tapes she needed just as she heard the door opening behind her.
"What are you doing here?"
Lois schooled her expression into impassiveness, and turned. The woman standing in the doorway was young, possibly in her early twenties. Lois's mind raced, then hit on a suitable explanation.
"I'm here to repair the VCR."
Lois gestured toward the VCR and television in the corner, and the woman nodded.
The woman scanned the shelves, pulled a videotape out, and left the room. Lois knew she didn't have much time; she'd come during the lull between the noon edition and the prepping for the five o'clock programming; She had a half an hour window at best.
She found a booth at the far end of the room with a VCR setup and quickly slipped the tape in. It didn't take long to find the segments she needed.
As Superman, Clark Kent didn't seem much like the Kade she had known. His speeches were formal and a little stilted. He looked like someone who never relaxed. Even in the few video clips of Clark Kent as himself, he still seemed to be less relaxed than Kade had ever been. The look in his eyes was haunted, and Lois wondered what he could have lost that made him that way.
He'd lost his fianc‚ and he'd lost his last chance at an ordinary life, but Lois had a gut feeling that it would take more than that to make such a man so desperately unhappy. She felt a flash of pity for him, and a larger one for Kade.
It was strange. She was viewing the clips in reverse order, and the earlier footage showed a more relaxed, less unhappy Clark Kent. Perhaps it was merely the strain and the pressure after all.
Lois was beginning to wonder why she'd bothered to come as she slipped the very first tape into the VCR. She'd seen that Clark Kent shared some mannerisms with Kade, but not as many as she'd hoped. She hadn't done much more than make her heart ache at the sight of a Kade she could not reach or touch.
She'd seen still shots taken from the original camera footage; one shot had made the cover of Time magazine. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to watch Tempus ranting about the enemy. Seeing Clark Kent break through walls and tear down doors was unexpectedly exhilarating. She hadn't bothered watching much of the battle in Arizona; she'd been too busy escaping to gawk like the other bystanders.
When Tempus pulled the glowing green rock and Clark collapsed, Lois nodded grimly. She'd found a few references to Kryptonite, and to the fact that no one had ever found the sample Tempus had used. It was stunning to watch a man who could practically move a moon collapse in pain.
A woman in a pale suit rushed out to comfort Clark Kent, and when she turned her face toward the camera for an instant, Lois gasped.
The woman in the shot looked exactly like her.
The problem was that Lois hadn't been anywhere near Metropolis at that time, and she certainly didn't remember ever meeting Superman.
The imposter's disguise was flawless. Lois watched the screen closely, but she couldn't see any major differences between herself and the woman on the screen other than in the hairstyle. Lois had never worn her hair that short, at least not until Kade had trimmed it as part of her disguise.
Lois felt a dizzying sense of unreality. The disguise was so perfect that her own mother wouldn't have known the difference. The possibilities made Lois's head spin.
If the government's plastic surgeons could duplicate people's appearances with such utter, frightening perfection, then no one could be trusted. Perry White might have been replaced at any point over the past five years. Even Lois's family members might be suspect.
Other, weirder possibilities ran through her mind for a moment. They'd been doing some work with cloning in South America. It took Lois only a moment to dismiss the possibilities. The simplest solution was usually the correct one.
The fact remained that an imposter had taken Lois's place for some indeterminate amount of time. Was it possible that Lois Lane had never turned up missing? When Lois had gone underground, had a "Lois Lane" returned from the Congo to resume her activities?
Lois felt shaken. If someone had taken over her life, even her family might not have missed her. She'd be literally outside the law.
An ugly suspicion rose. She'd taken Kade at face value. He'd supposedly met her only by chance and he'd left her the same way. She now had evidence that he knew her doppelganger, and she couldn't help but wonder. He could have easily been faking his memory loss, and if that was the case, then he had intentionally left her behind. If he knew her duplicate, then presumably he had some contact with the enemy.
She'd moved forward on the assumption that he didn't remember her, but she'd worried from the very beginning that he'd meant to leave her. It had been a nagging worry at the back of her mind from the very beginning; now it was a concern that she could not ignore.
Still, if he'd been working for them, she'd be dead now. He could have delivered her to the enemy at any point, or if he couldn't stomach that, he could have told them where she planned on heading. Either way, she wouldn't be running free. If he'd had some sort of change of heart, that meant that he could be reached and turned against them.
Lois hated the idea that she had to distrust the man she'd fallen in love with. Her trust in him had been precious, one safe harbor to head for in a lifetime of stormy seas. The idea that she had to return to trusting no one made her miserable.
Her research hadn't uncovered anybody in Clark Kent's life that could be used against him. His parents were dead, as was his aunt, Opal Kent, and one uncle on his mother's side. He had no living kin from his adopted family, and he was, of course the last Kryptonian alive. He hadn't spoken to Lana Lang in two years, and there wasn't any evidence that he'd ever had any other romantic entanglements. His only close friendships seemed to be with Perry White and James Olson.
It was terribly sad, really. She'd lived her life in exile, but she'd always had the hope that she might one day return to the arms of people who loved her. That option didn't exist for him. He was utterly, unbearably alone.
Even if he'd betrayed her, he didn't deserve that. Lois felt a wave of sadness wash over her once again. It wasn't surprising that he'd wanted to escape the life that penned him in. He was born to fly free, and yet he was trapped in a life he'd never wanted for himself.
Lois watched numbly as her duplicate picked up the green rock and threw it into the audience. Clark Kent swallowed the bomb, and history was made.
The imposter was either quick thinking, or she had previous experience with the rock. Either way, Lois couldn't help but wonder about her history with Clark Kent.
She'd have to be cautious in dealing with him until she could find that out. It looked like he wouldn't have any trouble in recognizing her at least. Even if his time as Kade had been completely honest, Clark Kent would know her.
Lois hoped desperately that her time with Kade had been real. She'd had far too much betrayal to take any more. As the screen went blank she sighed. She still didn't have any choice but to contact Superman, but she'd have to be much more cautious once she did.
She heard voices from outside in the hallway. She quickly shut the television off, and slipped the tape out of the VCR. She moved quickly to replace the tape, and as the door opened, she pretended to be placing her tools into her toolbox.
She'd dropped to one knee behind the VCR cubicle. She wasn't immediately visible from the door, and hopefully anyone entering the room wouldn't see her. If they did see her, she could pretend to be finishing up with a repair on the VCR.
She suppressed a gasp as she saw a newly familiar figure step into the room, followed by a man she didn't recognize.
She'd seen numerous pictures of Lana Lang during her researches, mostly from the months directly after Clark Kent had revealed his secret to the world. From all reports, Lana hadn't enjoyed the media frenzy which had taken over her life, despite the fact that she was herself a news reporter.
"Your country needs you, Ms Lang."
"I'm not interested."
Lana Lang had a high pitched, whiny voice, one that Lois instantly disliked.
"All you would have to do would be to renew your acquaintance with him."
"What makes you think he'd even be interested after all this time? It's been almost two years."
The gentleman in the suit carefully shut the door behind him. "He's at a vulnerable point in his life right now. He needs a lifeline, someone to reel him back into reality."
Lois peered over the edge of the desk. Lana was standing with one hand on her hip. The man facing her was nondescript except for his expensive Armani suit.
"I burned my bridges with him a long time ago." Lana scowled and shook her head.
"It would be in your best interests to start re-building those bridges, and quickly." The man's voice had become low and dangerous.
Lana didn't seem perturbed, but Lois felt a chill go up her spine.
"I've spent the last two years refusing to capitalize on this. I've refused movie producers, tabloid reporters, even my own producers. I've refused an interview with Barbara Walters. What makes you think you'll be any different."
The man reached into his pocket, and Lois tensed. Despite the security guard downstairs, it was possible that the man was armed.
He pulled something from his pocket. Lois couldn't make out what it was. For the first time she noticed the sheer size of the man's hands. They were very large and muscular, the sort of hands that could have completely enveloped her throat and easily choked the life out of her. He handed it to Lana.
She heard Lana gasp, and for the first time she saw that it was a photograph.
"The nursing home you have your mother in really isn't very secure." The man's voice was nonchalant, but the threat was obvious. "It's really too bad about the accident she had last year; brain damage often leads to sudden, unexplained death."
Lana didn't speak for a long moment. "Is that meant to be a threat?"
"It means whatever you think it means, Ms Lang."
"I meant a great deal to Clark once. I think he'd be happy to help me protect her."
"Can he be there twenty four hours a day?" The man's voice was cool. He casually popped his knuckles, and the sound was loud in the quiet confines of the room. "How long do you think it takes to kill someone anyway?"
The room was silent and Lois peered over the edge of the desk once more. Lana was silently looking at the photograph.
"I really did love Clark." Lana sighed. "Why do you want me to watch him, anyway?"
"We're just worried about his mental health. With his recent amnesia, we're worried that he may become unpredictable."
"You can't be trying to tell me that you are worried about his health." Lana's voice was flat, with just a trace of sarcasm.
The man smiled coldly and said, "Your former boyfriend is the most powerful being on the planet. His mental state is a matter of national security."
"If you really work for the government, then why the threats?"
The man reached out and patted Lana on the arm. "We really wouldn't want you to have second thoughts and talk to your boyfriend about all of this. Who knows what sort of an effect it would have on his mental state? He could become a danger to everyone." He paused. "Making this into a news story would be even worse of course. I shudder to think of what could happen."
Lana took a step back. "If I agree, how will I get in touch with you?"
"We'll contact you when we need you."
"Is there anything I'm looking for in particular?"
The man hesitated. "Would you know how to identify this woman by sight?"
Lois peered over the edge of the desk again. She could see Lana stiffen.
"Lois Lane? She's the reason everything fell apart in the first place. Of course I would know her."
"She's wanted for murder. If you see her, don't say anything to Clark. Call the police immediately."
Lana nodded silently as Lois fumed. They'd been altering records, adding up a list of false offenses in an effort to make her capture seem legitimate. It was much easier to let the Metropolis Police Department do all the work, and simply collect her from jail.
Lois heard the door open and the sounds of footsteps retreating down the hallway. She peered over the edge of the desk one last time and saw Lana standing silently in the middle of the room.
It must have started like that for Claude too.
Lois felt strangely relieved in the wake of the conversation. If the enemy was wanting to keep an eye on Clark Kent, that meant they did not trust him. Either he had been working for them, and betrayed their arrangement by letting Lois go, or he had really lost his memory. Either way, Lois could work with him.
She waited until Lana finally left the room before rising and heading out of the building.
It would be easy to find out if a Lois Lane had been writing articles for the Daily Planet over the past five years. It didn't seem likely, if Lois Lane was being sought out as a terrorist.
Lois didn't know what was going on, but she was determined to find out.
Jim Creed walked quickly down the corridor with his partner. "How could this happen?"
"There was a mix up in the orders; the men were being transported to the federal prison."
"No one thought it was important to keep them separated until the interrogations were over?"
His partner shrugged. "Obviously someone wasn't doing much thinking."
Jim scowled. Out of the forty men they had captured in the attack on Superman, only seven officers had been indicted. The others had been lied to, told that they were stopping a truckload of terrorists coming from across the Mexican border.
Three of the officers had committed suicide in their cells, all on the same night. Now the other four seemed to have been killed in a gang attack as their prison transport went through a dangerous section of Metropolis.
"None of them survived?"
His partner shook his head. "It was an armored transport, but someone hit it with a shoulder mounted missile. They shot any survivors."
"Since when do we send prison transports driving through Suicide Slum in the middle of the night?" Jim scowled as they turned a corner. "And how long has it been since street gangs had access to shoulder-mounted anti-tank missiles? I thought we were doing a better job than that of controlling the big weapons."
"We are." Frank frowned. "It looks like the orders came from up high, but I haven't been able to track them down."
Jim stopped, turning to stare at his partner. "It shouldn't be that hard to track down a set of orders."
They supposedly came from Assistant Director Kirkland's office, but he's been on vacation for the last week or so. We're trying to see if there is some way the orders could have been faked from outside the FBI, but it isn't looking promising."
"So we're talking about a conspiracy." Jim's voice dropped.
Frank nodded. "Someone didn't want those people to talk."
Jim shook his head. "I was getting so close. I would have had them in another day or two."
Frank put his hand on Jim's arm. "There isn't anything we can do about it tonight." His voice had an odd pleading note to it, and Jim stared at his partner for a long moment.
"Someone is cleaning house on this, and if we don't move quickly, we're going to lose any chance of catching up with these people."
Frank lowered his voice. "Whoever we're looking for was able to suborn seven officers in the United States Army. They obviously have a great deal of influence if they can reach prisoners under federal protection."
"They have people on the inside." Jim frowned. "I'm not willing to believe that they have half the FBI in their payroll. One or two rogue agents maybe… "
"They don't need half the FBI; a few people in key positions could take care of everything."
Jim stared at his partner. "All we need to do is find out who they would have needed to use to cover all this up. Once we got one of them to talk… "
"Who says we'd get that chance?" Frank laughed mirthlessly. "It wouldn't be difficult for them to arrange a small accident for the both of us, and if they really have much influence, the investigation afterwards would be a joke."
"The FBI takes the murder of its agents very seriously. I can't believe that there wouldn't be a full and fair investigation."
"That may be so, but I've got three kids who like it when their daddy comes home."
Jim was quiet for a moment. "So we keep it quiet. Just you, me and a few other people."
"How do you know who to trust?"
"You have to trust someone." Jim sighed. "I'm going to bring Clark Kent in on this. He has a vested interest in finding out who attacked him."
"He's been pretty fragile since he came back from Arizona, Jim."
"We've just been treating him that way." Jim looked impatiently at his watch. "He probably won't be up for another four hours; that'll give me time to find out exactly how this all happened."
"I still don't think this is a very good idea. Why don't you just go home, and we can start again in the morning." The pleading note in Frank's voice had grown stronger, but Jim barely noticed.
"Go home if you want, Frank. I've got work to do." Jim's voice was distracted as his mind ran over lists of people who had access to Assistant Director Kirkland's office, and who might have been in a position to move the prisoners.
As he turned, he missed the look of abject sorrow on his partner's face.
"Good bye, Jim."
He landed silently on his balcony at the last rays of the setting sun as it sank beneath the horizon. He was both stunned and confused by what he had learned, and elation and depression fought an unseen war within his soul.
The Lois Lane of his world was alive… or at least she had been. Somehow, beyond all probabilities, he'd been drawn to her when he'd been lost and confused. He'd found her in the midst of a country of three hundred million people.
His counterpart had spoken to him once, talked about their shared Kryptonian heritage. It had been difficult for Clark to believe that he was to some degree telepathic, though that helped explain his ease in picking up foreign languages. Now he didn't know what to think. He didn't believe in destiny; he'd decided long ago that life was about choices. People created their own futures by their own actions.
He'd fallen in love with Lois Lane almost from the moment he'd met her. The fact that she was engaged to be married hadn't mattered nearly as much as it should; his own engagement had paled into insignificance. His life had changed in a fundamental way from the moment he'd met her, and somewhere deep inside he'd known that being with her was right.
She'd broken his heart when she'd left him, and seeing her once again had been pure torture. She'd been lost without her husband; his need to comfort her had roused feelings he'd tried to leave behind. He'd been lonely for a long time, and when he was with her, he was no longer alone.
He exhaled softly, taking one last look at the twilight sky before turning to walk inside his apartment. It was amazing how much a life could change in the short time between sunrise and sunset. Years of expectations could be toppled in the space of an instant.
He'd known that his Lois Lane was dead, but he'd tried to find her nonetheless. He'd hoped to bring closure to the pain suffered by Perry White and by her family members. He'd met them once or twice over the past two years, and they'd been grateful for his efforts in trying to find her.
It was stunning. He'd never allowed himself to even entertain the hope that she might be alive. The world wouldn't be that kind. Somehow, Clark had always had the feeling that good things happened to other people. Other people had parents who not only loved them, but who survived into old age. Other people had friends and people to love. Other people had a feeling of belonging, and a hedge against the darkness.
Discovering that Lois Lane was alive and unmarried opened a world of possibilities that hadn't existed before. It was as though he'd had a glimpse of heaven and just as he'd believed it eternally denied to him discovered that the gates were indeed opened.
The thought that she might be dead already, especially if it was because of his own inaction was a glimpse of hell. He had found her beyond all odds, and the idea that he would not only lose her, but that he would never even remember her was almost more than he could bear.
His apartment was dim, lit only by the darkening twilight outside. An ordinary person would have found the place wreathed in shadows, too dark to see much more than the outline of objects. Clark however had no difficulty in making his way across the room.
He stopped abruptly and sniffed.
Of all his enhanced senses, his sense of smell was both the weakest, and the least used. The scent of ten million human bodies, one million cats and one million dogs, along with the emissions from seven hundred thousand automobiles and trucks, seven petroleum burning power plants, and the countless chemical residues from the thousands of products which were the hallmark of civilization ordinarily conspired to knock his sense of smell out of commission against all but the most distinctive odors. It was a good thing, ordinarily. If his sense of smell didn't adjust, even the scent of the perfumes, hair sprays and other products people used would have maddened him.
However, he'd just spent hours in the desert, drinking in the sweet, simple scent of sand, and dirt and sagebrush. His nose had cleansed itself of the impurities of civilization as he'd looked at the gouges and scars that had been left in the earth in the wake of his battle. Only the last vestiges of the acrid smell of cordite and gunpowder had remained, and they'd blown away with the hot desert wind.
He'd spent hours looking for the remains of one small body lost in the desert. He'd been fearful of finding her, and elated when he could not. There was a spare simplicity in the desert; it had been the first time he'd been alone since reawakening, and it had felt strangely freeing.
He'd allowed himself to stop thinking for the first time in ages. He'd lived his life in a numb void before Lois Lane had found him, but as Superman, he'd been forced to take the weight of the world on his shoulders. If he hadn't been able to worry about himself, he could always worry about others, and the pressure had grown as time had passed.
The moment he'd realized that he wasn't going to find her body, he'd let it all go. For a short time he'd stopped thinking about anything. It had felt cleansing; he'd opened his senses to the world and it was as if he'd become one with everything.
So his nose was freer than it had been in years.
Clark had guarded his privacy fiercely once he'd become Superman; he'd been forced to. He hadn't had any guests in the past two years. The scent of Lana's perfume had faded to almost nothing; all that was left was the faint scent of his own body, a scent that would have been undetectable by the ordinary human nose.
Today was different. He could detect a pair of strange new scents in the room; the familiar musk of human bodies, and the sharper scents of shampoo, cologne and hairspray. The smells had already begun to fade; it had been several hours since intruders had been in his home.
He sighed. It took only three seconds to remove the assorted bugs, listening devices and cameras from his home. It was the fifth time the media had tried something like this in the two years since he had become Superman, and it never failed to anger him. It felt like a violation, having people enter his home uninvited, and at times he fantasized about building a home in some out of the way, inaccessible location.
He'd never taken that step. If he felt disconnected already from the rest of humanity as it was, removing himself to some lofty fortress above the world would have alienated him completely.
He frowned. The place had been bugged far more expertly than it had been the times before. There were actually a couple that he'd almost missed. The sheer number of the bugs was amazing; it was as though they'd hoped to make him miss one through simple fatigue.
He stared down at the small pile in front of him. He examined a piece at random. It didn't look like any bug he'd had experience with; it looked very expensive. Someone had spent a great deal of money bugging his place. Of course, any hint of scandal would be worth a great deal to a news agency. In the wake of the Nightfall asteroid and his seeming resurrection the story would be worth even more.
However, Clark knew the nature of the news. He would be replaced as the lead story in a short time. All he had to do was hold out until the next big story came along, and then the media coverage would return to a normal level.
He frowned down at the pile, then slowly smiled. At least two of the bugs were still transmitting. He looked around quickly then grinned. Perry had talked him into going to a Superbowl game last year; it had felt good to be anonymous until someone in the camera booth had recognized him and projected his image up on the scoreboard.
Still, he'd picked up the ubiquitous giant fuzzy hand, and one other thing. He scanned the room for a moment, then found the air horn lying in a drawer in the corner.
He grabbed it quickly, moved it next to the listening devices, then activated it. The horn emitted a long, piercing shriek, and Clark grinned. He didn't hear the sounds of anyone cursing, so the system was either automated or extremely remote. He tended to scan any unmarked vans on his street as a matter of course. Presumably the people who were trying to watch him knew that.
It took only a moment to crush most of the devices to powder. He kept one of the more unusual cameras and one of the listening devices to show to Jim Creed. Clark couldn't help but feel that the devices were too sophisticated for the average media group, and he wanted a second opinion.
He placed both bugs into a small lead box he'd acquired just in case the small chunk of Kryptonite was ever found.
He scanned the apartment one last time, then closed the box.
He sagged. The day had been filled with one shock after another, and he was unbearably tired.
He dropped onto his couch and lay on his side. Even as he closed his eyes, his mind focused on a thousand worries. It was becoming more and more obvious that Lois Lane had known she was being pursued, and that was why she had gone into hiding. Whoever was chasing her had a great deal of influence, and was probably involved with the government somehow.
Lois Lane had obviously become an expert at hiding, and in all likelihood he would never even know whether she was alive or dead. If he only had some way of contacting her, of making her believe that she could trust him.
He thought once again about his counterpart, and about the suggestion that he was at least partially telepathic. He closed his eyes and tried to reach out to Lois Lane. In his imagination, he could sense a sea of emotion, the myriad thoughts and feelings of ten million people as they went about their business. It was impossible to find any single soul in the midst of all that; it was all he could do to keep from being washed away.
Eventually he slept.
She was standing by the window, her silhouette shadowed even to his eyes. She was so beautiful that it made his heart ache.
He stood, unashamed of his own nakedness and moved silently across the room. He kissed the nape of her neck, and she moved for the first time. She was even more beautiful than the first time he'd seen her; he was blinded to all other women. She made him feel emotions that he'd never felt before, and he was overwhelmed. He was grateful that he'd had a chance to know her, even for a short time. Destiny was sometimes kind.
She leaned back against him, and he kissed her again. He didn't speak; what was between them transcended words. When he was with her, he was free to simply feel. Being with her was like flying; it was an experience that rose above all the petty problems of life, one that shattered the shackles of gravity. When he was with her, it was joy.
She twisted in his arms until they were facing one another, and she kissed him. There was passion in that kiss, but there was also the taste of tears.
He pulled back and spoke for the first time. "What's wrong?"
"This is all so perfect. I wish it could last forever."
Something within him knew that their time was limited, and he wanted to cry out, but instead he simply kissed her, then said, "Don't worry about the future."
He knew that time was precious, that every moment counted. He studied her face, willing the image to be burned into his memory for all time. For him, she was the most beautiful woman in all the world and this time was more precious than gold.
He pulled her towards the bed and for a moment she seemed reluctant. She wanted to talk, and somehow he knew that it would spoil the perfection of the moment. For once he was at peace with himself and the world.
Her resistance was only a token however. She smiled ruefully as she followed him to the bed. She'd stunned him with her passion and fire already, and he could see the desire rising in her eyes yet again.
As they came to rest on the bed, he looked into her eyes. It felt as though he could get lost in them, as though they were crystal windows into the depths of her soul. He knew beyond any doubt that she was the woman he'd been waiting for his entire life, the woman he was meant to find.
They fit perfectly together, like pieces of a puzzle that had been left incomplete and was only now finding the purpose it had been designed for. It wasn't merely a union of the body; it was one of the soul.
She wept; he could taste the tears on her cheek as he kissed her once again. He knew instinctively that these were tears both of happiness and of sorrow. She loved him, and yet she doubted him.
He vowed in that moment that he would never leave her. His love for her was the one true thing he knew in all the world, and he wasn't about to forsake her. No matter what they faced, they'd face it together.
He clung to her in the aftermath, stunned beyond words. When he was with her, he was a better person. He was the person he'd always wanted to be. Together, it felt like there was nothing they could not accomplish.
She nestled into his arms finally, and he could tell that she was half asleep.
"I love you, Kade."
Clark gasped as he woke up. His body was soaked with sweat, and it took him a moment to realize that the ceiling was only a few inches from his nose. He almost fell, but quickly caught himself.
It had all seemed so real. He felt a sense of loss so extreme that it was like a blow to the stomach.
He'd thought he loved the Lois Lane of another world, but that emotion paled in comparison to what he felt for the woman in his dream. He'd wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, and he'd been willing to do it on her terms. He hadn't questioned, and he hadn't thought, and for the first time in his life, he'd allowed himself to feel.
When he'd been with her, he'd been free.
It took him a moment to become alert enough to sink slowly back down to the couch. It took another moment to realize what had awakened him. The phone in his bedroom was ringing.
His phone number was unlisted, given out only to a very few people who needed to know. He was tempted to let it continue to ring, but he knew that he couldn't.
He picked up the receiver and simply listened.
It was a voice he hadn't expected to hear. He hadn't spoken to Lana Lang in almost two years, and he hadn't expected to hear from her ever again. He'd shown up for her father's funeral after her parents had been in an accident, but she hadn't spoken to him at all.
He caught his breath and finally spoke. "Lana?"
"Clark… I never thanked you for coming to the funeral."
"Your parents were good to me, even when we were kids." Clark sighed. He wondered whether Lana's bosses had finally made her an offer she couldn't refuse. He knew that she'd used most of her family fortune in caring for her mother. She'd sold the house and most of the property, and the money had been dwindling for quite some time.
If she needed an interview, he'd give it to her. They'd been friends who never should have become lovers. He'd responded to her neediness as though it was love, and he'd craved love badly. With the perspective of time, he knew that they'd been bad together.
She'd been his friend since the time she was in pigtails; in truth, she'd been his only real friend when he was a child. She'd convinced her parents to take him in for six weeks when things had gotten too bad with one of the foster families.
"After everything he did for me, I couldn't stay away."
His father had made sure that he was placed with a stable family, and later on he'd taken an interest in Clark's academic career. The man had been arrogant and abrupt, but deep down, he'd had a kind streak. He'd been a good person despite his flaws, and his daughter was just like him.
"Do you think we could get some coffee and talk?"
Clark was silent for a long moment, then he sighed. He didn't want to give an interview to anyone, but that didn't change the facts.
He owed her.
"All right. Where?"
She gave him the location of a coffee shop nearby.
"Do I need to dress up for the camera crew?" He couldn't help the slightly bitter tone in his voice.
He heard the sound of her indrawn breath.. She was silent for a long moment.
"I'll be alone."
"I'll be right there."
He set the receiver back in its cradle, then looked down at himself consideringly.
It took less than thirty seconds to take a quick shower and get dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt. He wouldn't put it past Lana to lie about the camera crew, and he wanted to be presentable.
He left quickly, flying in the night sky.
He was so preoccupied that he didn't hear the sound of his phone ringing once again.
The flight to the small coffee shop didn't take more than a moment, but Clark landed silently in the shadow of a broken street light half a block away and walked the remaining distance.
Lana's voice had sounded a little strained on the telephone. At first he'd assumed it was the simple embarrassment at asking him a favor after all this time. Lana had held out for almost two years against overwhelming pressure from her bosses and from other media figures, and he respected her for that.
For her to finally give in was an indication that something was wrong in her life.
Clark scanned the surrounding area on the off chance that a camera crew was waiting for him. Lana hadn't been the sort of person who would lie; she'd always been almost annoyingly open in her thoughts. Nevertheless, people changed. If he were to face a camera crew, he wanted to be prepared.
There was no one unusual in sight; a bum lying in a nearby alley, a couple of young lovers taking a stroll, and the haggard patrons of the coffee shop.
Lana had chosen well. The shop was close to his apartment, but it wasn't the closest, or even the second closest. Those shops were occupied by the few die hard reporters who were still watching his apartment. Lana was well known enough that her presence would have aroused questions. She obviously had no intention of giving anyone else the scoop.
Lana was sitting in a booth by the window, and she looked utterly dejected.
Clark slipped into the diner and moved quickly to her booth. She was staring at the table, frozen. He called her name and it took her several moments to respond.
She looked up finally, and she tried to smile, but it was a ghastly thing. She looked as though she'd been crying.
He slid into the booth across from her. "What's wrong, Lana?"
"Did you ever think that we might have made a mistake?"
"A mistake?" Clark had an uncomfortable feeling that she wasn't going to ask for an interview.
"We were together for a long time, Clark. If things had been different, we'd be married today."
Clark shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He'd just discovered that his Lois Lane was alive. He had no intentions in resuming a relationship that had been harmful not only for him, but for Lana as well. He didn't look forward to letting her down though.
She took his hand in hers and said, "Please, hear me out."
Her expression was pleading. It took him a moment to realize that she'd slipped a piece of paper into his hand. His curiosity was immediately aroused. He scanned the paper, then stiffened.
* I'm bugged. Don't say anything. Please play along. *
He looked up at her, his expression startled. She nodded almost imperceptibly.
"All right, Lana. I'll listen to what you have to say."
The waitress delivered two large cups of coffee. Lana pulled her hands out of his, taking the paper and slipping it into her pocket as the waitress set the steaming mug in front of her. She sipped her coffee, and Clark followed suit.
"You remembered how I like it, " he said, pleasantly surprised.
"I remember a lot of things, Clark." Her voice was as husky as Lana could make it, but her eyes told a different story. They were terrified.
Clark scanned her quickly. He was familiar with her body, but under normal circumstances, he would never have looked. They were no longer together, and he didn't have the right. She'd given her implicit permission, however, and he needed to know whether she was actually bugged or not.
His mouth set into a grim line as he saw the small device taped to her collarbone. It was similar in design to the devices he'd found in his apartment, and that made him deeply suspicious.
She also had a polaroid of her mother in her pocket. The picture made her mother look like a dead woman, even to the point of crossing her arms on her chest.
"We've been together since we were children, Clark. You can't throw away fifteen years just because of one mistake."
"We weren't together for all of that time, Lana."
"So you took a few years off and barely called. That's all this last couple of years has been, really. Just another sabbatical."
"You were the one who gave me the ultimatum, Lana. You forced me to choose between you and the world."
"I was wrong."
Lana looked at him pleadingly. It was easy for Clark to guess what had happened. Someone had threatened her mother as a way of forcing her to get close to him. They were listening in, so Lana had to make the meeting sound as realistic as possible.
Still, there was something in the tone of her voice that said that it wasn't all a lie.
Lana sighed. "You were my best friend for years before we ever became more. I never realized how important that was to me until you left…until I pushed you away."
"All you had to do was ask for my help, Lana. We've always been friends as far as I'm concerned."
She smiled for the first time.
"You were always too good for me, Clark."
Clark pulled a napkin from the dispenser, and as Lana sipped her coffee, he set to work. Using his heat vision at its lowest setting, he charred a message into the thin paper. He turned it toward her, and she glanced at it.
* Do you want me to check on your mother? *
She shook her head slightly, then glanced around. Clark looked back, and saw that the waitress was staring at both of them.
"I think the waitress knows who I am," Clark said quietly.
Lana shook her head. "It's more likely that she recognizes me from the news."
Her expression was suspicious though. Clark could see how it would be easy to become paranoid. Whoever had bugged his home and threatened Lana undoubtedly had many resources; if they'd told her which coffee shop to come to, the waitress could easily be a plant.
Of course, they were both famous people, so there could easily be a more normal explanation.
"Would you like to go somewhere else?"
Lana shook her head. "I have to get back to the office soon. I was just wondering whether you'd like to go to the symphony with me on Friday?"
Clark opened his mouth to speak, and Lana rushed in.
"I know the symphony isn't your favorite, but I'm meeting friends there, and we're all going to dinner afterward."
The look in her eyes was pleading, and he sighed.
"All right. I'll go with you just this once."
She tossed a five dollar bill down and slid out of the booth.
She leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, Clark. Thanks for everything."
Clark nodded soberly. He'd check on Lana's mother from a distance. If there were bugs in her room, he'd have to do some thinking. It was obvious that more was involved than he had realized. Whatever Lois Lane had become involved in, someone was willing to go to great lengths to find her.
For a moment he allowed the thought to cheer him. If they'd already killed her, there wouldn't be any reason to keep an eye on him.
However, it was possible that they were worried that she'd told him something. It was also possible that they were simply a lunatic fringe group with many resources. Most Americans seemed to regard him as a hero, but there were always conspiracy theorists.
He'd heard of one group that thought he'd pushed the asteroid onto a collision course with Earth just so that he could save it. They thought that he was a front runner for an alien invasion, out to cozy the world into complacency.
Ironically, it was possible that there was an alien invasion planned. His counterpart had warned him about New Kryptonians, about Nor and Zara. The thought of being already married had been almost pleasant at the time, and he'd been watching the skies for any signs. It hadn't happened though, and there was no guarantee that it would ever happen. Clark's world was different in many ways from that of his counterpart; nothing was certain.
The New Kryptonians could have resolved their war on their own terms. Their colony could have been destroyed by some sort of disaster. They could simply have lost the knowledge that the son of the house of El had been sent to Earth.
Or perhaps the Kryptonian space program had been scuttled by an officious bean counter that never realized that he was dooming his race to extinction.
Clark hoped that there were other people like him out there somewhere, but there was no way to be certain. He preferred to believe that they had survived because if they hadn't, then that made him truly alone in the universe.
He had more immediate problems to worry about at the moment. He thought for a moment, then decided that it might be a good idea to follow Lana. If she had a meeting with the people who were threatening her, then he might be able to get to the bottom of things a little more quickly.
He slipped out of the booth and headed for the door, ignoring the waitress who was still staring at him. He'd already decided that she wasn't an agent; an agent wouldn't be nearly so obvious. It was one thing he disliked about living in Metropolis. Far too many people recognized him. At least in other cities he could steal moments of anonymity.
He stepped outside. It wouldn't be long until the sun rose; he could already hear the sounds of thousands of early risers beginning to awaken. He enjoyed the early morning; it was the one time that he could live in the city and not be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of activity.
The first signs of light were beginning to show in the sky, and he decided to head for the alley he'd seen before. He didn't like to change into his suit in front of everyone, and flying as Clark Kent was even worse.
He stepped into the alleyway and was about to launch himself in the air when he heard a rustling sound from deeper within the darkness.
The bum he'd seen before was moving, rising to his feet.
"She's going to betray you, you know."
Clark didn't know what shocked him more — what the bum had said, or the voice. The voice sent tremors down his spine. It was a familiar voice, a voice from his dreams, and it wasn't one he'd expected to hear again any time soon.
She stepped forward into the light, pulling the stocking cap from her head. Despite the short blonde hair which was revealed, and despite the makeup job intended to make it look as though she had a three day growth of beard, Clark would have known her anywhere.
Lois Lane spoke again. "I knew if I followed her long enough she'd lead me directly to you."
Jim scowled as he set the telephone back into its cradle. He'd hoped to contact Clark Kent to warn him about the information he'd already discovered.
It had taken him all night, but he was now fairly certain that it would have taken the work of multiple people in positions of authority to arrange for the deaths of so many men. He had leads and people who needed to be questioned, but he had an obligation to warn Clark Kent. He'd already been attacked once, and it was known that a rare mineral existed which could kill him. If anyone could acquire such a mineral, it would be people with widespread government access. If they intended to harm him, they might have a legitimate chance.
He needed to get some sleep. He tended to get sloppy and make mistakes when he skipped nights of rest, and on this case, he really couldn't afford it. He regretted the fact that Frank was dragging his heels, but he could understand it. Frank had a family to think of, and this case looked to be dangerous in a number of ways.
Jim locked his office and headed for the elevators leading down to the parking garage. At six in the morning the place was deserted, but it wouldn't be long before agents began filling the halls.
He sighed as he stepped into the elevator. He suspected that he hadn't made any friends by calling people in the middle of the night, but he'd known that time was of the essence. Assistant Director Kirkland in particular was very concerned by the idea that his office was being used for nefarious purposes.
The elevator door opened and he stepped out into the parking lot.
The first thing he noticed was that the garage was unnaturally dark. The area around the elevator was well lit, but entire sections of the garage were wreathed in darkness. Jim scowled. The lights had been working fine when he'd come to work; fuses must have blown.
The garage was absolutely deserted. As Jim headed for his car, he could hear his own footsteps echoing hollowly. He headed quickly for his car, which was in one of the sections wreathed in darkness.
It was surprising just how dim an underground garage could get. As he moved into the shadows, the shapes of the cars around him became shrouded in darkness. Most were government issue, assigned to agents as they needed them, but there were a few private vehicles mixed in.
It was dark enough that Jim was afraid he'd have trouble identifying his vehicle, especially as it was a model similar to the vehicles surrounding it.
He pulled keys from his pocket, and fumbled for the small flashlight he used as a keychain. He clicked the flashlight, and a beam of light flashed out into the shadows.
Jim barely had time to realize that his light was shining into a face crouched down beside his car when he heard the sound of a shot ringing out. It was somewhat muffled, but even with a silencer the report sounded obscenely loud.
He dove to the side. If his light hadn't momentarily blinded his attacker, he'd have been hit almost certainly. The dim light from behind him would have made his silhouette a perfect target. As he fell to the ground between two cars, he scrambled for his weapon.
The tire next to his head exploded as his assailant fired wildly underneath the car. Jim knew that he was in trouble, and he scrambled to one knee as quickly as he could. It was impossible to know which direction his assailant would come from in the darkness, and his head snapped back and forth.
At only a few feet apart, it would be difficult for either of them to miss, and if there was a second attacker, Jim was dead. He was still, and it took him a moment to realize that he could hear the sound of footsteps receding into the distance.
He stood up in a crouch, and some instinct made him move quickly to the left. The window of his car shattered, and he began to move quickly in a crouching run.
If he moved back in the direction of the light, he'd make a perfect target. If he moved back into the darkness, he'd be stumbling over his own feet.
He heard the sound of a car coming from the level below, followed by the sound of rapidly retreating footsteps. Jim crouched where he was.
He saw the lights of the vehicle, and it took him a moment to recognize his partner's car, which slowed to a stop behind his car.
Checking in all directions, Jim moved quickly towards his partner's car and pulled the passenger door open. He scrambled into the seat.
"Hurry up and drive!"
"What's going on?" His partner turned to stare at him, startled. His face was almost white.
"Someone just shot at me!"
"Here?" Jim didn't like the way his partner refused to look him in the eyes. He wasn't as startled as he should have been. With recent upgrades in security, no one should have been able to get into the parking lot of any FBI branch office, not unless they were insiders.
His voice was curt as he stared at his partner. "Just drive."
Lois watched Clark Kent warily. She'd gambled everything on the idea that he wasn't working willingly with her enemies. She'd left herself completely vulnerable; if he wanted to capture or harm her, no gun would be able to stop him. It was a risk that she had to take; without him she'd be forced to go on the run again. Spending the rest of her life in fear was no longer an option.
It was a risk she needed to take for another reason as well. She'd developed feelings for Kade that she'd never experienced before. If any possibility existed that she could get him back, she had to try.
Nevertheless, she was tense as he stared at her. It took him a long moment to regain his composure, and as she waited for him to speak, she studied his face. He was as handsome as ever, and mixed with the fear in her stomach was a strange excitement at seeing him again.
He was as motionless as a statue, and Lois began to feel uncomfortable. It was possible that Lana Lang had been under surveillance; and if that was so, she was in danger of being discovered. The longer they stood there the more likely they were to be found.
"I think we need to talk," she said quietly.
"I can take you back to my apartment… " He stepped forward, and his voice was suddenly eager.
Lois shook her head. "There will be people watching it, and I can't afford to be seen with you."
He stopped, his expression one of hurt and confusion. Lois felt something within her relax. He wasn't out to do her any intentional harm. If anything, he seemed more vulnerable than she was.
"I'll explain everything if you can just get me out of here without being seen."
"You don't know how long I've been waiting to meet you." His voice was slightly more reserved this time. He looked behind him, then seemed to be staring at the walls and rooftops to either side of them. "There isn't anyone watching right now, but the sun is about to rise, and so that's going to change quickly."
He stepped toward her, and Lois couldn't help but flinch as he came near.
"I'm going to have to carry you," he said.
She nodded warily. He bent down slightly and picked her up in his arms. He smiled at her for the first time, and she was almost dazzled. It felt good to be held by him; he smelled just like Kade had, and his touch made her skin tingle.
"Don't worry, Lois. I'm not going to drop you." He smiled at her reassuringly.
Lois opened her mouth to reply, then repressed a shriek as they were both suddenly airborne. She clung to him tightly in a sudden panic, her face pressed into the nape of his neck.
She could feel his satisfied chuckle, and she stiffened in outrage. Lois Lane wasn't afraid of anyone or anything, or at least there had been a time when that was true. If she were going to reclaim her life, she needed to reclaim who she had been.
She forced herself to relax her grip on him and turn to look. She fought her sudden burst of fear and vertigo; and as it faded, she was amazed.
The city was beautiful by night. Although the sky was beginning to lighten, the skyscrapers were lit with the light of a thousand twinkling jewels. The city sights moved by rapidly, yet it felt as though they weren't moving at all as they passed between towering monoliths.
Lois felt a sense of wonder. This was what it was like to fly, free at last from the constraints of gravity and of the world. There was a wonder in flying that she'd never realized existed. It wasn't like being in a plane; here she was surrounded by nothing but the open air and the arms of a man she cared for. It was terrifying yet exciting on a deep, visceral level.
The city was left behind them, and the world began to flash by beneath them at a dizzying speed. For the first time she felt wind in her face, but it wasn't nearly the killing force she should have been experiencing. They left the rising sun behind them, and the sky returned to a star-filled darkness.
For the first time in her life, Lois was speechless. She was overwhelmed, awed, and utterly moved; and as she tightened her grip again, she allowed herself to imagine that she was in the arms of someone other than a stranger.
Kade had loved her, and she allowed herself to fantasize that he would once again.
It seemed like they had been flying for only a short time before they began to slow and descend. The moon had already set, but there was no sign of sun in the sky.
Lois could see the dim outline of water below them; they passed silently over a wide river and landed quietly in a darkened section of the shore.
Even at this hour of the morning she could hear the sounds of passing riverboats. The river was wide and slow moving, and she could barely made out the lights on the other side.
"Where are we?"
He looked slightly embarrassed. "You didn't want to be seen in Metropolis, and a mountaintop somewhere would be fairly chilly at this time of the year. I doubt anyone is looking for you in New Orleans, especially at this time of the morning."
"Why New Orleans? Why not Chicago, or Los Angeles?
"The Caf‚ Du Monde has these great little beignets, and the caf‚ au lait isn't bad either. It's open all night long, and the people down here don't know me on sight like they would up in Metropolis or New York."
They started walking along the shoreline. "It must be inconvenient, being so easily recognized."
He smiled ruefully. "I used to wear glasses as a disguise. I gave it up eventually; it never seemed to fool anybody, and I never seemed to get the knack of keeping them from falling out when I go flying."
"No one seemed to recognize Kade."
He stopped walking for a moment, then shrugged. "People see what they expect to see. Superman was dead. When you see a whacked out lunatic in the street who bears a passing resemblance to Robert Redford, you don't assume that he's really him."
"It wasn't like that. HE wasn't like that." She looked closely at him. "You don't remember anything at all?" She was startled to see that he was blushing.
"I have nightmares sometimes, dreams that I can't be sure are memories or just bits and pieces that my imagination has conjured." He shook his head, avoiding her eyes. Under her steady gaze, his blush deepened. "But we aren't here to talk about me. You've been in trouble for a while, and you need my help."
"How much do you know about all of that?"
"I know that it probably has something to do with the time you spent in the Congo, and that there is some sort of conspiracy involved. For them to send out as much artillery as they did, they must want you pretty bad. Yet in spite of that, they didn't bring any charges against you until I became involved."
"What have they accused me of?"
"Felony theft of an automobile, the murder of a federal agent… Forrester, I think his name was, and terrorism."
Lois grimaced. "They have the influence to make those charges stick, too, even if they have to manufacture every piece of evidence from scratch."
"You don't seem to have much faith in the justice system."
"If you'd seen the things I have, you wouldn't trust it either." Lois shook her head. "I tried going to the authorities as soon as I got back to America."
"They tried to have me killed. The man I spoke with was working for them, and when he put me into 'protective custody', I barely got out alive." It had been a terrifying experience, a time in her life that Lois did not like to think about.
"So who are they? If they want you dead so badly, you must have some idea about what they are doing."
Lois lowered her voice. "I don't know nearly as much as they think I do. I personally witnessed the murder of a DEA agent and three other people; and I saw weapons being shipped illegally from Metropolis Harbor to Porto Alegre, Brazil, and from there to Pointe Noire on the African coast. I have strong reason to believe that our own government is involved, but I have no real proof."
They were approaching an area lit by streetlights up ahead, but Clark Kent's face was shadowed in darkness. Lois squinted, trying to get a feel for his reaction to what she'd said.
"It doesn't sound like you have enough information to really hurt them. You know what you saw, but it'd be hard to prove." His voice was carefully noncommittal. "So you ran."
She could hear a note of censure in his voice, as though he'd expected something different from her. She felt a ridiculous urge to defend her own actions.
"I ran. I have a sister and parents who love me, and I let them think I was dead for five long years. I did what I had to do." She shuddered at a distant memory. "If you only knew what they were capable of… "
"So you ran to Arizona, took on an assumed name, and started writing conspiracy novels."
"I had to protect the people that I love!" Lois found that her voice was a little sharper than she'd intended. "If it had just been me, I'd have taken the risk in a minute. I was famous for not looking before I leaped back then."
They reached the edge of the lit area, and Clark Kent stopped.
"I'm sorry. You did what you have to do. It's just… when I look at you, it's hard not to get a little confused."
"You get me mixed up with the woman from the tape."
Lois refused to look at him. "Your debut. A woman helped you swallow that bomb… a woman who looked just like me. You aren't the only one who is confused."
Lois hadn't intended to ask him so quickly. She'd hoped to get his promise of help before pressing the issue, but something within her refused to let the question die.
He sighed. "The explanation for that is going to be a little hard to believe."
"Harder to believe than the idea that a man can fly?"
"Yes." He seemed to be searching for the words, and Lois waited patiently. She shivered when a cold night breeze came off the water. "We'd better keep moving," Clark said quietly.
They began walking, and Clark hesitated before speaking again. "Have you ever wondered what might have happened if you'd made different choices in your life?"
Lois gave him a sharp look, and said, "I've already explained why I've done what I've done."
"Life is about choices, and sometimes it's the simple ones that can change the course of your whole life." Clark's head snapped around, and he seemed to be listening for something for a moment. Finally he relaxed.
"You choose to drive to work in one direction instead of another, and maybe you have an accident, or maybe you stumble into the person you are meant to spend the rest of your life with, or maybe you go the other way, and neither of those things happen."
Lois nodded quietly. Clark gently led her to the right, and they silently crossed a set of streetcar tracks.
"I've been wondering what might have happened if I'd decided to come to Metropolis a couple of years earlier. I've been wondering that for a long time. We might have met, worked together… become partners… "
Lois grimaced. "You barely know me. I met you for the very first time two weeks ago, and if you are telling the truth about having amnesia, you've only known me for a few hours."
"It seems like I've known you for a lot longer."
"You were telling me about the imposter?"
He sighed. "A woman claiming to be Lois Lane forced her way into my life two years ago. She knew everything about me, about where I came from and what I could do. She told me a wild story, and somehow she convinced me to go public with my abilities."
"What sort of wild story?"
He laughed uncomfortably. "She was traveling with an older British gentleman. She claimed that they both came from another world."
He shook his head. "The man she was traveling with claimed to be H.G. Wells."
"The dead writer." Lois couldn't help the flat tone in her voice.
"That's what I thought too. I thought she was crazy, but she knew everything about me… things I'd never told anyone but Lana."
Lois wondered how much they'd had to give Lana Lang to betray all his secrets. It would have taken a lot of effort to surgically alter someone, but they could have done it. If it gave them some sort of hold on the most powerful man on earth, it would have been worth it. She was surprised that they'd used her face, though. It was widely known that she was dead. Perhaps they'd begun to suspect that she was still alive and had meant to flush her out.
"I've already told you that Lana can't be trusted."
He shook his head, looking stubborn and angry at the same time.
"She claimed to be from another Metropolis, one where different choices had been made."
Lois sighed. "I know how much you'd like to believe that. What did she tell you? That your parents were still alive in this other world?"
"We all wish we could go back and undo things… make things better. But you can never go back, Clark. We have to deal with the world as it is. We're stuck with the choices we've made."
"I've been there." His voice was quiet. "It really is a different world."
Lois was silent for a long moment. Either she chose to believe him, or she didn't. He seemed sincere, but it was possible that he hadn't been in his right mind. It would be easy to dismiss his claims as being the result of a disturbed mind, but Lois had seen the tape of herself in places she'd never been.
She decided that she wouldn't argue for the moment. She'd reserve judgment until later. She could see lights and hear the buzz of a crowd coming from a block ahead. A large green and white striped awning covered an outside patio which she could already see was half full.
She glanced up at Clark and something in his expression shocked her.
"You fell for her, didn't you?"
He shook his head and refused to look her in the eyes. "I wasn't free to do that."
"She was already involved with someone else."
She could tell from his tone of voice that he didn't want to discuss the issue anymore. It embarrassed him, and she could see the traces of old pain in his eyes. She could barely contain her curiosity. She'd gotten married to someone else?
She wondered if he'd hoped to use her as a replacement for the other Lois Lane, and she felt vaguely insulted. He seemed to have trouble distinguishing her from her counterpart, but that was something she could understand.
It took everything she had to look at him and not see Kade standing there; but the more time she spent with him, the easier it became.
Kade had been more confident and quicker witted. He'd spoken less and listened more. The person she was standing with now seemed much more vulnerable and less happy with himself and the world.
They reached the edge of the covered patio. Even at five thirty in the morning, the tables were half full. Most of the patrons seemed to be half-drunken tourists; many were speaking loudly and laughing uproariously. The smells coming from inside were enticing however.
The tourists ignored the chill in the air. In the distance, Lois could see a large statue at the forefront of a well-manicured lawn. A towering church cathedral loomed in the distance. Lois had seen pictures of Jackson Square, and she knew that the streets would later be filled with horse drawn carriages as well as vehicular traffic. At this time of the morning, however, traffic was sparse to nonexistent.
Lois shivered again. The Kade she'd known was gone, and she didn't know if she'd ever get him back.
Clark smiled at her. "You'll feel better when you get out of the wind."
He led her under the awning and toward the entrance of the Caf‚ Du Monde.
"We've got a lot to talk about," Lois said. He hadn't agreed to help her, but she felt sure that he would. There were plans to be laid and things to be done. He wasn't Kade, but she'd known better than to hope for that, and he had the power to help. For the first time, she allowed herself to believe that she might actually have a chance to change things. The idea that she might actually be able to see her family again, that she might resume her life was almost more than she could bear.
She had to remain focused on the problem at hand. It would be easy to become distracted by inconsequential things, such as the devastating resemblance of the man beside her to Kade. She was a professional and was more than capable of ignoring such petty distractions.
He ushered her inside without a word.
Lois stepped into the Caf‚ Du Monde, and her stomach immediately began to rumble in response to the smell of coffee and sweets. She'd been busy following Lana Lang for most of the day before and hadn't had a chance to eat anything better than a hotdog from a street vendor. That had been twelve hours before.
The interior wasn't fancy. The building was old, possibly very old, and fans on the high ceiling whirled lazily, pushing hot air back down to the patrons. The warmth of the interior was a welcome change from the bone chilling cold of the past few hours. The overcoat, blanket and ski cap she'd bought from the homeless man had been thin and hadn't offered much protection from the winter winds in Metropolis.
Her skin crawled when she slipped into them, but she'd done worse things in her efforts to escape her pursuers. There was something about adversity that destroyed the minor qualms of life.
Lois stood for a moment, soaking in the heat. Even at six in the morning half the tables were filled, and she could only imagine what it was like at rush hour. Most of the patrons seemed to be tourists with hangovers; the locals were busy reading newspapers and sipping coffee.
She felt Clark Kent step into the room behind her, and he slipped past her, obviously uncomfortable with their close proximity.
He'd been careful to keep his distance from her except while they were flying, and she was grateful for that. It was hard enough to look at him and feel an echo of the attraction she felt for Kade. To feel his hand on her arm or to smell his familiar scent would have brought up memories of a night she couldn't afford to think about.
She needed a clear head. There was time to worry about love after her family was safe. It was as simple as that.
"Just find a seat. I'll go up and order."
"I'll have my coffee black." It had been quite some time since Lois had slept as well, and in the heat of the caf‚, she was beginning to feel a little drowsy. Caffeine would give her the energy she needed to make plans.
Clark hesitated. "The coffee here is a little stronger than what you might be used to, Lois."
Lois shook her head. "I like my coffee strong."
He looked at her for a long moment, then shrugged.
Lois scanned the room, and found an isolated table in the corner. Despite the temperature, many of the tourists were seated out on the covered patio, where they could get a good view of Jackson Square. That left the inside mostly to the locals, who were busy minding their own business.
Lois took her seat. The tables didn't have tablecloths, but she hadn't really expected that they would. The whole place had a feeling of age. The building was at least a century old, and it could have easily been twice that.
Lois slipped her coat off. She'd left the blanket lying on the alley back in Metropolis, and as she pulled the cap off she wondered if her hair looked terrible.
She was tempted to slip off to the bathroom to freshen up, but Clark was already returning with two large, steaming cups of coffee.
"They're going to make the beignets up fresh for us."
Lois nodded. He didn't say anything about her hair, and Lois was grateful for that. He'd been engaged for several years, and it showed. He'd obviously learned the value of tact.
He handed her the cup of coffee, and he seemed to be waiting expectantly. He wasn't looking at her hair and Lois was puzzled as to just what he was waiting for.
She took a sip of her coffee and almost gagged.
She saw the amused expression on his face and she scowled. He'd been waiting for her to react to the coffee. She quickly composed her features and took another sip. "What sort of coffee did you say this was?"
He grinned. "It's a dark roast coffee mixed with chicory."
He nodded. "I spent some time down here when I was traveling the world, and I once heard a tourist call it 'evil incarnate'."
"You knew I'd react this way and you let me drink it."
"Well, you wanted some strong coffee… " He smiled and quickly switched her coffee with his. "It's sort of a tradition around here to watch the expressions on tourists' faces when they insist on having strong coffee."
Lois stiffened. "I am not a tourist!"
She sipped the second cup of coffee cautiously and gave him a surprised smile. "This is actually good!"
"It's the caf‚ Du Monde's version of Caf‚ au lait. It's what happens when you dilute the coffee you were just drinking with an equal amount of milk."
He sipped the undiluted coffee, then stared at the cup speculatively. "You develop a taste for this stuff if you drink it this way long enough."
"Trying to impress the locals?"
"I was trying to fit in." He frowned, staring at the table. "It didn't really work, but it left me with the occasional craving for this sort of coffee."
Lois sipped her caf‚ au lait again, reveling in the feeling of warmth that was spreading through her body.
"Did you spend a lot of time trying to fit in?" Lois had an image of a lonely little boy, an orphan who had lost two sets of parents and didn't have a family to call his own. It was a heartbreaking thought.
He nodded. "It wasn't easy. I was bounced around a lot as a kid, so I never developed any real friendships other than Lana. When I traveled the world, I couldn't stay at any one place for very long for fear that people would begin to suspect what I was."
"I'm sorry about what happened to your parents."
Clark nodded. "There wasn't anything anyone could have done. It's just one of those things that happen to people."
Most people weren't twice orphaned. Clark had lost not merely two sets of parents, but also an entire world full of beings like him. If anyone was alone in the world, he was.
They sat together for a long moment sipping coffee.
"I know what it's like to be alone," Lois said carefully. "I lost my family when I had to run, and I don't even know if they are still alive."
"They're alive," Clark said.
"How do you know?"
"After the other Lois left, I looked for you."
"As a substitute for her." Lois's tone was flat.
He frowned. "I thought you might be a lot like her. When I was with her, I felt alive. I liked who I was when I was with her, and I hoped I could find that again."
"It's nice to know that we are so easily replaceable."
He shook his head. "It wasn't like that. She's a married woman… untouchable."
"So you decided to go for second best." The entire subject irritated her. When he looked at her, he saw another woman entirely. Lois had never liked coming in second in anything.
He flushed slightly. "She told me that what I felt for her was a pale shadow of what I was meant to feel for you."
"Why would she say something like that?"
"Maybe she believed in destiny."
Lois stared at him for a moment, her mind working quickly. "Let me guess. My counterpart was married to yours."
He nodded, carefully avoiding her eyes.
If it was all true, it would explain a great number of things. It explained how her counterpart had known Clark Kent's secrets when no one else had. It explained why she would have gone to him, and it would explain his unnatural attraction for her.
"Destiny is overrated; the future is what you make of it." Lois shook her head. "That was a different world where different choices were made. Don't make the mistake of assuming that it means anything here."
"It means that the possibility exists… "
"The possibility is always there when you get two single people of the opposite sex together. Just because you feel attracted to someone doesn't mean that you have to give in to it."
Kade would have asked if that meant she was attracted to him. Lois found herself waiting for the question. She was mildly disappointed at his silence. She glanced up at him and was surprised to see a small hurt look on his face.
She sighed. "I'm not saying that there aren't possibilities. I'm just saying that we have more important things to worry about right now."
After a moment, he nodded.
"When was the last time you checked up on my family?"
"I always hoped there might be a chance that you'd come back to them, so I made a habit of checking in with them every few months."
"They didn't think that it was odd that Superman was interested in a five-year- old missing person's case?"
"I told them that Perry White had asked me to look into the disappearance."
"I thought Superman wasn't supposed to lie."
He looked slightly embarrassed. "I could hardly tell them the real reason that I was interested. Perry did ask me to find you, you know. I just didn't tell them everything."
They were both silent for a long, uncomfortable moment before Lois spoke again. In a quieter voice, she asked, "Are they all right?"
"Your father is busy trying to build cyborg soldiers for the government. He seems happy with his work, and while he's had a number of girlfriends over the past few years, he hasn't married any of them. Your sister seems quite happy about that."
Lois felt relieved. If anyone would never change, it was her father. They hadn't gotten along for years, but she loved him.
"Your sister seems to be adjusting to suburban life."
"She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and the last thing I heard, they were hoping to have a baby."
"We're talking about my sister, Lucy Lane?" Lois couldn't help the tone of disbelief in her voice.
"Lucy March now. She married a screenwriter named Joseph March three years ago."
Lois relaxed. "So they're living from paycheck to paycheck while she takes odd jobs to make ends meet."
Clark looked at her strangely. "Her husband is actually fairly successful. Lucy recently went back to college hoping to get a degree in social work."
Lois shook her head. "It'll never last. Lucy was never able to stick with one thing in her life."
"She seems like a serious young woman to me." Clark sipped his coffee. "I think your disappearance made her re-evaluate her life."
Lois wasn't sure how she felt about that. It would be a good thing for Lucy to finally take things seriously, but she couldn't help but wonder if she'd even know her own sister. People weren't supposed to change.
"What about my mother?"
"She had a hard time after you disappeared. She won't talk about that time much, and neither will anyone else."
Lois wasn't surprised. Her mother had never dealt well with stress. Seeking solace in a bottle had always been easier than facing her children. She hoped that things hadn't gotten too bad, of course, but if her mother was up and around then things couldn't have gotten too much out of control.
Clark grimaced. "She's been mourning your death for the last five years."
"She always knew how to milk a situation and make it all about her."
Clark stiffened. "There isn't one of them that doesn't think about you every day. You didn't see how grateful they were to have Superman's help. They were so eager for any news, for the meager hope that you might be alive. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this didn't matter to them. In a way, they've kept their lives on hold for the past five years."
"This hasn't been easy for me either."
He frowned. "I know why you did what you did, and I understand. But I also know what it's like to lose your family… it's a pain that you never really recover from. You may tell people that it doesn't matter, that it was a long time ago, but deep down there are wounds that never really heal."
Despite the temperature, he drank the remaining half of his coffee in one long gulp.
"When I went to the other world, I had a chance to see what my parents would have grown into. It hurt more than I could imagine to see them, but in retrospect it was an incredible gift. For the first time, I had a chance to actually say goodbye. I got to hug them, and if they weren't really my parents, they were close enough that it didn't matter."
He looked up as a waitress arrived. She set two plates in front of them. Each had three large square pastries. Each pastry was covered with a mound of powdered sugar.
She heard Clark ask for another cup of black chicory coffee. The beignets were fresh. She touched one with her finger experimentally and jerked it back. They were steaming hot.
She looked for a good place to cut one with a fork.
Clark grinned at her. "You may as well give up. There isn't any way to eat these and remain neat."
Lois tried, but she quickly discovered that the powdered sugar found its way onto everything. Giving up, she took her first bite.
She smiled in delight, and Clark smiled with her.
"I knew New Orleans was renowned for its food, but I hadn't realized that it was this good."
The waitress returned with his coffee quickly and they both ate in silence, enjoying the taste of the beignets and the coffee. Lois found that she could only eat one; the dough seemed to swell in her stomach leaving her fuller than she could have imagined being.
Clark was quick to appropriate her beignets, finishing with a speed that was almost superhuman.
"Most people just get an order of three for a whole table, but since I don't have to worry about counting calories… "
"You like to rub things in, don't you." Lois frowned at him. "It's a good thing I mostly stopped worrying about what I ate years ago."
He lifted a questioning eyebrow.
"It's hard to worry about your health when you don't expect to live six more months." Lois shook her head and sipped the last of her caf‚ au lait. "I decided a long time ago that food was one of the pleasures in life, and that life was too short to deny yourself." She made the mistake of looking up. He was leaning forward, and for a moment she thought he was going to make a suggestion like Kade would have, something filled with innuendo. Her mind flashed back involuntarily to their one night together, and she blushed.
Strangely enough, he seemed to be blushing as well, and an instant later he looked away.
Despite her irritation with his confusion about her identity, she was confused as well. She'd fallen in love with a silent drifter, and here was a man who shared his body and yet was not the same man. She was attracted to him, and she couldn't be sure which of his personalities she was drawn to.
The best thing to do would be to get to business. The light of dawn was arriving already, and traffic was picking up on the road outside.
"We should really come up with a plan."
Clark nodded. He was staring at her in a disconcerting way, so Lois rushed on.
"We can't be seen together." Lois hesitated, then spoke in a rush. "If they found out you were working with me, they'd kill my family."
That got his attention. He straightened up slightly. "Are you sure about that?"
She nodded. "Until I can be sure my family is totally safe, I can't be involved where I might get caught."
"So I'm on my own?"
She shook her head. "We're going to have to work together on this one. I'm just not sure how it will work.
"They bugged my apartment."
"I'm not surprised. They really seem to like that sort of thing. They aren't afraid of using blackmail to get what they want."
"I've already got a friend in the FBI looking into things. With his help, and Lana's… "
Lois shook her head. "I don't know your friend in the FBI, but there are two possibilities. Either he can't be trusted, or he can. If he can, then his life is in danger every moment he picks through things he shouldn't. As for your girlfriend… "
"She let me know that she was bugged. I think she can be trusted."
Lois shook her head. The man would trust anybody. "I know the name of the man who betrayed me in the FBI. It should be possible to track them down either through his contact with them, or from the money trails coming from the arms sales."
"That's assuming that the arms sales are still going on. If they've already put a dictator in power then there should be no need for any more arms sales."
"One thing you need to know about people, Clark. When it comes to power and money, there is never enough to satisfy anyone. If they have the Congo wrapped up, there are still countries like Rwanda and the other surrounding areas that are ripe for rebellions and all sorts of other business."
He looked as though he wanted to protest, but Lois spoke firmly. "We have enough to go on, Clark. We don't need anyone else."
He looked as though he wanted to argue, and Lois suspected that he wasn't going to let it go.
Clark's face took on a stubborn, set look, and Lois knew he wouldn't be easy to convince.
"Look, your friend works for the government, and there isn't any way to know whether he's been compromised or not. Lana Lang has been threatened. Even if she is helping you now, how long until the pressure gets to her?"
"I think I know Lana better than that." Clark looked uncomfortable. "She may have her flaws, but disloyalty isn't one of them."
"You are asking her to put her loyalty to you over her loyalty to her own mother."
Clark shook his head. "Lana knows that these sorts of people can't be trusted."
Lois leaned forward. "They can be trusted to carry out their threats." She hesitated, then spoke in a softer voice. "I've seen what they do to the families of people who betray them."
"Your family will be safe. I'll make sure of it."
"Can you be in three places at once?" Lois's voice was grim. "I'm sure you have no trouble sniffing out things like car bombs, but you have to be there to do it… or at least I assume you do."
He nodded, then said, "We can move them to a safe location."
"For how long?" Lois shook her head. "I know my family, and they won't put up with that sort of disruption in their lives for very long."
Clark frowned. "None of them are tied to nine to five jobs, really. Your sister's husband can write his screenplays just about anywhere. Your mother is retired; she can put her charities on hold for a while."
"My father won't want to leave his work, and my mother won't accept being cooped up for long. As for Lucy… it doesn't sound like I know her well enough anymore to make a real prediction."
"So what do you want us to do?"
Lois could sympathize with the look of frustration on Clark's face. She'd been dealing with the same frustrations for the last five years as she tried to formulate various plans of attack.
"As far as people looking for me are concerned, it has to look as though I've vanished again."
"Is that what you want to do?"
Lois shook her head. "I've been looking over my shoulder for far too long, but for the moment they need to believe that."
Clark nodded slowly, then said, "We still need Jim Creed's help. He has government clearance and he has contacts who might be able to help us find out what we need."
"And if he works for the enemy?"
"You worry a lot about people betraying you."
"Our situations are completely different," Lois said. "A bullet in the back of the head will kill me, and I have three family members who are essentially being held hostage in return for my silence."
"Why haven't they threatened your family before?"
"The threat doesn't do any good unless I learn of it."
"They could simply kill your entire family out of hand."
Lois shook her head. "If they did that, I wouldn't have anything to lose." She allowed herself to look grim. "People without anything to lose are unpredictable and dangerous."
"You've said yourself that you don't have any proof."
"They can't be sure how much I know, or how much proof I might have. The fact that they've been looking for me for so long suggests that they think I know more than I do."
Clark grimaced. "What information you do have is five years old. If anything has happened to the agent who betrayed you, and if they've stopped selling arms now that a new regime is in power, then all our leads will have dried up. We need Jim Creed and we need Lana Lang."
Lois sighed, pushing her empty cup of caf‚ au lait to one side. "I can understand why you might think we need the help of this FBI agent, but what could Lana possibly do for us?"
"I've made a date to attend a concert with her on Friday. The music should play havoc with their attempts to listen in, and they'll probably want to contact her to find out what we said. All I have to do is follow her after the concert, and then follow the messenger back to wherever he reports to. Even if he just calls in, I'll be able to listen in, and maybe get some phone numbers."
Lois's mind sped through a number of possibilities before she nodded slowly. "You'll have to be careful that they don't notice that you are missing… I'd be careful about the people in the seats around you as well. I wouldn't put it past them to plant an agent where he might be in a position to eavesdrop."
"I suppose I should watch out for hidden cameras in peoples' purses as well."
"And in the balconies and the roof… pretty much everywhere. With a good angle and a telephoto lens, a trained lip reader can get the majority of your conversation. If you don't want anything to happen to Lana, you'll be careful."
"You sound like you are finally agreeing to letting Jim and Lana in."
Lois shook her head. "The fact that I have contacted you is on a need to know basis, and they don't. In fact, it might be best if you didn't tell them about each other. If one of them is a traitor and the other isn't, letting them know could be disastrous."
Clark frowned, then slowly nodded.
Lois continued. "They'll expect you to be interested in finding out who attacked you in Arizona even if I never re-enter the picture, so I don't suppose there is much risk in continuing that, unless you should get too close and scare them into hiding. They might even be suspicious if you suddenly ceased your investigations."
Clark nodded. "There's always the chance that Jim will come up with something, and if he does, we'll be able to nail them with it."
Clark probably intended to make the evidence public. That wouldn't be a bad strategy, assuming they could get the information to reach print and that they had the evidence to back it up. A large public outcry would force bureaucrats to purge their ranks; secrecy was the enemy's greatest strength. If necessary, they would plead with the president.
The problem was in getting the evidence they needed.
"We're going to have to get hard evidence if we're going to nail anyone."
"We'll get it."
Clark's voice was confident. Lois wished she shared his optimism. Having the power to move mountains probably led him to expect success in everything. She'd have to watch him closely; her research suggested that he tended to approach problems directly. Someone used to bursting through walls might find it difficult to sneak in the back door.
"I wish I could be so certain. It scares me to think about how much power these people have."
"We don't really know how much power these people have… or how little. Most of the people attacking me were only following orders. Only one or two of the officers were actually in on the conspiracy. All they really need are a few key people in the right positions."
"They had no reason to suspect I might be in Arizona, and yet they had two men in power there. How many military bases are there across the country? They must have hundreds of people working for them at the least in the military alone."
Clark spoke quietly. "Nevertheless, you have to believe that most people have not been corrupted. We're dealing with a small crowd of bad apples."
"Some of them might not even be that bad. I think that once the leadership falls the rest should be easy. People like Lana who have obeyed only because of blackmail or threats would gladly testify in return for immunity or reduced sentences."
"Lana hasn't really cooperated with them. She let me know what was going on."
He was very quick to defend his ex-girlfriend. It irritated Lois to know how gullible he could be; he wanted to see the best in people despite the evidence. Such gullibility would have gotten anyone else killed; Clark Kent could afford to be gullible. They couldn't kill him, and he didn't have any surviving family members. She didn't have that luxury.
Lois pushed her cup and plate away, suddenly unable to think about eating or drinking another bite.
"So you'll basically continue to do what you've been doing."
"And what will you be doing?" Clark looked at her for a moment, then said, "It's going to be hard to work together if they'll be watching me as closely as you think they will."
"I can't afford to be seen with you. We'll have to work alone."
"How will I keep in contact with you?"
"Don't worry about that. I'll contact you when I have anything important to share, and I'll check in regularly to see what your developments are."
"What?" Lois had a bad feeling. Clark had a set, stubborn look on his face again.
"I've been looking for you for too long; I won't risk losing you again."
"You never had me to begin with. That was another woman, and she chose to be with another man."
Lois regretted the statement the moment she said it. It was cruel and unnecessary, and she was rapidly coming to the conclusion that Clark Kent wore his heart on his sleeve. It simply irritated her to be confused for some sort of imposter.
She sighed and reached across the table to touch his hand. They were both startled by the spark of electricity that arced between them, and their eyes met. Lois was the first to look away, and she slowly pulled her hand from his.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that." She refused to look at him. "I guess I've gotten into the habit of attacking people whenever they get too close."
"Am I getting too close?"
The question sounded like something Kade might have asked, and Lois found her head snapping around to stare into his eyes hopefully. She was disappointed. Clark Kent was the only person staring back at her.
The fact that her fingers still tingled from touching him didn't matter at all.
It took her a moment to remember his question, and another to formulate an answer. "I've been on my own for a long time, and I'm not used to someone else thinking they have a claim on me."
"I won't let you go without knowing where you are. If you were captured, I wouldn't even know where to start looking."
Lois didn't bother to mention that her enemies wanted her dead. If she went missing, the best place to look for her would be in the sewer somewhere.
She hesitated for a moment, then pulled a small cell phone from an inside pocket of the threadbare overcoat she'd bought from the homeless man.
"I bought two cell phones anonymously at different places and purchased a hundred minutes of air time each. This phone has the number of the other one programmed into speed dial; just press one and you'll reach me."
Clark looked uncomfortable. "Cell phone transmissions are easily intercepted. Anyone with a police scanner can… "
"Try not to call me anywhere near your normal haunts. When you do call, I'll pretend to work for your local pizza joint- Tony's."
Clark rolled his eyes, and Lois scowled in irritation. "Just humor me. We'll have to meet regularly; I wouldn't want to talk about sensitive information on the phone. Order one pizza and we'll meet in the alley we first met. Two pizzas and we'll meet where you dropped me off in Metropolis."
"This all sounds a little paranoid."
"I did a lot of research on this sort of stuff under the pretense of doing research for my books."
The doubtful look on his face irritated her again. While it was true that much of her knowledge was based on things she had read, she'd had lots of time to practice. She'd even learned to hot wire a car and pick locks from a drug runner while she was in South America working her way north. She would have preferred to find a ship going directly from Africa to a port in North America or Europe, but she'd known they were looking for her.
Clark hesitated, then nodded. "You're going to show me where you are staying."
She shook her head. Denying him might not do any good; all he'd have to do was follow her with his x-ray vision. She had to make the gesture in any case; it would be easier for her to slip in and out unnoticed without him.
He frowned for a moment, then relaxed. "I guess I'll have to live with it."
He was a terrible liar. He'd have to be careful about that, or it would get them all in trouble. She smiled at him grimly. "I guess we'd better get back, unless you really want the tourists to get a lot of shots of you flying through the air."
She gestured outside. Traffic had already begun to pick up, and Lois could see the first horse drawn carriage making its way down the street.
Clark nodded. He pulled several bills from his wallet and dropped them on the table, then stood. Lois followed suit, slipping the dirty overcoat back on in spite of her qualms. She'd have to take a long, long bath when this was all over.
Lois followed him quickly outside. They turned a corner and began to make their way along a long road closed to street traffic. Street artists were already staking out positions, placing examples of their art all around them.
Lois felt a momentary desire to throw her concerns to the wind and simply take in the ambiance. It had been years since she'd allowed herself to simply have fun. She could hear the sound of street musicians coming from a block over, and the growing crowds of pedestrians had a sort of energy she hadn't experienced in a long time.
New Orleans didn't have the angry, gloomy feel that Metropolis had. It was more laid back and fun loving, and that was something she'd been missing for a long time. It was something she'd admired Kade for; he hadn't seemed to worry about anything. When he wanted something, he went for it.
She glanced at the man beside her. The differences between him and the man she'd made love to were striking. He claimed not to have any memories of their time together, and in a way, she was relieved. She'd made love to Kade; having a different man have those memories would seem like a violation.
If he had those memories, he'd look at her differently. He was aware of her as a woman; she saw occasional flashes of it in his eyes. He didn't have the passion that Kade had possessed, and yet she couldn't help but be aware of him.
He led her through a small maze of streets. The buildings were set close together and there were often balconies with intricately decorated ironwork rails. The buildings were well worn, most being over a century old.
It took Lois a moment to notice that the street they turned down was deserted. A moment later everything tumbled around her as she was jerked into the sky, moving forward at a tremendous rate. She bit back a scream as she realized that Clark Kent had his arms around her.
"I'm sorry about that. A car was about to turn the corner, and that was the first deserted street I could find."
"You could have given me whiplash!" Lois said angrily.
He shook his head. "An aura of energy surrounds my body and protects me from harm. Usually it just projects out a fraction of an inch from my skin, but I can will it to provide a limited protection to things I carry. Without it, I couldn't pick up really huge objects like the space shuttle. Concentrating the weight of a battleship on an area the size of my palms should just tear right through like tissue paper."
"What does all of that have to do with giving me whiplash?" Lois asked angrily.
"It protects against g-forces and even allows you to breathe in the face of supersonic wind speeds." He grinned smugly at her.
For the first time Lois became aware of the speed at which the ground was passing beneath them. The wind should have been hitting her in the face so hard that she couldn't see; instead she was barely aware of it at all.
"Of course, it only works up to certain speed. When I decide to fly really fast, I have to fly solo."
"You can fly faster than this?" Lois gasped.
He grinned. "I might as well be walking."
For a moment he looked like a little boy showing off a shiny new toy, and Lois could almost detect a trace of Kade in his smile. She found herself smiling back without meaning to.
He was the strongest man in the world, and yet he looked to her for approval. It was a heady feeling, one exacerbated by the fact that Lois was becoming aware once again of the corded muscles pressed against her. He smelled like Kade, and Lois was finding it difficult not to think back on the night they spent together.
It was almost a relief when he finally spoke.
"Where do you want me to drop you?"
"Drop me off by Hobbs Bay in a deserted area."
"That's a bad part of the city to get lost in."
"I know my way, and I'm a first dan black belt in Tae Kwon Do." At his glance she shrugged and said, "I've had plenty of time to practice, trust me."
"Most of the thugs in the area are armed."
"So am I." It was Lois's turn to feel smug at his astonished expression. She was pleased as well. He hadn't used his x-ray vision, or he would have seen the pistol she was carrying. He was an honorable man.
"You need to watch a little more carefully."
"I don't usually have many problems with weapons," he said.
That was probably true. Very few people probably even bothered to pull a weapon in his presence anymore. Still, it meant that he wasn't looking for spying devices either.
Metropolis appeared below them, and it seemed like only an instant before they landed.
As Clark's feet finally touched the pavement, he realized that he was strangely reluctant to let Lois go. It felt good to have her in his arms; he hadn't realized how much he'd come to crave simple human contact until he'd held her. It had the same feeling of rightness that he'd had the first time he'd flown with the other Lois in his arms.
He continued to hold her for a long moment, then finally allowed her feet to drop to the ground. She didn't step back immediately; instead she tilted her head back and looked him in the eye, almost as though she was searching for something. He could see a look of regret pass over her face, and she finally moved away.
"I'll be sure to get in touch with you if I find anything." Her voice was soft and she didn't look at him.
"We have to work together on this if we're to get anything accomplished." Privately, Clark hoped that he would be able to solve the problem on his own. It would be better if she didn't have to keep putting herself at risk. He'd seen first hand how fragile human beings could be. Now that he'd found her, he couldn't imagine losing her again. He'd spent far too many lonely evenings wondering what might have been.
She stood awkwardly in the terrible homeless outfit she'd chosen as a disguise. Clark's nose was sensitive enough to tell her just where the coat had been and what had happened to it, but she wouldn't have thanked him for the information.
She stood staring at him for a moment, and he wondered if he'd missed something that she'd said. Finally she spoke. "I'm sure you have places to be so that you won't be missed."
It took him a moment to realize that she wanted him to leave so that she could slip away. Reluctantly he nodded. "If you have any problems, make sure that you give me a call."
It was daytime in Metropolis; Clark looked around for a moment to make sure that no one was looking, then quickly spun into his suit.
Lois gaped at him, and Clark carefully kept a grin from crossing his face. It was harder to do once he noticed her eyes beginning to roam downward. The burgeoning blush on her face almost made the months of embarrassment he'd suffered worthwhile.
He finally allowed a small smile to creep to the surface. "Anything I wear when I'm flying at full speed has to be skin tight."
It was the first time she'd seen him in the suit, and he was gratified by the effect it seemed to have on her. He'd known the other Lois liked the suit, and he'd hoped she would be the same. He hadn't changed merely to impress her; it had long been his policy to only fly while in costume during the day. It helped separate his public and private lives.
"I suppose having all your clothes burn off would be a little inconvenient." Lois's voice was distant as she carefully kept her gaze at a point over his left shoulder.
"There are stories I could tell you about things that happened when I was just learning… " Clark noticed that her blush was increasing, and he finally took pity on her.
"I suppose I need to get back anyway. It's nearly eight in the morning already, and I have work to do."
She nodded, and as he took to the air, she looked a little stunned.
He flew in the direction of the Daily Planet until he was out of sight, and then he stopped, hovering silently in the air.
He'd searched for her for too long to lose her now. He watched with x-ray vision as she carefully made her way across the lot and onto a side street. She was painfully slow in making her way from street to street. The occasional glances she made at the sky suggested that she suspected that he was watching. She probably hoped to delay long enough that he would either grow impatient, or that he'd be called away on an emergency.
He hovered high in the sky; most viewers wouldn't be able to make out more than a speck at this distance, and that was what he was hoping for. It wouldn't do for the public to realize that Superman was floating over the city as though he was searching for something. It would reawaken old paranoid fears in people, and the people of Metropolis were only now beginning to trust each other once again.
Forty-five minutes after he had left her, Lois reached a subway terminus. Shortly afterwards she stepped onto a train headed for the center of the city.
In places it was hard for Clark to follow the subway line due to old, outmoded lead piping, but he had no trouble following Lois's path. When she finally disembarked, he was surprised at how close the station was to his apartment. She was taking a small risk in moving around in this part of the city, even if people tended to never really look at the homeless.
Lois turned down an alleyway and began walking quickly as soon as she was sure no one was looking. She slipped behind a decrepit trash dumpster to stand in front of a boarded-over basement window. She checked the windowsill for a moment, then seemed to relax. She carefully lifted the board out of the way and slipped through the window.
It was good that she was such a petite woman, because there was barely room for her to slip through even after she slipped out of her overcoat. She pulled the coat in behind her and replaced the board.
She shrugged back into the coat once she was inside, and the caution with which she moved silently from room to room made Clark scan the structure. He was relieved to discover nothing larger than a few rats.
It was the old Sarah Bernhardt Theater building. The place had been condemned for years; Clark carefully checked the structure for dangerous faults and was surprised to discover that the building was sound.
A few years back, one company had proposed to clear away some of the older sections of Metropolis in favor of newer civic renovations. The theater had been one of the first targeted for destruction. After the owner had disappeared, all the plans had fallen through. The companies that had been part of the growing Luthor empire had been gobbled up by corporate raiders one by one.
When Lois finally seemed confident that the building was empty, she headed for a small room on the third floor. The room contained a small cot, a card table with a laptop computer and several packets hidden under various loose boards.
It looked as though Lois had illegally tapped back into the power lines nearby; she'd likely done the same to create a telephone connection. The connections were inexpert, but it looked as though they worked. Clark shuddered at the thought of Lois working near high power lines. It disturbed him that she was willing to steal power. If Clark hadn't seen signs of the same sort of pragmatism in the original Lois, he might have been disappointed.
The place had running water as well. Clark was surprised when she bypassed the small room and headed for the old women's dressing rooms. There was a small women's bathroom and shower, and it took Clark a moment to realize what was happening as she entered the room and slipped out of her overcoat. When she began to unbutton the blouse beneath, he pulled his gaze away.
He had a momentary flash of entangled limbs and pale skin in the moonlight. He blinked for a moment, and it was gone.
He'd refused to think about what his alter ego might have shared with Lois Lane. It was hard to know what might have been flashes of memory, and what were simply the dreams and desires of a feverish, sleeping mind. There had been evidence of only one bed being slept in, but for all he knew his alter ego had simply stood guard over her all night. It was something he might have done, and his alter ego had surely been formed from parts of his own personality.
He was satisfied that he'd found the place Lois Lane was staying, and there wasn't much point in hovering nearby, like a beacon for anyone who was looking for her.
He turned and headed home. It was a matter of only moments before he was inside and moments more as he took another quick shower. This one was as cold as he could make it, but it didn't do much good. Cold showers had never really had much of an effect on him, but he needed something to distract him from images of perfect thighs and molten kisses.
He dried himself carefully; in the past week he'd been distracted and had somehow burned most of his towels. He was down to his last few, and he'd have to buy more soon.
He'd been careless in many ways lately. He'd been so wrapped up in his own grief that he'd let many things slide. He looked around his apartment for a moment, then burst into action. It took only a moment to clean the place from top to bottom, leaving the scent of chemical cleansers to overpower older smells.
He was officially due to be at work by nine. A glance at the clock showed that he had less than a minute. James Olsen had been more than understanding, however, and had given Clark a great deal of flexibility over the past few weeks.
Clark frowned for a moment, then flipped open his laptop. He'd left it plugged into its telephone line, not bothering to put it away. He'd begun a dozen stories over the past week and hadn't finished any of them.
It took less time than he would have thought, even being careful not to type so fast that he burned up another keyboard. He sent the stories in online, then sat back.
There wasn't anything left with which to distract himself. Clark was tempted to fly over the city looking for trouble. He didn't hear anything, and it was still a little early for the usual sort of disturbances, but there was always a chance that he'd find something.
He was tempted to look in on Lois, but he knew that she probably hadn't finished her shower yet. If she had any idea about where that overcoat and cap had been, she would be scrubbing for quite some time.
His cell telephone rang, and he sprang toward it eagerly. He was only slightly disappointed that it wasn't his hotline to Lois Lane. At this moment, any distraction would be welcome. He felt slightly anxious, eager to do something, anything other than stare at the walls of his apartment. He'd done far too much of that for the past few days. He'd done too much of it for the past two years.
He recognized Jim Creed's voice immediately. "Yes?"
It was unusual for Jim to use his last name. The stiff, formal tone Jim was using alerted Clark to the fact that something was wrong. It was possible that he was simply being careful about what he said over a cell phone.
"I'd like to talk to you about your case. Can you make it to my office in an hour?"
"I can be there in under a minute."
"I have another appointment that can't wait, but if you'll meet me in an hour, I should have something for you."
Clark felt the old journalistic excitement rising within him. It had been a long time since he'd felt excited about anything; Lois Lane had a good effect on him.
"I'll be there."
Clark launched himself out the window in the direction of the local FBI field office. It took him only a moment to find Jim Creed, and he was relieved to see that he was both safe and alone. He'd had a momentary fear that Jim was on the telephone with a gun to his head.
He'd begun to turn away when he noticed the commotion at the entrance to the basement parking lot. A glance with his x-ray vision showed dozens of FBI agents milling around. It looked as though the area was a crime scene.
He felt a momentary desire to drop down and ask if he could help. However, the federal government had never been as eager to accept his help as local governments had been, and he was currently a witness in an ongoing investigation.
He sighed and turned away. He finally gave in to the urge to peek in on Lois again.
She was leaving again. She was wearing a black turtleneck sweater, a black leather jacket and black jeans. She left from a different exit than the one she had entered from, dropping ten feet from a fire escape into the alleyway on the opposite side of the building.
She slipped through a small slit in a chain link fence and moved quickly until she could turn onto a main street. She caught a cab three blocks away that took her into one of the rougher areas of the Suicide Slum district.
Clark had a sinking feeling as he saw her dismiss the taxi and walk to the back door of a known fence. Vincent Peele had been selling stolen goods for years; Clark suspected that he regularly bribed the police to keep himself from being arrested.
Fighting corruption had been one of his greatest challenges since becoming Superman. It was easy to catch muggers and robbers; corrupt judges and district attorneys were much harder to pin down.
She greeted the man as though he were an old acquaintance. Clark wondered for a moment whether he'd once been an informant for her; it didn't seem likely. Lois didn't want it known that she was alive and in the city, and in Metropolis criminals tended to be loose lipped.
Neither Lois nor the fence said a word. The fence pulled out three laptop computers and a small box of computer disks and Lois pulled a small wad of money from her pocket. The transaction took less than forty seconds, including time for the fence to quickly count the money. The computers were all slipped into a large backpack, and Lois left quickly.
A taxicab from a different company pulled up, and Lois slipped inside. Clark was amazed by how well prepared she was; she timed the taxi's arrival almost precisely.
He would have followed her even further, but he realized that his hour was almost up. Daytime traffic had only allowed Lois's cab to move at a crawl.
Clark launched himself in the direction of the FBI field office. He moved faster than the human eye could follow and changed in midair into his civilian clothing. He could have entered the offices in his uniform, but it would have drawn more attention than he was comfortable with.
As it was, he saw several bystanders blinking as they saw a man appear seemingly out of thin air near the entrance. He stepped inside before they could say anything, and was quickly greeted by a fresh-faced young agent.
Luckily, he was on the list and it didn't take long to receive a visitor's pass.
As he followed the young agent through the hallways, he couldn't help but wonder what Lois had been doing with the fence. Years of being on the run had obviously left her willing to do whatever was necessary to survive. He'd seen traces of that sort of pragmatism in the original Lois, but nothing to the extent of this.
At times, it was hard for him to distinguish between her and the woman he'd met two years ago. That one really wasn't the original Lois any more than her Clark was the real one. The thought that he was nothing but a pale copy of her true love made him bristle, and he imagined that his Lois felt the same way.
Their existences were just as valid as those of their counterparts. He'd have to work to see this Lois as the individual that she was, instead of the one he wanted her to be. He wouldn't have wanted to be mistaken for the other Clark, and treating his Lois as though she was the other one couldn't do anything but hurt their relationship.
Changing his outlook was tough enough and convincing her that he had would be even harder, but the prize was worth the effort. He already felt more alive than he had in years. For the first time, he had the gift of hope, and it filled him with a glow of optimism that was a sharp contrast with the gloom of the past few years.
The young agent led him up to Jim Creed's office. Clark smiled and stepped inside.
Jim Creed was sitting at his desk waiting for him. The man looked haggard, as though he hadn't slept in days, and the smile he gave Clark didn't reach his eyes.
As the door closed behind him, Clark moved forward and would have spoken except for the warning expression on Jim's face.
Jim reached out to shake Clark's hand, and Clark caught a glimpse of something written on his palm in ink.
"Are we being bugged here?"
Clark froze for a moment as he read the note, then quickly scanned the room with his x-ray vision. The room was bugged even more heavily than his apartment had been, and a deep breath revealed a familiar scent in the room. The same two people who had bugged his apartment had been in the office within the last forty-eight hours.
Jim was staring at him expectantly, and Clark gave him a small nod. Jim scowled.
Clark moved around the room in a flash. A moment later he had gathered a small pile of cameras, microphones and other devices, all of which he placed on the middle of Jim Creed's desk. He reached for the telephone at normal human speeds and opened the receiver, quietly removing a final bug from the mouthpiece.
The devices seemed to be of the same make and model as the ones that had been placed in his apartment.
Clark glanced up at a shocked Jim Creed, then quietly deactivated each of the devices with a small burst of heat vision.
"They tried to bug my apartment," Clark said, by way of explanation.
Jim Creed stared at the small pile of electronics on his desk, and it was several moments before he could speak. Clark could understand his shock; there hadn't been an inch of his office that hadn't been covered by some sort of surveillance device. He sighed, looked up and said, "I guess we have a lot to talk about."
"These are exactly the same sort of devices that were used in my apartment."
Jim glanced down at the equipment. "Are these still working?"
Clark shook his head. "I've deactivated them. I think I can see serial numbers on some of them; with a little luck we may have a lead."
"You've let them know that we know we're under surveillance."
Clark shrugged. "I removed the bugs from my apartment before I knew what was involved. They know I can sense the bugs now; maybe they won't try so hard from now on."
"We could have used that knowledge to lead them into a trap…" Jim's voice trailed off and he shook his head. Clark noticed once again how tired Jim looked.
"You look like you could use a little rest."
"Someone tried to kill me in the parking garage last night. I've been up to my eyeballs in the investigation ever since."
"That's what the commotion downstairs was about?"
Jim nodded. "The FBI takes it seriously when an officer is threatened… or at least that's what I used to think."
"They aren't taking the investigation seriously?"
"They're doing everything they can, but I don't know if they'll find anything." Jim leaned back in his chair and ran his hand through his hair. "My research suggests that the unexplained death rates of intelligence officers has exploded in the past twenty years."
"The world has become a more dangerous place than it was in the seventies."
"It's more than just that. FBI and CIA agents have been disappearing regularly for the past twenty years, and the rate of accidental deaths has risen fivefold."
"OSHA doesn't inspect the premises?" It was a joke, of course. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was funded entirely by fines, but they didn't bother big government agencies much. It was easier to squeeze money from small businesses using a complicated maze of a thousand rules, some of which were contradictory. He'd tried to write an expose, but James Olsen had killed the story. He'd had too much to lose. It was unlikely that federal agents were dying in droves from carpal tunnel syndrome in any case.
Jim scowled. "This isn't funny. Someone has been killing intelligence agents for a long time, and they seem to have the power to get away with it."
"How did you start looking up death rates anyway? I'd have figured you'd still be interrogating prisoners."
"They're all dead."
Clark stiffened and sat up in his chair. He'd been overhearing the paranoid ranting of people in Metropolis for years, and it was possible that he'd become a little skeptical. If people were dead, however, that made the situation much more serious.
"They weren't guarded?" He would have thought that the men who had attacked Superman would have been under heavy guard. In the wake of saving the world from the Nightfall asteroid, his popularity was at an all time high, and there were people who would take a dim view of anyone who attacked their hero. The people in charge had to be aware of that.
"Someone changed the orders and then faked the suicides of the officers. They are playing on the idea that the military will want this covered up."
"Have you been able to track them?"
Jim shook his head. "There have been staff changes in Director Kirkland's office; he lost three employees in a car accident recently, and that has left everything in a mess."
Clark frowned. "It's quite a leap to jump from that to a massive conspiracy to kill off intelligence agents."
"There are a lot of things the FBI doesn't like to make public. In the six years I've been here, countless agents have been discredited, accidentally died, or disappeared, and yet no one seems to want to do anything about it. I got suspicious at the timing of the accident; the men who attacked you had been in custody for barely two days when the accident happened."
Clark nodded slowly. "Their deaths left an opportunity to make sure nobody talked."
"It's very rare to have a large conspiracy, no matter what the media says. Someone always seems to talk, and once one person does, the rest fall like a house of cards."
"They couldn't allow that to happen." Clark stared at Jim. "It's ruthless but effective. They don't have a choice, really. If they don't maintain fear within the ranks, everything will collapse."
"We're in a ruthless sort of business." Jim sighed. "I didn't get very far before being locked out of the system; a few hours later, someone was trying to shoot me in the face."
Clark looked around the room. "Where's your partner?"
Jim looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Frank is leading the investigation downstairs."
"Did you manage to find out anything about the men who were killed?"
"I think that the regular soldiers were innocent. That didn't stop them from being killed, though."
Clark heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. He didn't speak until they had retreated. Jim was staring at the pile of components again.
"You have the bugs from your home?" Jim asked distractedly.
Clark nodded. "I've got them at my apartment. They were put in place by the same men."
Jim's head snapped up, and he stared at Clark.
"How do you know?"
"I can smell traces of them in the air; the scents are the same."
"That won't hold up in court. It's hardly as though we could have criminals in a lineup so that you can smell them."
"If we know who they are, we might be able to follow them back to their bosses."
"Are you able to track them through the building?" Jim looked hopeful.
Clark thought about it for a moment, then reluctantly said, "I'm afraid not. At least a hundred people pass through the halls outside every day. Their scents mix with the scents left behind for weeks before that, and the smell of industrial cleaners overpowers all of it. It's just a fluke that I recognized the scent here; usually my nose is overwhelmed by it all."
"So unless you happen to bump into them… "
"We don't have a lead there."
Jim rose to his feet slowly and headed for the window. He stared at the street outside for several moments. "I wish this was easier."
Clark could understand the sentiment. As long as Lois felt threatened by the people who were after her, she wouldn't have the time or interest in exploring the possibilities of their relationship. As long as he knew that people were dying, he wouldn't be able to devote much time to it either. His parents had raised him to care for other people and despite the troubles he'd had in foster homes after they'd died, the old principles still guided him.
Unlike others, he didn't have to wonder what his life might have been like if they had lived. His trip to the other world had shown him just how much better life could have been. His other self hadn't been lonely, and he'd envied the life the other Clark Kent had built for himself. He had privacy, a career that fulfilled him, and most of all he had people who loved him.
It bothered the Lois of this world that he compared her to the other Lois. She didn't seem to understand that she had all the qualities that he'd loved about the other Lois. She was beautiful, determined, impetuous, and loyal. She'd given up her entire life for those that she loved. While he hadn't understood at first, it was becoming clear that she hadn't run from simple fear for her own existence. Despite the seeming contempt she had for her family, he could hear something in the tone of her voice that spoke of her true emotions.
It would mean the world to hear her speak of him with the same loyalty, with the same love.
Jim's shoulder's sagged, and when he turned around, it was as though he'd aged ten years. "When I joined the FBI, I thought I was joining a brotherhood. I thought I'd be able to trust any one of them with my life."
"You don't believe that any more?"
"Security for the garage is pretty good. Nobody wants a repeat of the Oklahoma City bombing, and it's very unlikely that a civilian could have made it inside without a fight. That means that the people who attacked me were my fellow FBI agents, the men who are supposed to watch my back." Jim laughed bitterly. "We're supposed to work for truth and justice, and we can't even police our own people."
"Don't let a few bad apples convince you that everything is spoiled. The vast majority of your fellow agents are hardworking, dedicated people. We'll find out who's doing this, and when we do, everything will collapse. Organizations built on fear don't last very long once their power base is lost."
"I wish I believed that. When you can't even trust your own…" Jim scowled and pivoted on one foot, heading in the direction of his filing cabinet.
"You said that you had an appointment before you could meet with me?"
"Assistant Director Kirkland has decided that it might be best if I'm taken off the case and placed in protective custody." Jim's voice was sullen, and his stance was tense.
"If people are out to kill you, I can understand why he might think so."
"Any other agent will sweep this under the rug."
Lois's paranoia was contagious. Clark found himself beginning to feel uneasy. "If you don't trust the FBI to protect you, I can find a place for you to hide."
"It may come to that. If they tried once, they'll likely try again."
"What happens if you continue the investigation after being asked not to?"
"I'll probably be suspended without pay." Jim refused to look at Clark. "It would be a black mark on my record, and it might hurt my career."
"You don't sound worried."
"I didn't become a law enforcement officer in order to further my career. If I was after money, I could have become a lawyer."
"You wanted to help people."
"My situation was a little different." Clark was surprised by the turn the conversation had taken. It had been a long time since he'd examined his motives for becoming Superman; while he'd worried about putting on the suit, he'd never considered not helping people. His conscience would not allow him to stand by while others were harmed, whatever the personal cost.
"Why? Because you aren't human?"
"I can do things nobody else can. I have a greater responsibility — "
"You could have cashed in, used your abilities to make yourself a millionaire, and no one ever would have known."
"I was raised better than that," Clark said softly.
"So was I."
The two men stared at each other for a moment. Finally, Clark sighed. "Is there anything I can do to assist you?"
"You can read things quickly and remember what you've read?"
Jim opened the top drawer of his filing cabinet and pulled out a heavy pile of thick files. "After they tried to kill me last night, I managed to get information on the investigations into the deaths and disappearances of thirty FBI agents over the past five years. I'd like you to take a look at them and see if you can find anything odd."
Clark nodded and stood. He took the stack of files and set them on the end of the desk. He picked up the first file and began to flip through it at superhuman speed. It took less than a minute to finish them all, and when he finally looked up, he noticed Jim staring.
"I never spent much time doing my homework in school."
"I can imagine," Jim murmured. "Did you find anything?"
"I'm not fully trained in FBI procedure, but even as a civilian, I can see gaps in almost all of the investigations."
"Would you be willing to type up the mistakes you've found?"
Clark nodded. Jim walked over to his computer and typed in a series of passwords. Clark glanced at the keyboard. It took him a moment to realize that he'd seen the sequence of keys being pressed and knew what they meant.
Clark quickly looked away. He had no business learning other people's passwords, especially those of an ally like Jim. He'd do his best to forget them.
The word processor blinked onto the screen, and Jim turned to Clark and nodded.
Clark cleared the pile of surveillance equipment away, placing them in a cardboard box that Jim handed to him. He dropped the files on the center of the desk and took a seat in front of the computer.
It took much longer to write the report. He was able to access the information from memory, but he was limited in terms of the speed with which he could type. Most computers couldn't handle typing speeds of three hundred words a minute or more, so Clark was forced to work slowly.
Within fifteen minutes, the report was done. It was as comprehensive as Clark could make it, documenting a consistent pattern of mismanagement and seemingly purposeful efforts to sabotage the investigations. He also compiled a list of agents whose involvement would have been necessary to accomplish the cover-up.
"There are at least fifteen agents involved in this, and there are probably more."
As a proportion of the twelve thousand agents employed by the FBI, it was still probable that only a small percentage of people were involved. Clark was forced to concede, however that the conspiracy was likely far more wide ranging than he might have thought.
He handed Jim Creed the list.
"Could any of these people have simply been acting under orders?"
"They should have known better, in most cases. Feel free to go over the particulars of each case on your own. I could have easily missed something. Still, the agents on this list might bear some scrutiny."
"Do you want a copy?" Jim asked, sounding dazed.
Clark tapped his forehead. "I've got it memorized."
He heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He glanced through the wall and noticed a group of agents coming through the hallway with determined looks on their faces.
"You might want to get those files out of sight. We're about to have some company."
Jim nodded, and quickly scooped the files up. He placed the files in the box on top of the surveillance equipment and placed a lid on top of it. He shoved it into a corner and threw his overcoat over it.
"Our conversation is probably over. Why don't you go ahead and head on out?"
Clark nodded. He didn't want to get Jim into any more trouble than he was already in. He followed Jim to a door leading to a connecting office. He stepped through, and Jim closed the door behind him.
It was obvious that this was Jim's partner's office. Pictures of Frank and his family covered the desk, and childish pictures sat proudly on the wall. No one had bothered to bug this office, but Clark could smell the same scent that he'd smelled in Jim's office and his apartment. It overlaid Frank's scent like an ominous pall, and it was coupled with the acrid stench of fear.
Clark heard the door to Jim's office being thrown open, and he glanced up and through the wall. Five agents were clumped together at the door, and the one in the lead looked angry.
"Where are the files, Jim?"
Jim looked up as though he'd had no idea anyone was coming.
"You've were pretty busy in the archives last night. The log says that you spent four hours down there last night, and files have shown up missing."
"Oh?" Jim asked casually. "There are over a million files down there. I'm sure files occasionally get misplaced. They'll turn up at one point or another."
The senior agent fumed. "It would be best if they were returned as soon as possible. We wouldn't want to have to press charges over theft of government property. If we find out that you've been showing classified documents to civilians… well, you don't want to know what will happen." The men behind the old man shifted uncomfortably, and the lead agent sighed. "You are a good agent, Jim. Don't let this whole thing ruin your career. I could have these gentlemen search your office, but then I'd find things that I don't want to find. If the files are returned quickly, nobody will ask any questions. You are just a little distraught after being attacked."
"And if I don't want to let the whole thing go?" Jim asked mildly.
"Kirkland has given you a direct order. If you can't follow orders, there is no place for you in this agency." The older man stared at Jim for a long moment. "Don't ruin your career over this."
Clark would have remained to listen further, but he heard the sounds of sirens in the distance. A quick glance showed him a warehouse fire down near the docks. He grimaced. The windows did not open outward, and if he moved through the hallways at full speed, he would create a wind that would leave papers scattered everywhere. That was unlikely to endear him to the federal government.
He stepped out into the hallway, and began to walk down the hall as quickly as he could without being conspicuous. The moment he reached the nearest stairwell, he flashed into full speed. It took less than a second to reach the first floor; even though moving that quickly left his suit smoking a little.
He walked through the lobby unhindered, and the moment he left the building he was up in the sky and changing into his outfit. Despite what he told the Lois of another world, spinning wasn't his preferred method of changing into his suit. He'd been changing the other way for far too long.
It took only a moment to reach the fire. Rescuing the dock workers inside and putting the flame out took several minutes however. When he was done, he flashed into the air without waiting for thanks, and flew within sight of the FBI field office. A quick glance showed that Jim was alone and safe.
He flew by Lois's new hideout in the Sarah Bernhardt theater. She was still out.
Clark decided that he would check on the spot every hour or so until she returned.
As he approached his apartment, he noticed a bouquet of flowers by his door. It was a wonder that a reporter hadn't already grabbed it in an effort to gain information about who Clark might be dating.
A quick glance showed that no reporters were in sight. They'd probably caught on to the fact that Clark never used his front entrance anymore.
Clark flashed down and landed on his doorstep. He rarely even bothered to carry his keys anymore. He examined the flowers and removed the card.
"Thanks for being my friend," it said. "I look forward to seeing you at the concert tomorrow."
Clark sighed. He didn't really want to go to the concert with Lana, but it was necessary if he was going to discover who it was that was threatening her. He'd assumed it was connected to the attacks on himself and on Lois, but it was always possible that it was a separate matter altogether.
He stepped inside his apartment and set the flowers carefully into a vase. Lana had been his best friend for far longer than she'd been his lover. He owed her a great deal, and the least he could do was to make sure that her mother was safe.
In the midst of everything else that had happened, he hadn't even looked in on Lana's mother. He turned around, re-locked his door and sprang into the air again.
Hopefully, Lois would be back by the time he returned. He was anxious to tell her what he'd discovered. He'd enjoyed working with her counterpart; they'd worked together like a well-oiled machine. It was the kind of working partnership he'd only dreamed about.
If they could work together as well as he hoped, there wouldn't be anything they couldn't accomplish.
Looking in on Lana's mother had taken longer than he'd expected. It had been difficult to look at the shell of someone who had once been a part of his life, even if she had only existed on the periphery. Losing her father and mother would have been hard enough for Lana. Having her mother's body continue living while her mind was gone was infinitely worse. It would be difficult to find any sort of closure.
Lana had placed her mother in the best care center in the city, and Clark knew that it had to be a major drain on her finances. Nursing home costs were prohibitively high at the best of times. A top-flight facility like the one Lana had found for her mother could easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, even after the insurance had paid its part.
He'd wanted to sneak into her room to speak with her. She'd been snobbish even when he'd been a child, self-centered and as spoiled as her husband could afford to make her. Despite this, she'd been kind to him even when he'd been a scruffy teenager. She'd accepted him in a way his foster parents never had, and she'd never complained about her daughter's early friendship with him. Social status and position had been very important to her, which made her acceptance even more special. She'd been good to him in a way she hadn't been with anyone else, and for that he would remain eternally grateful.
Of course, she'd hoped he would become a lawyer or that he would take some other high prestige job. She'd been a demanding, high maintenance woman, much like her daughter. She'd had many flaws, yet Clark had grieved when he'd heard about the accident. In a way, Lana's family had been an imperfect surrogate for the family he'd lost.
He'd felt guilty about leaving Lana in the way he had. Their relationship had been unhealthy, and it hadn't been good for either of them, yet they'd had years of shared history together. Despite the fact that they'd been dysfunctional together, for a long time she'd been all that stood between him and the abyss. He owed Lana; and he owed her mother; and if he could find the people who were threatening them, he'd do it.
He hadn't bothered even trying to enter the hospital room where Lana's mother was being cared for. A preliminary scan had showed that the room was bugged. Clark knew that if he'd even gotten near the place, it would have alerted the enemy that Lana had warned him.
The threat was real, and Clark hoped that Lois had discovered information that would be able to help. Her mind seemed to be quicker than his, and her paranoia might actually be a practical response to the world she was living in. He hadn't had anything to hide in almost two years; and while he had paid dearly for that, it had allowed him to live a completely honest life. He'd never believed in the conspiracy theories that everyone talked about around the water coolers; it was a rude shock to discover that at least some of them were correct.
It was dark already, and Clark quickly changed in midair into a black t-shirt and black jeans. The t-shirt was tighter on his chest and arms than he had remembered, and he wondered if it had shrunk in the wash. After checking to make sure that no one was looking, he landed on the fire escape that Lois used to leave the theater.
A quick glance showed that she'd wedged the window shut with an old piece of wood. While it wouldn't be that hard to dislodge, most people wouldn't be able to keep the board from clattering to the floor. As this exit was near the place where she slept, she would at least know that someone was coming.
He jiggled the window, and when the board began to fall, he lifted the pane as quickly as he could without shattering it. He caught the board before it could touch the ground and gently set it to one side. He checked the top of the window and noticed that the latch was broken; he was sure that Lois would have simply locked it if she could.
He stepped into the hallway only to see Lois standing with her gun drawn in the shadows at the end of the hall. Opening the window at superspeed had obviously made more noise than he'd thought.
She stood watching him for a moment, then she slowly lowered her gun. "Did anyone follow you?"
Clark shook his head. "I was careful."
She stepped back into her room, and he followed her quickly.
Three laptops were hooked together, while her original computer was closed and lying on the cot she was using for a bed.
"What's with all the laptops?" He didn't ask about her contacts with the fence. It was better if he did not know.
"The problem with getting the information you need from the net is that it is relatively easy for people to access every program on your computer, especially if you aren't very good at hacking." Lois checked the progress on the screens for a moment then turned back to him. "Every computer has its own unique identification number, which makes it easy for anyone who knows how to find out the original buyer. I couldn't afford to use a computer registered to Jane Alexander to find out what I needed to know, even if it was supposed to be public information."
Clark frowned. "So you used the computers to find things out, knowing they'd be able to track you."
"I made sure to have escape routes ready, and I found places all over the city to make the requests."
"If you'd asked me, I would have taken you to places all over the country. They'd never have caught you."
Lois frowned. "It hadn't even occurred to me."
"That's why it's better to work together; you can fully use the strengths of each person in a partnership."
"I'm used to working alone." Lois checked the screens of all three laptops again and scowled impatiently.
"You aren't alone any more, Lois."
She looked up at him. "Did you find out anything important yet?"
"The men who attacked us are all dead, and they tried to kill Jim Creed as well."
Lois stiffened and she refused to look at him. "I can't say I didn't expect it. Working for people like that can be hazardous to your health."
"Most of the men were just following orders; they were told they were pursuing a pair of terrorists. They didn't actually know anything." They hadn't had to die; the fact that they had was at least in part because of his involvement. The thought depressed him.
"It's hard to hide the court martials of that many men. The press would have gotten involved eventually, and there would have been more scrutiny than they really wanted from a number of sources."
"This makes it easier to hide?" Clark's voice was disbelieving. "Now they have a slew of funerals, dozens of family members to placate. The whole thing is a mess, even disregarding the fact that innocent men are dead."
"They made it look as if someone else was responsible though, didn't they?" At Clark's nod, she continued. "That means that it's no longer their problem."
"These people don't seem to have any qualms at all about how much blood they spill."
"We live in a violent world." Lois checked the computers again and frowned. "If we spent all our time worrying about how much blood was shed, we'd never get anything done."
"That's a rather callous attitude."
"I learned a long time ago that it was better not to think about that sort of thing. It's hard enough worrying about your own problems without worrying about what's happening to everyone else in the world." She looked up at him soberly and said, "There will be plenty of time to cry about everything if we manage to get out of this. If we don't… well, I guess it won't matter anyway."
Clark could almost understand her attitude. Lois had probably survived being alone for the last five years by staying focused on the problems of survival. She would have learned to not think about things she couldn't change and to stay focused on those she could.
Still, he couldn't completely agree with her. "If no one worried about anyone else, this wouldn't be much of a world to live in."
She glanced at him. "It's different for you, of course."
"Because I'm an alien?" Lois must have heard something in his voice, because she looked at him strangely. He'd been sensitive about not being human from the first time that Jonathan Kent had told him about the dangers of revealing his secret. Even as a child, he'd known that they didn't dissect normal people like frogs. To be treated as a test subject would mean that he didn't have the same basic human rights that everyone else did. It meant that he was somehow less of a person because he was different.
"Because you have options. If you get tired of everything, all you have to do is fly away."
In a sense, he'd spent most of his life before coming to Metropolis running away. His life since then had left him feeling trapped. To hear it from someone else was almost more than he could bear.
"I've stayed, haven't I?" Clark couldn't help the trace of defensiveness in his voice. "I was raised to believe that you help people when you can."
"The first rule in saving people from drowning is to make sure you yourself don't drown. You can't help anyone if you are dead."
"I suppose that's true," Clark said quietly. Lois Lane was a practical woman, but he suspected that she wasn't as uncaring as she'd pretended to be.
The three computers beeped, almost in unison, and Lois relaxed after she checked the screens. "Well, they didn't hit me with any of the common computer viruses. I didn't think they would bother since I mostly visited public areas, but it always pays to be cautious."
"What did you find out?"
"The first thing I did was to look up the work history of the FBI agent who betrayed me." Lois glanced up at him. "I was hoping to find out anything I could that might link him to the Utopia Corporation."
"The Utopia Corporation?"
"I managed to trace the weapons back to a number of gun factories, all of which were supposedly owned by different corporations. Five years ago I discovered a link; each of the companies involved was owned by a number of other companies, who were owned in turn by other companies. In the end, all of them were owned by a private holding company, the Utopia Corporation."
She handed him a list. After scanning it for a moment, Clark whistled tunelessly. "There are over a hundred corporations listed here, with a total value in the billions."
"They've grown a lot more valuable over the last five years; I know it's been a bull market, but each of the companies has consistently outperformed the market from the moment of creation."
"So did you find a link between the agent who betrayed you and the Utopia Corporation?"
Lois shook her head. "He had a lackluster career until about two years before we met. At that point, his superior died in an automobile accident and he was promoted despite mediocre performance reviews."
"There have been a lot of accidents in the intelligence community over the last few years," Clark said. "Jim Creed said that the accidental death rate over the past twenty years or so has expanded fivefold."
Lois frowned. "How odd. The Utopia Corporation was founded about twenty-five years ago, but it really only started to become a success about five years later. It seems to have caught every major investing trend since its inception, and it was a major contributor to the Presley campaign for presidency."
"So you think the two things are involved?"
"Not everyone they try to corrupt will follow along. If someone tries to expose them, they don't have much choice."
"Other than to kill them." Clark felt sick. He'd thought that two years as Superman and an adolescence spent dealing with occasionally abusive authority figures would have prepared him for the evil that people were capable of finding within themselves. He could almost understand how people might allow their rage, their anger, and their pain get away from them. This, however, had the feeling of a cold-blooded, calculated plan in which people had no value at all.
Jim Creed was definitely in danger.
"They probably have a pretty good idea about what sorts of people can be suborned; some people they may not even try with. If those people have a position of authority… "
"They have an accident and get replaced by someone who is more malleable." Clark scowled. "So what happened to the man who betrayed you?"
"He's an assistant director in the FBI now. His name is James Kirkland."
Clark froze. "Did you say his name is Kirkland?"
"Assistant Director Kirkland was the man who wanted to put Jim Creed in protective custody."
Lois looked alarmed for the first time. "If they've already killed this many people, they won't hesitate to kill Jim Creed."
"Wouldn't it be safer to kill him before he got into protective custody? I don't think Jim planned to agree to it."
"There would be less suspicion involved… "
Clark left the room in a flash. It was all he could do to avoid shattering the window on his way out.
He scanned the FBI field office before he reached it; Jim Creed was nowhere in sight. His partner Frank, however, was leaving the office in a nondescript government car.
Clark scanned the vehicle for bugs and found only one. At superhuman speed he reached the car, opened the door, pulled the bug from under the dash and deactivated it with a quick burst of laser vision, closing the door as quickly as he could without shattering the window.
Frank swerved out of control at the sudden appearance of Clark in the passenger seat, but managed not to run into anyone.
"Where is your partner?" Clark asked with a dangerous tone in his voice. He held out the bug he'd gotten from under the dash. "This is the only bug they had on you, so you can speak freely."
Frank looked alarmed. "I've been trying to get hold of him on his cell phone, but he isn't answering. I found a note on his desk… it's an address in the Suicide Slum district. I think someone called him claiming to have information."
"Whatever they've threatened you with, it can't be worth it."
"They are all I have." Frank stared at the road in front of them. "I've got a wife… kids. If you knew what they threatened to do to them… "
"So why are you looking for Jim?"
Frank was the picture of misery. "Partners are supposed to watch each other's backs. Jim has been my friend for the past seven years… you don't just throw that away… "
Clark frowned. "I'm going to reactivate this bug and put it back. Go home and be with your family. I'll take care of Jim."
Frank looked relieved.
"Don't do anything unusual. Just keep your head down."
Frank nodded. He handed a sheet of paper to Clark. It was a pencil rubbing of a notepad sheet with an address and a time listed. A quick check of the clock on Frank's dash told him that the time had expired twenty minutes before.
Another flash of heat vision re-soldered the connection, and he replaced the microphone underneath the dash at superhuman speed. It only took a moment more to leave the car and flash up into the sky at a speed faster than the human eye could follow.
He reached the address listed in less than a second. The address was in a deserted area. Clark could see Jim's vehicle idling in the center of an abandoned Lex-Mart parking lot. A quick scan showed no one in sight.
He landed beside Jim's door and pulled it open.
Jim lay motionless in his seat, and if Clark hadn't heard the slow, unsteady beating of his heart, he would have thought that Jim was dead. The back of Jim's head was covered in blood, and it was clear that Jim was unconscious.
Clark had been careful to take first aid courses and to learn as much as he could about the work of paramedics in the beginning of his career as Superman. Jim needed to see a doctor, but Clark was afraid to move him. Jim's neck and spine seemed to be all right, as nearly as he could see with his x-ray vision, but he still needed to be cautious.
Clark's head snapped up as his ears caught an odd humming sound coming from the passenger's seat of Jim's car. A quick glance showed that it was some sort of transmitter. It didn't have a microphone or camera attachment, and there didn't seem to be any sort of bomb attached.
He froze a moment later as he saw a beam of laser light strike the top of the car. It would have been invisible to the ordinary human eye, but Clark recognized it; a targeting laser.
He didn't have time to worry about moving Jim. He had to hope that the same abilities that allowed him to move Lois quickly without snapping her neck would help him move Jim as well.
He grabbed Jim as quickly as he could, and he pulled him from the car. He turned around and tried to launch himself into the air, but it was too late.
As fast as he was, he wasn't faster than the speed of light.
Jim fell out of his arms to safety even as the world exploded around him into a burst of white light. He screamed soundlessly as he felt white fire exploding against his back.
He fell forward onto the pavement after an eternity, and he was almost grateful when unconsciousness fell over him.
Clark's entire world collapsed around him, and forever after he hated the sound of thunder.
Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion around him as he ran down the old muddy road. Fire was already starting to lick around the back of his parents' car. In a panic, he struggled with the door.
Even at ten he was as fast and strong as an adult, but he still had to struggle with the twisted mass of metal that had once been a car. The door grew hot, and his hands began to burn, but he refused to stop. In desperation he punched through the glass window, and he barely felt the pain.
He managed to get the door opened, and his mind blanked out. There was so much blood, and it was more than he could take. His parents were dead, and his entire world collapsed.
He turned to run, and the car exploded into a fireball. He screamed as the flames engulfed his back.
The world shifted, but the pain remained. Clark lay on his stomach in the tiny, dingy room that he shared with the other children. The room was swathed in darkness, lit only by occasional flashes of lightning. He'd always hated the sound of thunder, and it didn't help that he was in pain. He'd been sent to bed without any supper, and he doubted that he could have sat in a chair anyway. His back burned.
There was a lull in the storm, and Clark winced as he heard the crack of a leather belt striking flesh. He'd hoped that Garland had exhausted himself earlier, but it seemed that he'd recovered. He tensed as he heard the sound of a child trying not to cry out. Crying enraged Garland, and it only led to a worse beating.
Clark knew that what was happening was wrong. His parents had never laid a hand on him, and neither had the other two sets of foster parents that he'd lived with. His parents had taught him to protect those who were weaker than oneself, not to abuse them. He'd tried to tell someone, but he already had a reputation as a troublemaker, and no one had taken him seriously.
All he could do was try to protect the other children. As often as he could, he took the blame for their transgressions. Even the two older boys didn't seem to be able to withstand the beatings as easily as Clark did. Usually, they barely even hurt. He wondered sometimes if it was just because he was so numb in the wake of his parents' death that nothing could get through.
Clark had seen the marks left on the other children by Garland's belt, and he knew that his back somehow always remained smooth and unblemished. Clark knew it was because he was different, and the one thing that terrified him was the thought that Garland might notice.
Tonight, he had. For the first time, Garland had realized that his blows weren't even reddening Clark's skin, and he'd been enraged. Clark had been passively defying Garland for more than a month. The moment he'd realized that Garland took pleasure in seeing fear and pain, he'd become stoic and as immovable as a statue. No matter how hard Garland tried, he'd never even been able to make Clark flinch.
Clark had endured, taking a sort of grim satisfaction in not making a noise no matter how hard Garland hit him. Each time Garland had failed to get a reaction from Clark, his anger had grown.
Tonight, the tense, immobile set of Clark's shoulders had once again enraged Garland. He'd begun with a beating that would have brought a grown man to his knees, the final summit of a battle of wills that had lasted all summer long. For the first time, however, he'd realized that his blows weren't having an effect. No matter how hard he struck Clark, Clark's skin had refused to redden.
The first clue Clark had that something was different was Garland's incoherent bellow of rage. Garland was a large, beefy man, and he'd always held back, perhaps for fear of what the law might do if faced with the incontrovertible proof of a battered, broken body. Tonight, he'd lost that last shred of thought and given himself over entirely to his rage.
Clark had felt a sharp, stinging pain unlike anything that he'd felt before, and it was only later that he realized that Garland must have reversed his belt and begun striking him with the heavy metal belt buckle. The additional pain was so unexpected that Clark had almost cried out, but he'd managed to steady himself and endure. No matter how wild Garland had gotten, Clark had refused to give in. It had been a battle of wills between a man and a boy, and in the end the boy had won. Eventually, Garland had given up, his arms too weak even to lift the belt. He'd fallen to the ground, and he'd sent Clark away with a curse. It hadn't been until Clark had reached his room that he'd realized that his back was bleeding. For the first time ever, Garland had managed to break the skin of his back.
Clark stiffened as he heard an anguished sob from the other end of the house. He'd hoped that Garland would have fallen into a drunken stupor, but apparently he'd recovered from his exhaustion and had chosen a smaller, easier target for his rage.
He grew even more tense as he heard the cracking of leather on flesh. Garland hadn't been able to get a reaction from Clark, but the others all feared him. The thought that another child might suffer, especially if that suffering was a direct result of Clark's own refusal to show fear was more than Clark could take. When he heard terrified whimpers, his body exploded into action.
By the time the third blow landed, he was off his bed and moving. For the first time in his life, it seemed as though the world was moving around him in slow motion. He burst through his door and sprinted through the house at a dead run. He could see the faces of the younger children at the supper table, their mouths gaping as he headed for the back door. They all dreaded being sent to the back porch, because that was where Garland was at his most abusive. The fact that they could all hear everything that transpired only made it worse. Clark had watched the children flinch at the sound of every blow too many times. He'd seen their souls shrivel with fear a little more each day, and he knew that it was time for everything to stop.
The fourth blow never landed. The older man gaped as Clark caught his upraised arm with one of his own. The fact that an eleven year old boy could stop a large, beefy man with one hand seemed to astonish him, and for a moment, Clark hoped that there could be peace.
Garland lashed out at him with one fist, hitting Clark in the side of the head. He screamed as he realized that he'd broken the bones in his hand. Clark remained motionless, his grip on the man's other arm unyielding. Despite his child's body, he felt like an old man. He'd do whatever he needed to do to make sure that no one else was bullied.
That was his last night in the home of Garland Smith.
It took him a moment to realize that it was just a memory, a figment of what had been. Garland's figure faded away, and everything dropped into darkness, until there was only the sound of the rain. He could hear the thunder again, and it was almost overpowering this time. It was close; he could feel the drops of rain stinging against his skin.
He blinked as he realized that he was standing in the rain. As the drops began to fall harder, the world began to take shape around him yet again. He heard the sounds of a car coming, and he felt a sense of foreboding. He was standing on a familiar stretch of road. It was happening again, and there wasn't anything he could do.
He shook his head, trying to remember what had been bothering him, but it slipped away like a dream left forgotten. His parents were coming home, and he was anxious to see them, and that was all that mattered. Somehow, it seemed as though it had been ages since they'd been together, even though he knew it had only been the space of an evening. He ran in the rain, anxious to meet them as he saw their headlights swing around the corner of the old dirt road. He knew something was wrong when they didn't start slowing down as they came down the hill. He heard a truck horn, and he saw a truck coming from the other direction, and in a moment of stark realization he knew what was going to happen.
He ran. He ran as quickly as he could, and somehow he knew that he could run faster than any normal person, but it wasn't enough. The truck slid in the water as it tried to stop, and his parents' car didn't even slow down.
He heard the sound of thunder as they crashed together.
He ran as quickly as his child's legs could carry him, and he struggled with the door. He forced his way through, and again, all he saw was the blood.
All he'd ever been able to remember was the blood. The world exploded again.
He was at the end of the driveway yet again, and it took a moment to get his bearings. For a moment he hoped that it had all been a terrible nightmare. When he heard the sounds of car engines coming over the hill, he knew that it was.
He heard the crack of thunder yet again, and for the first time, he realized that it didn't sound right.
His parents didn't slow down, and as they swerved into the truck driver's lane, he was forced to apply his brakes. He skidded in the water, and they crashed together.
He ran, and again he was enveloped in flames. He screamed in anger at the world that had taken them from him, but he couldn't seem to find any tears. Somehow, he knew that he'd never be able to cry again. His entire world had been within that car, and once it was lost, all he could find was numbness and anger.
The rain fell on him, and the world darkened once again. At first he was afraid that he'd find himself out on the same lonely stretch of road, trapped forever in an unending loop of anger and pain and guilt. If he'd been faster or stronger, he might have saved them.
He relaxed as he realized that he was dry and in the light. He pushed the thoughts of what might have been out of his mind, and a moment later they were gone. He was inside the farmhouse staring blankly out the kitchen window. He'd always loved the sound of the rain on the roof, and ever since his night vision had begun to sharpen, he'd loved to look outside on nights like this. His parents were coming home, and they'd have a treat for him. They'd promised.
He saw something move in the stand of trees at the edge of their property. An old stray dog had been cautiously nosing around in the area, and Clark had been hoping to make it a pet.
Despite the fact that he was wearing only a thin set of pajamas, Clark scrambled outside. The babysitter was busy talking to her boyfriend and would never even know he was gone. His parents might be angry that he'd gone out in the rain, but once he had the dog, he had little doubt they'd let him keep it. They knew how lonely life on the farm was, especially since they'd begun keeping him home because of his secret. It had only been a few months since they'd finally been forced to admit that Clark was different, but it had seemed like an eternity.
He faltered as he stepped out into the rain. Even with his superior night vision, he could barely make anything out by the stand of trees, and the situation was beginning to seem uncomfortably familiar.
Lightning flashed again, and he saw a silhouette lying in the stand of trees. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought it was that of a man.
He heard the sound of a car coming, and suddenly he remembered everything. He glanced in the direction of the trees, and another flash of lightning illuminated a face painted black.
He saw the car come over the hill, and he heard the sound of two shots. His parents' car swerved out of control, and he couldn't save them. His world exploded in a flash.
He stared into the darkness as the social workers drove him away, and he regretted bitterly that the other children remained behind. He'd done all he could, but he hadn't been able to get them out. He couldn't save them. The world vanished once again.
He couldn't breathe. There was only darkness all around him, and as he fell through nothingness, he realized that it was all over. Everyone in the world was going to die because of his failure. Nightfall was going to strike the earth, and the memory of everyone he'd ever loved would be wiped away in an instant, because there would be no one left to remember them. He'd always be alone, and that was more than he could bear. The world was doomed, and for all his power, he couldn't save it.
The flames began to lick around him as he entered the atmosphere, and he let it all go.
This time he didn't forget.
Lois couldn't concentrate on her work.
She'd tried to get back to work after Clark Kent had left so quickly, but she couldn't help but wonder if he'd gotten to his friend in time.
Whatever else she thought of him, he was as loyal as Kade had been. There was something about him that made her want to trust him, and that was important to her. In a world where she could trust no one, a truly loyal ally was worth more than his weight in gold.
He'd looked good tonight. The thought made her feel guilty, as though it was being disloyal to Kade to admire Clark Kent's strong qualities. He had many qualities that she admired. While he was sometimes a little gullible and na‹ve, she was surprised to discover that she found that endearing.
It was all she could do to remain focused on business. The stakes were high, and there would be time for other things in the future, assuming he was interested.
She started when she heard an unfamiliar beeping sound. It took her a moment to realize that it was the cell phone she'd bought, the companion to the one she'd given to Clark. She frowned. He knew where she lived now, and he wasn't the sort of person to place them both in danger by talking about sensitive matters over the airwaves.
She grabbed the telephone out of her bag and flipped it open. He wouldn't be calling unless something was wrong.
"Send backup… " The voice on the other end of the line sounded groggy and confused. It was an unfamiliar voice, and that sent alarm bells ringing through Lois's mind. Clark should have been the only person with access to her number.
"How did you get this number?" Lois asked, her voice seeming tense even to her own ears.
There was a long moment of silence before the voice spoke again. It mumbled, and Lois couldn't make out what it was trying to say. Lois thought she made out the word Kent, and she froze. Something had happened.
"… forty third and Westover… send backup… " For the first time she noticed the hint of desperation in the voice.
"What about Kent?" Lois's voice had grown sharp. "What's going on?"
She heard a sound as though the phone had been dropped and then only static.
She wanted to scream. It was possible that it was a trap designed to pull her out into the open. If they'd somehow found out that she'd bought the phones, then they might have been able to get the numbers. If so, all she had to do was stay where she was, and Clark Kent would eventually contact her.
Something told her that Clark was really hurt. She'd seen the tapes, and she knew that the green rock that had caused him so much pain had vanished without a trace. It would have been child's play for people in the intelligence community to acquire it, and if they decided that he was a threat, they wouldn't hesitate to kill him.
For the first time, Lois contemplated the idea that he might not survive. She'd assumed that they had plenty of time to pursue whatever their relationship might become. The thought that she would lose Clark and Kade at the same time after only just finding them again terrified her.
She was moving even before she'd realized that she'd made a decision. She grabbed her bag and headed out the door and down the hall.
The theater she was currently in was on forty-second street; the address she'd been given was on forty third, but it was a good five miles to the west, in the middle of the Suicide Slum area.
As Lois stepped out onto the balcony and began climbing down the fire escape, she began to reflect on what she would need. She had to get a car; whatever the situation was, she'd be in trouble on foot. If Clark needed to get to a hospital of some kind, they'd need the convenience of a vehicle.
Luckily, there were many cars parked out on the curb. Parking was a nightmare in this area of Metropolis, which was one reason that the theater had been scheduled to be demolished.
Lois had been observant over the past few days, and she's noticed that one car hadn't moved since the time she'd moved in. The lime green station wagon was built with a heavy frame, but it was absurdly easy to break in to.
It was easy to hot wire as well. Lois managed to pull out of the parking space without bashing the cars in front of or behind her, and as she pulled out into the street, she checked the fuel gauge. There was less than a quarter of a tank, but hopefully that would be enough.
Lois sped through deserted city streets. The people of Metropolis avoided these areas by night, and if Lois had a choice, she would have avoided them as well. The ancient station wagon wouldn't move as quickly as Lois would have liked, but the road sped by quickly nonetheless.
The farther west she went the worse the roads were. Potholes and broken pieces of granite littered the roads. There had been hope for renovation once; Lex Luthor had promised to use his billions to revitalize the city. His empire had collapsed shortly after he'd died, and that had plunged the city into an economic slump from which it had yet to recover.
Lois turned a corner to the right, and then she was on forty third street. This street was in even worse repair than the other one had been, and Lois found herself scanning the roofs of the buildings around her for signs of snipers. Of course, the people they would use wouldn't be caught silhouetted against the sky, but Lois could always hope to get lucky.
The address she'd heard was coming up fast, and Lois didn't see any sign of a building. There was only a large, unused parking lot, the legacy of a half-built Lex Mart that had been abandoned long ago.
The streetlights were out as well, and that would have aroused Lois's suspicion except for the fact that only one in three street lights in the area worked in any case. She pulled cautiously into the parking lot, her eyes darting back and forth for any signs of snipers.
It took a moment for her to recognize that two human bodies were lying on the pavement in front of her car. She slammed on the brakes and after one final look at the surroundings, she pulled her gun and stepped out of the car.
A dark crater lay in front of her car, one that was almost fifty feet in diameter, and the smell of ozone in the air was almost overwhelming. She could see one body hovering impossibly near the edge of the crater, and another slumped up against it.
As Lois got closer, she realized that the first body was lying atop a small mesa of unaffected ground. The other was lying inside the crater, leaning up against the mesa and breathing heavily.
The man lying inside the crater looked like most of the other FBI agents she'd ever seen, except for the blood on his head. Head wounds tended to bleed a lot, and the man was moving feebly. She kept her weapon trained on him. If this was a trap, it was possible that he would go for his gun.
She stepped closer, and then she gaped.
The body on the mesa was Clark's, and she could see something moving all along his back.
It took a moment for Lois to realize that the movement wasn't coming directly from Clark's back. Instead, a silvery haze seemed to be hovering just off his back, twisting and hissing as it burned malevolently in midair. It didn't seem to extend to the front of Clark's body. The space underneath him had been completely protected, forming a small mesa whose sides had been sheered away smoothly.
The second man lay perilously close to Clark's body, with his back against the smooth sides of the mesa and the top of his head only inches away from the sparking, popping energy. A cell telephone lay on the ground next to the man's hand, and he appeared to be unconscious.
Lois wasn't sure that she would have the courage to reach underneath Clark's body with the silver haze being so close. Anything that was capable of knocking him unconscious would be instantly lethal to a human being. As it was, she was waiting for an errant spark to strike the man's body and kill him.
Clark groaned, and Lois jerked back, startled. As he moved, the white light on his back sparked one final time and disappeared.
Even in the dimness, Lois could see that the entire back of Clark's body had been left completely unclothed. The skin was red, as though he'd been lying out in the sun too long, and even as she watched, the angry redness began to fade away. Lois was unable to look away as his body healed itself.
His skin returned to its normal healthy golden glow in a matter of moments. Lois continued to stare until Clark groaned again and began to move. She averted her eyes quickly; she didn't want to embarrass him by staring at his nakedness.
She took one last glance at the surrounding area and slipped her gun into a concealed holster in the small of her back. It wasn't the most convenient location should she need to draw her weapon quickly, but it kept the weapon out of her way and politely concealed.
She stepped down into the crater and hurried over to Clark. She was still a little nervous about touching him; simply because she could no longer see the silver haze didn't necessarily mean that it was safe. He was beginning to awaken, and it looked as though no permanent damage had been done, so Lois decided to check on the other man. She didn't want to embarrass Clark when he realized that he was essentially nude.
Lois had trouble ignoring the planes and curves of his body, which were only a few inches away from the other man's head. She forced herself to concentrate at the task at hand, but it was a struggle. Thoughts of her night with Kade struggled for dominance with her concern for Clark's safety.
The cell telephone that she'd given Clark lay near the man's hand. Lois grimaced at the amount of blood on his head; head wounds were renowned for bleeding freely, but it looked gruesome, as though the back of his head was completely matted with blood.
She approached him cautiously. Even if everything was as it seemed to be, it was possible that the man was armed and that he wouldn't be thinking rationally.
He didn't flinch even when she touched him. She quickly checked his body for weapons, and paused when she found an empty shoulder holster. There wasn't any sign of a weapon around the body, but Lois was reasonably satisfied.
He finally began to stir. Lois grimaced as he fell over and began to retch. His body heaved time and time again without bringing anything up, and his pain made Lois want to wince.
She heard Clark sit up; she risked a glance, and saw that he was staring blankly into the beams of her headlights. He was fully nude by this time, and she averted her eyes. A moment later she heard a whooshing sound, and he was gone.
She risked a glance at the place where he had been. The front pieces of his clothing lay undisturbed, completely sheared away from his body. She hoped that he'd return quickly; she was too small to easily move the man she was with. If he fell unconscious again, it would be difficult to move him without risking further damage.
She turned her attention back to him. She was no doctor, but the research she'd done for her novels suggested that head wounds could be deadly, even if a person was conscious immediately after the accident. The brain could swell inside the skull, or bleeding could start in the lining between the brain and the skull. If left unchecked, it could easily be fatal.
The man finished gagging for a moment, and looked up at her weakly. It almost seemed as though he was looking straight through her, and when he spoke, his voice was hoarse and weak. "Wha..?"
He tried to stand, and Lois rushed to his side. "You need to be careful. Here, why don't you sit down for a little bit?"
She helped him ease back down into a sitting position. He winced. Lois murmured, "I think help will be back in just a minute; if we tried to get you back to the car, you might slip and fall, and with my luck, I'd break something too."
He tried to nod, and his face turned pale. He stiffened, then simply sat still. After several seconds, he spoke, and this time his voice was a little more coherent.
Lois stared at him, then said, "Frank's not here right now, but I'm sure he'll be with you as soon as he can."
"He's not hurt?"
"No." Lois had no idea whether it was true or not, but it seemed to be what the man wanted to hear.
The man relaxed. "Always watch your partner… it's the first rule."
Lois could barely remember a time when she'd thought of the people around her as being loyal or worth trusting. She'd lost her illusions about trust long before she went to the Congo. The thought of having a partner who she could trust absolutely was a heady one, but Lois knew better than to hope for things that would never happen. The fact that she was beginning to relax around Clark Kent, and that she believed that he meant what he said had no bearing.
If she held secret hopes, she suppressed them quickly.
She noticed his head beginning to loll. He was fading out on her. Her mind raced, and she made a quick guess. "Jim? Is your name Jim Creed?"
He jerked awake and smiled at her blearily. "Special Agent Creed reporting for duty…"
Clark seemed to surround himself with loyal people. Perry White was the one person Lois had come to trust before leaving for the Congo. From all reports, he was solidly behind everything Clark Kent did. Perry had an amazing capacity for loyalty; he'd been like a father to her during the time she'd known him, and the fact that he seemed to believe in Clark was a mark in Clark's favor.
"Your only job right now is to stay awake. Why don't you tell me… "
She heard a familiar whooshing sound, and she turned to greet Clark gratefully.
"I'm not sure how badly he's been injured, but he's not entirely coherent."
Clark didn't look her in the eyes, and he seemed to be more tense and uneasy than she'd ever seen him. He glanced at Jim, and said, "His brain hasn't started swelling yet, and I don't see any signs of a subdural hemotoma, but these things can develop at a moment's notice. He really needs to be under medical care."
"You can't take him to any of the hospitals in the city. If the people we are dealing with tried to kill him… " Lois paused and waited for Clark's nod of confirmation. "Then it would be very easy for a nurse to slip an air bubble into his feeding tube."
Clark scowled. "I suppose I could take him out to some small town somewhere, try to get emergency room care."
"The problem is that we have no idea how widely this thing is spread. Objectively I know that it can't be as universal as my paranoid fantasies make it out to be, but there just isn't any way to know." Lois gritted her teeth.
"If he's injured badly enough, he might need surgery. While I have x-ray vision and a little paramedic training, I'm not really qualified to take care of him." His voice turned grim. "Besides, there are things that have to be taken care of; the people who were gunning for him obviously meant business."
Jim spoke. Lois found herself jumping a little; she'd been so focused on Clark that she'd forgotten Jim was there. That wasn't a good survival characteristic, and she vowed to be more careful in the future.
"I'll be fine. Just get me to someplace where I can rest." His voice was much more coherent than it had been before, but his face was pale and small beads of sweat covered his forehead. Nevertheless, he seemed a little stronger than he had been before and Lois took this for an encouraging sign. Clark still looked doubtful, and Lois suspected that he was simply more aware of the risks involved than she was.
"You've been badly injured, Jim. You need to go to a hospital." Clark spoke slowly.
"I'm not an idiot." Jim grimaced. "My head feels like it's been used as a soccer ball by a Brazilian girls' soccer team. I'd be happy to head off to the hospital and get a nice little demerol drip, but you've already said there are people likely to kill me there."
"We could just be a little paranoid."
"If we're lucky, they think that you're dead," Lois added in helpfully.
"You're betting my life on that?"
"You'd be betting your life if you don't go to a hospital." Clark looked closely at Jim again, and Lois could imagine his eyes piercing through skin and bone into the brain below. "You haven't started any subdural bleeding yet, but if someone hit you on the head hard enough to knock you out, then they probably did some damage."
"If they didn't crack my head open, then I'll be fine." Jim frowned stubbornly. "I can help you find these people."
"You couldn't win a fight with a three year old in your condition."
"If we come up against something that he can't handle, we'll be in trouble anyway."
Clark hesitated. Lois could understand his dilemma. As long as Jim remained with them, they could protect him. The moment he was out of sight he was at risk. However, if he didn't get medical attention, it was possible that he might die.
"I'm going to keep an eye on you." Clark said. "At the first sign of bleeding, I'm going to admit you into a hospital, even if I have to stay and watch whatever is being done to you."
Jim nodded weakly.
Clark scanned the surrounding buildings slowly. "I didn't have time to scan the area before I came in."
That meant that there wasn't any way of knowing whether the enemy would believe Jim was dead or not. Lois looked around fearfully, knowing that the gesture was foolish. In the darkness, there wasn't a chance that she would see anything that Clark missed.
Clark scowled. "I wish I knew what it was that they hit me with; it disintegrated everything in the area, including a car, and yet I never even saw it coming. Something that powerful should have been too big to carry."
Lois looked down at the crater in which she was standing. "From the angle, I'd guess that it came from directly above." She pointed at the single unbroken piece of pavement near the edge of the crater. It was roughly shaped like a silhouette of Clark's body. "If it had come in at an angle, that never would have happened."
"They hit me with something from an airplane?"
"A satellite." Jim's voice was growing even more hoarse.
"What?" Clark asked.
"They probably used the old Annihilator Defense Satellite." Jim struggled to get to his feet, and winced. Clark helped him to his feet. He wavered dizzily for a moment, then abruptly began to slide down again. Clark quickly eased him to a seat on the edge of the crater.
"I thought Congress killed that in the mid eighties?"
Jim began to shake his head, then froze. "The order to dismantle it died in committee. There was talk about using it against the Nightfall asteroid, but it was never intended to face out into outer space, and the range is of necessity limited."
Lois could certainly understand why. Beyond any possible power limitations, if the range had been unlimited, then the beam would have gone all the way through the planet.
Lois stared at the crater and said, "I guess they can calculate the range pretty exactly."
"They shouldn't have left this crater; they were supposed to be able to disintegrate a target without taking a chunk out of the landscape. The electronics must be burning out. They used it several times to destroy a few of the larger Nightfall fragments, and it's an old system."
"Who would have access to the control codes?" Lois asked.
"Theoretically only the president and the joint chiefs of staff. It's possible that someone could have suborned one of the designing scientists and created a back door though. Whatever incentive they used would have to be pretty good though. Security is really tight around weapons facilities like that."
Lois looked around the area again, nervously. "You know, I suddenly don't feel all that safe standing out in the open like this. Why don't you take Jim back to where I'm staying, and I'll return the car."
Lois clambered out of the pit, then watched Clark help Jim to his feet. Jim continued to sway, but he didn't fall this time. Clark led Jim to the car with slow faltering steps, then leaned him against the hood.
"I'll be right back." Clark said, then leaped back into the pit. Lois would have followed him, but he gestured her away.
He scanned the sky in a semicircle, then reared back. His foot connected with the piece of pavement that his body had protected from the Annihilator's beam, and with the sound of a meteor striking the ground, the entire section of rock lifted into the air, becoming a flaming ball of fire.
Lois could see visible beams of red heat scouring the ground, even as Clark smoothed the area with his foot. She cautiously stepped toward the crater when he seemed to be finished, and she looked in.
He'd left a smooth, unblemished circle, except for one section that was still glowing red from his heat vision. Lois grasped the idea immediately. If the enemy did believe Jim Creed to be dead, they'd expect to see a perfect crater. It would be dangerous to leave behind an unexplained shaft of rock and pavement, especially one that was in the general shape of a man.
"What about that?" Lois asked, watching the ball of flame retreating into the sky.
"There aren't any planes out there right now, and it'll do the radar defense guys a world of good to see a meteor fly in the wrong direction."
"It'll be enough to make them believe in aliens." Lois smiled at Clark, and was disappointed to see that he still looked grim.
"I'll take Jim back. Do you think you'll be safe going back on your own?"
Lois nodded. "I'll be as safe as I ever am. I need to return the car."
He nodded curtly, and walked quickly back to the car. A moment later, Jim Creed was in his arms and they were floating into the sky.
Lois quickly checked the surrounding area, then slipped back into the old car. She didn't want to still be around when the enemy decided to double-check their work.
The trip back to the theater didn't take long. Less than an hour had passed since she'd left, but it seemed like an eternity. Lois felt the tension in her shoulders, and she wondered if she would ever be free of the nagging worries about her own existence.
No one had even taken the parking space, and so Lois carefully re-parked. She wiped the inside of the car down with a cloth, hoping to remove any sign of fingerprints or other evidence that she'd been in the car. She carefully returned the seat and mirror to an approximation of their original positions, and she made sure to return the ignition switch back into its proper position.
She frowned at the thought of the gasoline she'd used. Anyone driving a car as old as the one she was driving probably couldn't afford to lose the money. After a moment, she pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her pocket and stuffed it into the seat. The driver would notice it eventually, and would probably believe that it had fallen out of their pocket at some point.
After checking the street, she exited the car and locked it. She then made her way down the street, circling the block and slipping into the alley from the back way. The drive back to the theater had taken less time than it took to get into the building.
She found Clark standing near the window to the fire escape. A quick glimpse inside her room showed that Clark had already found bedding for Jim Creed, making sure to keep his head elevated. He'd also washed the man; Jim's face was finally clear of blood and for the first time, Lois realized that he was a handsome man. He wasn't as handsome as Clark, of course, but he was a good looking man in his own right.
He seemed to be sleeping, so Lois turned her attention back to Clark.
His figure was silhouetted by the neon light from outside in the alley, and he stood motionless, his shoulders stiff and tense and hunched forward, as though he wished he could crumple in on himself.
She approached him carefully, and still he didn't respond.
"Are you feeling all right?" she asked. He'd seemed fully recovered, but she couldn't be sure that he wasn't still in pain.
"I'm fine," he said. His voice was flat, and Lois found herself stiffening. Something was wrong.
"You aren't still in any pain?"
He didn't speak, and Lois found herself tensing. The thought of him in pain bothered her more than she was willing to admit. Of all the people in the world, he was the one person who should have been completely free of the small aches and pains of daily life.
He never would have been attacked if it hadn't been for her, and neither would Jim Creed. Lois hated the thought that he was in pain because of her.
The silence went on for more than a minute, and she struggled not to speak. She'd always had trouble dealing with silences; the urge to fill the silence with anything had sometimes led to an embarrassing tendency to babble. Somehow, though, she sensed that this silence was necessary, and so she was careful to allow Clark the time he needed.
"My back doesn't hurt anymore, if that's what you are asking." He didn't turn to look at her, and his voice still had a disturbing, flat quality.
"Does it hurt anywhere else?"
"I'm fine, physically. If I hadn't been caught by surprise, I doubt it would have affected me even as much as it did."
"So why do you sound so strange?"
Clark refused to turn and look at her. "Do you think that ghosts exist?"
"What?" The question caught Lois off guard.
"The past can haunt you sometimes."
"I try not to think about the past too much. In my experience, there isn't much point in thinking about places you can never visit again."
Clark finally turned to face her. Although his face was in shadow, she could tell that he was in pain. It was in the set of his shoulders, in the way he held himself. It was almost as though his body had curled in on itself.
"It's easier that way, isn't it? Just concentrate on what's in front of you, and try not to think about where you've been… what you've lost."
Lois nodded. She never would have survived for five years if she hadn't taken one day at a time.
"The problem is that life isn't like that." Clark stared down at her with an unnerving intensity. "The past is real, because it is what has formed our present. Sometimes life sends us little reminders."
"What are you talking about?" Lois felt off balance, and she didn't enjoy the sensation. Clark was reacting strangely to everything, and it made her nervous. "I remembered something while I was unconscious."
"About us?" Lois asked. She couldn't help but feel a surge of excitement at the thought. Everything would be so much easier if he remembered everything. She wouldn't have to feel as though she was betraying Kade every time she looked at Clark and noticed how handsome he was. She'd be able to look at Clark's good qualities without feeling guilty.
"So there really WAS something to remember." Clark took another step forward, and for the first time Lois realized just how close they were standing together. A memory of what it had been like to be held by him, enveloped in his warm embrace flashed through her mind, and Lois realized that she was breathing more rapidly.
Lois had to bend her neck to look up at him. "If you don't remember, I'm not going to answer that question."
"What did he have that I don't?" Clark asked, and this time there was a plaintive note in his voice.
"Kade?" At his nod, Lois spoke reluctantly. "It isn't anything I can really put my finger on. He wasn't afraid to risk being ridiculed, I guess. He was as self confident as any of the jerks I've ever met, without being a jerk himself."
"Am I a jerk?" His body was tense, as though the answer to his question were vitally important. For all Lois knew, it was.
"You aren't a jerk." She said softly. She reached up and touched his arm, enjoying the human contact which had been denied her for so long. "What's this really about, Clark?"
He shook his head grimly. "I finally really remembered what happened the night my parents died."
"It was an accident, wasn't it… a truck?" The disadvantage of being a celebrity was that everyone knew about your private pain. Clark's history had been written up in the press almost from the moment he'd appeared as Superman.
"I always thought so." Clark's voice had changed. For the first time she noticed a deadness in his eyes that she'd never seen before, and it alarmed her. The look in his eyes made her want to look away, but she forced herself to meet his gaze. "My parents were murdered, and I watched it happen."
"What?" Of all the things he could have said, this was the last thing that she would have expected. Lois stared at him in shock.
"There was a sniper with a gun." His face was an expressionless mask, stoic except for his eyes.
Lois watched Clark carefully. His fists clenched and he closed his eyes tightly, as though he could wall the memory away.
"I must have blocked it away for all these years… I didn't want to know, I guess. It was hard enough to lose my parents without the thought that there was something that I might have done."
"You were a child of what… ten or eleven then? What could you have done?"
"I was almost as strong as a full grown man. If I'd known what was going to happen, I could have tried to stop him." His face shifted, becoming stubborn and angry.
"I think all of us would change things if we could go back. You didn't know, and there isn't any guarantee that even if you had that you could have changed things."
"That's what I try to tell myself."
"You have to believe that. We all do."
Lois leaned into Clark impulsively, and hugged him tightly. She felt him stiffen as she touched him. He stood tensely for a moment, with his arms hanging awkwardly at his sides. After a long moment, he relaxed and wrapped his arms around her.
Lois relaxed with her face buried in his chest. "We'll get through this, Clark."
For a long time they held each other, two lonely people finding comfort in the simple human contact that had been denied them for so long. It felt good to touch and be touched; humans had probably sought comfort from the very beginning, huddling together in caves around a fire while hoping to keep the darkness at bay.
They both had darkness within their souls, memories they would have preferred to escape and lives filled with loneliness and need. While she was in the circle of his arms, none of it seemed to matter. It was as though she'd found a haven from the world, a place where she truly belonged. It felt right being held by him, and while Lois found that to be a little scary, she wasn't about to pull away.
It was bittersweet. She'd felt this way with Kade too, and it had almost overwhelmed her. It had been a long time since she'd been touched, and even longer since she'd been touched in anything more than a perfunctory manner. With Kade, she'd found something special, and it had been easy to give him her heart.
Clark wasn't Kade, and it was likely that he never would be. He didn't have Kade's confidence, or his sense of freedom. He wasn't likely to do outrageous things, like kiss her in the middle of an argument. Clark Kent was his own person, a vulnerable man who wore his heart on his sleeve. Lois suspected that he wasn't that way with everyone; he couldn't be. He had to show the world a stoic fa‡ade as Superman, or his life would have fallen apart.
His willingness to show her his pain was a gift, a sign of trust and acceptance beyond compare. He'd given her his heart, and Lois knew that it would be easy to hurt him. She felt honored, and a little overwhelmed. His trust was something she had never expected, and in the world she lived in, trust was worth more than gold.
After a time, Lois's feelings began to change. She found herself becoming aware of the solid strength of Clark's body. He was the strongest being in the world, and yet she knew he was capable of touching her as lightly as a butterfly's kiss.
Her mind flashed back to the night she'd spent with Kade, and she felt her cheeks begin to burn. She knew Clark's body intimately; in the space of one night she'd explored it thoroughly. She wondered for a moment if it would be different with Clark; she suspected that he'd be even gentler than Kade had been.
For a moment, she wished that they could ignore everything that came between them and simply enjoy each other. She'd thrown caution to the wind with Kade, and it would be so easy to do the same with Clark. Lois's skin began to tingle where she leaned against him, and she was tempted.
She might even have given in to temptation, but she knew it wasn't the right time. Clark had just discovered that his parents were murdered. She still wasn't clear exactly how he'd come to remember that; but she knew that his grief would leave him vulnerable. If she wanted to push the issue, she suspected that he would acquiesce. It would be wrong to take advantage of him in that way, though, and Lois suspected that doing so would damage their relationship instead of hurting it.
Lois wasn't sure that she was thinking clearly herself. She'd just realized how easy it would have been to lose Clark, and that thought had terrified her. Making love was the ultimate affirmation of life, and Lois couldn't be sure that she wasn't simply seeking reassurance that they were both alive.
Even if she'd wanted to throw caution to the winds, it wouldn't have been practical. Jim Creed was injured and would need to be watched closely. Lois couldn't imagine how she'd feel if he was injured while she sought her own selfish pleasures. She'd had enough of others paying the consequences for her actions. Poor Claude hadn't been the first, and likely he wouldn't be the last, but seeing what had happened to him had changed Lois's attitude forever. Before her time in the Congo, Lois hadn't taken the time to worry about the consequences of her own actions. She'd leaped before looking, and had been awarded for it. Taking risks had garnered her awards. The Congo had shown her that she wasn't the only one who paid the price for her actions. She'd sworn an oath to herself that no one else would have to pay for her own mistakes.
When he finally pulled away from her, Lois felt bereft. It had been a lifetime since she'd hugged anyone, and she was stunned to realize how much she missed it. It was as though she'd been cold for so long that she'd become numb; in the warmth of his embrace, she was just realizing how cold she really had been.
He stepped carefully away from her, leaving his face once again in shadow. Clark was one of the few people who could really understand what she'd been through. They both knew what it was like to spend night after night alone, feeling alienated and separated from the entire world. Their experiences had been different, but oddly the same, and Lois found herself feeling sad at the thought that he'd had no one. That was a pain she knew all too well.
He smiled weakly at her, and she returned the smile.
"We're going to get through this, Clark," Lois said. "It may take a little time, but we're going to make them pay. They'll never know what hit them with the strongest man in the world and the best reporter on the planet on the case."
"And where do you fit in?" he asked. A sly twinkle broke through the sad anger in his eyes.
She had a hard time deciding whether to be indignant or to laugh. "If I'd been working for the past five years, I'd have left you in the dust."
Lois was glad to hear signs of life coming back into his voice. He'd been brooding and distant since his return to consciousness, and it worried her. If she could bring a spark of life back into his eyes, it would be worth it, even if she had to tease him unmercifully.
"That remains to be seen."
"Trust me. I'd be using Kerth awards as doorstops."
"You strike me as more of a lighted trophy case sort of woman."
"Ha! That shows how much you know. I'd just toss them in a drawer and forget about them. In the newspaper business, you are only as good as your next story."
"If we manage to break this one, it will be the scandal of the century." Clark's voice was noncommittal.
"We've got more at stake here than a story." Lois gestured for him to follow her. "Of course, if I should manage to get a Pulitzer, it would do wonders for re-starting my career."
"You mean if WE got a Pulitzer." There was still an amused note in his voice, but for once Lois was serious. She'd read his work, and she knew just how good a reporter he was. Given the importance of the story, it really was possible that they might win awards. It had been a long time since Lois had felt the excitement that came with each big story. She'd missed that excitement.
"There won't be anything if we don't get back to work." Lois smiled at Clark, then turned back down the hallway.
She slipped into Jim Creed's room, moving silently toward her laptop in the corner. She risked a glance at Jim, who was still asleep. When she noticed Clark staring down at him, she felt relieved. As long as Clark was able to look inside Jim's head, she wouldn't feel as guilty about not getting him the medical treatment he needed.
She glanced at Clark, who nodded reassuringly. Jim was safe for the moment. Lois knew, however that he could be in danger for as many as forty-eight hours. It took time for the pressure to build up in the brain, time for symptoms to grow until the victim could no longer ignore them.
Lois spoke in a low voice. "There has to be a record somewhere if they've been using the Annihilator illegally."
"They could have sent a false signal back to whoever is running things."
"Assuming they aren't in on it," Lois said sourly. "That's not what I meant, though."
"Not everybody can have been corrupted, Lois."
Lois waved the comment off impatiently. "All sorts of people spend a lot of time looking up at the skies; private citizens, colleges, corporations… anybody with a telescope."
Clark nodded, and Lois could see small signs of journalistic interest in his eyes. It was more than she could have hoped.
"It's probably going to be tough to find anyone who is set up to detect that sort of energy discharge. Energy beams don't show up on radar, and I doubt the Defense Department will have anything we could use."
"It will take some digging, but I bet we'll find something. Research labs might have the sort of records we need, or maybe even the national meteorological service."
"The beam was probably pretty tightly contained. It might not have given off much excess radiation other than light. I remember a white flash when it hit me."
"So if they used it at night, someone might have noticed the discharges. We might want to look for reports of unusual sightings that correspond to the dates that people went missing." Lois's enthusiasm began to grow. "If we can prove that they've been misusing the technology… "
"No congressman would feel safe lying in his backyard beside his pool ever again. They'd take action purely as self-defense."
"Of course, it makes a pretty credible threat to those congressmen who know already."
Clark nodded. "There wouldn't be any place where they or their families could be safe."
Lois looked back at Jim Creed, who was sleeping fitfully, and grabbed the laptop. There were only a few places in the theater that were wired for electricity; she'd been forced to risk electrocuting herself to steal power for the few places that still had usable electrical wiring.
A dressing room down the hall was on the same electrical circuit. Lois stepped out of the room and walked down the hall carrying the laptop carefully. It only took a few steps to reach the other room. As she began setting the laptop up on a countertop, Lois glanced up at the makeup mirror above. Clark had followed her, careful to stay several steps behind.
His face was looking tense and drawn again, pale and washed out in the bright light of the makeup mirrors. He looked more vulnerable than ever, and Lois suspected that he was thinking about his parents again. She didn't know what it was like to lose a parent, and she didn't ever want to know. She hadn't been able to speak to her parents for five years, and that had been hard enough, even given the sort of parents that they'd been. It would have been infinitely harder for someone like Clark to lose his parents as a child. From all accounts, his parents had been wonderful people; the people of Smallville had been interviewed in exhausting detail about Clark's past.
Lois felt a pang of guilt. She'd spent so much time comparing Clark to Kade that she'd overlooked his good qualities. His alien nature didn't bother her; he looked like a man and she couldn't help but treat him as one. On a visceral level she knew that he was a man in the same way she was a woman. But she hadn't appreciated his qualities as a person. There wasn't any guarantee that he'd ever remember his time as Kade. If that was true, then Kade was for all intents and purposes dead.
The thought was depressing. While she hadn't known Kade for very long, she'd admired him. She'd trusted him, which was something she couldn't say about anyone else over the past five years except for Clark; and Kade had been first.
She'd made love to him thinking that she'd never see him again, but every time she saw Clark was a reminder of the time that they'd shared.
Clark had his own demons. The expression on his face told her that the memory of his parents' death was still raw and painful; if he'd blocked the memories away for all these years, they had to have been so traumatic that he couldn't handle them at the time.
As the computer began to boot up, Lois walked across the room and took Clark's hand in hers. She looked up at him and said, "I'm glad you weren't hurt. I was just getting used to having you around."
His expression changed, softening a little. "You'll never know how much that means to me. The other Lois was the first person who ever made me feel like a real human being, but you've given me something even better. When I'm with you, I don't feel so… "
"Empty and alone?" Lois's voice was quiet, and she tightened her grip on his hand.
He nodded. "Even just being friends with you makes me feel better than I have in a long time."
They wouldn't always just be friends. Lois was as certain of this as she was of her next breath, and yet she knew that Clark wasn't even certain about what had happened between herself and Kade. Lois wished that she'd thought to make Kade's bed look as though it had been slept in. The thought that Jim Creed and a hundred other government agents knew what she had done in private made her flesh crawl.
Clark on the other hand made her flesh tingle. She glanced down at their intertwined hands, and she found that she was highly aware of the feeling of his skin as it touched hers. She cleared her throat uncomfortably; she wasn't ready to give herself to Clark again, and yet she was more aware of him physically than ever.
The computer beeped, and Lois pulled away from him reluctantly. She turned back to the computer quickly, unwilling to show him the slight flush on her face. The fact that he would still be able to see her reflection in the mirror didn't escape her, but it was still easier if she didn't look directly at him.
"Did I remember reading somewhere that you have a photographic memory?"
"I can generally remember everything I read, yes. Events in my life… I don't always remember those as well as I should." Lois could detect a faint trace of bitterness in his tone.
Lois looked up at him sharply, unsure whether he was talking about his time as Kade, or about the deaths of his parents. After a moment she decided that it didn't matter, and turned her attention back to work.
"Why don't you look over the list of times and general locations of the disappearances. If you can just match them up with information from Star Labs, or the Sandia Labs out in California… "
Lois nodded. "They're trying to come up with a computer model with which to predict the weather. They're in the process of collating information from the National Weather Service for the last hundred years, and they've set up more sensitive instruments in various parts of the country."
Clark was silent, and Lois looked up into the mirror. "I've had a lot of time to catch up on my reading for the last five years."
His expression was unreadable as he said, "I'll check it out."
He stepped up to the computer, and it was Lois's turn to step hastily back. It was strange; she'd gone without making love for years, and it had never really bothered her. One night with Kade had changed everything. Lois was aware of Clark as a man, and it was a little disconcerting.
Clark began moving the track ball and clicking the mouse button quickly. The screen of the laptop flicked slowly from page to page, lagging far behind Clark's ability to read. In less than a minute, Clark finished and turned back to her.
"I'll make sure to stop by the labs in California. It shouldn't be that hard to sneak in during the day since they aren't some sort of top secret government contractor."
"You talk as though you are going to leave."
He nodded. "I made an appointment to go to a concert with Lana later tonight. With the noise level, it'll be difficult for them to make anything out, and I'm pretty sure they'll want to know what happened. I'll follow her after the concert and listen in. When she meets with her contact, I'll follow him back to wherever he has to go."
"He probably won't lead you back to the person in charge of everything. These people are usually careful about that sort of thing."
"Still, anything we can get on these people would be more than we have."
"We already know that Assistant Director Kirkland is dirty. We can look at his evaluation records over the last few years, find out whom he had a hand in promoting, see what other sort of damage he's done."
"Do you think he's the leader of the conspiracy?"
Lois shook her head. "He was promoted far too quickly. He had help, and finding out who it was that pushed him into a position of power could be the key to breaking the whole thing wide open. We don't really need to follow some flunky back to his run down motel room."
"The flunky will likely call someone; and when he does, it'll give us another angle. I don't think we've got a real picture as to the extent of this conspiracy yet."
Lois looked up at him, surprised. She wouldn't have expected him to be so ready to believe in a massive conspiracy. He'd grown up in Kansas, and had undoubtedly been brought up to believe in God and country.
"What about your friend?" Lois jerked her head in the direction of the wall. She knew that Jim Creed was still lying on her cot in the other room, although Clark had brought a great many pillows from somewhere. "If something should go wrong, I won't even know about it until it's too late."
"You'll have to keep him awake and alert." Clark said. He grimaced. "I really shouldn't leave him for at least forty eight hours."
"If he falls unconscious, I doubt I can carry him out of here."
"If I don't go, they'll know Lana tipped me off. I'm not sure what they'll do to Lana and her mother, but I suspect that it won't be pleasant. "
Lois looked away from the mirror before she could see the blood drain from her own face. She knew the sort of tactics Kirkland's people used, and she wouldn't want anyone to have to face that. Reluctantly, she nodded.
"I'll make up a written list of instructions… things to watch out for and all of that. If you think there is a real problem, all you have to do is yell help, and I'll be here in a flash."
"Even if you have to break your cover with Lana?"
He nodded. "I'm not going to trade one life for another."
Lois looked him in the eye, and for the first time, she realized how close they were to each other. "I admire that about you. Once you start making compromises, it gets pretty easy to lose sight of what's important."
"Staying alive is pretty important," he said quietly."
But it's not the only thing." Lois stepped closer to Clark, close enough that she could feel his body heat, and he didn't move away. She touched his arm lightly and stared up into his eyes.
"No, it's not the only thing." He looked down at her and frowned. "When I went to the other world, I had a glimpse of what might have been; and I realized that I'd just been existing, floating through life from day to day. Without my parents… without anyone, really… "
"Was it really all that much better?"
"He had parents who loved him… a wife he adored. He had a job and a normal life, and he lived in a world where people weren't afraid to leave home unarmed. They even took better care of the streets over there; everything was brighter somehow, less run down." A cold, angry look appeared in Clark's eyes. "All that was stolen from me more than twenty years ago by a man with a gun."
"You are sure that your parents were murdered… that it wasn't all a dream?"
His expression grew bleak. "I think I blocked it out for years… seeing your parents die and knowing it was your fault isn't the sort of thing you really want to remember. I always knew somewhere in the back of my mind though."
"It wasn't your fault! You were a child! If you'd been able to save your parents, you would have."
"I could have gone after the gunman. Even if I'd just distracted him… "
"Did you really know what he was at the time, or is this just hindsight talking?"
Clark shook his head. "I knew enough to know that a man with black paint on his face didn't belong at the farm."
"And did your parents teach you to assault adults?"
"Kids don't hit grownups." If anything, Clark's expression grew even bleaker. "Ever."
"So you couldn't have been expected to know that this situation was different, and even if you had, it would have probably just gotten you killed."
Clark didn't say anything, and Lois knew that her words were a cold comfort. Clark would never see his own parents again. He'd never even have a job or a normal life. With his identity as a space alien public knowledge, he'd always be a celebrity. He'd lost almost everything that made life worth living, and Lois found herself becoming alarmed.
She spoke quickly." If we could change the past… well, you'd have to get in line with six billion other people. Everybody has regrets, but we can't change what has happened. All we can do is do the best we can, and if we can make the world a little bit better than we left it, then we've succeeded in what we're meant to do," Lois said.
He grimaced, then smiled weakly. "I guess hope is all we have to go on."
"You're going to be careful?"
Clark nodded slowly. "They won't attack in the middle of a crowded theater, so I really don't have all that much to worry about."
Lois hesitated. "I don't know what this thing is between us… but it won't mean anything if you don't come back safely."
He nodded silently, but Lois wondered if he was still being overconfident. When dealing with people like Kirkland, overconfidence could be fatal.
"We've got the pictures that you asked for." The agent's face was expressionless as he carefully set a large manila folder on the desk.
The Director flipped impatiently through the pile of photographs and scowled. The Annihilator system was getting old; five years ago, the targeting would have been precise enough not to leave a crater. Despite the patches the shuttle crew had made, the situation was getting worse. It was an outdated system that needed to be replaced regardless of how useful it had once been.
The targeting system was primitive at the best of times, but leaving twenty foot craters was indefensible.
"Arrange for a meeting with Senator Hastings through the usual channels."
A great deal of progress had been made over the past twelve years. The Annihilator system had never really been designed to hit objects as small as cars; the need for a transmitter to paint the target was almost crippling. Systems were now in production that would allow moving objects the size of a human to be targeted, all without the need for transmitters.
As the head of the Appropriations Committee, Hastings could make things happen. With the help of a few votes in the right places, the new system could go up in as few as eighteen months.
The director froze as he came to the last, and earliest set of photographs. He pulled a magnifying glass from his desk and examined the black and white photos closely.
"Has anyone else had a look at these?"
The waiting agent shook his head. "It was assumed you'd want to see them as quickly as possible."
The photographs were damning, snapshots frozen in time that nevertheless told a story. Jim Creed being rescued by a figure who could only be the alien. The alien lying inside the blast radius with Jim Creed lying outside it. A vehicle and a human figure approaching them both.
The Director scowled. "Special Agent Creed isn't dead." He handed the photographs in question to the other agent. "Have the lab boys examine these photographs and see if they can identify any of the principals involved. Also, see if we had any other surveillance in the area. If we can track the vehicle back to its source, many of our problems might resolve themselves."
The Director had an uncomfortable feeling that he knew who the second figure would turn out to be. Of course, they might not be able to identify her; from directly above all they could see was the top of her head. If they could somehow identify the vehicle, they might be able to finally deal with a thorn in his side.
Clearly, they'd have to deal with the alien as well.
"Implement the Icarus Proposal."
For the first time the other agent faltered. "Are you sure that this is a good time… ?"
The Director stared at the agent for a moment with eyes completely devoid of humanity. The Director had sold his soul for power half a lifetime ago, and any scruples he might once have held had vanished like the memory of a dream. He stared at the agent with cold, dead eyes, and he knew that it was only a matter of time until the younger man lost the last of his illusions about life.
The other agent nodded quickly and left the office, leaving the Director to go back to his business.
Those who flew too high were due for a fall. It was time that the world learned that.
There had been a time when waiting had been unbearable for Lois. When she'd started her career, she'd been known for taking outrageous risk in pursuit of a story, which had allowed her to get stories quicker than older, more cautious journalists. Her first impulse had always been to act, trusting in her own instincts to keep her alive and safe.
Those instincts were warning her that it wouldn't be safe for Clark to go anywhere with Lana Lang. Even assuming that Lana was solidly on Clark's side, she was being carefully watched, and it would be easy to set up a trap. Clark was determined to go, however, and his powerful sense of loyalty was one of the qualities she admired about him.
Once, Lois would have felt overwhelmed by the urge to do something, anything other than sit and wait for news. Five years on the run had taught her the value of patience, however. Now she was perfectly calm and collected. Any nervousness she had was purely out of worry for Jim Creed's safety.
The fact that time seemed to be standing still and that Lois couldn't seem to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes was not a sign of impatience. Lois pored over the information she had garnered earlier, hoping to find common threads between the men who had disappeared. It was hard going, and she found herself checking on Jim often as the evening progressed.
It was getting colder; winter had yet to release its grip on Metropolis, and it was beginning to snow. Despite the electricity Lois had managed to steal, the theater was still cavernous and unheated. Clark had found sheets and blankets from somewhere else for Jim Creed, so Lois still had a thermal insulated sleeping bag.
Once her fingers began to grow numb from the cold, Lois finally shut her laptop down. She'd found an electric floor heater at a local pawn shop, but she didn't want to risk her tenuous electrical connections by running it while she had other electrical devices running. She closed the door to her small room and carefully switched the heater on. Between the closed door and the sound of the electric blower, it would be difficult for her to hear intruders, but she didn't see that she had any choice in the matter.
Freezing could be as deadly as a bullet, though the number of blankets Jim Creed had atop him made that seem unlikely. All Lois had was a sleeping bag and a nasty homeless person's coat, and she had no intention of wearing that again if she had any choice.
She slipped an extra set of socks on her feet and climbed carefully into the sleeping bag next to Jim Creed on his cot. She carefully set a flashlight on one side of the bag, and made sure her gun was inside. If anyone broke into the room, she could always shoot through the bag if she had to, though she'd prefer not to have to.
The snow wasn't welcome for a number of reasons. Lois would prefer not to leave sets of tracks leading to and from the theater, and so she was going to have to be more careful.
As the sleeping bag began to reflect her own body heat back on her, Lois finally began to relax. She didn't want to go to sleep, so she clicked her flashlight on and climbed out of the bag to check on Jim Creed.
The growing chill in the air convinced her to return to the bag quickly. Like loneliness, the cold was harder to take once it had been ameliorated.
She tried to focus on what was happening at the concert. Clark was likely dressed in a black tux, looking elegant among a sea of well dressed people. He was probably leading Lana up to a box seat; Lois couldn't see Lana wanting to sit among the common crowds, especially given Clark's celebrity status.
The orchestra was probably warming up, and the music was probably going to be good or more than good. The Metropolitan Music Hall was known for the quality of the productions held within its walls. It didn't have the same reputation as places in New York City, but that was more the result of snobbishness than a reflection of quality, at least in Lois's opinion.
The music would be good, and Lois spent a few moments trying to imagine what Clark would look like in formalwear. He'd looked good in every outfit she'd seen him in; he'd look even better in tuxedo. She could imagine walking arm in arm with him, settling into a box seat, and enjoying the knowledge that they were together.
The room was filled with shadows, lit only dimly by the red hot coils of the floor heater. Lois stared at the ceiling as her body slowly began to warm again. She wasn't jealous of Lana Lang; just because she and Clark had once been intimate, had decided to spend their lives together wasn't any reason to feel disconcerted. The fond tone that Clark had when he spoke of her didn't mean that he wanted to re-establish a relationship with her.
She couldn't help but feel a little envious of Lana's freedom. While Lois was huddled in the dark and the cold, Lana was enjoying good music at the side of a handsome man. Lois was tired of having to spend her life in hiding.
Clark wouldn't be back until late; the concert didn't begin until nine, and Clark had probably already taken Lana to a nice restaurant. It would be expected by the people watching, and expensive restaurants would have the discretion needed to deal with Clark's celebrity.
Lois felt a moment of pity for Clark. There wasn't a single place in Metropolis that he could go without running the risk of being recognized. He ran a certain risk of being recognized anywhere in the world that he chose to go, though places like Mainland China were probably safer.
It had to be maddening; no matter how fast or how far he could fly, he couldn't escape his own success.
Lois continued to relax, and after a time drifted off to sleep. Her last thought was of Clark as a boy and how lonely he must have been.
Lois woke to the sound of movement in the other room. She stiffened; she'd been waiting for so long that she must have drifted off. She'd crawled into an air vent hours earlier, and the stifling African heat had been almost unbearable. Her body was slick with a sheen of sweat, and what little cool air was coming from the air conditioning system came only sluggishly from behind her.
She knew she was in the right place. It hadn't been easy sneaking into the large warehouse, but a quick check had showed her that the towering stacks of boxes were filled with automatic rifles. She assumed that the shoulder mounted missile launchers and the hand grenades were stored in other boxes situated around the area. She knew that enough weapons were stored in this one warehouse to take over a small country, and this wasn't the only shipment. Massive amounts of money were involved, and though she hadn't had any success in tracking it back very far, she had no doubt that she would eventually find out what she needed to know. She'd already taken as many pictures as she dared to, and now all she was waiting for was the meeting her informant had told her about. She wished Claude could have been with her, but he'd been nothing but a hindrance from the moment they arrived in Africa. She'd finally given up in disgust and ditched him. It was risky, going alone to a fortified warehouse in the midst of a foreign country without telling anyone where she was going, but risk had always been Lois's middle name. She wasn't going to let Claude's foot-dragging cost her a well-deserved Kerth award. She'd won a Merriweather in her first year as a reporter, but this story would take her on to bigger and better things.
She cursed under her breath as she carefully crushed another biting bug on her hip. The heat was horrendous, and the bugs were even worse, but Lois was willing to do what it took to break the story. All she had to do was focus on the task at hand.
She heard the sound of motion from the doorway, and she carefully slid backward out of sight. She'd carefully moved a couple of boxes so that her view of the center of the room was unobstructed. She hoped that her informant had been correct. She'd feel awfully stupid to crouch in the heat and bugs for hours only to find that the meeting had gone on in the next room.
Her camera didn't have a flash, and Lois hoped that the sounds of the ventilation system would cover any tell-tale clicks it made as she snapped pictures. She quickly made sure that her equipment was ready as the overhead lights went on in the warehouse. The light from the opaque skylights had long since faded, but even with the coming of night the heat was oppressive and muggy.
She heard the sound of a number of men entering the room, and involuntarily, she found herself holding her breath. With possibly hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, she had no doubt that the men she was dealing with would have no compunction about shooting her.
Three men entered the room cautiously. All three wore dark colored suits in spite of the heat, and they began a thorough inspection of the room. Lois quickly slid back even farther into the vent, and she was grateful for her aerobics classes. It had been difficult for her to slip into the vent, and it would have been impossible for anyone who wasn't as slender and petite as she was. As it was, she pushed herself backwards as far as she could, hoping to be out of sight of the men should they choose to check the grate.
She'd barely scrunched around the corner when she saw the light of a flashlight beam touch the spot where she'd just been. She held her breath, wondering if they could hear the sound of her pulse as it thundered in her ears. It seemed as though the light played over the inside of the vent for a very long time, and Lois heard the sound of the grate being rattled. It had taken almost an hour for her to replace the screws on the outside of the grate, but she was glad she'd gone to the effort now.
Even after the light vanished from the grate, Lois huddled in silence. By the time she finally felt safe in sliding forward, the sounds of activity in the other room had increased. For a moment, Lois was afraid that she was stuck, but she finally managed to slip free.
She crawled forward carefully, and saw that the room had filled with people. A metal television stand had been rolled into the center of the room, with both the television and videocassette recorder being plugged into an outlet on the floor. The television screen was turned away from her, but she could see a single metal folding chair set into the center of the room. There was something ominous about the empty seat, and about the total lack of expression on the faces of the men standing behind the television.
The sound of a scuffle startled Lois. A moment later, three men came into view, forcing a fourth man onto the chair. It took a moment for the men to handcuff the figure's hands and feet to the chair; when they finally moved Lois almost gave her position away by gasping.
Claude was sitting in the chair, but he no longer looked like the older, distinguished journalist who had swept her off her feet. His handsome face was battered and bruised, with one eye swelled almost to the point of blindness. A trickle of blood ran from his split and swollen bottom lip, and the expression on his face was one of abject terror.
Lois gaped in horror. Was it possible that Claude had tried to follow her and been caught? It wouldn't be the first time that a journalist had vanished into the jungles of the Congo, and it probably wouldn't be the last.
She took quick stock of the situation. There were at least six men in the room, and Lois suspected that they were all armed. The sounds of motion in other parts of the warehouse suggested that they weren't the only one. Lois hadn't told anyone where she was going, and if Claude had followed her, he probably hadn't either.
The air shaft she was in was too narrow to turn around in, and she hadn't been able to explore its length. It was possible that she might be able to escape; long hours in Tai Kwon Do Class had given her the limberness of an acrobat, and she was still young enough to have the physical endurance it would take to make her way through hundreds of feet of ducts backwards. Unfortunately, it was going to take time, time she was afraid that Claude didn't have.
Even if she managed to escape, she'd have to convince the authorities that a crime was taking place. With the language barrier and the pervasive corruption of the police forces, it was possible that nothing might be done at all.
Lois considered revealing herself. If she could convince Claude's captors that the police were coming, it might be able to buy them some time. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that they wouldn't just shoot both Lois and Claude and leave their bodies stuffed somewhere, assured of their ability to bribe the necessary officials.
Before she could make her decision, she heard something new.
A voice echoed in the confines of the warehouse, a sharp contrast to the silence everyone else was maintaining. "We expected more out of you, Claude."
Claude visibly stiffened and tried to turn to look at the speaker, who was out of Lois's line of vision. "I'm close to finding out who her informant is. Give me a few more days… " The deep, resonant tones of his voice, and the exotic accent that had first attracted her to him were a sharp contrast to the content of his words. His voice sounded more tired than frightened, as though he knew that it was useless to protest, but felt required to do so for form's sake.
Lois froze, shocked. Claude had been trying to find out who her informant was for the past several days, arguing that he didn't like the idea of her meeting with strange men alone. Something within Lois had rebelled at the traces of jealousy he was showing; simply because they were intimate with each other didn't mean that Claude controlled her professional life. She'd consistently refused to reveal her source's identity, in part because she'd promised to, and in part to punish Claude for being so possessive.
"I'm afraid that information is obsolete. We've done a little housecleaning and found a couple of traitors in our midst." The voice came nearer, and a pasty- faced man in a black trench coat came into view. He leaned forward and spoke into Claude's ear. "None of that is any of your concern now."
"I did everything I could." Claude protested wearily. "I gave you everything she had on your operations, got myself included as her partner… I even slept with her. What more could I have done?"
Lois wanted to throw up. Despite her irritation with Claude's possessiveness, she'd really thought they had something special. Claude had been the experienced reporter who had taken the rookie under his wing, and he'd taken an immediate interest in her. He'd literally swept her off her feet. The thought that it might have been a lie made her ill.
"You could have been a little more convincing. We explained to you what would happen if you failed us." The voice was cold and devoid of compassion, and a feeling of dread came over Lois at the news.
For the first time Claude showed signs of life. He began to struggle in his chair and speaking rapidly in French. Lois caught only a word or two.
"You had a young wife back in France, didn't you, one you never told Miss Lane about, along with a sister and an elderly mother?"
"If you hurt them, I'll… !"
"You had a chance to see to their welfare already. You knew what would happen… "
"Please… you can do anything you want to me… just leave them alone. They don't know anything about this, and if I just vanish… they won't be able to… " Claude was wild eyed, a sharp contrast to the dignified man she'd always known, and there was a strong note of pleading in his voice.
"A man's word is the most important asset that he has, and the same could be said of any organization." The man stepped around Claude and pulled a video tape from beneath his trench coat. "If a man fails to keep his word, people stop taking him seriously. In our line of work, that can be dangerous."
The pasty-faced man slipped the videotape into the machine, pushed a button, and then turned the television on.
Lois couldn't see the television screen, but she could see Claude's reaction, and his face turned ashen. He began to sob in great heaving gulps of air, and it was an unbearably ugly sound. Lois had rarely seen men cry, and it never failed to shock her. Her own father had been gruff and stoic during times of sadness, and she'd come to believe that was how everyone reacted.
Claude wept noisily, concealing the sounds coming from the television. When his sobs finally began to trail off, Claude turned his head and refused to look at what was taking place on the screen any more.
His eyes met Lois's shocked ones and he stiffened. Lois had been creeping unconsciously forward until she was visible through the slats of the grate, and she knew Claude could see her.
She felt a moment of pure terror, certain that Claude was going to betray her yet again by giving away her location. She stared at him pleadingly, and she thought she saw something in his expression; perhaps it was regret.
The black clad man spoke sharply. "If you'd prefer, I can turn the volume up. You will watch this if I have to have my men hold your eyes open."
Claude gave her one last apologetic look, then seemed to gather the last shreds of his discarded dignity. He turned back to face the man and the television screen.
"I won't look at this any longer," Claude spoke firmly, staring directly at his tormentor so that he wouldn't have to face the screen.
"I suppose it is a bit of overkill. The next part gets a little monotonous; they just do the same thing to her other three limbs." The man's voice was detached, but his eyes were cold.
"They're dead already, aren't they?" Claude's voice was resigned.
"That's not really your concern anymore."
Claude bellowed incoherently with rage and attempted to launch himself forward. He managed to topple himself, with his face hitting the concrete. He turned his head and glared up at his tormenter with an expression of absolute and total hatred.
"There is the matter of your payment for all the help you've given us over the years." The figure paused. "We might actually allow you to live, except that with nothing left to lose, you'd actually be dangerous to us."
The man pretended to think for a time, then gestured toward people out of Lois's line of sight. One came forward with a large canvas bag.
"Show the man his reward."
The younger man upended the bag, dropping the contents right in front of Claude's face. Three severed heads landed with a meaty thud, and Claude began to scream.
Lois closed her eyes and fought to keep from throwing up. She would always remember the sound of Claude's scream, and she would remember the sound of the shot that followed for the rest of her life. She pulled back quickly, and it took her a moment before she realized that she was hearing the sounds of one person clapping.
"Bravo! You still have the same sense of style after all these years. I'm impressed." The southern drawl of the new voice was a sharp contrast to the other man's northern accent.
She opened her eyes again, careful not to look at Claude or the heads, or the growing scarlet pool by his head. The man in the black trench coat gestured, and men rushed forward to haul the body away. It took a shockingly short time to clean all traces of the crime away, and Lois heard the sounds of men leaving the room.
"Break out the popcorn! If you ever think about starting a circus, I'll be in the front row. As much fun as this all is, you still haven't taken care of our little problem." The voice was reproving. "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but certain nosy reporters can't be fooled at all."
"I've taken care of two traitors in my organization and one incompetent. That's worth a bit of a delay. Taking care of the woman should be a simple matter, but I had to know with whom she was talking."
The man in the trenchcoat faced the unknown figure, then stepped out of Lois's field of vision.
"Just take care of it, or there won't be any more installments."
"I don't take well to threats. For all of your… advantages, you're still just an amateur in all this."
"Insults! After all I've done for you!" The voice seemed more amused than anything. The trace of sarcasm in the voice grew stronger nevertheless. "If I'd thought you were stupid, I never would have come to you all those years ago. We never would have become such great friends!"
"We've never been friends."
The voice grew sly. "I wonder what would happen if a few words were dropped in the right ears. All your plans would go up in smoke."
"If I thought you were serious, you'd never leave the room."
"That's the attitude! I knew there was something I liked about you… Now if you just had a decent sense of humor we really could be buddies, pals!"
"When will I get the new installment?" The man in the trenchcoat's voice had become curt and impatient.
"Take care of Miss Lane and we'll talk. Don't worry! We have all the time in the world!."
Lois's mind was still numb from seeing Claude die, but she stirred a little at the mention of her name. She hadn't offended anyone in power yet, though she'd written a number of stories in the year she'd been a reporter. The thought that Claude was dead because of something she had done was finally dawning on her, and she was horrified at the thought.
The thought that someone wanted her dead wasn't particularly horrifying; the thought that four people were dead because of her was almost unbearable. The enormity of it was like an abyss that Lois was holding at bay by refusing to think about it, but she knew somehow that it had to be dealt with sometime, and the thought terrified her.
Lost in her own numbness, she missed the next few words that were spoken. It took longer than she had anticipated to focus on the matter at hand by which time the two men had seemingly come to an agreement.
The two men crossed the room, and Lois had only a glimpse of the second man. The last words she heard spoken were "… why Elvis? That's just… tacky… "
The image of the man's face froze in Lois's mind, and as she struggled in the tight, claustrophobic confines of the air vent, she finally woke up.
She was wrapped tightly in her sleeping bag, which was twisted around her body. It took her several moments to realize where she was and what had happened.
She'd had the dream again… but for the first time something clicked.
She remembered watching the scenes of Clark's debut as Superman, scenes of a man holding a malevolent green rock over him. Something had bothered her at the time, something she hadn't been able to put her finger on.
She'd had the dream many times over the past five years, and she hadn't forgotten the faces of any of the men involved in Claude's death.
Tonight was the first time she had a name to go with a face.
The second man had been Tempus.
The sounds of musicians tuning their instruments and the noise of the crowd drowned out any chance of Clark hearing anything important, though he listened to random snatches of conversation. The feeling of Lana leaning against his arm was uncomfortably familiar, taking him back to the many times she'd dragged him to similar events while they were dating.
He'd always had eclectic tastes in music, and he would have enjoyed the events more if Lana's primary interests hadn't lain in looking at others and being seen. Clark had never been comfortable with the shallowness of Lana's social set, and now that his secret was out, he liked the attention even less, but he knew there wasn't any other real choice.
For once, Lana was tense, staring straight ahead and not looking around. Clark scanned the area as quickly as he could, seeing that some of the faces had changed over the past two years. As he found Lana a seat in her private box, he scanned the area for bugs. Not finding any didn't make him feel any safer; he was certain they'd be watched.
He leaned toward Lana intimately, as though he was going to kiss her ear. "Let me know if you see anyone new… anyone paying more attention than they should."
"I haven't been here in almost a year, so I wouldn't really know." Lana frowned. "Now that you are famous, everyone is going to be looking at you."
"I'm sorry about the damage this is going to do to your reputation." Clark couldn't help the irritated note in his voice. Lana had made her position clear for years; she'd never wanted anyone to know that he was an alien. The idea that she was ashamed of his heritage bothered him a great deal.
She looked at him sharply. "It was never about that, and you know it. I wanted a normal life, and you have to admit that you don't have much of one anymore."
Clark nodded noncommittally. His life was anything but ideal, but he'd always thought that people in love could overcome anything. He'd been saddened that Lana hadn't been able to weather the storm of media attention.
"You haven't been around for a year?"
Lana looked down into her lap. "The accident changed a lot of things. I had to take a long, hard look at my life, and I wasn't happy with what I saw."
Clark nodded soberly as he scanned the surrounding balconies. He recognized some of the people in the surrounding boxes, though the cheaper balcony seats up above were filled with unfamiliar faces. A quick scan through the roof of the box didn't show any recording devices, or anything else unusual.
He turned his attention back to Lana, glad that his superspeed allowed him to check around in the space of a single breath.
"I'd always leaned on someone… my parents, you, my friends… but after the accident I was alone for the first time in my life, and my mother needed me."
"I tried to get in touch with you… "
Lana shook her head. "It would have been too easy to fall back into old habits. I needed to learn how to stand on my own."
"Still, we were friends for a lot longer than we were together romantically. I would have hoped that you'd have felt free to come to me about something like that."
Lana looked away from him out onto the sea of well dressed people in the seats below. "After the way I had treated you, I didn't think you'd want anything else to do with me."
Clark frowned. "We weren't always good for each other, not romantically, but I never doubted that you were my friend."
Lana squeezed his hand and smiled at him for the benefit of the crowd below. Clark had almost become used to the crowds of onlookers everywhere he went, but he knew that Lana wasn't used to the same degree of scrutiny. Lana and her parents had spent so much time trying to get into the society elite of Metropolis that it was difficult for Clark to imagine Lana giving it all up.
Of course, losing one's parents was a life-altering event. No one knew that better than Clark did. He was doing his best not to think about the revelation that his parents had been murdered. The possibility that it had all been a dream, a fabrication of his sleeping mind had occurred to him, but somehow, he knew that wasn't true.
His parents had been murdered, a deliberate act that was somehow infinitely worse than the simple workings of disinterested fate. Clark had never been able to understand how one person could deliberately and coldly end the life of another. He was coming to understand how it could happen in the heat of rage; in those moments when he couldn't help but think about what had been done to his family, he was alternating between intense depression and overwhelming rage. Only the fact that he'd spent a lifetime learning to hold everything inside kept him from screaming to the heavens.
He couldn't afford to show the anger he had inside. Beyond any ideas of revealing himself to the conspiracy was the fact that only a fraction of his strength uncontrolled could be fatal. Even sending his fist through a wall could send fragments flying through the air with the speed of bullets. He'd had to learn early on in his career to push his way through walls slowly; anger combined with the slightest loss of control would make him dangerous to anyone in the surrounding area.
Clark wasn't sure what he'd do if he ever found the person who had killed his parents; part of him wished that he never would. It would be so easy to lose his temper, even if just by a fraction, and Clark wasn't sure that there wasn't a separate, darker part of his psyche that wouldn't even enjoy the idea of striking back.
He'd have to raise the issue with his therapist once he'd brought the conspiracy to the light of day. Despite Lois's paranoia, he was fully confident that it wouldn't take long to defeat the conspiracy; secrets were impossible to keep for long periods. Once one member was caught, others would come forward and everything would collapse.
He'd already been hit with what was probably the strongest weapon they had, and while it had been painful, he wouldn't be surprised in the same way again. He suspected that he would make a very hard target to actually hit if he wanted to be, and he also thought that he'd be able to resist the beam for long enough to destroy the satellite with his heat vision.
The lights began to dim, and Clark relaxed as people's attention turned toward the stage. He'd heard the London Symphony Orchestra play before during his travels across the world, and he actually enjoyed much of the music that was on the agenda for the evening.
Nevertheless, he listened to the music with only half an ear for the next two hours while scanning the area for anything suspicious. He found a number of people staring up at his box or across from it, but he didn't see any unusual weapons on their bodies, or anything else other than pieces of heavy jewelry here and there.
He felt relieved when the time came for the intermission. Lana had been growing tenser with each passing minute, as though she expected someone to start shooting into the box. He could understand the pressure she was under, but if they were being observed it would be obvious that Lana wasn't very good at deception. That would make it harder to keep the secret long enough to do what had to be done.
He didn't say anything to her about it, for fear that she would grow even more anxious. Lana had never been a strong woman, and it was hard to imagine that she had changed much after all the years they had known each other.
Clark was glad that the private box holders had their own hallway and private reception area. While he wasn't snobbish, he had to admit that the rich and powerful were more discreet about autograph seeking. His sudden celebrity had only intensified his loneliness since his secret had been revealed to the world. While he would still receive attention, it would be muted and dulled.
It didn't take long to reach the small reception area. Small groups of people were gathered together talking in low tones. Lana excused herself and headed for the restroom. Clark scowled and resigned himself to listening in; the restroom would be a perfect place to contact her. It was an invasion of privacy and distasteful, but he didn't see any other choice.
He was surprised to notice government agents standing in the corners of the room trying to look unobtrusive. A quick check with his x-ray vision revealed several of them as Secret Service Agents, and Clark spared a moment to wonder who they were protecting.
Several people looked as though they wanted to approach him, but all of them gave way to two men, one tall and thin with skin the color of chocolate milk, the other short and fat, with pale white skin and gray hair. Both were dressed in black Armani suits, and Clark had a niggling feeling that he'd seen them somewhere before. If they worked in the White House, it was possible that he could have met at least one of them in passing. He'd met President Heston on three occasions over the past two years.
It took a moment for him to place the taller man. Virgil Bloom was the White House Chief of Staff, a man entrusted with a great deal of power by the President. He smiled politely as they approached, and when it became clear that they intended to speak with him, he sighed inwardly and stepped forward.
"It's good to see that you have recovered from your ordeal Mr. Kent." Virgil Bloom shook Clark's hand. "The White House staff shared the joy of the entire world when the news came back that you were alive." Bloom had a deep, pleasant voice, and his smile seemed genuine.
"It's good to see you again Mr. Bloom. I hope the President is well?" Clark wondered if he could trust Virgil Bloom. He liked the man, and if he was trustworthy, he had the direct ear of the President. If he was part of the conspiracy, things would be considerably more complicated. It took Clark only a moment to decide to remain silent. He'd have taken the risk if he was the only person at risk, but with both Lana and Lois's families on the line, and Jim still injured and vulnerable, caution was necessary.
"His health is good, but he's become very concerned about yours."
"I'm as healthy as I've ever been," Clark said. Honesty compelled him to continue, "Physically at least… "
"The President has been concerned about the existence of rogue elements in the government for quite some time, but he's never had any concrete proof, at least until the attack on you in Arizona." Virgil spoke quietly, his voice too low to carry to the nearest other speakers.
"Agent Creed's report reached the White House?" It was difficult for Clark to believe that the report had reached the President's desk so quickly.
Virgil Bloom nodded. He glanced at the man standing beside him and scowled. "I haven't introduced my companion. This is Harold Trevanian, Director of National Security."
The other man extended his hand, and Clark hesitated before taking it. There was something in his expression that Clark didn't like, and he still couldn't escape the idea that he had seen the man somewhere before.
Trevanian's smile widened perceptibly as Clark shook his hand, and he held the handshake a little longer than was socially acceptable. Clark instinctively disliked the man, and he wasn't sure why. Perhaps it was related to the nagging sensation that they'd met some time in the past.
He struggled to place Trevanian's face, and he started as he felt Lana's hand wrap around his arm. He hastily introduced Lana to the two government men.
"That's an interesting ring you are wearing, Mr. Trevanian." Lana smiled brightly, but Clark had known her long enough to know that she didn't like the man any more than he did. Trevanian didn't bother to shake her hand.
Clark noted that Trevanian's heart rate sped up at the statement, but the man's expression did not change. He glanced down at the ring, which was large and heavy, engraved with tiny figures of winged people.
"It's from Greek Mythology, a reminder that no matter how high a man might aspire there are always limits to any ambition."
"That's a good lesson for anyone to learn, especially in government." Virgil said. "Power can corrupt without a strong sense of responsibility to direct it."
Clark noticed the irritated look Trevanian directed at Virgil Bloom. The taller man ignored him and continued. "The President wants to speak to you on Monday at two o'clock in the afternoon about corruption in government."
Clark nodded. "I'll be there." It would be expected that he would accept, and it would be a perfect opportunity to contact the President and give him anything he and Lois could find out in the interim.
Trevanian's eyes seemed to glitter in the light. "I'm sure the President will keep you at your word, Mr. Kent. A man's word is his most valuable commodity, don't you think?"
Clark nodded absently. He was feeling a little strange; he'd never been dizzy before, but if he had it might be something like this.
Trevanian smiled sourly and said, "I can see that Mrs Hawthwaite-Thorne is coming. We'd better get going before she starts trying to get another invitation to the Lincoln bedroom. You know what the President's standing orders are about that."
Virgil Bloom looked as though he wanted to stay and talk a bit more, but at the sight of a large, determined looking matron he sighed, and gave an apologetic smile to Clark. He followed Trevanian back into the crowd, only to be followed by the matron and her slender, stressed looking husband.
"Clark? Is something wrong?" Lana's voice was concerned, and Clark realized that his vision was growing blurry.
"There must be Kryptonite somewhere around here." Clark said, his voice distracted. He'd never been ill even as a child, and so the sensations were unfamiliar to him. "We've got to get out."
A sense of unreality was coming over him, but the weakness that was leaching into his bones couldn't be denied. Though his strength was draining rapidly, he picked Lana up in his arms as though she was as light as a feather, and he left the building at superhuman speeds.
His burst of speed lasted only for a fraction of a second, long enough to move past Lana's startled scream. It was a moment before he realized that Lana had always been afraid of flying, and he silently apologized to her. The fact that he wasn't getting any better was beginning to concern him; he should have been far outside the range of any kryptonite.
He turned toward the theater instinctively, fearing that enemies would be watching his apartment and Lana's as well. Molten fire began to course its way through his veins, and his right hand began to throb with every pulse of blood. He looked down dimly and saw that it was swelling up rapidly. By the time he reached the Theater, his speed had decreased to the point that a human walking could have kept up with him. Lana, whose weight had been imperceptible, was growing exponentially heavier, and Clark found himself swaying as he flew. Lana clung to him desperately, but Clark suspected that she was as worried for him as she was for herself.
He barely managed to reach the edge of the fire escape in time, and he dropped Lana unceremoniously to the floor. She squawked, then looked up at him with an expression of mixed fear and concern.
Clark swayed on the fire escape and would have fallen backward if Lana hadn't grabbed his arm.
He heard movement from inside the hallway inside, and a moment later the window opened. Lois took one look at them both, and her expression turned grim. "We'd better get him inside, out of the cold."
Clark swayed, and it was difficult for the two women to pull him through the window. He would have helped, but his limbs were growing numb. A glance at his hand showed that the swelling had only intensified.
As darkness began to cloud Clark's vision, he finally recalled where he had seen Trevanian's face, or at least a much younger, much leaner version of it.
It was raining on a dark and lonely road…
Lois grimaced as she tried to ease Clark Kent's suddenly dead weight through the window. Despite her years of Tae Kwon Do lessons, she remained a small woman, and Clark Kent was much heavier than he looked. She'd been half expecting a trap, and now she wished she'd argued more convincingly against Clark's going.
She struggled with his weight, pulling him inside, and she stumbled a moment later as two sets of hands grasped Clark and pulled him off her. She looked up, startled. She hadn't really noticed Lana before; her attention had been focused on Clark. The woman had followed Clark inside and was helping Lois support Clark's body.
Both women together wouldn't have been able to do much had it not been for the third set of hands involved. Jim Creed smiled weakly as he grabbed Clark by the arms. It was all the three of them could do to drag Clark down the hall and into the small room.
"I didn't think he'd be so heavy," Lois said quietly. He hadn't seemed heavy the night he'd lain with her as Kade; if anything he'd seemed lighter than other men, a perfect fit for her small body.
"He's heavier than a normal person, but he's been careful to make himself lighter whenever he's needed to."
Lois stared at Lana, and for the first time felt a stab of jealousy. Lana knew intimate things about Clark, things she'd had years to find out.
Lois shook her head and quickly began to pull at Clark's clothing. They hadn't used the Annihilator again; whatever they had used had left no visible blood. She stopped as she came to his hand, which was swelling up unpleasantly.
"How did they injure him?" she asked Lana quickly. "Did they shoot him with something?"
Lana shook her head. "He met some people during the intermission, and after they left, he started to get sick. He thought there might be Kryptonite somewhere nearby, so he flew off before I could do anything."
"If it was Kryptonite, he'd start getting better almost as soon as he got out of range." Jim Creed frowned as both women looked at him. "I asked him so I'd know what to do in the event of another Tempus style assassination attempt."
Lois froze. She'd just remembered Tempus and his involvement in the Congo earlier in the evening. If he was trying to kill Clark somehow, Kryptonite might well be involved.
Jim hissed with surprise as he turned Clark's swollen hand over and looked at the palm. An ugly black spot lay near the center of the palm, and Lois looked up in surprise as he cursed under his breath.
"What is it?"
"I've seen this sort of injury before," he said shortly. "A large ring with a needle in the center, pointed in, and a reservoir of poison."
"What sort of poison would affect Clark? I thought he was invulnerable," Lana asked weakly.
Lois cursed her other self for not keeping track of the Kryptonite the first time she'd thrown it away. "Isn't it obvious? They probably powdered the Kryptonite and mixed it with something."
"But the needle shouldn't have been able to pierce his skin!" Lana protested quickly. "The ring would have had to be lead lined anyway, or he'd have felt it from a mile away."
"The Kryptonite must strip right through his defenses," Jim said quietly. "However the poison got into his system, we have to get it out. There isn't any way of knowing how long he has to live without treatment, or even whether his system will be able to deal with the poison on it's own. We have to proceed as though it will be fatal though, because a mistake could mean a man's life."
Lois shook her head. "They'd have made sure there was enough to kill a Kryptonian elephant." She scowled. "Maybe we should try to suck the blood out."
When she grabbed Clark's hand, Jim touched her arm and shook his head. "You don't know what they laced the Kryptonite with, on the off chance they could make the cocktail a little more lethal. It probably won't have much of an effect on him, even in his weakened state, but if you put your mouth on his wound… "
Lois pulled away from him as though stung. "We have to do something! We can't just let him die here."
"We have to get him to a hospital right away."
Lois shook her head angrily. "You begged me not to take you to a hospital, and now you want me to take a man who was just the target of an assassination attempt? He wouldn't last the night."
"I'm feeling ok," Jim said, grimacing and looking away from Lois as his face tensed with pain. He wasn't all right and they both knew it. "If I was dying, I don't think you'd have any choice."
"They'll be looking for him to end up in the hospital. All it would take would be a little more Kryptonite in his IV line, and the job would be finished." Lois frowned. "A doctor could make a slight, purposeful misjudgment… "
"He's too famous to kill outright."
"They won't have any choice, now that he's seen the face of their agent." Lois scowled. "There is only one doctor in Metropolis that I can trust right now, and he isn't even all that far from here."
"Let's go get him, then," Jim said. He stood up rapidly, then began to sway a little. "Someone else will have to drive."
Lois shook her head. "He's probably being watched as we speak. My father, Sam Lane, should still be at work; there may be time to catch him."
"It's after ten in the evening."
"My father always preferred working late into the night to spending time at home, and I doubt he's changed any."
"It's going to take all three of us to get him down the fire escape."
Lois nodded. "We're going to have to kidnap my father and make sure he doesn't have any bugs on him."
"Where does he work?"
"He builds cyborgs for the government, super soldiers."
"He works in the old Lexcorp building?"
Lois spoke again. "Luckily, he doesn't rate high enough to get any of the few underground parking spaces, so he has to park across the street in the multistory lot."
"Security will still be pretty tight there, won't it?"
"Not as tight as you think. Most people have no idea that there are government offices in the Lexcorp building; tight security is a dead giveaway. I wouldn't know anything if I hadn't snooped through my father's papers one day." She looked up at Jim. "How do you know about it?"
"One of the men caught attacking Superman in Arizona attempted to escape while being transported to Metropolis; he killed six agents before they managed to pull him down. They found that he was… augmented."
"My father would never knowingly have dealings with the kind of people we are talking about. He wouldn't have to know anything; his job is just to produce a better soldier. What the US government does with them after they leave his operating tables wouldn't be any of his business."
"It IS easier just to keep people in the dark. What people don't know, they can't reveal."
"We'd better hurry. Clark may not have much time, and there is always the chance that my father might do something unexpected, like leave early."
"We can't afford to move Clark around any more than we have to. Someone needs to stay here with him; if his condition worsens rapidly, we may have no choice other than to call an ambulance. We'd just have to worry about the consequences later." Jim's voice was low and grim. "We need to keep Clark's hand at an even level with his heart, assuming his heart is in the same place a normal person's is."
"It is." Both Lois and Lana spoke at the same time, and they looked at each other with irritation. "I'll stay with him." Both spoke in unison again, and Lois glared at Lana.
"Clark has been my best friend since I was a little girl," Lana said. "I'll stay with him as long as I have to. But don't you think your father would be more likely to come with his daughter than with some strange woman he doesn't know? A struggle wouldn't look good on security cameras."
Lois scowled. It was her place to comfort Clark, to be there when he woke, and to sooth his pain. Lana was an interloper, a person from Clark's past who had shared things with him that Lois would never be able to. Jealousy was an ugly emotion, and it was eating at her soul now.
Unfortunately, what Lana said made sense. Her father wouldn't be likely to get into a strange car with someone he didn't know. He was scatterbrained sometimes, but never foolish except in matters of love. She'd been like him in that way, something she was only now beginning to be willing to admit.
Lois needed to do something productive; watching and waiting had always been the hardest thing she ever had to do, and it had never been really natural for her. It took her only a few moments to decide, and she quickly pulled her cell phone and tossed it to Lana. "If his condition worsens, just press one and it'll dial us automatically. Then call 911, and tell them they have a poisoning victim at the old theater on 42nd street, and that they'll need to break in."
Lana nodded grimly. Lois quickly checked the second phone, glad that she'd had the forethought to collect it from where Jim Creed had dropped it on the pavement. She quickly switched it on and checked to make sure that the fall hadn't damaged it. Satisfied that everything was in working order, she nodded curtly to Jim. "Do you think you'll be able to get around?"
"I'll do what I have to," he said. He swayed a little where he stood, but stopped himself and rose to his full height.
Lois frowned and shook her head. "You really shouldn't be out in your condition, and there really isn't anything you could do. My father will either come willingly or he won't. If he won't, I doubt you could force him in your condition."
"You're putting yourself at risk of being discovered. Surely, there will be a security guard at the gate that you'll have to speak to. I could talk to him while you hide."
Lois shook her head. "You are in just as much danger. As long as they think you are dead, they won't be likely to come after you again. I'll be fine." She glanced over at Clark. "Just make sure that he's still alive when I get back."
Lois grabbed the homeless person's coat and hat from where she'd thrown them in the corner of the room and grimaced. She hadn't planned on having to wear the outfit again, and if she'd had any other choice, she wouldn't have.
With that, she turned and left the room before Jim could protest. She felt a little prickle of fear at the thought of risking exposure, but she knew she had no other choice. She'd gotten Clark into something dangerous, and it was her responsibility to help him get better, regardless of what they might come to mean to each other. The fact that she was coming to care for him deeply only made it more imperative that she find her father in time.
She moved quickly down the fire escape, being careful not to slip on the increasingly icy metal. She dropped to the ground and was careful to walk close to the wall; she couldn't afford to have a set of tracks leading through the center of the new fallen snow; with any luck, the snow would continue to fall, but if it didn't she wanted to be prepared.
She sighed as she slipped back out to the station wagon. She'd already taken advantage of the other person, and now she was going to have to hot-wire the vehicle again. She was inside and starting the car in the space of a moment.
She drove through snowy streets and quickly made her way downtown. The thought of meeting her father for the first time in five years was a little daunting, and the further she drove the more nervous she grew. She'd allowed her father and her entire family to believe that she was dead, and while that had been the only decision that she could have made, it would be a hard one to explain.
Of all her family members, her father would be the easiest to talk to. He didn't wear his heart on his sleeve like Lucy, and he didn't try to use guilt to manipulate her like her mother did. He would disapprove but he would understand, once he got over the shock. Convincing him that there was a government conspiracy would be difficult.
As Lois waited alone at a light, she slipped the cap low onto her head, grimacing. She'd have to find some new, clean clothes and just make them look dirty. Verisimilitude was all well and good, but Lois's flesh had barely stopped crawling from the last time she'd worn the outfit.
She drove up to the entrance to the garage, where a bored looking attendant sat inside an enclosed cage. As she'd hoped, he barely looked up as she slipped money into a steel drawer. With a flick of a button he lifted the gate, and Lois quickly drove through.
She drove slowly, hoping that her father hadn't changed cars since the last time she'd seen him. She checked for government tags on license plates just in case he had.
When she saw a lone figure walking in the shadows, her heart skipped a beat. Her father looked like a defeated, broken shell of a man, walking with slumped shoulders and looking impossibly old. His hair had turned white, and he looked dejected. It was a shock to realize that he was an old man; he had always kept his hair carefully dyed before, taking as much pride in his appearance as in his reputation as a ladies' man.
Lois checked the area carefully. While little effort had been made to guard the door, cameras had been placed on the ceiling throughout the garage; Lois was certain that if her father came up missing for long that the tapes would be checked and then they'd all be in trouble.
She bit her lip and slowed the car. She wasn't sure how to approach him, or what exactly to say. She was secretly afraid that he wouldn't really care that she was back; he'd always been a little cold and impersonal in his reactions to her. She'd always resented bringing home a ninety-eight percent grade only to be told that left two percent for improvement. What had been worse than the implied criticism was the fact that he'd barely been paying attention to her at the time. She'd spent her entire life struggling to get his attention, competing with his work and his romantic interests. He'd always made her feel invisible, and she was afraid that he'd do it again if she revealed herself.
Her lips tightened. It didn't matter how he responded to her. Clark's time was running out, and she would do what she had to keep him alive. She sped up until she was alongside him, and he didn't react. He simply continued to shuffle along with his eyes on the floor.
Afraid he might have some sort of microphone on him, Lois pitched her voice low and pulled her cap even further down on her forehead. She checked for cameras and the moment she was in what looked like a blind spot she made her move.
Sam Lane looked up, startled. Lois was even more shocked than she had been before. His face was beginning to look like a roadmap, lined with the results of years of sorrow and pain. He didn't look anything like the strong, suave and debonair man she remembered from her youth.
She repeated herself. "Hey, mister! Are you Sam Lane?"
"What do you want?" he asked irritably. "If you're from the press, I've got nothing to say about my work."
Lois scowled. "I've got a message from your daughter."
"Lucy? Is anything wrong with Lucy?" He approached the car quickly.
Lois pulled the cap off and leaned out the window, allowing the light to play across her face.
Sam Lane turned as white as a ghost and staggered back a step.
"Get in the car, and we'll talk." Lois kept her voice pitched like a man's.
"Loi-" he began.
Lois hurriedly interrupted. "If you want to hear the message, you'll come with me."
He stared at her numbly and when he finally moved, he walked around her car and slipped into the passenger's side without a word.
Sam Lane stared at Lois as though he was seeing a ghost. When he began to speak, she silenced him with a gesture and concentrated on making her way through the deserted parking structure, until at last she managed to slip out the exit.
She turned a corner quickly and drove several blocks. Sam Lane stared at her the entire time, sitting motionless as though he was rooted in his seat. When Lois judged that she was a sufficient distance away, she pulled the car into an abandoned parking lot. She exited the vehicle without switching it off, and her father quickly did the same, as though he was unwilling to let her out of his sight for a moment.
"Are you-?" he began, but Lois silenced him again. She frisked him quickly and professionally. When she found nothing, she sighed with relief.
"Is it really you, pumpkin?" he asked, and this time Lois didn't silence him. She nodded, and was surprised to find tears coming to her eyes. It had been a lifetime since she'd seen her father, and she was surprised to discover just how much she'd missed him.
She was stunned when he rushed forward and embraced her tightly. He held her, and she could feel that he was trembling, shaking with something that was not the cold. Lois leaned into him, shocked to the core at how good it felt to be hugged by her father.
"They told us you were dead. If we'd known you weren't, we'd have turned the world upside down to find you."
A cynical part of Lois's mind wondered if that was true, but she dismissed the thought immediately. She'd struggled her whole life for her father's love and approval, and she was going to bask in the few precious moments she had of it.
"I need your help," Lois said when they finally pulled apart. "A man is dying, and I can't take him to the hospital."
If Lois had any other choices, she would have spent more time with her father like this, but she couldn't forget that Clark was injured, and getting sicker by the minute.
Her father barely seemed to notice what she'd said. "Have you been living here all these years? Why didn't you get in touch with us? What have you been doing all this time?" The questions seemed to come in a rush, one after another without leaving Lois time to answer anything.
Lois glanced over at her father; his face was still devoid of color and he seemed to be in shock. Lois knew what it was like to talk about something, anything while she tried to regain her mental equilibrium. She'd even been accused of babbling from time to time.
There wasn't any time to waste; he was asking questions Lois wasn't ready to answer and they needed to talk about Clark's condition before they got back to the theater. Lois grimaced; then interrupted her father.
"We'll have all the time in the world to talk later, Daddy, but Superman needs your help."
Sam Lane gaped at the mention of Superman, then stopped speaking for a long moment. Lois glanced over at him again and was pleased to see that her father seemed to be coming to his senses. He looked at her sharply and said, "We need to talk about where you've been, and what you've been doing all these years."
Lois shook her head. "We'll have time for that after we take care of Superman. Right now, he's dying… if there is any chance that we can save him, we have to."
He nodded slowly, though he was still looking at her with narrowed eyes. Lois turned as though to go back to the car.
"You don't have any idea about what your death did to all of us, do you?"
Lois looked back at her father and said, "Whatever it did can't be worse than the alternative would have been."
She slid into the driver's seat and a moment later her father slipped into the passenger's side.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"The old theater on forty second street… the one you used to take Lucy and me to." Lois decided not to mention the fact that Sam had been having an affair with an actress working at the theater at the time; now wasn't the time to revive old arguments.
"That place has been abandoned for almost fifteen years."
"What can you tell me about this man's condition?"
"I have Clark Kent hidden there. He's been injected with what is probably some sort of Kryptonite powder, possibly mixed with a lethal cocktail of other sorts of poisons."
Lois nodded. "It happened less than an hour ago, and yet his hand is already swollen."
Sam frowned. "I doubt I'll be able to do much for him on site. You're afraid the people who did this might try to finish the job?"
Lois nodded grimly. Whatever else her father was, he wasn't stupid.
"We're going to have to find a facility, and time will be of the essence." Sam paused for a moment. "I have an idea, but let's have a look at him first."
Lois nodded, and they both lapsed into silence.
After a couple of minutes had passed, Sam spoke. "Where have you been all this time, Lois? Thinking you were dead… it was hard on all of us."
"I'm surprised." She glanced over at her father and immediately regretted her words. He looked stricken.
"How can you say that? Whatever problems your mother and I may have had, we never… "
"You never had time for either of us. I practically had to raise Lucy on my own."
Her father was silent, and Lois sighed. "If I'd had a choice, I would have come back to all of you."
"You could have at least let us know you were still alive."
Lois shook her head. "I got involved in something dangerous… people were watching."
"We're here." Lois said shortly, pulling into the same parking spot. She cut the engine off and quickly got out of the car. She was relieved that she didn't have to continue with the conversation; it was making her distinctly uncomfortable. Once her father got to work, everything would be easier; her father had always been able to concentrate on the matter at hand. If Lois had learned one thing from him, it was how to submerge problems in work.
She looked around quickly, making sure that no one was looking, then led her father around the corner, being careful to keep to the edges once again. Snow was falling lightly, and Lois quickly moved around the dumpster, carefully moving the board covering the window. She looked up at her father and said, "It's going to be a tight squeeze for you, but I think you'll make it."
That could apply to a number of things, Lois reflected as she slipped into the basement of the theater. Seeing her father gave her hope that she would be reunited with her family, hope that things could be as they once were. Lois hadn't realized how deep the void in her soul had grown until she saw him. Even now she couldn't help but glance back at him as he clumsily tried to make his way inside.
The moment he did, she replaced the board and took his hand. She led him quickly and certainly through the darkness, glad she'd gone to the effort of memorizing her route through to the other side. It was pitch black, and she could hear her father stumbling behind her.
Now that she was in the theater, a renewed sense of urgency came upon her. She had a sense that they needed to get to Clark as quickly as they could. She found the door at the end of the room and quickly groped around for the flashlight she had left there. A moment later the reassuring flare of light allowed her to release her fathers hand and concentrate on making her way upstairs.
"Be careful," she said. "The third step is completely rotten, and the fifth step is a little iffy."
He grunted and she heard the reassuring sounds of his footsteps behind her.
The main theater looked as it always did, as though an earthquake had collapsed the place. Lois made her way down the one aisle that was unobstructed by large props and stepped up a few steps to the stage, which was a shifting mass of shadowy props and ruined set decorations. Lois had always felt nervous at this point; it would make a perfect ambush point, with plenty of places to hide.
She moved quickly and heard her father curse softly as he bumped into something. She slowed a little and gave him a chance to catch up. Having her father break his leg wouldn't help anyone.
A moment later they were backstage going through a small door to a stairwell. Lois looked up carefully; a small window at the top of the stairs gave her enough light to see any shadowy figures, even though it was too small even for her to crawl through.
She could hear her father panting behind her as they reached the top of the steps. Lois suspected that he needed to spend more time getting a little exercise and a little less in the laboratory; after everything was over she'd speak to him about it. She hadn't gone without him for years only to have him keel over from a heart attack.
Lois allowed the door to click shut behind her, and she was pleased to see Jim Creed poke his head around the corner of the door. The moment he recognized her, he breathed a sigh of relief.
Lois led her father quickly into the small room, which was rapidly growing crowded. She suppressed a sigh of irritation at the sight of Lana sitting beside Clark, holding his uninjured left hand. She quickly set his hand down and moved away to give Sam Lane a chance to work.
Her father examined Clark quickly, taking in the sheen of sweat on his forehead, the occasional moans of pain, his unconsciousness and the appearance of his hand, which had become even more grotesquely swollen.
He shook his head and stood, turning to Lois. "We aren't going to be able to do anything for him here. I've heard about Kryptonite of course, and the best course of action seems to be to remove it. The problem is that we don't have anything that could do that here.
"We can't take him to a regular hospital," Lois said quickly. "The people who did this to him will be watching."
Sam shook his head. "I'd like to take him to my facility. I regularly have injured soldiers wheeled in for… treatment." His face had a strange expression of distaste as he said the last words. "We've made a lot of advances in dialysis that aren't available at hospitals yet, and we're even working on an artificial kidney."
Lois nodded. Her father had been working on ways for soldiers to avoid the effects of chemical weapons even five years before; it wouldn't surprise her if he'd made any number of advances. If those advances could save Clark's life, she'd be eternally grateful.
She frowned. "Won't security be pretty tight?"
The parking lot was one thing, but the actual building containing government offices was something else entirely.
Sam shook his head. "They don't ask any questions about bodies being brought in." His face contorted again with distaste. "What sort of vehicles are typically used to bring the bodies in?" Jim asked quietly.
"They use ambulances for the more serious cases, but sometimes they just use limousines or Ford Tauruses with tinted windows. As long as someone has the right identification there shouldn't be any trouble."
"Do you bring bodies in sometimes?" Lois asked, an uneasy feeling in her gut.
He nodded grimly, and looked away. "It's an ugly business at times."
"I have a personal friend who owns a limousine company," Jim Creed said. "I'll bet he'd be happy to lend me a car and an outfit; this isn't a busy time of the year for him and I did him a couple of favors once."
Lois thrust her cell phone at him. "Call him. The longer we leave Clark like this, the sicker he's going to get."
"How are we going to get him outside?" Lana asked.
Lois frowned a moment, then stepped outside. She returned with an axe taken from the fire box in the hall. The glass covering the axe and fire hose had long since been broken, but the axe had remained behind.
"We can use the cot as a stretcher if we break the legs off."
Lana began removing the covers from the cot without a word while Sam Lane stepped close to Lois.
"If he's still invulnerable, there may be nothing we can do for him."
Lois shook her head. "Someone managed to get a needle into him. If they can do it, so can we."
Sam nodded soberly.
Jim Creed finished his telephone call and took the axe. He made short work of the legs on the cot and he and Sam rolled Clark carefully onto the improvised stretcher formed by the cot. They each took a leg of the cot and carefully lifted him. Even with four people doing the lifting, Lois was surprised at how heavy Clark seemed.
They made their way out the door and down the hall toward the window. Lois tried to ignore the groaning sounds Clark was making. It was obvious that even while unconscious, he was in pain, and it hurt her to see him that way. She glanced up and her eyes met Lana's, seeing the same pain reflected. She nodded at Lana in understanding; they didn't have to like each other to realize that they shared something in their relationships and concern over Clark.
Moving backward through the window was difficult because she and her father wouldn't both fit at once. Lois let go and stepped through first, then reached through the window and took the complete burden as her father made his way out.
It was all she could do to hold the cot, and she swore to herself to start weight training in addition to her Tai Kwon Do once everything was over. They managed to get Clark out the window only with great difficulty; the floor of the fire escape was slippery and narrow and Clark's body was long and bulky.
The stairs down were terrifying and by the time they reached the ground of the alley, both Lois and her father were red faced and sore. Lois's arms trembled as they set the cot down onto the one patch of ground beneath the fire escape that was relatively dry.
Jim looked down the street and jogged down the alley. Lois wanted to shout to him to keep to the edge, but she was too tired. He was gone for a long time; Lois had almost had time to catch her breath by the time a long black limousine began to back into the alley.
Jim was out of the limo in a flash and ran around to open the rear passenger door. "My friend caught a ride with someone else." He'd apparently found time to change quickly into the driver's outfit; by pulling the cap low he was able to conceal most of the bandages on his head.
Leaving the stretcher where it was, they manipulated Clark's limp body into the back seat of the limo. Lana and Lois followed and her father closed the door behind him. The windows were tinted, but the dividing window between the front and rear was down. A moment later both Jim and Sam Lane slipped into the front seats.
As the car began to pull away, Sam Lane turned in his seat to look back at them. "You'll be able to ride with us as far as the freight elevator. At that point security gets a little tighter and I'll have to go in by myself."
Lois nodded soberly. She'd found a place at Clark's head and found herself running her fingers through Clark's hair. "Do what you can for him."
Sam nodded. "I'll have him fit as a fiddle before anyone is even aware that he's there. Once he's out, I imagine he'll be a little more careful about being around any of this stuff."
"Lead blocks the effects of Kryptonite," Lois said as a thought struck her.
Sam nodded. "I imagine it could harm him even from within a biofilter a few feet away. I'll take the necessary steps." His tone was reproving; medicine was his area of expertise and he didn't like to be second guessed.
Lois was unrepentant. Any small detail could make the difference between life and death, and if her father had taught her anything it was to question everything. She glared at him, and surprisingly he smiled at her. It felt good to fall back into the old routines; they were a strange sort of touchstone that let her know that life was as it should be.
She smiled at her father ruefully, and his eyes twinkled.
A moment later the dividing window rose. It was soundproofed and tinted black to provide total privacy to the people in the back. When the car stopped for several minutes, Lois tensed. She couldn't hear anything more than a murmur coming from her father's side of the car. The dark tinting of the windows combined with the general lack of light to make them effectively blind. She had images of the car doors flying open and men with guns firing into the car without asking any questions, and Lois began to perspire.
She tensed as they began to move again, then sighed with relief. They drove down a steep incline and then made a number of turns before stopping again.
It seemed like an eternity before they stopped again. The door behind Lois opened abruptly and Lois almost fell out. Her father leaned inside and whispered, "Don't get out, Pumpkin. There are cameras everywhere."
Jim appeared with a gurney and he and her father quickly pulled Clark out onto it, being careful to keep their bodies between Clark's face and the camera. They pulled a cover over Clark's body.
With the door opened, Lois caught a glimpse out the rear view mirror on the driver's side. She could see a large elevator door with an armored grate in front of it and four soldiers armed with assault rifles standing at ready. The fact that they didn't leave their posts to help move the body was indicative of their level of alertness. They followed orders diligently, but studiously ignored anything they weren't allowed to notice. Lois and Lana both remained slumped low in their seats; this area was well lit even while the other parts of the parking garage weren't. With the interior light on, Lois didn't want to risk the guards seeing any hint of movement from inside.
Her last glimpse of them both was of her father's aged body slowly wheeling Clark on the gurney while the heavily armored doors of the elevator shaft began to open. Then Jim shut the door and slid into the driver's seat. The car began to move again and Lois sighed mournfully. Waiting was going to be hell.
"We have it!"
Trevanian grunted as his aide rushed to his side. The alien had been strong enough even after the injection to flee the scene; his men had lost track of Clark Kent and Lana Lang as they'd headed south in the direction of the river.
The concert hadn't even been as good as he'd hoped. The quality had slipped over the years, though he had to admit that it was possible that his tastes might have simply become more discerning.
As he slipped into his armored Limousine, he waited for the door to be shut behind him before speaking. "What do we have?"
"We've got the information you were looking for on the car that visited the Annihilator site. We caught a lucky break; they've just installed an automatic camera at one of the traffic lights to give traffic tickets to people passing through."
"Did we get a picture of the driver?"
The aide shook his head. "They were driving too fast. We did get a license plate, and that should be all we need to proceed."
"What do you have on the owner of the car?"
"Laurence "Tank" Wilson, age 45. He's a local musician and a writer of subversive literature. The FBI has had a file on him since the seventies… um… file AE12346432LNC. He lives a block down from the old theater on 42nd street."
"Why don't we have a little talk with Mr. Wilson?" Almost as an afterthought he said, "And why don't we canvas the area while we're at it. Be sure to keep me informed of any developments."
With luck, all his problems would be dispatched by dawn.
Memory was a thing of pain, of years of accumulated sorrows and regrets. The pain in Clark's body was almost preferable to facing a lifetime of emotional pain, and he allowed himself to drift in a haze for what seemed to be forever.
He dreamed that his mother was stroking his head after a nightmare, and he wanted to weep. His mother's touch was something he'd always taken for granted; the unbridled innocence of youth had led him to believe that the endless days of summer would last forever. Somehow he'd lost that innocence; he knew that his mother was forever gone and that it was all a dream. She was only with him for an instant, and then she was gone.
He sensed movement and voices, but the green fire running through his veins had intensified. He barely noted a small pain in his right wrist before he fell unconscious again.
He woke feeling incredibly weak. It was a major effort just to open his eyes, and yet most of the pain had faded. A small remnant still raced through his bones, but he knew instinctively that it wasn't more than his body could handle. It was a ghost of the pain he had suffered already, more a memory of pain than an actual ache.
His eyes were gummy, but it was no longer hard to breathe. He opened them cautiously, squinting at the cold, impersonal lights shining down on his body. It took him a moment to realize that he was nude; a thin cotton sheet covered the lower half of his body while the upper half was covered with electrodes.
He wet his lips, which were chapped and dry for the first time since he was a child, and wondered where he was. The last thing he remembered was carrying Lana away from the Kryptonite.
His eyes adjusted to the light, and he stiffened as he began to make out the racks of medical equipment on all sides of him. His parents had warned him about scientists; he'd had recurring nightmares from the time he was a child of having his chest slit open and his organs removed one by one as he watched helplessly.
After his third night in a row having nightmares, his mother and father had gotten into the one real argument he ever remembered them having. Clark had been afraid of police officers for weeks, seeing them as agents of an impersonal and frightening government, and his mother had been irritated at his father until the nightmares had subsided.
The admonition had done its work; until Lana had caught him setting a campfire without any matches when he was twelve years old he hadn't revealed his secret to anyone. The revelation had frightened her; she hadn't spoken to him for weeks and that had only sunk him even more deeply into the pit of depression that he'd been in since the deaths of his parents.
Lana had returned to him slowly, cautiously, and in time their friendship had resumed. Clark had learned his lesson, however. He'd grown sloppy since his parents' death; at times he'd almost wished the men in white coats would come for him. It had seemed easier than continuing to move through a succession of foster homes.
The fear he'd seen in Lana's eyes had changed everything. Death was frightening; revulsion was something else entirely. Clark never wanted to see that look in another person's eyes, and so he'd become careful again, concealing his powers as well as he could. It had been years before he'd begun to come out of his shell enough to help people even covertly.
The acceptance and trust in the eyes of a woman from another world had been a shock. It had been heady, holding her in his arms and having her face glow with the sheer joy of flying. What he'd seen shining from her eyes that day had been something he'd only dreamed of having, and he would have done anything she asked just to see her smile.
In a lifetime of disappointments, learning that she belonged to another seemed only fitting. He'd lost the woman of his dreams, Lana and her friendship, and what little privacy he'd managed to find for himself all in the space of the same day.
It took his mind time to adjust to the fact that he wasn't back in the middle of his dream. While he was weak, he could move, and there were no signs of demonic men leaning over him with cutting implements.
He stiffened when he realized that he was strapped down. He began to struggle, and he could hear the sound of the heart monitor beeping more quickly as his heartbeat began to pound in his ears. The straps were tight and he was so weak that he couldn't break free of them.
Terror lanced through him with a sickening jolt before he saw a familiar shape shuffle into view.
He gasped and tried to speak but his throat was too dry. He coughed and cleared his throat. "Sam Lane?"
The older man stared down at him for a moment without speaking. Sam Lane glanced at the instruments surrounding Clark then said, "Can you tell me what year it is?"
Clark nodded. He tried to speak but failed; his throat was too dry.
"I'm going to shine a light into your eyes. Try to keep them open."
Clark winced as the light hit first one eye then the next. He blinked for several moments afterward as Sam Lane moved away from the bed.
"Why am I restrained?"
"I've run a dialysis shunt into your right arm, and you've woken up three times and tried to remove it."
Clark grimaced. "I don't remember any of that. What happened to me?"
"Someone injected you with a radioactive substance I'm going to assume is Kryptonite. They mixed it with a potent cocktail of other chemicals; as far as I can tell none of those chemicals have had any real effect, but it might be safer to keep you under observation just in case."
Clark jerked at the restraints again. "Can you take these off me?"
Sam Lane nodded shortly. "If you try to take the shunt out I'll have to put them back on. It was all I could do to get them on you in the first place."
Clark relaxed as he heard the sound of velcro restraints being released. "Where are we?"
"In a government facility at the top of the LexCorp building." Seeing the alarmed expression on Clark's face, Sam Lane rushed to explain. "I was approached by… someone we both know. I work here, and we smuggled you in."
Clark relaxed as the answer became clear. Lois had found a way to get him the help he needed without taking him to a public hospital.
"Does anyone know I'm here?" he asked.
"The soldiers who guard the entrance are trained not to ask any questions." Sam grimaced and looked away. "I'm not sure how long I can keep you here without being found out."
"How long until I'm ready to move?" Clark didn't look forward to lying helpless in the bed when the government found out where he was.
"That's up to you. You were able to swallow a bomb even while under the influence of Kryptonite, but I was able to penetrate your skin without much trouble. I don't have any sort of baseline to be able to judge how long it will take your abilities to return."
Clark frowned. "This is only the second time I remember being exposed, but I spoke to someone like me once… he lost his abilities for an entire day after his first exposure. From what he said it depends on the length of exposure."
"There are others like you?" Sam Lane asked hopefully.
Clark shook his head. "Not on this world, and there isn't any way to contact them where they are either."
Sam lifted one eyebrow, but smoothly changed the subject. "We managed to get you onto dialysis within an hour of your exposure. I can only guess that having the Kryptonite administered internally would have made any damage more severe."
Clark nodded. "It can't have been that much Kryptonite, though."
Sam nodded and said, "I've managed to filter enough out of your body that it makes the filter glow green. I won't know how much was used until I distill it, but… "
"I'm surprised it isn't burning me from here."
"I found enough lead to surround the filter at least. How do you feel?"
Clark grimaced. "I still feel a little pain, but mostly I feel weak."
"In comparison to what you were, I imagine you do."
"Could I get a little something to drink?"
Sam Lane nodded. He turned away and returned with a Styrofoam coffee cup filled with water a moment later. "I'm going to lift your bed. Tell me if you are in any pain."
Clark nodded. A moment later the head of his bed began to rise. Moments after that he reached out and took the cup from Sam Lane's hand and took a sip. The water was lukewarm, but it tasted good against Clark's parched tongue.
"At least you're strong enough for that."
"I might even be able to walk under my own power."
"I imagine you can do anything you set your mind to." Sam stared at him for a long moment until Clark began to grow uncomfortable. "I never thought you'd find anything when you came to me before."
Clark remembered their previous encounter vividly, even though it had been almost two years before. Sam Lane had been brusque to the point of rudeness, involved in his own work and angry that someone would try to raise false hopes about finding his daughter.
"I needed to find her," he said quietly.
The older man nodded. "I thought I saw something when she looked at you." He sighed. "I don't know what sort of trouble you are both in, but if I know… her… it's probably something major."
"You have no idea," Clark murmured. He took another sip of his drink. "She's going to need me, and soon."
Sam nodded. "Normally I'd insist that you stay in bed for a few days, but I've seen signs that you are healing very quickly, and it would take a great deal of trial and error to find an anesthetic that would work properly on you."
Clark glanced over at the shunt and was shocked to see that his skin had already begun to grow over it. Removing it would hurt, and he knew there weren't any drugs that would be able to help.
"I have a little training in hypnosis as it relates to pain management," Sam said. "I'm not sure if hypnosis can even affect you; your brain is undoubtedly hardwired differently from that of human beings."
"I was raised to think like a human being. That has to count for something." Clark looked up at Sam Lane. "How long have I been out?"
"You've been on dialysis for six hours. That's twice as long as it would take to cleanse a kidney patient of blood impurities using this equipment, but we had to be especially thorough."
Clark nodded. "Can we start taking this stuff out? I don't like leaving… her… for this long."
Sam Lane nodded grimly. "Even if the hypnosis works, this is going to hurt."
Clark nodded. "I understand."
What followed was unpleasant, but not nearly as painful as he would have expected. Clark hoped that was a sign of his abilities returning. He held a cotton pad over his wound until Sam could wrap it with a bandage, but he knew that the blood flow was already slowing. He was feeling stronger by the moment, though he wasn't sure he was any stronger than a normal man yet.
Clark heard a distinctive ringing sound, and Sam Lane looked confused for a moment. He turned and pulled a familiar cell phone from his coat. "Your friend, the agent, left this with me so we could stay in touch."
Clark frowned. If they were calling at this point something had to be wrong. Cell phone transmissions were too easy to intercept, and Lois was far too paranoid to take the risk.
Sam flipped the phone opened for a moment and listened to the voice on the other end. He paled, then silently held the phone out to Clark.
Clark grabbed the phone and said, "Hello?"
"Clark? Thank God you are all right." Clark was surprised to hear Lana's voice on the other end of the line. Her voice was shaky and distressed.
"What's wrong?" he asked quickly.
"Some men broke in a few minutes ago." Clark stiffened as Lana gasped for air. "I don't think they saw us, but we scattered and hid." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I don't know how long it'll be before they find us."
"What men?" Clark gritted his teeth as Lana was silent for a long moment.
"I think someone is coming. I have to go." Lana hesitated. "I saw them out the window, Clark. They looked scary."
The phone went dead.
"Lana, Lana?" Clark was frustrated, but he knew better than to try to call Lana back. The sound of a ringing phone would give her position away, possibly placing her life in danger.
There wasn't much time. While there were plenty of places to hide in the old theater, and Lois would have sought out many of them, it wouldn't take the enemy long to find Lana and Jim Creed, and once they threatened those lives, Lois would be forced to reveal herself.
Clark still didn't know what had happened in the Congo, but he suspected that the people they were dealing with wouldn't hesitate to use torture or worse to find out his location.
"I've got to get out of here," Clark said. "Lois needs me."
Sam hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Keep her safe," he said quietly.
Clark cautiously came to his feet; to his relief he discovered that he had no problems standing. He followed Sam to a computer monitor. Sam was switching to image after image of hallways and stairwells.
"I'm connected to the old LexCorp security grid. Everything looks safe so far."
Sam hissed as an image of twelve black-clad men filled the screen. "Damn. They've sent Deltas. We have to get moving."
"Deltas?" Clark watched as Sam began to gather his coat and briefcase.
"My life's work for the past ten years. Fourth generation cyborg super soldiers, America's shock troops for the new Millennium."
Sam grimaced and typed a few commands into the computer. "I've just shut the security system down; it'll take them at least thirty minutes to bring it back up again, maybe longer."
"You look like you were almost expecting this."
Sam's lips tensed. "I've had some reservations about this program for the past several months. I took a few precautions."
Clark had to admire Sam's cool competence. Lois had inherited more than her quick mind from him. Most people had a paranoid streak these days, but very few of them bothered to plan ahead.
As Sam led him out into the hall, Clark asked, "How dangerous are these Deltas?"
"At your normal strength, not at all. As it is… I've seen a single Delta take out twenty men without breaking a sweat."
"And there are a dozen of them," Clark said, his voice flat. Now that he was out of the lab, he was beginning to feel better. Whatever shielding Sam had managed to arrange for the filter on the dialysis machine hadn't stopped the trace amounts left in the other tubes of the machine from affecting him. All he could hope was that he could regain his strength in time.
It would be better to avoid the soldiers altogether. Even if he managed to regain an equivalent strength, he wasn't a trained combatant. He'd never had to learn to fight; even as a teenager he'd been so much stronger than everyone else that it hadn't been necessary. Against a highly trained combat specialist, he'd be in trouble.
Sam led him to a stairwell, and they both quickly began to climb the steps.
"They'll have most of the elevators watched," Sam said quietly. "But this place used to be owned by Lex Luthor, the world's fourth richest man. He was known to be even more paranoid than most people, for all the good it did him."
Clark nodded. Luthor had promised to revitalize the economy of Metropolis, bringing in thousands of jobs. He'd begun to make good on that promise when he'd been killed. His financial empire had collapsed with his death, and Metropolis was left with dozens of buildings half built.
They climbed two stories, and Sam began to gasp for breath. "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing," he said.
They reached an elegantly appointed hall, and Sam pulled a single key from his pocket. He opened the door with the key and quickly punched a series of numbers into the panel on the wall inside.
The room inside was blanketed with dust and cobwebs and furniture covered with white tarps. A dust covered wet bar lined the far wall, bottles of expensive vintages sitting neglected where they had been left behind.
Sam Lane locked the door behind them, then walked across the room. He reached under the tarp-covered bar and a moment later the entire wall slid to the side with a groan of machinery which had been neglected for too long.
Sam gestured for Clark to follow him. The secret room behind the bar was shrouded in darkness. Clark's vision normally would have compensated quite easily, but for the moment he couldn't see a thing.
He heard Sam Lane moving around, and a moment later the wall shut closed behind them. Then the floor began to drop out from under them.
Sam's voice was almost sepulchral in the darkness. "When I first thought I might need an escape route, I looked over the plans to the building and I began to notice oddities. The dimensions on the plans didn't match the dimensions to my lab, and a quick check showed that they didn't match the dimensions to a number of other places as well. It took a while, but when I finally found Luthor's escape route it was worth all the effort."
They seemed to move forever in the darkness until at last the doors opened up in front of him.
They seemed to be in a wide cavern, half of which was covered by a deep lagoon. The lagoon had electric lights placed in strategic locations underwater so that the whole place was lit by a shifting blue light which flickered along the rough cavern wall.
A wide, low swamp boat like those used to travel the Florida everglades was moored to the shore by heavy ropes.
"Metropolis sits on top of an aquifer," Sam said as he pulled a small box from under the seat. He pulled a laminated map from the box and opened it quickly. "Luthor mapped the entire aquifer and even noted the few places which have exits to the world above."
He glanced behind them, then quickly turned the key. "I'm not sure how long it will be before they find this place, but I think it best that we leave as soon as we can."
Clark turned the key and grimaced as the engine failed to turn over. He turned the key again and relaxed as the engine came to life with a low hum. He turned and moved to the back of the boat, releasing the ropes which held it in place, and the electric cord which seemed to have kept the battery charged.
The boat skimmed through the water, barely leaving a ripple in its wake. As they left the lighted area behind, Sam switched the headlights on. Clark watched behind them until the lagoon was out of sight. If they'd been discovered, he wanted to know about it.
Clark had an uneasy feeling in his gut that time was running out, and he wished for the speed that he'd once had. He'd already lost more in his life than any one person should have to bear. The thought of losing Lois, too, was almost unbearable. As Clark stared into the darkness ahead, he promised himself that he would do whatever was necessary to ensure her safety.
The trip seemed to last forever as Sam Lane drove like a man possessed. Several times he took them through tight turns at speeds that could have flipped them over, and Clark wondered again just how much Lois had inherited from her father. He seemed to have no aversion to taking risks, and at times Clark could barely hold onto the rail because of Sam's wild shifts in direction.
The boat began to slow, and Sam cursed. "This thing hasn't been serviced in years; I replaced the oil and the battery, but the seals and gaskets are brittle. We're just lucky that the bottom hasn't rusted out."
"Where are we?"
"There's a junction up ahead that will take us near the exit to the nuclear plant."
The LexCorp plant had only been half built when Luthor had died, leaving an empty shell that had never been completed. The plant was situated by the harbor, less than a mile from the theater.
"Get us there," Clark said.
Sam struggled to keep the vehicle going, but eventually they made it to the pier.
Clark swung up onto some metal rungs. "I'm going ahead. I've gotten a little of my strength back, and I suspect I can make it there a lot more quickly than you can."
"Should I call the police?"
"We're dealing with people in government positions," Clark said. "I wouldn't put it past them to have moles in the police department."
"I can't just do nothing."
"Unless you have some way of shutting down the Deltas… "
Sam Lane shook his head. "There isn't any sort of shutoff switch. I wish there was."
"What can I expect from them?"
"Enhanced strength and speed, low light visual enhancements, internal radios and subdermal armor. All are heavily trained commandos. There was talk about outfitting them with stun weapons, but I'm not involved with that part of the project."
"Do they have any weaknesses?"
"The joints aren't armored. Go for the throat if you have to," Sam hesitated, an expression of regret on his face. "Don't bother going for the groin."
Clark nodded soberly. He didn't intend to kill anyone, but anything that would keep him alive long enough to reach Lois was useful.
He turned and began to climb the rungs, only to stop as he heard Sam Lane speak.
"Make sure my baby comes home."
Without looking at the older man, he said, "That's what I've been trying to do for the past two years. I'm not about to stop now."
He made his way quickly up the rungs, and began moving as swiftly as he dared through a series of access tunnels and maintenance shafts. Luckily, LexCorp had been meticulous about putting up exit signs, and even though entire floors weren't lit, his eyes finally seemed to be adjusting to the darkness.
A heavy chain from the inside locked the door to the surface. Clark knew that meant there was another entrance somewhere, but he didn't have time to go searching through the hallways of a halfway built nuclear plant.
He kicked the door twice. The door was made of metal, which boomed hollowly as his foot struck it. The frame, however was made of wood, and that began to splinter as Clark continued to kick the door. That was encouraging; it meant that he was recovering some of his strength. He kicked it several more times until at last the frame collapsed entirely on one side, allowing him to push the door open. A moment later he was out into the open air. The sun had just risen over the bay, and he closed his eyes for a moment as its life-giving rays bathed over him. It felt good, and he could have stood for an hour just to soak up the heat, but he didn't have time.
He looked around, noting various landmarks. Everything looked different from the ground, but two years patrolling the streets of Metropolis had given him a good idea of where everything was.
He began to jog down the street. He couldn't help but be conspicuous in the black tuxedo pants and torn white tuxedo shirt that he was wearing, as well as jogging in dress shoes, but Sam hadn't had any clothes in his size. That was one difference between father and daughter, he reflected. Lois would have had a full set of clothes with money and alternate identities set up in the boat. Of course, he wouldn't have been able to wear Lois's clothes either.
He jogged carefully, hoping to conserve his wind. When he found that he could still breathe easily, he sped up the pace. As he ran, he allowed his mind to go over the glimpse he'd had of the theater using his x-ray vision. There would be guards watching all of the obvious entrances. The front entrance was locked, and while he could probably break through the door, it would make sufficient noise to alert the enemy.
They'd be watching the alley entrances, both the locked ones backstage and the basement window and fire escape that Lois used. There would be men watching from the roof, and the fact that he was making his approach by daylight wouldn't make things any easier.
The ends of the alleys on both sides were blocked with chain link fences; a deserted restaurant was located behind the theater, leaving a 3 foot gap between the buildings. The restaurant was only one story; the theater was mostly two stories except for the area around the stage, which rose to three to leave room for set pieces to be raised and lowered. This raised roof section prevented all sections of the roof from being visible from all other sections. Clark only hoped he'd be able to reach the roof and work his way down.
Clark increased his speed again from a run to a sprint. The longer he felt the morning sun shining over him, the better he felt. Luckily, he was in a section of Metropolis that was deserted at this time of the morning. One older woman manhandling a bag full of garbage to the curb stopped and stared at him as he passed by, but otherwise the streets were empty.
Clark was acutely conscious of the passing of time. The longer it took him to reach them, the more danger Lois and the others were in. While the theater offered hundreds of crannies to hide in, and the darkness would make finding them more difficult, he didn't expect them to be able to hide long;
He slowed as he approached the restaurant behind the theater. If they'd placed anyone on top of the third story part of the theater roof, he'd be visible as he approached.
He squinted as he stared upwards. He could barely make out a single figure walking around the top of the building. Luckily, the figure had just turned away. He sprinted quickly, and was pleased to discover that time flickered as he did so, as though he were on the verge of having superspeed.
Looking carefully up and down the street, he pulled the bars from the front window of the restaurant. He grunted slightly at the exertion, and was pleased to note that he was regaining his strength, albeit only to a small degree. Luckily, the glass behind had already been shattered by gunshots. As he stepped into the room behind he could see the bullet holes littering the far wall.
The restaurant had been stripped bare, and Clark's footsteps echoed uneasily as he passed through the empty room and back into the kitchen. Dust covered everything, and he had to suppress his urge to cough. The kitchen had doors out onto the alley; the restaurant dumpster was even larger than the theater dumpster had been, being a large, tall container with a door in the side rather than the more standard model with a door on the top. If Clark remembered correctly, the dumpster should have been large enough to block the view of anyone on the other side. Assuming he could reach the alleyway between the two buildings, he should be able to reach the roof in time.
A shadow outside the door to the alley was all the warning he had. Clark moved quickly, pressing himself flat against the wall beside the door a moment before the door burst in. A black clad soldier stepped into the kitchen with an assault rifle held at the ready.
Clark grabbed the rifle, throwing it across the room even as he kicked the figure behind the knees. It collapsed only to grab him as it fell, pulling him along with it.
Clark punched the figure in the ribs and grimaced. The armor over the torso was heavier than he would have expected. He was thrown to the side and he reached his feet a nanosecond before the other figure did.
He didn't have time to get his bearings before the figure was on him, striking him with a flurry of painful blows. The figure was fast; Clark knew that to the ordinary eye its movements would have been blurs. After a moment, he discovered that he was just a little faster.
He grasped both of the figure's hands, and his muscles strained. He could hear the servomoters grinding as the soldier attempted to pull away. A moment later, the soldier's foot had slipped around the back of his heel and he was falling.
Clark rolled apart, and barely noticed that the other figure was doing the same. He grimaced; the blows the other figure had made to his neck, head and solar plexus were painful, but not crippling.
The soldier pulled a weapon from its place at his hip. It looked like a modified taser; the arc of electricity that surged from it with an audible crack was much louder than any normal taser, however. Clark suspected that it would create a shock large enough to kill a normal human.
He grabbed the weapon as the man came after him with it, spun around and threw it against the wall, where it shattered. The man launched a blow against his elbow that left Clark's arm stinging and allowed him to escape. The other man moved across the room and paused. When he saw the other man's lips begin to move soundlessly, Clark suspected that the soldier was activating his radio. Knowing that he had no choice but to take the figure out, Clark struck the soldier in the temple as hard as he could.
The man's eyes rolled up in his head, and he fell backwards, unconscious.
Despite the fact that the skull had been armored, the human brain didn't react well to being snapped around inside. Clark grimaced as he looked down at the fallen man. A concussion was the best that could be expected; at worst the man might need immediate medical attention.
He hesitated. There wasn't time to help the man, and he didn't have the training or equipment that would be needed. He was tempted to leave him where he lay; Lois didn't have much time.
He took a step toward the door, then stopped. He could almost imagine the specter of his parents' ghosts standing behind him. They'd taught better, and no matter how much in a hurry he was, he couldn't leave a man to die, especially when he was the one who had caused the injury.
He grimaced and pulled the cell phone from his pocket. Sam Lane had given it to him and never taken it back. He dialed 911.
"I've got an unidentified male in the kitchen at 4111 43rd street. The man has some form of head trauma and is unconscious on the floor in the kitchen to the back of the building. The building is deserted, so it would be best to arrive at the west side alley entrance."
Before the person on the other end of the line could ask his identity, Clark switched the phone off. He glanced down at the man on the floor and grimaced. He only had fifteen minutes to save Lois and the others before the ambulance came and alerted everyone to his presence. He might have even less time, depending on how long it was before the soldier was supposed to call in.
He stepped outside cautiously and moved quickly to his right. He noticed that the wire fence behind the dumpster had been cut, but he moved quietly into the small space between the two buildings.
With his strength returning, it didn't take long to climb upwards by putting his right hand and foot on one wall and his left hand and foot on the other. By exerting superhuman pressure, he was able to support his own weight with his other three limbs as he relaxed first one, then the other and moved it upward.
It took only a few moments to reach the roof of the restaurant. He waited until the man on the top of the building had moved away before swinging up onto it. He then jumped the remaining story to the edge of the theater roof. He barely managed to grab onto the edge, leaving his body dangling three stories above the pavement down below.
Pulling himself up carefully, he noted the location of two soldiers in addition to the one up above. He frowned. They were watching the alleyways carefully, and if he could get to the base of the proscenium, he'd be out of their line of sight. However, they'd be sure to investigate the sounds of his footsteps. They might not be willing to use their assault weapons out in the open, where it might draw attention, but they'd be able to do plenty of damage with their hands and feet.
He concentrated on floating, and felt himself become lighter. He wasn't light enough to float, but hopefully his footsteps would be muffled.
He ducked under the edge of the roof as the soldier above came into sight. He hoped that his fingertips weren't visible from that range. Luckily, there was a wide expanse of roof to survey. He counted to himself, and when he thought it might be safe, he pulled himself up again.
He threw himself upward, and the moment his feet hit the gravel at the top of the roof he was running. The world flickered around him again, and he reached the base of the proscenium in the space of a moment. He didn't think he'd been seen, but he stood still for almost a minute expecting the others to come around the corner at any time.
The men on the roof would have orders to radio in before getting into any fights, so Clark couldn't afford to be seen.
A trap door sat at the base of the proscenium. Clark had a sneaking suspicion that a guard was waiting out of sight below. He opened the door quickly, realizing only too late that it had been bolted from below by the muffled sound of the lock breaking. He let himself drop into the shaft the moment the trapdoor was opened, falling onto the figure standing below with his full weight.
His feet struck the man in the shoulders, driving him face first into the floor. The man didn't move, and after kicking the assault rifle away, Clark turned him over anxiously.
The man's stiffened hand chopped out at his Adam's apple, and if Clark hadn't moved back a fraction of an inch would have struck it with superhuman strength. Clark grabbed the modified Taser from the man's hip, jabbed it into his side and switched it on even as the man struggled beneath him.
The shock caused the man's eyes to roll up in his head. Clark froze as the man stopped moving; it took him a moment to feel a pulse because of the strange mechanical parts hidden beneath the surface of the skin. When he was sure that the man was only unconscious, he quickly moved up the ladder and closed the trapdoor.
He bent down to take the taser; it would be much more humane than attempting to knock the soldiers out with his fist. Unfortunately, it was connected to the cyborg's torso by a cord. Presumably, the power requirements were heavy enough not to be portable and were therefore run from the cyborg's main systems.
He made his way down the hallway a moment later, glad that he'd checked the place over with his x-ray vision when he'd first followed Lois back to the theater. Boxes of junk littered the hallway, and he knew that the hallway holding Lois's cot and computer was on the other side of the proscenium, with the theater stage down below. He could only reach the other side by going downstairs.
He walked down the stairs into the darkness, making himself as light as he could when he noticed a couple of holes in the stairway, presumably made by the cyborg soldiers on their way up. The extra equipment probably made them as heavy as he normally was.
He moved quickly down the steps, and as he turned the corner that led down to the front entrance of the theater, he came face to face with another soldier.
The man gaped at him for a moment, the light of recognition entering his eyes. Instead of attacking him, the soldier carefully set his rifle down and took a step back, lifting his hands in a gesture of surrender. Clark tensed, ready for anything. A quick check didn't show any other soldiers waiting in the wings, and the man didn't seem to be subvocalizing into his internal radio.
Clark approached him cautiously, and the man spoke for the first time. "I'm sorry about all this."
The man's tone was apologetic and ashamed, but Clark tensed, waiting for an attack that never came.
The man spoke again. "Your friends are on the main stage, along with the Director and two other soldiers. They haven't got many of the lights back up; if you'll change clothes with me, you can probably get close before they can tell the difference."
"Why are you helping me?" Clark whispered.
"I believe in this country, and as a soldier I believe in what has to be done." The man's tone was almost defiant, as though he was trying to convince himself. The man sagged a little. "But if you hadn't stopped that meteor, none of us would be here. You do more good for this country in a day than most bureaucrats do in a lifetime; killing you doesn't make sense."
The man quickly and efficiently began to strip. After a moment Clark began to do the same, though he never took his eyes off the other man. It took only a short time to exchange clothing, and when Clark got a good look at the full extent of what had been done to the other man, he was horrified. All attempts to make the man look human had stopped at the areas covered by clothes, and some of the modifications were gruesome and extreme.
The other man noticed his looks and snapped. "Every one of us were volunteers; if we didn't believe in what we were doing we wouldn't be here."
Clark nodded. It was probably hard to find men with the right mind set who had been injured badly enough to need extensive surgery. Anyone who wasn't a fanatic, or already injured beyond normal hope of recovery would be bitter at what had been done to him. A normal embittered soldier was dangerous. An enhanced soldier was doubly so.
"You were an amputee before all of this, weren't you?" Clark asked, uneasy with the changes that had been made to the man, and yet unable to look away.
The other man didn't answer the question, and he refused to look Clark in the eye, and Clark grimaced. Sam Lane had good reason to feel uneasy about the work he'd been doing. No healthy person should have to sacrifice what these men had.
"Your best bet is to get as close as you can without being seen. Even the clothes won't make them hesitate for long."
The other man offered him the end of his shock device. "They'll expect to see this; shock me, then pull it off."
Clark nodded and shocked the man an instant later. He snapped the cord to the weapon, ignoring the electric spark that resulted, and moved on quickly.
The black clothing would blend better into the shadows, and he made his way silently through the ticket office, through the lobby and into the theater itself.
The darkness of the theater was startling, as was the fact that they'd somehow gotten a few of the stage lights working again. Clark thought he could hear the distant sound of a generator running.
He saw Lana Lang tied down in a chair in the center of the stage with a spotlight shining directly onto her. Her lip was swollen, as was one eye, but little else seemed to have been done to her. Two soldiers guarded the prone form of Jim Creed, and standing in the darkness behind Lana Lang was a familiar, hated figure.
"This is getting tiresome, Ms Lane," he called out, squinting into the dark echoing vastness of the theater. "It's only a matter of time until my men find you."
Clark froze, then relaxed when he saw that Trevanian wasn't looking in his direction.
He stepped forward and caressed Lana's cheek with one pale, pudgy hand. "I'm sure Ms. Lang isn't your favorite person, but what will your boyfriend say when he hears that you helped her lose her head?"
Clark blended into the darkness as well as he could. While the soldiers had low light vision, the lights on the stage probably blinded them to some extent. He crouched and began to move forward silently as Trevanian continued to squint out into the darkness.
Trevanian caressed Lana's neck again. "It's always a pity when the young have to die."
He froze when he heard Lois's voice rise out of the darkness somewhere far to his left. "I could easily shoot you where you stand."
"That would be very foolish, Ms. Lane. My men would kill you in a matter of moments."
Clark began to move forward again when he saw that Trevanian and the other men were paying most of their attention to Lois's voice. Trevanian stepped backward out of the circle of light and gestured to one of his men, who faded into the shadows at the back of the stage. That left only one man guarding Jim Creed, but it left Lois in a dangerous position.
"It might be worth it." Lois's voice had moved a considerable distance in a short period. "I can't call what I've had for the last five years a life."
"You chose to meddle in matters that didn't concern you." Trevanian's voice was casual. "Those who play in the kitchen expect to get burned."
A shot rang out, and Clark froze, fearing that something had happened to Lois. It took him a moment to realize that the bullet had come from somewhere in the aisles aimed toward the stage. Trevanian dived behind a large set piece, and the remaining soldier left the groaning body of Jim Creed to leap off the stage, heading in the direction of the flash from the gun. His route put him directly in Clark's path.
"You never should have killed Claude or his family or tried to poison Clark." Lois's voice was filled with determination. "If you think I'm going to let you leave here alive, you have a big surprise coming."
Clark could hear Trevanian's voice coming from behind a massive set piece, presumably calling for reinforcements. Clark didn't have time to worry about it; the soldier was sprinting by him almost before he could take a breath.
He grabbed the man by the arm and twisted, grimacing at the sound of a popping joint and the scream of pain the man gave. He grabbed the electric stun gun and shocked the man before he could react. He was pleased to note that his reflexes were speeding up; the man's reactions seemed slower than could be accounted for by his shock and pain.
The electric arc of the weapon temporarily blinded him, and Clark grimaced as he threw the man to the side.
Trevanian was speaking again. "You have to know that my men will be here in a matter of moments." His voice echoed hollowly in the theater. "No matter how many traps you've set, they'll take you down eventually."
Clark noticed that Jim Creed was beginning to awaken, and he sprinted toward the stage. If he could get hold of Trevanian, the other soldiers would be forced to release them; in his state there was no way he could defeat a half dozen or more of them.
Lois's voice had moved again, and another shot rang out. "You haven't given me any real reason not to take you out."
"You don't have to die, Ms. Lane. Just tell us where you stashed your boyfriend." Trevanian's voice turned sly.
"So you can cut him up and figure out how to build better super soldiers?" Lois's voice was outraged and Clark grimaced. She needed to keep her head and keep moving, or Trevanian would get her.
"Why yes, actually. He can't have long to live by this point; his death should be put to the good of the nation."
Lois's voice was closer to the stage this time. "You wouldn't know the good of the nation if it bit you."
Trevanian's voice changed. "If you take another step, or fire another shot, Ms. Lane, I will fire a shot into the back of Ms. Lang's head."
While Lois and Clark were concealed in darkness, a spotlight shone on Lana; she made a perfect target. Trevanian was less than twenty feet away, and could likely make good on his promise.
Clark froze, though he noted Jim Creed crawling forward unsteadily on his hands and knees. As far as he could tell, Jim was out of Trevanian's line of sight.
"What do you want from me?" Lois asked. A moment later she shrieked as she was thrown up onto the stage with superhuman strength. The second soldier had circled the area and come upon her from behind.
Clark clenched his fists as he heard Lois groan. She managed to stagger to her feet and partially turn, but she was too slow to react. The soldier leapt up onto the stage with a single superhuman motion, and picked her up almost contemptuously by the neck with one hand.
Trevanian stepped out from behind the podium. "It seems that you won't be doing any killing today, Ms. Lane."
Clark moved silently down to the area in front of the stage. A moment later he leapt up as the soldier had done. Still partially blinded by the spotlight, Trevanian nodded in his direction. Neither Trevanian nor the soldier paid him much attention. In the dimness at the end of the stage all they could make out was the clothing he was wearing.
"You know I'm a man of my word, Ms. Lane," he began.
At his words, Lois began to fight, kicking and punching. With her feet barely able to touch the floor, she was unable to get any leverage, and her blows against the man's arm and groin were ineffectual. When she tried to reach his eyes, the soldier tightened his grip on her neck and lifted her completely off the stage. As she began to gasp for air, she was forced to resort to gouging her fingernails into the flesh of the arm that held her by the neck. As her movements grew more desperate, she began pulling away great clumps of rubber. It took Clark a moment to realize that this man's arm was entirely artificial, unlike the arms of some of the other men he'd dealt with.
Clark's stomach dropped. Doing anything to the man would be risky; one snap of the man's fingers and Lois's neck would break, leaving her paralyzed or worse. Hitting the man with a charge from his own weapon could be dangerous; even if the electricity didn't force the fingers shut it might easily be conducted along the length of the arm. On the other hand, he refused to watch Lois be strangled to death.
When Lois finally saw Clark, she relaxed and allowed herself to go limp.
"As I was saying, Ms. Lane, I'm a man of my word." Trevanian's voice was expansive. "Is it really worth the lives of the people you love, all for the sake of an alien who is probably dead already?"
Lois began to cough and gag. At a gesture from Trevanian, the soldier set her down. Clark tensed, unsure of how much of Lois's difficulty breathing was an act. His eyes darted around the stage, desperate to find some way of getting Lois free.
His eyes met Lana's. The spotlight should have blinded her, but somehow, she recognized him and gave a little nod. With a massive effort, she pushed herself backward. Everyone was startled by the crash as Lana's chair fell to the floor. The soldier's enhanced reflexes betrayed him as he released Lois and took a half step toward the source of the sound. That was all Clark needed. He grabbed the soldier by the arm and pivoted, throwing him over Clark's hip out into the auditorium.
Clark didn't let go of the man's arm, and the rending sound was almost louder than the man's shriek as he landed on his back with a resounding crash into the chairs below, shattering them into splinters. A quick glance showed Clark that the other man was out of the fight, but still breathing.
Lois was out as well, falling to the ground and hacking for breath. Trevanian on the other hand seemed remarkably calm and upbeat, despite the fact that all he held in his hands were a small derringer and a cane.
"You wouldn't believe how many resources I've expended in finding you," he said pleasantly as Clark approached him while holding the artificial arm. "You should be flattered; I've had to put a dozen other operations on hold."
"You killed my parents." Clark stared at the pudgy, unassuming figure in front of him.
Trevanian shrugged and slipped his derringer into his pocket. "It wasn't anything personal."
"So you were under orders to kill my parents? Why? Why would anyone want Jonathan and Martha Kent killed? They never hurt anybody."
Trevanian picked up his cane and said, "Should it really matter who wanted them dead? All that matters is that they are dead."
Clark gritted his teeth and he heard the sound of rending metal. He glanced at his hand and noticed that the metal of the mechanical arm he was holding was beginning to buckle under his grip, and as he looked up, he saw a red haze of anger obscure his vision. He took an involuntary step forward, dropping the arm on the stage with a heavy, metallic thud.
Trevanian was stalling for time until his soldiers could arrive. Clark saw that clearly, yet he was unable to keep from asking the question that had haunted his entire life. From the moment of his parents' deaths, he'd asked himself time and time again why it had happened.
He rushed forward, grabbed Trevanian by the front of his shirt and lifted him in the air with one hand. "If you don't tell me who told you to… "
"It was Tempus." Lois's voice was harsh, and she was still struggling for breath. "I saw them together in the Congo."
Trevanian still seemed unconcerned, though Clark knew his face had to be turning red with rage. "Tempus was an amateur, but he had things I wanted."
Clark's grip on Trevanian's shirt began to tighten, and he heard Trevanian begin to gasp for air as his shirt began to tear. It was all Clark could do to remain motionless as Trevanian fell to the floor in front of him.
It took him a moment to realize that Trevanian was fiddling with the head of his cane. By the time he'd overcome his own rage enough to look it was too late.
The now familiar pain of green fire washed over him, and he stumbled back. Trevanian's face was oddly dispassionate as he finished unscrewing the head of his cane, revealing an interior cane head that was carved in the shape of a ram.
"I'm sorry it had to come to this. You've been quite useful over the years, and unlike Tempus, I'm not the sort to hold a grudge."
"What about Lois?" Clark gritted as he fell to the floor.
Trevanian glanced back at Lois, who was trying to stand up. "Tempus never understood that the most dangerous enemy is the one you don't even know you have. Ms. Lane knows enough to be dangerous to me, and so she's a problem that has to be taken care of."
Trevanian reared back and struck Clark in the head with the cane. As Clark collapsed in pain, he saw Trevanian pull his derringer from his pocket and walk across the stage toward Lois, his cane held carefully in his other hand.
He pointed the pistol and said, "Goodbye, Ms. Lane."
Lois moved so quickly that Clark would have almost thought she had superhuman abilities herself. She kicked out, knocking the pistol out of Trevanian's hands even as it fired off into the darkness of the theater. The gun clattered as it flew across the stage. Clark began to rise to his feet, the effects of Kryptonite having faded somewhat with the twenty feet Trevanian had put between them.
For a moment Clark thought Lois would get the advantage of Trevanian, but she was still too weak from being choked, and her position on the ground put her at a disadvantage as well.
Trevanian hit her twice in the stomach with his cane, and she fell to the ground with an agonized moan.
Charging toward Trevanian was like running into a wall of green fire, the burning pain only growing greater with every foot Clark ran. Despite the agony each step caused him, Clark barreled into Trevanian, driving him bodily away from Lois. The older man grunted, as Clark fell on top of him and as the strength left Clark's body, Trevanian managed to roll out from under him. Somehow, the older man had managed to keep hold of his cane; as he stood, his knuckles whitened around the shaft of it.
Clark lay panting on the ground as his skin burned from the presence of the Kryptonite.
The older man stood a couple of steps back from Clark and grimaced. "I can see that it's going to take a good while to finish you off." Glancing at the various huddled forms on the stage, he reached into his jacket for a small walkie talkie.
"What's keeping everyone? … What? Tell them it's an FBI matter, that we have everything under control." Trevanian cursed as he switched the walkie talkie off.
"Very clever, Mr. Kent, but calling in a bomb threat is a federal offense." For the first time Clark noticed a look of anger on Trevanian's face. Trevanian looked quickly around the stage. "In the middle of a battle, and not a gun to be found. I suppose I'll have to take care of things the old fashioned way."
Trevanian moved quickly for an old man who supposedly needed a cane. He crossed the stage at an awkward run, kicking Jim Creed in the ribs as he tried to free Lana Lang. As Jim sank back to the floor with a groan, Trevanian turned back to Clark, who had begun to get up again.
"I normally abhor brutality, but there really doesn't seem to be any other choice at the moment." Trevanian's smile as he moved across the stage toward Clark was patently false. The look of anger and irritation in his round, red face reminded Clark of someone, though he couldn't quite put his finger on whom.
The first blow of the cane knocked him face first on the floor. The second struck him in the back. The third was almost unbearable.
His vision flickered, and he was on a dimly lit back porch with a large, florid, enraged man beating him with the hard, sharp buckle of a belt. Clark's skin burned with the heat of the summer. He endured, as he had always endured, but the loneliness was almost overwhelming. The crack of the cane as it struck him reminded him of the sound of the gun as it had fired, changing his life forever. He'd been bereft, lost and bewildered and forever alone.
The blows continued, and Clark could almost hear a rhythm to them, the sound of his beating heart as he fell through the blackness. His entire body was blackened and bruised, and he was desperate in the knowledge that he had failed. His loneliness had always been a monstrous abyss, trying time after time to pull him into it, to send him hurtling forever into a grim dark void. The knowledge that everyone would die and that he would be alone on a barren rock forever had shattered him, sending him over the edge and into the blackness.
He was at the brink of that abyss now, teetering on the edge of the blackness. He might have fallen, but suddenly he felt as though he'd been thrown a lifeline. His heart clenched as he felt a sense of recognition deep within his soul; he could feel Lois, feel her fear and anger and love for him. He opened his eyes feebly and saw her staring at him, a look of abject horror on her face as she tried desperately to rise to her feet.
He remembered seeing her for the first time, shocked by the recognition that was his only memory. He'd known somehow that she was the one person in the entire world who could understand him. The joy that had come over him had been overwhelming. For the first time, he knew that he didn't have to be alone.
No matter how much they argued, he'd been certain they belonged together, and when he'd seen that she was in trouble, he'd joined her. As long as they were together, the world was somehow a place that had a brightness he'd never experienced before. She was the hope that he'd lost on a rainy night twenty years before.
Her skin, as beautiful as the moonlight, had been a sacrament, and he'd almost shattered as they'd come together for the first time, joined in a way he'd never imagined two people being able to join. He was not alone, and as long as she lived he never would be.
The pain of fusion was almost worse than that of the Kryptonite, as memories he'd denied his entire life flooded his mind, struggling for supremacy with more recent memories of hope and love. He didn't know who he was, his mind descending into a whirling maelstrom as images of his life as Kade struggled for supremacy with the darker images of the life he'd wanted so badly to forget.
He'd loved Lois Lane as Kade, and as Clark, and somehow he knew that he'd always love her. No matter what happened to him, Lois had to live, and the thought that this man wanted to kill her was more than he could bear.
He screamed as his personalities came to a consensus. The moment Trevanian finished with Clark he'd go after Lois, and the knowledge burned within Clark. Anger was a luxury that Clark had rarely allowed himself to feel, but rage seared its way through every cell of his body now.
He looked back at the man who was tormenting him, and for a moment he wasn't sure whether it was Trevanian or a larger, darker figure with a belt. For the first time that he could remember, it didn't matter. Clark's mind and body moved in concert, unhindered by doubts, fears, or the need to pull back. In one supreme moment of denial, as the cane was raised for another blow, Clark lunged upward. He struck the man in the chin with a single blow filled with all his rage, all his need for justice, and all his desperate need to protect Lois. If he'd had any strength left, the man would have exploded with the force of the blow. As it was, he merely fell.
It seemed to take him forever to fall to the floor, and as Clark watched him with pain filled eyes, he knew a confused moment of peace.
The children were safe. Lois was safe. The world wasn't going to be destroyed. The abyss which had been with him all his life faded with the realization.
He saved them all after all, and he wasn't alone.
He fell, grimacing at the pain in his chest as his body struck the floor of the stage. He turned his head, looking for the woman who had been his lifeline. He was relieved to see that she had finally gotten to her feet.
Lois grabbed the cane and threw it out into the darkness with all her remaining strength. Clark relaxed as the pain of the green fire began to recede. His relief only made the tightness in his chest more evident; as he tried to sit up, agonizing pain forced him back to the floor.
He groaned as Lois tried to lift his head into her lap. She gently lowered his head back to the floor and resorted to sitting on her knees beside him, holding his hand and stroking his cheek. Clark relaxed; as long as they were together, the world made sense.
As the world began to fade around him, Clark imagined that he could see his mother looking down on him one last time. She had her hand on Lois's shoulder, and he knew somehow that she approved. She smiled and the sense of love that washed over him was almost overwhelming. He felt her embrace him with ghostly arms, and he wanted to weep. As she faded, he knew that her spirit was at last content. He wasn't a little boy any more, and he wasn't alone.
Blackness overwhelmed him, but as he felt Lois stroke his hair, he knew it would all be all right. His life as Kade was an open book to him now, and it only made him love Lois even more. Together, they really could accomplish anything.
Clark looked pale and sickly, and Lois worried that she hadn't thrown the cane far enough to do any good. She was afraid to move him; his face tensed in pain every time she tried. Her touch seemed to comfort him though, and she wasn't willing to move from him.
Clark had come to mean more to her than she had realized. It was only when she thought she might lose him that it all became clear to her. She would have endured life on the run again if she could have done it with him. Now all she had was the bitter sense of regret. Even if Clark's injuries weren't life threatening, Trevanian's reinforcements would be.
Trevanian hadn't moved since Clark had punched him; Lois watched him carefully as she stroked Clark's forehead. After everything he had done, she wasn't willing to let him out of her sight. Luckily, Jim Creed had finally managed to get Lana free, and they were both stumbling toward her and Clark.
Lois heard a crash from the front of the theater, in the lobby, and she closed her eyes in resignation. Being nearly strangled had left her too weak to run, and Lois suspected that the others weren't in any better shape. She wasn't willing to leave Clark alone anyway. If these were their last moments, she wanted to share them with him. The lobby doors crashed open and sunlight shone inside the theater for the first time in years. Lois squinted as men moved into the room in a blur, black-clad figures flickering from one position of cover to the next.
Six of the figures leapt up onto the stage with a single superhuman bound while six more kept everyone on the stage under cover. Others continued to filter into the theater even as Lois found herself being torn away from Clark and thrown to the floor as hands checked her quickly and efficiently for weapons.
She heard the sound of handcuffs being clicked onto herself and to Jim Creed and Lana, and her heart sank. Their last hope had been that someone would be able to escape and get word to someone able to make a difference.
The moment everyone in the area was secured, a tall figure stepped into the doorway between the lobby and the theater. Lois squinted, unable to make anything out in the sunlight.
The figure walked down the aisle, carefully stepping around the unconscious form of one Delta. Lois blinked as the tall black man in the trench coat approached the stage. When she saw the figure walking behind him, she sagged with relief.
Sam Lane was walking behind the taller man, and he didn't seem to be a prisoner. When he saw her, he gave Lois a small smile and nod of encouragement, but Sam didn't follow the other man as he turned and made his way up the steps leading up to the stage. Instead, he seemed to look off into one of the darker areas of the audience sections. Her father frowned, stopped, and began to move among the seats.
Lois was pulled roughly to her feet, and she resisted the urge to struggle.
"Release Ms. Lane." The man's voice was deep and rich, with an aura of authority. He nodded in the direction of Jim Creed and Lana Lang. "Release those two as well. I suspect that Mr. Creed will need immediate medical attention, as will Ms. Lang, and Mr. Kent."
Lois relaxed as the handcuffs were removed. She took a wild guess and said, "Virgil Bloom?" Lana had mentioned Clark's meeting with both Bloom and Trevanian at the concert hall, though it was beginning to look as though the two men weren't working together.
The tall man nodded. "My men tend to be a little overcautious when it comes to my safety."
One of the black-clad men whispered in Virgil Bloom's ear. Virgil nodded.
"Hold the ambulance and call for others. I'd like Mr. Kent to be taken care of immediately." Virgil Bloom's voice had the tone of a man used to giving orders and being obeyed.
Ignoring the taller man, Lois dropped to her knees beside Clark and took his hand again.
Out of the corner of her eye Lois saw her father pick up the cane from among the seats in the middle of the theater. His face was lit by the green glow from the cane head for a moment and he looked directly at her. He winked as he slipped the cane under his coat and headed for the lobby.
Despite all the disagreements she'd had with her father over the years, Lois knew she could trust him to dispose of the Kryptonite. Noticing Virgil Bloom starting to look in her father's direction, Lois scrambled for a question with which to distract him.
"How did you know what was happening here?"
"We've been watching Trevanian for several months; when we received Agent Creed's report on the attack on you and Mr. Kent in Arizona we saw an opportunity to get him to expose himself." Virgil looked down at Clark and sighed. "If we'd realized that Trevanian had access to Kryptonite, we never would have used Mr. Kent."
"You thought he'd be invulnerable." Virgil Bloom nodded. "We informed Trevanian of our intention to investigate the matter, and set a date to meet with Mr. Kent, hoping to force Trevanian to react before he was ready."
Lois struggled with her own growing anger. "You couldn't have got Trevanian some other way?" She scowled. If they'd been keeping a close eye on Trevanian, they should have known that he wouldn't attack Clark without a reasonable expectation of succeeding. They hadn't worried much about the people around Clark either.
"He'd have shifted the responsibility to an underling, who would have likely 'committed suicide' while awaiting trial." Virgil Bloom shook his head. "Trevanian has had more than twenty years to corrupt hundreds of agents in the US government."
They both turned their heads as paramedics entered the theater.
"So you knew what was happening here all along?" Lois flushed with anger. If they'd known what was happening, they should have stopped it before it reached the point where Clark was beaten almost to death.
Virgil Bloom shook his head. "Our surveillance couldn't be too obvious, or he would have gotten wind of it. Your father called in a bomb threat. That was a prearranged signal. It took time to mobilize our forces, or we would have been here earlier." He glanced regretfully over at Clark.
"What?" Lois stared at the older man. "My father has been working with you all along?"
"He discovered that illegal modifications were being made to older model cyborgs… modifications that were inhumane, to say the least. When he discovered that Delta model soldiers who had supposedly been killed in action were coming in to be modified again after hours, he became suspicious. He contacted us two months ago."
The paramedics pulled a stretcher onto the stage and Lois said, "I've got to go with Clark."
"There won't be room on the ambulance," Virgil Bloom said. When Lois opened her mouth to protest, he continued, "However, I'm sending a unit to guard Mr. Kent and the others. We have reason to believe that other members of the conspiracy might try to protect their identities by removing all witnesses. Feel free to ride in one of the vehicles that will be following the ambulance."
Lois nodded. She looked at Jim Creed and Lana then turned as the paramedics lifted Clark onto the stretcher. A black-clad soldier touched her on the shoulder, and she quickly followed him into the sun.
There would be time enough to worry about what was to come once she was sure that Clark was safe.
Clark grimaced as the world shifted around him and finally settled into a semblance of something he could recognize. His new awareness of the world was painful; he had blocked away the memories of his past failures for a reason. However, it was a muted pain, overwhelmed by his newfound sense of joy.
He sensed Lois even before he opened her eyes. One of the greatest gifts of his time as Kade was his awareness of the bond between them. He squinted for a moment under the fluorescent lights and looked around carefully; shifting his position caused sharp pain to shoot through his ribs. It was difficult to take a deep breath, but the moment he saw Lois sleeping in the chair beside his bed he felt infinitely better.
She looked remarkably innocent as she slept, as though the worries of the last few years had finally dropped away from her. She'd looked like this on their first night together, when he had been Kade, and when he had still thought of her as Jane Alexander.
He flushed as that set of memories engulfed him. The night he'd spent with her had been magical; he'd never been with anyone other than Lana, and it had never occurred to him that there could be so much more to an act which had once been little more than unsatisfying.
She was a beautiful woman, and it wasn't merely a matter of her appearance. She had the same fire that had attracted him to her counterpart from another world, but this Lois had something more. She had a streak of ruthlessness that he doubted the other Lois had. She'd been willing to shoot Trevanian to protect and defend people she barely knew, and he knew that she'd defend him with her dying breath.
She stirred, as though she, too, was aware of the attention he was giving her. There was a connection between them; Clark had allowed the worries of the world to obscure it for a time, but as Kade he'd been free of those worries, free of the thoughts that had plagued him since the day his parents died.
He'd never realized how much of a pall his parents' death had thrown over his entire life until he'd experienced life without it. As Kade, Lois had been the focus of his entire existence. As Clark Kent, he had a duty to the world. However, he had no doubt that Lois would take a central position in his life.
Lois opened her eyes, and when she saw that he was awake, she smiled.
"Hi," she said softly.
He couldn't help but return her smile despite his pain. She threw a light blanket aside and leaned toward him; she'd never been far enough away that she couldn't touch him. That was true on any number of levels, Clark reflected, as Lois touched his forehead once again.
"Your fever seems to be going down. How are you feeling?" Lois continued to speak softly as she caressed his face.
"It hurts when I try to move," Clark said. "And it's hard to get a deep breath."
"You've got a couple of broken ribs. There isn't much they can do for those even in a normal person; usually all they do is treat the pain."
Clark winced. "But the drugs don't work on me."
"My father thinks we could find something, if we tried long enough."
"We shouldn't need it," Clark said. "I seem to heal rather quickly once my abilities kick back in. I'll just have to grin and bear it until then."
"Are you sure that they'll ever return?" Lois kept her voice carefully neutral, as she carefully rearranged the blanket, tucking him in.
"My counterpart lost his abilities for a week once due to long-term Kryptonite exposure. I don't expect that I'll be any different." A thought occurred to him, and he frowned. "Is everyone ok?"
Lois nodded quietly. "A few bruises here and there, and Agent Creed is under observation for his head wound, but it looks like we all got out ok."
"They've got enough evidence to indict him a hundred times over."
"He killed my parents."
Lois sighed. "He killed Claude too, and had Claude's family killed, but it may be hard to convict him on those charges. We'll just have to hope that the charges stick for all the other crimes."
They were both silent for a long moment, and Clark wondered what was going through Lois's mind. The link that he'd imagined during his beating was still there, but he couldn't seem to get a grasp on what she was feeling, and her face was unreadable. He had a vague sense that she was ambivalent about something, and that frightened him.
Clark hesitated before speaking. They needed to talk, but he had an uneasy feeling that he wouldn't like what she had to say. It took almost a minute to build up his courage to speak.
"Lois… I remember."
She frowned. "You remember what?"
Clark watched her reaction carefully. "Arizona."
She froze. "Kade?"
"I'm still Clark… but Kade is part of me. He always was."
Lois nodded slowly. "I wouldn't have wanted to lose either of you." Another thought seemed to have occurred to her, and she spoke hesitantly. "You remember… everything that happened in Arizona?"
Clark nodded slowly, still watching her intently.
Lois took a step back from the bed. She flushed, and she didn't look at him. She spoke in a small voice.
"I don't know what you must think of me. I don't usually… I'm not the sort of person who… "
"I'm not either," Clark said gently. "And neither was Kade. I don't regret anything we've done together."
"I thought it was our last night together… "
"I'm glad it wasn't." Clark watched her carefully, and when she finally looked at him, he smiled. "You saved my life, you know."
"You never would have been in danger if it hadn't been for me."
Clark shook his head, wincing at the pain the movement caused. "In the end… when I was almost ready to give up… you gave me something to live for."
"That's a lot of pressure for one person to live up to."
"No pressure. I'm just happy that you are alive."
Lois nodded soberly, and after a few seconds suddenly smiled. Her smile lit up the room. As Kade, Clark had wanted nothing more than to make her smile and to hear her laugh. Now he discovered that he wasn't any different as Clark Kent.
A knock at the door silenced them both, and a matronly nurse entered the room. The nurse seemed genuinely pleased to see that Clark was awake. Lois stepped away from the bed as the nurse checked his vital signs, making a few notes on his chart. The nurse offered him a cup of water, which he took gratefully, and then she shuffled out of the room.
They were both silent for several moments once they were alone again. Lois stood by the window, looking outside for a moment before turning back to Clark.
"So where do we go from here?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, I don't know. I get better, take you out to dinner at this little place I know in Paris… "
"I'm serious! Normal people meet, date, get married, make love… we've gotten the order of things all mixed up. I don't know what my mother would say. The only way we could have gotten things more confused would have been if we'd gotten married in Vegas before we met. That would really have made my mother happy, and it's going to be bad enough having to tell her that I'm not actually dead." She looked at Clark. "Do you know how she's going to react when she finds out that I've actually been living in the desert all these years?"
Lois had started pacing at the beginning of her speech, and Clark could see that she was genuinely nervous about something.
"She'll be happy that you are alive, just like I am." His quiet words stopped Lois in her tracks. Once she was motionless and calm, he said, "It's been an unusual beginning, I suppose, but we aren't exactly normal people. I'm not sure I see what that has to do with… "
"Things have been pretty exciting the entire time we knew each other… people in danger often feel close to each other, then go their separate ways once the danger is over. What if that's all we really have?"
Clark shook his head, then winced. "I doubt that'll be a problem."
"What makes you so sure? We haven't really known each other that long… and most of the time we've known each other hasn't even been as us. First it was Jane Alexander and Kade, then it was Kade and Lois… we've only known each other a couple of days as ourselves!"
"None of that matters," Clark said calmly. "I know how I feel about you. It's not infatuation, and it's not the thrill of danger. I felt a connection between us from the first moment we met, and the longer I've known you, the stronger it has become. When I first came back from Arizona, I knew I had lost something, but I couldn't remember what. I mourned."
Lois sighed. "I fell in love with you twice, first as Kade… and then as Clark. Both times… losing you was like having my heart ripped out of my chest. I don't know if I can go through that again."
"There aren't any guarantees in life, Lois." Clark spoke quietly. "None of us knows how long we will have. All that means is that we have to grab each and every moment of happiness that we can. Life without love isn't really life at all."
"I've spent years in hiding, learning to avoid risks." Lois grimaced. "I used to leap before I looked and I got burned."
"We don't have to leap into anything, Lois," Clark said mildly. "I don't expect anything from you that you aren't ready to give. We can start out as slow as you like."
Lois relaxed, finally. "We're going to have a lot to deal with over the next few months."
Clark nodded. "Testifying at the trial, getting your life back in order, dealing with the news media… it's going to be a mess."
Lois nodded. "This entire thing has been kept secret so far, but it won't be for long. I'd rather my mother and sister find out from me than see my face splashed all over the television screen."
"I'll go with you if you'd like." Clark looked down at himself. "Assuming I'm feeling better by then."
Lois smiled again. "So it's all right if we take it slow?"
Clark lifted his hand to her, and she held it in her own.
"Three million square miles and three hundred million people, and somehow I was able to find you in the middle of it all. I've waited my entire life to meet you, Miss Lane. What's another few days?" He grinned at her.
"Confident, aren't you?" she said dryly. "It could be weeks, months, years… we could be in the old folks' home… "
"A lifetime with you sounds like heaven."
"Are you sure the drugs they gave you aren't working?" Lois asked. "They called me Mad Dog Lane for a reason."
"Lois, with you, every day will be an adventure." Clark grinned again, and this time she returned the expression.
Despite his pain, Clark was happy. Life could be sweet sometimes.
Lois blushed as she stepped into the hospital room. Clark was standing beside the window, his bare torso almost glowing as he basked in the sun. Three days had done wonders for him; no sign of the beating remained on the smooth expanses of his skin. The sight of his naked flesh reminded her of the night she'd spent with him as Kade; habit caused her to avert her eyes.
"Are you ready to go?" she asked quietly.
He turned and his expression lit up with a slow, sensual smile. Lois wasn't entirely sure that his recovery of his memories of his time as Kade was a good thing. He was more assertive now than he had been as Clark, though there were hints of vulnerability as well. Once his pain had gone, he'd begun a nonstop flirtation that had made her all too aware of the body she had explored on a warm Arizona evening.
Her own reaction to his flirtation had been more powerful than she had expected, and she found herself flushing now at the oddest times. Taking the relationship slowly would be harder than she had expected; she had given her heart to Clark twice, and he was even more attractive now that he was whole.
"I've been stuck in here for so long that I'm almost ready to jump out the window." He glanced over at her with a twinkle in his eye. "That's not as crazy for me as it would be for some people, but it tends to upset the staff."
"I suppose that'd just create extra paperwork for the bureaucrats." Lois said, pretending to look away while actually watching Clark out the corner of her eye.
"It's hard to believe that they are going to insist on wheeling me out on a wheelchair." Clark stretched, and Lois wondered if he was holding the pose a few moments too long deliberately. A quick glance showed that he was watching her; when she looked at him, he didn't look away.
He was aware of her attraction for him, and he loved to tease her about it. If she weren't enjoying herself so much, she would have been irritated. Still, his seduction of her wasn't cold and calculated like Claude's had been. It was blatant and good humored and full of life. She couldn't help but respond to his teasing with a smile of her own.
"Treat it as a rite of passage," Lois said, trying not to grin, and failing. "They make everybody do it whether they need it or not."
He nodded and pulled a black T-shirt from the chair by the window. As he pulled the shirt over his head, he continued to speak. "It feels good to be out in the sun again."
Lois spoke casually, as though the sight of him had no effect on her at all. "They're going to wheel you out the underground entrance; the media got hold of the story faster than we thought they would, and there are groups of reporters wandering the halls. I've been in disguise for almost two days now; the last thing I want is for my mother and sister to see my name plastered across the front page of the newspaper."
"I'm strong enough to fly both you and Sam out to Los Angeles whenever you are ready." Clark grinned at her as he searched through the garment bag Perry White had brought. "Assuming you are comfortable letting someone else do the driving for a change."
"I don't have trouble sitting in the passenger's seat!" Lois protested. "I'm just a better driver than most people."
He gave her a droll look. "That's what your father told me, and I've ridden with the both of you."
The look in his eye took much of the sting out of his words, and Lois grudgingly returned his smile. When he turned away for a moment to root through the bag, she frowned again.
Her mother was visiting her sister on the West Coast, or Lois would have already had to break the news. Her most basic urge was to wait; there was a lot to talk about, and guilt was twisting her stomach into knots. Talking to her father for the last three days had told her more than she'd wanted to know about what her family had been through in the five years since she'd "died". It was hard enough to look her father in the eye, and he wasn't the most emotionally demonstrative person in the world. Facing her mother and sister would be a trial.
Lois hesitated. She needed to bring another issue up with Clark. "I've heard that outrageous sums are being offered for exclusives on the story."
Clark tensed before pulling a pair of shoes and socks from the bag. He didn't look at her as he spoke. "What do you want to do about that?" His tone was carefully neutral.
"What went on between us is a personal matter… but Trevanian is big news."
Clark nodded cautiously. "The more people know, the faster his organization is going to collapse."
"That's already started, by the way. People are starting to turn themselves in, seeking status as state's witnesses."
"Cockroaches run when exposed to the light." Clark's tone was harsher than she had expected.
"I'm not really interested in the money. I wish I could get my old job back at the Planet, but I guess that everything is different now that Perry isn't the editor any more." Lois sighed. All she wanted now was to get her life back on track, but there were complications every step of the way. Dealing with Clark's celebrity would be the least of her worries.
Clark seemed to relax after a moment, and he glanced at her with a small, rueful smile.
"You'll like the new owner. James Olsen is a bright man, and he was introduced to the… other Lois a couple of years ago. It won't be as hard as you think to slip back into your life, assuming that's what you want to do."
Lois looked up at him quickly. "What else would I want to do? I've spent the last five years on a vacation from my career."
"You're a gifted writer." Clark sat on the bed facing her and began to slip into his shoes and socks. "And once the whole story comes out, I have no doubt that the scandal will increase sales on the books you already have out on the shelves; they may even reprint some of them."
"I like writing," Lois said slowly, "But I love being a reporter."
"I'll support you in whatever you decide to do."
Lois smiled at Clark as he stood up. For some reason, her problems never seemed as pressing when she was around him.
She turned at the sound of the door opening behind her, and she was surprised to see Jim Creed and Lana Lang. Both still bore signs of their recent experiences; despite the best makeup, Lana had heavy purple bruises visible on her face. Jim had covered his heavy bandages with a trench coat and hat, and despite his own bruises, his expression was cheerful.
Clark stared at the injured man for a moment. "There is something wrong with a world where YOU are wheeling ME out of the hospital."
Jim grinned at that. "Blame the HMO's; they booted me out yesterday."
"I'm surprised you haven't gotten the exclusive on this story." Lois couldn't help the sharp tone she directed toward Lana; despite the fact that Lana had been a trooper during the whole affair, Lois couldn't help but feel a trace of jealousy. Lana had been Clark's fianc‚e, and she'd shared his childhood. As his friend, it was likely that she would continue to be part of Clark's life for a long time to come.
Lana spoke quietly. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt Clark… or Jim." The look she directed at the FBI agent was anything but a look of platonic friendship. As Lana leaned against Jim, Lois suddenly felt more cheerful.
"We'll all need to discuss how we'll be presenting the story to the media," Jim said. "Virgil Bloom wants to be a part of that discussion."
"I'm not inclined to follow Virgil Bloom's orders," Lois said irritably. "If he hadn't taken ridiculous chances with Clark's life-"
"President Heston would like you to accompany Clark to his meeting at the White House tomorrow. He said that if you are interested in resuming your career as a reporter, you can bring your notepad and pen."
Lois sniffed. She had too much integrity to be bribed, although an exclusive interview with the President of the United States about the biggest corruption story of the century would be a major coupe. She glanced at Clark, and he nodded encouragingly.
She sighed. "I suppose I can try to scrounge up something suitable to wear."
"Don't bring any weapons. The secret service is having a hard enough time allowing Clark Kent to visit; he can't be disarmed. They are disturbed by reports that the Kryptonite used to attack Clark has vanished."
They'd have liked to use it as a weapon against Clark, but Lois knew that her father had hidden the Kryptonite. Her only worry was that he might keep a small sample to experiment on; she'd asked him not to, but he was a scientist, and he was dedicated. She'd been relieved to discover that Trevanian's cyborgs were only a small group that had been corrupted; most of her father's work was legitimate. The president was constantly guarded by Epsilon-model cyborgs, a full generation ahead of those used by Trevanian.
Clark grabbed his travel bag and slipped into the wheelchair with it in his lap. Jim pulled the wheelchair backward into the hallway, leaving Lois and Lana alone for a moment.
Lana touched Lois's arm as she was about to follow them. Lois stopped, looking at her with a raised eyebrow.
"Clark says you aren't the same Lois Lane I met two years ago."
Lois nodded. Over the past three days, she'd finally convinced herself that Clark saw her for who she was instead of merely as a clone of a woman from another world.
Lana sighed. "I hated that woman for a long time for what she did to Clark… what she did to us."
"That wasn't me." It was going to be difficult enough to explain to Perry White and James Olsen. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, it was probably just better not to explain at all.
"I know. Even if it had been you… I've had a lot of time to think. I was desperately trying to make Clark into what I wanted him to be, and he never could have been happy just standing by while people needed him. I suppose I knew all along… the harder he'd try to pull away, the harder I'd cling to him."
Lois nodded impatiently. She wanted to be with Clark when he made it out of the hospital; her father had a car waiting for them.
"What I'm trying to say is… I'd like for us to be friends."
Lois froze for a moment, then relaxed. If Lana Lang was going to be part of Clark's life, it might be best to at least try to be friends.
"I'd like that too." She'd have to ignore the way Lana's voice irritated her, but the woman had earned her respect. Lana had stood up under pressure surprising well. If she hadn't distracted a soldier by pushing her chair backward, Lois would probably be dead.
She glanced out into the hall. "We'd better get moving if we want to keep up with the boys."
Lana grinned. "There's a little boy just waiting to get out of all of them, isn't there?"
Lois hoped so. She'd had enough gloom and worry to last a lifetime. She hoped that she could coax Clark into doing fun things for a while.
Both women pushed their way through the door and walked quickly down the hall, barely making the elevator as it headed down.
Clark was speaking earnestly with Jim. "So what's going to happen to your partner?"
Jim's expression was grim. "Frank was one of the first people to step forward, so he probably won't face any criminal charges. The best he can expect is early retirement, though; the bureau takes a dim view of that sort of thing."
An uncomfortable silence settled over the elevator at that point, until a ping indicated that they'd reached their destination.
A male nurse was waiting for them in a lobby that led out to the parking garage. Jim smiled apologetically. "I have friends among the nurses here, but hospital policy says that a hospital employee has to be the one to wheel you out."
Clark nodded. Jim allowed the male nurse to wheel Clark the remaining hundred feet to the curb, where Sam Lane was waiting in a no parking area. The door to the silver SUV was wide open, and the windows were tinted.
Clark stood up and tossed his bag into the vehicle.
"We've got our own ride," Jim said, "But it was good talking to you. I suppose I'll see you at the White House; the president is interviewing me separately."
Clark nodded and watched as Jim and Lana turned and headed down the curb toward a waiting Ford Taurus, where an agent waited for them with the engine idling.
Lois watched Lana lean against Jim again, and she felt a little better about everything.
"Are you kids going to stand around all day?" Her father's voice startled Lois, and at Clark's gesture, she slipped into the front passenger seat. She would have preferred to sit in the back with Clark, but was afraid of being too obvious. She was still a little uncomfortable around her father; her guilt made it hard to deal with him as she once had.
Clark slipped into the back seat and closed the door just moments before a crowd of reporters came around the corner. Sam Lane casually made a U-turn and drove by them as they zoomed in on the Ford Taurus, perhaps assuming that a government vehicle would hold the people they were looking for.
"I borrowed this from a friend; the license plate won't incriminate us." Her father's eyes twinkled, and Lois wondered if he found the whole idea of espionage and skullduggery exciting. There had been a time when she had as well, and perhaps she would again, but for now all she wanted was to be able to walk around in public leading an honest life.
She smiled back at him anyway. He'd been anxious to reconcile with her, and somehow, the things that he'd done when she was a child didn't seem as important now. Lois had been without her family for too long to allow petty differences to come between them. She could only hope that her mother and sister were as ready to forgive and forget.
As though he was reading her mind, her father spoke again. "Your mother is visiting Lucy in Los Angeles; I called Lucy last night and told her that I was flying in."
"You didn't tell them… ?" Lois asked quickly.
His father shook his head. "We don't have much time, though; I've been watching the news, and bits and pieces are already coming out. We don't have long before the decision is taken out of our hands."
Clark spoke from the back seat. "Lois and I have an appointment to meet with the President at the White House at two in the afternoon tomorrow. It'll be hard to slip in without the media getting wind of it."
Lois sighed. She desperately wanted to see her mother and sister, and yet she dreaded the meeting as well. It had been bad enough facing her father, who was a logical, reasonable person. Her mother, on the other hand, would be difficult to handle. Lois felt guilty enough already that she was almost ashamed to see the both of them.
Clark spoke again. "I can have us there before you know it. I can fly faster with the SUV than I could by carrying you."
Lois looked back at Clark, and he smiled sheepishly. "Hey, windshields have their uses."
"Do you really think you are strong enough to carry us all the way to Los Angeles, son? This rig weighs over a ton."
"I've been regaining strength for the better part of a day. I could fly you around the world."
Lois and her father looked at each other doubtfully. The thought of being dropped wasn't very appealing, but they had to trust Clark to know his own strength. With flights booked up, they didn't have any way of reaching Los Angeles before the news stories broke.
"All right," Sam said reluctantly.
"Pull over." Clark's voice was cheerful.
Lois heard the sound of Clark's seatbelt snapping over, and for a moment she wondered why he even bothered to wear one. Being invulnerable meant that he didn't wear them for safety reasons, and he didn't need it to hide his identity, which was known to the world.
As the door opened and shut, Lois decided it didn't matter. Whether it was just habit, a desire to obey the law, or fear that his body would become a missile in an unexpected crash, she would have all the time in the world to find out his reasons. The joy of discovery was a pleasurable part of any new relationship, and Lois intended to enjoy finding out everything about Clark.
She looked back through the side window, and he grinned at her a moment before crouching down beside the vehicle.
A moment later, both Lois and her father gasped as the vehicle shook, rising into the air slowly and then more rapidly.
Somehow, flying was more frightening when she wasn't wrapped in Clark's arms. Lois glanced over at her father, and he gave her a tight smile.
Though there wasn't any real sense of acceleration, the world began to move more rapidly beneath them as the taller buildings of Metropolis fell away behind them.
"I hope he has sense enough to watch out for planes," her father muttered, his fingers tight on the steering wheel.
"He's been doing this for years. Don't worry." It was easier to say than to do. Lois had to wonder how hard it was to balance something the size of the SUV; the fact that Clark had never dropped a boat or a plane was a little comforting. However, there was always a first time.
The sound of the wind whistling against the window grew louder and louder, into a muted roar as the ground flashed by below them at speeds increasingly too fast to see. Lois heard a sound like that of an explosion, and then the sounds of the wind dropped away almost entirely.
"I really am sorry about what I put you through," Lois said hesitantly. "Once we get to mother's we probably won't have time to talk."
"You've explained your reasons for what you did," her father said slowly, "and you don't know how happy I am to have you here now, alive. If those five years are the price for that… I can't regret them."
Traces of old pain remained within her father's eyes, but they were slowly being replaced with a new joy.
"I was afraid I'd lose all of you," Lois said. "I couldn't think of any way to contact you."
She hadn't thought her mother could keep the secret, and she somehow hadn't realized how much pain it would cause them all. From what her father told her, she had a lot to answer for.
Her father seemed to know what she was thinking. "Don't worry, pumpkin. They'll be in a happy daze for a week just finding out that you are alive. I know I have been."
"You don't think mother will faint and carry on?"
"Well, I didn't say that. Your mother will raise a fuss, but you'll get through it just fine. You have a nephew to meet, and another on the way."
Lois exhaled and looked out the window. She wasn't sure how she felt about the new additions to her family either. She'd never known how to react around children, and now she was an aunt. According to her father, Lucy had changed more than anyone, taking Lois's death as a sign that she had to begin taking her life seriously. It would take time to adjust to all the changes; in her mind, her family had remained frozen in time, forever the way she had left them.
Luckily, she had Clark. He'd said he would be there for her, and for the first time in her life, she believed it. He'd proven himself to her time after time, and despite the barriers her paranoia had raised, he'd found a place in her heart.
She was startled when the vehicle began to angle downward and to slow. A moment later she could hear the sounds of the wind again, which gradually decreased in volume as they dropped toward the massive city sprawled out before them as they passed through a layer of smog.
It took time to find a deserted street; unlike Metropolis, Los Angeles had a vibrant, growing economy, and Lucy lived in a well to do suburban area. Clark dropped them several blocks from their destination; Sam hadn't given him an exact address, just the area in which she had lived.
As he slipped back into the vehicle, Lois asked "What do you do, spend all night memorizing maps?"
He grinned at her. "There are advantages to being a world traveler with an eidetic memory."
Her father relaxed for a moment before restarting the vehicle. It was a matter of only a few blocks before they parked at the rear of a procession of parked cars.
"Your sister is two houses down," her father said. He scowled. "I forgot that she's having another baby shower."
"I didn't get her anything!" Lois said, suddenly panicked. "Clark- ?"
Her father touched her arm. "Just having you there will be the biggest gift she receives."
Lois hesitated, then nodded.
"I'd better go on ahead," her father said quietly. "Maybe I can prepare them a little for the shock."
The image of her father barging in on a baby shower made Lois want to laugh, though she suspected that most of the urge was from nervousness.
Lois nodded. She opened the door and stepped onto the curb, and she could hear Clark open the side door as well. Her father stepped around the front of the SUV and said, "I'll come back and get you… "
"I can listen in if you'd like," Clark said.
Her father nodded after a moment, and turned to step quickly down the sidewalk. His step was livelier and more energetic than Lois had seen since she'd been back; it was as though years had been stripped away from him.
When he was out of earshot, Lois turned to Clark. "I don't want to do this."
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to," he said, his voice carefully neutral. "But I think your mother and sister would really like to see you."
"The shock will probably make my mother faint and Lucy's water break. I can just imagine what a disaster it will be."
"I can get your mother and your sister to a hospital in the blink of an eye. Are you sure that's all you are worried about?"
Lois hesitated. "Everything is going to be different. I don't know if I'm ready to face that."
"Life is all about change. We all have time in our lives that we wish could last forever, but they never do. The thing about change is that sometimes, things can be even better than we can imagine."
"Do you really think so?" Lois asked, looking up at him hopefully.
He cupped her cheek in his hand, and said, "I never would have believed that I would feel what I feel for you now. Even meeting the other Lois was only a pale reflection. Meeting you was something I couldn't have anticipated, and I know now that my life will never be the same."
He leaned down slightly and kissed her. At first it was a gentle, platonic kiss, as much a gesture of friendship and support as anything. It deepened into something more, into a promise of endless summer nights, of supple skin intertwining, and of lovemaking without end.
Lois found herself clinging to Clark, molding herself to him and glancing up at him with eyes that were dazed. He had the same stunned, confused look in his eyes, and Lois was glad that she had the same sensual power over him as he had over her.
He winced suddenly, flinching. "Your father just told them, and I think your mother just fainted."
The door to the house down the street burst open, and Lois could see a heavily pregnant figure burst through.
"I guess that's our cue," Lois said, and her heart was suddenly light. She had her family back, and she had Clark, and life had never been as sweet.
Lois closed her eyes, leaning into Clark's embrace as they soared high above the earth. Seeing her family had been bittersweet; she hadn't realized just how much they had meant to her until she was face to face with them. Then, it had been all she could do to hold back the tears. Lois had resented her parents for her childhood. She'd thrown herself into her work and had actively avoided them. She hadn't realized how limited her time with her family would be. She'd spent five years trying not to regret the time she had wasted, but that was a little more difficult now that she'd seen them again. They'd all changed; Lois herself wasn't the same person she'd been five years before. Meeting her sister's husband and child had driven home just how much of their lives that she had missed, and just how much would never be the same again.
In spite of it all, it hadn't taken long for them to fall back into their old roles. Yet now, Lois saw her family from a different perspective. She saw her mother's carping as expressions of concern. She saw her father's gruff denials for the defensive techniques that they were; a shield against showing his vulnerability. Motherhood had changed her sister into someone she almost didn't recognize, though Lucy had found time to tease her about her relationship to Clark.
Lois hadn't been as embarrassed as she thought she might have been. Clark was different from the other men she had dated; for the first time she'd been proud to bring a man home to meet her family. When she'd seen how well he'd gotten along with everyone, even her mother, it had impressed her. He'd fit in somehow, as though he had been waiting to be part of a family after a long absence.
He'd been as lonely as she had, yet at least she'd had the comfort of knowing that her family was still alive, and the hope that she might one day rejoin them. He'd lost even that. It was yet one more reminder of how precious her family was.
Lois had promised to keep in touch, and it was a promise she intended to keep.
The stars somehow seemed more vibrant now that they were above the clouds, and the moon seemed to fill the sky. The clouds below them created an otherworldly landscape, startling in its beauty. It almost seemed as though they were suspended in midair together, motionless, as Clark held her tightly. He was wonderfully warm, and Lois huddled close to him to ward off the edges of chill.
"I'm not going back to my apartment," Clark said quietly. "I'm told that the reporters have already started staking it out again. Where have you been staying?"
"I've been sleeping at my father's place, but I'm not sure there aren't any reporters there either." Lois bit her lip. She wasn't ready to face the press, not tonight.
She glanced back at Clark; he was watching her intently. "I don't think I'm ready to answer any questions just yet."
Clark spoke slowly, tentatively. "I did a favor once for a man who keeps a summer house in New Orleans. I've stayed there a few times when the reporters camped around my house got to be a little too much to deal with. If you'd like…"
He was asking her to stay the night.
Lois was suddenly aware of how closely her body had molded itself to his. Her mind flashed back to a night in Arizona, to forbidden territory. She'd decided to fling caution to the winds that night, to make love with no expectations for the future. She'd decided to seize what happiness she could that night, because she hadn't been sure there would be a tomorrow.
She was free now for the first time in five years; for the first time that she could remember, the future seemed attainable. She could see an endless procession of days ahead of her, the possibility of children, a house, living until they were both old and gray.
The thought scared the hell out of her.
She'd lived one day at a time for too long; the thoughts of a lifetime were more than she could deal with at the moment. She looked into Clark's eyes; his expression was hopeful, but not expectant. Whatever his origins had been, he was a good man.
Lois had wasted too much of her life being afraid of dying. She refused to be afraid of living. It was a beautiful night, and Clark was as handsome as she'd ever seen him.
"I think I'd like that." Lois's voice was almost inaudible.
He kissed the tip of her ear, and Lois could feel a sudden shift in direction. It seemed like only a few moments before they were dropping through the clouds and staring out onto a city glowing like a jewel against the darkened landscape.
The darkness covered them like a lover, allowing them to move above the city without being seen. The city sprawled over the horizon, and this time she saw more than just the river. New Orleans was beautiful in places; low, dull, strip buildings near the airport gave way to streets that were full of life. The median strips on the boulevards were covered with azaleas, magnolias, palmettos and rows of live oaks that made some streets into leafy tunnels.
The air was heavy; it was humid and filled with the scents of roasting coffee and newly bloomed hyacinths and jasmine. They landed silently in a shadowy courtyard; only a small, narrow passageway led out onto the street beyond, and that entrance was covered with a wrought iron gate. A small garden filled the courtyard, with potted plants of every description set carefully to please the eye. A fountain sat in the center of the courtyard, with water bubbling from a cherub's horn and down over rocks with a soothing sound.
This was a private place, a place for lovers to meet and court away from the prying eyes of the world. It felt like forever since she and Clark had been alone, and Lois felt suddenly shy. She had no intention of changing her mind, but she suddenly wondered what Clark's expectations were. They'd been together as Kade and Jane, but never while Clark was his whole self. He would be different, Lois knew, and she wondered for a moment if she would please him.
Clark set her down carefully onto the flagstones, and then he disappeared. A moment later he was back, with a key.
He led her to the rear of the courtyard. At the top of only four steps was a door, which he silently unlocked. Lois felt the first fluttering in her stomach; excitement and nervousness mingled, and she hesitated before following Clark up the steps and into the hallway beyond. A long, straight staircase filled half the hallway, leaving only a narrow passage onward. The ceiling seemed to stretch up forever.
He switched the lights on, then turned back to her. He smiled as he took her hand. She gasped as they began to rise slowly. They rose over the banister and landed gently in the hallway beyond.
She felt suddenly shy again, and struggled to find something to say. "I guess your friend isn't here today."
Clark shook his head. "He's usually busy this part of the year, but I scanned the place just to make sure." He hesitated. "I think you'll like the view from the balcony; I'm told that is half the reason he bought the place."
Lois nodded absently. She was feeling increasingly nervous as the moment approached. With Kade, she'd had no expectations. He was a man without a past, and she'd been convinced that they had no future together. Her time with him had been meant to be a bittersweet moment, a memory she could cling to when she lay alone on her cold bed at night.
Clark was different. He'd pursued her from the beginning, and he was nothing but expectations. She suspected that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her; she'd come to realize that he really believed in the sort of love that she'd thought only existed in fairy tales. Instead of an ending, this moment with Clark was to be a beginning, a moment which was to set the tone for their entire relationship.
Lois forced herself to take a deep breath. She'd spent so many years worrying that she was looking for things to panic about. Clark remembered the night in Arizona as well as she did; it wasn't as though they would be together for the very first time. In any case, Clark would have the same expectations for their future whether they spent the night together or not.
Clark looked at her and smiled, and Lois felt excitement building in the pit of her stomach once again. She smiled shyly at him, following him down the hall and into a large bedroom. Tall cathedral windows on two walls illuminated the room with a soft glow, while a pair of French doors led out onto a balcony. A large, comfortable looking bed was the centerpiece of the room, and an ornate wardrobe sat against one wall. The ceiling rose almost twenty feet, and fans circulated air slowly through the room.
Clark led her past the bed without the slightest glance. He unlocked the French doors and led her out onto the balcony. The city glowed like a jewel; trees and plants were everywhere and Lois could hear the ghostly sounds of live jazz music being played from somewhere nearby. The moonlight combined with the distant lights from the streets to illuminate them both.
"This is a beautiful place," Lois said quietly, as she leaned against the wrought iron railing. She didn't look at Clark; she was afraid that he'd misinterpret her nervousness for something other than what it was.
"We don't have to do anything tonight if you don't want to. There's another room just down the hall."
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be." Lois finally looked up at Clark.
"Just being here alone with you is a gift; this is the first time that we haven't been running from someone or something that I can remember." Clark closed his eyes and listened to the music, smiling slightly. "My parents brought me to New Orleans one summer when I was nine years old. I still remember how much my mother loved the music."
"I wish I could have met your parents," Lois said quietly. "I think I would have liked them."
"I got a chance to see what might have been." Clark's smile was sad. "My parents would have loved you as much as I…"
Lois was shocked by his inadvertent admission. She hadn't allowed herself to put a name of the maelstrom of feelings she had for him. She'd fallen for him twice, and what she felt was deeper than anything she'd ever felt before was. Hearing him almost bring it out into the open was scary.
He bent down and kissed her. It was a soft, hesitant kiss at first, but it quickly deepened into something more. He'd always been able to affect her on a visceral level; she'd felt every cell in her body respond to him from the very first moment they'd met. The effect had only grown stronger the longer she'd known him. Now, she felt as though she was ready to burst into flames; the world dwindled around her until only she and he remained, and somehow that was enough.
When the kiss finally ended, Lois found herself gasping for breath. She opened her eyes and saw Clark looking back at her. He looked as overwhelmed as she felt, and he smiled sheepishly. "This is all going a little too fast."
"So says the man faster than the speeding bullet," Lois murmured, her lips twitching into a slow grin.
It was his turn to flush a little. "We've got all the time in the world, Lois."
Lois's grin widened as she realized just how much fun it was going to be to tease Clark. Despite his years in Metropolis, and his life as a world traveler, he still hadn't lost a certain innocent quality. Somehow, the idea of his being around to tease wasn't all that scary.
"So what did you have in mind?"
The music down below changed again, this time to a slow waltz. "You know, we never got to dance, that one time we were out on a date."
"We never got to do a lot of things," Lois said. "But as you said, we've finally got time."
"Would you like to dance?"
"What, here?" Lois glanced around her; the balcony didn't seem large enough to dance on.
"Trust me," Clark said, then held his hand out to her.
"I'd be glad to," Lois said, taking his hand.
Leaving the French doors open so the air and music could continue to waft inside, Clark pulled Lois back into the bedroom.
Lois suppressed a shriek of laughter as Clark lifted them both into the air, swinging them both around silently.
"You call this dancing?" Lois asked, grinning.
"I've always wanted to do this with someone," Clark said. "I'm glad I saved it for you."
The music ended and Clark allowed them to slowly drop to the floor beside the bed.
The music faded into silence, and they found themselves standing closely together, staring into each other's eyes. Only the smallest fraction of an inch separated them, and Lois found that she couldn't look away from him. Being with him felt as right as anything she'd ever felt in her life.
She did love him; she'd loved him twice, as two different men, and yet she'd been unwilling to see it. It was more than just mere lust; lust was a transitory thing, the strike of a match in a dark room. This was something greater, an inferno that wanted to consume her.
Of all the men in her life, he was the first to ever believe in her, totally and completely. She'd seen it first in Kade and then again in Clark. He'd given his heart to her; given the chance, he'd make her his partner in life. Together, they would become more than either of them would have been alone.
"Clark, I…" Lois shifted her weight, taking a half step backward to keep her balance. Something twisted beneath her foot, and she began to fall.
Clark grabbed her quickly, before she could hurt herself. Before she could protest, he set her on the bed and was pulling her shoes off while massaging her ankle.
"What was that?" Lois asked, peering over the side of the bed.
Clark shoved something under the bed, clearly chagrined.
"I keep a travel case under the bed; I guess I got a little sloppy the last time I was here and left the end of it sticking out a little.
"My ankle is fine, " Lois said as Clark began quickly massaging it.
"You never know, " Clark said. "These things can feel fine at first, then really swell up…" His massage of her ankle moved to her foot, and Lois barely kept from moaning.
"Where'd you learn to do that?"
He glanced up at her with a twinkle in his eye. "An old Chinese woman taught me the secret."
"How old was she?" Lois asked in mock suspicion.
Clark slowly set her foot down and smiled wryly. "She was old enough to think I was a nice young man who should settle down."
He took her hand and pulled her to her feet. "Can your ankle support the weight?"
Lois took a few experimental steps forward, then walked back to Clark. When they were almost touching again, she hooked her foot behind his ankle and pushed him, causing him to fall back onto the bed. He kept his grip on her, however, and they both fell together.
"Does that answer your question?" she asked grinning.
"I guess you really were feeling fine," he said.
She shifted position so that she was straddling him, leaning forward to kiss his ear. "You'll learn not to underestimate me."
His lips caressed her neck, and she felt jolts of pleasure moving up and down her spine before pulling back. "I'm a quick study," he murmured into her neck.
She kissed him again, allowing her hands to explore territory that was at once familiar and completely new. She felt him tremble beneath her as her hands slipped beneath his tight black t- shirt. He'd worn the shirt just to tease her, and now she returned the favor, running her fingers tantalizingly over his skin.
He really was a quick study. His hands caressed the outside of her hips, her sides and the curve of her back; all the places Kade had found were explored, and new ones were quickly discovered. For a long, eternal moment nothing existed but fingers and skin and thin layers of cloth between them.
Lois grew impatient and pulled at his shirt as she continued to kiss him. He began unbuttoning her blouse at the same time, and there was a moment of confusion as they both struggled with their shirts. They both laughed at their own impatience, and a moment later they were both free.
Lois reached for the strap of her bra, and a moment later it dropped away. The look of admiration in Clark's eyes as he stared at her nakedness made her flush.
The worries that had plagued Lois earlier dropped away. Clark loved her and in his eyes she was beautiful. They fit together, like perfect pieces of a puzzle, and Lois had no reason to feel ashamed. Again, it felt right to be with him, and her certainty caused something within her to relax. As she did, the world became one of pure sensations.
The feeling of her skin touching his was almost unbearable as he kissed her again. When he kissed the nape of her neck and began to slowly work his way down, Lois closed her eyes and tried to suppress a moan.
Neither of them spoke for the next several minutes as the world shifted into images of clothes carelessly flung across the room, bare skin, lips, teasing fingers, muffled sighs, and the occasional giggle. Clark set a slow fire within her, and Lois did the same for him.
Lois pulled her legs beneath her and quickly straddled Clark. She grinned, leaning down and whispering, "THIS is dancing."
He grinned back, and Lois gasped as the world twisted around her; it was as though she was seeing through two sets of eyes, feeling with four hands, kissing with two sets of lips. She lost all thoughts of teasing, and for a time, her world was nothing but pure sensation. For a single penultimate instant they were one being.
When they finally broke apart, the world twisted once more, and Lois was once again herself. She felt drained, yet somehow elated. She had felt the warmth of Clark's love for her, and it alone would have been enough to stun her.
Lois lay on his chest and allowed herself to relax. For the first time that she could remember, time was on her side. She hadn't allowed herself to look to the future because she'd never really been able to believe that she would have one.
Clark loved her, and she loved him. The concept of endless days with the man below her was enough to take her breath away; it was more than she ever could have expected.
She gasped as she felt his hands begin to make their way down the curve of her back "Again, already?"
Clark kissed her and said, "You aren't going to tell me you are tired already." His voice was teasing, with a hint of a challenge.
She kissed his ear and murmured, "Not on your life, farmboy."
Loving a Superman would have its advantages, but what Lois was looking forward to was mostly loving the man. Life was going to be an adventure.