By Nan Smith <email@example.com>
Submitted: March 2002
Summary: This rewrite of the episode "Top Copy" follows the author's "Mystery." Lois learns more about her "super" partner as the two of them deal with Diana Stride's attempt to kill a government witness — and them as well.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They belong to DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whomever else can legally lay claim to them, nor am I profiting by their use. Certain scenes and dialogue from the Lois and Clark episode "Top Copy" are included in this story and are hereby credited to the writers of the show. Anything else is mine.
Thanks to those who commented on this story when it was being posted on the Message Boards and my special thanks to Pam Jernigan, who allowed me to use her idea about Rolf and the car. It definitely added to the story. <g>.
From the ending of "Mystery":
Clark's head came up suddenly. "Oh, oh."
Lois quirked an eyebrow at him "This would be one of those times you had to return a video, right?"
"There's a fire at the Metropolitan Building Penthouse. I better go." He got to his feet. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Go," she said. "I'll be here."
He was gone in a gust of air. She leaned back in her chair to wait, absently contemplating her move, but her thoughts were more on her amazing partner. She'd thought, until the events of this weekend, that these sudden departures to return a video or library book were his way of avoiding personal issues. The real reason was so different from any she had imagined that it was breathtaking.
Now she knew that, no matter how often he had to run away, he would always come back to her as long as she wanted him to. There were still things they had to work out, although they had had several long talks over the past three days, but she was already sure that she always would want him to come back. She had her doubts about whether she could be an equal partner to Superman, but he seemed to think that she already was. Maybe he was right. Time would tell.
"Hey, Lane! Where's Kent? He off returning a library book again?" That was Ralph, on his way toward the elevators. He'd remarked on Clark's faulty memory several times in the weeks since he'd been hired, but he'd also expressed envy at the ability of Lane and Kent to always be in the right place at the right time to land the big scoops. She laughed to herself.
If he only knew.
It was nearly half an hour before Clark returned.
Lois was glancing at her watch for the third time when she heard the door to the stairs open. One of the wall monitors was on, showing the Metropolitan Building Penthouse and the firefighters swarming around the towering structure. The flames had been extinguished a good ten minutes before, so where was Clark?
As she thought that, the sound of the door opening made her raise her head to see him entering the newsroom, absently rubbing his neck. Lois relaxed. This was a new part to their relationship to which she was going to have to adjust but at least now, she knew where he was running off to. It had been an almost unreal feeling to watch the scenes on the monitor and realize that it had been her quiet, unassuming partner who had caught the tiny, plummeting figure that had been barely visible on the screen.
"How did it go?" she asked.
"Fine. Superman saved the day again. Give me a minute and I'll write up the interview for the morning edition." He dropped into his desk chair and an instant later his fingers were flying over the keyboard.
Lois glanced around to be sure that no one on the night staff had noticed but, of course, they hadn't. Ben Jacobs was pouring himself a cup of coffee and Harry Williams was sitting at his desk, his back to them, absently shooting rubber bands at his wastebasket. Nobody else was even visible.
It only took a few minutes. He finished and transmitted the item to the editor's computer and then shut his own machine down. "Are you ready to go?"
She nodded. "What happened at the — you know?"
He rubbed his neck again. "I put out the fire, but it was kind of a weird situation."
He removed her coat from the rack and held it for her. "Well…"
She slipped her arms into the garment and reached for her crutches, but he had already retrieved them for her. As she positioned them under her arms, he rubbed his neck again. "When I got there, there was a woman falling — I guess she'd jumped. She turned out to be Diana Stride — the host of Top Copy."
"Nope. She and her cameraman — I think his name is Rolf — were up there when the fire started."
Lois worked her way slowly up the ramp with Clark walking beside her. "What on Earth were *they* doing there?"
"They said they'd gone up to get pictures of the city for a piece Top Copy is doing on urban renewal. I guess they could have been. It just seemed kind of strange." He shrugged. "Do you still want to head over to my place for dinner? It's only about eight."
"I guess — if it isn't any trouble for you."
Clark rang for the elevator. "Remember who you're talking to. I was thinking about getting some Chinese takeout. There's this little place I know in Shanghai that has some of the best Chinese food you've ever tasted. Literally."
"Literally?" She frowned slightly, trying to figure that one out. "Wait a minute! Not the Chinese food you brought me, not long after you first came to work at the Planet?"
He nodded, looking innocent. She laughed suddenly. "I have the feeling I'm going to be finding out about things you've done that I didn't know about at the time, for months to come."
"Well, it was your idea for me to give you clues and see if you can guess which incident I'm talking about. So far, you've been right on the ball."
The elevator doors opened and he held them carefully while she maneuvered her way inside. "I'll be awfully glad when Dr. Killian lets me switch to an athletic cast."
"Don't blame you," he said. He punched the indicator for the first floor. "Don't rush it, though. You don't want to have trouble with that ankle for the rest of your life."
"Yeah." She glanced at his hands, where the only traces left of their ordeal in the mine were the fingernails that he had torn during his Herculean efforts to get them out. "It's not fair, you know. You heal in seconds, and it takes me weeks. Which reminds me, how on Earth do you ever give yourself a manicure? Wouldn't a file break if you tried to file your nails?"
"Well, maybe not break but I'd wear out the file before it made a dent in the nail," he agreed. "I trim my nails the same way I cut my hair and shave — with my heat vision. As soon as they grow out, I'll trim them and they'll be fine."
"Someday I'd like to watch you cut your hair," she said. "It's funny, you know. I knew Superman was invulnerable, but it never occurred to me before to wonder how he shaved."
"Well, now you know." He rubbed his neck again. "So, will Chinese food be okay?"
"Sure — I guess you're not going to phone the order in, though."
"No, I think that would be a bit much. I'll just fly over as soon as I get you to my place. If you'd like to make the tea, I should be back by the time it's done."
"That sounds fair," she agreed. "I guess they know you there, huh?"
"Well, they know Clark Kent there. I found the place during the time I was in China, not long after I graduated from college. I've gone there for really good Chinese food, ever since."
The elevator came to a stop with a soft sigh of air and they exited. The security guard hurried over to open the side door for Lois so she wouldn't have to negotiate the revolving doors with her crutches. She smiled at him. "Thanks, Bob."
"You're welcome, Ms. Lane." The man smiled back and she saw him give Clark an envious look, which her partner missed. They went slowly on down the sidewalk to the spot where Clark had parked her Cherokee this morning.
"I'll also be glad when I can drive my car again," Lois said, continuing the earlier conversation. "I'm not supposed to while I'm still taking Dr. Bryant's painkiller."
"Does it still hurt much?" he asked, helping her into the passenger seat.
"Some," she admitted. "It swells if I can't elevate it, and then it starts to hurt. They said it would get better in a few days, though."
"I hope so," Clark said. "Look, when we get to my place, just sit down and put your foot up on the ottoman. I'll start the tea."
She cast him a patient look. "I think I can manage for a few minutes. Really, I'm not as fragile as you think I am."
Clark didn't look convinced, but he refrained from answering as he started the engine and backed out of the parking space. Lois leaned back in the seat, just watching him.
Looking at him with her new knowledge, she could begin to understand how he had been able to fool the entire world ever since Superman had first made his debut. It wasn't just the glasses or the lack of them, or even the flashy costume. It was his whole attitude. Clark was relaxed; Superman was always stiff and rather formal. His hairstyle was different (what kind of hair gel must he use that could stand up to all the things he had to do, she wondered, irrelevantly) his posture, his behavior — everything! And, although she occasionally saw one of Clark's mannerisms emerge in Superman, even then it seemed different from Clark's because of all the other factors. But what was really amazing were the few times since his confession in the mine that they had been alone in one or the other of their apartments and he relaxed completely. That was when the real transformation took place and she saw her partner as he must be in reality — a blend of his two identities: her unassuming, relaxed and sometimes comical partner, using his incredible abilities as casually as if it were something he did every day — which he probably did, she amended. This was the man as he really was, the man only his mother and father, up until now, had seen. Just the thought of getting to know this new Clark Kent sent a small stab of excitement through her, the kind she had felt when waking up on Christmas morning in the days when her family had still been a real family.
Which brought up another subject. He'd told her that Martha and Jonathan had found him and raised him as their own son, but she hadn't heard the whole story yet. It was one of the many things he'd promised to tell her when they had the time.
It was beginning to snow, very lightly — tiny, glittering flakes that melted when they hit the windshield. The temperature was probably just about freezing. Clark maneuvered through the fairly heavy evening traffic without difficulty, and she gave a small laugh as she thought of the fact that Superman had found it necessary to learn to drive an ordinary car, and earn himself a driver's license.
He glanced at her, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "What's so funny?"
She giggled again. "Nothing, really. It just occurred to me that Superman is driving my Jeep. You don't even need a car!"
He smiled. "No, not now. But I didn't fly until I was eighteen. Besides, I had to drive Dad's pickup on the farm, not to mention the farm machinery. I wanted to look like an ordinary teenager, not a freak; so, I did what every other teenager in Smallville did. I took Driver's Training in high school and got my license."
"Clark, you're not a freak!"
His smile had faded. "I suppose not, but I didn't know that, then. We didn't have any idea where I was from or why I was developing all these strange abilities. I was desperate to fit in so I had to hide what I could do."
That was appalling. This incredible man had felt like *that* while he was growing up? She had always envisioned Clark's childhood as the perfect, Norman Rockwell legend: loving parents, complete security, nothing like her own fractured family. Jonathan and Martha were everything her parents weren't. Still, she could see how the appearance of Clark's strange abilities could have caused them to worry and make him long to be like everyone else, but at least his parents had supported him instead of withdrawing when the inexplicable things began to happen. If such a thing had happened to her, she wasn't so sure her parents would have done the same.
Her thoughts braked to a stop. They hadn't *known*?
"What do you mean, you didn't know where you were from?"
"We didn't," he affirmed. "Mom and Dad found me in the ship but they didn't have a clue where I was from. They thought I was a Russian experiment or something. None of us knew anything until you and I found the Bureau 39 warehouse and their collection of UFOs. My ship was there, and so was the globe. You remember the globe that Jack stole from my apartment, don't you?"
Numbly, she nodded.
"It was my ship's navigational system. My real father and mother left me a message to tell me where I came from and why I was sent to Earth. That was why I was so desperate to get it back. It gave me the first — and only — information I've ever had about where I came from and why. I'd never heard of Krypton before that, or even my original name."
This was astounding, Lois thought. "What *is* your name?"
He grinned. "Clark Kent. But my Kryptonian name was Kal-El."
"Kal-El." She regarded him for a long moment. "I guess you could be a Cal, but you look more like a Clark to me. Why were you sent to Earth?"
"To save my life. Krypton blew up. The globe showed me the whole thing. I even saw the planet explode. My father, Jor-El, and my mother, Lara, built the ship by themselves, found Earth and sent me here to where I could fit in with the native inhabitants. I doubt they knew about the super powers, though. At least, they didn't mention anything about them in the message."
Lois stared at him, stunned. She'd come *that* close to never knowing Clark and the Earth had come *that* close to never having Superman. Two unknown people on another world had been desperate to save their son, and from that had come the super hero who had appeared just under two years before. In fact, they had saved Earth, too, because if Clark hadn't been here, the Nightfall asteroid would have destroyed them all.
"Wow," she said. This was going to take a while to think through. There was so much that she hadn't known about Clark — and Superman — and there was probably much more to learn.
"Yeah," Clark said, seeming to read her thoughts. "It was a lot for me to absorb, too."
He pulled the Jeep to the curb and Lois realized that they had arrived at his apartment. She hadn't even noticed.
"Well," she said, "I'm not happy your home world exploded; don't get me wrong. But, if it had to happen, I'm glad they sent you here — and not just because of Superman."
"I know." He cut the engine and gave her the key. "But, there's one thing you don't understand yet. I may have come from another planet, but I don't remember it. I was three months old when Mom and Dad found me. I was raised on Earth, and as far as I'm concerned, Earth is my home world."
Fortunately, getting into Clark's apartment wasn't difficult, even for someone on crutches. Once inside, Clark again suggested that she sit down and put her foot up while he made the tea, but she pointed out that the faster he got to Shanghai, the faster he would be back, and that she was starving. He reluctantly gave in and took off to get the food.
In the kitchen, Lois filled the teapot with water and set it on to boil. Clark had a fairly wide selection of tea leaves, and, after a moment of consideration, she chose the oolong tea.
"Doesn't anyone just drink orange pekoe anymore?" she muttered to herself, examining his collection with curiosity. Her partner was an interesting set of contradictions, a fact that she hadn't noticed until recently.
In the beginning, she had thought him to be nothing more than a country bumpkin, a hick from the sticks with no gloss of city sophistication. She hadn't been interested enough to look past the surface, back then. After they had become friends, she had begun to see that under the naive country boy was a man who was intelligent, educated, well-traveled, and sophisticated in a way that still allowed him to somehow keep the values and to a degree, the innocence his Kansas upbringing had given him. It was those values and the genuine concern for others that she had so admired in Superman, yet deprecated in Clark — yet another example, as if she needed it, of the way he had managed to distinguish one identity from the other and convince everyone else that they were different people.
The whistle of the teakettle brought her out of her abstraction and she dropped in the tea leaves, hoping that she'd gotten the strength right. Clark, of course, couldn't possibly use teabags like everyone else, she thought, with amusement.
A characteristic whoosh told her that Clark was back. She turned in time to see him emerge from a miniature cyclone, dressed in jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt, but without his glasses, and stride forward to set a mass of bamboo containers on the kitchen table. She could see the steam and smell the heavenly aromas that rose from them, and her stomach growled reflexively.
Clark grinned. "I see you're ready for the food," he remarked, rubbing the side of his neck absently. "How's the tea coming?"
"I think it should be ready in a few minutes," she said. "That smells wonderful."
"In that case, why don't you sit down on the sofa and put your foot up," he said. "I'll set everything out on the coffee table and we can eat in there."
She was ready to go along with the suggestion this time. Her ankle was aching, although she had no intention of admitting it to him. Within seconds he had spread the feast out on the coffee table and was back in the kitchen, checking the tea. "Oolong?" he asked.
"Yeah. I hope I picked the right tea to go with Chinese food," she said.
"It's fine," he said. "I think it's about ready, too." He appeared in the doorway, teapot and cups in hand. He set them out on the table amid the bamboo containers and pulled up an armchair.
"There's enough here to feed a small army," Lois remarked, starting to spoon the contents onto her plate. "Not that I'm objecting."
"That means there'll be plenty of leftovers," Clark said. "So, do you have any more questions, or do you want to think over the last ones for awhile?"
She bit into a pork roll and closed her eyes, chewing. "This is fantastic! Now I know how you're always able to find these little family restaurants when no one else can."
He shrugged. "I told the truth," he said. "I just didn't mention what country the restaurant was in."
"Like those croissants from the 'little French bakery' that time?" she asked.
He grinned. "So, they came from France. I was checking out the handprints on that airliner the clone rescued and decided to pick up breakfast."
Lois gave a laugh and began to work her way through the sweet and sour pork. "You're creating a monster, you know," she said, in between bites.
Clark smiled. "I'm not complaining." He rubbed his neck again.
Lois swallowed a mouthful of chow mein. "Is something wrong, Clark?"
He looked surprised. "Wrong?"
"You keep rubbing your neck. Is it bothering you?"
He opened his mouth and closed it again, frowning. "I…I don't know. It's kind of tingling a little. I didn't really notice until you mentioned it."
She put down her fork. "Come over here under the light and let me see."
He hesitated, then obeyed, coming to sit on the edge of the sofa next to her. Lois pulled the T-shirt back from his neck. "Show me where it's tingling."
He ran a finger over the skin. "Here."
Lois examined the spot in the light of the table lamp. "I don't see anything, but that doesn't mean much. Have you ever felt anything like this before?"
He shook his head. "No, never."
"And this doesn't worry you?" she demanded.
He shrugged. "It'll probably go away," he said. "Nothing much can hurt me."
"That's the point! Nothing *should* be able to hurt you, so why is your neck tingling? You were rubbing your neck when you got back from the fire!" She squinted at the skin of his neck again, but it looked the same as it always did. Still, something wasn't right. He was *Superman* for heaven's sake! "Could something have happened there that might have caused it to tingle?"
He moved back to his seat, reaching for an egg roll, but she could see he was thinking over her question. "It's funny that you should ask that," he said, slowly. "When I caught Diana Stride and carried her back to the roof of the penthouse — she kept running her fingers over my neck. I thought she was just —" He broke off, looking embarrassed.
"Well, I'm Superman, and — well — women tend to — you know — get kind of — well —"
He was actually blushing! Lois carefully hid the grin that tried to make it to the surface. "Never mind. I think I get it. Do you think she could have done anything to cause this? Maybe put some kind of chemical on your skin, or something?"
"There doesn't seem to be anything there, now," he said, doubtfully.
"No, but we don't know that there wasn't something there," Lois said. "I think we should have someone check it out. Do you think Professor Hamilton would still be in his lab?"
"He usually is," Clark said. "I'm not sure we should disturb him for a thing like this, though. We don't really know anything."
"Well, I think we should. I want to know what's the matter. If it isn't anything, then we can relax and forget it, but if it *is* something dangerous, we might be able to do something about it." She shoved another pork roll into her mouth, for emphasis and chewed vigorously. "Give me the phone. I'll call him, right now."
"You say it's tingling, Superman?" Emil Hamilton asked. He prodded the patch of skin that Clark had indicated, peering at it through a pair of magnifying glasses that made his eyes seem grotesquely huge.
"That's the closest I can come to describing it." Clark resisted the urge to rub the spot again. "Kind of a funny prickly feeling that makes me want to scratch it."
"You mean it's itching," Hamilton said. He switched on a hand light, illuminating the area brightly and examined the skin minutely.
"I guess. It's not quite that strong, but it isn't comfortable."
Hamilton removed the magnifying glasses. "There's nothing I can see, even under magnification, but I'd like to try something else, if you don't mind."
"What?" Lois asked.
"With your permission, Superman, I'm going to shine an ultraviolet light on it. Often, foreign substances will fluoresce under UV."
"Okay." Clark glanced at Lois, feeling unaccountably nervous. She gave him a little smile that was somehow reassuring.
Professor Hamilton had gone to a cupboard and now returned with the ultraviolet light. After a moment of fumbling to plug it in, he flipped the on switch. A deep, purple light bathed Clark's shoulder and the side of his face.
"Hmm…" The scientist bent closer, examining the spot. "There's definitely something here, Superman. It looks as if someone drew on you with finger paint."
He twisted his head, trying unsuccessfully to see. Lois moved closer, attempting to peer past Hamilton's shoulder. "What is it?" she asked.
"I can't be sure. I'd like to try to scrape some of this off for analysis."
That was easier said than done, and they ended with Clark scraping off the surface cells with his fingernail.
Hamilton spread the sample carefully on a slide. "I'll get right on it, Superman," he assured Clark. "As soon as I have some answers, I'll call you—if you have a phone?" he added as an afterthought.
Lois removed a card from her wallet. "This is my number at the Daily Planet," she said. "Call me. My partner knows how to get hold of Superman."
"Excellent, excellent." Hamilton had already turned away with the slide held gently between his thumb and forefinger, absently tucking the card into the pocket of his lab coat with the other hand. "This should be fascinating —"
"We'll let ourselves out," Lois said.
If the scientist heard her, he gave no indication of it. They carefully closed the door after them and Lois glanced back at the lab's lighted windows, shaking her head.
"I think I'll give him a call in the morning," she said. "He probably won't even remember I gave him my card. Scientists!" She glanced at her watch. "It's about ten. I guess you should take me home."
"Did you have enough to eat?" Clark asked. "It seems as if we haven't had an undisturbed dinner since Friday night."
"Well," Lois said, a little wistfully, "I wouldn't mind a little more of that wonderful food."
He smiled. "I'll tell you what. Let me drop you off at your apartment and then bring the food there so we can finish eating. Then you won't have to go anywhere when you're done."
"That sounds like a plan," she agreed. "Besides, I want to hear more about this globe and what it told you."
"Okay." He lifted her in his arms. "Although, you know most of it, now."
"I still don't know as much about you as I want to," she said.
"Well, you don't have to hear it all at once, you know. We have time."
"Oh, I know. But I want to know so much! I keep remembering things that make so much more sense, now." She drew in her breath, suddenly. "No wonder you stood Mayson up that weekend that she asked you to go away with her — not that I think you'd have gone with her anyway —"
"I was going to tell her no, but Perry interrupted."
"But, you were in *my* apartment all weekend! No wonder you couldn't explain!"
Clark nodded. "It wasn't fun, but I was glad I was with you."
"You know," she said, "if you'd told me, I could have helped you a lot more."
"I know. I was afraid; that's the only excuse I can give you. But, for what it's worth, I'd already decided that if I wasn't able to get my sight back, I was going to tell you the truth."
"I guess that's something." She rested a hand on the side of his face. "You could have trusted me, you know."
"That's the strange thing," he said, slowly. "I do trust you, and I trusted you, then. It was something else that kept me from telling you the truth — I guess, I'd hidden the secret for so long that I didn't really consider it. I mean, Superman was blind and helpless — at least, that's how I felt. Dr. Leit already knew — what if someone like Trask had discovered it? At least, as Clark, I had some camouflage — but you're right, it would have been much smarter to tell you. It's hard to explain why I didn't."
She didn't answer right away, but finally, she nodded. "I think I understand," she said. "I guess I can forgive you. At least you told me when it really mattered. But, the next time you get in trouble, I don't want to find out you've hidden anything from me, got it?"
"Got it, ma'am," Clark said. Lois whacked him with her handbag.
Lois was booting up her computer at the Planet, early the next morning, and had just taken a bite of doughnut when her telephone rang. She snatched up the receiver, swallowed convulsively and said, "Lois Lane."
"Ms. Lane?" The voice at the other end sounded slightly agitated. "This is Emil Hamilton."
"Oh, Professor Hamilton! I was going to call you in a few minutes."
"I wanted to tell you," the scientist's voice said, "I have some preliminary results for you. The substance on Superman's neck was radioactive."
The scientist cleared his throat. "Yes. There isn't enough of it to be dangerous to ordinary humans, but it's bound itself to the outer layer of skin cells to make it difficult to remove with just a shower or two. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that someone tagged Superman with a radioactive marker."
"Tagged him!" Lois said, appalled. "*Why*?"
"Possibly to track him," Hamilton's voice said. "I can't really think of any other reason."
"Would that be possible?" Lois asked. A cold chill seemed to be crawling across her scalp.
"With the right equipment, certainly."
Lois gulped. She had to warn Clark. "Thank you, Professor," she managed. "You've been a lot of help."
"I hope so. Goodbye, Ms. Lane."
"Wait! One last question, Professor."
"How can he get it off?"
"It should wear off in a day or so," the Professor said. "I should think a thorough scrubbing, perhaps with a brush, to remove the top layer of skin cells would also take most of it off."
"Thanks," Lois said, again. "I'll let Superman know right away."
"You're welcome, Ms. Lane. If I can help any further, please let me know." The scientist hung up.
Lois put down the receiver and looked around for Clark. He was across the room at the coffee machine, and she was about to hail him when Perry's voice reverberated across the newsroom.
"Lois! Clark! Jimmy! Conference room, now!"
Lois hoisted herself to her feet, reaching for her crutches and grimacing in frustration. They didn't really know much, yet — but if Diana Stride had radioactively "tagged" Superman, then he needed to know it — and as fast as possible. Maybe she could slip him a note during the conference.
When they were all inside, Perry closed the conference room door and turned the door lock. Clark pulled out a chair for Lois and helped her into it, then sat down beside her. Jimmy parked himself across from them and regarded their editor with his full attention. Lois guessed she could understand that. Jimmy might be a copy boy and part time photographer, but his goal was to someday become a full-fledged journalist and to be called into a meeting like this with the Planet's editor and star reporting team probably impressed him as few things could.
"What's going on, Chief?" Clark asked.
"I just got a call from — well, someone I know at the DA's office," Perry began. "He wanted to let me know what's happening. This could be the story of the century."
Lois and Clark looked at each other for an instant and Clark's eyebrows went up.
"A key member of Intergang's been arrested," Perry continued. "He's made a deal. He's going to testify."
"Who is it?" Jimmy asked, quickly.
"We don't know," their editor replied. "The DA's calling him Mr. X. The word is, Intergang's been killing these world leaders for decades, making it look like accidents. This Mr. X is going to finger their key assassin." He fixed his subordinates with his most intimidating stare. "Now, I want the full story on this guy — so by the time he takes the stand the Planet has the headlines — who he is, where he comes from, what he's gonna say. Got it?"
Clark nodded. "Got it."
"Okay, good. Go get 'em." Apparently satisfied that he'd impressed the three of them with the importance of the assignment, their editor opened the door and exited.
Instantly, the atmosphere in the conference room seemed to relax. Jimmy glanced at Clark with a grin. "Are those new specs, CK?" he asked.
"Yeah," Clark said.
"Can I try 'em on?" Jimmy reached for the glasses, but Clark quickly held up a restraining hand.
Jimmy looked startled. Lois stepped into the silence. "He wouldn't let me try them either, Jimmy."
"I have a really strong prescription," Clark said, quickly. "I wouldn't want to hurt your eyes."
Jimmy shrugged and grinned. "All right," he said. "I'll see you later."
He exited the room and Lois waited until the door closed. "Professor Hamilton called."
Instantly, Clark was alert. "What did he say?"
Lois quickly recounted the conversation and at the conclusion, Clark frowned. "Diana Stride 'tagged' me," he repeated, slowly. "But, why?"
"She's an investigative journalist," Lois said. "What if she's guessed that Superman could have another identity and is trying to find out who he is? She could be planning to expose him on Top Copy! You should fly back to your place and really scrub your neck with a scrub brush. Professor Hamilton said that might take it off."
"You're talking about Superman in the third person, again," Clark pointed out, mildly.
"So are you," she retorted. "I'm not kidding, Clark!"
"You're right," he said. "Look, let's decide what we're going to do about Mr. X, then I'll go home for a quick shower."
"Well," Lois pointed out, "you're friends with Mayson Drake. You might be able to get her to tell us about him. She's an assistant DA. She's bound to know who he is."
Clark hesitated. "I really don't like to —"
"She's got a crush on you. She's more likely to talk to you than anyone else."
"That's exactly why I don't want to take advantage of the situation. Besides, how do you *know* she's got a crush on me?"
"Take it from me, Clark, she does. She's been after you since she met you. Look, it can't hurt to ask her, can it?"
He hesitated, and for a moment, Lois experienced a wave of sheer jealousy. Then, she got hold of herself. She didn't have any real reason to be jealous. Clark had already made it clear where his interest lay. He was simply an honorable man who didn't like to take advantage of a friend for his own personal gain. Knowing that Mayson Drake had a crush on him, it would certainly go against the grain to use that crush to get information from her. It was one of the things that made him the person he was. She bit her lip. It might be a good idea to cut her partner a little slack at this point, even if every reporter's instinct she had told her that it was the obvious next step.
"If you really think you shouldn't, I won't push you," she said. "It just seems like the only way we might get a lead."
"Yeah." He looked worried. "Well — I guess we could ask. I just don't want to give her any reason to — well, expect anything. It wouldn't be fair to her."
"All right," she said. "That's reasonable. Do you want to call her, or should we just go down to City Hall?"
"I guess we should just go…"
They exited the conference room and Lois headed slowly for her desk to pick up her bag, silently cussing the clumsiness of the crutches.
Clark's head jerked up and she saw an expression of alarm cross his features. "What's the matter?" she asked.
"Diana Stride. She and that cameraman of hers are on their way up here. They've got some kind of tracking device —"
"They're tracing you!" she whispered. "Do something!"
He glanced quickly around and then a gust of air swept the room. Lois brushed the hair from her eyes and looked quickly around. Clark had vanished.
At the same instant, the elevator doors opened and a tall, stylish woman, followed by a dark-haired man toting a videocamera on his shoulder, exited. In her hand, the woman held something that Lois couldn't see clearly, but she carried it before her, obviously concentrating on whatever information it was giving her. She made some brief remark to her companion and the two of them hurried down the steps to the newsroom floor.
"Is that who I think it is?" Perry's voice murmured in her ear.
Lois didn't answer. Diana Stride and her cameraman headed directly across the newsroom toward the door of the conference room where she and Clark had just been.
And suddenly, the two intruders came to a halt. Standing in front of them in all his colorful glory, his arms folded across his chest, was Superman.
Lois breathed a tiny sigh of relief. Clark didn't look in the least uncomfortable. In fact, he had a slightly amused expression on his face. There was a murmur of conversation between them, and then Diana Stride turned and addressed the newsroom.
"Everybody, I'm Diana Stride, and Top Copy is doing a tribute to Superman." She gave her polished, familiar smile. "We know he has a lot of great friends at the Planet, and I'd like to interview all of you. I had hoped that it would be a surprise for him but, well, there's no keeping secrets from the Man of Steel." She beckoned to him and Clark took a step or two forward, his arms still folded and his expression still slightly amused and wary. Diana Stride continued, "Well, let's get started. Who'd like to talk about Superman?"
A chorus of voices from the Planet staff answered her. She continued smoothly, "And Superman, I can count on an interview from you, soon?"
"Careful," Clark said. "Whatever that thing is in your hand, there —" The item in question sizzled suddenly and a cloud of smoke arose from it. "— It's shorted out." He removed it from her grasp. "Maybe I'd better take it, before you get burned."
Lois had to hide a grin at the expression on the woman's face, but underneath the grin was worry. They now had their proof that Diana Stride was the person who had tagged Superman. The problem was, she was unlikely to cease her attempts to uncover his identity simply because he was aware of her scheme. The next try would simply be more subtle and that was scary.
Lois fidgeted. She was already regretting having done it, but it was too late to undo. Mayson Drake had hurried off to a meeting, and Lois and Clark were on their way back to the Daily Planet.
The Assistant DA hadn't been able to give them much information, so in a moment of weakness, while the woman's attention was distracted, Lois had stolen her pager.
Well, it wasn't the end of the world, she told herself. This wasn't the first time she'd skirted the law — but now, knowing what she knew about Clark, and the fact that he wasn't really interested in a closer relationship with Mayson Drake, she was experiencing completely unfamiliar qualms of conscience. If she had a real reason to dislike the woman, it would be a different matter, but the source of her dislike — yes, she conceded very privately, her jealousy — was gone. Mayson Drake disliked and distrusted Superman. Clark was Superman and, as such, could not pursue a closer relationship with her, even if he were of the mind to do so — which he wasn't. He had made it quite clear that he was in love with Lois, not Mayson, and wanted to pursue a relationship only with her.
But, what would he think of her after this stunt?
She had to admit that the thought bothered her, but she told herself that if Clark wanted her, he would have to take her as she was. She couldn't change to suit him and, to be fair, he hadn't asked her to. And it wasn't as if he'd never done something of the sort, himself. There were the times he'd taken that bottle of Miranda's pheromone-laced perfume from her boutique and that sample of Mentamide 5 from the office of Dr. Carlton, the neuropsychologist at the Beckworth School.
Still, he might regard this as a little different. Mayson had a crush on him and he didn't want to take advantage of the fact. On the other hand, he hadn't taken the pager. Lois had.
She was aware that she was rationalizing and splitting hairs but after all, they were reporters and had a job to do. In any case, before she said anything, she would have Jimmy trace the numbers in the little device's memory and see if any of them were promising. If none of them were, she didn't have to tell him. But, if something did turn up, she was going to have to. She couldn't do much sneaking around with this thing on her ankle.
"You're awfully quiet," Clark said, startling her. "Is something wrong?"
For a moment, she was irritated. Couldn't the man mind his own business? The she caught herself. Clark wasn't prying, at all; it was her own sense of guilt that was the problem. She shook her head.
"I was thinking. All we know is that the assassin is famous. Maybe we should check out which celebrity was in contact with each of the assassinated leaders shortly before they died. We might find a link."
"That's a pretty good idea," he said. "Jimmy should be able to do it without too much trouble." He pulled the Cherokee into the Planet's underground parking lot. "Wow, it's pretty crowded in here today."
"It's supposed to snow later," Lois said. "People don't want to walk through it when they get off work."
She saw him lower his glasses and turn his head, looking around. Then he turned the Jeep left down the aisle farthest from the elevator and a moment later had located a parking space at the very end of the row.
"Why do you lower your glasses like that?" she asked, as he pulled the Cherokee into the space.
He cut the engine. "I can use my special vision better without the glass in the way," he explained. "Sorry we're so far from the elevator. This was the last space in the lot."
"That's all right." She reached for the crutches, but he had already retrieved them and now walked around to her door to assist her to the ground. She positioned the crutches, leaving Clark to lock the Jeep, and started toward the elevator. He joined her almost at once, adjusting his steps to accommodate her slow progress on the crutches. Again, she felt a twinge of guilt.
As they reached the elevator, he raised his head. "Great."
"I'm hearing a bunch of sirens. I think Superman should check it out. Will you be all right on your own?"
"Clark, I'm fine. This isn't the first time I've been on crutches. Go on. Just don't forget to get the story, too."
"Okay." He paused, then leaned forward to give her a light kiss on the lips. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Bemused, Lois stood still, staring after him for several minutes until the chime of the arriving elevator broke her out of her trance. She boarded, still somewhat stunned, and punched the indicator for the newsroom floor. Wow! How could such a quick, almost casual gesture have such an effect on her? She'd been kissed by a number of men, some of them pretty thoroughly, but none of them could compare to that.
She'd been kissed by Clark before and she knew he — well, that he knew what he was doing. There had been the kiss on the plane, before Trask threw her out of it, and the one in the hotel room — but those had both been deceptions. Then, of course, there had been the goodbye kiss in the Planet, when he'd left — at the time Superman had believed he was causing the winter heat wave. That one had been real, but it had been for a different purpose. This one was pure affection, and it was — well, wow. In capital letters. Her heart was still beating a little fast.
The elevator slowed to a stop and the doors opened. She exited slowly and almost absently into the busy swirl of the newsroom.
"Lois! Where's Clark?" Perry's voice startled her into full awareness of the activity around her.
"Uh — he heard a bunch of sirens and went to see if there was a story. He'll be back as soon as he can."
"Oh — okay. Any progress on that other thing?"
"Maybe, Chief." She glanced around. "Jimmy, I need you to help me."
Jimmy, crossing the room with a stack of folders, nodded distractedly. "Be right there."
She worked her way down the steps. The ramp was a little much, considering her crutches. At her desk, she sank into her chair and opened her purse. Mayson's pager lay on top of the other contents, and she bit her lip. Should she use it? The temptation was strong, but…
She closed the purse. Maybe she wouldn't need to. Maybe they could go at this another way.
"Yeah, Lois?" Jimmy had arrived at her desk.
"Oh — uh, yeah. Jimmy, I need you to do some research for me. You know that list of political leaders you put together — the ones we think Intergang assassinated? I want you to get a list of the people who contacted them in the last day or so before they were killed. Anyone famous — not their wife or valet or anything. See if the same person shows up more than a few times. Got it?"
"Sure." Jimmy paused, looking more closely at her. "Are you okay, Lois?"
"Huh? Oh, sure. Clark and I were discussing this on the way back. Try to hurry, would you? If we're right, this may tell us who the assassin is."
Half an hour later, Clark stepped out of the elevator to find Lois and Jimmy both peering at her computer screen with an air of suppressed excitement. He hurried down into the Pit and across to Lois's desk.
"Hi, what's up?"
They glanced around at him, and Lois waved at her screen. "Jimmy came up with the answer, Clark. Take a look."
He leaned over the back of her chair. "What's this?"
"The list of the leaders probably assassinated by Intergang's top assassin," Jimmy said. "Look who interviewed each one of them within a day of their deaths. I can't believe it, but it does make sense — at least I guess it does. It's just hard to believe *she* would be involved with Intergang."
Clark read the list and felt his eyebrows climbing toward his hairline. "Diana Stride?"
"Yeah," Lois said. "I might not believe it, if that other — thing hadn't happened."
"What other thing?" Jimmy asked.
"Last night Diana Stride apparently tagged Superman with a radioactive marker," Clark said, absently.
"How do you know?" Jimmy asked.
"Professor Hamilton identified it," Lois said. "Then, she showed up this morning with that tracking device, looking for him."
"Why would she do a thing like that?" Jimmy asked, clearly puzzled.
"We don't know for certain," Lois said. "Evidently, she wants to be able to track him down, for some reason. Superman's worried, and so are we. If she's Intergang's assassin, it would make sense. They've made no secret that they'd like to get rid of him."
"That's for sure," Jimmy said. "If Mr. X can identify her, she's going to try to kill him."
"I'd say that's a given," Lois said.
"Do you think we should notify the police?" Jimmy asked.
Clark shook his head. "We don't have any proof, really; just a working theory. They're not likely to believe us. Besides, they already know Intergang's going to be after him — we wouldn't be telling them anything they don't know."
"Yeah," Jimmy agreed. "So, now what?"
"That's what we're going to decide," Lois said. "I wonder if we could get Superman to help. Protecting a witness ought to be right up his alley."
"Hey, that's an idea!" Jimmy said. He glanced at the clock. "Oops, gotta go, guys. I'm supposed to pick up the Chief's lunch at the deli in a few minutes."
"I don't think Mayson would go for that," Clark said after Jimmy had gone. "She doesn't trust Superman."
"I know. I can't figure out what her problem is," Lois said, irritably. "Superman's the biggest asset that law enforcement has ever had and she doesn't trust him. He's never hurt anyone, never interfered with the police; he's done nothing but good —"
"I think it's more basic than that," Clark said, very quietly. "Superman isn't human; he's an alien. He's powerful and she can't control him if he decides he doesn't want to be controlled. I think that underneath, she's afraid of him."
"Then, she's a bigot," Lois said, flatly. "*And* a fool."
"I'm sorry, Clark; I know she's your friend but I call them as I see them. She's letting her professional objectivity be influenced by her emotions. She's as biased as any racist on the planet."
"Not exactly. She isn't a racist — she just doesn't trust Superman."
"Then, she's a speciesist and that's just as bad! Superman is a good, trustworthy man, human or not. If she can't see that…"
Lois was genuinely angry, Clark thought, although he shouldn't have been surprised. He saw Ralph give them an odd look, and decided it might be a good idea to change the subject. He reached out and covered her hand with his. "It doesn't matter what Mayson thinks of Superman," he said, so softly that only she could hear him. "The only thing that matters to him is what *you* think of him." He removed his hand and raised his voice to a normal level. "Anyway, regardless of that, we better decide what to do about Diana Stride."
"Kent!" Perry's voice rose over the ever-present noise in the busy room. "Did you get that story you were after?"
He sighed. "Yeah, Chief. I'll write it up and have it to you in a few minutes."
Lois gave a soft laugh. "Go write," she said. "We'll figure it out later."
Lois watched her partner head for his desk and begin to type. Her head was still reeling from the way his quiet statement had brought her up short and stopped her anger in its tracks. He'd said it in so many words; it was her opinion that mattered to him, not Mayson's. He, Clark Kent, aka Superman, was in love with her, Lois Lane. Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced at her bag where it lay on the floor under her desk. How could she possibly admit that she'd taken the pager, now? She couldn't. He'd certainly be disappointed in her. She'd just mail it back to Mayson Drake anonymously and if the woman asked her about it, she would simply deny all knowledge of it. That would be the end of the matter.
Clark was leaning forward, reading what he had written. She saw him make a correction and got to her feet to stroll over to his desk. He glanced up at her as she leaned over his shoulder.
"What do you think of it?"
"Not bad. Good quote from Superman."
"I thought so." He LANned it to Perry and swiveled his chair around. "Maybe we should adjourn to the conference…" He broke off. "Oh, no."
"Pileup on the parkway. It's sleeting out there, and —"
"Say no more. Go."
When Clark returned, there was no sign of Lois in the newsroom. He listened with his super-hearing, but her heartbeat wasn't anywhere in the building. On the off chance that she could have left him a note, he checked his desk but there was, of course, nothing. It wasn't really a surprise.
The fact that she had a cast on one ankle made it unlikely she'd be trying to follow Diana Stride, but on the other hand, this was Lois Lane. He wouldn't put anything past his partner when she was on the trail of a hot story — especially now, when she had the added incentive of trying to protect him from a possible Intergang assassin. He glanced around. "Hey, Eduardo! Have you seen Lois?"
The man frowned. "I think she left about two hours ago, Clark. She took Olsen with her. Didn't say where she was going, though."
Clark glanced at his watch. It was past six. Where were they?
For an instant he considered calling her and asking where she was but rejected the impulse at once. Not only could it interrupt her at a possibly hazardous time, but the last thing Lois needed was for him to start smothering her with protectiveness. He knew very well that one of the most important things in her life was her independence. He had to remind himself, fairly frequently, that he shouldn't try to make decisions for her. The habit was a difficult one to resist, though. As Superman, he had to constantly make choices like that for other people — choices like who lived and who died. He hated such decisions, but there were the inevitable times when he had to employ them. He couldn't be everywhere or do everything. Sometimes there were no good choices, but they still had to be made. It was times like that when he would replay in his head the thing that Lois had told him, not long after he became Superman: "What he can't do…it doesn't matter. It's the idea of Superman. Someone to believe in. Someone to build a few hopes around. Whatever he *can* do: it's enough."
Maybe it was, but making such decisions wasn't fun. He didn't need to extend the necessity to his personal life — especially with the woman he loved and wanted to marry. There were plenty of times when he thought she was making the wrong choice but, in his more rational moments, he was well aware that if he tried to make those choices for her, he would be making a potentially fatal error in regards to their relationship. It was when danger threatened her that the impulse was incredibly hard to withstand. So far he'd managed to resist it.
Well, what should he do? Reluctantly, he recognized that, short of calling her on her cellular phone, the only things he could do was to wait, or possibly go looking for her. She could hardly complain that he was being overprotective if he did that.
At that instant, his super-hearing clicked in with a vengeance and he lifted his head abruptly at the heavy echoes of an explosion that reverberated in his ears, followed almost instantly by a shout of warning from a very familiar voice. Ignoring Eduardo's surprised look, he turned on his heel and made a beeline for the stairs. He didn't hear Perry's voice calling his name from the door of his office, or even Ralph's quip to the sports editor about Kent having forgotten to return another library book. As he darted through the door, he heard a sound from the same area as the explosion that raised the hair on the back of his neck: four shots from a silenced handgun. The door hadn't even completely closed when a sonic boom shook the air above the Daily Planet. Superman had had a sudden harrowing premonition. If Lois wasn't in the middle of trouble, he was the Easter Bunny.
Driving the Cherokee with a cast on her foot was harder than she'd thought. Lois maneuvered slowly down the narrow, dirt road that Jimmy had indicated Diana Stride had taken, working to be certain she didn't put too much pressure on the accelerator with the clumsy thing. Roaring her motor wasn't a good idea at the moment. Diana Stride would be certain to notice. Of course, driving with only her parking lights on was a bit dangerous, but it was worth the risk if the woman led her to Mr. X's safe house.
Where was Jimmy? He'd followed Diana Stride from her penthouse, some forty-five minutes ago, to this God-forsaken place in the country. The kid must be practically riding in her back pocket. She hoped he was careful. If they were right about Diana Stride, then the woman was a killer. If she thought Jimmy had any idea about what she was up to, she'd dispose of him without compunction.
If she had been thinking, she'd have left a note for Clark. Having Superman for backup would have been reassuring, but he'd been very much occupied trying to clear up that mess on the parkway. He was probably still busy and this wouldn't wait.
Back at the Planet, she had discussed the problem with Jimmy, since Perry had included him in the investigation because of his computer skills. It had actually been Jimmy's idea that he should stake out the woman's Ferrari, and follow her on his motorcycle if she went anywhere. He'd promised to phone Lois at once if Diana Stride looked like she was going somewhere important. Lois had been doubtful, but she'd gone along with it. After all, they had to find their proof somehow. She'd taken the time to drop by the post office and mail the pager back to Mayson Drake, glad to have the temptation out of her hands. Now, however, she was wishing for that super backup that her partner could have provided.
This was silly! She had been an investigative reporter for several years before she met Clark and had managed to deal with dangerous situations before. Having Superman to pull her out of them if they went wrong was convenient but not really necessary.
Except, that small and highly irritating voice in the back of her mind pointed out, that since the advent of Superman and the acquisition of a partner, she sometimes wasn't as careful to plan ahead as she used to be. That was something she needed to work on. She couldn't always count on Superman being available to bail her out if the need arose. What if he was in Lower Mongolia, dealing with an earthquake or something when she needed help?
The precipitation had slowed to a light mist, accompanied by the occasional snowflake, thank goodness, she observed as the Cherokee crept along the narrow road. The sun had almost set and here, driving between the trees, it was getting pretty dark. Overhead, no stars were visible, however, because of the thick cloud cover. Parking lights really weren't adequate to handle it, and anyway, she needed to turn them off. Up ahead, there was a hint of light between the trees — a house, she thought with a thrill of combined excitement and apprehension.
At the thought, there was the faint glint of her parking lights reflecting off wet metal just ahead and to the right of her, and she braked to a stop, at the same instant dousing her lights.
She sat still for a long moment, letting her eyes adjust to the lower level of illumination. The object ahead was a car, she realized, a low-slung sports model that had been parked far off the road. With care, Lois put her vehicle in reverse and backed up a good twenty feet. Then, with equal caution, she pulled far onto the other side of the road, wincing as she heard the scrape of wet branches against the sides of her beloved Jeep. Still, she didn't want anyone returning to the other car to notice her. Fortunately, the underbrush here was fairly thick, and she maneuvered the Cherokee tightly in behind a mass of thorny bushes before cutting the engine.
Slowly, leaving her bag behind, she opened the passenger door and slid out, pulling the crutches with her. Trying to walk on crutches in this stuff was asking for trouble, but she wanted a look at the other car. Moving with great caution, she worked her way out from behind the brush, stopping several times to disentangle hair and clothing from the grasping thorns, and made her way across the rutted dirt road to the sports car.
It was a Ferrari, she saw. The license plate had been obscured with smears of mud, but Lois was ready for that. The lace handkerchief her mother had sent her from Paris last year as a so-called birthday present (even though it had arrived four months late) made a convenient rag to wipe away the soil so she could see the number. The faint glow of the moon behind the blanket of cloud cover, gave her enough light to copy it down on the back of an envelope that she'd tucked in her jacket pocket, intending to mail. It was a New Troy plate, she noted, without surprise, and shoved the envelope back into the pocket. She could have Jimmy check the number later, but she was willing to bet that this was Diana Stride's car.
Slowly, she turned back toward the Jeep. It went against the grain not to be exploring ahead, trying to see what she could see, but on crutches she would be slow and clumsy, unable to run if she was discovered. This one time she was going to have to rely on Jimmy.
Glancing over her shoulder at the lights of the house, she hesitated. Would it hurt just to go openly down the road toward the place? If she seemed to be an innocent passerby, perhaps with engine trouble, shouldn't that be all right?
Slowly, but far less reluctantly, she turned and started down the road toward the glow of light.
The road was only dimly visible and she didn't dare take out her penlight, even if both her hands hadn't been occupied. The chilly mist drifted down, and she soon discovered that trying to maneuver with a pair of crutches on the rutted surface was harder than it had at first seemed — especially considering that it had been sleeting a short time before and the ground was semi-liquid in spots. The crutches had a tendency to slide, and more than once she put down her good foot, only to discover that the surface squished or splashed beneath it. In no time at all, her leg was coated in icy mud halfway to the knee, her shoe was thick with the stuff, and she was seriously re-evaluating the wisdom of this particular move.
Darn it! Why couldn't the weather cooperate, just once, she grumbled to herself as she slipped and slid her awkward way down the muddy road. It was supposed to be early spring, for heaven's sake! Last weekend had been bright and sunny, and the trees had been putting out new leaves for weeks, but the latest cold snap had brought snow and sleet with it, which was naturally keeping Superman busy, and she could sure use him right now. Her foot came down in another puddle, and she gasped as the icy mud made its way over the top of her shoe — again — and oozed down inside. She was probably going to have to throw the pair away after this, she reflected, grimly but if she got the story on Mr. X it would be worth it.
She rounded a turn in the road, and before her was an open space. To her right, a swampy body of water filled what would otherwise have been the front yard of a modest house. A curtained window glowed with muted lighting, and she could see the dim form of a man in camouflage gear as he crossed in front of it, walking a slow path around the perimeter of the building. She paused in the shadow of the shrubbery to catch her breath and make up her mind what to do next. Tendrils of mist curled in the air, cold and clammy on her skin.
From the branches of the tree above her, there was the sudden fluttering of wings, and water showered onto her head. Caught off guard, she gasped and flinched away from the small torrent of icy liquid, lost her balance and pitched sideways into the wet, thorny growth that edged the road. At the same instant, from somewhere ahead and to her left, there were the muted sounds of a short, violent scuffle.
She struggled and tore her way free of the thorns, unsure of what she had just heard. One of her crutches lay in the muddy road; the other had disappeared in the darkness. On hands and knees in the mud, she distinctly heard the clink of metal, a faint, high squeal and an odd popping noise. Then, she ducked involuntarily at the burst of sound and the flash of light that crossed the space directly ahead of her. The front window exploded in flames.
Breathless and paralyzed, she saw the front door of the house fly open and three men rush out. From somewhere she heard a voice — Jimmy's, she realized belatedly — yelling a warning. For an instant, she saw him, thirty feet ahead, a black silhouette against the pale lighting. Then there was the sound of four shots from a silenced handgun. Jimmy went down, and she saw the men by the house crouched on the ground. Then, there was a characteristic whoosh that marked the arrival of Superman.
Somewhere, she heard the sound of someone retreating through the shrubbery. Superman took off again, carrying the form of one of the men, and she crawled forward to the spot where Jimmy lay on the ground.
He wasn't moving, she saw, and for a terrible moment she thought he was dead. Then she realized he was breathing.
"Jimmy?" she whispered.
He didn't answer. Desperate, she dragged the penlight from her jacket pocket and flashed it over him.
He was bleeding, she saw, and a patch of blood was soaking the back of his jacket. "Jimmy?" Lois pushed herself to a sitting position and shouted at the top of her voice. "Help! Somebody help!"
"How is he?"
Lois looked up as Perry White entered the waiting room. Clark put a hand on hers and squeezed it lightly. "He's in surgery, Chief. The doctors say he's got a fighting chance."
Perry dropped onto the sofa next to Lois, not even blinking at her muddy clothes. "What happened? You said on the phone that he was trailing Diana Stride?"
Lois nodded. "We both were. I was following behind him in the Cherokee. We were at the government safe house and saw the attempt to kill the government witness. I guess he tried to warn the police."
"Lois, that was a hell of a crazy risk!" Perry exploded. "You both could have been killed!"
"I know." Lois clenched her hands in her lap, fighting back tears. "I didn't know he was going to do that. I told him when we started not to take any chances."
She saw Perry and Clark exchange a glance, but neither commented. Her boss cleared his throat. "Tell me what happened."
Slowly, her voice almost a monotone, she recounted the events of the past couple of hours. When she had finished, her boss cleared his throat, again. "So, you're sure it was Diana Stride?"
"I'm sure, Chief. I didn't see her, but she's the one Jimmy was trailing."
"So, Jimmy could identify her."
"Well — yes. Probably." She saw Perry and Clark exchange another glance. "What?"
"The government witness is in a coma," Clark said. "There's a bullet lodged next to his heart, and the doctors can't operate until he stabilizes. He won't be able to testify for weeks — but Jimmy might be able to, if he survives."
"In other words, he can identify the assassin," Lois whispered.
"Exactly." Mayson Drake's voice spoke from the doorway. The assistant DA crossed the room and took a seat across from the three journalists. "I want to know how you found my witness."
Normally, Lois would have bristled, but after the events of the evening she was in no mood to fight. "We had reasons to be suspicious of Diana Stride," she said. "Jimmy discovered that every head of state who was assassinated had been interviewed by her within 24 hours of his death. We staked out her car and Jimmy followed her on his motorcycle."
"How did you get there?" Mayson asked, glancing at the cast on Lois's ankle.
"He let me know where he was going by cell phone," Lois said. "I followed his directions. Here." She pulled the now-muddy envelope from her pocket. "I copied this license number from a car that was parked on the road that led to the house. Odds are it's hers."
Mayson took the envelope. "I'll have it checked," she said. "You never actually saw Diana Stride, though."
"No," Lois said. "Only Jimmy saw her. At least, I think he did."
"That makes him a witness," Perry said. "If he can identify the shooter —"
The woman nodded curtly. "I'm putting him under guard, along with Mr. X."
"You think he's in danger?" Lois asked.
Mayson didn't smile. "What do you think, Lois? Of course he is." She added, "If it hadn't been for his warning, we might have lost our government witness. You can bet Intergang knows who he is by now. And you, too."
Lois shrugged, irritably. "I didn't see anything the others didn't see," she said, "and I've told you everything I know. I'm no danger to them."
"Maybe not." Mayson spread the envelope out and began to copy the scribbled number. "They may not be so sure of that, however. Here." She handed Lois the crumpled and dirty envelope. "You'll want your electric bill back." She glanced at Clark. "Where were you in all this?"
"I was covering the chain-reaction accident on the parkway."
Mayson got to her feet, saying something under her breath about at least one of them having some sense. "I'll talk to you tomorrow. I assume you'll be staying here until Olsen is out of surgery?"
Clark nodded. "Of course."
"Then, I'd better warn you about the reporters. They've somehow gotten word of what happened. There's a mob of them outside waiting for you. Superman already spoke to them, but they're still hanging around."
"Don't worry about that," Perry said, a glint of anger in his eyes. "I'll handle them."
Mayson nodded, then seemed to think of something. "By the way, when we spoke earlier today, did either of you happen to see my pager?"
"No," Clark said.
Lois simply shook her head, biting her lip. "Did the doctors say anything to you about Jimmy?" she asked.
"Not much." Mayson was watching her closely. "They think he'll make it. I certainly hope he does, for more than one reason." She glanced at Clark. "In the meantime, I'm asking you both as a personal favor to me to stay away from Diana Stride. If she *is* the one we're after, I don't want her to possibly be tipped off in any way. Is that clear?"
"Yes," Clark said.
"Good." Mayson turned and walked briskly away.
It was past two when Clark took Lois home.
Jimmy was out of surgery, and the doctors had assured his three waiting friends that he was out of danger, more or less awake and resting as comfortably as possible. Perry had been allowed a visit that lasted for all of thirty seconds, just to reassure them all, and to let a very drowsy Jimmy know that his friends were rooting for him, and then the staff had shooed him out.
By the time they left the waiting room, there were only five or six reporters left in the hall outside and Perry's annoyed bark made them instinctively back off. Even the guy from the National Whisper seemed to be unwilling to approach the Planet's editor-in-chief.
"Nice work, Chief," Clark observed as they exited from the lobby, walking slowly to accommodate Lois's crutches. She glanced back over her shoulder to assure herself that they weren't being followed. They weren't.
Perry smiled, grimly. "Comes from practice." He looked Lois over with concern. "Are you all right, honey?"
"Sure, Perry." It had been an exhausting evening and Lois could barely keep her eyes open, but she wasn't going to admit that. "I'm just glad Jimmy's going to make it."
"Yeah." Perry glanced around the hospital's parking lot. "Where's your Jeep?"
"Still out on the dirt road, I guess, along with Jimmy's motorcycle. Superman flew both of us here."
"Superman said he took it to your place when he went back for your crutches, Lois," Clark interjected. "I think he got Jimmy's motorcycle, too."
"That was considerate of him," Perry said. "In that case, let me give you both a ride home. There's a blanket in the back to cover the seat with, if you want. Most of the mud's probably dried by now, anyway."
"Oh, Chief, I don't want to mess up your car…"
"If I was worried about my car, I wouldn't offer you the ride." He led the way across the lot. "Come on, honey. Where are you going to get a taxi at this hour?"
Lois was too tired to argue. Perry unlocked the latch on the passenger side and started to open the door. Clark caught his hand.
"Let me check something, sir."
Perry frowned, but stepped back. Clark went around to open the hood of the car and lean over the engine. An instant later he straightened up. "Chief, you better call the cops. There's something in here that looks like a bomb."
"*What*?" Their boss sounded more outraged than afraid, but he didn't argue. A short time later, the Metropolis bomb squad was swarming around the editor's car. The man in charge, a Captain Weems, stood back while his experts disarmed and removed the device. Lois fanned at the smoke from his cigar, but didn't complain.
"Yep, it's a bomb, all right," the man said clinically, knocking ashes onto the pavement. "Looks like a pretty standard car bomb. You done something to tick off anyone, recently, Mr. White?"
"I'm a newspaper editor," Perry said. "What do you think?"
"Huh. Well, I'd say somebody doesn't like you, much." The man turned to give directions to a young woman who stood nearby with a briefcase in her hands. She nodded and went over to join the crowd of men around the hood of the car. He turned back to the trio of reporters. "Jackie's going to dust for prints. Chances are, whoever he was, he didn't leave any, but you never know. We'll be done in about fifteen minutes and you can have your car."
It was closer to twenty minutes later that the bomb squad departed and the three of them were able to get into the car. Clark spread the blanket over the passenger seat, helped Lois into it and climbed into the back. Perry hesitated a moment, then started the engine. It came to life with a purr, and he let out his breath. "Looks like there aren't any more surprises," he commented, starting to back out of the parking space. "Thanks for bein' on your toes, Clark."
"No problem," Clark said. "I thought it would be a good idea to check, just in case. Intergang might have figured Lois would hitch a ride home with you."
"Yeah." Perry concentrated on getting them out of the lot. "Lois, I want you to be careful. If Clark's right, they've decided they can do without you. Maybe you should come stay in my guest room tonight."
Clark spoke up. "Why don't you just drop us at my place, Chief? She can stay there, until we're sure it's safe."
Lois started to protest, but Clark added, quickly, "It's up to you, of course, Lois, but I'd feel better if you weren't at your apartment tonight. You never know what they'll try."
"You stayed there when Kyle Griffin was after you," Clark pointed out, "and this is more of a threat than he was."
"I guess." She yawned widely, covering it with the back of her hand. "You're right."
"Good," Perry said. "Better check your place, too, Clark."
"I will," Clark assured him. "It looks to me like Intergang is pretty worried."
"Or their assassin is," Perry said. "If it *is* Diana Stride, there's no telling what she'll do next."
When Perry pulled up in front of Clark's apartment, he turned to Lois and paused. "I thought she'd gotten awfully quiet," he observed. Clark chuckled softly. He'd been aware for the past fifteen minutes that his partner was sound asleep.
"Think I ought to wake her up or just carry her?" he whispered.
Perry grinned. "Your call." The grin faded. "I'm glad she's staying with you tonight, Clark, but you watch yourself, too. If they're after her, you could wind up in the crossfire."
"Don't worry, Chief. I can take care of myself — and her," Clark assured him. "You just be careful getting home — although you're probably a lot safer without Mad Dog Lane in your car."
Perry stifled a laugh. "You're probably right. You two take the morning off tomorrow. It's been a busy night. I'm going to give the hospital a call in the morning to see how Jimmy's doing."
"They may not tell you anything if Mayson puts him under guard," Clark pointed out. "Lois and I will probably drop over there tomorrow morning before we come in to work."
"Okay. Be careful, though. Until Intergang is sure Lois doesn't know anything, she's going to be a target."
"I know. Trust me, Chief."
"I do," Perry said. "And I don't say that about many people. 'Night, Clark."
It was the indirect glow of sunlight coming through the window that woke Lois. She turned over and buried her face in the pillow. The alarm hadn't gone off, yet, so that meant she could go back to sleep for a few minutes before she had to get up.
She had almost drifted off to sleep again, when her sense of smell picked up the scent of freshly brewed coffee and frying bacon. She opened her eyes.
She was in Clark's bedroom, in his bed. After a moment of shock, she took in the fact that the other side of the bed hadn't had an occupant. Pushing back the covers, she discovered that she was wearing oversized sweats, and further investigation revealed that her underclothes were firmly in place. She blushed at the thought of Clark having put her into her night clothing, but he would hardly have wanted her to sleep in his bed with that much mud caked onto her other things.
Come to think of it, where were they? — not that she wanted to wear them.
She sat up, yawning and looking around. Her clothes of yesterday were nowhere to be seen, but one of her other outfits was lying neatly on a chair. Clark must have raided her apartment, she thought, and giggled to herself at the thought. If she knew her partner, rummaging in her lingerie drawer had probably caused him acute embarrassment.
But, no. A paper bag, stapled shut, sat innocuously on the floor beside the chair, and the printing on the bag identified it as having come from Teresa's Clothing Emporium in Smallville. Emporium? Smallville didn't have anything large enough to be called an emporium, if she recalled correctly. Still, Clark almost certainly had asked his mother to purchase the more intimate items of ladies' apparel for him. Which raised another matter. What on Earth must Martha have thought?
Deciding to table the subject before it became a full fledged mental babble, she slid her feet over the edge of the bed, noting as she did so that her cast had been cleaned, and so had the crutches that leaned against the wall next to the bed. Clark was nothing if not thorough, she reflected, reaching for them.
There was a soft knock on the partition that divided the bedroom from the living space. Clark's voice said, "Lois? Are you decent?"
"More or less." She glanced around as Clark appeared, a cup of coffee in his hand.
"How did you sleep?" he asked.
"Not bad," she said. "What happened to my clothes?"
"They're in Smallville," he said. "Mom promised to take care of them for you."
"Clark, you didn't! What will your Mom think?"
"I explained it to her over the phone," he said. "I dropped them off this morning when I picked up the — um — things she bought for you."
"This morning? What time is it?"
"A few minutes to twelve." He nodded at the small clock on the nightstand. "Perry told me to let you sleep in." He added, "In case you're worried, I put the sweats on you before I pulled off the muddy things. I —"
Naturally, she thought, although that must have taken some gymnastics on his part. She chuckled. "Boy scout. You've seen me in a bikini at the company picnic."
"Well, yeah, but it's not the same." He was definitely blushing. "Anyway, I brought you coffee, and breakfast will be ready when you are."
"Okay — wait a minute! How did you know my size?"
This time, he raised an eyebrow. "I'm pretty good at guessing — and as you pointed out, I *was* at the company picnic."
"Oh. I didn't think you noticed."
He set the coffee cup down on the little table. "I always noticed you, Lois — from the day we met. I couldn't help it. Remember when you told me not to fall for you?"
"You were too late. As a matter of fact, you would have been too late about two seconds after you barged in on my interview. It was right then that I knew I had to stay in Metropolis."
"Oh." There wasn't much she could say to that.
He started for the living room. "There's a toothbrush in the bag, too. And a hairbrush and comb, and so forth. Take your time."
Getting clean took more time than she anticipated. Clark didn't have a tub, but he'd put a large, plastic bag on the towel rack, along with a roll of adhesive tape, which allowed her to cover the cast long enough to take a thorough shower and wash her hair. When she finally emerged into the kitchen, clean and dressed, she saw that Clark had been as good as his word. A hot breakfast awaited her on the table and Clark was pouring her a second cup of coffee as she made her appearance. He looked up with a smile. "Nonfat creamer and Sweet n' Lo, just like at the office. Right?"
She nodded and slipped into the chair he held for her. He must have kept track of her with his super-hearing, she thought, to have such superb timing. There were definitely advantages to having Superman for a partner.
He set a bowl of chopped fruit on the table, and a plate of already buttered toast. "Would you like anything else?" he inquired.
"No, this is fine." As a matter of fact, it was about twice as much as she usually ate, but she didn't say so. "Did you check out my apartment for bombs?" she asked.
He nodded. "There wasn't anything — yet, anyway," he said. "Still, we need to do something to convince the assassin that you didn't see anything — although I'm not sure what. Otherwise you're going to be in danger until Jimmy or Mr. X testifies."
Lois swallowed a mouthful of scrambled eggs. Clark was definitely some cook, all right. Her scrambled eggs always wound up dry, tasteless and sometimes scorched. "This is delicious." She took a sip of coffee, fixed just as she liked it, except that the coffee was of a far better quality than the kind in the coffee machine at work. "I really don't see how we can convince her, though," she said, reverting to the other subject. "I mean, even if I advertise to the whole world that I didn't see anything, she probably won't believe it. I mean, Sebastian Finn didn't believe I hadn't seen him murder Dr. Winninger. Or, at least, he wasn't willing to take the risk." She stopped. "You *did* save my life that night in front of my apartment, didn't you?"
"When you said someone had shot at me and I didn't believe you, remember? I asked you what you had in your hands."
"Oh, that. Yeah."
"And I thought you were just being a nuisance. I should have known better. Have you checked on Jimmy this morning?"
"They wouldn't give me any information by phone, but Superman dropped by and made sure he was doing all right. He's awake, but they have him doped up on a lot of painkillers. I told him you and I would be by later."
"But they're sure he's going to make it, aren't they?"
"Barring any unforeseen complications, yes."
"Or assassins," Lois said. "We need to trap her."
"I know, but we're going to have to be careful. Remember, Mayson asked us to stay away from her."
"If she'll let us. She's after Superman, too, remember?"
"How could I forget?" He scowled into his cup of coffee. "This is getting more complicated all the time."
"Well, she tagged you when you rescued her, before. One thing Superman shouldn't do is be alone with her. I don't trust her an inch."
"Neither do I, but I'll be on my guard the next time."
"Clark, I don't want you anywhere near her!"
He regarded her with a smile. "I thought I was supposed to be protecting you."
Lois glared at him. "We're protecting each other, and don't you forget it!"
"Okay," he said, mildly. "You're right, of course. But I want you to promise you won't go after her by yourself, either."
She scowled at him. "Just so long as we're both clear on the subject."
"Hey, guys, thanks for the flowers." Jimmy smiled drowsily at Lois and Clark. "I'm sorry I caused all that trouble."
"It's okay," Lois assured him. "Next time, though, remember you're not Superman."
"Yeah, no kidding," Jimmy said. He blinked vaguely at them. "How long do I have to stay here, anyway?"
"Until you're recovered enough from the surgery," Clark said. "You should probably enjoy the vacation while you have the chance. At least the Planet is paying all your bills."
"I'll bet Perry's mad," Jimmy said. "Was he here? I sort of remember…"
"Yes, he was," Lois said. "But, he's not mad. Jimmy, did you see the shooter?"
Jimmy yawned, his eyes beginning to close. "Yeah," he said. "I saw her."
"*Her*?" Lois repeated. "Who was it?"
Jimmy didn't answer. He started to snore softly.
"I don't think you're going to get any more information from him right now" Clark said.
"I guess not," Lois said. "We know who he's talking about, anyway. We need to find some way to catch her."
"We'll think of something," Clark said. "Maybe we can talk to Jimmy this evening. He'll be more awake by then."
"How do you know?"
He tapped an ear. "I heard the doctor talking about putting him on a milder painkiller."
"Oh," Lois said. "Intergang probably knows that, too."
"They might. They've got eyes everywhere. And ears."
"She's going to be after him, as well as Mr. X."
"I know." He glanced at Jimmy, now slumbering peacefully. "Let's go talk about this somewhere else, shall we?"
"Probably a good idea," Lois said. "We have to get to work sometime today."
They exited the hospital room in silence. The police guard at the door looked them over, expressionlessly.
"You know," Lois said, suddenly, "I'd like to take a look at her place while she's at work."
She ignored his tone. "We know what she's up to. If she's after Jimmy and Mr. X — and Superman, too — there might be some kind of evidence, or preparations, or —"
He rang for the elevator. "I suppose if I won't go along with it, you'll go on your own, cast or no cast, right?"
"I didn't get to be the Planet's top investigative reporter by letting a little thing like a broken ankle slow me down."
Clark heaved a deep, resigned sigh. "Okay. When?"
"Now is as good a time as ever."
"Fine. Let's get this over with."
The penthouse where Diana Stride lived was a high-security dwelling, with guards and security cameras galore. Clark and Lois avoided the pitfalls by the simple expedient of landing on the balcony outside the newswoman's living room. Lois inserted a credit card between the French windows to undo the latch.
"There!" she announced as they drifted inside and her partner set her down on the thick, immaculate carpet. "When I think of all the places we could have gotten into if I'd known about your powers months ago…"
"We *did* get into places because of my powers," Clark said. "How do you think I got us into Bureau 39's warehouse, back when we first met Trask?"
Lois cocked her head thoughtfully at him. "I hadn't thought about that, but it figures. Okay, let's look this place over."
Diana Stride's penthouse apartment was both beautiful and elegantly understated. A small alcove to one side of the living area held a graceful desk of cherry wood. Lois nodded at it. "That looks like the first place to check out."
Clark strode across the rug to the desk and began opening drawers, checking the contents and replacing them precisely as they had been. Lois moved more slowly to the desk and stood by, watching her partner moving at about twice normal speed as he worked. She shook her head slightly.
The bottom drawer yielded a small, cardboard box and as he reached for it, she saw him pause and then pull his hand back, frowning.
"What is it?"
"I…I don't know. My hand feels like it's burning."
Her mental alarm bells were sounding. "Get back," she said, reaching for it. Clark hesitated and then obeyed. Lois opened the box.
For a moment, she was puzzled. The object looked like a tube of lipstick. Slowly, she removed the cap, and the mystery was solved. The "lipstick" was green, impregnated with tiny, almost invisible specks of a sparkling, green, crystalline substance.
"Is this what I think it is?" she asked.
He moved closer, then backed away. "Kryptonite."
Lois looked at the thing in her hand and then closed it quickly. "Clark, can you go get me a tube of green makeup of the same size?"
"What are you going to do?"
"I want to replace this stuff with something a little less dangerous. Then, let's see what Diana does with it."
"Good idea. I'll be right back." He was gone in a flash.
She hoped he wouldn't take long. If Diana Stride came back, she didn't want to be caught here. Slowly, she moved over to one of the chairs, sat down and began to examine what she held.
From the outside, it looked like an ordinary lipstick, with a monogrammed gold case. Lois tugged at it experimentally. The case came off easily enough, and she wrapped the tube containing the Kryptonite-laced lipstick in a discarded tissue before tucking it into her purse. It didn't seem to have had as severe an effect on Clark as the piece they had encountered last week, courtesy of Nigel St. John, but perhaps that was because it was blended with the waxy paste. Why on Earth would Diana Stride want a tube of Kryptonite lipstick?
She didn't like where that question led. If they were correct in their assumption that the woman was an assassin for Intergang, then the reason was pretty clear, even if the exact method might be in doubt. Superman had been a thorn in Intergang's side for a long time. Eliminating him was undoubtedly a very much-desired goal. Whether it was by way of exposing his other identity, or simply killing him, Diana Stride appeared to be out to do just that.
A gust of air announced the return of her partner. Clark emerged from a small whirlwind and crossed the rug to her, a tube of green-colored lipstick in his hand. Lois raised an eyebrow at it, but took the proffered item. She'd seen people wearing this stuff, and always thought it looked a little strange, but it was just what she needed. Quickly, she pulled off the plastic case and thrust the tube down into the gold one. "How's that?"
"Pretty good," was Clark's judgement. "It looks just like the other one."
It did seem to be. She twisted the tube to extend the lipstick. "How did you make it sparkle like that?"
"I used my heat vision to blend in some micro-crystalline quartz," he explained, looking smug.
"Good thinking." She handed the tube back to him. "Here, put this back, and we can —" She broke off as she saw him lift his head. "What?"
There was the rattle of a key in the door lock.
Clark moved in a blur. In an instant, they were in the bedroom, and the tube of lipstick had vanished.
"Where is it?" she whispered.
"Where it belongs. Shh!"
Lois could hear the sounds of the outer door opening and then closing again. Clark, standing beside her, had his glasses pushed down his nose and was apparently staring intently at the bedroom door. Even in the tension of the moment, she recalled the incident a few months previously when she had pretended to be a maintenance tech, sent to repair a copy machine at Viologic. Clark had accompanied her, and she recalled him staring at a blank wall in exactly that manner — undoubtedly watching someone on the other side, and listening to a conversation she hadn't been able to hear.
And yet, for all his incredible abilities — abilities that would have let him run rings around her when it came to bringing in scoops on his own, had he chosen to do so — he'd never used the fact that he was Superman to beat her out of a story.
Except once. The thought intruded suddenly, and she felt her face growing heated with shame.
It had not been long after Clark joined the staff at the Planet. She'd still thought of him as a hick, a dull-witted hayseed who couldn't land a decent story to save his life. She'd been single-mindedly after the scoop on Superman, and had traded on his trust to steal his story about the double rescue that Superman performed that day.
Lois felt her face growing warmer, and knew that if she were to look in the mirror, her cheeks would be scarlet. Her behavior had been abominable; she'd known that at the time but admitting it to Clark hadn't been an option back then. A few days later, however, she found out the hard way that her estimation of Clark Kent had been in error — to say the least. He had gotten the Superman interview, of course — all he had to do was to interview himself. She could hardly blame him now for having been unwilling to give it to her, and she would never, to the end of her days, forget those hours at the sewage reclamation facility — or the Godzilla doll. He'd punished her for her breach of journalistic etiquette, and he'd done it with style. Country boy he might be, but he was neither stupid nor afraid to stand up for himself. She respected him from that day on and after her sense of pique had subsided, had actually begun to like him. He'd never mentioned the incident again.
He moved suddenly, startling her out of her recollections. She felt herself scooped up in his arms, and an instant later, they were floating outside the bedroom window of the penthouse. Clark gently closed the glass, and then headed straight up, the crutches dangling awkwardly from the hand under her knees.
Lois caught her breath. "Wow!"
"Sorry. She was on her way toward the bedroom. I figured I'd better get us out of there."
"You figured right. What was going on in there?"
He gave her a faint grin. "The first thing she did was go get the lipstick." He looked at her face and one eyebrow went up. "Is something wrong, Lois? You're blushing."
"No," she lied. "Nothing. You were saying?"
"Well, after she got the lipstick, she turned on her television set — only it was more like a videophone, or something. She was talking to the guy on the screen. From the conversation, I'd say he's some kind of middle management with Intergang."
"What did he look like?"
He shrugged. "Just a guy. But she apparently sent them a 'device' to be worked on. It's supposed to be ready by tomorrow."
"That thing you zapped yesterday?"
"Could be. Let's get back to the Planet. I'd like to get rid of that thing you put in your purse. It stings."
Lois held the purse a few inches farther away from him. "I think we should take it to Professor Hamilton."
"You're thinking clearer than I am. You're right. Professor Hamilton it is."
"Hmm…" Emil Hamilton examined the small tube of green lipstick with its tiny Kryptonite granules. "This is quite an unusual item. At a guess, I'd say it wasn't manufactured by a legitimate cosmetics company. At least not as part of their regular production line. You say you believe that the ingredients include Kryptonite?"
"Take it from me, Professor," Clark said, "it's there. We want to know what else is in it and if possible who might have manufactured it."
The little man shook his head. "All right, I'll do my best, Superman. But, what use would someone have for Kryptonite lipstick?"
Lois shrugged. "Not a good one," she said. "Someone tagged Superman with a radioactive marker the other night, if you remember. We think it was the same person who had this."
Hamilton fiddled with his glasses. "Would it be presumptuous if I were to say that this whole episode makes me very nervous? I can't think of any benevolent reason for someone to have this — or to have marked you radioactively, Superman."
"Neither can I," Clark said. "When you have anything, please call Lois right away."
Professor Hamilton nodded, looking slightly agitated. "Certainly."
Entering the newsroom sometime later, Clark glanced down at Lois who had begun to maneuver her way down the steps into the Pit. She made a face as she made it safely once more to level ground. "I'd forgotten how sore your arms get the first few days on crutches."
"Well," he returned, "you haven't exactly been taking it easy, either."
"Since when do I have time to take it easy?" she inquired. "And it's just as well for you that I don't."
Clark might have argued, but, judging by the scowl on Lois's face, she wasn't in the mood for it. "Well, you can at least sit still and relax a little for a while, now." He pulled out her desk chair for her and held it while she lowered herself into it. "Better?"
"A little. I can't help wonder what Diana Stride is going to do next, though."
"Well, whatever it is, we want her to do it. She's not going to get very far without her lipstick."
"If I didn't know better, that would sound pretty male chauvinist," Lois said, giving him a faint smile. "What are you going to do?"
"That all depends on her," Clark said. "Whatever it is, I plan on cooperating with her — up to a point. That was a good idea of yours, so let's see where it goes. But, will you do me a favor in the meantime?"
"Be *really* careful. You're a target, too, and I can't be with you every minute. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you."
She looked up at him, seeming to be a little startled. "I can take care of myself."
"Yes — usually." He reached out to rest his fingers on hers. "But, these are special circumstances. Promise me?"
She made a little face. "You don't play fair, did you know that, Kent? All right, I promise to be careful."
Well, that was a little reassurance, but, as Clark was well aware, Lois's idea of "careful" didn't always jibe with his own. Oh well, it was better than nothing.
The elevator doors opened again at that moment and Perry, accompanied by Diana Stride, exited, laughing, followed by Rolf Landrieu, the cameraman. Perry looked around and Clark could have sworn he saw a relieved expression flit across his boss's face.
"Ah, here they are!" Perry announced. "I wanted you to meet these two, Diana." He led the way over to Lois's desk, and Clark had to force himself to stay relaxed as their editor introduced the anchorwoman to them. "Clark Kent and Lois Lane — Diana Stride. Clark and Lois are friends of Superman's, so they can probably tell you more about him then anyone else here."
Diana Stride was holding out a hand to Lois. "Lois Lane! I've always wanted to meet you! What happened to your foot?"
"I broke it in a mine, last weekend," Lois said.
"Oh, yes, I remember reading the article! The old Billy Moran heist!" Diana smiled her trademark smile, made famous by Top Copy. "How exciting that must have been!"
"Well, that wasn't exactly what I'd have called it," Lois said, drily. "This is my partner, Clark Kent."
Clark nodded to her. "Ms. Stride."
"Diana," Diana Stride said. "I want to make time to interview both of you. You did hear that Top Copy is doing a tribute to Superman, didn't you?"
"Yes, the news gets around," Clark said.
"Oh, good! Then, I'll arrange to meet you for an interview, a little later. Will that be all right?"
Apparently assuming that he would automatically agree with her request, she turned to Rolf. "Who's next on our schedule?"
The cameraman consulted a slip of paper in his hand. "I believe, Deborah Kensington is next."
"Oh, yes." Diana Stride turned away to seek out the slightly older woman who was crossing the Pit toward them.
As the three moved away, talking, Clark looked at his boss, who was standing beside Lois's chair, his hands in his pockets. "You're awfully friendly with her, all of a sudden."
"Yeah, well I've always believed that old adage — 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer'."
"Makes sense," Lois said, softly. "I guess the next move is hers, now."
"What do you mean?" Perry asked. "I take it you two have been busy this morning?"
"Well, this afternoon," Lois amended.
"Come into my office," Perry said. "Normally, I wouldn't be too involved in your business, but in this case, I think I'd like an update."
Lois and Clark exchanged glances. Perry raised his eyebrows. "Am I the boss, or not?"
Clark shrugged and gave Lois a hand to her feet. "I guess we should tell him what's going on."
Lois reached for her crutches, but Perry retrieved them. "Here you go." He glanced casually at Diana Stride and grinned, cheerfully. The anchorwoman smiled briefly in return and resumed her conversation with Deborah. The cameraman was watching them, as well, and to Clark's discomfort the man met his eyes, then deliberately looked him up and down from head to foot. Suppressing the slight feeling of something crawling on the back of his neck, he followed Lois and Perry toward the editor's office.
When the door closed behind them, Perry deliberately turned the locking lever and walked slowly around to settle into his desk chair. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and his chin on his fists. "Have a seat," he said. "I want to know what you two have been up to."
His two top investigative reporters looked at each other. "All of it?" Clark asked.
Perry nodded. "I think this whole thing has gotten to the stage where I need to know details."
Lois and Clark looked at each other again, and Clark nodded, a little reluctantly. "Why don't you tell him, Lois?" He took the crutches she handed him and gave her a hand while she lowered herself into the nearest chair. His partner met his eyes as he did so and he hoped she understood the message he was trying to convey. Superman didn't lie, and he was almost as uncomfortable telling half-truths. He'd done it for years, but that didn't mean he wanted to. Lois, on the other hand, had no such difficulties. She smiled faintly and began speaking without hesitation.
"I guess it started night before last, Chief. Superman dropped by my place to ask Clark and me for some help…"
Perry's expression didn't change. "Go on."
Quickly, she explained about the radioactive substance with which Diana Stride had tagged Superman. "That was why we suspected something wasn't kosher when she showed up yesterday morning, and when our source at City Hall told us that the assassin was famous, we were both a little suspicious. Then, of course, her name popped up when Jimmy ran that search on the assassinated leaders, so Jimmy and I trailed her — and you know what happened, then," Lois continued. "So, Clark and I decided to do a search of her penthouse, this afternoon —"
"How did you — no," Perry interrupted himself, "I don't want to know anything about how you managed to get into a high security building without getting caught. So, I take it you found something?"
"Yeah," Lois said. "Kryptonite lipstick."
"She had a tube of green lipstick that Superman said had Kryptonite in it."
Perry frowned. "He was sure?"
Clark nodded. "He was positive, Chief."
"That doesn't sound good," Perry said, stating the obvious. "What did you do with it?"
"Who said we did anything with it?" Lois asked.
Her editor merely lifted an eyebrow. Lois grinned guiltily. "We substituted a fake, with Superman's help. Professor Hamilton has the real one. Now we want to see what happens."
"Not a bad idea," Perry said, slowly.
"We thought so," Lois said.
Perry sat up. "Good work. If she's the assassin — and I'd bet my pension that she is — then we've got a pretty good idea what she's up to. Superman's just the latest in a long line of important people on her interview list and we all know what happened to them. Still, you might want some kind of proof that she's up to no good."
"And that would be…?"
Their editor frowned thoughtfully. "Let me get back to you on that. And, Clark, do you think you could get hold of Superman for me?"
"Sure, Chief. When?"
"Say in about half an hour." He looked pensive. "If she's planning on using Kryptonite lipstick to kill Superman, there's only one way I can think of that she could manage it. Talk about the kiss of death…"
The light on the telephone answering machine was blinking when Lois and Clark arrived at his apartment, that afternoon and when Clark answered it, it was no surprise to hear Diana Stride's voice issuing from the speaker.
"Well, there it is," Lois said. "Please be careful, Clark."
He nodded, reassuringly. "Don't worry. We got rid of the dangerous stuff, remember."
"I don't trust her. She didn't get to be Intergang's top assassin by being stupid. Don't let your guard down for an instant, understand?"
"I do, and I won't." He stepped back and began to spin. The grey of Clark's suit became a blur of red and blue, and when he stopped, Superman stood there. Lois released her breath.
"Wow. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that." She stepped forward and rested a hand on his chest. "You know, it's funny — I know I'm talking to Clark, but sometimes it's hard to see him behind Superman."
"I'm always Clark, Lois."
"I know." She hesitated and then continued, trying to put into words some of the things that she had been thinking about since his revelation in the mine. "When I thought you were two people, I admired Superman tremendously. He had all the qualities I looked for in a man — but when Johnny Corbin attacked Superman, and I was explaining to you why I cared about him — it suddenly occurred to me that you had them all, too. You were what Superman might be like, if he had no powers."
"I remember." He was smiling at her — Clark's smile, she thought. How had she ever missed that? "That was when I really started to hope that maybe you were beginning to see me as something more than a partner."
"I was. The thing I didn't say — maybe because I wasn't really ready to admit it — was that I suddenly realized that Clark mattered to me as much as Superman. It upset me that Johnny Corbin had hurt Superman, but it upset me just as much that he hurt Clark, when he kidnapped you. I didn't know which one was the most important to me. I thought I knew which man I loved — up until then. Do you have any idea how confusing it was? And you both ran away from me whenever I tried to get close to one or the other of you. I came within inches of murdering you both! That should have told me the truth right there, you know — that both of you made me want to wring your necks!"
"Do you still want to?" he asked.
"It wouldn't matter if I did. Besides, I've got the rest of my life to pay you back for it." She poked him in the chest. "So, you make sure you're careful, Superman! I haven't said nearly as much as I intend to."
Clark's smile had broadened as she spoke. "I like that 'rest of your life' thing. I promise I'll be careful — if only to give you the satisfaction of yelling at me later."
"Just be sure you are!" She glared at him to hide the worry she felt, knowing he would see right through it as he always did. He leaned forward slightly, brushing her cheek with the tips of his fingers. Almost by instinct, she lifted her face as he did so, and felt his lips touch hers with an almost electric jolt. The caress — intended to be reassuring, she was sure — grew longer and more intense. Clark straightened up at last, and Lois gave a little gasp. "And," she said, underlining the point, "that's another reason to come back here as soon as you can!"
Rolf was waiting for him when he landed. A table had been set with china and crystal, and the cameraman was pouring wine, but he turned as Clark stepped inside and looked him up and down. Clark experienced the same crawling feeling on the back of his neck as he had this afternoon.
"Diana will be here in just a minute," he said. "In the meantime, can I get you some wine? It's not a bad Merlot."
Clark folded his arms. "No, thank you, Rolf."
The man grunted and put down the decanter. Without hesitation, he drained the wineglass and set it on the table. He seemed to hesitate, then apparently made up his mind and moved closer to Clark. "You know," he said, in a lower voice, "as long as I have you here, there is something I have always wanted to ask you." He smiled, and Clark fought the urge to squirm. "When I wear my very tightest ski pants, I always get — well — chafed. Do you find that this happens to you?"
Clark moved away as casually as he could manage. "No," he said, "but it helps to be invulnerable."
"Hmm." Rolf's voice was punctuated by the sound of the double doors behind him opening, and Clark couldn't help his eyes widening slightly as Diana Stride made her entrance. The wall behind her was emblazoned with the words "Top Copy", and she posed for a split second in front of it before she came forward, moving with the ease of a stalking cat. She was dressed in a long, low cut dress that revealed her figure to the best advantage, and he had to admit that physically, she was a very beautiful woman. If she hadn't been what she was, he could have admired what he saw. As it was, he regarded her warily.
She didn't seem to notice. Instead, she smiled gently and spoke to her cameraman. "Rolf, I'd like to be alone with Superman."
Rolf gave Clark another head to toe look and spoke a phrase in French. "What girl wouldn't?"
Clark, who's French was as flawless as his English, ignored the other man and focused his attention on the real enemy, as the cameraman sauntered from the room. Diana rolled her eyes as he passed, but said nothing more until the double doors closed behind him. Then, she moved gracefully toward Clark.
"Ms. Stride," he said.
"Diana." She smiled seductively.
Clark reminded himself that he was supposed to be here for an interview regarding Top Copy's supposed tribute to Superman. "I know your story isn't a tribute. It's an attempt to expose me."
"Expose you?" She laughed softly. "Do you have something to hide?"
"We all have something to hide, Ms. Stride — some of us for the good of others and some of us for their own gain." He paused. "I'm here to tell you, Ms. Stride, drop the story."
Diana's lips drooped and she lowered her eyes. "Superman I — I can't." She turned away, the picture of dejection. If he hadn't been watching, he wouldn't have noticed the small, gold lipstick case in her hand. "You see, if I drop this story, I'm going to lose my show, and that's all I have." She removed the cap from the lipstick, holding it casually while she continued her act. "When you want so much from life and then you get so much more than you expected — the thought of having it all taken away —" Diana lifted the tube to her lips and applied the lipstick. " — Can make you do things — things you never even thought you were capable of." She gave a little sob and dropped her face into her hand. It was chilling to Clark to realize how coldly she was going about this attempt to kill him — all the while pretending to be a vulnerable, helpless woman. If it hadn't been for Lois's discovery of the radioactive tag that she had placed on him, he would have no idea of what she had planned. There was a reason, he reminded himself, for his partner's unrivalled status as the top investigative reporter at the Daily Planet — or any other newspaper in Metropolis — and a reason for the respect in which he held her.
Diana lifted her head, muffling another sob. Clark had to admire her acting ability. If he hadn't known she was up to no good, he would have been completely fooled. Still, the sight of a woman crying went against the grain, and, he reminded himself again, he wasn't supposed to know about her other job.
"Please, don't cry," he said, awkwardly.
She turned. "That's why I did this — or maybe it's because I'm no damn good."
"There's good in everyone," Clark said.
She moved quickly, pressing her lips against his and in that instant, he felt it — the sting of Kryptonite. He jerked away in near panic, belatedly realizing what she had done as weakness swept over him and he stumbled back and went to his knees. Somehow, she must have detected the substitution and replaced the harmless lipstick with another.
Diana Stride was speaking, but he wasn't listening. He staggered to his feet and lurched desperately toward the railing of the balcony outside the studio window, hearing Diana's soft, mocking laughter behind him. He half-fell over the railing and plummeted like a stone for a hundred feet before he regained some measure of equilibrium and managed to brake his fall to the pavement, thirty stories below. Fighting desperately to maintain his altitude and barely able to keep to a level flight, he wavered toward his apartment with only one thought in his mind. He had to make it to Lois. She was the only one who might be able to help him now.
Lois lowered herself onto the couch in Clark's living area, elevated her broken ankle on the ottoman and glanced at her wristwatch for the third time in five minutes. The television muttered in the background, but she wasn't paying attention to the state of the world economy or even the local news. Clark hadn't been gone long, but she knew she wouldn't be able to relax until he got back.
The teapot sat on the coffee table along with a teacup and saucer, where Clark had put them before he left. She picked it up and poured herself a cup. She probably shouldn't drink it, she thought, stirring a teaspoon of artificial sweetener into the liquid. She was nervous enough already, but she gulped it down anyway and poured another cup. Although Clark hadn't been enthusiastic about the idea, they had decided to play out the game with Diana Stride. The fact that she had chosen lipstick as her weapon of choice had, as Perry pointed out, pretty much given away her avenue of attack. The thought of allowing the woman to kiss him gave Clark cold chills, but he'd agreed that it might be a way to make her betray herself. It would be safe enough, Lois told herself for the fiftieth time. They had pulled the assassin's fangs when they had taken her Kryptonite lipstick away. But, if she thought she had managed to poison Superman, she might say something that would interest the district attorney. All Clark had to do was to leave behind the bug that Perry had supplied him with, earlier that afternoon. It might be enough to have her taken out of circulation long enough for Jimmy to give his sworn statement and make the value of killing him a moot point.
The smash of glass and a heavy thud from Clark's sleeping area made her jerk around in shock, dropping the teacup to the rug. She didn't even notice as she struggled to her feet and around the partition.
Clark, clad in the Superman suit, was on his hands and knees on the floor. She nearly fell over a footstool that had somehow gotten in her way as she tried to hurry to his side. "Ohmigod, Clark, what happened?"
He hauled himself painfully to a chair and sank into it, and she could see that the healthy color had drained from his face. He was breathing heavily. Lois rested the back of her hand on his cheek. "You're burning up! What did she do?"
He leaned his head back against the wall. "Somehow she found out that we switched lipsticks. She had another —"
"Lois — the Kryptonite — it's inside me."
Lois stared at him, aghast. Then, in typical Mad Dog Lane style, she sprang into action. "Come on."
"We're going to the hospital. We have to get that stuff out of you before it gets into your system."
"Lois, I can't go to the hospital — besides, what would they do?"
"The same thing they did to Lucy the time she ate a bottle of baby aspirin! They pumped her stomach. Come on, there's not much time!"
"I can't —"
"Yes, you can," Lois said. "Clark can't go to the hospital, but there's no reason *Superman* can't. They *know* he's an alien, and there's no way I'll let anybody dissect you! Now, let's go!"
The trip to the hospital was a nightmare that Lois would never forget. Traffic was heavy at this time of the evening and it seemed as if every stoplight was against them. Finally, just as she was about to cross the double line to get around a row of stopped cars, she spotted a motorcycle cop and decided that this time, she could use the police force to help.
"Officer!" She raised her voice to be heard over the blare of horns and the other noises of Metropolis's rush hour. Waving and flashing her lights, she frantically signaled the man, and just when she thought that she had failed to attract his attention, he wheeled his cycle around and rolled up to her window. "Yeah, lady?"
"Officer, I'm Lois Lane from the Daily Planet. I've got an emergency."
The man looked past her and his eyes widened slightly. "Is that — ?"
Clark was leaning back in the seat, his eyes closed. Lois nodded, vigorously. "It's Superman, officer. He's been poisoned. I have to get him to the emergency room fast! Please help me!"
The man looked doubtful. "I didn't think anything could hurt Superman."
Clark opened his eyes slightly. "Kryptonite —" he whispered.
"Do you remember the stuff I wrote about — Kryptonite?" Lois asked, quickly. "It's real, and it's going to kill him, if I don't get him to a doctor!"
The motorcycle officer hesitated for an instant, then seemed to make up his mind and nodded. "Follow me." His siren and lights came to life and the motorcycle rolled forward, cars pulling to the sides of the street to let him through. Lois followed.
Later, Lois would recall what followed only as a set of confused memories. Somehow, they made it to the hospital and Superman was rushed away on a gurney with a doctor issuing terse orders to white-coated personnel. Lois found herself ushered gently to a hard, plastic chair by the motorcycle cop, whom she now realized couldn't be much older than her — he was probably younger, actually, judging by his unlined, almost boyish face.
"Are you all right, Ms. Lane?" he asked.
She nodded, feeling a little numb.
"Do you care to tell me what happened?" he asked.
"I don't know, exactly," Lois said. "Superman came to me for help. He said he'd been poisoned with Kryptonite. You'll have to get the story from him, I guess."
The man nodded. "All right. I'll have to make a report."
She nodded without answering. To her annoyance, she could feel herself starting to shake. The young cop apparently noticed, for he rose to his feet and went to the water cooler. A moment later, he handed her a paper cup of lukewarm liquid. "Here, drink this. Superman's in good hands, Ms. Lane."
Again she nodded and drank the water. "Thanks. And thanks for helping me."
"Hey, no problem. Superman's done a lot for us guys on the force. I'm glad I could help."
Lois looked up from the magazine she had been thumbing absently through. A middle-aged woman was standing in the doorway through which Superman had disappeared, nearly an hour ago. "Yes?"
"Dr. Patinkin would like to speak to you."
"Oh — okay." Lois hoisted herself to her feet. Maybe the doctor would have some news about Clark, she thought as she maneuvered her way toward the door. The wall clock told her that she had been waiting for fifty-three minutes, but it seemed much longer. The woman held the door for her and as she went by, Lois glanced at her nametag, which identified her as Norma Yale, LVN.
"How's Superman?" she asked, the instant the panel closed.
"Dr. Patinkin will answer your questions," the other woman replied, without changing her expression. "You're that reporter from the Daily Planet, aren't you?"
"Yes, but that's not why I'm here," Lois said. "Superman's a friend of mine."
Nurse Yale appeared to consider. "I guess I've heard that. All right, I'm not supposed to say anything, but he's doing all right, so far."
"Thanks," Lois said, relaxing slightly.
"Sure. Come this way, please."
Dr. Patinkin was a short, slightly chubby woman with an air of competence that Lois found reassuring. She was sitting behind a cluttered desk, reading a chart when the nurse escorted Lois into her office, but put it down at once when Lois maneuvered her awkward way into the room. "Ms. Lane?"
Lois nodded. "Yes. How's Superman?"
The doctor frowned slightly. "Have a seat, Ms. Lane. I need to ask a few things. Superman appears quite uneasy and reluctant to answer questions. He's resting at the moment and, after we've spoken, I'll have someone take you to his cubicle."
The doctor nodded. "Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't be telling you this, but since he hasn't anyone else to notify in case of emergency, and since he's listed you, and a Mr. Perry White, as the closest thing he has to a 'next of kin', I believe I can make a limited exception. I believe we managed to clear the poisonous substance from his stomach before much of it could get into his bloodstream. What can you tell me about this 'Kryptonite'?"
"Not a lot," Lois said. "I know it's part of his home planet. Apparently, it's the only thing that can hurt him."
"He told me that," Dr. Patinkin said. "How dangerous is it to humans?"
"As far as I know, it isn't," Lois said.
She nodded, thoughtfully. "Tell me — Superman wasn't very forthcoming. How did this happen?"
Lois hesitated. "I don't know the details. Apparently, someone tried to kill him."
"You're certain of that?"
The doctor smiled, drily. "I needed it for my report. It's a state law — I have to report suspicious cases of poisoning."
"Well, I think Superman's going to report it when he can. Is he going to be all right?" Lois held her breath.
"I believe so." Dr. Patinkin tapped her pen against the chart. "I can't be absolutely certain there won't be any after effects, of course. I want to keep him under observation overnight for other possible complications, at least until morning, but he appears very reluctant to stay. If this weren't Superman, I'd think he was apprehensive of the suggestion. Can you think of any reason why?"
"Um — I'm not sure."
The doctor regarded her for a moment. "If you have any idea, I'd like to hear it. It would be safer for him to be here, if complications arise. If there's anything we can do to make him more comfortable —"
"Maybe I could talk to him," Lois said.
"I was going to suggest that. I realize Superman is reluctant to tell strangers much about himself —" The doctor smiled. "Still, if we're to do our best for him, there are certain things we need to know."
"I don't think it has anything to do with what happened," Lois said. "Superman — has his reasons. I can't really talk about it. He wouldn't like it."
"All right." Dr. Patinkin got to her feet. "You should also know," she added, "that someone apparently alerted the media to Superman's presence here. There's a mob of reporters outside."
Lois hoisted herself to her crutches once more. "I should have expected that. I'm sorry."
The doctor smiled, grimly. "That's all right. Security can handle them."
Clark was still lying on the narrow emergency room bed, looking pale and drawn when Lois entered his cubicle. He opened his eyes when he saw her.
"Hi," she said. "How do you feel?"
He swallowed. "Okay." His voice sounded hoarse.
Lois glanced around, making sure the curtains behind her were completely closed and moved closer to his bed. "You don't sound okay." She spoke in a low voice. "I've never heard you with a hoarse throat before."
He made a face. "I'll explain when we get out of here."
"Superman," she began, mindful of listening ears, "Dr. Patinkin wants you to stay overnight for observation. I think you should."
"Lois, I don't want to," he said, his voice lowered to a bare thread of sound. "My powers are gone again. Some of the Kryptonite must have gotten into my system."
Lois checked the curtains once more to be sure they were closed. "That's all the more reason you should stay." She bit her lip. "The doctor wants to be sure there aren't any complications. *I* want to be sure there aren't."
For a moment, he looked rebellious but finally, he sighed. "I know. I guess I should, but you know how I feel about —"
She released the handle of one of the crutches and clasped his hand. "No one is going to 'dissect you like a frog'. No one could do anything like that to you, even if they were the kind to try, and I don't believe they are. The doctor I spoke with wants to help. Please let her."
He hesitated a long moment. "You're right, of course. I know it's irrational."
"Then, you'll stay?"
"I guess so." He cleared his throat. "I actually don't feel too bad. You had a good idea — even if it wasn't comfortable. What would I do without you?"
"Just remember that, the next time you think one of my ideas is too out there," Lois said.
"I'll try to," Clark said. "One thing's for sure — I'm really learning to appreciate being invulnerable, now that I'm not."
Someone twitched the curtains. Dr. Patinkin said, "May I come in?"
"Sure," Clark said.
The doctor pushed aside the curtains. "I hope Ms. Lane has convinced you to stay overnight, Superman?"
"I guess." Clark's assent clearly lacked enthusiasm. The doctor smiled sympathetically.
"I know you probably aren't happy at the idea, Superman, but it's important. We don't know anything about what the effects of your ingesting this substance can be. Metropolis needs Superman in good health."
He sighed. "I suppose so. All right, I'll stay for tonight, but if nothing has turned up by morning —"
"That seems reasonable," Dr. Patinkin said. "I'll have someone take you to a room for the night. Since the media knows you're here, I'm going to admit you under another name — just in case any of them manage to slip past Security."
"In the meantime," Lois said, "maybe I should bring you some pajamas. I don't think you want to wear one of those drafty hospital gowns." The expression on his face said it all. "Right. I'll ask Clark if you can borrow some of his sweats. He's about your size."
"Thanks," Clark said. "And Lois — be careful. Remember, you're still a target."
"I haven't forgotten," Lois said. "I'll be careful."
That thought stayed with her as she left the hospital through a side door to avoid the press. The vivid memory of the bomb under the hood of Perry's car made her summon a cab to take her to Clark's apartment and return her to the hospital forty-five minutes later. Clark was gratifyingly relieved to receive the clothing but, although she would have willingly stayed, visiting hours had ended and she was forced to leave. Again, she summoned a cab to take her to her apartment. As the taxi pulled up in front of her place on Carter Avenue, another thought made her pause.
She was a target. Clark had reminded her of the fact, and she was learning not to underestimate Diana Stride.
"Here we are, lady," the cabby said. "That'll be thirty-two-eighty."
"I've changed my mind," she said, after a moment. "Take me to 344 Clinton."
The cabby grunted. "Okay; it's your money."
Five minutes later, the cab stopped in front of Clark's apartment. "Here you go, lady."
Lois paid the fare, added a modest tip and got out. The street was dark, and quiet. She turned to the driver. "Would you wait until I get inside?"
He shrugged. "Sure. No problem."
She was beginning to be able to work the crutches more efficiently and it took only a couple of minutes to make her way to the door of Clark's place. With his spare key, she unlocked the door and went in, closing it behind her.
The apartment was chilly, and she remembered that Clark's window had been broken. Hopefully, it wasn't visible to anyone passing by outside. As a precaution, she turned on lights and made a complete tour of the apartment, after which she concluded that she was the only person who had been here since she and Clark had left, almost four hours earlier.
The broken window, however, didn't make her feel any safer. A call to Clark's landlord, and some mendacious talk of vandals, brought that gentleman, complaining loudly at the lateness of the hour, to Clark's place to make temporary repairs with a sheet of cardboard and duct tape. It wasn't perfect, Lois thought, but it would keep the cold out until tomorrow, when she could call a repairman.
After the man had left, she spent some time arranging a crude alarm in front of the window and, leaving the living room light burning, pulled on one of Clark's sweatshirts and a pair of sweat pants, heedless of the fact that she might as well be wearing a tent, and crawled into his bed. If Diana Stride was looking for her, she might think to look at Clark's apartment, but she was less likely to try to come in here, because she had no reason to believe that Clark wasn't here. Still, Lois spent a long time straining her ears for any sounds that might indicate someone was trying to get in, before fatigue finally claimed her and she slept uneasily until morning.
The first rays of sunlight illuminating the apartment brought her groggily awake. It had not been the most restful night of her life, but a cold shower opened her eyes and after a cup of coffee she began to feel almost human.
The kitchen clock said it was barely six-thirty, but there would be people at the Daily Planet even this early. She glanced down at the rumpled clothing that she had worn yesterday and shook her head. Sooner or later, she was going to have to go back to her place but she would rather wait until Clark had his powers back and was able to check it for bombs and other booby traps. She had a change of clothing at work, so that was where she would go. First, though, she gathered up some nondescript clothing for Clark to change into at the hospital and stuffed it into a paper bag to carry with her.
Fortunately, since she was in no shape to walk the distance to the Daily Planet, she spotted a cab within minutes of stepping out onto the sidewalk. She gave the driver the address and sat back, trying to decide what her next move should be.
If she was any judge, Clark wasn't going to want to stay in the hospital any longer than he absolutely had to. Not only was he uncomfortable with just the concept, but there was always the chance that Diana Stride would follow him there to finish the job. It wasn't likely that the pseudonym that Dr. Patinkin had used to admit him would fool the assassin for long. She hadn't been as successful as she was by letting that sort of thing stymie her.
Of course, she was after Mr. X and probably Jimmy as well. And, Lois reminded herself, she was also a target.
The cab pulled up in front of the Daily Planet before she had come to any real decisions. She paid the driver and got out, glancing irritably at the clouded sky. A cold drizzle, accompanied by the occasional tiny hard grain that might be ice, wasn't making the day any more pleasant. Slowly, and carefully, she crossed the sidewalk toward the main door of the Daily Planet.
The sidewalk was wet and slippery, and she was relieved when she was finally inside. The smooth tiled floor of the Planet's lobby wasn't any better, though. The passage of the newspaper's employees had tracked dirty water across surface, making the going as hazardous for a woman on crutches as it had been outside. A custodian with a mop and bucket was in the process of attempting to clean up the mess, and she could hear him muttering under his breath as people tracked their way through his efforts on the way to the elevator.
She made her way to the lockers, ignoring the curious glances of fellow employees. Her locker contained a complete change of clothing, and a short time later, attired in a fresh outfit that was suitable for the office, she was headed to the newsroom floor. Since her partner was in the hospital in his other identity, she needed to make a plausible excuse for him to Perry.
Her editor was in fine form this morning. As she emerged from the elevator, she heard his voice berating Eduardo for his inability to manage to write two different articles simultaneously, and the sports editor for some error of commission or omission.
"Hey, Lane, where's Kent?" Ralph inquired, smirking. "He forget to return a video or something, again?"
Lois turned to survey the man the same way she would a cockroach that had somehow gotten into the newsroom. "He's working. Which is more than I can say for you." Not bothering to wait for a reply, she descended the steps carefully and crossed the floor to where her boss was now chewing out the business editor. Leaning on her crutches, she broke into the monologue when he paused to take a breath. "Perry, can I talk to you for a minute?"
Perry cut short his tirade, to Bob Freeman's obvious relief. "I hope it's important. Speaking of which, do you and Clark have anything more on that business we discussed, yesterday?"
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. In private." Lois turned and started for his office. She had already decided on her story. She would follow Clark's example — the truth, but not all of it. Her partner was definitely having a bad influence on her, she reflected, with a flash of humor.
Perry closed the door behind them. "What's goin' on, Lois? I'm hearin' rumors that Superman was admitted to Metro General last night, but the hospital spokesman's denyin' it and nobody's seen him since. And where's Clark?"
Lois took her time sitting down in one of the hard, wooden chairs, rather than an armchair. The wooden ones, she had discovered, were a lot easier to get out of. She took a deep breath and launched into her story.
"Superman's in the hospital, Perry. I drove him there last night. Diana Stride apparently discovered our substitution of the lipstick. When I left, he was doing all right, but they were going to keep him for the night. I have to get over there in a few minutes. Clark will probably be in later. He was at the hospital all night — trying to avoid being noticed."
"Judas Priest! What happened? Is Superman going to be all right?"
Lois leaned back in the chair. "I hope so. He seemed to be recovering when I left, but his powers were gone. He thinks they'll come back — but he doesn't know when. As far as I know, he's planning on checking out this morning. That's why I'm going over there; I'm going to take him some clothes so he can avoid the press."
Perry stared at her for a minute. "You're taking this all pretty calmly."
She gave a humorless laugh. "I think I pretty much overloaded my panic circuits last night."
"I suppose." Her boss scratched his chin, thoughtfully. "Not to seem insensitive, but, do you happen to know if Superman managed to plant our bug on the lady?"
"I don't know. I'll find out when I see him. Clark will probably know."
"It seems to me that the DA has enough evidence at this point to hold Diana Stride for suspicion of attempted murder," Perry said. "If Superman wants to testify, that is."
"I don't think there's much hope of his trying to keep Kryptonite a secret any longer," Lois said. "The criminals seem to know it exists, anyway. Maybe he'll report it — if he can get Mayson Drake to listen."
"Well, she may not like him, but that's a far cry from wanting him dead," Perry pointed out.
"I guess," Lois said. "Anyway, I'd better get over to the hospital. I've got some of Clark's jeans and a T-shirt with me. With luck, Superman will be able to get out of there without the press mobbing him."
"Good idea. See if he'll give you an interview," Perry said. "By the way, what's the story on Mr. X — and Jimmy?"
"They're still under guard as far as I know," Lois said. "The last I heard, Jimmy's supposed to talk to the DA sometime this afternoon."
The drizzle had grown a little heavier when Lois left the Daily Planet and flagged down a taxi. Even wearing a cast on her leg she hadn't lost her touch, she thought as a vehicle screeched to a stop in front of her in response to her whistle. She opened the rear door and crawled clumsily into the seat, glad to be under cover again. The driver glanced over his shoulder at her.
"Where to, lady?"
"Metro General," Lois said, closing the door on the wet weather.
The cab started up with a squeal of tires as the driver peeled away from the curb. Belatedly, Lois pulled the seat belt across her lap and hung on grimly. She hoped the man had *some* sense when it came to driving on slippery pavement but being that he was a Metro cab driver, she didn't have much hope of it. The steadily falling drizzle coated the windshield and occasionally something softer splatted on the glass: a snowflake, or maybe just half-frozen slush, she thought. The windshield wipers swished aside the water, and Lois could see where a faint crusting of slushy ice had collected at the edges. The temperature must be just about freezing, she thought, looking through the clouded side window at the depressingly grey, drippy world outside. People slogged by, wrapped in weatherproof coats and carrying umbrellas against the precipitation.
The driver eventually dropped her off in front of Metro General, and Lois alighted, thankfully. A car driving past the taxi showered her with muddy water and she muttered an imprecation under her breath.
For once, though, Lois was grateful for the cast on her ankle. The press had staked out the lobby but none of them gave her more than a cursory glance as she went slowly past them on her crutches. For a moment, she was almost certain that she had seen the face of Diana Stride's cameraman among the crowd, but if he was present, he vanished at once, and she suspected her imagination was working overtime.
The door to Clark's room was closed and she hesitated, then knocked lightly. Clark's voice answered her at once. "Who is it?"
"Me," she replied.
The door opened almost instantly. Her partner, clad in the grey sweats and with his hair standing on end, stood there. "Finally! What took you so long?"
She couldn't help laughing at his appearance. "You look like you stuck your finger in a light socket! It's a good thing I brought you a comb!"
He pulled her inside and closed the door behind her. "Very funny. Did you bring me some clothes?"
"Jeans and a T-shirt," she replied, holding up the paper bag containing the items in question. "Along with some underwear. Are your powers back, yet?"
"No." His answer erased the smile from her face. "But Dr. Patinkin thinks it's just a matter of time. She says a little of the Kryptonite must have gotten into my system. She thinks it's acting like a metabolic poison does in a human, but that there isn't enough to do too much harm and my body will eventually get rid of it. I'm supposed to drink a lot of water to help the process along. With luck, my powers will be back by tonight or tomorrow at the latest."
"I hope so," Lois said.
"So do I. I've gotten used to being Superman. The longest it's ever taken was about two days, and that was a much heavier exposure than this was." He ran his hand through his dark hair in a way that told her instantly why it looked the way it did. "Are *you* all right? I've been worrying about you all night, and when you didn't answer your phone —"
"Oh." She gave him a slightly shamefaced grin. "I spent the night at Clark's apartment, just in case."
His eyebrows flew up. "Is this the Lois Lane *I* know?"
"Hey, I'm always careful!" she protested. At his skeptical look she added, "Well, sometimes, anyway. You should give me a little credit. I've been taking cabs everywhere since last night."
"Good." The force with which he spoke told her how worried he had been.
"Anyway," she said, changing the subject, "Here's the stuff I got from Clark's place. The press has the lobby staked out in force."
He took the clothing she handed him. "You think this will fool them?"
"People see what they expect to see," she said. "Even the smart ones. You showed me that. None of those guys have ever seen Superman in jeans and a T-shirt."
"I suppose not. Before we leave, though, I want to check on Jimmy."
"So do I. Unless they've changed the schedule, he's supposed to talk to the DA this afternoon — which means Diana will try to silence him before then," Lois said.
"I know." Clark looked very worried. "I don't remember if I told you — I left the bug there at the Top Copy studio. If she said anything after I left, we might be able to convince the DA to pick her up on suspicion."
"You don't mind telling him about Kryptonite?" Lois asked.
Clark shook out the clothing. "I figure there isn't much to be gained by trying to hide it any longer. The bad guys sure know about it."
"Well, that's what I thought, but I figured you were the one to decide," Lois said.
"Give me a minute to change and we can go," Clark said, retreating toward the bathroom. Lois nodded without speaking, but watched him as he walked away, silently admiring the way the sweat pants clung to his hips and legs. How on Earth had she managed to miss noticing the body her partner had been hiding under those GQ suits that he'd taken to wearing in the last few months? The sweats might be baggy, but they did little to hide his build. Giving in to the little devil that prodded her, she gave a low wolf whistle.
Clark looked back over his shoulder. "Lo-is!"
She grinned, unrepentant. "Sorry."
"Yeah, right!" She could see him trying to suppress a grin as he disappeared into the patient's bathroom, and allowed herself a soft giggle.
A short time later, they were on their way to the critical care ward where Jimmy and Mr. X were housed, still under heavy guard.
The Police had set up their impromptu guard post at the end of the hospital corridor nearest the elevator, barely out of the way of hospital personnel who hurried past, Lois observed as she and Superman exited the elevator. Oxygen tanks mounted on carts were parked here and there in case of emergency and machines, the purpose of which she didn't even want to guess at, had been shoved to one side, away from the area of activity.
Avoiding an empty gurney that half-blocked her way, Lois knocked on the wall to announce their presence. Mayson Drake was seated at a small card table that had been set up to one side, a stack of folders, a second one of loose papers and a clipboard, lying in front of her. A police officer, carrying a cup of coffee, brushed past them as they approached. Her footsteps echoed briskly behind them as she retreated down the hallway.
"Oh, Lois." Mayson glanced up at her in a businesslike way. "I take it you're here to see Olsen? Who's this?" She glanced briefly at Clark. "If he's not on the list, I can't let him through."
"I'm on the list, Ms. Drake," Clark said. Lois noted that his voice had dropped half an octave. The woman's gaze snapped back to him at the remark.
"This is Superman," Lois hastened to say. "He's here incognito, as you can see. Diana Stride tried to kill him, too."
Mayson's eyebrows rose fractionally. "She tried to kill *you*? I didn't think that was possible."
"Oh, it's possible, all right," Clark said.
"All right, let's hear it." The assistant DA sounded slightly incredulous.
Briefly, Lois and Clark described the events of the previous day. Mayson listened in silence until they had finished.
"I wish you'd reported this last night," she said.
"I'm afraid I had other things on my mind," Clark said. "Besides, didn't the hospital report it?"
"Probably, but it wouldn't have gotten to me," Mayson said. "I think we have enough to take Ms. Stride into custody, pending further investigation. Next time, don't wait so long. We could have picked her up last night."
"Sorry," Lois said. "None of us were thinking very clearly at the time."
Mayson regarded her thoughtfully. "I suppose not. Clark should have thought of it, though. I —"
It was at that moment that a cloud of white mist began to pour from the ventilator almost directly above Mayson's chair. The assistant DA looked up, gasped and slumped slowly forward out of her chair. Lois, a few feet away, caught her breath and held it. Vents all along the hall were dispensing the mist, flooding the hallway. Medical personnel and police officers both were slumping in their tracks, littering the floor with unconscious bodies. Clark had gotten a face full of it, but it didn't seem to affect him. He strode to the wall where one of the oxygen tanks stood, seized the tank and mask and dragged it quickly to Lois.
"Put this on," he commanded.
Lois clapped the mask over her nose and mouth. Clark twisted a valve on the tank, and Lois felt the rush of oxygen on her face. She inhaled several times and held out the mask to her partner, pointing at Mayson. Clark didn't hesitate. He pulled it over Mayson's face and turned back to Lois, hustling her away from the vent to the other side of the hallway where a row of windows, closed against the wet, chilly weather outside, lined the wall.
The whole area was full of the gas. Clark let her go and strode to the nearest window. With a single motion, he thrust it wide open, letting in a blast of the cold, fresh outside air. Lois looked frantically around. "It's got to be Diana!" she whispered. The acrid smell of the gas caught in the back of her throat and she coughed.
"Stay here," Clark said and left her, racing down the hall toward the rooms of the two witnesses.
He was just in time to see the white clad form of a nurse vanishing into the room of Mr. X. The guard lay slumped on the floor beside his chair; obviously, he'd caught a full dose of the gas. Then why was the nurse still on her feet? Something else about the figure he'd glimpsed struck him as wrong, too. As he thought of it, he realized what it was. The woman had been wearing white, high-heeled shoes. No nurse in her right mind wore anything but flat shoes with rubber soles. Superman had brought enough persons to hospitals over the course of the last couple of years to know that for sure.
Instantly, he yanked the door open. Diana Stride, a hypodermic in one hand, was bending over the unconscious form of Mr. X, apparently just about to insert the needle into the intravenous tubing.
There was no time for anything but direct action. In another second, their federal witness would be dead. He struck the hand with the hypodermic, sending the thing clattering across the room. Diana Stride spun instantly around. For a split second, her eyes widened. "Superman!"
"In the flesh, Ms. Stride." He folded his arms. "I think you'd better come with me."
Her eyes narrowed. "I don't think so." Quicker than the eye could follow, she struck at him with one of the karate punches he had seen Lois use upon occasion. Her fist took him in the stomach and he stumbled back, gasping for air.
"You don't have your powers, do you?" she said, and her smile became malicious. With one hand, she whipped a knife from her garter. "Good bye, Superman."
Lois watched Superman sprint down the hallway toward the rooms where Mr. X and Jimmy presently resided. The air was filled with the white mist and she leaned close to the window, breathing deeply. Her head felt a little muzzy as if she wasn't thinking quite clearly; she must have gotten some of the gas, in spite of the open window.
The cold, damp air hit her in the face, helping to clear her head. Down the hallway, in the direction in which Superman had vanished, she could see the figure of the guard slumped in front of the doorway to Mr. X's room, and for the first time the thought occurred to her: what was Clark going to do if he ran into Diana Stride? Superman didn't have his powers! And, the chances were very good that he *would* run into her! No one else would have done anything like this.
On the thought, Lois took several deep breaths of clean air, held the last one and swiveled on her crutches, trying to move as quickly down the hallway as she could. Exactly what she intended to do, she wasn't sure, but she couldn't leave her partner to deal with a killer on his own. Clark didn't even have the skills she had so patiently learned over the last several years in her Tai Kwon Do class, although she wasn't in any shape to employ them right now.
The vents had ceased pouring out the mist but she barely noticed as she neared the room of Mr. X. Her lungs were burning, but if she took a breath of the gas-laden air, she would be of no use to Clark. Which room had he gone into?
At the thought, there was a crash, followed by a mocking laugh from the room on her right. Lois pushed the door open just in time to see Superman skip backward to dodge a slash from the long-bladed knife in Diana Stride's hand. His foot caught on the trashcan that sat innocuously on the floor by Mr. X's bed, and he fell backwards.
Diana Stride's back was to her, and the assassin was obviously concentrating too hard on her attempt to kill Clark to even notice Lois's arrival. She moved forward like a big cat, the knife held loosely between thumb and forefinger.
Lois took a much-needed breath of air and dropped one of the crutches. Balancing on her good foot and the cast, she hefted the remaining one. The thing was made of aluminum and not very heavy, but it would make a decent weapon, and it was all she had. She would have one shot, and one only. She swung the crutch as hard as she could.
It connected with Diana Stride's head and right shoulder and the assassin went to her knees with a scream. The knife skidded across the carpet and disappeared under the bed. Lois swung again, but Diana deflected the blow with her forearm and scrambled to her feet.
"I'd love to stay and discuss this," she said, "but this room is getting a *little* crowded." She rolled across Mr. X's bed and made for the window, faster than Lois could move to stop her. She had barely vanished through the opening when the door behind Lois swung open again and three police officers wearing gas masks burst in. Lois lost her balance and went to her knees on the carpet.
"Are you *sure* you're all right?" Clark asked her for the third time.
"Superman, I'm fine," she assured him. "I should be asking *you* that! Diana could have killed you! What on Earth possessed you, trying to take on a professional assassin without your powers?"
He gave her an incredulous look. "I didn't have a choice. You know that. If I hadn't, she'd have killed the witness."
Mayson Drake glanced at him, and Lois read uncertainty in her face. Then the assistant DA turned to her. "Thanks, Lois — I owe you an awful lot. Um — and thank you…Superman." This last was spoken almost grudgingly. "You saved my witness. I appreciate it." She cleared her throat. "We have an APB out on Diana, but so far she seems to have disappeared. I suppose you can't — um — search for her at the moment."
"I'm afraid not," Clark said, somewhat regretfully. "As soon as my powers come back, I'll be glad to, of course."
"Of course." Mayson turned thankfully back to Lois again. "Look Lois, from everything I've seen, it looks to me as if she's targeting you, too. I'm tempted to put you in protective custody unless you agree to take some measures to protect yourself."
"Such as?" Lois asked, resisting the strong urge to bristle at the mere suggestion.
"I don't want you to go near your apartment, and I want you to take special care not to be seen. And *don't* drive your usual vehicle around town until Diana is under wraps."
"I've been taking cabs everywhere," Lois said, trying not to sound defensive. "I told you that."
"That's just as well. I had the bomb squad check out your Jeep after this last incident. If you'd started the motor, Metro General would have lost half of its visitors' parking lot. Diana doesn't kid around."
"But surely, she knows the jig is up, now," Clark suggested. "Lois saw her, I saw her, Jimmy saw her —"
"True. But our witness still hasn't identified her as Intergang's assassin," Mayson said. "She might be able to fight the other charges successfully. Until she's caught, you're all in danger. If all the witnesses were to coincidentally die, it might look bad, but Intergang employs excellent lawyers. And you can bet she'd have an airtight alibi."
"I suppose she would," Lois said, reluctantly. "I'll watch my step."
Mayson turned back to Clark. "I'm including you in this, Superman. Without your powers, you're as easily killed as Lois — and since you're a witness now, you're my responsibility." It was plain that she didn't relish said responsibility. "I don't want to be the one blamed for Superman's death."
Lois saw his eyebrow slide up a fraction of an inch, but he nodded soberly. "I'll be careful, Ms. Drake."
A candy striper let them out a side entrance at Mayson Drake's request and they stepped into the cab that a helpful nurse's aide had called. The driver made no comment at the directions to drive them to the local Shady Inn, which had the reputation as a no-tell motel, and a short time later they stood beside the seedy-looking little establishment. Lois looked doubtfully at Clark. "What do you think?"
"I think no one is going to find us here. It's just for tonight. We've stayed in worse places. We'll make better arrangements for tomorrow."
"We're going to have to," Lois grumbled. "I'm running out of clothes."
"Well, I'm not exactly dressed in high fashion," Clark pointed out, indicating his jeans, T-shirt and the bundle of sweats that Lois had stuffed into the paper bag in which she had brought his change of clothing. "I don't even have a jacket."
"I forgot," Lois admitted. "Sorry. You know, you have a change of clothes at work. That's where I got my outfit. Although," she added, "your apartment is probably safe."
"Maybe and maybe not," Clark said. "Diana knows I'm your partner. I wouldn't put it past her to stake out my place — or just rig it with a booby trap. I'm sure killing one more reporter wouldn't bother her at the moment. She's trying to save her skin. Intergang probably wouldn't take it too well if the DA was actually able to pin something on her. In fact, I wouldn't care to bet on her life expectancy if she ever ends up behind bars."
"But don't you think she's more likely to go after Mr. X again?" Lois objected. "He's the one who can name her as an assassin. And Mayson can't move him yet."
Clark shrugged uneasily. "Let's hope the Metropolis Police Department doesn't underestimate her again," he said.
"You mean, we should just sit back and do *nothing*?" Lois demanded, outraged.
"We…ll — not exactly," Clark said. "But let's talk about it once we're inside, okay?"
The clerk behind the check-in counter didn't look up when they entered, continuing to peruse a dog-eared copy of "CatHouse". From what Lois could see, the picture on the front cover was not that of a cat. He turned a page and the rattlesnake tattoo on his right biceps rippled, seeming to coil and uncoil. Fascinated, she tried not to stare at his heavily muscled arms, tattooed solidly from shoulder to wrist. He chomped on the butt of a thick cigar, his jaws moving slowly and rhythmically, sort of like a cow chewing its cud, she thought. There was at least a day's growth of stubble coating his jaw and she could smell the unmistakable scent of beer, even from six feet away. He turned another page and the snake twitched again.
"Yeah, folks, what'll it be?" he asked.
"We'd like a room," Clark said. "Mr. and Mrs. Jones."
"How long?" the man asked, removing the cigar from between his teeth, his eyes never straying from the pages of his magazine. "We charge ten bucks an hour. Twenty if you want new sheets."
"We want a room for the night," Clark elaborated. "How much?"
Now the clerk did raise his eyes to survey them with a faint air of surprise. "You kidding?"
"No," Clark said, firmly. "We want a room for the night — preferably with twin beds. And we *definitely* want clean sheets."
"Sure, buddy, whatever you say." The clerk laid the magazine down and pulled open a small drawer. "Now where did I put that thing — here it is." He removed a tattered sheet of paper. "Rates," he explained. "Let's see — one full night. That'll be fifty-five bucks. But there aren't any twin beds — just doubles. The rooms are clean though," he hastened to add. "And we fumigate regular."
Lois produced the money but didn't comment, allowing Clark to handle the negotiations. A short time later, Clark was letting them into a small, shabby room, the main feature of which seemed to be a double bed. A single chair took up one corner and a coat rack stood behind the door. A small, battered nightstand beside the bed actually boasted a telephone, and the drawer yielded a telephone book, although the drawer tended to stick. There was also a bathroom with a shower the size of a postage stamp.
"I wonder if there's any hot water," Lois remarked.
"Why don't you check." Clark pulled back the bedspread, assuring himself of the cleanliness of the sheets. "Looks like Harry out there was telling the truth."
"Harry?" Lois checked the bathroom faucet. Much to her surprise, hot water gushed from the tap. "Well, at least we can get a hot shower." She sniffed. "He must have been telling the truth, all right. I smell insecticide."
"Yeah. The guy's name is Harry Rose. Didn't you see his name tag?"
"I didn't notice. I was looking at his rattlesnake." Lois returned slowly to the tiny bedroom and glanced uncertainly at Clark. He had remade the bed and now he glanced at her with equal uncertainty.
"If you like, I can take the floor. Or the chair."
Lois shook her head. "Not *this* floor, and you'll need a chiropractor if you try to sleep in that chair. Besides, if I can't trust Superman, I can't trust anybody. In the meantime, though, what did you mean?"
For a moment, he looked puzzled. "Oh, you mean about us not sitting back and doing nothing. I figure Diana's getting desperate. Her time's running out. She's bound to make another attempt as soon as she can set one up."
"The police must know that."
"Well, sure. But she isn't going to make a direct assault; that's for sure. She tried that and it didn't work. She'll try something else."
Lois nodded slowly. "You're right. There's probably not much we can do —" She regarded the cast on her leg sourly. "Especially with this thing on my leg. But I'd like to be there when they catch her."
"I know what you mean," Clark said. "I'm not much good right now, either."
Lois looked sharply at him. "What do you mean by that? Just because you've lost your powers for a while doesn't mean you're useless, you know. If not for you, Mayson's witness would be dead right now!"
"And if not for you, so would I," he pointed out. "You saved my life back there."
"Well, that's what partners are for. One steps in when the other one needs help," she said. "You may not have your powers, but you still have the most important thing left."
"And that is?"
"Your brain, silly! That's all I've ever had in the way of super powers, and it's served me pretty well, at least so far!"
He didn't answer for several seconds. Finally, he nodded and gave a slight smile. "You know, you're right. Just because I don't have my powers doesn't mean I'm helpless. I'm just normal, like everybody else. But I have to admit you're hard to keep up with, even when I *do* have them. So, what do you think we should do next?"
"Well —" Lois scowled, thinking. "Diana's not going to go back to her apartment — the police probably already have it staked out. Where do you think she might hide? She doesn't strike me as the two-bit motel type."
"That's for sure," Clark said.
"Well, where does that slimy cameraman of hers live?"
"I'd think Mayson would have checked him out, too — don't you?"
"Maybe. I think the two of them have something going, though — when he's not ogling you."
Clark's cheeks turned a dull red. "Let's just not talk about that," he muttered.
"Fine with me — although I have to admit, you're worth looking at."
She grinned. "You mean, you'd rather *I* didn't like looking at you?"
"Anyway," she continued, as if he hadn't spoken, "I think I might have seen him hanging around the lobby of Metro General when I came in this morning. At the time I thought it was my imagination but now I don't know."
"You think he was waiting for Diana?"
"Maybe he had a getaway car for her."
"If he's in this at all," Clark said. "Somehow I can't see Diana telling him all the secrets of her past, and I don't think he's smart enough for Intergang to have him helping out their top assassin."
"Maybe not," Lois said. "Still, he must know something. He was there when Diana showed up in the Planet with her tracker, looking for you."
"True." Clark got to his feet and began to pace. "Well, assuming that she was going to try to expose Superman's secret identity, maybe he was in on that and not the rest."
"Maybe," Lois agreed. "In any case, the police are probably watching him — if they can find him."
"Well —" Clark ran a hand through his hair. "Let's try another angle. She's an assassin for Intergang. What do we know about Intergang?"
"We know Bill Church runs it — at least, we're pretty sure he does," Lois amended, quickly. "Although Perry doesn't agree."
"It's hard to think a friend of yours might be a big time crook," Clark said. "He's in the hospital, though — heart transplant surgery, I heard."
"So, who's running Intergang while he's out of commission?" Lois asked. "That guy you saw talking to Diana?"
"I doubt it. Doesn't Bill Church have a son?"
"Sure, Bill Church Jr. He's the Chairman of the Board of Cost Mart."
There was almost an audible click. Lois said, "Cost Mart! Give me the phone!"
Clark obeyed. "Who are you calling?"
"Research. I want names and pictures of the Cost Mart board of directors and their chain of command. If Cost Mart is really Intergang, the guy you saw might be one of the mid-level executives or something."
Clark was silent while she issued her orders to the hapless individual on the other end of the line. When she hung up, he asked, "How long?"
"Probably about half an hour," Lois said. "Just enough time for Clark Kent to get over there and pick them up. You can get a change of clothes from your locker at the same time."
He looked reluctant. "I don't like to leave you here by yourself."
"I'll be fine. I'll lock the door and check through the peep hole if anybody knocks."
Clark didn't find that promise reassuring. If there was one thing he had learned about his beautiful partner in the nearly two years since they had met, it was that Lois didn't have to actively look for trouble. Given the slightest opening, trouble would find her on its own. Still, what she had said made sense and her idea was a good one. If they were right, and Cost Mart was really the front they believed it to be for Intergang, its list of corporate officers was as good a place as any to start looking for the Intergang boss who had given Diana Stride her orders.
He pulled on the sweatshirt he had worn the night before against the chill of the cold, drizzly day outside and left the motel room, restraining the urge to caution Lois about opening the door one last time. As luck would have it, no taxis were anywhere to be seen, until he was halfway to the Planet on foot. When he arrived, he paid the man from the dwindling hoard of cash, reminding himself to reimburse Lois for half the amount expended on their behalf, and hurried into the Planet.
When he arrived in the locker room to retrieve his spare set of clothing no one was present except the custodian, who greeted him cheerfully. Clark hastened to change his wardrobe and retrieved the spare cash he kept in his locker before he headed for the newsroom.
As he emerged from the elevator, he was greeted by Ralph's voice.
"Hey, Kent, where you been? Your girlfriend from the DA's office was looking for you!"
Clark consciously controlled his expression, giving Ralph a blank stare. "Who?"
"Your girlfriend — the luscious blond dish."
"Are you referring to Ms. Drake?" Clark inquired, coolly.
"Who else?" Ralph tried to elbow him in the ribs but Clark stepped quickly out of the way. He fixed the other journalist — in the loosest of senses, he reflected — with a frosty look.
"Ms. Drake is not my 'girlfriend' as you put it, Ralph. Do you happen to know what she wanted?"
"Nope. The Chief wants to see you, though."
"What a coincidence," Clark replied. He headed down the ramp. The promised information from Research was sitting prominently on his desk and he scooped it up on the way to his boss's office.
Perry was busily editing copy when Clark knocked on the doorframe of his office. He looked up, seeming to be mildly irritated until he saw who it was.
"Come in, Clark. Shut the door."
Clark obeyed. "Ralph said you wanted to see me, Chief?"
"Ms. Drake was here looking for you," Perry said, without preliminary. "Since you're Lois's partner, she wanted to warn you that Lois is a target and that makes you one, too."
"I already know about it. I came by to update you on what's happened and I didn't want to use the phone. Diana made an attempt on Mr. X this morning and when Superman tried to stop her she tried to kill him, too. Lois saved them both."
During this matter-of-fact recital, Perry's eyebrows had slowly climbed until they were nearly at the level where his hairline once must have been. Clark continued, "Superman's disappeared to wherever he goes and Lois has — um — gone to cover, so to speak. We're working on another angle of this whole thing that involves trying to identify who Diana's boss is — the one who gave her the orders. We think it's a shot, anyway."
Perry glanced at the sheaf of papers. "I see. Okay, keep me updated — and for the love of Memphis, be careful!"
"Careful," Clark said seriously, "is my middle name."
"Yeah, well it isn't Lois's. You watch out for her, too. Is that understood?"
"There was never any question of that, Chief," Clark said. He glanced at his watch. "Speaking of which, I need to get back. I don't want her to get any ideas."
Perry gave a bark of laughter. "Go," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow. Just get me that story."
"We're doing our best," Clark assured him.
By the time he arrived back at the motel, it was just after four PM. He knocked on the door of their unit. "Lois?"
There was silence beyond the door. Alarm clutched at him and he quickly produced the key to their room. For an instant the lock seemed to stick but then it clicked back and the door opened.
Lois was curled up on the double bed, sound asleep. He shut the door quietly behind him and locked it, glancing sideways at his partner. Even sleeping, she looked tired. He was tempted not to disturb her, but if he didn't she would probably kill him. Still, she couldn't help him to identify the Intergang boss who had given Diana Stride her orders. He could at least let her sleep until he'd had a chance to check over the photos.
Quietly, he set the telephone on the rug, pulled the nightstand across the floor to the room's single chair and settled down to do some serious research.
The aromas from the bag containing the fast food that he had bought on the way back caught his attention, however. Clark wasn't often really hungry since most of his energy came from sunlight but without his powers he suddenly realized he was ravenous. Breakfast at the hospital hadn't been all that heavy, and a lot of things had happened since. He opened the bag and set out his meal: four burgers, fries, onion rings and a strawberry shake. He wasn't sure it would be enough but he could get something else from the fast food place across the street if he was still hungry. He carefully wrapped Lois's meal in the bag to keep it warm and took a bite of burger.
He'd rarely eaten a burger that tasted as good. Since the place he'd bought it had been a very ordinary fast food place, he had to think it was because he was so hungry. Jonathan Kent had often said, "There's no sauce like appetite", and now he understood what his father had meant as he squeezed ketchup onto the second burger.
While he ate, he studied the printouts that Research had gotten for him. The first sheet showed pictures of Bill Church Sr. and Jr. as well as five men and one woman whose appearance led him to wonder why anyone trusted them to turn in an honest balance sheet, much less manage the company. Two of the men reminded him of Manny Sleek, who ran a used car lot four blocks from the Planet. The next page showed the next tier of company management. None of the faces were familiar. In some disappointment, he turned to the third page. The managers of the Cost Marts in various cities were listed, each with his or her own thumbnail photo.
Clark took a long slurp of milkshake. There were several Cost Marts in Metropolis. The fact was no real surprise, considering the size of the city, itself. It was a nuisance to have to examine each face minutely with the help of a magnifying glass that he had borrowed from Lois's desk before he left, but he persevered, all the while working his way through the third burger and the bag of fries.
"Do I smell food?" Lois's voice asked. Clark almost spilled his shake. His partner, still looking sleepy, was sliding her feet over the edge of the bed and reaching for her crutches.
"Uh — yeah. Here." Clark got to his feet and brought her the food he'd purchased for her. "I got you a chicken sandwich and a salad. They were the healthiest things on the menu. I hope you like vinaigrette dressing. It seemed like the lowest in fat."
Lois yawned, reaching for the bag. "Sure. Did you get anything to drink?"
"A chocolate milkshake. It was that or a soda."
Lois took the proffered items. "That's okay. I'm hungry enough to eat just about anything at this point. I guess I didn't sleep very well last night, and all I had for breakfast this morning was coffee. What time is it?"
Clark glanced at his watch. "Uh — about 4:30. I was just looking at the information that Research gave me."
Clark shook his head. "Not so far — but I'm not finished yet."
"Well, get back to work, Kent!" She poked him in the ribs. "We might not have much time."
Clark grinned. "Okay. I've got a couple more pages to go." He went back to the makeshift desk to resume his work.
A shadow passed in front of the shaded window and they both froze. The shadow grew clearer as whatever had caused it came closer, resolving itself into the general silhouette of a man. The soft crunch of footsteps on gravel confirmed the presence of someone just outside the room's single window. Whoever it was, was obviously pressing up against the window, trying to hear or see. Clark put his finger to his lips, got quickly to his feet and crossed the room to the door. As silently as he could, he opened the panel and slipped out, closing it softly behind him before Lois could voice a protest. If someone was trying to spy on them, he wanted to know who it was.
Quickly and quietly, he rounded the corner and approached the back of the shabby little cabin. He could hear someone breathing heavily — not Diana Stride, he thought. The Intergang assassin was far more skilled than to allow her quarry to hear her breathing. Pausing at the corner, he took a breath and peeked around it.
Standing next to the window of their unit, his back to Clark and one ear pressed tightly to the glass, was Ralph.
The reporter apparently hadn't heard him. Clark stepped up behind him and tapped him firmly on the shoulder. "Looking for something, Ralph?"
The other man jumped so violently he nearly fell over. If Clark hadn't been thoroughly annoyed, the expression on his colleague's face would have been funny but as it was, he fixed Ralph with his most intimidating stare. "I'm waiting."
Ralph gaped at him, apparently incapable of speech. At last, he seemed to gather his wits. "You're a fine one to talk! You and Lane have hardly been in all day and you're holed up in this fleabag together — I should have figured —"
"You should have figured what?" Clark asked, ominously. "Have you ever heard the term 'assignment'?" He reached out and grasped Ralph by his arm. "Come on."
Ralph tried to pull away, but even without his powers, Clark was strong — in a normal, human way, of course. After an instant, the man gave up. "Where are we going?"
"To see Lois, naturally. I'll let you ask *her* what we're doing here."
The other journalist paled visibly. "Uhh — that's not — I mean —"
"You wanted to find out what we were doing so badly that you trailed me from the Planet. It's only right that you see the scandal you've uncovered," Clark said. "This way." He propelled Ralph ahead of him toward the door of their unit. "In here."
Ralph put up another instant of feeble resistance but Clark had no intention of letting him off the hook. He was fairly new to the Planet, but he'd already developed a reputation for spreading innuendo and rumors. Given the chance, he wouldn't be able to resist the urge to gossip about Lane and Kent. Considering Lois's last experience with a gossipy co-worker, and his own, involving Cat Grant, Clark was going to nip this one in the bud. Besides, the last thing he and Lois needed was someone snooping on their private business at some other time in the future. He pushed Ralph ahead of him into the motel room.
Lois was seated on the foot of the bed, her sandwich and salad lying on the coverlet beside her. For an instant she looked startled, then the expression of thunderous wrath that began to gather on her face would have intimidated even Clark, if it had been trained on him.
"What the *devil* are you doing here?" she demanded.
"He seemed to think," Clark said, "that he was on the trail of something scandalous involving you and me."
"*What*?" The sheer volume of her voice made Clark wince, and Ralph seemed to shrivel. "You *idiot*! We're in the middle of an investigation of Intergang — assigned by Perry — and you're sniffing after us looking for a *scandal*?" She grasped one of her crutches and hoisted herself to her feet. Ralph still stood several inches taller than she, but he cringed before her fury. "If you've screwed this up for us, I'm going to send you back to Perry in *pieces*! In case you're interested, we've got an assassin gunning for us, you moron! If you've got any sense at all, you'll go back to the Planet and forget you were ever here — or that we were! Is that clear?"
Ralph nodded vigorously and took a step back, but ran into Clark's solid form, directly behind him. Lois was silent, regarding him in a way that made Clark profoundly thankful that Mad Dog Lane's attention was on Ralph and not himself. When the silence had gone on long enough to begin to make even him nervous, she nodded. "You can let him go, Clark. And if I ever find out you've been spying on me again, Ralph, I'll make you sorry you were ever born. Is that clear?"
Ralph swallowed convulsively and nodded again. Clark stepped out of the way, but met his eyes with a grim expression. "And when she's finished tearing you limb from limb, it's my turn," he said, with only a trace of humor. "Assuming, that is, that she's left anything for me. The last thing an investigative reporting team needs is another reporter from their own office interfering with their investigation." He opened the door. "Don't do it again. Now, get out of here."
Ralph departed in a manner strongly reminiscent of a rabbit fleeing from a hound and if it hadn't been impossible, Clark would have sworn that he left a vapor trail. He shut the door behind Ralph, locked it and turned to Lois. She had sunk down on the bed again and now she looked up to meet his eyes. Her lips twitched. The two reporters stared at each other for a long moment, and Clark had to struggle to control his expression. Then Lois started to giggle. Her giggle set Clark off and the motel room echoed with the gales of their laughter.
"You think we convinced him?" she spluttered finally, between snickers.
"I hope so," Clark said. "Yeah, I think we did. You were convincing, that's for sure."
"So were you. He was shaking in his shoes." She giggled again. "One more problem disposed of. You better get back to your research, though, before your food gets cold."
"It wouldn't matter, if I had my powers," he said, losing the urge to laugh. "I could just heat it up again with my heat vision."
"They'll be back in a day or so," Lois said, confidently. "Let's just see if we can track Diana down before she kills somebody. Remember what I said. You've still got your brain and that's the best super power of all. Let's use it, okay?"
"Okay." He stepped toward her, bent and pressed a light kiss onto her lips. "Thanks, Lois."
She looked a little startled, but pleased. "What's that for?"
"For keeping things in perspective, even when I don't." He cupped her cheek gently with one hand. "It's one of a million reasons why I fell in love with you and why I couldn't do without you, even if I wanted to."
She put her hand over his. "We have a lot more talking to do when we have time, Clark — but I love you, too — and not for your powers."
"I've known that for a long time," Clark said. "I wish I'd told you the whole story months ago. I guess I've got one reason to be grateful to Nigel St. John — even if I never tell him so."
"Neither will I," Lois said. "Still, if he hadn't done what he did, I'd have probably figured it out sooner or later."
He found what he was looking for on the fourth page. The face of the man who had spoken to Diana Stride on her videoscreen belonged to a Theodore M. Hurst, the manager of the Cost Mart located on Avocado Street on the south side of the city.
"Bingo," Lois said, quietly. She glanced at her watch. "He's probably off work by now. Did Research get his address?"
"Yes." He held out the paper. "You think Lane and Kent should pay him a visit?"
"I think Lane and Kent should check out his apartment. Maybe he's got a way to contact Diana."
"I was afraid you meant that," Clark said. "You realize, breaking and entering isn't something Superman should be doing."
"Superman fights for truth and justice," Lois replied. "Sometimes that requires a little breaking and entering." She reached for her jacket. "Do you want to call the taxi?"
"Sure," Clark said. He glanced at his watch. "It's past 5:30. Do taxis come into this part of town at night?"
Lois shrugged. "I wouldn't blame them if they didn't," she admitted. "We've got a little while before sunset, but not much. Oh well, if they won't we can walk to a better section and call one."
Clark raised an eyebrow. "Right. Walk around in this area after dark. Do you know how many muggings I stop around here every night?"
Lois shook her head. "No, but I bet you're going to tell me."
"I average around six to ten."
"In that case, hurry up and call. We want a cab here before sunset."
"You know," Clark said, "I've been thinking about Ralph."
"What about him?" Lois was adjusting her crutches. "These darn things are making my arms hurt."
"If he followed me, just about anyone could have. Ralph isn't exactly Mr. Smooth."
"More like Captain Klutz," Lois said. "How the heck did he manage to follow you, anyway? Weren't you watching?"
"Yeah, I was. I took two different taxis and walked the last couple of blocks. I didn't see anyone following, but I'm used to using my super powers and I don't have them right now. It's possible someone could have followed me without me knowing it, I guess — besides Ralph, that is."
"Ralph's a snake," Lois said. "Sneaky is his style."
"Yeah, but sneaky is Diana Stride's style, too," Clark pointed out. "And, she's a trained assassin. If Ralph followed me, she could have."
"Or that slimy cameraman of hers," Lois said. "We're going to have to give you a few more lessons in avoiding tails, I think. And maybe some elementary self defense."
"Yeah, well that's for later," Clark said. "We better be careful. It's possible Diana knows we're here." He reached out to extinguish the room's light and then strode to the window to peek out between the slats.
"See anything?" Lois asked.
"No, but that doesn't mean anything." Clark bit his lip.
"Well, if it were me, I'd be watching the door," Lois said.
"I guess that means we go out the window again."
"No, we're going out the door and over to the office. If anyone is watching, they'll expect us to come out the front door again."
"And, of course, we don't."
Slowly, allowing for Lois's speed on crutches, they left their motel room, and started toward the office of the Shady Inn.
In actuality, they moved more slowly than was necessary, allowing Lois to scan the surrounding area while pretending to have difficulty making her way across the asphalt toward the office.
"Do you see that silver car across the street and halfway down the block?" she asked, suddenly. "Is that a Ferrari?"
He glanced casually in the direction she indicated. "Yeah, it is."
"Can you tell who's sitting behind the wheel?"
Clark squinted. Even without his powers, his vision was very good. "I think it's a guy with long, dark hair."
"Rolf," Lois said. "You were right. That's Diana's car. Come on, let's get to the office."
"What did I say about walking around in this part of town after dark?" Clark said. It was now noticeably getting toward dusk. The shadows were beginning to creep over the streets and between the buildings. The sun would be down in fifteen minutes and he genuinely didn't like the thought of wandering around this place at night.
It was twenty minutes later. They had exited their room without fuss, gone past the indifferent man at the office counter (whose nose was buried in his magazine) and exited via the back door. An alley opened up between two buildings and they ducked down it, pausing at the end while Lois caught her breath.
"What now?" she asked, ignoring his previous comment.
"I think we need to find a place where we can hide out for half an hour or so," Clark said, "just until Rolf decides we've gotten away. You're not going to be able to keep ahead of him on those things, if he decides to try to follow us."
"No kidding," Lois said. Her eyes narrowed. "But, there might be another way."
Clark looked at her, thoughtfully. She had that look in her eye that he had discovered months ago led to normally dangerous, usually outrageous behavior on their part. "What are you thinking?"
"I was thinking that we need transportation. And out there is a car, just waiting for us, with a guy in it who doesn't have anything good for us in mind."
"Well, does he?"
"No…but you're talking about stealing Diana Stride's car."
"Not stealing it," Lois said. "Just borrowing it for a little while. Besides, what do you think would happen if she was stupid enough to report it stolen to the police?"
"They'd arrest her," Clark said. "But —"
"Exactly. Now, here's what we'll do…"
"He's still there," Lois said. "I think he's starting to get worried, though."
Clark squinted through the falling mist and the dusk that had begun to fall. Rolf was looking through a pair of binoculars in the direction of the Shady Inn. As they watched, he got out of the car and craned his neck, obviously trying to improve his view of the establishment's grounds.
"I don't see any sign of Diana," Lois said. "Do you?"
"No. I think he's alone."
"Okay, then, you know what to do."
Clark hesitated. Lois nudged him. "Go on," she urged. "The quicker you get it over with, the better."
"Yeah," Clark grumbled. "This is embarrassing." He drew a deep breath. "The things I do for a byline. Okay, here goes." He started toward the Ferrari. Rolf's back was toward him, and he was getting back into the driver's seat as Clark approached. Clark reached out to catch the door and moved up closer to the cameraman.
Rolf looked up, startled. Clark leaned down, smiling a little. "Hi there, Rolf. I've been waiting for you."
The man's eyes widened slightly. "Is something wrong, Mr. Kent?"
"Why don't you call me Clark," Clark said, quelling the urge to run. "All my friends do. At least, I hoped you were here to look for me. I'd noticed you were following me. You and I need to talk." He rested a hand suggestively on the other man's arm. The passenger door was locked, he noticed, but that could be taken care of, if he managed to get into the car.
Rolf smirked. "I didn't think you were…"
"Interested?" Clark suggested. "I have an image to maintain, after all. Why don't we go somewhere and…talk this over?"
The man's smile widened. "What about your companion — Ms. Lane?"
"Oh, I sent her back to the office," Clark explained, offhandedly. "I didn't think we needed a chaperone."
Rolf reached over to unlock the passenger door. "That was an excellent idea," he agreed. "Get in."
Clark hadn't seen Lois approaching, and apparently neither had Rolf, but very suddenly the door opened and she slid into the passenger seat. In one, quick move, she removed the keys from the ignition. Clark smiled more widely. "Why don't you move over, Rolf? I think I'd like to drive."
The cameraman's smirk broadened. "Am I in trouble?" he asked, coyly. "Are you going to…punish me?"
"Maybe," Lois said. "You better do what he says, Rolf."
Rolf looked dubiously at Lois, sitting in the other seat. She scooted herself against the door and patted the leather invitingly. Obediently, if slowly, Rolf clambered over the shift and made himself small in the bucket seat. "Where are we going?"
"You'll find out when we get there," Clark said. He took the keys Lois handed him. "You really ought to be more careful, Rolf, or you might get punished more than you'd like." He waited until Lois had managed to fit her crutches into the vehicle and started the engine. "Any suggestions, Lois?"
"Yeah." She glanced at the shift. "Do you know how to handle one of these?"
"Sure," Clark said. "I used to drive my dad's tractor all the time. How different can it be?" He ignored the faint, pained whimper from Rolf. "Is this thing a five-shift?"
William Henderson, Inspector in the Metropolis Police Department, had come to help himself to a cup of java. The electric coffeepot in his office was on the fritz for the fourth time this month. He suspected some well-meaning rookie might have cleaned it again, which inevitably ruined the taste of its coffee for at least a week. The brew produced by the machine on the table behind the desk sergeant was guaranteed to remove the varnish from furniture, but it was *coffee*, not one of those fancy lattes favored by the new guy that ran the snack cart.
The outer door opened and he glanced automatically around to see who it might be. It was the evening shift and most of the civilian traffic for the day had ended. As his eyes rested on the newcomers, he heaved a resigned sigh. It looked as if the evening was not starting off on a promising note. Lois Lane, a plaster cast encasing one leg, was holding the door for her partner, Clark Kent, who was escorting a dark, slender man with a shock of black, shoulder-length hair, before him. If "escorting" was the right term. The reporter appeared to be holding the man in an arm lock. That was something new. He moved forward to stand beside the desk sergeant as Kent pushed his captive up to the counter. "Who's this?"
"Mayson Drake has an APB out for this guy," Lois said, without preliminary. "He's a cameraman for 'Top Copy', named Rolf Landrieu."
"Dipping into police work now, Lois?" Henderson inquired, drily. He moved out from behind the counter and gestured to a couple of uniformed officers, who were loitering near the water cooler, to take custody of the cameraman.
"No, but since his boss is apparently trying to kill Lois, it seemed like a good idea," Clark said.
"Right. Why didn't I figure that out?" Henderson surveyed the slender, dark man curiously. Rolf smirked and ran his gaze deliberately up and down Henderson's body. Henderson regarded him stolidly. "Pearson, put Mr. Landrieu somewhere safe and get hold of Assistant DA Drake." He turned back to the two reporters as Rolf was led away. "Now, what the devil is going on?"
"Well — that's a little hard to explain," Clark said. "Basically, Lois stopped Diana Stride from killing the government's witness against Intergang, this morning, and now she's on Diana's hit list — probably somewhere after Mr. X. Rolf followed me back to where Lois was hiding out and we decided to —"
"Never mind, I get the picture and I don't think I want to hear any more," Henderson said. He shook his head. "I'd ask how Lois happened to be in a position to save the witness, but that would require an explanation for why the police guards weren't there, and I don't really want to know."
"Good, because I don't have the time to explain," Lois said. "Mayson can tell you all about it, if you ask her. Do you need us for anything else?"
Henderson regarded her cynically. "You seem to be in a hurry to get out of here."
"I have a story to write," Lois said. "Can we go?"
Pearson re-entered the room, a pensive expression on his face. "Landrieu complained that Mr. Kent made advances to him and stole his employer's car," he reported, glancing thoughtfully at Clark. "He also wanted to know if we were going to punish him." Henderson felt both eyebrows rise. He looked at Clark Kent. The reporter rolled his eyes and Lois snickered.
"Clark?" she said. "Don't be ridiculous. And no one stole the car. It's parked right out in front." She produced a car key and laid it on the counter. "Here's the key."
Henderson waved them away. "I'm not even going to ask," he said. "Get out of here, both of you, before I lock you up just on principle." He managed to keep his expression deadpan until the two turned away, but after the door closed behind them, his co-workers were surprised to see their normally poker-faced superior turn to retrace his steps into his office with a broad grin on his features.
"Well, that was easier than I thought it would be," Clark said. "Now what?"
"Now," Lois said, "I think we should get over to the hospital. I have a bad feeling about Diana. She sent Rolf to find me, which means she's got more important things to do."
"Yeah. I was thinking along the same lines," Clark said. "I guess we better call a taxi."
"Well, we can't use Diana's car," Lois said, "and I sure don't want to walk. It's a good twenty blocks."
"Twenty-two," Clark said. He laid a hand on her arm. "Thanks, Lois."
"Just, 'thanks'." He glanced over his shoulder at the station and then back at her. "How are you holding up?" he asked. "You look tired."
"I am," Lois admitted. "It's all right, though. I'll sleep when this is over. There's a phone on the corner. Why don't you call the taxi?"
The taxi, when it arrived several minutes later, was from one of the minor taxicab companies that inhabited Metropolis; Clark had deliberately selected a smaller, less widely used company to make it more difficult for Diana to spring a plant on them. The driver, a slender Asian man, took them to Metro General in record time without the usual hair-raising chances that made Lois normally unwilling to take a Metro cab anywhere she didn't need to. She waited while Clark paid the man and added a modest tip to the total. As they moved toward the main steps of the hospital, she remarked, "I think I'll use Carnation Cabs from now on, if that's how they drive. We didn't have one close call in twenty-two blocks."
"My friend, Chen Chow, suggested them," Clark said. "A friend of his in Chinatown owns the company."
"Naturally," Lois said. "That explains the name." She worked her way up the wide steps of the hospital, noting how Clark waited patiently for her, matching his pace to hers. She had learned so much about this man in the last few days: things she had never imagined about her perfect superhero before, or about her partner — and things, she suspected, that he hadn't realized she had learned. For one thing, she had realized almost at once that he wasn't perfect — not by a long shot — and yet, that somehow made the idea of being Superman's partner much less scary. He depended on her, that much was plain. It wasn't just an act to make her feel more adequate, nor did he resent it when she held him back. Somehow, she seemed to make up for his lacks, just as he made up for hers — as she and Clark had always done, even before she had found out about the other side of his personality. She brought something to Superman that would have been lacking without her; he knew it and valued her for it. Somehow, it made him more amazing to her than he had seemed when he was the invincible alien.
And that was something else. Superman might have seemed alien, but Clark didn't. He was, perhaps, the most human man she had ever met. So much for ultra-logical aliens with pointy ears, she thought, whimsically. *Her* alien was something special, and if she wanted him, he was all hers. And she did want him. As soon as this mess was over and Diana Stride was under wraps, she was going to tell him so.
"What's so funny?" Clark asked.
"Oh. Nothing, really — well, yes, something. I just made up my mind about something; that's all. I'll tell you later."
"Okay." He opened the big, glass door for her. "Making it all right?"
"Yeah." She entered the hospital lobby, glad to be out of the falling mist. The bright lights in the room made her eyes tear up and she blinked the water away.
There were still three or four journalists still doggedly staking the place out. She recognized Jenkins from the Star and another man whose name she couldn't recall, from the Intelligencer. And there was the creep from the Dirt Digger. She glanced at her watch, keeping her face turned from the men. All she needed was for them to spot her.
"It's still visiting hours for another thirty minutes," she said. "We could go up to Jimmy's room and see how he's doing."
"Good idea," Clark said. He was carefully keeping his head turned away from the reporters as well, she noticed. "Mayson said they're still keeping him on the ICU floor to make it easier for them to guard him. We can see how Mr. X is doing while we're there."
Without fuss, the two reporters traversed the main corridor toward the bank of elevators. Metro General was one of the largest hospitals on the Atlantic coast and, as such, there were plenty of people here at all hours. As they moved down the hallway a nurse passed them, wheeling along a woman who appeared to be in labor. Lois glanced at her in sympathy and then gave her a second, harder look. Could it be possible?
If she hadn't been hyper-alert and suspicious of everyone, she would hardly have noticed the patient at all. She looked disheveled, her hair hung in her eyes and she wore no makeup. Hunched over in the wheelchair, she clutched her rounded belly as if she were in pain. For a moment Lois hesitated, unsure. If she was wrong, she would undoubtedly upset the woman, annoy the nurse and thoroughly tick off the police whose job it was to guard Jimmy and Mr. X.
The wheelchair had gone past and was disappearing around the corner by the time she made up her mind. "Clark!" she whispered, "I think that was Diana Stride!"
"Who was?" Clark asked.
"That woman in the wheelchair!"
"Are you sure?" Clark asked, dubiously.
"No, but I *think* it was! Hurry!"
They rounded the corner. Ahead of them, the nurse was just wheeling her patient into the elevator. The doors closed as they approached and the light indicating the location of the elevator began to flash.
"We're too late!" Lois said, the frustration in her voice making it louder than she had intended. "Now what?"
"Watch the indicator," Clark said. "Let's see where she goes."
"Which floor is Maternity?" Lois asked.
"Fourth," Clark said. He counted out loud. "Second…Third…Fourth…it's not stopping. Fifth." As he spoke, the indicator ceased moving. "It's stopping on Fifth. That's Pediatrics. ICU and Critical Care are on Sixth. Call the elevator. I'll meet you on Fifth."
"Where are you going?"
"Up the stairs. Something's wrong."
"Go. Be careful."
"I will." He flashed her a grin and opened the door to the stairs.
Lois rang for a car and waited, impatiently tapping her good foot. The indicator they had been watching still hadn't moved, which was very odd.
A moment later there was the traditional "ding" announcing the arrival of another elevator and a pair of doors popped open. Four people exited and the last man out held the doors while Lois worked her slow way inside. That might have been unusual courtesy in Metropolis, but he was wearing a white uniform and his nametag identified him as an LVN.
"Thanks," she said.
"Don't mention it. Need any help?"
"No, I'm fine." Lois smiled and punched the button for the fifth floor.
The doors closed and the elevator moved smoothly upward.
As might have been expected, the elevator slowed to a stop on the second floor and the door opened to admit two passengers: an elderly man in a wheelchair and a candy-striper who was pushing the chair. She pushed the button for Third and the doors slowly closed again. The elevator moved upward once more and braked to a stop on Third: Med-Surg, Lois noted, suppressing the desire to demand that the two hurry. The volunteer maneuvered her charge carefully out of the elevator, and then held the door courteously for two uniformed employees who boarded with a leisurely air. One of the white-coated women held the door open while she exchanged conversation with a technician waiting in the hall.
Lois had had enough. "Do you mind?" she inquired, acidly. "I'd like to get to Fifth sometime tonight."
The woman glanced at her in annoyance and Lois glared unapologetically back. Slowly, the other woman released the door and stepped back into the elevator. The doors slid shut and the conveyance started upward, only to come to a stop on Fourth. The talkative passenger exited, with an irritated look at Lois, who ignored it. Again, the elevator moved upward and finally slid to a long-delayed stop on Fifth.
She exited to a scene of excitement. Two Security men, several persons in the clothing of hospital personnel, and Clark were standing around the elevator that the woman they had believed to be Diana Stride had entered. A woman lay on the floor of the elevator, unconscious, dressed only in her underthings. A doctor was dabbing at a bleeding cut on the back of her head. As Lois exited the elevator, someone appeared with a blanket to cover the victim. Lois glanced at the scene for an appalled instant, then turned to Clark. "What happened?"
"When I got here, a couple of people were already here," he told her in a low voice. "It looks like Diana held up the nurse and took her clothes. There's the wheelchair." He pointed to the opposite side of the hallway. "Diana is gone."
"And probably wearing a nurse's uniform," Lois said. "Why would she come to Pediatrics? Even if she goes up the stairs, she'll be stopped when she comes out onto the floor."
"She may not need to. What if she plans to do something from here?"
Lois stared at him, horrified at the suggestion. "This is Pediatrics! It's full of kids!"
"Do you think that would stop Diana?" Clark asked, quietly.
Lois bit her lip. "Probably not. Where do you suppose she is?"
Clark was looking around. "She could be anywhere. Lois, you find a phone. Get hold of the cops at the station upstairs. I'm going to go look for her."
Lois glanced at the scene of confusion. One of the Security men was speaking rapidly into a radio. "I think they're already finding out," she said. "I'm not letting you go anywhere alone with that woman here, somewhere."
Clark didn't argue. He pointed to the left. "I'm going to try down here, first."
"If we go halfway down, we'll be right under the rooms where Jimmy and Mr. X are," he said.
Without another word, Lois followed him. In the open corridor, she could swing herself along on the crutches almost as fast as he could move. Personnel brushed past them, hurrying toward the scene of the assault, but no one tried to stop them.
"I think this is the spot." Clark paused, turning his head right and left. To their right was a patient's room, the door closed, and to the left, a supply closet. Clark pushed the door to the patient's room open and peered within. Lois craned her neck to see past him.
There were two occupied beds in the room, and the television was on. The two little boys in the beds were engrossed in some kind of two-player video game. They never even looked around when the reporters stuck their heads through the door.
There was a soft thumping sound behind them. Lois glanced over her shoulder but there was no one to be seen. There was only one place the sound could have come from.
Without a second thought, she swiveled on her crutches and crossed the hall to the supply closet. If she startled a custodian or a nursing assistant, it would be worth the chance. Not letting herself stop to think, she jerked open the door.
Diana Stride was kneeling on the floor, assembling some kind of mechanism. As Lois's brain registered the fact, the woman saw her and her hand flashed to the handgun lying beside her.
"Lois!" Clark shouted. As the gun came level with her, Clark's hands shoved her to the floor. The silenced gun spat four times. The noise was loud in the confined space but some distance away, anyone who heard it probably wouldn't know what it was. The bullets whined over her head, and she saw Clark jerk as one of them struck him. She screamed.
Clark went over Lois in a rush, tackling the assassin before she could fire again or rise from her kneeling position on the linoleum. Lois rolled to her knees in time to see Clark wrenching at the weapon. Diana Stride twisted like a cat, pulled her hand free and struck at the side of Clark's head with the gun. He managed to half-block her, but the blow connected anyway. Lois grabbed for the nearest heavy object within her reach and scrambled toward the struggling bodies. Blood smeared the two of them and the floor liberally, and she couldn't tell which of them was bleeding. If it was Clark, he couldn't be too badly hurt, she told herself, hopefully, but he was definitely getting the worst of the battle. She hesitated for an instant, waiting for her chance. The assassin struck a second time and Clark half fell across her. She pushed him aside, starting to turn toward Lois.
Lois swung the bedpan as hard as she could.
There was a tremendous clang and Diana gasped, seeming to pause, then her hand relaxed, allowing the weapon to drop and she slid bonelessly to the floor.
"Clark!" Lois pushed the woman out of her way and reached Clark where he lay face down on the floor. With a tremendous effort, she turned him over.
There was a bullet hole in the front of his shirt, she saw, but only a few streaks of blood stained the cloth. Hastily, she pulled it open.
On his chest, directly over his heart, was a tiny cut and a huge black and blue bruise where the bullet must have struck. She closed her eyes as the world swam for a moment, at the realization of what had happened.
Clark stirred under her hands and she opened her eyes at once. He began to push himself slowly to a sitting position. Lois helped him, not at all surprised to discover that her hands were shaking. He rubbed his face, looking dazed, then his gaze went past her to where Diana was sprawled on the floor. "What happened?"
"I hit her with a bedpan," Lois said. Her voice was shaking as hard as her hands. "Clark, she nearly killed you!"
"I know." He looked down at the spreading bruise on his chest and then pulled his shirt together, beginning to do up the buttons. "Where did all the blood come from?"
Lois was checking Diana Stride over, since Clark didn't seem to be bleeding heavily enough to account for it. Almost at once, she discovered a tiny cut on the woman's scalp, which explained the apparent gallons of blood smearing the floor. "I guess she hit her head when you tackled her." She pointed to a shelf where various rolls of gauze and adhesive tape had been neatly stacked. "Hand me one of those. And you better call Mayson Drake's people." She looked distastefully at the half-assembled device that Diana had been working on. "I could be wrong, but I think this might be a bomb."
Clark got slowly to his feet and picked up a roll of gauze. "Will you be all right until I get back?"
"Yeah." She took it from him and began to tie Diana's wrists together. "Just don't take too long, okay? I think I've had enough for one day."
"You and me both," Clark said. He fingered the hole in his shirt where the bullet had struck. "Now, all I have to do is explain this."
Lois gave a shaky smile. "You were wearing a bulletproof vest."
"Yeah," Clark said. "I guess I was."
"Are any of your other powers back?" Lois asked. They were standing just inside the main doors of the hospital, waiting for a taxi. Outside, the mist had turned into a very cold rain that was spattering the sidewalk with big globs of water and running down the gutters like small rivers. Overhead, thunder growled, occasionally.
"I think my hearing is starting to improve," Clark said, uncertainly. "Hopefully, I'll be mostly back to normal in a day or so."
"I'm just glad you've started to get your invulnerability back," Lois said. The thought of that bruise on his chest still made her shudder slightly. "Clark, you could have been killed!"
He put an arm around her. "I couldn't let her hurt you," he said, quietly. Lois gulped, recalling the incident weeks ago when Clyde Barrow — or his clone, not that it made any difference — had shot Clark. This time, it could have been real. She had known for a long time that her partner would willingly die for her, but the incident tonight drove that knowledge home in a way nothing else could.
"We can't go back to either of our apartments, or use my car until your powers are working again," she said, changing the subject, abruptly. If she thought about it too much, she was going to break down in public and that was something Lois Lane didn't do. "You've got to check them over before I'll trust any of them."
"Where do you want to go, then?" he asked. "We have to sleep somewhere tonight."
"Well, we still have a room at the Shady Inn," she pointed out. "At least it's safe."
"Lois, there's only one bed," he objected.
"All the better," she said. "If there's anything I'm sure of about you, Clark, it's that I can trust you. I want to hold on to you tonight. Otherwise, I'm going to have nightmares; I guarantee it."
His arm tightened around her shoulders a little. "All right."
A taxi from Carnation Cabs pulled up outside and Clark opened the lobby door for her. She looked doubtfully at the water pelting the front steps and then gasped as her partner matter-of-factly picked her up in his arms and carried her down the stairs. Inside the cab a moment later, she brushed at the water on her clothing while Clark gave the driver the address.
"I guess," she said, "that we'll have to take the day off tomorrow. This was my last good outfit."
"Mine, too," Clark said. "I suppose we can phone the story in to the Planet."
They fell silent as the cab driver took them through the downpour to the shabby little motel. He pulled up as close to the cabin as possible and Clark paid him before he and Lois stepped out. Again, he carried his partner the few steps to the cabin, the crutches dangling awkwardly from her hand, and set her down inside.
Lois shook the water from her eyes and wiped her face as Clark closed the door. "Brr. It's cold in here."
"I'll turn up the thermostat," Clark said, suiting the action to the word. Lois made her way slowly toward the bed and sank down on the foot of it. She could hear the hum of the heater as it kicked in and within moments a warm draft began to blow into the room.
"That's better," she said. She removed her jacket. Clark took it at once, shook it to remove as much water as possible and hung it on the rack that stood behind the door. "Did you bring back the stuff you were wearing this morning?"
"I figured I could wear the sweat shirt tonight and you can wear the sweat pants," she said. "I'm tired."
"So am I," he admitted. "It's been a long day. Do you want the bathroom first?"
"You go ahead. It's going to take me longer than you with this thing on my ankle," she said.
He nodded. "Okay. This won't take long."
He was right. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the bathroom wearing the sweat pants. The sight of the huge black and blue mark on his chest made her shudder again but she said nothing. In the tiny bathroom, she washed her face, brushed her teeth with her finger and completed her bedtime routine as quickly as she could. When she slipped into the sweatshirt, she discovered that it came to mid-thigh, and she had to roll the sleeves back a couple of times. When she left the bathroom again, Clark was already lying in the bed. He smiled at her, seeming a little nervous. "If you like, I can sleep on top of the covers."
"I couldn't hold you, if you did that. I hope I don't kick you with this thing."
"I don't care if you do." He held out his free arm, looking almost shy. "To tell you the truth, I want to hold you, too. Diana might have nearly killed me, but she was aiming at you."
Lois sank down on the edge of the bed, laid her crutches on the floor and slid under the covers. Clark put his arm around her and she turned to face him. With one hand, she lightly touched the bruise. "Does it hurt?"
"A little. I'm glad I have it, though, because you're alive."
"Because of you. You pushed me out of the way. Clark, if your invulnerability hadn't been coming back, that bullet would have killed you!"
"I didn't have time to think," he confessed, "I just reacted."
She shivered slightly. The nearness of disaster had left her feeling shaken. "I nearly lost you, and I hadn't even had a chance to tell you what I'd decided."
"And that was…?"
"I made up my mind — remember, I said so before all this started? If you want me —"
"*If* I want you?" he said, sounding startled. "Of course I do! I want you for the rest of my life."
"I know," she said, "even if I don't understand why. You know what I told you about my parents — I've never had much faith in this 'forever' thing, but you do and I know I don't want to be without you, so if you're willing to take the risk, then I am, too."
He rested his chin on top of her head. "I'm willing, all right. I don't ever want to be without you, Lois. You're the reason I stayed in Metropolis; you're the reason I created Superman; and you're the woman I've been waiting for all my life."
She felt him nod. "I'm sure." He pressed a kiss on the top of her head, since it probably was the only place he could reach at the moment, she thought. Slowly, she ran her fingers over the bruise on his chest again. If she'd ever needed the proof of how Clark felt about her, it was there.
She slid her free arm over his ribcage and snuggled down against him. "We need to discuss a lot of things — tomorrow," she added. A yawn interrupted her. She heard Clark chuckle softly. Then, he yawned as well.
"Go to sleep," she said. "You know, I don't think I'll be having any nightmares tonight, after all…"
"Nice job, both of you." Perry indicated the headline that would be hitting the streets in a little less than an hour. The indictment of Diana Stride, former host of Top Copy, on multiple counts of murder and attempted murder, was big news. About the only drawback that Lois could see offhand, was that it had given the failing tabloid news program a second lease on life, which showed serious signs of disturbing the relative peace that had reigned over her life and Clark's for the past couple of weeks.
Clark rested a hand on her shoulder. "Well, trust Lois Lane to bring in not only the story but the criminal as well," he remarked. "Although, hitting her with a bedpan was kind of an unusual way of subduing an assassin."
Perry gave a bark of laughter. "Whatever it takes." He glanced at Lois. "You two can take off. I hear you're gettin' that thing off your ankle today, Lois. A bit early, isn't it? It's only been two weeks."
"They're just taking off the plaster cast," she explained, getting to her feet. "My doctor said he thinks I can manage with an athletic one from now on — you know, the kind held on with Velcro straps. I can hardly wait."
Perry grinned. "I understand that. I had a cast on my wrist for six weeks when I was in my teens. The part I remember the most clearly was how the durned thing itched, the whole time."
"Don't remind me," she said, making a face.
"Here you go." Clark was holding her coat for her, and she slipped her arms into it. When she had fastened the buttons, he had the crutches ready to hand her. "We'll see you on Monday, Chief."
Perry slapped him on the shoulder. "If any of those tabloid bottom feeders bother you, Clark, you tell 'em where to go, you hear me?"
Clark's mouth twisted slightly. "Diana was just trying to distract people from her problems, Chief. Nobody took her seriously."
"Of course not," his boss said. "That's why the Planet didn't even bother to mention it and neither did the Star. But you know tabloids. Anything to sell their rags."
A few minutes later, however, when they emerged from the Planet, Clark winced involuntarily as two men emerged from behind the corner of the building.
"Clark!" the grey-haired one said. "Any comment on Diana Stride's assertion that you're Superman?"
"Hello, Nunk," Clark said, not in his most welcoming voice. "I don't think you need a comment. She's an assassin for Intergang and Lois and I caught her. Mostly, Lois caught her because I was unconscious on the floor. What do you think?"
Lois took his elbow. "Come on, Clark. Anyone who would believe you're Superman would believe in little green men from Mars." She gave Nunk a withering look. "Oh yes, I forgot who I'm talking to. This is the guy who thinks Benjamin Franklin lives in some woman's electric blender. We're going to be late for my appointment. I don't want to keep this cast on my ankle a minute longer than I have to."
Nevertheless, when they were safely in the Cherokee, Lois said, "First Top Copy and now the National Whisper. This is getting to be a real pain. We're going to have to think of some way to convince people that Diana was making it up."
Clark signaled and turned left at the stoplight. "I don't think she was, Lois. She saw Superman in jeans — and then she saw me take that bullet. I think she knew."
"So do I." Lois bit her lip. "Fortunately, she doesn't have any proof but we have to do something, or it could start to seriously interfere when you need to go save the day."
"I've been thinking of that," Clark said. "I can't afford to have people watching me all the time. Maybe we can talk it over with Mom and Dad when we see them this evening."
Lois hesitated. "Are you sure I won't be in the way, Clark? I know Easter is sort of a family holiday…"
"Of course you won't be in the way," he said. "Did I tell you how thrilled Mom and Dad were when I told them you knew the truth? Dad said he thought I'd put it off way too long as it was." He reached out to take her hand. "Remember that 'rest of my life' thing?"
She nodded without speaking.
"I meant it. Mom's been dropping hints ever since I told her about us. She warned me I'd better not let you back out of this weekend. She's dying to tell you about all the embarrassing things I did while I was growing up."
"You better believe it." He squeezed her hand. "Of course, she guessed months ago that I was head over heels in love with you, no matter how hard I tried to hide it."
"Your mother and father are pretty smart people," Lois said. "In some ways, I think they're a lot smarter than mine. At least they knew what was important in life while my parents were busy screwing up their own lives and their kids' lives, too. You were lucky to have them."
"Yeah, I was," Clark said, slowly. "When we get to Smallville, I'll show you Shuster's Field where they found me. They couldn't have kids of their own, but they made the best possible parents for a foundling from a dead world. I was lucky in another way too, though. I not only had them, but I have you. I thought for a while that I was never going to find the right woman for me — until I saw you. In a split second, everything changed and I knew you were the one I'd been looking for all my life."
"So," he concluded, "don't even think about trying to get out of this. You're just going to have to put up with a quiet Easter in Smallville with my parents and me."
Lois determinedly swallowed the large lump in her throat. "That's a lot better than spending a quiet Easter alone in my apartment."
"I hope so." He pulled into the parking lot of Metro General. "Let's go get that thing off your ankle, shall we?"
"That sounds good to me," she said. "I think there's a parking spot in the middle of the second row."
"I see it." He maneuvered through the crowded lot, past persons apparently oblivious to the presence of the Cherokee and pulled into the space. Lois reached for the door handle, but Clark put a hand on her wrist. She turned and found herself irresistibly tugged into Clark's arms and thoroughly kissed.
When he let her go, she sat up, she gasped a little for air. Clark could certainly kiss! "What was *that* for?"
He was smiling. "For being the woman I love. For being you."
She laughed softly. "You have a very convincing argument, mister."
"You looked like you needed a little convincing," he said. "Next time you start to doubt whether my parents and I want you along, just remember that."
"Okay." She rested a hand against his cheek. "I'll tell you what. When I start getting doubtful, I'll let you know and you can convince me again."
"It's a deal," he said, "Now, let's go get that cast off."
The Kansas farmhouse looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, Lois thought a couple of hours later, and wondered how she could ever have thought that the Kents might not want her here. The cozy living room was much as she remembered it from a year ago. It was funny how a year — and an altered viewpoint — could make all the difference. A crackling fire burned in the fireplace and outside the westering sun cast a pinkish light on the little scudding clouds that dotted the sky.
She heard footsteps and Martha Kent entered the room, a photo album held carefully in her hands. "Here it is. I've been wanting to show these to you for months."
"Clark was afraid you'd show me all kinds of embarrassing pictures of him," Lois said, "but I want to see what he was like when he was little."
Martha sat down on the sofa, next to her. "He'd probably think these were embarrassing," she admitted. "They're just pictures of him doing all the things normal little boys do, though. He wasn't super powered when he was a child, you know. He didn't start getting his powers until he was around ten or eleven, and we weren't really sure there was anything unusual until he was nearly twelve." She opened the cover. "Here he is, playing with his little boats in the bath tub…"
There was a resemblance between the happy, smiling toddler in the tub and the man she knew now, Lois thought. Had he always had that brilliant smile? "He looks like he's having a good time," she said.
"He used to love baths," Martha said. "That is, until he was about seven. Then it was all I could do to get him near soap and water. This next picture was at the town Halloween party…"
In the barn, Clark finished helping his father with the chores. He glanced back in the direction of the house and groaned aloud.
"What?" Jonathan asked.
"Mom's showing Lois those pictures of me at Lana's fourth birthday party," he explained, morosely. "You remember the one where Pete Ross smeared icing in my hair?"
"How could I forget?" His father chuckled at the memory. "Women don't look at these things the way we men do, son. She probably thinks you were cute."
"I hope so," Clark said.
"She will. Your mother wants her to feel more like one of the family. Have you asked her, yet?"
"Not yet," Clark said. "Lois is kind of skittish about it. I'm letting her get used to the idea, first."
"I know the feeling," Jonathan said. "I was so anxious to get married that I jumped the gun. Your mom turned me down the first three times I asked her but eventually she came around. Lois will, too."
"I know. I just don't want to pressure her."
"You're a lot more patient than I was," his father said. "Grab a pail, son. The cows aren't going to milk themselves and they don't take well to super speed milking."
"I found that out years ago," Clark said. "Let's get this done. I want to get in there before Mom completely destroys any respect Lois may still have for me…"
Martha's cooking was just as delicious as Lois remembered and for a moment, she was assailed by doubts again. If his mom was this good a cook, what did Clark think of her own pathetic kitchen skills? She glanced up to see him grinning at her.
"It's a good thing Mom taught me most of what she knows," he observed, seeming to read her mind. "Don't worry, Lois. I can cook for both of us."
"It's just as well," she retorted. "I only know how to make four things and the main ingredient in three of those is chocolate."
Martha laughed. "I don't know why the woman is always expected to be the cook," she said. "She might have more important things to take up her time."
"Exactly," Clark said. "When did I ever say I expected you to cook, Lois?"
"Never," Lois admitted.
"I raised a smart son," Martha said. She rose from the table. "Now, Clark is going to do the dishes for us. If we really hurry, I may be able to show you where you're going to sleep tonight before he finishes. Unless," she added hopefully, "you two are —"
Clark broke into embarrassed laughter. "Mom, you're incorrigible!"
Jonathan cleared his throat. "Martha, I'm sure Clark and Lois know what's best for them."
Martha glanced at her red-faced son and laughed. "Clark, you're just too easy," she said. "It's not even a challenge! Come on, Lois. You remember where Clark's room is, don't you?"
It was some hours later. The fire had died down to glowing embers and a single lamp burned at the foot of the stairs. Lois sat quietly on the sofa, looking around at the cozy room. Everything about this place said home. This was why Clark was the way he was and this was why he believed in forever. The security he had known in this house had become a part of him.
It was the kind of home Lois had thought she had, while she was small — before her father had begun having affair after sordid affair and before her mother had started drinking. She wasn't sure she wanted to be tied to one place, but it did have a certain attraction. She had always maintained her feeling of independence with a kind of defiance — if she depended on no one, it wouldn't matter if someone let her down.
But now, that was all changed. She had Clark, and she found that she depended on him. It wasn't all one way, though, because he depended on her, too. Things were changing so fast it took her breath away, but she found that it wasn't unpleasant. Confusing, yes, but that might not be such a bad thing. Being alone and depending on no one might be safe, but it was lonely. She might have to give up some of that fierce independence, but what she gained in its place could be infinitely more valuable.
"I wondered where you were." Clark's voice spoke softly from behind her. "Is anything wrong?"
She shook her head. "No."
He came around the sofa and settled down beside her. "Are you tired?"
She leaned against him, feeling a comfortable sense of fatigue. "A little. I was just thinking that this house would have been a wonderful place to grow up. It feels like — well, like home."
He put an arm around her. "It was, I guess. It wasn't the place, though, so much as the people. If I'd grown up in a two room apartment in the city, it would still have been home."
Lois was silent for a long moment, digesting that. "I think I understand," she said. "You're right, of course. I was wondering if something like this was what I wanted. I'm really not sure."
"That's okay," Clark said. "Where I live, or in what — it doesn't matter, as long as I'm with you. To me, that's home enough."
She turned to look at him in the darkness. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and Superman's profile was distinctive against the reddish glow of the embers in the fireplace. "Do you mean that?"
He turned to face her. "Of course. The 'where' isn't important. It's the person I'm with that matters."
She rested her head against his shoulder. "That makes me feel better."
"Good," he said.
"I'm glad I came," Lois said. She exhaled, feeling tension that she hadn't even been aware of draining from her mind and body. "Your parents are so — not insane. Your mom showed me your pictures, you know. You were a cute little boy, but you make an even cuter big one."
"Unless I have frosting in my hair," he muttered, under his breath.
Lois giggled. "You'll have to tell me the story behind that," she said.
Clark laughed, softly. "Tomorrow," he said.
"Okay." She relaxed against him, enjoying the sensation of closeness. Clark was very comfortable to lean against.
He rested his head on top of hers, and both were silent, watching the flicker of the fire. The old farmhouse was quiet except for the creak of a board and the soft sound of the wind blowing against the sides of the building. Somewhere, a cricket was chirping rhythmically. Lois laid her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, an instant later, the rosy light of early morning was shining through the window.
(until the final story, that is)