By Cyad <email@example.com>
Submitted: November 2002
Summary: In this alt-world story, Lois's cousin, Erin, comes to Metropolis from France in search of a story on Superman. Little does she know that her cousin Lois has the whole scoop on the Man of Steel, or that the man of *her* dreams is waiting for her in Metropolis.
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine; I just borrowed them for a while…and played with their past sometimes.
Thankies: Thanks to all the people on the MBs for their comments. A special thanks to my GE, Erin Klingler, and LabRat. Also thanks to the AFP (French News Agency) and the Bon 2 restaurant for letting me use their establishments as settings for some NGDF's scenes.
Note: In this story, Jimmy is a single and foster child, whose mother died in a car crash. He doesn't know about this spy dad of his… Not yet.
<> denotes character's consciences pop in and chats.
Dedication: To Saskia. Thanks for your amazing and superspeed BR, brainstorming and comments on this. Well, I so wanted it to be finished for your second year results. Still, congrats for it and make it a Happy Bday fanfic then. Well, seems it's gonna be more like a X-mas present fic actually…
"I'm a genie. I can make all your wishes come true. What do you want?"
"Can you revive my loved ones?" (Cyad)
AFP, French News Agency, Paris (France)
"In my office…Et que ‡a saute!"
"In a minute, Chief!"
The petite brunette figure got her note pad and took a deep breath before heading to her editor-in-chief's office. Pierre Blanc wasn't exactly the patient type, but why d'you think he became head of the International News Department?
She got her job at the AFP three years ago, after graduating from a French journalism school. She already had a US journalism degree, but that was another story, a story she'd buried deep in the back of her memory four years ago, hoping time would help her to heal and forget. Being a major had allowed her to choose what she thought was best for her. But right now, she missed the daily paper's newsroom she was used to when she took her classes. Being on a story, *live*, meeting people from various worlds and digging through the mud to get info, and a scoop, if necessary. Now all she was doing was collecting, checking, rewriting and giving fresh news to journalists so they had a lead to build a story on. All things considered, Pierre's roar had woken her up from her growing lethargy.
"Wanted to see me, Chief?"
"Yeah. Erin, you speak a good English, if I remember?"
"Well, I grew up in the US and I'm in charge of the American and English speaking countries section…"
"Right, right. And you have relatives in the US?"
"Well…a cousin. It's been a while since I last saw her but…what's your point?" Erin suspiciously asked.
"I've got an assignment for you."
"What? In the US? But it's been four years since my last investigative story, and…"
"Once an investigative reporter, always an investigative reporter," Pierre teasingly cut her.
"Er…yeah! But…what's the scoop?" she wondered.
Pierre handed her a pile of telex and various US daily, weekly and monthly newspapers front pages.
"A friend of mine at Reuters sent me those. At first I thought he was just playing a late April fool's trick on me, but now…" He sighed.
Erin's green and hazelnut eyes went from his face to the papers now scattered all over Pierre's desk.
'Not a bird, not a plane, a guy in spandex,' read the FX magazine cover.
'Superman: Metropolis designated guarding angel,' the Metropolis Star headline explained.
'Krypton flying style,' Fashion Week proposed.
"Pierre, you can't be serious!" Erin joked. "This is just a guy trying to draw the media's attention to him. I'm sure he's got some circus attraction to promote or something…" she doubtfully added when suddenly another title caught her attention. It wasn't the title exactly, but the paper it was published in, and the name of the journalist who wrote it: 'a Superman interview, exclusive by Lois Lane.'
"Lois…" Erin voiced aloud.
"You know the reporter?" Pierre wondered.
"Yeah, we went to University together," Erin replied before subtly changing the subject. "So lemme get this straight, you want me to…"
"…Go to Metropolis and bring me back photos, plus anything there is to know about this Superman: who's he? Where's he from? Why Metropolis and not Gotham City, London, New York or Paris? What's his deal, etc," Pierre finished.
"But…you've got all this explained in the bunch of US newspapers you just showed me!" Erin argued.
"I want facts," Pierre shouted back. "Real facts. I want you to go out there and verify the information," he stressed.
"But…who's gonna take care of my section while I'm gone?" she asked, a hint of fear in her voice.
"Erin, I know you're dedicated, fast learning and hard working…probably the best and more hard working of my people. That's why I want you there. You, and no one else. Do I make myself clear?" he asked.
"Crystal clear, sir, and I'm really honored you trust me so much, but still…"
"I'll take care of your section, *Tiger*! I used to do it before you were even born," he laughed. "Our travel agency booked you on today's Paris-Metropolis international flight. Here's the ticket. Plane leaves from Roissy-Charles De Gaulle in four hours," he finished, handing her the documents.
Erin gasped. It didn't gave her much time to finish her minor work, write a memo for Pierre about it, go back home and pack…not to mention the taxi calling thingy.
"Thanks, Chief," she automatically replied before rushing out of his office.
Erin checked her apartment one last time before closing the door behind her. She headed outside just in time to meet the taxi. She didn't have much luggage: a suitcase, her purse and her reporter bag stuffed with her focused-length camera, e-camera, voice recorder, films, batteries and loads of notepads and pencils.
"Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, please."
"I know…step on it, as usual," the driver teased her.
"Oh, Jean, I didn't recognize you!" Erin nervously smiled before they both continued their chat.
"So, what's you destination today?"
"USA," she said.
"I thought you never went that far for business," he exclaimed.
"Well, things change," Erin stated.
"New York?" Jean asked.
"Maybe…hey! Who's the reporter here?!" she joked.
"So, how's your family?" Erin went on.
As the taxi stopped in front of the International Flights Terminal, Erin knew everything there was to know about the driver's family life, from his oldest boy's exam results to the first tooth of his baby girl.
"Well, bon voyage, miss!" Jean wished her.
"Thanks! And all the best for you," Erin replied as the car took the road back to Paris.
~~Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean~~
<I hate taking the plane. I'm gonna kill Pierre as soon as I get back to Paris,> Erin promised herself after a discrete cross sign.
Trains and cars were okay with her. With a little willpower, she could take a boat or a ferry…even a helicopter.
<I like helicopters,> Erin mentally stated as memories popped in her mind. <Or maybe not,> she corrected, quickly wiping out a tear.
But airplanes had always frightened her. The bunch of papers she'd written on the subject didn't help her fears. She knew it was the safest and fastest way of transportation on earth, but she couldn't help thinking that, if something bad happened up here, there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
<I hate not being in control one way or another.>
She would have felt more reassured if she could have seen earth or life-teeming towns underneath. Even the sight of whipped cream look-alike clouds would've worked fine. But this was a night journey and there wasn't much of a landscape to see, so Erin slept most of the flight. She didn't want to be too jetlagged. But from the moment the plane approached Metropolis and started its descent, positioning itself in the landing runway axis, she'd acted like a seven-year- old girl, sticking her nose to the porthole, marveling at every single thing her eyes fell onto.
<Metropolis…> she sighed as the first floodlit buildings shown into New Troy's night.
The touchdown and nearly deafening sound of the engine- reversing mode snapped her out of her reverie. As the airhostess finished her speech, all passengers unfastened their seat belts and left the plane to either catch their connection with domestic flights, greet their awaiting relatives, or sketch out a smile as they spotted their name displayed on a board.
Erin took a deep breath and headed to the exit, looking for a taxi. After a few seconds, she spotted one and stepped in. The driver was obviously more interested in crosswords than in making a few bucks. She was about to step out, but decided to give it a second thought. The cab was the only one still available at this late hour, and she was too tired to argue.
"Ahem!" she loudly coughed.
"Hum…?" The taxi driver seemed to awake from a timeless sleep.
"Lexor Hotel, please."
Slowly folding his newspaper, the driver shot her a 'couldn't have let me finish this' look, and switched on the ignition.
"…And step on it will you, darling?" Erin finished with an asserting tone.
Twenty-five minutes later, the taxi left her in front of the Lexor Hotel. Stepping out, she looked up, trying to figure the building's height. Then, reaching the lobby, she headed to the reception and asked for her room number.
"It's on the 30th floor, miss," the receptionist answered Erin's interrogative look.
"And how do I…"
"Second elevator on your left," the woman kindly explained.
<I need a long night's sleep,> Erin thought, while inserting her magnetic key in the electronic lock. Dropping her luggage, purse and coat, she walked to the window and drew the curtains open to stare at the view. She was too sleepy to fully enjoy it. She wasn't the vertigo type, but right now she felt like flying, but also dangerously attracted to the ground. Closing the curtains, she collapsed onto the bed, snoring. The view would have to wait another day.
~~The next morning, Daily Planet Building~~
The elevator chimed and the doors opened to reveal Lois and Clark, tenderly kissing, oblivious to their surroundings. Jimmy met them at the end of the stairs leading to the news pool. His discrete cough caused the couple to reluctantly break their kisses.
"Lois, CK! How's everything? How did the investigation go last night?"
"We're fine, Jimmy," Clark replied.
"Except we didn't find a single lead. Even Bobby Big Mouth couldn't give us one!" Lois disappointingly answered. "So Jimmy, anything new on the jewelry store robbery?" she wondered.
"We need to know what was stolen exactly," Clark completed. "Particular and rare stones or cuts…things like that," he went on as the trio headed to Lois' desk.
"Well, gimme ten minutes," Jimmy said, ready to dash off to the archives.
Lois sat at her desk, Clark handing her a cup of coffee. "Jimmy! Who's in with Perry?" she suddenly asked. Apart from big bosses, new recruits or…Clark's parents, Perry White was hardly receiving people in his office.
"Don't know the name, but it's a stunning brunette, that's for sure!"
"Jimmy!" Lois exclaimed while Clark was doing his best not to laugh.
"Hey! Ask all the males in the newsroom and you'll get the same comments…except maybe from Clark here. Pretty face, gorgeous eyes matched to a mysterious look, amazing legs…a real glamorous style." Jimmy sighed. "This girl is the personalization of sensuality," he pointed out, a hint of admiration in his voice.
"Hum, sounds familiar," Clark said, gazing at Lois. He was taken aback by her answer.
"Yeah, same thing here…" she answered, an enigmatic look on her face. "New staff member?"
"I don't think so," Jimmy replied. "More the 'I need info, and I'm not gonna leave without it' type. She asked if Perry White was here and headed directly to his office."
"Honey, are you all right?" Clark asked, concerned. Lois seemed lost in thoughts.
"I'm fine!" she chirped. Then she started making faces at him, tucking her hair behind her ears and tearing at an imaginary earring. Clark seemed to get the message, but as he was ready to eavesdrop, Perry flung his office door open.
"Lois! Clark! My office, pronto!"
"What's up, Perry?"
"Clark! Allow me to introduce you to…"
"Erin? Erin 'Tiger' Bradford!" Lois stated.
"Hey 'Mad Dog' Lane! Or should I say 'Ace'?"
"Omigod! It's so good to see you back!" Lois went on, hugging the woman. "How are you? When did you arrive? What are you doing here? Where are you staying? Perry, why didn't you tell me?" she ended, shooting him that 'you know me' look.
"Didn't want to spoil the fun!" her editor-in-chief answered with a smile.
Clark was completely stunned. He'd never seen Lois act like this. She seemed more open, so free, more passionate than he would ever have imagined. And who was this petite brunette, anyway?
<Apparently, Perry and Lois seem to know her well. She's so like Lois, except for the eyes maybe…>
Lois seemed to read his mind. She tried to regain some composure as she caught a glimpse of Perry's amused look on her.
"I'm fine, thanks. I arrived yesterday night and I'm staying at the Lexor Hotel. My, Lois! You're still the same: babbling mode and spitfire questions!" Erin softly laughed.
"Glad to see you haven't lost your punch but, what are you…?"
"Doing here? Well I…"
"Erin's here on assignment, sent by the French News Agency to investigate on Superman," Perry explained.
"Superman?" Lois asked. Feeling Clark's uneasiness, she quickly added, "What about him?"
"Well, the Planet seems to have an exclusive with that guy, and Perry, here…"
"I showed her some pictures and TV footages. I also told her what we knew, from Superman's first appearance in Metropolis to…your exclusive interview of last week," Perry finished.
"But what's your point, Miss Bradford?" Clark popped in.
"Well, now that I know about the 'when,' 'how,' and 'why', I'd like to find out Superman's real identity. The suit is obviously just a costume that's only purpose is to draw people's attention so they only focus on the symbol of truth and justice, instead of trying to figure out who the guy that wears it could really be," Erin stated.
"You seem to be well aware of the subject," Clark went on.
"Yeah," Lois added. "I think Clark and I could use some advice. Tiger?"
<Oh no, she's got that look on,> Lois thought.
Erin was staring at Clark. "I don't think I know you…"
"Er, Erin, this is Clark Kent, my…"
"Partner," Clark completed.
"Clark, this is Erin Bradford, my cousin," Lois ended.
Lois studied Erin's face carefully. A sparkle of sadness and fear passed in her cousin's eyes. The Planet's fiery reporter knew darn well why, so she didn't dwell on the subject.
"What d'you want us to do Perry?"
"Help Erin whenever she requires it."
"But we've got to investigate the jewelry store robbery," Lois argued.
"I can work solo. Besides, I've got some things to verify before I really start the investigation," Erin said.
"Good! Now that we got a deal, could you just dash out of my office and get back to work? I've got a paper to edit!" Perry shouted.
Lois, Clark, and Erin headed to the elevator.
"T'was so nice to see you again, Lois," her cousin said, hugging her.
"Pleasure's mine, Tiger. How long are you staying here? Maybe we could drop in at your hotel some time?"
"Anytime! You could tell me more about this 'Savior in a suit'…"
"Do you know where to dig in?" Lois asked.
"It was a real pleasure to meet you, Clark," Erin said, shaking his extended hand. Then, keeping eye contact with him, and without letting his hand go, answered Lois, "No, but I think I have a lead," she replied, an enigmatic smile on her face. And with that, she took the elevator down and left the building.
"Hey, Jimmy, you all right?" Lois asked the dreamy-eyed and out-of-space Olsen. She and Clark were back at their desks, wondering about Erin's last statement.
"Huh? Yeah! Yeah. I got what you've asked for. All the stolen goods from Metropolis Jewelry Store… Who's that girl? You know her?"
"Actually, it's my cousin Erin. She just arrived from Paris," Lois replied.
"Paris? On vacation?"
"On assignment. She works for the French News Agency."
"She's far away from France… What's her deal?"
"Superman," Lois replied, smiling as she saw a sparkle dancing in Clark's eyes.
"Your cousin…seems quite a girl," Jimmy stressed admiringly.
"Yep, reminds me of a brunette I know," Clark continued, gently teasing his girlfriend.
"Well, we're alike in many ways. Our final year in journalism was the first when they had a tie. Two majors: Erin and I. She's more like a sister to me…" Lois's voice died as she suddenly realized she had an audience.
"Lois, it's okay…you don't have to tell us if you don't feel like it," Clark started.
"I want to…I mean, obviously Jimmy, here, is interested, and…"
"What? No!" Jimmy denied. Then, catching a glimpse of Lois and Clark's dubious looks, continued, "Okay, maybe deep down inside me…but be realistic, she'll go home in what…two weeks? A month maybe? What kind of a future can we have together?" Jimmy wondered aloud, retreating to the archive.
"Definitely," Clark echoed.
"Where's the Jimmy that asked a girl for her number? The one that used to say 'I'm young, life is short…Carpe Diem with babes'? Listen to him now…" Lois wondered.
"Well, here's another thing you and Erin have in common," Clark stated, flashing that gorgeous and incredible smile of his.
"What is it?" Lois smiled back at him, curiously.
"You're able to sweep a guy off his feet at first sight," he told her seriously, his eyes filled with adoration.
"Oh, Clark," Lois whispered before softly tugging at his tie for a tender, brushing kiss. "Truth is, Erin and I drifted apart after…"
"Lois, you don't have to do this," Clark stopped her. He knew how hard it was for her to confide in someone when it concerned her personal life. Whatever happened with Erin still seemed to be too much for her to bear.
<Some wounds never heal.>
Even if he wanted Lois to know that he'd be there if she was willing to let him share this time of her past, he didn't want to rush her and lose her for pushing his luck too far.
"I want to…I want you to know. Jimmy sees you as the big brother he never had so, this could help you…help him understand," Lois told him.
"Wanna get out of here?" Clark wondered.
"You read my mind! Your place would be good, because I'm gonna need comfort and cuddling at some point…"
"I'm all yours…I mean…er…"
"I know what you meant, and I really appreciate it," Lois reassured him, secretly blushing at the thought. She slowly sneaked her arm around his waste as they headed to the elevator.
Lois made herself comfortable on Clark's sofa while he filled two mugs with some hot white tea. He carefully studied Lois. She hadn't said a word in the car, and since they'd arrived, she seemed to take pains clutching her mug while sipping the hot beverage. When he sat down on the couch, she instinctively cuddled closer to him, as if she was seeking refuge in his embrace.
"When we were kids, Erin and I used to do everything together," Lois began. "We went to school and college together. Most people thought we were twins, which always annoyed Lucy. Erin's parents had divorced a year before my parents did, and that also drew us closer. She was a single child and I think the situation was even more difficult for her to bear than for me and Lucy. Erin lived in Metropolis with her father…mom's brother. We graduated from the journalism school the same year, which earned us our professional nicknames…"
"Mad Dog Lane?"
"Yeah, and 'Tiger' for Erin. We then started at the Planet. After a while, Perry used to team us on assignment, and, well…"
"Is this why you told me you didn't want a partner when Perry first teamed us?" Clark asked.
"Yes…it was bringing back painful memories. Anyway, Erin was dating a reporter and war correspondent from the Metropolis Star, Chris Bradford. They were very much in love and got engaged a week before Perry sent us to the Congo on the arms dealing trade. Erin wasn't really happy to leave Chris behind, and neither was he to let her go…even if he knew it was part of the job, which also made their relationship so special: two reporters working for Metropolis' oldest and well-known rival newspapers, about to get married. We had good laughs with that and…" Her voice cracked.
"And?" Clark softly asked, gently cradling her in his arms.
"Told you I would need some cuddling," she tried to joke. "Well…the Congo was tough. We were dealing with death on a daily basis and Erin was missing Chris terribly. But she couldn't resist scooping him on this one and that thought prevented her from loosing her sanity. What she didn't know was that Chris had managed to be sent to Congo too. He arrived two weeks after us. Erin and him got married in a mission near Brazzaville. One of the doctors often visited secluded villages by helicopter and, as a wedding gift, he offered the newly weds a ride to Victoria Falls."
Lois stopped again, hugging Clark closer as tears threatened to flow. "Chris got killed by rebels in an ambush near the Congo River. He'd told Erin he had a tip to verify, that it could prove big, if real. She'd wanted to go with him but he refused, arguing that it was surely nothing and that she'd be a better help if she stayed with me. But I could tell he didn't want to endanger her life. I knew she'd go anyway. She was too fiery to just drop it. So I suggested the three of us should go."
At this point, Lois raised her head, desperately searching Clark's eyes as she went on. "He got killed trying to protect Erin. Shot in the back and in the head. She got badly wounded trying to shield her husband's body. I got hurt trying to tear her away from Chris…Erin didn't want to leave him there. We were with a UNO convoy. I don't even know how we managed to get out of that hell place, but after all these years, I can't help but blame myself for Chris Death." She took a deep breath, trying to compose herself.
"Lois…it's not your fault; there's nothing to blame you for," Clark told her, caressing her hair. "The three of you knew this was part of the job, and Erin knew perfectly well what she could face when she married a reporter and war correspondent," he finished. He didn't know if he was convincing enough. The story just revived his worst nightmare: not being able to save Lois from an ugly death in time. Still, his argument seemed to work on his girlfriend. She lightly tilted her head as her face curved in a hesitant smile. She was breathtaking.
<And she'll never cease to amaze me,> Clark thought. He knew he probably wouldn't have enough of a lifetime to uncover the mystery Lois Lane was made of…but he was willing to give it a try. <If only she'd…> Lois's answer interrupted his train of thought.
"I guess you're right. But I lost Erin after that. Four months later, we went back to Metropolis via Paris, where Erin stayed at her mother's and started a new life. She even had to pass the French journalism exams to be able to work as a French reporter. I'm sure she never healed, and it must be pretty hard for her to come back here," she stated.
"What makes you so sure?" Clark asked.
"Then, how about paying a visit to your look-a-like cousin?" Clark proposed.
Lois leaned forward to tentatively capture his lips. Her move surprised him. At first, it was a soft and tender kiss, which rapidly took a more passionate and intimate turn. "Thank you," Lois murmured against his mouth.
Barely aware of his surroundings, Clark seemed to reconnect to the world. "What for?" he whispered.
"For being here…for being you," Lois timidly replied, almost afraid of her confession, but staring at him with adoration.
Clark's heart melted. "Lois, it's the sweetest thing you've ever told me," he said, wrapping his arms around her shoulders in a protective embrace.
It was amazing how right it felt when she was in his arms. She felt at home. She'd never experienced anything like it before.
<I could stay like this forever.>
He had proposed to her a month ago, after Jason Mazik kidnapped his parents. She'd almost died there, but nothing would've stopped her from trying to save them, not even Clark's pleading. She envied him for having such wonderful folks. So they'd kissed as if they would never see each other again, conveying all the love, all the passion, all the feelings they held for each other in this embrace. Then Lois had asked him to freeze her with his breath and take her body to Mazik. As for Clark's proposal…Lois was scared. She didn't feel ready for a life-time commitment. She needed time.
<I answered 'no,'> she remembered. He was so angry at her that she thought she'd lost him forever. He was acting so cold back then. Then seeing him purposely avoiding her was an everyday torture. Still, after a week, he'd quit being distant and told her he understood, that he was willing to give her all the time and space she needed. Then he'd assured her that his love for her was unconditional and that he'd wait for her, no matter what.
<He sure knew how to sweet talk a girl.>
She couldn't quite recall what kept her from throwing herself into his arms and telling him he meant the world to her, that she couldn't imagine her life without him. Anyway, they'd agreed not to bring this 'M' issue back in a conversation. Lois was sure her feelings for Clark would never change and could only grow stronger but…
<I don't want our marriage to end up like my parents' one… Who am I kidding, I don't want our marriage to end as tragically as Erin's and Chris's,> she corrected.
<If Erin and I are so alike, then who knows what might happen if I come to say 'I do'? I'm always dangling over the jaws of death, and Clark… There are so many people who'll love to kill Superman and who could try to harm him through me if they find out…>
<Don't you think you're over mind racing here?>
<It's just the 'until death do us part' stuff…it makes me nervous.>
<Nervous? Dear, you invented the concept 'as tight as a Stradivarius.'>
<And 'as flying as an angel'?> Lois observed, laughing at her remark, which reminded her of the 'Angel and Spike' duet she played with Clark when they visited Big Buster Williams in jail, to pump him for information.
"Since we're levitating, flying to the Lexor Hotel in super class would be nice," she gently teased Clark.
"Your wish is my command."
~~Lexor Hotel, night, two minutes later~~
Erin looked doubtfully at the door. She hadn't ordered room service and wasn't expecting any visits.
"One moment, please," she voiced aloud. Tightening her bathrobe around her, she grabbed her purse and started rummaging through it until she found what she was looking for. Clutching the tiny pepper spray, she cautiously made her way to the door and opened it.
"Lois? What are you and…"
"*Clark* doing here? We thought you could use some company," Lois went on a little too cheerfully.
"Well, it's always nice to see friendly faces, especially when abroad," Erin admitted, stepping aside to let them in, while concealing her spicy weapon in her bathrobe pocket. "Though I thought you two were more of the flying style. Superman, isn't it?" she finished, turning to Clark.
<What? How did she figure that out so fast?> Clark wondered. <Okay, finally something she and Lois don't share!> He silently smiled before deciding to play it cool.
"I prefer Clark, or Kent, or 'hack from Nowheresville' when I'm out of the suit," he replied. "What d'you need pepper spray for?" he asked, taking her off-guard.
"Amazing breath freshener," she joked back, giving tit for tat.
"I can't understand the inhabitants of Metropolis didn't figure you out by now," Erin went on. "I mean, a pair of glasses and some hair gel, come on! It took me five minutes to put two and two together. I'm sure Lois cracked you in, what…"
"Two years. We decided to create Superman when I found out about Clark's special abilities…right after we started dating," Lois sheepishly admitted.
"Two years! Lois, you used to be faster than that!" Erin teased her.
"Well, I get real dependant and blind when in…" Lois joked back. She stopped when she felt Clark giving her a gentle pinch on her arm. Looking at him, stunned, she quickly noticed his look and…Erin's.
"Lois really didn't meant to make you uncomfortable by bringing back memories," Clark intervened.
"You told him?" Erin stared at Lois in disbelief. Then she reluctantly admitted, "Well, it's only fair considering…"
"Erin, you're not mad?"
"Well…I only wanted to keep my personal life private but, I guess, if it's all in the family…"
"In the family?" Lois and Clark let out. Lois looked at her cousin, stunned.
"Earth to flying reporters. You're engaged. You're gonna get married some day, aren't you?" Erin pointed.
"Er…it's not that simple," Lois smirked.
"Yes, we… Look at us! We came here to cheer you up and tell you about Jimmy's… And now we're the one sitting on the psychoanalyst's coach," Clark said in a laugh…and in a Lois's babbling mode style.
"Who's Jimmy?" Erin suddenly asked.
Lois was about to answer when she caught Clark's 'here's a job for Superman' familiar look. His hand-flying gesture made her last doubts vanish.
"Go," she simply said.
"But…this could take long and I'd feel a lot better if I could *walk* you home," he started.
Erin looked at him, transfixed. The thought hit her like lightning. This caring, this kindness, this protectiveness…the whole demeanor instantly reminded her of Chris. Suddenly, all the events that took place near the Congo River made sense.
<Chris knew perfectly well his lead was dangerous. He probably even knew it was an ambush. That's why he didn't want me to go there, and asked me to stay with Lois…but I was so stubborn back then. He was only trying to protect me; he always had…and I did as I was used to, and I didn't listen…> Erin cursed herself.
"She can stay here, no trouble at all," she reassured Clark.
"See? I'll be fine, now go!" Lois stressed. As he quickly changed in the suit, ready to dash off, she called after him.
"Be careful," she finished.
"You know me," he replied, giving her a light and furtive kiss on the lips.
"Is he always that overprotective?" Erin wondered, blinking her silent tears away.
"Well…yeah! But we're working on it," Lois replied.
"So, what about this Jimmy, and why d'you always freak out each time you hear the 'M' word?"
"You're nothing but persistent. I don't remember you being that punchy before," Lois eluded.
"Don't try to avoid answering me Lois. We went to the same school, and I know all your tricks."
"Okay, you win! Jimmy Olsen—Jimmy to us—is the Daily Planet's photographer and the most talented one I know. He could make a good reporter, too, if only Perry let him…"
"That's not the subject I'm interested in," Erin cut her.
"I know," Lois answered mischievously, "but you'll have to listen to this before I get to the second part of the question."
Erin sighed in resignation.
"Well, it seems Jimmy fell in love with you the moment he laid eyes on you…which, I think, must've been two seconds after you entered the newsroom this morning. It's really not his style to fall 'head over heels' for a girl. He's more the 'have a taste' kind of guy…"
"Oooh! 'Beware women, here comes a playboy'?" Erin joked. Lois knew her tricks, too. Erin often used irony and her incredible sense of humor to hide the scars life had inflicted on her, or to shield her weaknesses, turning it into strength.
<I know what you're trying to do 'Tiger,' but I, too, know you well.> Lois inwardly smiled before trying another tactic on.
"Jimmy's like a brother to us. He's a single child. From what I know, his mother died when he was a kid. As for his father—he 'went for cigarettes'…a nice way to say he left Jimmy's mother. I don't think he ever knew about her pregnancy. I don't even know if the man's still alive. Anyway, he considers Clark as the big brother he never had and I know Clark feels the same way about him. He's always looking after him, one way or another. That's why I told him about Chris. As for Perry, well you know him…" Lois stated.
"Yes, I think I get the picture," Erin winked.
"What I'm trying to say, is that he's hooked and he's already convinced that you two can't have a future together. I don't want him to suffer, even if he may have a point, so promise me you'll talk to him," Lois pleaded.
"You sure you don't work for a matrimonial agency?" her cousin teased.
"I know you'll probably never get over Chris' death, and you can tell me to mind my own business but…"
"Lois, I'll never love someone the way I loved Chris. He was the one, do you understand?"
"That's not what I'm asking you to do. But it's been four years now. I'm sure Chris wouldn't want you to be miserable because of his loss. You're young. You can't possibly be willing to live a lonely life. One day you'll have to move on," Lois pointed.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well, it's not likely to happen but, would you move on if Clark dies?" Erin asked her. Life seemed to drain off Lois' face.
"I… Gosh! I didn't realize it was so late! I really should go home now," Lois suddenly said, raising from the sofa and heading to the door.
"What's the rush? It's only been ten minutes since Superman left, and Clark told you to wait for him to…"
"He always says that…and I never listen!" Lois observed.
"Lois Lane! You're not a coward, so don't you dare play the part!" Erin defied her. Lois stopped dead in her tracks and turned to face her cousin, arms folded on her chest.
"Are you challenging me?"
"No…not yet. But you've still got a question to answer."
"I'll answer if you promise me you'll talk to Jimmy."
"How about you answer and I'll think about it?" Erin tried.
"How about I don't and ask Clark to have a nice little chat with Jimmy?" Lois blackmailed her, raising an eyebrow.
"How about you sit down, we order dinner, chocolate cake…and we both spill the beans?"
"Chocolate cake? With extra chocolate sauce?"
Erin nodded. "What d'you say, 'Mad Dog'?"
"Deal!" Lois laughed as Erin dialed the room service number.
Clark was back from his "duties" earlier than he would have thought. The car accident in Florida was a mess, with many vehicles involved, but it was mostly material damage. A few people were injured, and the paramedics had it under control after Superman cleared the area. Now he was floating outside Erin's window. As much as he loved Lois, she could be so secretive. <Especially when it comes to personal feelings…> He silently smiled. Well, he couldn't resist eavesdropping a bit. He observed both cousins. Their resemblance was amazing, but Clark couldn't tear his gaze away from Lois. She was so caring with her cousin. This was a side of her she'd never let him see. He could swear Lois didn't expect Erin's question at all. Her 'always be prepared' instincts had failed her this time.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well, it's not likely to happen, but would you move on if Clark died?" Erin had asked her.
He'd seen Lois' face pale in shock at the question. He struggled not to whoosh in and hold her tight, but he couldn't resist listening to Lois' answer, so he waited, anxious about her next move. Then she'd bolted upright and rushed to the door, hardly hiding her distress. He then watched, amazed, as both women passed from nearly tears to laughter.
<Oh no! Not now!> The call had become familiar to the superhero, but there were times where Clark just wished he could switch off his super hearing. He sighed before flying off into the night.
"Hum…" Two sighs of pleasure filled the quietness of the room.
"This was very good, you know…I mean, that was…"
"Amazing. This was…heaven!" a second voice completed.
"Comes naturally, with the right person. Not as good as Clark's but…"
"Hey, this isn't something I usually share with anybody…"
"I know, and I appreciate that. But you just have to taste Clark's chocolate cake before you went back to Paris. If this one was heaven, his will take you to the moon and back!" Lois assured her cousin.
"Literally?" Erin teased.
"Could be," Lois blinked. "So, where were we before we ate that tremendous dessert?"
"I think you were gonna tell me why you're so frightened of the 'M' word," Erin replied.
"No, *you* were gonna tell me about your constant avoidance of a relationship," Lois went on.
"I'm not avoiding relationships. I dated a couple of guys after, but…" Her voice faded. "I tried, I really did, but I guess the reason I don't want to throw myself into a relationship is the same that makes you want to run away when a marriage-related subject comes over…" Erin continued.
"What! I'm not running away! It's just that…" Lois took a deep breath before staring right at her cousin.
"…I'm scared," both women admitted.
"We're some tough girls, aren't we?" Lois joked. But as Erin didn't seem to recover from her confession, she dropped her joking style, worried. "Erin?"
"Look, I'll talk to that Jimmy, but it's gonna be awkward, since I've never met him before. I can picture this: 'Hi, you're Jimmy? Erin Bradford, Lois's cousin. Well, Lois told me you had this crush on me, and she wanted me to talk to you. I'm really touched by your feelings but see, the last man I fell in love with, whom I married, ended kind of murdered so…I don't think we're gonna make it together. Besides, I'm flying back home soon, so how about pretending you never saw me and I don't even exist? By the way, it was nice meeting you.'" Erin's monologue stopped.
"Okay, maybe it's better if Clark tells him first…"
"Maybe. Now, you owe me an answer!" Erin stated, fixing her green and hazelnut eyes on Lois.
"Okay, okay! It's not easy. Don't get me wrong, but I'm scared that if I marry Clark, we'll end up like my parents. I mean, I want this to last forever."
"Forever's a long time, and this is not a fairy tale you're living in."
"I'm also scared that our marriage ends up like yours. What if one of us gets killed?" Lois said.
"Killed? Clark is Superman; nothing can possibly kill him!"
"Well, you never know what a psychopath might do with Kryptonite…"
"Kryptonite? You mean the stone really exists?"
"Positive. Green killing glow from Krypton…and I said 'one of us.' You know I sort of…"
"…Jump in first, and think second?" Erin finished.
"Yup. Rings a bell?"
"Lois, I think you're not asking the right questions here. You told me to move on with my life. I don't promise I will, but I'll give it a try. Now, let me give you some advice: nothing lasts forever—believe me, I know. But it's good while it lasts. So don't waste time in guessing or 'what ifs.' Just enjoy every moment you share with Clark. The guy loves you so much. It shows in the way he looks at you, in the way he treats you, in every gesture and move he makes when he's around you…and obviously you feel the same way about him. What couldn't you possibly face together?"
"I don't know…you think I'm foolish?" The phrase was barely an audible whisper.
Erin's look softened. "Not foolish, extra careful maybe…but certainly not foolish!" She smiled.
"Speaking of togetherness…what could possibly keep Clark so busy? It's been more than an hour now since he left," Lois wondered, worried.
Superman landed in front of Metropolis' largest jewelry store. It was the second robbery the owner had faced in a week, and Clark could feel the distress in his voice as the man recalled the scene, the same that took place a few days ago.
"I was closing the store after making sure all the safes and alarms protecting expensive jewelry masterpieces were either properly closed or on. One of the thieves used a rocket launcher to blow up the main shop window. Then he held me at gun point, threatening me to death if I dared calling the police, while his partner went for the jewels. Which is why I screamed for super help…once they were gone," the owner apologized.
"Perfectly understandable," Superman replied.
"The strangest thing is that they seemed to focus only on small and low quality jewels. They could have gone for the expensive and renowned ones, but no…"
"Small and low quality jewels?" Superman raised an eyebrow, clearly puzzled. "I don't understand. They're taking huge risks, use high range weaponry and heavy logistics, only to steal earrings, rings or necklaces that are not even masterpieces?" he asked.
"Exactly! This is beyond common sense," the jeweler finished as the first police cars arrived.
Lois and Erin looked at each other with puzzled looks as a knock interrupted their conversation. Heading to the door, Erin soon returned with an even more astonished face.
"There was no one th…how?"
Lois hardly managed not to burst out laughing at the question. Clark was standing beside her in the Superman outfit. Then he spun back into civil clothes.
"Okay," Erin recovered, "you got me!"
"You just don't usually go to the window when you hear a knock, especially when your room is on the 30th floor," Lois pointed out.
"So, what took you an hour?" Lois asked Clark as the three of them sat on the sofa.
"Well, first a car crash in Florida. I was not far from the hotel when a robbery occurred in Metropolis largest jewelry store. This is the most interesting part…"
"Front page material?" Lois asked, switching to reporting mode.
"Maybe. Seems the thieves use big weaponry such as rocket launchers and high-powered rifles. They work in teams, usually waiting for closing time so there are hardly any witnesses."
"Clever jewel thieves in Metropolis? Newsflash!" Lois smirked.
"Well, there's nothing surprising here. I mean, even in Paris criminals use such technical means to attack banks."
Clark turned to Erin. "To attack banks, not jewelry stores," he stressed.
"You're right. Usually a gun is enough, especially if you carry out the robbery at night, or closing time," Erin thought aloud. Lois stared at her cousin, then at Clark.
"So what's the interesting part?" she finally asked.
"Well, it seems they only steal low cut articles instead of going for the expensive masterpieces."
"But it doesn't make sense! Why…"
"…Would they take such risks? Obviously, they don't want to sell expensive and rare stones on the black market," Erin said.
"Are they made of gold?" Lois wondered.
"Not only. Yellow, white and pink gold, silver, platinum…"
"So they're not likely to melt them into gold bars," she pursued.
"I don't get it!" the three of them spoke in unison.
"Maybe it's not the gems but the setting they're interested in," Lois supposed. "Maybe they already have high ranking stolen gems, and they just want to dismantle the low quality stones of their newly stolen bounty and replace them with the one they already got in store," she ended.
"It'll make their selling easier without raising any suspicions. But there's another thing I don't get," Erin went on. "Why steal rare and at least two-figures carat gems knowing you're gonna have to smash them in a thousand pieces to benefit from this gold mine without the police being aware of it? Why not go to underground dealers specializing in stolen expensive jewelry who can get in touch with billionaires and ready-to-buy-it-at-any-price art collectors in a snap?" she asked.
"It's easier to cross borders and get the jewels out of the country?" Clark tried.
"But there are easier ways to do that with the right contacts and networks, and without devaluating the merchandise," Lois put up.
"Well, it's been a real long day," Erin yawned. "I don't wanna be rude, but I think I'm gonna sleep on it and…"
"Oh, we understand…"
"I didn't realize it was that late," Lois went on.
"Well, see you all tomorrow at the Planet then," Erin said.
"At the Planet? But I thought you had things to verify solo?" Clark asked.
"That was for my Superman investigation, but now that I know…" She smiled.
"Then, new brainstorming on the robbery, tomorrow, in the conference room," Lois stated.
Clark and Lois wished Erin a good night and left the hotel…by the window.
Once Clark and Lois were gone, Erin unpacked her suitcase and changed into black leather pants and a turtleneck jacket. After she'd left the Planet this afternoon, she'd gone into Suicide Slum to reactivate her old informative networks, and get back in touch with old sources that even Lois didn't know about. A source of hers, knowing she was back in town, had left a message on her bedroom voicemail earlier this evening.
"One AM, outside your hotel. Bring your sneak-in suit. Ruby," the message said.
<Hum! It's not his style to make jokes. Must be pretty big stuff,> she thought.
She'd put her mini Maglite, black silk gloves, pick-Lock set, pocket knife and pepper spray in a stylish backpack…without forgetting ropes and snap hooks. Grabbing her cashmere coat, she'd checked her appearance in the mirror and left the bedroom. At 1.00 AM a taxi met her outside the Lexor Hotel.
"Come on, Tiger, it's no cocktail party here!" a male voice shouted at her from the passenger seat.
"Harr…Ruby?" Erin quickly corrected, instinctively shielding his real name.
"Would you please get in, and save the small talks for later?"
"What is it with you and code names, Harry? I thought you hated it? And what are we doing here anyway?" Erin asked once the taxi left them in front of an abandoned factory near the docks.
"We're awaiting our transportation," Harry answered. "Here we are," he continued as a helicopter came out of nowhere.
"You'll never change, huh, 'The Gentleman'?"
"Hey, beware! I'm wanted by the police under that name!"
"But not in this country, am I right?" Erin teased.
"So, how are you doing?" Harry went on as they both boarded the helicopter.
"I'm fine; a bit tired…but fine. You?"
"Better since you're here. It's so good to have you back!" he exclaimed, hugging her and kissing her on the cheeks.
"Glad to be back, and it's also good to see you. But dad, it's been a long time since I've done this, and I'm not back in *this* business," Erin pointed out.
"Nope. I mean, that was okay to pay the studies but even then it was a bit risky. You know I don't want to loose my press ID on this."
"I know and I respect that. Just this one, then," Erin's dad pleaded.
"Is it that serious?"
"I can't do it alone," he admitted.
"Fine, one last coup. So? Where are we going? What's the deal?"
"Well, it seems one of Lex Luthor's heir-in-crime, let's call him 'Smarty,' is planning to steal some Kryptonite from STAR Labs. So we're gonna try to 'get the scoop first,' as journalists would say."
"We're gonna steal it first, you mean? Are you out of your mind? What d'you think this guy will do once he discovers your trick? He'll come after you and kill you!" Erin shouted.
<He may even kill us both.>
"Sweetie, I appreciate that you care about me so much, but there are lots of people after me already."
"Yeah, I know—French police and secret services. You were one of them; you know how they work. But I'm talking psycho killers, and it's the USA here!" Erin objected.
"USA, Latin America or Caiman Islands, same dif'! Now, let's go back to what you're interested in. This guy bailed two brothers out of prison and hired them. You know the rest."
"The Metropolis robberies? They did it?" Erin asked.
"Yep. They're known as the Ace Brothers in the business. Not really smart but efficient, in a brutal kind of way…"
"But, what's their deal? I mean, they stole ten-cent jewels… It's the settings they're after?"
"You got that right! The deal is to dismantle the original stones, replace them with Kryptonite and sell them for a penny on a dollar on the mass market," Harry explained.
"I knew it was some farfetched thing. How d'you know about this?"
"I know guys who know guys…" he enigmatically answered.
~~Metropolis, STAR Lab headquarters, night~~
The helicopter dropped them on STAR Labs' roof. Erin and Harry had stayed there for a while, making sure the noise hadn't alarmed the security guards. The zone seemed clear.
<No cars or trucks around. A dark night. Perfect for this kind of extra curricular activity,> Erin registered as they both prepared their climbing rope for abseiling.
"Wait! How can they sell this on the mass market? I mean, the Planet was the first newspaper in Metropolis to describe Kryptonite as the only 'killing Superman' device."
"It doesn't kill him, it weakens him…badly sometimes. Which is why 'Smarty,' an ancient arms dealer who owns emerald mines in Colombia, is going to sell this as a new sort of glowing emerald," Erin's father informed her.
"This 'Smarty' doesn't happen to be a friend of yours, by any chance?" Erin jested.
"Ex partner," her father confessed.
Her father nodded his agreement. "The dangerous kind."
"Thanks for reading me the warning label!" she teased. Then she added, "But Metropolis inhabitants will know it's Kryptonite. I mean, Superman is the city's most famous 'flying resident'!"
"Honey, are you naive or what? Apart from Superman, your cousin Lois, and STAR Labs' scientists, only some of the top Metropolis bad guys have seen Kryptonite and really know what it looks like. Most of New Troy average citizens don't even have a clue."
"Omigod. We can't let them do this! Superman won't be able to fulfill his duty and…"
"Crime will rule the world. Well, it's the worst case scenario. Nightmarish, isn't it?" Ruby joked.
"Why would you bother? You make a living out of it!" his daughter replied.
"Erin! You're hurting me! I'm an artist compared to some others. I work solo, I never use a gun, never kill people, I hate violence. I only relieve rich and corrupted people. All of that without leaving any traces…apart from my professional card. You know how this works; we used to be a darn good team at it when you were a teen!"
"Yes, I'm Arsene Lupin's daughter…or should I say Robin Hood's?" she chuckled.
"Not quite. I don't give to the poor…not always. I mean, even artists have to earn a living," he replied. "Those new criminals are business killers."
"So, that's all this is about? Saving Superman so he can take care of your competitors while you're *working*?" Erin wondered.
"Hey, it's a cruel world. But don't get me wrong, I like the guy. Can you imagine how easy this job would be if I could fly?"
"Where did you say the Kryptonite safe was?" Erin asked.
"Two floors down, fifth window on your left."
"What shall I do?" she wondered.
"Well, you cut the window. Here are the diamond stone cutter and the suction grips. Then, you enter Dr Klein's lab. Use the grips to 'walk on the ceiling'. They have infrared movement detection beams on the floor," he quickly went on as she shot him an angry look. "The Kryptonite safe stands opposite the door, two meters on your right once you're in. It only opens after Klein's fingerprints, vocals and iris have been checked out, in that order."
"Sooo?" Erin suspiciously asked.
"Put these lenses on. Make sure to use this fingerprinted tab once you're in and…here."
"What is this?" Erin wondered, clutching what seemed to be a mint spray.
"Altering voice spray. Come on, it won't hurt you and it only lasts thirty minutes," her father argued.
"Where did you get those? Forget it, I don't even wanna know!" Erin replied as she swallowed the liquid Harry sprayed at her.
"You only have 30 minutes, and you also need to use the voice, fingerprints and eye-scanning thingy to close the safe once you're done. One more thing: I'm covering you and backing you up if needed."
"As usual. So it's still one tug for 'pull me up' and two for 'cut the rope and dash off, I'm in trouble'?"
"Exactly. And sweetie?"
"Don't call me that," Erin replied with a deep voice.
"Don't forget to smile," he teased her as she started climbing down the building.
After 29 minutes of waiting and watching, Harry wondered what could keep Erin down there. Then he felt a tug on the rope and he quickly rewound the cable, relieved as his daughter emerged and unclasped her snap hooks.
"I was beginning to fear you'd lost your touch," her father welcomed her, packing the 'sneak-in material' in Erin's back pack. He froze when he noticed his daughter's sullen face.
"What's wrong? The safe was empty?"
"A security guard almost caught me, kind of slowed me down. Here's the Kryptonite," she said, handing him a leaded suitcase. "Still, what was this guard doing here? I thought they only shifted guards at two AM?"
"I know you're jetlagged and all but, *it is* two AM hon'," Harry stated. They both stared at each other. "Omigod! Let's get out of here!"
"When's transportation due?" Erin asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
"The helicopter is not coming back," Harry said, fumbling into his own shoulder bag, getting two rolled windbreakers with loads of straps out of it.
"What?! And just what are we supposed to do? Use the Batmobile?"
"Well, not exactly. These are pocket-sized motorized parachutes," her father explained.
"I don't have time for summer courses. Just put this on, jump and pull both straps. Use them as directional devices. The engine will turn on automatically," he urged her. "I'll meet you back at your hotel. Welcome back to Metropolis *pet*!" And with that, he jumped off the building.
Erin glared at his shadowy form. "You elderly people! You can be so childish!" Erin sighed as she quickly imitated her father's gesture, letting the darkness of the night engulf her.
~~Lexor Hotel, three AM~~
Erin dropped her hotel magnetic key on the bedside table. Taking off her coat and clothes, she suddenly froze as the popping of a champagne cap surprised her. She turned to face her father, comfortably sitting on the couch, raising a glass at her.
"Don't ask!" he silenced her.
"Don't tell," she shot back. "What's the champagne for?"
"We got the Kryptonite first and therefore saved Blue Suit Guy's butt before safely returning home. I say we celebrate!" Harry observed.
"I landed at Metropolis International Airport twenty-eight hours ago. I'm jetlagged, I didn't sleep in 48 hours, but I still managed to perform a first class robbery. I say I go get some well deserved rest!" Erin mocked him.
"Have champagne first. It's a sweet dreams bringer, plus there's one last favor I'd like to ask you," her father tried.
Erin glanced at him, aware of the seriousness of his tone. Taking the glass, she sipped some champagne. "What is it?" she inquired. He handed her the leaded suitcase.
"I'd like you to take care of this. Keep it locked somewhere safe, smash it, burn it, I don't care."
"Dad, I can't do that…"
"Erin, you're the only one I can possibly trust on this. I don't want 'Smarty' or any of his guys to come near it, and I don't want to have this if they find me…"
"Daddy, they won't find you. I didn't sign…"
"He'll know it's me. Do it for me, and please be careful sweetie," he told her, barely hiding his concern for her.
"Dad, you're scaring me."
"Hey! I can take care of myself! As a matter of fact, I've got a private jet flying me to a secret island of mine in…forty minutes now," he noticed, checking his watch.
Erin sat herself down as his last statement sank in. She took her champagne glass again and finished it. Then, raising up, she paced the room, uneasy. "When will I see you again?" she finally asked.
"Soon, I'll promise. I'll let you know," he softly replied, giving her a bear hug.
"When will you stop playing runaway, dad? You'll always be a fugitive with this job of yours…"
"I'm not the civil servant type. Besides, you hate everyday routines, too, don't you?" he teased her.
"It's not me I'm talking about right now. I don't want you to get killed."
"I won't, trust me," he told her, kissing her forehead. "I really must go now. I'm proud of you, Erin…" he started.
Aware of his uneasiness, she flashed him an encouraging smile. "I love you, too, daddy," she replied, hugging him. He sighed in relief before releasing her and heading to the door. Opening it, he slowly turned at her, thoughtful.
"You sure you don't wanna change your career?" he playfully offered.
"Go!" she giggled. Then she called after him, "Dad!!"
"Yes?" he hopefully asked.
"Enjoy your flight."
~~Lois's apartment, Carter Avenue, 4.00 AM~~
It was a little after 4.00 AM when Henderson's phone call had woken up Lois. Carefully listening to the detective, she rapidly thanked him before hanging up and dialing Clark's number. When he didn't answer by the fifth ring, she started to get worried. Then his sleepy voice greeted her.
"Clark? I just had a call from detective Henderson. It seems something happened at STAR Labs. Clark? Do you hear me?" she wondered when he didn't replied.
"Always, sweetheart." She hung up and slowly turned as a gust of air played with her hair.
"Clark! You almost scared me!" she confessed in an icy-cold tone.
"Well, I thought Superman would already be there… Seems two guys broke into Dr Klein's safe at STAR Labs and stole Kryptonite. Could you just tell me why one of STAR Lab's top scientists was keeping Kryptonite in a safe?" she went on, losing her temper.
"You called me at 4.15 AM to make a scene?"
"Yes! No. But I need an explanation. Why didn't you tell me about this?"
"Lois, Dr Klein is my doctor. I mean, Superman's doctor…"
"That still doesn't explain the Kryptonite," she pointed out.
"Dr Klein's trying to find a vaccine using infinitesimal parts of Kryptonite…"
"Parts of Kryptonite? Clark! What were you thinking! Willingly getting around this glowing stuff should be the last thing you should do!" Lois exploded.
"Honey, Dr Klein is using it as a radiation therapy; maybe it's worth trying. I mean, if he succeeds, this stone won't be a problem anymore," he argued.
"Well, right now it's a problem 'cause your dear Dr Klein hasn't any Kryptonite to help you, considering his only samples have mysteriously vanished and are probably taking a Metropolis Villain's Headquarters by-night tour now," Lois babbled, unaware of the silent tears running down her cheeks. Clark gently cupped her face in his palm, wiping the tears away with his thumb.
"Lois, what's the matter?" he softly asked. She obstinately remained silent, hoping Clark would drop it or leave without asking questions. He didn't.
<Seems you're gonna have to spat it out, Lane.>
"I don't want to lose you. I don't want any harm done to you only because a wacko wants to test his newly designed Kryptonite toy on you…" she started.
"It wouldn't be the first time. We'll find them and we'll stop them, like we did last time," Clark reassured her.
"And how would we do that if the bad guys use some green rock to keep Superman out of sight? You spoke about radiation as a therapy. What if they're already using it against you without you being aware of it? When Al Capone and his gang came back to life, and I thought you were dead, I blamed myself. Not only because you got killed trying to protect me, but because I'd denied my feelings for you for so long. It ached so much to realize…I'd lost the only man that meant everything to me. I don't want to live that a second time. I'd rather die than…"
This time, he silenced her with a kiss. Surprised at his gesture, Lois quickly melted against him, her will and mind temporarily shut off.
"You were saying?" Clark asked a rather unsteady Lois.
"I…wow! Er…" Clearing her throat, she replied, "Henderson will meet us at the Planet at 9 AM."
Lovingly gazing back at Clark, she stepped closer to him in an almost erotic way. Then, pulling his head closer to hers, she whispered, her lips almost touching his, "What's the matter, Farmboy? Can't read in between the lines?"
She locked eyes with Clark before granting him with a deep and passionate kiss that set his world on fire. Then, gently kissing his bottom lips, she matter-of-factly told him, "I love you, Clark Kent. Was I too obvious?"
"I'm not sure I got that right. Could you, er, *explain* it to me again?" he teased.
She gladly obliged.
~~Daily Planet, 10.00 AM~~
Lois was furiously typing on her keyboard. Henderson should have met her and Clark an hour ago, but there was still no sign of him in the newsroom. She was furious. Every time the elevator chimed, they both turned to see who would come out of it, and usually went back to their task, waiting for the next 'ding' to be heard. As time passed by, Clark began to worry, rocking back and forth in his chair. Lois has asked him to have an Erin-focused chat with Jimmy. After they did, the Planet's photographer had locked himself in the archive, arguing he had some research stuff to do.
<It's the first time that Jimmy spend more than an hour in research mode,> Clark mentally noticed. <Maybe I should go see if he's okay.>
Still engrossed in her work, Lois suddenly stopped. "Perry, I don't need someone watching my back while I'm working," she started.
"Well, nice to see you, too, Ms Lane…Mr Kent."
"Detective Henderson," Clark replied, quickly getting up, reaching Lois' desk.
"Hey, guys! Ready for a brainstorming session? I brought some croissants," a cheery voice interrupted.
"Erin, hi!" Lois greeted her.
"I don't think I know you…"
"Erin Bradford, a French journalist who happens to be my cousin," Lois explained to Henderson. "Erin, this is detective Henderson, from Metropolis PD."
A shadow clouded Erin's face, but it instantly vanished. "Delighted," she replied, extending her hand.
"Jimmy, we're talking…" Lois tried.
"Well, maybe you should consider using the conference room," he joked. "I've got Dr Klein's lab security videotape…you know, the one you asked for an hour ago. A friend of mine at STAR Labs just sent it to me. And Lois, I've got some news for…" The words died on his lips as he spotted Erin and Henderson. The young woman seemed unable to tear her gaze away from him. He could feel a silent plea in it, a silent plea mixed with a feeling he thought he'd never find there. And then he knew exactly what he had to do.
"So, what can you tell us about STAR Labs' robbery, detective?" Clark asked.
"Well…" he suspiciously eyed Erin. "I wanted to show you the photos taken by Dr Klein's own video surveillance system, but obviously you already have them. Did you know the burglars escaped thanks to parachutes?"
"Parachutes?" Lois wondered.
"Yeah, at least that's what the security guard told us."
Henderson shoved a manila envelope onto Lois's desk. She opened it, carefully examining the pictures with Clark behind her. They both stared at each other before handing them to Erin. She studied the photos, speechless.
<I can't believe Dad didn't tell me about this special security system. Still, I didn't notice anything in Klein's lab…>
"Okay, Miss Bradford, can you tell us what you were doing…I mean, where were you this morning at…say…two AM?" Henderson wondered.
Erin looked at him uneasily. "I was…"
"She was with me," Jimmy cut her.
"What?!" Erin, Lois, and Clark exclaimed, turning their heads in unison to face Jimmy.
"Well, I know you wanted to keep this private, honey," Jimmy went on, drawing Erin closer to him, "but this is an emergency," he finished. "Play my game," he whispered in her ear. She stared back at him, her eyes filled with gratitude and sparkling with…
<Oh god, stop looking at me this way or I'm definitely gonna loose it,> Jimmy silently prayed.
"I guess you're right," she said, taking Jimmy's hand and kissing his lips lightly. "But don't expect me to tell him what I was doing there." She knowingly smiled.
"Really? Why not?" he wondered.
"Because…because…" she blushed. Sustaining Jimmy's look, she stepped closer to him, tilted her head and kissed him softly. He responded timidly at first, but soon got carried away as Erin slowly explored his mouth. He slipped an arm around her waist, holding her tight.
<What am I doing?> she cursed herself, abruptly breaking the kiss. All thinking had ceased the moment Jimmy's arm had enveloped her. It felt so right, so perfect. Defenseless, she'd felt her body instinctively adjust and melt to Jimmy's. It was crazy…scary…gosh, this was unbelievable.
<Stop it, Bradford!> Erin admonished herself.
Sensing her hesitation, Jimmy tilted her chin with his free hand. Then, pulling a strand of hair behind her ear, he gently cupped her face before capturing her lips, oblivious to the people around him.
Erin's world was spinning faster and faster. The only tangible thing was Jimmy's mouth on hers. <The rest doesn't even matter,> she thought, clinging to his shoulders in an effort to regain some equilibrium.
<So much for being in control,> she inwardly smiled.
Henderson cleared his throat, embarrassed. Forehead to forehead, gasping for air, the couple finally seemed to notice the audience.
"Well, seems you have a twin in town, Miss Bradford," he said, retreating to the elevators.
"I know. Her name's Lois Lane!" she replied, running a hand through her tangled hair.
"Geez! I thought this detective would never leave!" Jimmy sighed. Erin gazed back at him, startled. "I didn't mean…"
"Nice to meet you, too, Jimmy," she joked. Then, she seriously added, "Thank you. I know it sounds banal, but I think I'll never be able to repay you…"
"You already did," he tenderly replied, causing her face to turn purple red.
"Yeah, nice performance, you two, you should try the Actor's Studio," Lois teased them.
"Who told you we were pretending?" Erin replied in the same playful tone.
Clark glanced at Lois, who nodded her agreement.
"Jimmy! Erin! I think we need to talk. Conference room, now!" Clark intimated them.
"You knew Erin was on those pictures?" Lois asked Jimmy while closing the conference room door behind her.
"That's what I was about to tell you," he simply replied.
"So Erin? How come you were at STAR Labs last night?" Clark wondered.
"Industrial tourism?" she tried.
"Drop your joking tone," Lois warned her.
"I wanted to tell you during the brainstorming…"
"Well, we'll never know now," her cousin pointed out.
"We trusted you, Erin," Clark told her.
"Look, you've every right to be mad at me. But believe me you got it all wrong! Okay, I had a good reason to steal the Kryptonite. As a matter of fact, I still have it."
"Could you say that again?" Clark challenged her.
"It's safely hidden. A source of mine told me an ancient arms dealer, who happens to own most of Colombia's emerald mines, had bailed the Ace Brothers out of prison. 'Smarty' is behind Metropolis' robberies. He was planning to use the stolen jewels as settings for Kryptonite…selling it as a new kind of glowing emerald on the mass market," she finished.
"I knew it!" Lois started. "Soon everyone in the country would have bought them, and would be wearing them, and…"
"Preventing Superman from saving people or arresting criminals," Clark completed.
"What about the 'Gentleman'?" Jimmy wondered.
"Who?" Lois and Clark chirped.
"The Gentleman! Come on, guys! Don't tell me you don't remember this high-class robber! His MO is all over the STAR Labs sneak in! He's the Robin Hood kind, never killing people, never using violence. Only acting at night, sneaking in and out the most guarded buildings without leaving any traces…except for a professional card sometimes. He's wanted in almost every European country!" Jimmy explained them.
"Oh, I remember!" Lois recalled. "Didn't he work for secret services or something?"
"He did. But he quit after his ex-partner told his boss he was a triple agent, working for the KGB and the Mossad…which, of course, was all false," Erin replied.
"Wh…how do you know all this?" Clark wondered.
"Well…it's my father we're talking about."
Silence momentary filled the newsroom. Jimmy recovered first.
"Don't look so shocked. You all know I wasn't watching the Flintstones reruns last night and 'the Gentleman' is a little too old to perform this kind of robbery. He's good at logistics but…"
"He still jumped off a building with a parachute…" Jimmy cut her off. He instantly regretted his harsh tone, for he felt Erin closing up in a blink, draping herself in irony.
"Well, he always was young at heart!"
"You never told me you had a crook as a father," Lois let out, upset.
Lois's last remark hurt, but Erin purposely ignored it. "Well…if I had, I also should also have told you that I was his partner in crime back then."
"He wasn't doing the robberies solo in his golden age. I was also part of the team, and you might know how the Press ID commission gets freaky when it comes to journalist wannabe's judicial past." She turned to Lois. "I really wanted to tell you at University, but it could have lead to dad's arrest. As for me, journalism was my life, so I played low profile and never told anyone about my extra curricular activities," Erin admitted.
"Okay…I thought Clark was the king of lame excuses, but you've definitely beaten him!" Lois sarcastically told her cousin.
"Lois, I'm sorry. But I didn't expect somebody to discover the truth. I was really cautious."
"Yeah, sounds familiar," the Planet reporter replied, doe- eying Clark.
As the tension didn't seem willing to leave the room, Erin spoke again, heading to the door. "Maybe I should leave now. See you all later."
"Erin, wait. It doesn't really matter. I mean, you had your reasons and we don't have the right to judge what you did in the past. It's your life," Jimmy told her in an attempt to smooth things out.
"Past and present," she pointed out. "I don't think this Henderson guy will drop it. I don't know why, but I think he wants me behind bars."
"You robbed STAR Labs for a good reason, and we'll make sure Henderson gets no grip on you," Clark reassured her. Then he heard Lois's warning cough and realized too late that Jimmy was here.
"What good reason?" Jimmy asked.
"Lois? Can I talk to you?" Clark cut her off, while dragging her in the far corner of the conference room.
"Are you gonna tell Jimmy about…you-know-who?" Lois wondered.
"Well, I trust Jimmy like…"
"A brother. I know. Jimmy feels the same way about you."
"Maybe I should consider telling him about my abilities. It would make things easier for the four of us. And I could quit pretending Clark and Superman are two different people when he's around. I mean Jimmy's part of our team, too," Clark said.
"Okay, then. Jimmy! Jimmy? Mothership to Jimmy?" Lois said, waving a hand before the young man's face.
Jimmy and Erin were staring at each other with mooning eyes. While Lois and Clark's short 'debriefing,' he'd told her about his chat with Clark. Erin had let him know about Lois's indiscretion. He'd seemed startled at first, but considering what she'd gone through, and his previous philosophy of relationships… Life with Erin held a lot of promises and, for the first Time, Jimmy Olsen, the newsroom playboy—or at least, that's the public image he wanted to show—was experiencing the fear of losing someone he was already sure he couldn't live without.
<I could use Clark's advice on this field,> the young photographer thought, reluctantly breaking eye-contact with Erin.
"Jimmy?!" Clark tried.
"Can I talk to you for a sec?" They both let out.
As Lois and Erin cautiously headed to the door, Clark called after them. "Lois, please stay."
"I'd rather not…" Jimmy started.
"Look, we understand this is a man-to-man talk, so…" Erin cautiously stepped out.
"Clark, everything's gonna be okay," she told him, lightly squeezing his hand. "Besides, Erin and I also need to talk. Don't you think so, Erin?"
"Definitely," Lois replied, dragging her out of the conference room.
"Lois! Could you quit mothering me for at least five minutes?" Erin shrugged.
"What is going on between you and Jimmy?"
"Er…do you want me to spill it out here? Or do you prefer another overcrowded place?"
"Okay." Lois calmed down. "It's almost noon. I suggest we go to the nearest Starbucks, buy some take out, and we can finish our discussion in Centennial Park while debriefing on this Kryptonite thing," she finished.
"How about your Uncle Mike's restaurant? Does it still exist?"
"Sure it does, you silly! And wait 'til you taste…"
"His amazing Chocolate Bliss?! Aww…what are we waiting for?" Erin asked, rushing to the elevator.
"Lois! Erin! Where d'you think you're going?" Perry shouted.
"I've got a strong lead for my…er…investigation," Erin started with a convincing tone.
"Yep, plus I've got to see Bobby Bigmouth and Dr Klein. The guys who stole STAR Labs' Kryptonite might be related to the Metropolis Jewels robberies," Lois lied.
"Okay, then, just bring me a headline!" Perry told them.
<What on earth is a Bobby Bigmouth?> he silently wondered, before getting back into his office.
~~Mike's restaurant, Suicide Slum~~
"Lois playing hookie! I thought I'd never see this!" Erin teased her as they both entered Mike's restaurant.
"Hey! I can have fun, too, you know!"
"My, oh my! Tiger, is that you?" a voice interrupted them.
"Mike!!" Erin shouted, throwing herself into his arms for a bear hug. "It's been a long time! You look good!"
"You bet! How's everything, Erin? Pimpernel and you are back to old times?"
"Not quite. This is an emergency visit," Erin admitted.
Turning to his niece, he couldn't help but denote that unmistakable sparkle in her eyes. "I see," he replied, his tone suddenly serious. "Well, have a seat. I'll be right back," he mumbled, retreating to the kitchen.
"I get worried when he gets that tone," Lois told her cousin. They were both having a hard time not rushing to the kitchen in anticipation. They knew what Mike was up to. The 'emergency visit' was Lois's, Erin's, and Mike's key words when both cousins where working as partners for the Daily Planet and that they needed comfort, or advice, or to spill their guts out after a hard day of work.
"The conventional treatment recommended by Dr Mike when 'emergency visits' are paid to his restaurant is…Chocolate Bliss," Mike went on, with a theatrical pose, as he revealed a big chocolate cake from under a silver dome. At Erin's and Lois' total lack of reaction, he pursued, "But you ladies seem to be in a big emergency state, so extra chocolate sauce won't hurt you."
He put the cake on the table and, making a spoon hole in it, he slowly poured hot melted chocolate in it. "Here you go," he finished with a grin, leaving them as more clients enter the restaurant.
"So, what is exactly going on between you and Jimmy?" Lois asked once Mike was out of sight.
"Honestly, I really don't know," Erin admitted. She had the feeling Lois wouldn't let her get away so easily. Her cousin proved her right.
"You thought I would be satisfied with a 'no answer' type answer?" Lois argued. "Do you think I'm galactically stupid?"
"Well, I never would have thought for a second I could fall for Jimmy. I mean…"
"Wait a minute. 'Fall for Jimmy'? What about your icy-cold rejection speech?" Lois wondered.
"When I saw Jimmy, I just…this was… I know it doesn't make sense, but it was…yes, I guess it's love at first sight. He's just so kind and caring… And he didn't freak out after I told you guys about my extra-curricular activities. That's a plus."
"And that makes him Mr. Right?"
"Look who's talking!! Lois, I really don't get you sometimes. You wanted me to talk to Jimmy. Well, I did, in a way. I even told him about our little chat in that short space of time."
"What?!" Lois choked.
"And he didn't even bother. True, Clark telling him about my matrimonial past surely helped but…I don't know. The way he looks at me, the way he holds me… and the way he kisses…"
<Yeah, he's a real serial kisser.>
"My! It's even better than chocolate!"
"Speaking of… Your cake—you gonna finish it?" Lois asked, eying the cake like a starving cat would a mouse. Erin pushed her plate towards Lois before stopping at mid table.
"Yes! But please, have a bite."
~~Daily Planet, conference room~~
While the chocolate addict cousins were enjoying their cake at Mike's, Clark's resolution to tell Jimmy about him being Superman had gradually vanished as the Planet's photographer told the mild-mannered reporter about his Erin dilemma. Their 'man-to-man' talk had changed into a 'listening to Jimmy's psycho babble' one. Clark was disappointed at first, but now he couldn't help but feel a certain form of empathy for Jimmy. Olsen, as Perry called him, was experiencing the same things he had with Lois.
<Only Jimmy's situation is a little bit easier. I mean, he knows about Erin's past and feelings for him…or at least he has a clue,> Clark thought as Jimmy's next question came out. His thirst for advise on the 'heart' field suddenly seemed impossible to quench.
Both cousins exited Mike's restaurant two hours later.
"I had a fantastic time. We should do this more often." Erin grinned.
"What? Playing hookie?"
"No! Chocolate cake and girl-to-girl talks!"
"Well, I wonder what I'll tell Perry…"
"Why tell him? You could ask your Bobby Bigmouth if he's got tips on this Smarty guy while I try to get some more information on him."
"You think your father might get in trouble?" Lois asked.
"That's what he thought. If Smarty finds him, or gets to him through me, he's dead."
"What about you?"
"Same thing. But Dad should be safe by now. Besides, he knows how Smarty works," Erin tried to reassure herself.
<You forget the opposite is also true dear,> her conscience popped in.
"Still, I'll feel better if I could find out who this guy really is and stop him before he gets his hands on us."
"Don't worry about it. We're on your side. If anything happens, just scream for help, okay?"
"Lois, I don't need a nanny. I never had one!" Erin cheered up.
"I'm worried about you, that's all."
"And I'm worried about Jimmy. You wanna do something for me? Make sure nothing happens to him."
"Erin, you're beginning to scare me."
"Lois, these guys are no angels, believe me. It could be a good thing if you stayed at Clark's for a while."
"I totally agree with her on this point," a voice interrupted. Lois jumped when she felt an arm smoothly clasping her shoulder.
"Thanks, Clark," Erin replied.
"Clark? What are you…?"
"Warehouse on fire near the docks," he explained.
"And don't you worry about Jimmy," he told Erin. "He'll be fine, trust me."
"You, on the other hand, should consider finding another place to stay at. The Lexor Hotel is much too obvious," Lois pointed out.
"I can take care of myself. Just be careful, okay?"
"I'll see to it," Clark assured her.
"Really?" Lois wondered. "I can hardly wait," she finished, leaving him speechless.
"See you tomorrow then," Erin stated. "I've got some research to do."
"Why don't you come with us to the Planet? Jimmy could help you. He's a real nerd when it comes to computers and finding the info you can't get," Lois pointed out.
"Tempting, but this isn't any ordinary research. Besides, I have my own leads," Erin replied while waving at a cab. Then, aware of Lois dubious look, she hastily added, "I really appreciate it, Lois, but this is personal."
The Planet's hottest team watched as the taxi departed.
~~Lexor Hotel, afternoon~~
The elevator chimed as its doors opened, revealing the hall of the 30th floor. Erin stepped cautiously out, scanning at her left, then her right. No one. Her room was at the end of the actually deserted corridor. The thick and sound- muffling carpet didn't make her job easy. Taking a deep breath, she tried to relax as she headed to her room. When the door refused to open, blinking a red light at her, all her burglar senses woke up, sending silent alarm messages to her…until she realized she'd inserted her magnetic key the wrong way. She let out a sigh of relief as she carefully opened the door.
<Better be careful than dead,> she thought.
Stepping inside, she froze, contemplating her bedroom. It was turned completely upside-down, as if a tornado had just passed through it. The bed clothes and pillows were discarded, the feathers making the floor look like a snowflake-covered winter soil. Her luggage were open, and so were the closet's wooden doors and drawers. Her reporter bag was gone and her clothes were scattered on the floor. She checked her safe…all empty. The climbing rope along with her sneak-in suit and accessories had also vanished.
Then she saw it, her stuffed black wolf with a party hat—a relic from her childhood that had followed her everywhere— playing hanging man with her climbing rope, entwitted with the electric cables of the bedroom ceiling light.
"Tiloo!" she gasped in a childish voice while setting the toy free. Holding it close to her heart, she suddenly caught glimpse of the phone's blinking light. She pressed the 'play' button and listened to the messages.
"Erin, this is Jimmy. Er…well, Lois told me about your research stuff. I know it's personal, but if you need help just call. I'll be at Clark's."
It was his way to tell her not to worry about him. But she could tell by his tone that he was worried enough for two. She gripped Tiloo tighter as the second message went on.
"Hey, Gentleman. It's been a while. You know what I want, don't you? Well, I'll track you down until I find it. Let the party begin. Oh…one more thing: watch your back." The voice was deep but smooth, really calm with a light tone, like the one you use to great an old friend you lost touch with years ago.
<Much scarier than a good old-fashioned threat,> Erin shivered. The third message was from her father.
"The martini's fine. No olives…perfect."
<I'll never get used to his coded phrases,> she sighed, relieved to learn he was safe and unreachable in his retreat.
"Okay, Smarty. You wanna play tough? I'll be prepared. But you're the one who'd better watch his back 'cause once I'm through with this research, you're a dead man," she voiced aloud. Her courage back to 150 per cent, she took the elevator down to the lobby. There, she went directly to the receptionist.
"Good evening, miss. What can I do for you?"
"I'm Erin Bradford, room 3019. I left some valuables in the hotel safe when I arrived. I'd like to have them back."
"Sure. This way please," the woman replied, leading her to a simple wooden door. Stepping aside, Erin followed her as she went downstairs to what seemed a wall covered with letterboxes.
"Here you go, miss, safe 3019. I'll wait upstairs. Just give me the keys back when you're done."
Erin waited until her 'guide' was out of sight to open the safe. She withdrew the small leaded case and carefully opened it to make sure the Kryptonite was still there.
<Sometimes the best hiding place is the simpler one,> she inwardly smiled.
Then she closed the safe and went out, doing as instructed by the receptionist, before heading to the cashier desk.
"Can I help you, miss?"
"Yes. I'm leaving tomorrow morning. Could you prepare my bill, please?"
"Sure. I just need your key back," the man explained.
"Of course," Erin replied, handing him the squared plastic card.
"I really don't get why she didn't want to come with us. I mean, research supplies are much handier here." Lois heavily sighed.
"Lois, honey, she told you it was a personal thing," Clark reminded her.
"But she's family. She's got friends here, and…"
"You never give up, do you?" Clark smiled. "Look, I know you wanted to help her, but do you always tell your partner about the investigation you're working on? I recall you working solo sometimes, especially when it was 'family' related."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Lois stubbornly said.
"Well, for example, take your friend Sally at Menken's gym or your uncle Mike or…"
"All right! You win!" she laughed, her hands up in a surrendering gesture. "How's Jimmy taking it?"
"Same way you did, only I think he understands why she did this. He even called her and told her he'll stay at my place."
"You eavesdropped on Jimmy?"
"You looked as worried as Erin, so I just…" he went on, brushing his ear.
"I'm glad you did," Lois replied, her eyes filled with warmth.
The taxi left her in a deserted alley a block away from a old and abandoned hotel whose ghostly shape looked more like a gigantic dumpster…as did the whole area: homeless, cardboards, rummaged dust bins, empty bottles, and rats everywhere. Holding her wolf, Erin headed to the building, mentally registering every face she saw, every detail her eyes caught.
The last owner who'd turned the hotel into apartments had died 12 years ago.
<Hum…only ten more broken windows since my last visit. Have the bad guys left town or what?> she ironically wondered, pushing the old metal framed door. She went directly upstairs to apartment nine, where her father and her used to live when she was a kid. Harry never sold it.
<Instead, he made a few arrangements,> she remembered, closing the door behind her. She took the porcelain doorknob in her hand, slightly twisting it to the right, revealing a tiny calculator. She punched a few buttons, heard the familiar 'click' and put the porcelain cap back in its place. Heading to the dressing room, she shut the door and turned the light on, twice. The whole room moved, slowly going down, before coming to a stop. Erin shut the light off and exited the impromptu lift. The secret room was still there, intact.
<Still, I don't remember it filled with all these computers before. And there's even a GSM phone, an encoder for crypted messages and phone calls…wow! Dad'll never change!>
"Okay then, research mode!" she said, turning a computer on. <What's this?> she wondered, looking at what seemed like an old radio. Curious, she turned it on.
"Unit 2 we have a 214 in sector 5!" "Unit 2, we're there in 5 minutes."
<Gosh! The police line. I'm sure he got all the main frequencies set.>
Taking a closer look to the radio, she eventually found tiny labels with 17, 18, 15 and a few Greeks signs she was familiar with.
<And all in French equivalents or Greek signs for the 'spy line.' How sweet!>
Coming back to the computer, she connected and sneaked through restricted security sites, sites usually only spies or hackers had access too. She launched a search using her dad's login name and password—on the French national security site, as well as on the CIA and NSA ones-and she even tried the Mossad, narrowing it to the ten last years. Then she checked with Harry's story in the secret services. She knew most of her dad's code names and assumed identities. But Smarty was more difficult to nail. After two hours, she wasn't getting anywhere.
<Darn! Okay, only one solution left. Call dad's closest friend.>
She took the GSM, secured the line and punched a few numbers.
"Allo?" a voice answered.
"Denis? Hey, man, Erin here."
"Erin! Long time no see! Qu'est-ce que tu deviens ma belle?"
"Well, still a journalist at the AFP. And you, still in the Intelligence Service?"
"Non, I'm in the DST now! Qu'est-ce qui t'amenes?"
"I've got a favor to ask."
"And I thought you just wanted to hear my sexy voice."
"That too," she joked.
"You're too kind. Okay, shoot!"
"D'you remember the civil name of dad's operation partner?"
"The one who falsely accused him and made him 'personna non gratta' in France tu veux dire?"
"Ouais. Didn't he have the English nationality?"
"No, American…but it's gonna take some time. D'you have a fax or a secured line number I could call you at?"
"Well, I'm at the base. Still got the number?"
"Sure! Okay, give me 30 minutes, 45 max."
Erin was flipping through the printed papers from her Net search while waiting for Denis's phone call. Flipping through fake names was more appropriate.
"James Osbourne, Australia."
"Olivier Juteau, France."
"Jurgen Oppenheimer, Germany."
<J.O? O.J? They wouldn't make it that obvious. Let's check dad's.>
"Henry Neveu, France."
"Nigel Hutchinson, England."
"Hans Neuring, Germany."
<And they call themselves masterminds? Even a two-year-old could break their codes!> Erin mentally exclaimed. She barely heard the phone ring.
"Denis? Alors. Whatcha got? I know the initials are J.O or O.J…"
"First guess is right. The name is Jack Olsen, American. Worked for the CIA, infiltrated KGB agent…Erin? T'es toujours la?"
"Qu'est-ce. What did you say the name was?"
"Olsen. Jack Olsen."
"Er…I…" Erin choked. "Does he…is he married? Does he have kids? Where does he live?"
"No current address. Was married once, left his wife after eight months. She died a few years after, leaving a son…"
<No! Omigod no, this can't be!> her mind shouted.
"Erin, what's up?"
"He may be after dad…and me. So I wanted to be prepared, that's all. Merci pour tout Denis," she replied.
"Je t'en prie voyons. It was the least I could do. See you in Paris then!"
<Smarty is Jimmy's father…Ookay.> The news sank in Erin's mind.
<No, not okay at all. Why me, goddamit! What am I gonna do now?> she wondered.
<Jump off a building with a parachute?>
<Been there, done that.>
<Take a flight to nowhere?> her conscience proposed.
<I'm not a quitter…but that has potential. I could tell Jimmy, 'Hey, I got news for you.'>
<He could go, 'Good or bad?'> her inner voice argued.
<Well, depends on your definition of the words. I found your father…and he wants to kill mine, and me, too, if possible. How does it sound?>
<Do I really have to answer?>
<No good, huh?>
<No good at all!>
<Stop. Think,> Erin ordered herself. <Jimmy's father is after dad, who is safe on an island somewhere. Considering what happened in my hotel room, Mr Olsen didn't find him. So now he's coming after me, hoping Dad will get 'off the bush' and come to my rescue. Only he won't 'cause with the good and bad guys after him, he'll be caught in a finger snap.>
<Is this leading anywhere?>
Ignoring the teasing tone of her inner voice, Erin went on.
<He stole my reporter bag, which means he's got my ID and eventually knows about my link with Lois, Clark and the Daily Planet. So he could pay me an unexpected visit there. If I take it further, if he knows about Lois, he knows about Superman.>
<If he's got your ID, he could do the same in Paris. No mess, no fuss. So this all comes up to…?>
<Jimmy,> Erin sighed.
<What about him?>
<Well, either I talk to him first and tell him about his father. But I've got this irrational fear about his reaction. Or I could just wait and play innocent…>
<Be honest with yourself. You know you can't do that!>
<I know,> she mentally replied with another heavy sigh. <Then there's only one thing left to do.>
<Call Lois? Ask Superman to find Jack first?>
<Leave me alone will ya?>
~~Clark's apartment, evening~~
Clark and Lois were having dinner when someone knocked furiously at the door. They both look at each other, startled.
'It's Jimmy," Clark answered Lois interrogative look before finishing his glass of red wine.
"It's open, Jimmy!" Lois shouted, amused at Clark's pleading eyes. "What?" she asked.
"I thought we could have a quiet little dinner…"
"Only dinner?" Lois seductively asked.
"Well, yeah!" Clark replied with a grin. "What did you have in mind, Ms Lane?"
"How did you guys know it was me?" Jimmy interrupted, joining them in the kitchen.
<Oops,> Lois murmured so that only Clark could hear her.
"It was just a guess," they both hastily answered. Jimmy was only half convinced, but he had other preoccupations on his mind.
"Did you talk to Erin lately?" he abruptly asked.
"No. But I know how she gets when in research mode," Lois started.
"Is there something wrong?" Clark wondered.
"Well, I…there's something I wanted to discuss with her and I just thought a dinner out would be a good start so I went to her hotel. Seems she asked for her bill and left."
"What?" Lois gasped.
"The best part is that her room was completely devastated— a real mess you know; discarded clothes, bed and couch…" His voice trailed off.
"And now you're worried about her?" Clark softly completed.
"I'm sure she's okay," Lois tried. Just then the phone rang. Clark went to the living room and picked it up.
"Clark? This is…"
"Erin! There's someone here who's worried sick about you," Clark informed her.
"Can I talk to him?"
"Sure! Hold on." He handed the receiver to Jimmy and joined Lois back in the kitchen.
"Don't you dare eavesdrop on them, Clark Kent!" she teased him.
"Lois! How could you possibly say that!" he replied.
"I was just wondering…"
"And what will you do to stop me?"
"Well, I could start with this," she said, resting a hand on his chest and kissing him lightly on the lips.
"I see," he replied in a fake, unconvincing tone.
"But considering your *iron* willpower, I might as well do this." Her hand moved slowly down from his chest, caressing his hips before sneaking around his waste. Melting against him, she kissed him more firmly, her tongue softly teasing his bottom lip.
"Lois…" he moaned.
"How am I doing so far?"
"A little too good," he managed, taking both her hands in his in an effort to slow things down.
"Look, Jimmy just hung up. Don't you think we should make sure he's okay before…"
But Lois didn't seem willing to stop. Instead, she drew his hands around her waist, entwined her fingers behind Clark's neck, drawing his face closer to hers.
"This guy sure has great timing." Lois smiled while reluctantly pulling away.
"Jimmy," she replied with a nervous giggle.
"Er…I just wanted you guys to know that I'll be with Erin…and that I don't need you to come with me or follow me like bodyguards, even if she asked you too," he informed them.
"Is she all right?" Lois asked.
"She's fine. There's just something she wants to tell me in private." He grinned, a smile stretching from one ear to the other.
"Jimmy, you sure?" Clark tried.
"I'll be okay," Jimmy cut him off. "And if I ever get in trouble, I'll just scream for Superman. See ya!" And with that, he dashed out of the apartment.
Clark was stunned. But, giving it a second thought, he just laughed.
"Clark…Clark! What's so funny?" Lois enquired.
"Well, I hope everyone doesn't see Superman as a life preserver like Jimmy just did," he choked out. "You're in trouble, just scream for Superman. Sounds like a doctor's order," he added.
"Well, as your personal doctor, I'll prescribe some relaxation," Lois said, stepping closer to him and leaning in for a kiss.
"That would mean flying."
"Among other things," she pointed out while capturing his lips again.
He was so relieved to see her that he almost ran to her. She held out a hand and stopped him at mid distance.
"Don't, Jimmy. Just listen to me."
"Erin? What's wrong?"
"It's not really easy… I did a research on Smarty this afternoon. I wanted to learn a bit more about the guy: his real name, where he lived, if he had family in Metropolis or in the US…things like that," she started.
"And you didn't find a thing. Why didn't you call me sooner? I would have been delighted to help you."
"I found all the information I was looking for…and more," she stated.
"You did? Wow! Maybe you should give me courses!" he admirably stressed.
"That's why you wanted to see me?"
"I don't understand. What's with the 'not easy' part?"
"Well…Smarty is an infiltrated KGB agent working for the CIA…or the other way around. This guy is so used to wearing masks that I couldn't really tell," Erin started.
"But he's in Metropolis right now?"
"Can't tell either. He's an American citizen, but he has no current address in the US."
"What? No relatives, no parents, no wife…no kids?"
"He has a son? Great! We'll pay him a visit tomorrow morning!" Jimmy replied, ecstatic.
"Precisely. Wait. We? What's with the 'we' stuff?"
"Well, like in 'you, me, Lois and Clark,'" Jimmy stated.
"Look, I told you it was personal. There's another reason why I'll definitively work solo on this one."
"What do you mean?"
"Smarty's civilian name is Jack Olsen," she tried.
"Your father. That's why I wanted to see you," she pursued.
<Time for an icy-cold rejection speech.>
"Look, Jimmy, it was nice meeting you. You're a real nice guy, but I don't think we're gonna make it together. Besides, I'm flying back home soon, so how about pretending you never saw me and I don't even exist?"
"You can't be serious."
"It's the only way."
"Erin, I know what you're trying to do, but I, like you, can take care of myself. Besides, you're not possibly thinking of getting through this alone. This is suicide!" he exploded.
"This also means potential murder for all the people that get too close to me…you included."
"Why don't you come with me to Clark's?" he tried. "At least you'll be safe, with people you can trust. Plus, Clark and Lois are Superman's closest friends. That could be handy."
"It's not me I'm worried about," she inaudibly whispered. The state of shock she pushed away at Denis's revelation was now unbearable. The only thing she wanted to do right now was to run back to her apartment and wait. Wait 'til Jack's next move, if he ever made one. She remembered him as the shadow type, elusive, unforeseeable. But she wouldn't be able to do so if Jimmy, Lois, or Clark (not to mention his alter ego) were exposed while trying to help her. She needed to be left alone, even if that hurt.
"Jimmy, just let me go," Erin pleaded, near tears.
"I will, but before I do, there's something I'd like you to do."
"What is it?"
"Tell me you don't love me."
She stared at him speechless, unable to tear her gaze away from him.
<Why, oh why are you doing this? Can't you see…can't you see that I love you? That I'm just trying to protect you?> she wondered.
Then, closing her eyes, she took a deep breath to clear her mind, gathered all her courage and looked right into Jimmy's eyes.
"I don't love you, Jimmy."
He felt as if he'd just been struck by lightning. Erin's heart was aching, but if she wanted him to be safe, this was the only option. Then, aware of Jimmy's total lack of reaction, she asked, her voice cold, "Anything else? Or can I go now?"
He didn't even move when she went away.
Erin went back to the base, hardly holding back tears. She was so depressed that she reached the secret room without even knowing it.
<Why did you have to reject him like that?> Erin's conscience popped in.
<Why do you have to ask uneasy questions?> she mentally shot back.
<Consciences do that sometimes.>
<Are you kidding? You do it all the time!>
<That still doesn't answer my question…>
<I don't want him to get hurt, or killed. I don't know how his father will react if I ever encounter him. The same goes for Jimmy.>
<I can't tell for the killing part, but as far as hurt is concerned…try again!>
<I know. But it's the only move I could think off.>
<And you couldn't have asked me in the first place? What is it with you and keeping your distance with the people you care about?>
<All the men I fall in love with… My first boyfriend is in a wheelchair after he crashed in a tourist plane near a lake in the Alps. Then Chris got killed.>
<That doesn't turn you into 'bring bad luck girl.'>
<Well, I don't want to test it with Jimmy, so I rejected him.>
Suddenly, the phone rang. There were only two people who had the base's phone number. And one previously used it.
"Dad? How do you know I was here?"
"Denis called me."
"Denis knows where you are while I only get coded phrases to assume you're okay?"
"Look, I won't stay long…"
<No tracing call,> Erin remembered.
"…And I won't give names," her father went on, "but I know he's after you. I can't come back to help you. It would be too risky for both of us. Now listen carefully. You still got Tiloo with you?"
"Tiloo? Wh…yes, it's followed me everywhere since I was a kid. Why?"
"Cut his head off."
"What?!! No way!"
"Sweetie, you're 28…"
"So, don't you think it's time for you to grow up and throw away your Barbie dolls and stuffed animals?" Harry lectured her.
"I never had Barbie dolls. What about Tiloo?" She heavily sighed.
"There's a mini disc in his head."
"Huh? When did you…?"
"It contains the evidences that *he* is a CIA…"
"…Infiltrated double agent, I know the story," Erin cut him off.
"What you don't know is that he really works for the KGB."
"Huh? I thought he was French secret services."
"Times up. Just get that mini disc and read it. You'll have all the explanations you need. Bye, and take care."
"You too. Bye."
Reaching for her pocket-sized scissors, she clutched her stuffed wolf, looked for a loose stitch in its head, then carefully unstitched it. Getting rid of the filling material, she slowly searched in Tiloo's head before removing a tiny, flat plastic square from it.
<Now, where's the mini disc reading machine?>
"You're driving me nuts," Clark huskily whispered, his eyes clouded by passion and love.
After Jimmy had left, they'd hardly managed to finish their dinner, with kissing interludes breaking every bite they took.
"That was the idea," she pursued, nestling her head in the crook of his neck, while wrapping her arms around his waist, darting her sparkling eyes at him. He gazed back at her and they stayed like that for an endless moment, lost into each other's eyes. Clark drew her closer, tightening his arms around her. Fumbling with the buttons of his shirt, Lois let her hands play sensually across his firm body, arousing his desire with each of her igniting touches. Nibbling at her lips, his heart skipped a bit as she finished undoing his shirt, slipping it from his shoulders and letting it drop to the floor.
"Lois…" he moaned into her mouth. "I'm gonna need a real cold shower if you don't cool this now."
"Clark, don't you dare stop this," she pleadingly breathed.
"Are you sure? I mean, I want to be with you this way but I'll understand if you…"
"I'm way sure," she cut him off, holding a hand to his lips. Clark slowly slid both hands up to her ribcage, resting them at the bottom of her breasts. As Lois's tongue caressed his earlobe, he closed his eyes and let out a swift groan, enjoying the moment. Brushing slow circles against the fabric of her shirt, he then enveloped her sides, his fingertips' trail and butterfly kisses sending waves of pleasure through her body.
The door closed with a loud bang. After Erin's rejection, Jimmy had aimlessly wandered across the streets near the dock. He'd secretly hoped looking-for-a-brawl-bandits would make his night worth it, but obviously, Metropolis' bad guys had previous engagements…or other plans to stick to. Desperately needing to bring his sadness out, he'd taken a cab back to Clark's apartment, hoping the Lane and Kent team would talk some sense into him…along with soothing words. But the scene confronting him left him totally speechless. Not that he was Shocked. Well, it was quite the opposite actually, but he was a little envious, too. He coughed discretely, but the tangled couple didn't seem to acknowledge his presence…so he'd shut the door close in order to draw their attention to him.
It took a while for Lois to process the information. As dizzy and lost into Clark's embrace as she was, she couldn't believe something could cloud or interrupt this moment. Slowly opening her eyes, she froze as she spotted Jimmy, awkwardly swinging from one foot to another, teasingly waving a hand at her.
"I'm gonna kill him," she murmured into Clark's mouth.
<Me first!> her conscience popped in.
"Humm?" he said sweetly, still caught in the moment.
"Clark, we have company," she pointed out, pulling away and punching him in the ribs.
"Hold that mood…and thought," he murmured back. "Jimmy?" Clark went on, what are you…?"
"How's Erin?" Lois asked, heading to their friend, momentarily distracting him so Clark could pick up his shirt and put it back on. But when she noticed Jimmy's long-suffering look and deep sighs, she added, "How about you?" When he didn't answer, his eyes purposely avoiding hers, she flashed Clark a 'make him clue us in' look while quickly stealing a glance at his clothed chest. He shot her a 'let me handle this' gaze.
"Jimmy, what happened?" Clark asked as the three of them headed to the living room and sat down on the couch.
"Erin gave me the brush off."
"You gotta be kidding! The girl's in l…"
"Wanna talk about it?" Clark cut her off, lightly pressing on her upper arm.
"Well, I already spoiled your evening…"
"Don't you say that. Besides, I'm getting used to your interruptions," Lois teased in an attempt to cheer him up and lighten up the mood. Her attempt failed miserably so she tried soft questioning.
"I don't get it. What did she tell you, exactly?"
"That she'd found Smarty's civil name and that it would be best if we pretend we've never met."
"It doesn't make sense. You sure that's all there is to it?" Lois persisted.
"Yes, of course!"
"You're a terrible liar, Jimmy," Clark softly stated, unaware of Lois's look-who's-talking-look on him.
"I can't believe she found out so fast. So, who is he?" Lois asked.
"Who's who?" Jimmy innocently replied.
"Jimmy, it's me you're talking to, remember? Lois 'Mad Dog' Lane? Investigative and most Kerth-Awarded journalist?"
"Okay! Okay…he's my father."
"Huh?" the Planet's reporters let out.
"Could you…" Lois started.
"…Repeat that again…" Clark went on.
"…And don't miss…" Lois choked.
"…A quote. We want…" Clark took over.
"All the details," they both finished.
"Wow! That was cool! Reminded me of a TV show. Did you just make that up?" Jimmy wondered.
"Guys can be so dull! It doesn't take a high IQ to see that she's just trying to protect you!" Lois realized too late that she'd voiced her thought aloud. Jimmy's report of his night talk with Erin had made it all clear. Her cousin was claming up like an oyster and playing lonesome cowboy again.
"Trying to protect me?" Jimmy wondered. "Then why didn't she tell me face to face? Why did she cut me… *us* off? Why the isolation and the distance?"
"She wants us safe, thus out of the way…out of her way, so she has carte blanche to move and act. I guess right now she sees us as burdens, and worrying about you will only slow her down. Given the situation you described, I don't think she can afford it," Lois completed.
"But she can't possibly think of getting out of this alive on her own. She'll need back ups."
"He's right," Clark interrupted.
"No, you're wrong," Lois objected. "As far as I know her, she works better alone and she can handle this. Remember the STAR Labs robbery? That was top job."
"Still, a super help could be useful," Clark ventured.
"Maybe," Lois admitted, half convinced, as Clark reached for his coat and headed to the door.
"Where are you going?" Jimmy asked.
"Er…I'll be right back. I just forgot to…"
"…Return an overdue DVD," Lois completed.
"Can't you return it tomorrow morning, first thing?"
"No. The guy charges on the clock," Clark explained. "But I'll be right back," he promised before dashing off. An awkward silence stretched between Lois and Jimmy. She smiled nervously at him. She could tell by the typical curve at the corner of his mouth that he was up to something.
"So, now that we're together…" Jimmy began, drawing himself closer to a more and more shocked Lois.
"How about you tell me how you ended up engaged to Superman?"
<A typical evening in the life of Lois and Clark?>
"Jimmy, how did you find out about…"
"…CK being Superman? Well, Perry told me."
"Perry knows, too?!! Oh god, I think I need to sit down." She didn't even think of denying Jimmy's statement.
"You *are* sitting down, Lois."
"Perry told me a while ago. He'd noticed the resemblance and some demeanor that only Clark and Superman seemed to have in common, 'as if they'd been separated at birth,' the chief said, but…"
"But I didn't believe him. I mean, come on! Perry worships Elvis and practically lives in Graceland! I'm sure he'd turn the Daily Planet into 'The King's Gazette' if only he had the opportunity. Still, I'm surprised he didn't ask the whole newsroom to find evidences the King was still alive."
"Jimmy, I'd never thought I'd say this but, you're kind of babbling…"
"Oh? Right! Well, the more I gave Perry's revelation a thought…"
"Then when did you find out?"
"Well, I got suspicious when Clark got all edgy after Erin told us about the Kryptonite she'd stole. Then I started putting two and two together when you both knew it was me knocking at the door this evening, but I must admit the 'overdue DVD to return' excuse was really too much." Jimmy hardly finished before bursting out laughing.
Superman had scanned every inch of Metropolis's streets, buildings, caves, and underground places, even the non- official ones. And he could only come to one conclusion: Erin was either dead or hiding. But in both cases, she stood in a leaded place. Resigned, he'd flown back to his apartment.
"Hey, CK," Jimmy greeted his friend as he stepped inside his apartment.
"Jimmy…" Clark began, noticing Lois' frantic waving signs. Then she seemed to remember something important because he could swear he'd seen her lips moving. Forcing his super hearing, he only managed to catch up a few words: 'he… knows…safe.' Lois stared at Clark, scrutinizing every inch of his beloved face to find evidence he understood the situation. He clearly didn't. Trying not to make it too obvious, she fingered an 'S' on her chest, then discreetly fore-fingered Jimmy. But Clark seemed to have lost his brain on this.
"Did you find Erin?" Jimmy's question took Clark completely off-guard.
Slowly stepping next to Lois, he inquired, "Er…Lois…you wanted to tell me something?"
"Jimmy knows you're Superman…and so does Perry," she matter-of-factly pointed out.
"Ookay! Are there people in Metropolis who actually don't know about it?"
"Except Jimmy, Perry, Erin, Dr Klein, your parents and me, you mean?"
"Wait a minute! Erin knew?"
"Of course, she figured it out the day she arrived," Lois informed Jimmy, before filling Clark in with the hows and whys of Perry and Jimmy's discovery.
"Speaking of Erin, I don't know where she can be. I scanned Metropolis and the whole state of New Troy. She's nowhere to be found," Clark started.
"Jimmy, you left her not so long ago. Where did you two meet?" Lois wondered.
"Not far from the Fudge Castle."
"This isn't leading anywhere. She chose the place on purpose: crowded thus easy to vanish when you had a tail put on you."
"She's good, she's really good," Jimmy said.
"Well, she wants to be left alone. She'll let us know if she needs us, one way or another," Lois tried to reassure herself.
"Yep, she's quite smart," an admiring Clark seconded.
"Well, what did you expect from an investigative journalist and spy's daughter who makes a hobby out of the robbery business?" Lois asked.
"Well, goodnight. See you all tomorrow then," Jimmy added, heading to the door.
"'Night Jimmy," Lois chirped out. But Clark stopped him before he closed the door.
<He's dropping it too easily,> she thought.
<Yep, must be up to something.>
Clark stopped Jimmy before he could close the door behind him. "Wait a minute. I thought we agreed you stayed with us tonight."
"Oh, I changed my mind. You two have better things to do than babysit me. Besides, now that we know about my father, I don't think those drastic security measures are necessary anymore."
"I guess that means 'no.'"
"You're right. By the way, Clark…"
"Your secret's safe with me."
"Jimmy, you gonna be okay?" Lois wondered.
"Well, I'm a bit worried, but if she wants it that way, then it's fine with me."
"You're quite a guy, Jimmy Olsen," Lois told him as the Lane and Kent team saw him to the door.
As their friend departed, Lois flashed Clark a seductive look while stepping closer to him, her hand gently stroking his chest. "So…where were we?"
Jimmy had hated lying, especially to his friends, but did they really think he was gonna drop it so easily? God only knew what Erin was up to. He understood her motivation and why she needed to be alone, but their respective fathers were out trying to rip their guts off by threatening their kids, for God sake! Who did they think they were!
Not that he would try to stop Erin; she seemed to have inherited Lois' genes when getting in trouble was involved.
<You're being unfair. So far, she's never gotten into trouble until she chooses to, and until she was sure to get out of it unharmed.>
<Well, right now, she might…>
<What is it with you and pessimism?>
<I'm just being realistic.>
<Your guess, not mine.>
<Okay. She might be a nerd with a computer, but I think I can checkmate her on this one.>
As soon as he reached the Planet's newsroom, Jimmy turned the nearest computer on and switched into hacker mode.
Erin was turning it over and over in her head. She couldn't believe her dad's former partner didn't even try to hurt her, or kill her. She'd learn to survive this kind of situation from the best but, to make it short, she couldn't believe she was still alive. Three days had passed since Star Labs' robbery and still, no sign of Smarty.
<Well, either he's dumb or out of the country.>
She'd barely slept last night and tonight was gonna be a short one, too. She knew she couldn't be safer than at the base. Her father had enhanced the security of the building, extended it to the nearest area. Infrared and thermic cameras, movement detector, laser beams, plus an integrated destroying system surrounding the whole building, in case things went wrong. An escape-way was also secured underneath the deconsecrated hotel, via the sewer network.
Emotionnally, she'd kept Jimmy at arm length thus out of her way. She knew Lois would understand. Now she just had to pray Clark and his alter ego wouldn't try to play superhero, but would keep the way clean so she could handle the situation her way. After a last check on the screens of the control panel, she'd set the alarm on level four and taken the dressing room up to her bedroom. Maybe it was time for her to become a clear target so Jack Olsen came out of his hideout. She was tired of this 'cat and mouse' game. All she wanted now was a 'game over,' whatever it resulted in.
<But right now, get some sleep.>
<No. There's something I've got to do first.>
<At nearly one in the morning?>
The checking of a wristwatch was quickly followed by a satisfied sigh escaping from the shadows.
Erin stood, still as a statue, her shape securely hidden by the tall cypress surrounding Star Labs' buildings. She'd thought the place would be loaded with police officers or that the security around the building would have been reinforced, but the place was utterly quiet. Passing the main building, she stopped and disarmed the electronic lock before taking the staircase. Her thermal and infrared aimed goggles had told her that, as she'd suspected, more guards had been assigned to the roof and Klein's lab area.
<Hum…things are heating up? I like that!>
Extra carefully, she tiptoed behind the ninth floor staircase door. It was the only one in Star Labs to be 'booby trapped' with an encrypted safe looking lock. Unzipping her black leather jacket, she reached for her palm-sized computer, linking it up with a code-decrypting device before connecting the whole system onto the encrypted lock she wanted to break. Thirty seconds later, she carefully opened the door and scanned the empty corridors for heat sources. Normally, breaking the lock should have cut Klein's office inner security system as well.
<We'll see,> she thought, stopping at the corner just across from Bernard Klein's office.
<Lab,> she mentally corrected. She had it in direct visual and two police officers were guarding it. She checked her watch again: 1.59.50 AM. If she was right, even police officers needed a break after a six hours surveillance gig. As a dream came true, two officers stepped out of nowhere to change guard with their now departing colleagues. Erin waited as the second staircase door closed behind both retreating shapes. Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped towards the two guards, spraying a soporific gas at them before knocking them off and entering Klein's office.
<No thermal signal, no camera around, no alarm siren…good. Except for the safe.>
<Yeah, well, hurry. You only have thirty minutes, remember?>
She went directly to the safe and used her father's paraphernalia: fake fingerprints, altering voice spray and lenses. Opening the safe, she reached for her shoulder bag, zipped it open and retrieved a leaded suitcase, carefully putting it into the safe. Closing it the way she did a few nights before, she quickly exited the lab and the building, once again vanishing into the darkness.
She'd taken the old black Saab saloon and parked it two blocks away from Star Labs' installations. Getting out via Metropolis sewer network would have been easier and safer, but the ones surrounding Star Labs were all booby trapped, sending an instant alarm signal to the police in case someone tried to force them. Erin reached for the driver's door, ready to unlock it, when a shadow temporary clouded the luminosity of the nearest beaming street lamp.
"Missed something on your previous guided tour?"
She slowly raised her head as the familiar form stepped closer and closer, materializing into…
<Hum! I smell trouble.>
<My new perfume. You like it?> Erin silently teased.
<Stop bragging, Erin! This is serious! How did he even managed to find out?>
"…Put the stolen Kryptonite back in Dr Klein's safe?" Jimmy finished. He seemed cold, really distant, like he'd shut himself out of emotions.
"Did I find out? Well, first, I discovered Clark was Superman and I wondered: Why would you keep the Kryptonite? It's no use to you and it's turning you into too obvious a target, since it's the only thing my father seems to be after. It's certainly the reason your room at the Lexor was 'redecorated,' and I can't believe 'Smarty,' as you called him, would kill you just for the fun of it, or because he's seeking revenge against your father. So…"
"…You did a little hacking?" she let out in an expressionless voice.
"Well, I did some investigation first, starting by the Lexor. Curiously, the few staff members I talked to saw you getting out of the safe room and check out, but no pageboy or taxi drivers out in the parking area could recall spotting you or taking you anywhere. It's like you'd vanished into the Lexor."
<I must admit, he's real good…and real hooked.>
<…And deeply hurt by what I did told him.>
"Jimmy, I…" she started, wanting to make amends and explained her gesture to him. Tell him she just wanted to protect him…that she still loved him. But he remained insensitive to her silent struggle and continued his monologue.
"That's where the hacking part began. I broke into the City Hall files, Metropolis Urbanism and Sewer System Department. Would you believe, according to a 19th century city's map, a sewer tunnel used to link the Empire Hotel, now known as the Lexor, and the Metropolis Grand Hotel? Both were owned by a banker whose financial establishments were front covers for the laundering of gun and alcohol dealers' money. So I thought to myself, 'Is it possible that Erin escaped by the sewers?'" he joked.
"Jimmy, stop this," Erin pleaded.
He was aching to see how much his attitude tore her apart, but he wanted to be even for the hurt she caused her 'non declaration' of love. <You're being childish,> Jimmy's conscience reproached him. But he couldn't stop himself.
"After a little digging, I discovered that the Metropolis Grand Hotel had been sold and turned into apartments a few decades ago. So I paid the place a visit. It's an abandoned building, more like a ruin now. Still, it's a 'sewer station' from the Fudge Castle. I'm sure you'll like it."
Silent tears were rolling down Erin's cheeks. Tears she barely seemed to notice. She;d thought she had everything in control, but the truth was she'd lost Jimmy the moment she'd decided to push him aside for 'his own good,' as she'd told him. But was it her fault if she worked better solo, if she wasn't the dependant type?
<You work better solo because you're a single child and because you were raised that way.>
<Nonsense. It's my temper, that's all.>
<Oh yeah? What about your partnership with Lois at the Planet?>
<This is out of purpose. All this secrecy…>
Jimmy's voice brought her back to reality. "But the most surprising part is that the building, exterior like interior part, is really decrepit…except for real advanced devices, dispatched everywhere around…especially from 6th to 10th floor. And did I mention that the exact same Saab saloon was parked in…I guess it was the former laundry?"
Erin could only stare at him, speechless. He'd found her secured hiding place, he knew about the base, the reputed 'cannot be found' fortress her father was so proud of.
<Great! And were do I go from here?>
"How did you fool the detectors and visit the building without triggering the destroying system?" Her question was so incongruous in such a moment that she repressed a nervous laughter.
"I disarmed it. You can't imagine all the things you can do with a good laptop."
"You came here by foot?" Erin pursued, trying to sound as cold as he did without managing it. Somehow she dreaded his answer.
"By sewer. Laptop trick again. Look, Erin, it's not that I don't enjoy this night chat, but you were right about our relationship…lack of relationship, that is. So I'll do just as you suggested: We never met, nothing happened. You don't love me, I don't love you. We're both happy."
"I see." She choked while unlocking her car and sliding onto the driver's seat. She really needed to sit down. She didn't even bother to look up as Jimmy dove into the nearest sewer hole.
~~Daily Planet, the next evening.~~
The newsroom slowly emptied out. The main lights went down. It was the night shift time. The only lights were now coming from the few computer screens and desk lamps that were still turned on, signaling their occupier's presence in Perry's office, and at Jimmy's, Lois's, and Clark's desk, though the last one had officially returned from a source interview.
Lois was engrossed in the writing of an article, unaware of Clark's devouring look on her. They both raised their heads as Perry closed the door of his office.
"You're not intending to spend the night here, are you?" he asked them.
"No, Perry," Clark answered. "I'm just waiting for Lois to finish her article so I can walk her and Jimmy home."
"I'm almost done," she shot back at him, knowingly smiling.
"Glad to hear that. Well, good night, kids!" Perry greeted them as he walked up to the elevators.
"'Night Perry," they replied all together, before diving back into their respective tasks. But as the simultaneous chiming of both elevators were heard, all three of them raised their heads again.
Erin stepped out. She wanted to talk to Jimmy, but she immediately regretted her impulsiveness. She was too proud to even think of humiliating herself. Perry seemed to notice her discomfort as she retreated into the wooden lift.
"Erin! I'm so glad you're here. There's something I'd like to discuss with you," he told her, gently pulling her out of the elevator.
"Likewise, Perry, but right now…"
"Come on, it's all in the family here, so to speak."
"It's late and you were heading for home. I'm sure it can wait until omorrow…" she tried.
"Sure. But since you're here… We'll be more comfortable in my office," he went on.
<Better not trying to elude with Perry late at night.> She reluctantly followed him, wondering what this was all about, and feeling like a schoolgirl about to be given a dressing down. She looked at Lois, who was as astonished as she was. She flashed Jimmy a hesitant smile but he stubbornly avoided her gaze.
Perry shut the door behind her and invited her top sit down.
"What is it you wanted to tell me, Perry?"
Erin had no doubt Lois would ask Clark to use his super hearing on this one, and the thought made her apprehension vanish.
"Well, first, I know you know that Clark is…you know…S," he emphasized with a flying gesture.
"Special?" she proposed.
"Yeah. But that's not my point here."
"Oh," Erin let out, her apprehensions back one hundred percent.
"I also noticed that you and Jimmy are 'friends.'"
"Perry, me and Jimmy…we're not really…it's not that easy."
"Whatever. I was just wondering if you'd like to work here at the Planet, on the editorial staff."
"News and investigations?"
"Exactly. You'll do the writing and you could even work solo. But my idea was to team you with Jimmy."
"He'll do the photos. Plus it would be a good start for him as an investigative journalist. The kid is talented, you know. So, what d'you say?"
"I'd say I'd love to and I'm really touched…but I can't accept. Jimmy's already part of a team, probably the best one. Besides, I already have a job in Paris. I had to fight hard, and to start things all over to get it, but it was worth it."
"I guess there's no point in trying to make you change your mind?"
"No. But thank you so much. Maybe under other circumstances…"
"Well, in that case I won't hold you back any longer."
"Goodnight, Erin." He smiled as she went out of his office. Once he couldn't be heard (well…almost), he checked his Elvis clock and picked up the phone before dialing an international number. He waited a few rings before getting an answer.
"Pierre? Hi! Perry speaking…"
Erin stepped down to the newspool but stopped dead in her tracks. A man was apparently having a conversation with Clark, Lois and Jimmy…only there was also a gun involved. How come Clark didn't slip out and came back in the 'S' suit to use his superpowers was a mystery to her at the time. For a moment she feared Kryptonite, but it seemed they'd all been taken by surprise.
"Oh no! Not tonight!" Erin let out.
"Don't worry, I'm not the violent type…well, not always. Erin, is it?" Jack added, aiming his gun at her.
"I see you know my name, Mister Olsen. Maybe you could give me back the things you stole from me? You could start with my passport."
"Well. One thing at a time. I'm gonna wait for your father to show up. The sooner, the better…for you."
"You're wasting your time; he won't come. Might as well kill me now."
"Erin! No!" Jimmy shouted.
"And spoil all the fun? I thought you were smarter than that," the ex-spy answered, merely paying attention to Jimmy's interruption. "By the way, congratulation for you performance in Star Labs, Erin. This was 'high classy robbery.' Your father must be really proud of you," Jack stated. Not waiting for an answer, he added, "I hope my messages and me putting on your hotel room didn't scare you to death," he sardonically laughed.
"Scared? Me? Nothing you would do could possibly scare me."
"Really? You won't mind if I kill this crush of yours then," he joked, tightening his grip around the trigger of his gun, while slowly raising it at Jimmy's temple level.
<He's joking right?> Jimmy's eyes silently asked her.
<How would I know? It's your father, after all,> Erin's seemed to answer. <Still, seems serious.>
"You probably won't believe it, but I'm what people define as 'fearless.' I can't imagine you're considering killing your own son, Mister Olsen." She saw his self-assurance waver and pursued, "Next time you threaten Jimmy, father or not, *I'll* kill you. Do I make myself clear?"
"You're joking, right?" Jack asked, before wincing in pain. Erin had suddenly grabbed his right wrist, slightly but firmly twisting it. Jimmy watch in disbelief. He'd never thought Erin would do this. She had a 'don't mess with me' look, matching Jack's challenging one.
"Really? What do you think?" Erin playfully answered, twisting a little bit more, causing him to drop his gun.
Clark started walking closer to the scene in an attempt to prevent things from growing more acrimonious, ready to step between Erin and Jack. But Lois reached for his hand.
"Clark, don't. This is personal, remember?"
"But Lois…" He was clearly torn between his super ethic and Lois's cold-blooded but sensible reaction.
"Besides, seems the cavalry's already here," she smirked, as a tall, blue-eyed, slim and good looking man stepped out of the elevator and down to the newspool.
"Harry, at last! What took you so long?"
"Got stuck in traffic," the apostrophed man answered Jack, a bemused and airy smile on his face.
"Erin, hon', how many times do I have to tell you that I don't resort to violence?"
"I'm not you. Right now, I feel like getting in touch with my inner bad girl."
"Well, drop it."
"Why should I?" Erin protested.
"Because it's been a really long day. I think I speak for everybody here when I say that the sooner you drop it, the faster we'll all go home. I don't know about you but it's late, I'm tired, and I'd like to go to bed. So if you could just quit waving guns, playing James Bond and proving that a talented and intelligent woman can act more sexist and macho than men often do, you'll spare me a hell of a time," Lois cut in, leaving everybody stunned.
"'Clark, don't. This is personal,' huh?" her boyfriend whispered in her ear.
"Well…yeah. You wouldn't let me go to bed without a goodnight kiss, would you?" she teasingly murmured without even looking at him.
"You must be Lois Lane?" Jack pinpointed.
"You got that right," she answered in full Mad-Dog-Lane mode. "Harry, how about you enlighten us about how you ended up setting this ridiculous thing up with the ex- partner I thought you were hiding from?"
"Good to see you, too, Lois…wait. How did you…?"
"She's won two Kerths," Erin explained.
"What is it?"
"It's about living it up, self-esteem and…not avoiding issues you're confronted to," Lois told him. "So no more subterfuge; just answer my question."
"And they called *you* Tiger!" Harry jokingly addressed Erin.
"Dad, we need to talk." She frowned and gestured him to the conference room.
One quick glance at her told him he'd better not behave braggart. He reluctantly followed her.
"Wait a second. What do you think you're doing here? You turned my newsroom completely upside down and you want me to pretend nothing ever happened?" Perry interrupted. He'd watched from a distance, but this was the last straw.
"Er…Perry…" Erin started.
"Well, think again. I deserve an explanation too!" he cut in, shoving them into the conference room.
"Well, I think we all deserve one," Clark noticed.
"Jack, Jimmy, if you'll please follow us in for an impromptu family reunion," Perry ordered.
"You understand this is gonna be unofficial talk?" Jack warned him.
"Don't worry, nothing will leak out of this room, as far as I'm concerned."
"He didn't became Editor-in-Chief of one of the world's most famous daily newspapers because he could yodel," Jimmy informed his father.
An hour later, the conference room was empty, and so was the Planet building.
Lois and Clark had headed back home. So did Jimmy, alone. Jack had once more vanished to 'make an important phone call.' Perry had waved for a taxi, wondering what he would tell Alice in case she wasn't already asleep. Harry and his daughter had returned to the base for a further debriefing.
Erin was furious. How could her father have done this to her—and Jimmy—without her suspecting a thing? She was fumming.
"I can't believe you both set us up just to get the Kryptonite back!"
"We wanted to put it back into Klein's safe, but…"
"I've already done it."
"You did? When?"
"At two this morning."
"No wonder I didn't find a thing here."
"When did you arrive, by the way? I thought you were gonna play it low key on some sunny but unreferenced island of yours?"
"At noon. And it wasn't that sunny."
"It doesn't explain why you made me steal the Kryptonite in the first place."
"Jack called me a few months ago. He knew I wouldn't resist a deal. All I had to do was break into a scientist's safe and steal some bizarre rock: the Kryptonite. I didn't think the thing existed, but Jack insisted he had a tip on a Metropolis scientist who seemed to be studying the stone composition. Plus he was curious to see if this green rock could be linked to emerald's geological structure. Once he'd finished comparing it with emeralds, I just had to put it back in the safe, end of the story."
"That's it? All these death threats and farfetched scenario so your brother in crime could improve his gem knowledge? The guy made you 'personna non grata in France.' He ruined your life!"
"This was part of our plan."
"Now I'm lost!"
"Jack had accused me of treachery against the French secret services only because he was a double KGB agent at the time. My bringing down was their way of testing his loyalty towards 'Mother Russia.' When Jack alerted the French secret services, they had just discovered I was 'the Gentleman' and were planning to hand me over to the police as a traitor to the country. His first reaction was to refuse. A few days later, our French boss informed him that his wife had died in a car collision, leaving a son, *his* son, behind. Jack had no doubt the accident had nothing to do with coincidence. Depressed, he had emailed me a 'dinner invitation.' We invented the 'dinner' code. We only used it in big emergency cases or when we needed to discuss business in an ear-free place. Once the 'guest' had read the message, an email informed the 'inviter' before the countdown began. Each person had a 30-minute delay to reach the meeting place…which changed every hour. Ours was the Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. That night we'd both decided to double cross the French secret services."
"So all this treachery accusations were just a bluff?" Erin asked, unsure.
"Yep. Jack faked his death. He'd escorted me to the French police headquarters, but I escaped and he got killed trying to stop me."
"That's the official version?"
"Of course. We'd flown to Colombia before taking different paths. I wanted to be the Gentleman full-time and Jack wanted to find his son. No more spy business. But first, Jack had to start a new life. So he bought a small emerald mine. He'd always been interested by the gemology business. I don't know what was with him and emeralds. Anyway, he found a 50 carat gem and his business soon became prosperous. He did everything from extracting the gems to cutting them and setting them into magnificent jewelry pieces."
"But what did the Ace Brothers have to do with this?"
"We had to be convincing. But the Ace brothers weren't Jack's best inspiration. Those bastards were not even able to tell a masterpiece from a Barbie plastic jewel! The idea was to keep Superman, the police and the media busy so I could break into Star Labs without arousing suspicion or being disturbed."
"What about Jimmy? And you?"
"After I left Jack in Columbia, I went back to Metropolis and started casing some joints. I'd never lost touch with your mother but the secret services started to get suspicious. So we decided it would be safer for you to come to the US and live with me, in order to calm things down. You know the rest."
"I guess so. But how did you know I would come to Metropolis at the exact same date of your planned robbery?"
"Your mother told me you were heading my way. She thought you might need a guardian angel."
"Guardian angel? You? Tell me, you would have done it alone if I hadn't come that night?"
"Yeah. It would have take me much longer, that's all."
"You're crazy! Okay, one last thing: Why didn't Jack try to find Jimmy earlier?"
"He was dead, remember? Anyway, he tried. But he couldn't really walk into lights and claim his son back. Too risky. Plus Jimmy was testing foster families and new names real quick from childhood to teenage period. Not easy to follow, even for Jack."
"You gotta be kidding. A high-ranked spy like Jack wasn't even able to trace a kid down?"
"You know what they say, 'ce sont toujours les coordonniers…'"
"…'Les plus mal chausses.' I know. You mean it's also true with spies? You're not able to fulfill your job when your family's concerned or when it comes to personal feelings and relate matters?"
"Well, yeah," Harry answered, unaware of the trap her daughter was setting.
"You're far too modest."
"You two did an incredible job with me…and Jimmy…but maybe this wasn't your definition of a family related business?"
"Erin, you're not gonna be mad at me for the rest of your life!"
"No, I couldn't possibly spoil the rest of my life being mad at you."
"Thanks, pet. I knew you would understand," Harry sighed, relieved.
"Half that time should be sufficient," Erin added with a wicked grin. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a plane to catch. What?" she asked, aware of her father's disgusted look.
"Sweetheart, don't tell me you're gonna lose eight hours on a domestic flight to Paris?"
"Seven to the max," Erin corrected.
"Whatever. Wouldn't you prefer a three hour's return on the Concorde?"
"I'd love too. Can't afford it."
"Don't mention it. It's on the Gentleman's expense."
"Trying to win forgiveness? And how would I reach NewYork- Kennedy International Airport, if I may ask?"
"Can't Superman drop you there?"
"First, there's someone I've got to see."
~~Metropolis, Jimmy's apartment, 10 PM~~
"Jimmy…I came to say goodbye."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm going back to Paris tomorrow, and I…" Her voice cracked.
"Erin, why are you doing this?"
She misunderstood his words. "I know I'm probably the last person you expected, but before you show me the door, there's something I wanted to give you."
Taking a deep breath, she handed him a square, paper- wrapped item. "Don't open it before midnight."
As he didn't reply, she kissed him lightly on the cheek, then on the lips, before exiting the apartment. Jimmy stood motionless as the door closed. He couldn't believe she was leaving him. Again.
<Not like this, not this way.>
<She's not leaving you. It's not as if you two were dating or engaged or anything…>
<She's the love of my life.>
<Oh, please. Every girl passing by is the love of your life…until the next one comes along,> Jimmy's conscience argued.
<Not this time…no, not this time,> Jimmy sighed. Then curiosity and the desire to understand Erin's gesture overtook his resolution. He tore the colorful paper, unwrapping a CD, topped with a white card.
"Jimmy, I'm sure you didn't wait 'til midnight to open this. Well, it really doesn't matter. You probably hate me now but…as I'm really handicapped when it comes to voicing my fears or feelings aloud, maybe you should play the CD. Love, Erin." Soft music soon filled the air.
*I know that when you look at me,
There's so much that you just don't see,
But if you will only take the time,
I know in my heart you'll find…*
The Planet's photographer headed to the window. He pulled a drape just in time to see Erin stepping out of his building, waving at a passing Metropolis cab.
*A girl is scared sometimes,
Wasn't always strong,
Can't you see the hurt in me,
I feel so all alone.*
Jimmy watched as she hesitated to board the taxi. Erin turned her head and took a last look at Jimmy's building. She was relieved to see his shadowy form looking from the second floor window. She couldn't clearly see his face, but she was sure he was intensely staring at her…the way she was staring at him right now.
*I wanna run to you,
I wanna run to you,
Won't you hold me in your arms,
And keep me safe from harm?
I wanna run to you,
But if I come to you, tell me:
Will you stay or will you run away?*
Jimmy blinked silent tears away. Two floors down, Erin did nearly the same. She stood there for a few minutes before stepping into the cab.
"Carter Avenue, mil cincuenta ocho, por favor."
"Er…1058, Carter Avenue, please," Erin corrected as the cab departed.
*Each day, each day I play the role,
Of someone always in control,
But at night, I come home and turn the key,
There's nobody there,
No one cares for me.
Oh with the sense of trying hard to find your dreams,
Without someone to sharing with…
Tell me what does it mean? (1)*
The song's lyrics were beginning to sink in and make sense to Jimmy.
<Why didn't she tell me all this face to face?>
<Maybe she wasn't sure you'd understand? Or she just was afraid of not finding the right words at the right time…or she's not the romantic type,>
<Or she didn't want to hurt me, by leaving me after she'd let me know if…>
<Yep, that's also a possibility>, Jimmy's conscience admitted.
~~Lois's apartment, night~~
"Are you okay?" Lois asked her cousin. When she'd opened her door a few minutes ago, she'd hardly recognized Erin. She seemed completely drained of her self-control.
"I'm fine," Erin replied, holding back tears. Then, turning to Clark, said, "There's a favor I've got to ask you…"
"What is it?"
"Could you fly me to Victoria Falls? There's someone I'd like to bid farewell to…"
"In that case, I'll come with you," Lois added.
"Sure," Clark answered, spinning into the 'S' suit.
~~Victoria falls, Tanzanian part, Africa~~
They landed in a luxurious area with a wonderful and impregnable viewing point on the falls. There, under a giant banana tree, stood Chris' grave, a tiny hillock simply topped by a wooden cross. Well, it was more like two branches crossed and tied together, actually. Erin's breath caught in her chest. She'd never thought she would come back here one day. But she wanted to close this chapter of her life before going on with it. Lois was right. Her mourning period should end. She couldn't live in the past forever. She took her necklace off and dropped it on the ground.
"Goodbye, Chris," she murmured, lightly touching the wooden cross. She then turned to Lois and Clark, who stood a few steps behind her.
"Shall we?" Erin said. Their flight to New York was awfully silent.
At the bottom of a scant cross, somewhere on a grave near Victoria Falls, stood a black velvet lace with two golden rings attached to it. One engraving read, "To Erin. Yours always, Chris."
The second stated "MWIBWYII, Erin."
~~Metropolis, Clark's apartment, midnight~~
Lois was pacing in Clark's living room. They'd both ended there after escorting Erin to NYC, only leaving Kennedy's Airport International flights terminal after the Concorde took off into the night. Clark could tell Lois was a bit shaken by Erin's hasty departure, or was it her behavior with Jimmy? Or Erin's refusal of Perry's proposal to work at the Daily Planet?
<I'll never know.>
Lois had refused to let him take her home, arguing there was something important she'd like to discuss with him first, and that it couldn't wait. Now all she was able to do was pace while staring at him, obviously searching for the right words. So he'd changed tactics.
"Lois, you were there when Erin and Chris got married?"
She jolted at the question. "Yes."
"What does MWIBWYII mean?"
"How did you…? Oh, right. Your vision gizmo," Lois remembered as Clark lowered his glasses. "Well, the jeweler in Brazzaville was paid on the words engraved. Erin's number was too high, and the phrase too long to stand on a wedding band. So, she took the first letter of each words to form only one," Lois explained.
"My World Is Better With You In It…which is why I wanted to talk to you."
"I…I don't know how to put it…"
"Well, just put one word after the other and it should be fine," Clark told her.
A nervous smile crossed Lois face and she sighed heavily.
<My, she's gonna break a bone if she keeps on twisting her hands like this.>
"Clark, I love you…more than I've ever loved anyone, more than my life. This is an amazing feeling I've never experienced before and it's scaring me. That's why I rejected your proposal a while ago. I was scared to end up like my parents, but mostly, I was afraid that marriage could mean the end of our relationship…"
"The end? Why?"
"I don't want to lose you, Clark. I don't want to learn that another psycho went after you, or that some mad criminal is using me as a remote control on your every moves as a superhero. I don't want our marriage to end up as Erin's. I'm not as strong as she is and I know I couldn't face life without you. I wouldn't be living. I'd only be surviving…"
"Marriage…Lois I thought we agreed *not* to talk about it until we were ready to…"
"You're the one who makes my world a better place, and so, I was wondering…do you still want to marry me, Clark Kent?"
"Clark? Do you hear me?"
She surely expected him to be surprised, stunned and temporarily speechless—jaw wide open, optional—but he didn't seem to recover and that got her worried.
"Great…are you okay, then? If so, just bring your jaws back together and close your mouth."
"No, you got me wrong," Clark laughed.
<How was she managing to always stay in control?> the thought got him wondering.
"You…don't…you don't want to…?" she realized, hardly shielding the hint of disappointment and sadness in her voice.
<He's changed his mind.>
"Lois," Clark softly interrupted. Raising a hand to her face, he gently rested it against her cheek while tilting her chin up. She had no way to escape his gaze. Truth is, she was hopelessly attracted by his dark chocolate eyes, like a deer caught in headlights.
"Lois…*I do*," he repeated, stressing each word in order to prevent her from switching into babbling mode again.
"You…Omigod, Clark!!" was the only reply she could think of before bursting into tears.
"Hey! There's nothing here to cry about," Clark whispered as he gathered her into his arms, sitting them on the sofa.
"I know, it's just…I'm so happy! Still, d'you think you'll be able to let the world manage on its own for a whole day?" She teasingly smiled.
"Wanna bet?" Clark offered, leaning in for a tender kiss.
Softly moaning as the kiss deepened, Lois only whispered, "No. I prefer lip reading."
"I can't believe you just let her go away like this without even trying to hold her back. What kind of a man are you?" Jack rebuked him as he came out of Jimmy's bedroom, stepping directly into the living-room.
<Your father's right. In love, my foot!>
"Hey! I don't need you to pinpoint the inherent stupidity of my behaviour with Erin here, so you can just go back to where you came from," Jimmy answered both his conscience and Jack, not even wanting to know how the last one managed to sneak into his apartment so easily.
"Calm down, okay? I'm just here to help!" his father tried.
"Well, you've done enough for today, thanks. I always feel much better after a good reprimand."
"You must admit a good smoochie-steamy time would have been better than two aching hearts…"
"With you watching? What are you suggesting? That I should run after her, crawl back on my knees and beg her to come back?"
"And this is from the man that left a woman and child without an explanation? Well, you've watched too many Z rated movies. In other words, no way." Jimmy knew he was a bit unfair to his dad, but what was Jack thinking? Landing in his life like this and giving him lessons on how to behave with girls, after practically killing the one that hold his heart? And all this on behalf of some set-up he built with his partner.
"This is crazy!" Jimmy exclaimed.
"Jimmy, I know I'm probably not the father you expected: the absent type. I learned your mother had died and that I had a son the hard way. But everything I did—some, not to say a lot, I'm not really proud of—I did to get my real life back…and be able to watch my son grow up."
"Oh." Jimmy paused, uneasy. "You know, when Mom died, I really hated you. I was blaming you for it. Every time I asked her 'where's my dad? When will I see him?' she always told me you were abroad for business, but should return soon. When they put me in foster care, I so hoped you would come through the entrance gates and say some silly stuff like 'Hey Jimmy, I'm your father. Come on, I'm talking you home.' When I got 12, I stopped believing in that dream and told myself you didn't care about me. I mean, maybe you had another wife and kids somewhere? Then I considered you dead. I mean, if you were alive, you would have at least sent me a card for birthdays and Christmas. Now that you're here, I don't know what to think or do anymore. You would really have killed me?"
"Well, I thought Erin was the reasonable type. I just wanted to scare her off."
"Not your brightest idea…"
"Don't remind me. Some hard-headed woman she is," Jack noted, lightly massaging his bruised wrist.
"Yep, but this is not an answer."
"I couldn't have. I was lucky Lois cut in before further humiliating myself. I have a suggestion: We could start by having dinner. I'll answer all the questions you want, and there's a lot I don't know about you, so I guess you'll have to fill in some blanks too. Then you could go talk to Erin. I may be too late to see you grow up, but I'm in the mood for a marriage."
"Marriage? Wait a minute, I…"
"D'you love the girl or not?"
"I don't think that's any of your business."
"Do you love the girl or not?" Jack repeated.
"Yes," Jimmy admitted. "But it's not that easy," he finished.
Jack let out a ringing sigh. "I'll never understand. Why do young people always complicate things?"
"Let's have dinner, shall we?" Jimmy offered, escorting his dad to the kitchen.
"I hope you can cook," Jack said.
"Well…I was hoping to leave that to you."
Jimmy took his luggage and entered the bedroom. Clark had dropped him in the Grand Palais an hour ago. The place which hosted numerous Art Exhibitions was actually closed for repairs and restoration, but the architecture of the building, reminding him of a gigantic nineteenth-Century winter garden glasshouse, took his breath away. After spinning into civil clothes, Clark had escorted his friend to the nearest hotel before wishing him good luck. A few seconds later, Jimmy denoted the familiar whoosh. Lois had asked Clark to bring her back some of those amazing croissants from the little bakery near the Tuileries Park, so the second half of the Lane-Kent team hurried there before flying back home to be on time for the Planet's morning staff meeting.
~~Paris, Rue Vivienne, Bon 2 Restaurant~~
Jimmy exited the AFP building and headed to the Bon 2 right across the street. He had went to the French News Agency first, hoping to surprise Erin and ask her out for lunch, but it seemed she got there before him. He was preparing to leave when someone had called after him. The guy had introduced himself as Pierre Blanc, and he reminded Jimmy a bit of Perry. When the young photographer had explained Pierre he was looking for Erin, the French newsman had invited him to join him in his office so they could 'chat more freely.' After 15 minutes of questioning on how Perry was, and talking about Metropolis/Superman related topics, Pierre had confided to Jimmy that, when depressed like she was those last days, Erin usually went to her 'canteen': the Bon 2, standing right on the corner across the street.
Jimmy stepped into the lightly crowded restaurant. The atmosphere and decorative style instantly reminded him of the Daily Planet. <Well, with a twist,> he corrected.
Stock Exchange indexes and economical statistics were perpetually running round the restaurant's ceiling, either in green, blue or red. The captions' color informed the clients of ups, standstills or drops of shares' indexes in a blink…a bit like information or catchy news on the ceiling of the Planet, only those were displayed on liquid crystal screens.
<Looks more like the Guggenheim Museum's storeys or Broadway frontages,> Jimmy mentally noticed.
This, matched with teak wooden and Cordoba leathered chairs and steeled and teak framed tables, endow the room with a real contemporary style, smoothed by a discrete colonial touch. But Jimmy didn't cross an ocean to give lectures on architectural and interior's design. Scanning the room for Erin, the waiter's questioning tone abruptly connected him back to reality…although he didn't understand a single word the guy was saying.
"Bonjour Monsieur, vous avez reserve?"
"Er…do you speak English?" Jimmy inquired.
"Yes, of course. Did you make any reservations or do you want a table?" the waiter obliged.
"Oh…no thanks, I…I'm just looking for a friend. She's a regular here…"
"We have a lot of regular customers. What's her name?"
"Oh, that Erin! Well, she's at her usual table at the end of the restaurant, near the bar and back against the wide white television screen," the waiter explained, while indicating the left side of the restaurant.
"Thanks so much," Jimmy replied as he zigzagged along the tables before stopping inches from Erin's. She didn't notice him at first. She seemed totally lost in thoughts. AFP dispatches covered the table, topped by a scribbled notepad. A formerly warm brownie with honey and tiny almond slices now cooling down in front of her, Erin absently sipped grenadine from her glass. The sparkle of life and wit that was always dancing in her eyes when he'd known her in Metropolis, had totally withdrawn from those two forest lookalike and fathomless pools.
Then, sensing a presence, she said, without even looking up, "Pas de cafe aujourd'hui, merci Georges."
"Er…could you say that again?" Jimmy asked as she slowly raised her head, her face gradually lighting up with wonder as she recognized her interlocutor.
"Jimmy! Jimmy? How are you? What did you…?" The questions were now rushing to her lips but seemed unable to get out in clear and understandable phrases.
"If you think I came here to crawl back on my knees, tell you that I can't live without you, apologize for my stupid behavior in Metropolis and maybe see the Eiffel tower, well…you're right," Jimmy sheepishly admitted. Erin raised an eyebrow, trying to decide whether she should laugh or cry.
"Except for the kneeling part," she observed, amused.
"Well, that was supposed to come after the 'blind you with a flashy diamond ring and ask you to marry me' scene," he explained handing her a little red velvet square box.
"Do you want to marry me, Erin?"
"Jimmy, I…well, you know my last marriage ended kind of…"
"I know that. But it's future I'm talking about, not past."
"It's just, I don't want you to…you mean future like 'they lived happily ever after'?"
"Or at least they gave it a try. Yep, that's the general idea."
She stared at him for a long moment, which nearly drove him off the edge. Was he the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with?
"Jimmy, you'd better sit down," she warned him, drawing a teak wooden chair closer to him.
<Oh no, not another rejection,> Jimmy feared. Then, looking haggard and aware that Erin might give him the finishing blow, he chose to speak first.
"Look, I shouldn't have come. I did it on a whim and obviously, it was a bad idea. I think I'd better leave," he said, heading to the door. Quickly standing up, Erin grabbed his arm and spun him so he was now facing her. Melting against him, she let her lips teasingly play over his, while drawing him back to her table, oblivious to the customers' heads now turned towards them. Surprised by the intensity of her kiss, Jimmy pulled away from her, interrogation spread all over his face.
"I just wanted to tell you that I'll marry you," she murmured in his ear. His jaw fell open as he stammered.
"With all my heart and soul," she replied, her eyes pricking with fresh tears. He stood there transfixed, unable to tear his gaze away from her before dropping to the nearest chair.
"Do you mind if I sit down?" he asked, flashing a soft, bright smile at her.
"God, Erin! What a shock you gave me!" Jimmy started as they both exited the restaurant, hand in hand, heading to the Place de la Bourse before stopping in front of the 19th century building that once was Paris' Stock Exchange.
"Shock? Would you rather I'd said no?"
"Of course not…but when you asked me to sit down, I feared the worst. After all, you left me twice."
"I know, but I was…I just…I can act silly sometimes."
"Hey! It's okay! I'm here now, and we're together, and don't even think I'll let you go again." He smiled.
"I so hope you won't," she whispered, granting him a butterfly kiss. Then, nestling in Jimmy's arms, she lightly turned her head towards the AFP building, standing right across the street on their right. Erin's gaze went automatically to the third floor, on the right corner, where Pierre's office stands. She could see his shadowy form and make out his smile and thumbs up while gazing at the couple standing a few meters below. She discretely returned the gesture, sending Pierre a kiss before Jimmy's voice snapped her out of her silenced gimmick.
"So, I've been told you have the afternoon off. I suggest we make the best of it."
"What do you have in mind, Mister Olsen?"
"Well, I've always wanted to take a walk from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysees before eating cotton candy on top of the Eiffel Tower."
"Ouch! How clich‚!" she teased him. "The real American tourist!"
"Okay, then. How about an enamored Paris sightseeing tour on a Bateau Mouche?"
"Hum…that has potential but aren't you forgetting something?" Erin asked.
"What?" he asked startled.
"The ring," she remarked, waving her left hand in a sensual manner. Jimmy caught her fingers in his hand before bringing them to his lips, brushing them lightly. Erin gave him the velvet square box back and blushed as he opened it, revealing a princess cut diamond. Erin's breath caught in her chest as Jimmy slowly slipped the band onto her middle finger. He glanced back at her, his eyes filled with reverence and love.
"Shall we go now?" he smirked.
"Just one last thing," Erin pointed out before raising on her tiptoes and covering his lips with hers.
He'd never get tired of it, of Erin's feather-soft lips caressing, now hungrily teasing and parting under his before fully tasting him. Taken off guard, Jimmy quickly got caught up in the moment, his fingers playing in Erin's hair before he let his hands slide down her back, tightening around her waist. Her kisses were intoxicating. They ended panting for air, cheeks flushed. Jimmy recovered first.
"What was that for?" he clumsily wondered.
"Engagement procedure. First the ring, then the kiss."
"Oh. In that case, come back here," Jimmy told her, leaning in for a deep and reverent kiss that could have lasted forever if it wasn't for Erin's cell phone.
"Don't you want to answer it?" Jimmy asked her in between kisses.
"Nope. Oh, how I missed you," she murmured, devouring his lips again.
"Might…might be important," Jimmy argued in between kisses. She shot him a half angry, half amused look while getting the drilling instrument out of her pocket.
"Erin? Pierre speaking. I certainly hope I'm intruding," he joked.
"Certainly, but go on…"
"I see Jimmy finally found you."
"We found each other."
"I'm so happy for you two. Which brings me to this: I think I'll need a perpetual correspondent in Metropolis to cover Superman's every move…you know, like a "French glimpse into New Troy's everyday life." I thought you might be interested."
"You'll have to come to Paris half a dozen times a year…maybe more, depending on how hot the news is, and you're still in charge of your section. What d'you say, Tiger?"
"I'll say you're the best man and boss I've ever worked with. Thanks, Pierre," she warmly answered.
"I'll take that as a yes!" he said, struggling to keep his voice firm. "You're the best, too, Erin. But now, if you could just leave the place de la Bourse to pigeons' flights and working executives, you're a real touchy kissing couple but…we have dispatches to decrypt, you know…"
Raising her head to the AFP building, Erin noticed the crowded third-floor windows. She could even hear the cheers and whistles from her colleagues. Her face broke into a wide smile before she answered.
"What's the matter, info TV cable channels went blank?"
"See ya, Erin. I've got some reporters to yell at." Pierre laughed. "By the way…"
"All the best." As he hung up, Erin put her cell phone in her purse.
"Pierre? What did he want?" Jimmy asked her.
"To wish us all the best."
"Yep," she barely answered, thoughtful. Suddenly checking her watch, she opened her purse, fetched her GSM phone, flipped it open and punched a few numbers, hardly managing to keep her composure at Jimmy's worried look. He obviously didn't have a clue what she was up to.
"Perry? Erin. I was just wondering…is your offer still open?"
(1) Song "Run to you" by Whitney Houston (Arista records, Inc.)
"Dont' take life too seriously. You're not gonna see the end of it alive."(Anonymous)