By Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: December 2004
Summary: In this final part of the Eternity trilogy, can Lois escape Lex Luthor and find freedom and happiness with Clark? (Part 3 of the Eternity trilogy)
This is the final story in the Eternity Trilogy; it really won't make a lot of sense if you haven't read the first two, Summer Dreaming and Betrayed, both of which are already on this Archive.
As ever, I have a number of people to thank. First, everyone who posted comments on the Fanfic Message Boards (http://www.lcficmbs.com) and/or nagged on IRC for further parts of the story. You not only kept the motivation going, but you caught the occasional error and saved me from future embarrassment. ;) Second, to Ray, who raised questions about the behaviour of the characters in the first two stories and, in an email exchange, made me think hard about whether I'd explained Lois's motivation and feelings sufficiently; parts of both Betrayed and this story owe themselves to Ray's comments. Third, to DocJill, for allowing me to continue her cameo and for being proud of her obsessive-compulsiveness. ;)
And finally, to the best team of beta-readers in the business. Annette, the BR with the emphasis on READER, for demanding more, telling me what she liked and pointing out what she thought was missing — and for the flatpack. ;) And Yvonne and Kaethel, whom I seriously overloaded with this series; in my haste to finish by year-end, I was sending them sections so quickly they could barely keep up. I really appreciate your patience, guys, and the fact that you didn't tell me to get lost! And your comments and suggestions, as ever, were invaluable. You are truly terrific!!
All rights to the copyrighted characters in this story belong, of course, to their owners, DC Comics and Warner Bros; no infringement of copyright is intended by their use in this story, which is NOT being issued for profit!
*You were there for summer dreaming
And you are a friend indeed
And I know you'll find your freedom
— 'Eternity', written and performed by Robbie Williams
The slam of the door behind her was followed by the distinctive sound of a key turning in the lock. Lois tried to quell the terror rising up inside her. She *was* going to get out of here. She wasn't completely at the mercy of the monster she'd been stupid enough to marry.
She was Lois Lane, after all. Award-winning reporter. Brilliant undercover investigator. Smart and quick-witted enough to have survived several attempts on her life. She could figure a way out of this.
But she was also the Lois Lane who'd been completely fooled by the man now standing in front of her, regarding her with a superior smile on his face. He'd played her for a sucker. Hooked her and reeled her all the way in. And now he'd shown his true colours and she was at his mercy. His prisoner.
"Welcome home, my dear."
Lex's voice was like the slither of a snake. Gone was all hint of affection, of the charm he'd used on her so easily, so deceptively.
Home. She glanced around her. This wasn't home. The room was large and comfortable, like a luxury hotel-room — but it had no windows. It was completely secure, offering no means of escape, no contact with the outside world. Not even a telephone by the bed.
And, just as important, nothing immediately visible that she could use as a weapon. The bedside lamp was screwed to the wall. All the furniture appeared to be screwed down as well. There was a mirror attached to the dressing-table, but it was secured in such a way that it couldn't be detached — while she could shatter it, she decided that she was unlikely to get any usable shards.
She was locked in. Okay, at the moment he was locked in with her, but she knew very well what that was meant to tell her: when he left, she would continue to be a prisoner in this room.
She'd have to take a closer look at her new home once she was alone.
She'd dozed in the helicopter, the result of the injection Lex's pet doctor had given her. So she had no idea how long they'd travelled; all she knew was that at some point they'd transferred to one of Lex's private planes. When she'd woken up, they'd been flying over snow-capped mountains. The plane had landed in a small airfield, but she'd seen few clues as to where they were. Still in North America, she'd guessed; the couple of signs she'd noticed as Lex's thugs had bundled her off the plane had been in English, with American spelling. Then there had been another helicopter ride, again over snow-capped peaks.
Mountains. High enough to have snow in the summer. There were several places in the US and Canada which could fit that description. The Rockies. The California desert. Alaska. The Olympic Mountains in Washington State — and the Cascades were in Washington too, weren't they? And they extended into Canada. It would be just like Lex to see the irony of bringing her back across the border.
She was a long way from home. And in the most danger she'd ever been in her life.
But there was no way that she would allow Lex to see her fear. She pulled herself up to her full height and looked him in the eye.
"Home?" Deliberately making her tone scathing, she added, "Another one? I'm losing count of all our homes, Lex."
"*Your* home, my love," he said easily, beginning to stroll about the room and examining the amenities. "You need help. Dr Morrison confirmed that. And so you will be kept here, for your own good, while you receive treatment."
Treatment. Lois shivered. What did he have in mind?
She'd assumed that he was going to find another way to kill her while making it look like suicide, or perhaps natural causes. That was still possible. His comments at the farm, and now here, made it look as if he was in the process of having her declared insane. That would make it very easy for him to take his time in doing away with her — if she were locked up and supposedly under psychiatric care, no-one would question her whereabouts. And she couldn't contact the outside world — more importantly, even if by some miracle she did manage to make contact, who would believe her?
Or maybe he planned to punish her another way. He could have her drugged — slowly destroying her mind and turning her into a vegetable.
She shivered again, desperately trying to choke back the fear which threatened to consume her.
<Clark!> She clung to the only shred of hope remaining in her heart. Clark would come for her. He would save her. He loved her.
She'd had to tell him to let her go with Luthor back at the farmhouse. It had been only too clear to her what he'd been about to do — he would have used his abilities, abilities he'd never had a chance to explain to her, to save her. But she had seen how important it was to his family that what he could do stayed a secret — and she'd gone cold inside at the thought of what her husband could do with the information that a man could fly. And what he'd do with the parents of that man.
Not to mention that, if he'd made off with her in front of several state troopers and the chief of police, he'd have made himself a fugitive.
<Keep calm, Lois. Don't let him see your fear>
"I need help, do I?" she observed, deliberately calm, and began to stroll around the room in her turn. "So I imagined you holding a gun on me, drugging me and trying to drown me?"
Lex shook his head, the gesture one she recognised. It was accompanied by the patronising smile she'd seen before but — and *why*? — had never really bothered her. "Naturally. You were hallucinating as a result of taking too many pills."
"Yeah, right." Rolling her eyes, Lois moved to the bed and sat down. It was comfortable; only the best for Mrs Lex Luthor, even if she were to be a prisoner.
"You had a very lucky escape," her husband observed, leaning casually against the dressing-table.
"I did, didn't I?" she drawled carelessly. "Bet you're wondering how."
"I assume that your country bumpkin lover was still in the area and somehow managed to find you. Or else you were more awake than I had realised and you swam to shore and went to him." Lex shrugged. "It's immaterial; the result is the same."
"What I would like to know," Lois said idly, deliberately not looking at her husband, "is how you found me."
She glanced up in time to see him smile again. "I wondered when you would get around to asking that, my dear."
She shrugged. "Well, you did materialise pretty much out of the blue with your minions in tow. I might almost think that you'd made me swallow a tracking device along with that sedative you forced down me."
"Oh, nothing so melodramatic, Lois!" Lex replied smoothly. "It was a pure stroke of luck, actually. Or, perhaps, the fortuitous result of my foresight." He smiled again, ferally this time. "You were treated by some country doctor at Kent's place. That quack took a blood sample, yes?"
Lois nodded. Was it really as simple as that? Had Lex traced her through a *blood sample*? But how?
"The sample was tested at the local laboratory — which just happens to be owned by LexLabs." Lex's smile grew wider. "A long time ago, I instituted procedures at all of the company's labs. Any sample brought for testing must be run through the central computer — after all, one never knows when information of any kind may come in useful. An alert sounded at my headquarters in Metropolis when the computer identified the sample as containing my wife's DNA, and I received a phone call. I had returned to Metropolis by this point," he added. "So, naturally delighted to discover that my beloved wife was actually alive, though mysteriously buried in some one-horse town in the mid-west and having made no effort to contact me, I made arrangements to retrieve you."
Retrieve her. Just as if she were a package he'd mislaid.
Suddenly impatient with Lex's games, she snapped, "Okay, so what are you planning to do with me?"
The satisfied smirk he gave her told her that he'd just scented victory. "Oh, that would be telling, my dear. Suffice to say that you'll find out. In time."
Clark stared after the departing helicopter, anger, frustration and terror building within him. Luthor had Lois. He'd just walked in and marched off with her, and there hadn't been one *damn* thing that Clark could do about it.
If it wasn't for the state troopers standing over him and his parents, he'd have shot straight up into the air and followed the chopper. But Lois had made it clear that she didn't want him to expose his secret because of her. And that, if nothing else, told him that her feelings for him went deep. If she could love him enough to put his safety before her own, especially when she'd already only just survived one attempt on her life at the hands of her husband. She'd gone willingly with a man of whom she was now terrified — in order to keep him and his parents safe.
He had to respect her wishes, and her sacrifice, much as it tore him apart. Besides, he wouldn't put it past Luthor to have… persuaded… the chief to do whatever was necessary to ensure that there was no interference. He didn't want his parents arrested because of him.
Sick inside, clenching his fists, he watched the route the helicopter took, following it with his gaze long after it had disappeared from human perception.
He'd let her down. He'd promised her that he would keep her safe. And then he'd let her murdering husband steal her away.
Luthor *wouldn't* get the chance to try again. Clark was determined on that. He'd comb the Earth for Lois, if he had to. And he'd find her.
The irritated tone of the state chief's voice told Clark that this probably wasn't the first time he'd been called. He turned at his own pace, making it clear that he wasn't jumping to do anyone's bidding. "Yes?"
"I don't know what was happening here, or why Mrs Luthor was in this house. However, Mr Luthor didn't want to press charges, so this won't go any further. I'll just give you one warning. Watch your step."
Clark forced back the angry words which sprang to his lips. They wouldn't help the situation. Calmly, he said, "Mrs Luthor was here of her own free will." It choked him to call Lois by that man's name, but he knew that this was a game he had to play. The sooner the police left, the sooner he could be on his way to find Lois.
The chief tried to stare him down. Clark met and held the man's gaze, unflinching, uncowed. After a minute or two, the other man looked away.
"Let's get out of here," he said curtly to the other troopers.
Clark moved to stand between his parents, watching as the unwanted intruders moved to their vehicles, then drove off along the dirt track at speed, leaving a high cloud of dust behind them.
"You guys okay?" he asked then.
"We're fine, Clark. But that poor girl…" his mother murmured.
His father nodded. "I just don't know how he found her."
"I don't either. But I should have expected something like this!" Clark exclaimed, his anger now turning against himself. "She told me what Luthor was like. I should never have left her alone…"
"How could any of us possibly guess that he'd find her here?" His mom turned an incredulous gaze on him. "Out here, in the middle of nowhere? In Kansas?"
"I don't know," Clark repeated.
His mom rubbed his arm; he covered her hand, grateful for the comfort.
"I have to go after her," he said simply. "You know that. I have to find her, before he…"
"Of course you do," his father said. "Just be careful, you hear?"
Nodding, Clark stepped back and prepared to take off… then the sound of an engine made him pause. Seconds later, a car emerged from the dust cloud, heading towards the farm. A sheriff's car.
"Rachel!" he exclaimed, running towards her.
As much as every sinew in his body was straining to go after her, following Lois would have to wait just a little bit longer. First, he needed to see what his childhood friend could do to help.
Alone in her luxury prison, Lois lay on the bed and contemplated her situation. A captive of the man she'd married merely two months earlier — the man who, less than twenty-four hours ago, had tried to kill her.
The man whom she'd made love with. Been more intimate with than with any other man in her life before. She'd shared her body with him. In beds, in showers, in other places she shuddered to remember. Her *husband* — who had promised to love, honour and cherish her.
And all the time he'd been pretending. *All* the time. All his charm and affection when he'd been courting her. His kindness and comfort when the Planet had been destroyed and her whole life had fallen apart with it. Every time he'd told her that he loved her. He'd been lying, every time.
He'd left her at the beach to get her out of the way. It occurred to her for the first time that, those nights when she'd heard sounds in the background as he'd talked with her on the phone, he probably hadn't been alone.
Why did she even care? she asked herself, horrified.
She didn't. But she hated being deceived.
She'd been such a fool! Such a sucker. Lois Lane, galactically stupid.
Closing her eyes, she tried to banish Lex from her mind. But her brain wouldn't let her forget the way he'd hoodwinked her. Duped her so thoroughly that she'd never even *suspected*… The irony was that he'd married her because he thought she was in danger of finding out the truth about him, and yet she had no clue. Never had. She still had no idea at all what it was she was supposed to have seen.
Yet, despite his claim to Nigel that she'd been an unwanted wife, he'd made use of her. Why not? she pointed out cynically. She'd been his possession — bagged and tagged, sealed with her signature on the marriage certificate and his ring on her finger. He might not have any emotional attachment to her, but that had nothing to do with bodily satisfaction for a man like Lex, did it? Oh, she remembered it all… his hands on her body, his intimate touches, the way he'd…
Lois bolted for the bathroom, her stomach heaving.
"Clark, this is one heck of a story. But are you sure your Lois is telling the truth?"
Rachel was cupping a glass of his mom's iced tea as she spoke, leaning across the table to look Clark in the eye. She still spoke with the same slow Kansas drawl she'd had since they were kids, but he knew only too well that didn't mean anyone should underestimate her. She was one of the sharpest women he knew — just like Lois, he realised.
She'd had to ask the question, Clark told himself, even though its implication made him furious again. He'd never experienced so much anger in his life before. It was unnerving.
But Rachel didn't know Lois, he told himself. She'd heard of Lex Luthor, of course, and, just like anyone else who only knew of the man's public reputation, she'd find it hard to believe that he could be capable of what Lois alleged. Plus there was the fact that Luthor had brought state police and the chief with him.
"Rachel, she's telling the truth," he told her, his gaze never leaving hers. "It'd be a pretty far-fetched story to make up!"
She shrugged. "People do make up crazy stories, Clark. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've heard. Anyway, didn't you say the doc said she was… well, unstable?"
Clark grimaced. "The same doctor who claimed she'd been on sleeping-pills since she got married. Rachel, she told me she'd never taken a sleeping pill in her life!"
Rachel merely shrugged, making it clear by her posture that he still hadn't told her anything to convince her.
"I saw her face, Rachel. I've never seen anyone so scared in her life. She's terrified of him."
"She left with him willingly."
"Yes, but that was because —"
He halted abruptly, realising what he'd been about to say. Although he'd suspected for a long time that Rachel knew — or at least guessed — about some of his differences, he'd never put that to the test. She'd never mentioned it either — but then, that was Rachel Harris. Discreet in the extreme.
"Because?" she prompted.
"Because she didn't want me or my parents to get into trouble with the cops Luthor brought with him," he said after a moment.
"She tell you that?"
He shook his head. "No. I… realised it because of the way she looked at me."
The look Rachel gave him was sceptical. Grimacing, Clark realised that he couldn't blame her. In her position, he'd probably react exactly the same way. He had absolutely no evidence to support what he was telling her; all he had was the word of a woman whose own husband was claiming that she was crazy, and who had a doctor's opinion to back it up.
"Look, Rachel, I — " he began, not really knowing what he was about to say.
The phone rang. He was vaguely aware of his mom answering, saying that someone wasn't there. Then she held out the phone towards him. He looked at her enquiringly.
"It's Jill," she said. "She wanted to talk to Lois, but I had to explain that she's not here any more. So she asked for you."
Shrugging, Clark got up and accepted the receiver from his mother. "Hi, Jill."
"Clark. I'm sorry Lois isn't there — I wanted to talk to her about that blood test."
"Yeah?" He already knew what the result would be, of course. That Lois had traces of sedative in her bloodstream. No surprises there.
He listened to what the doctor had to say, and his eyes widened. Then, still holding the phone, he turned back towards the table.
"How about this, then, Rachel. Dr Jill took a blood sample from Lois. And she says the results showed traces of *animal* sedative. Not prescription sleeping pills. Is that enough to convince you?"
"Feeding me yourself, Lex? Don't you have minions to do that sort of thing?"
Raising a sceptical eyebrow, Lois observed her husband as he crossed the room with a large tray containing several covered dishes. The dishes and covers, she noted, were all made of polystyrene — just in case it occurred to her to try to use them as a weapon, she realised. The scents were appetising, but she had no appetite at all.
"You wound me, my love. Don't you think I would want to see how you are? After all, you did have a near brush with death today."
"Seeing as it was your doing, forgive me if I doubt your concern," she drawled.
"Lois, my dear, you must know that I deeply regret that action," he said smoothly, placing the tray on a low coffee-table between two sofas. "I did tell you that such drastic solutions are anathema to me. I admit, I acted on the spur of the moment." He smiled, and she shivered. "In fact, I suppose I should have thanked Kent for saving your life. If it was he who did so."
She had no intention of enlightening him on that.
"Anyway, come and eat. I'm sure you're hungry."
She walked over to one sofa and sat down, giving him a sceptical look. Did he think she was born yesterday? "Yes, and which drug did you season it with this time?"
"Lois." His tone resonated with disappointment in her. "Really. Do you think I'm so unoriginal?"
"How should I know what to think?" she retorted. "I don't know you at all, Lex, do I?"
He gave an expansive shrug, taking a seat opposite her. "Ask me anything you like, my dear. I'm an open book." He bent and removed the cover from one dish, revealing a delicious-smelling consomme. "And just to show that you have no reason for your lack of faith in me…" He picked up a spoon — plastic, she noted, like all the cutlery on the tray — and scooped up some of the soup, eating it.
Lois made a mental note to eat the soup but avoid anything else.
"Well?" He looked across at her. "You did appear to have questions."
She took another spoon and started to eat the soup. "Okay," she said between mouthfuls. "I am curious about some things. Not that I have any confidence that you'll give me honest answers. After all, you've been lying to me since we met, haven't you?"
Lex shrugged. "What is truth? Ask me a question; I'll answer it."
"Okay, then." She put down the spoon and faced him. "What I don't understand is why you ever started dating me. It's not as if you fell madly in love with me or anything like that."
"Love?" Lex gave her a cynical smile. "A pretty word, which has its uses in some circumstances, does it not, my dear? No. I was aware of your reputation — and, of course, I knew that you were very anxious to write a story about me. The ultimate expose, I was told. I knew that, if anyone would be able to find out things I would prefer to remain hidden, it would be you."
So, honesty, at last, from her liar of a husband. She supposed that he had nothing to lose now — just as he'd had nothing to lose the night before when he'd tried to drown her. The mere fact that he was actually admitting things to her, too, confirmed that he intended to finish the job this time. Or neutralise her in some other, equally effective way.
She had to try not to let him see her fear. Even though it threatened to paralyse her. Even though she had never been so scared in her life before. Even though it was taking every ounce of self-control she possessed to keep her expression calm and her hands steady.
"So why take the risk?"
"Risk? Have you never heard of the saying 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer'?" Lex's expression was patronising. "By dating you, I was able to keep an eye on you. And, more important, control your access to information about me. And," he added, looking self-satisfied, "I know I'm not without attraction to women. It occurred to me that I could neutralise you."
Lois flushed, remembering her self-critical comment to Clark. Yes, she'd forgotten all her objectivity when it came to Lex Luthor. She'd allowed herself to become sucked in by his charm. And, it was now clear, she'd allowed herself to be manipulated by him. He'd been playing her like a violin the whole time — and she'd sung to his tune.
But she wondered now, since he seemed to be in something of an expansive mood, whether she could get the answer to that other question which had been bugging her ever since she'd overheard that telephone conversation.
"And then I stumbled on something incriminating and you decided to deal with me by marrying me," she said, aiming for a bored tone.
But he wasn't so easily hooked. "As you say, my dear. However, if, as it appears, you really have no idea what you saw, it was probably unnecessary. I could have spared us both a great deal of trouble and anxiety."
"Not to mention the trauma of having my husband try to murder me," she snapped.
"If you had only done as you were told, that would never have been necessary," he replied smoothly. "Though I admit that it was clumsily done — and, of course, your presence here is testament to that. But then, I hadn't precisely planned for that contingency."
"What?" She gave him a disbelieving look. "You mean you didn't have sleeping pills hidden in the kitchen just in case you might have to dispose of a wife who inconveniently found out more than she should?"
He gave an irritated tsk. "If I had, don't you think that I'd have used something a little more effective? No; it was sheer good fortune that I found that package. I can only imagine the housekeeper put it there," he added dismissively. "Anyway, its only purpose was to make you more docile. Something you really should have learned to be right from the start, my dear. We would never have been in this situation otherwise."
Lois just rolled her eyes. The man was unbelievable! He talked as if murdering his wife were a normal, if regrettable, activity. And this was the man she'd thought was so charming, so attentive, so decent. Overnight, he'd changed from a man who'd claimed to love her into a callous murderer.
But she still wanted to know what it was she'd seen to spook him so much that he'd pursued and married her. "So," she drawled, apparently idly, "If I'd never seen… *it*… you would never have felt the need to marry me?"
Lex merely inclined his head. "Precisely, my dear. He cocked his head to one side then and smiled again. "Not that it was all a complete waste of time; I had few complaints about one aspect of our relationship. And neither, as I recall, did you."
He shifted in his seat, looking supremely confident all of a sudden. "In fact, given that I intend to remain here with you for at least a few days — the caring husband ensuring that his poor, unstable wife receives only the very best of treatment — we should make the most of this opportunity. Which reminds me, I notice that you appear to have lost your wedding ring. I'll have to attend to that as soon as possible; its absence might cause people to wonder, don't you think?"
Lois barely heard the rest of what her husband said; she was unable to control her look of absolute revulsion at his reference to his marital rights. And in that same instant the facade of charm fell away from her husband's face. A shiver ran through her at the viciousness in his suddenly ice-blue eyes.
Coldly, dangerously, he said, "You would do well to remember who holds all the cards here, my dear." And the plastic spoon he still held snapped in two.
"You're absolutely positive about this? Can you prove it?"
Rachel Harris sat across from Jill Klein in the latter's office; Clark stood leaning against a counter. As soon as he'd relayed to Rachel the information Jill had given him, she'd sprung into action, running for her car and yelling for Clark to come with her. And, though he was still desperate to begin his search for Lois, he'd gone. This was important. This was a major step towards proving that Lois was right — that her husband had tried to murder her.
Jill shook her head, and Clark's heart sank. What now?
"I never got the sample back. And I was only given the results over the phone."
"What?" Clark exclaimed.
Jill turned to meet his gaze. "I don't understand it either. When you said you guys were coming over, I drove over to the lab to pick up the printout and the sample, but the technician I spoke to told me they'd disappeared."
"Is that normal?" Rachel asked.
Jill shook her head. "Never happened to me before, that's for sure. I tried to find out what had happened, and that's the weird thing — I left there convinced that someone was deliberately lying to me. But it makes no sense — why would anyone want to steal a blood test result?"
"Because this particular blood test result might be enough to get someone arrested for murder." Clark's voice was grim.
"What lab did you use?" Rachel's tone was matter-of-fact, as if by her demeanour she were trying to tell Clark not to get ahead of himself.
"The one right out by the highway — Dixon's Laboratories." Jill shrugged. "It's always been reliable before. I'd never expect anything to go wrong there — I mean, it's owned by LexLabs, and they're one of the biggest commercial and healthcare lab companies in the country — What?"
"LexLabs," Clark repeated harshly. "That explains it all."
"Explains what, exactly?"
He quickly filled Jill in on some of the details. "And I don't know how it happened, but that's obviously how Luthor found out where Lois was. Of all the horrible coincidences…"
Jill was looking shocked. "I'm so sorry, Clark — I had no idea…"
"It's not your fault," he said quickly. "Anyway, you've helped us. If it really was animal sedatives, there's no way Lois took those herself. No doctor in his right mind would prescribe someone animal sedatives!"
"Not a chance," Jill agreed. "If it helps, by the way, I called Tom Newton — " The town's veterinarian, Clark knew. "He knew the drug — said he uses it in hypodermic form as an anaesthetic in surgery, but he prescribes it sometimes in ampoules for pet- owners."
"Ampoules?" Clark questioned.
"Little plastic containers filled with liquid. You break the ampoule and pour the liquid into the animal's food or drink. Anyway, Tom said, as an example, he gave some to the owners of a dog who goes into a panic every time he has to take a car-ride. Depending on the size of the dose, the animal will just relax or will actually fall asleep."
So, for some reason, this sedative — probably in ampoule form — had been in the kitchen drawer at the beach house. Maybe the housekeeper and her husband had a dog, Clark surmised. Or maybe it was even a guard dog. And Luthor had been searching for something to help make it look like his murder of Lois was an accidental death. Had it been sheer luck that he'd found the sedatives, or had he known they were there? And how many had he dumped into her drink? And had he done it in anticipation that her body would never be found and so the exact sedative would never be discovered?
That certainly explained the very lackadaisical search for Lois's body… Lex had never intended it to be found.
"But we can't prove any of it," he said slowly, despondently. He saw Rachel nod in agreement.
"Not so fast, guys." Jill sat back in her chair, smiling in triumph. "Don't underestimate your local doc here! I always take two samples," she explained. "One goes off for testing. I keep the other, in case of any problems, like a mix-up at the lab — it does happen, though never at this one so far — or if I need to have a second test run to check a result."
"And you still have the second sample?" Rachel demanded.
"Right over there." Jill gestured towards the small fridge in the corner. "It's no problem to get the same test run on that. Except I'd better not use Dixon's…"
"Is there anywhere else you can use?"
Jill thought for a moment, then nodded. "Of course. Tom Newton has his own lab. And it'll be easy for him to identify the drug."
"Good," Rachel said. "One more thing. Can you prove that the sample you still have is definitely from Clark's Lois?"
Clark's Lois. He liked the sound of that. Only she wasn't… yet. He just hoped that one day she would be.
"I labelled it right there and then, at the farmhouse. I guess you could say that I could've written the label at any time, though…"
"DNA!" Clark exclaimed.
"Huh?" Rachel hadn't followed him.
"If we need to prove that the sample's Lois's, then can't we get a DNA test done?" He knew they were about to object that they didn't have anything to compare the sample with, but he was ahead of them there too. "Lois was at the farm all afternoon. She had a bath, sat with me in the living-room and then slept on my bed for a couple of hours. Somewhere there's got to be at least one of her hairs. And I'm betting that her nightdress is still there — what she was wearing when she was pulled out of the lake."
"That would work," Rachel agreed. "Okay. Jill, can you organise that blood test? Clark, you come back with me to the farm and let's see what we can find."
Clark followed Rachel out of Jill's office, but once outside he stopped. "Rachel, I'm not going back to the farm with you. I have to find her."
She caught at his arm. "Clark, don't do anything stupid…"
"I have to, Rachel! He's already tried to kill her once. What if he tries again? What if he's already tried?"
"Clark, this guy's dangerous!" Rachel exclaimed. "And he's got the staties on his side. You can't take the risk —"
"I can't take the risk that he'll kill her!"
She sighed, looking away from him into the distance. Then she said quietly, "If anyone can find her, you can. I know that. But I can't get you out of jail if you're arrested."
"I know that," he said softly. Rachel definitely knew about him; he was sure of that now. "I'll be careful. You know I *can* be."
She nodded. "Okay. You have to go, I see that. I shouldn't ask this, but… is there anything I can help with?"
He seized on her offer. "Yes. Can you trace a helicopter if I give you the serial number? I'm pretty sure it was headed in the direction of the airfield in Great Bend. Can you find out what Luthor did after that?"
Rachel was already heading towards her cruiser. "What's the number?"
Clark recited the numbers he'd memorised as the chopper had taken off. Rachel repeated them staccato into her radio, then waited. After several agonising minutes, she thanked whoever she'd been talking to and put the radio down.
"You were right. They flew to Grand Bend. Luthor apparently had a private plane waiting there. The flight path they filed was for a private airfield in Estes Park."
Clark frowned. "Estes Park?" It sounded familiar, but… Then he got it, grateful once more for the near-photographic memory which, this time, allowed him total recall of the US atlas at his parents' place. "Colorado — it's on the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park." And just a short trip; the next state over.
Rachel shrugged. "I guess so. The flight path didn't say. I got the airport call-sign, though, so I can check it out if you need."
Clark shook his head. He didn't need confirmation of what he already knew. Luthor was keeping Lois somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, probably in the most inaccessible place possible.
Inaccessible, of course, only to a man who couldn't fly…
She was alone again. To her great relief, after his display of power Lex had got to his feet, given her an ironic bow and then left the room. The click of the key turning in the lock had been the sweetest sound she could have heard at that moment.
For the longest moment of her life, she'd thought that he was actually going to rape her. It had been the second most terrifying thing she had ever experienced — second only to the moment last night when Lex had grabbed her and held a gun to her head.
She'd faced down killers before. Being held at gunpoint, or being threatened with rape, wasn't something that had never happened to her before. But that this was the man she was married to made it far, far worse. Far more frightening. The stuff of the scariest horror-films ever made… but this was real. This was happening to her.
And yet Lex had left her alone. Well, she thought, wrapping her arms around her in an attempt to banish the shivers which suddenly threatened to consume her, it had all been a pretence, after all, hadn't it? This marriage of theirs. He'd never wanted to marry her in the first place. The sex had clearly been a convenient perk, but not one he was sorry to lose.
That suited her. She knew that if he ever laid a finger on her again she'd want to throw up.
How ironic. She'd told Clark that the past few days with him had seemed like a dream. A wonderful fantasy, in fact. Now, in the past twenty-four hours, the dream had turned into her worst nightmare.
The shivering receding, Lois began to pace about the room, feeling her mental strength starting to return.
So. What was Lex planning to do with her? That was still the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, wasn't it? He'd cleverly evaded answering when she'd asked him, although he had implied that he had no intention of killing her. Not that she believed that, entirely.
Killing her would make the most sense. After all, he couldn't keep her here under lock and key for ever. She had no idea where 'here' was, apart from somewhere in the mountains — was it a hotel? A private house? An apartment? The room was furnished like a luxury hotel-room, rather than a bedroom in a private house, though; it had a living area as well as a sleeping area, and a private bathroom. The lack of windows was also unusual. Somewhere purpose-built? Even still, unless he was planning to pay someone to guard her and supply her with food on an indefinite basis, he couldn't leave her there permanently.
He could have her killed — that would be easy. She glanced warily at the tray of food which she'd mostly ignored. Any part of that could be poisoned. Or contain some other drug. In fact, that was another option, wasn't it? That he might have her slowly drugged so that she became docile, amenable — a veritable Stepford Wife? Or he might have a slightly different approach in mind — some sort of chemical or other form of brainwashing? Either way, he'd have the perfect wife: obedient, unquestioning and remembering nothing about her past career or the fact that her husband had almost succeeded in killing her.
She grunted in frustration. This speculation was getting her nowhere. All it was doing was making her more on edge all the time, waiting and wondering what Lex planned to do with her. Which was probably all part of his scheme anyway. He would enjoy knowing that he was messing with her mind.
<Clark, where are you?>
The thought crept into her mind, unbidden. Why hadn't he come for her? He could fly faster than most commercial airliners could; she had personal experience of that. Why hadn't he followed the helicopter? She'd been so sure that was what he'd do. And yet there was no sign of him.
Of course, she'd told him to let her go. Not to interfere. Because she couldn't allow him to sacrifice his safety for hers. But she'd seen the promise in his gaze, in the look he'd given her just before she'd got into the helicopter. He would come for her. He wouldn't let Lex harm her again.
Where was he?
Though, even if he had followed the chopper, what could he do? How would he manage to get inside wherever this place was? And he'd be in danger if he did. She knew that Lex had a gun, and she had no doubt that he had other armed men with him. The whole place was probably alarmed, too. Clark would be shot dead as soon as he set foot outside the door.
<Oh god… Stay away, Clark!>
Assuming he intended to come at all…
He loved her, didn't he? He'd said so! Of course he'd want to find her, she reminded herself. He'd come to drag her out of the lake even when he'd thought she was already dead! He would come to rescue her. She had to keep believing that. Otherwise…
Oh, what was wrong with her! Marrying Luthor had turned her into such a wimp! She'd been a shadow of her former self since before her wedding. And the worst thing about it was that she was only just noticing it.
All this time, and she hadn't once suspected that there was anything at all odd about his behaviour. She hadn't even resented the way he'd patronised her — and yet, when he'd spoken to her in exactly the same way this evening, she'd seen it for what it was and been furious.
And now, she was locked up in this room and all she could think of doing was to hope that someone else — someone she barely knew — would come to her rescue. Whatever happened to looking after herself? Saving her own skin? She'd *never* depended on anyone else for her safety before this.
<Pull yourself together, Lois!>
The first thing was to search the room, she told herself. Leave no corner unturned. There had to be something here she could use to help herself. Plus, had she forgotten all about her lock- picking skills?
An hour later, she had checked the contents of every drawer, every closet, every cupboard in the room. She had upended tables and crawled under larger pieces of furniture. She'd examined every inch of the bathroom fittings. Lex, she acknowledged, had taken a great deal of care with this room. It was the perfect prison.
Just one or two things seemed to present an opportunity. While there were no handy metal objects which weren't screwed down or welded, and the air conditioning vents were far too small even for her to crawl through, the Lois Lane of old was more resourceful than that. She'd ripped up one of her sheets into strips and twisted it into two separate plaits; the smaller one would make a perfect throttling rope if she got the opportunity, and then the larger would be useful for tying her victim up.
As for the lock, she might not have her lock-picks handy, but she intended to have a damn good try with the plastic knives Lex had left behind. In any case, one of those, broken, would make an excellent weapon — she now had two very sharp pieces in her pocket.
She only needed to get close enough.
Clark had known that the Rocky Mountain National Park was huge, but he'd never appreciated just how big it was until he'd had to search every inch of it. Right now, looking for Lois felt like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
He'd eliminated a number of areas of the park, simply because they were too busy — ranger stations, hiking trails, campsites and so on. If the Lake Superior beach house was anything to go by, Luthor preferred to keep his property in inaccessible places. So for the past hour he'd been scouring all of the high peaks and hidden valleys he could find. It didn't help that he had no idea whatsoever of what he was looking for — a house? a cabin? a vehicle of some kind?
And, every so often, pessimism hit him as he considered that he could well be on a completely false trail. Okay, so Luthor's plane had gone to Estes Park. But how did he know that Luthor hadn't merely been using that as a stopping-off point? There was no guarantee at all that he had Lois in the Rockies. He might just have planned to refuel the plane at Estes Park before flying on somewhere else.
But logic told him that somewhere inaccessible in the Rockies was the perfect hiding-place. Remote, lacking in easy communications, Lois could be hidden here indefinitely, if Luthor wanted. And if, as Clark was convinced, her husband intended to stage another 'accident', there were plenty of steep drops, deep lakes, slopes with loose scree and deserted trails. It would be child's play to Luthor to push Lois off a track somewhere and leave her to die.
He would *not* let that happen! If he had to search every minute of the next week or more, he would find her.
He had more hours of daylight in which to search, thanks to Mountain Time being two hours behind the east coast and one hour behind Kansas. Not that he couldn't see in the dark, of course; another area where his special abilities came in very useful.
Today was definitely one of those days when he was very grateful indeed that he was different from everyone else. Without those differences, he'd have no hope whatsoever of finding Lois. In fact, she'd already be dead, floating somewhere in that vast lake.
If it was the last thing he did, he would make sure that Luthor didn't get the chance to hurt her again. Though the thought that her husband might already be hurting her, terrifying her, doing unspeakable things to her sent renewed chills through him…
No. He couldn't afford to think about that. Think about something else. Like the fact that rescuing Lois was only the beginning of what he had to do. They also had to prove that Luthor had tried to kill her. Thanks to Jill, they had a head start — as long as she could prove everything related to the animal sedative.
But, even then, they would have to contend with Luthor's billions. He could afford to hire the very best lawyers. Bribe the very best doctors. If he managed to have Lois declared insane, or disturbed, then he could argue that she had taken the drug herself without realising it, or without caring. Of course, Jill could testify that Lois was perfectly sane and in her right mind… but what would Jill's testimony count against some big- name psychiatrist that Luthor could buy?
So they had to find other ways to bring Luthor down. Starting, Clark thought, with the destruction of the Daily Planet. The more he thought about that, the more suspicious it seemed. From what he remembered, Olsen had gone to prison continually protesting his innocence. Perry White, the Planet's former editor, was on record as refusing to believe that Olsen, whom he seemed to consider a protege, was capable of burning down the paper. And, the biggest pointer of all as far as Clark was concerned, the timing was incredibly convenient for Luthor.
The Planet burning down had cut Lois off from all her support networks. It had left her feeling isolated. Friendless. Unemployed. She'd been cast adrift… and Luthor had been there to hook her and reel her in. Yes, so very convenient.
So the Planet bombing was the obvious place to start. Another approach had to be trying to get Lois to jog her memory and work out what it was that had put Luthor so much on his guard where she was concerned. She was an excellent reporter — he was in awe of her abilities. Now that she knew what to look for, he was confident that she'd put it together.
Luthor wouldn't -
What was that?
He stilled in his slow circling of the Forever Summer Range. On the dark side of one of the peaks, heading down into a valley which looked just about inaccessible to anyone without a helicopter with the most delicate of instruments, he thought he saw… something. Something dark, a splash of grey which didn't seem to match the white and black and green of the surrounding landscape.
Dropping lower, he could see it more clearly. Definitely a dull, dark grey, but a very different colour from the rocks and shale poking out of the light covering of snow. Slate? No, that would look natural. It was some sort of metal, he concluded. Time to look beyond the surface…
Bingo! It was an underground building of some sort. And, unless the forest rangers were into constructing underground shelters, or the government really was concealing the existence of aliens from outer space, Clark was pretty sure that this had to be where Luthor was hiding Lois.
Now, he just had to get inside and find her.
It completely figured that, as soon as she actually *wanted* Lex to come back to her room, he was nowhere in sight. Well, she could wait. It would give her time to plan her move, after all.
And to think about other things, as well… such as just what it was that she'd seen to get Lex so worried that he'd started courting her. And that he'd been prepared to kill her to prevent her remembering.
It had definitely been something she'd seen; she was sure of that. On the phone to Nigel, he'd referred to her having seen something. Not heard. So that did give her something of a clue, she supposed. If she could only remember…
Okay. It had been around mid-March that his behaviour changed so completely. She'd still been seeing him casually, maybe once every couple of weeks, no more than that. Much of the time, she wasn't even in his home — he'd pick her up from her apartment, or have his driver pick her up, and she'd be taken home afterwards. So she couldn't imagine having seen anything on one of those occasions. It had to have been some time when she'd been at the penthouse.
A document. A note. A message. *Something* of that kind. Had she ever been in his office alone? She'd been there with him a couple of times; occasions when he'd apologised but explained that he had to make a phone call or sign some papers before they had dinner. She'd gone with him and sat on the visitor's chair or gazed out of the window at the cityscape while she'd waited.
Maybe she'd seen something when she'd been there with him. Had she gone over to his desk? Glanced at what was on it? Or noticed some papers on a side table? What could it be?
Maybe it wasn't a document. Something else… an object? A person, perhaps? Someone a man in Lex's position shouldn't be associating with?
No; this wasn't getting her anywhere. Lois flopped down on the sofa and propped her chin up on her hands, deep in thought. If only she'd been as busy with her miniature camera in Lex's office as she'd been in other places…
She raised her head slowly and flicked her gaze carefully around the room. Why hadn't it occurred to her earlier that Lex probably had cameras installed so that he could keep an eye on what she was doing? This room seemed to have been constructed especially for its purpose, so adding a few cameras wouldn't exactly have been difficult. Which meant, of course, that he'd have seen her frantic search, the sheet she'd plaited and the knives she'd carefully broken…
Oh well. It had seemed like a good idea at the time…
No! Lois Lane did *not* give up on a good idea, even when situations changed. She simply altered her plan to fit in with the altered circumstances. And one thing which had frequently worked to her advantage was the old diversion trick.
Smiling inside, she got to her feet — and kicked over the coffee- table, sending the tray and its contents flying. Next, she shoved the sofa hard, managing to knock it onto its side. Looking around, trying to decide what to wreck next, her gaze fell on a painting hanging on the opposite wall. It came down and was hurled on top of the coffee-table. She strode into the bathroom, turned all of the taps on full, put the plugs in and left them to overflow. Next, she went back into the main room and pushed over one of the heavy nightstands, then crossed to do the same to the other.
Bingo! She heard footsteps approaching at a rapid pace. And a voice — yes, it was Lex's — saying sharply, "Leave this to me! You can go back to your post."
And the door opened. She was waiting behind it.
Lex entered, looking angry. She had the broken edge of a plastic knife to his throat before he'd taken two paces into the room.
"Don't even try it!" he barked, whirling around to grab her.
But she darted out of his reach, at the same time jabbing the knife in. He yelped in pain. While he was distracted, she hooked her foot around his ankle and pulled. Caught off-balance, he fell, but as he went down he tried to grab her. Again, she jumped out of his reach.
He was climbing to his feet in less than a second. Should she try to take him down again? Come at him again with the knife? Take a chance that she could get her makeshift rope around his neck?
No! The door stood open. In the split second while he was regaining his balance, she launched a hard kick at his knee, making him groan and wobble again, and then she ran for the door, slamming it behind her. Of course, he'd be out within minutes, if not sooner, but it gave her a head start.
Which way? Again, she had to make a split-second decision. In that moment, angry sounds of confusion came from the right. So she went left. Now all she had to do was find a way out of this place, before Lex or his goons caught her.
At least the roof wasn't lead. That had been Clark's fear as he'd plummeted, knowing by instinct that he'd found Luthor's hideout. That he'd found Lois. Lead, he'd discovered by accident years ago, was something he just couldn't see through. Any other substance — steel, wood, brick, drywall, copper, earth, anything at all he'd come across — was completely transparent to him when he put his mind to it. But not lead; that remained stubbornly impervious.
This roof was made of some sort of tempered, painted steel. Seeing through it was child's play. So all he had to do was ensure that there was no-one below to see him make his entrance.
First, though, he needed to deal with the couple of tiny objects he'd seen embedded in the nearby rock. Shorting the cameras was the work of less than a second. Smiling at the satisfying sizzle each made as he destroyed it, Clark then turned his attention back to the scene below.
Ah. That had to be the control-room. A couple of men were standing by screens — and, as he watched, one started pointing agitatedly at the bank of monitors. A shout, and two other men joined their colleagues in staring at what was in front of them. Good, he thought. Distracting Luthor's hired muscle was a convenient side-effect of sabotaging the cameras.
He pulled his glasses down his nose again and began the job of cutting out a hole in the steel. Again, in seconds it was done, and he inhaled deeply, sucking up the neat circle of metal before it fell below and alerted someone to his presence. Then he spent a few more moments studying the layout once more before jumping inside.
And what he saw made him smile in reluctant admiration, while at the same time his heart leapt into his throat. He supposed that was just typical of Lois Lane, multiple Kerth award-winner. She couldn't possibly just sit back and wait patiently for him to rescue her, could she? No. She had to risk life and limb to rescue *herself*.
He'd find out from her later just why Lex Luthor was lying on the floor in what looked like a luxury hotel-room — highly anomalous in what looked like a high-tech command centre — holding his knee and moaning. For now, the most important thing was to get the woman he loved safely out of there.
Setting off at a pace no human could match, he sped along the corridors until he got to where he wanted to be. And then he stopped, and waited.
So far, so good. No-one was following her. Yet.
She was breathless — how could she have just ignored her usual workout routine since she'd been married? It was amazing how unfit she could become in such a short time. Although, she reasoned as she ran, she probably wasn't fully recovered yet from almost drowning.
This place was a maze! She had no idea where she was going; she just hoped that she was heading in the direction of a way out of there, instead of deeper and deeper into the heart of… whatever kind of structure this was. Lots of intersecting corridors. Doors everywhere. Cameras dotted around the place — she'd managed to avoid most of them, but it was too much to hope for that she'd evaded them all.
She hadn't heard any sign of anyone following her. Yet. That was surprising — surely, even if she hadn't been caught on camera, Lex would have raised the alarm?
<Keep going> That was all she could do, she told herself, panting as she ran.
And then she turned a corner and ran smack into someone standing there. Someone tall and muscular and…
Oh god. She'd been caught.
His hands were on her arms, holding her firmly. She tried to struggle, but he was way too strong for her. <Think, Lois!> She tried to hook her ankle around his the way she'd done with Lex, but before she could even make contact he'd wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet.
Feeling sick inside, she tried to wriggle. And then a soft, blissfully familiar voice met her ears.
"Are you *that* unhappy to see me?"
"Clark!" she gasped. Relief coursed through her with the force of a body-blow.
He hadn't forgotten her. He'd come for her. She was safe.
But then she remembered that they weren't out of danger yet. "Clark! He's got guards, and they'll have guns…"
"Hold on tight," he said calmly. "And just trust me."
He adjusted his hold on her and broke into a run; gasping, she wrapped her arms around him and clung on. And her only impression was of speed.
Corridors, doors, everything around them became a blur. It should have been frightening, and yet she was only conscious of feeling safer, more protected than she ever had in her life. Clark's grip on her was firm, his movements sure.
And then she heard shooting.
The fear returned, turning into panic. Clark was fast, but he couldn't outrun a bullet! If he was hit… if he was killed…
"Don't worry. I'm between you and any bullets," he murmured.
She winced. "That's what I'm afraid of!"
"Don't be. Didn't I tell you that I'm invulnerable?"
"*Now* you tell me?" she exclaimed.
"Hang on," he said again. And suddenly… they were climbing. In less than the blink of an eye, she saw daylight. Mountains. Snow. Trees. And then they were above even the highest peaks, with scenery flashing past so quickly she could barely take it in.
And then the panorama settled down and became less of a blur, and she realised that Clark had slowed his pace. She saw rolling prairies below, and deduced that they'd outrun any pursuit, even assuming that Lex had been able to get into his helicopter that quickly.
"So tell me," her rescuer said, sounding amused. "Just what did you do to him? I saw him writhing on the floor in agony."
"I kicked him," she said in satisfaction, and saw him wince. "Not there! I tripped him up and then kicked him hard in the knee as he was trying to get up."
Clark smiled at her admiringly. "Nice work!"
"Yeah, well, I just wish I'd done it long ago."
His arms tightened around her briefly. "You did it now."
She rested against him in silence for a few minutes. Then, stirring, she asked, "Where was I, anyway?"
"Colorado. The Rocky Mountain national park."
"Hmmm." Well, she'd been on the right track. Just not Canada this time. And she'd still love to know why Luthor had built that fortress. How many other people had simply 'disappeared' and been kept there?
"Where are you taking me?" she asked after a moment.
"Not Smallville. That might not be the first place he'd look — he wouldn't imagine that we could get there that quickly — but I bet he'd get his friends in the state police to go back to the farm and interrogate my parents anyway."
That was true. At least Lex didn't know what Clark could do… or did he? "Clark," she began urgently. "Do you think they saw you fly?"
He shook his head. "They won't have seen us at all. Not clearly."
"But they were shooting…"
"They heard us. A couple of his guards were behind a door we passed. I was running faster than human speed, but nothing like as fast as I can go — at my fastest, I'm invisible to the human eye," he explained, and once again Lois was awed at what this man could do. "But that's not safe in an enclosed space, plus I was carrying you. So we'd have been an indistinct blur to them. I guess I kicked against something as I ran — almost inevitable in those narrow corridors — and they went out to investigate. I heard one of them say he hadn't a clue what it was but given the way the cameras were playing up he wasn't going to take a chance."
So they were safe. If she was lucky, Lex was probably still having his guards comb every inch of his lair looking for her. Even if they found the hole in the roof Clark had flown her out through, they'd be searching the mountains and valleys within walking distance.
"Anyway, Smallville's out. I thought about going to the last place he'd probably think of to look for you."
A bark of laughter escaped her. "You're right! He knows I'm on the run from him. Why would I go back to where I lived with him?"
"Exactly. I have a place there," Clark continued. "It's not much — a small apartment in a kinda seedy part of town. But there's somewhere for you to sleep and I can keep an eye on you."
"Sounds good to me," she murmured. Especially the part about Clark watching over her…
"Sorry I took so long to come for you, by the way." His voice was softly apologetic, clearly full of regret that she'd been left there so long. "I wanted to go after you immediately, but the staties didn't leave — I think they thought I was going to try to follow the copter in the pickup. Anyway, once they finally left I was about to go look for you, but then Rachel turned up."
"Rachel?" Who was this Rachel person? A friend? More than a friend? A girlfriend? His aging maiden aunt?
Lois was taken aback by her reaction to the name of a woman she didn't even know. Was she actually jealous?
"She's an old friend — we were at school together." Oh. The girl next door. The worst kind. Lois winced. "She's the local sheriff now — I called her earlier, thinking that you should talk to her."
"Oh." That was all it was? She hoped so, suddenly scared at how much Clark meant to her even though she'd already told him that she was falling in love with him. As he'd sworn he was falling in love with her. And that he'd wait for her.
"Anyway, I had to fill Rachel in, and then Jill called. And here's the good news." He sounded excited, as if he couldn't wait to tell her.
"We can prove that you didn't take the sleeping pills yourself!"
Lois stared at him. "That's great! How?"
She listened as he explained about the animal sedatives and the lab. "That's really great," she said again. "Of course, it's —"
"It's not enough to get him," Clark said simultaneously.
They even thought alike. After years of refusing to work with anyone else, Lois thought she might finally have found the one reporter she could stand as a partner.
"No. Because he'll find a way to make that one go away. It's not like we can prove that he *gave* me the sedatives, after all," she said with a grimace.
"Unfortunately," Clark agreed.
"Yeah. So we need to figure out —"
"- figure out what he might have had to do with the Planet bombing."
"- just what I saw — What?" Lois gripped Clark's shoulders and stared at him. "The Planet bombing? You think Lex was involved?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I'm guessing. But it was all pretty damned convenient for him, if you think about it."
"I never did believe that Jimmy did it," Lois said slowly. "And if I hadn't been such a *wallower* after it happened — I don't believe I did that, by the way. I *never* wallow! — I might actually have tried to look into it. Investigate. Talk to Jimmy. It's just not like him to do something like that. He loved the Planet, almost as much as Perry did."
"People don't change that much," Clark said softly. "So, unless your friend Jimmy was hiding his true nature all along, he didn't do it."
Lois fell silent as it occurred to her who *had* been hiding his true nature all along — and how she had completely failed to notice.
It was late at night in Metropolis when Clark landed on the balcony of his newly-rented apartment with Lois in his arms. He'd taken the place just that morning — how long ago that felt now! He'd been staying in a low-budget hotel when he first went to Metropolis to look for work a few weeks earlier, but once his parents had seen the place they'd insisted on lending him the money for a deposit on an apartment. Of course, he hadn't done much in the way of looking for somewhere during the days he'd spent with Lois on the beach — but just this morning he'd agreed to rent this place.
It was a mess. Looking around it now, he could imagine just what Lois thought of it. Dust everywhere. Peeling paint. Cupboard doors hanging off. And a musty smell permeating the entire place.
"Sorry. I know it's not much," he apologised.
She looked around as he set her on her feet. "No, it's fine. It's… got a lot of potential. It just needs —"
"Condemning?" he finished self-deprecatingly.
Lois laughed. "I was just going to say cleaning up a bit."
"Yeah, you're telling me!" He stood, hands on his hips, gazing at the worst of the mess: the kitchen. "Okay," he said, coming to a decision. "You stay there. Don't move."
And he got busy. Super-speed, he acknowledged with a grin, was the only way to sort out a place like this. Just as well that he'd gone straight to the local convenience store that morning after getting the key and stocked up on cleaning stuff.
Less than ten minutes later, he stood back to admire the result of his labours. Gleaming cupboards and counters, sparkling floors and undamaged fixtures met his gaze. And he heard a soft gasp from behind him.
Lois was staring around her in astonishment. "Wow! You really are incredible, Clark Kent! Do you mind if I call you next time I need to spring-clean?"
Grinning, he said, "Sure! Any time."
"You still owe me an explanation," she pointed out. "Who you are… what you can do…"
"Oh, yeah. We never got around to that, did we? You want to talk about that before… the rest of the stuff?" he finished vaguely, not wanting to bring up her husband's name again.
"Yeah, I think so." Suddenly, she looked very weary and vulnerable. And he realised that she'd really had more than she could handle for one day.
"Whatever you like, Lois," he promised her. "But are you sure you don't want to get some sleep first?"
She shook her head immediately. "No — I don't think I could sleep." And then her stomach rumbled loudly. She blushed.
"I think maybe I'd better feed you," he said. "I haven't had a chance to do any food-shopping yet, though. Do you mind waiting here for a few minutes while I get something for us?"
He wondered whether she'd feel nervous about being left on her own, especially as he'd said that he would protect her — and the last time he'd left her, at his parents' place — her husband had turned up and taken her away again. But she nodded. "Sure, I'll be fine."
"I won't be longer than about ten minutes, okay?"
He could have gone for takeout, but he wanted to check in with his parents, reassure them that he and Lois were both safe. In less than three minutes, he was hovering over the farmhouse. It was in darkness now, but his parents were still up — and alone, he was relieved to see. He'd wanted to check on them anyway, to ensure that they were safe and to find out whether the staties had been back looking for him.
A couple of minutes later, he had updated his parents on the situation with Lois and was ready to leave. It seemed that they'd been left in peace since he'd left; their only visitor had been Rachel, looking for the DNA sample — she'd found some hairs to use. Before leaving, he insisted that they were to call him, or get Rachel to call him, if they did have any trouble. He wasn't about to let them suffer because of him — or Lois.
He had a casserole clutched firmly in his hand and a backpack over his shoulder containing a few essential items for his guest's comfort. His apartment was, his mom had reminded him, really barely habitable at present. She'd urged him to take crockery, cutlery, towels, a blanket, some sheets and pillows, and some toiletries. There was nothing he could do about furniture until tomorrow — and even then he'd have to decide whether furniture-shopping was worth the risk that the wrong person might realise he was back in Metropolis.
When he returned to his apartment, Lois was sitting on one of the few pieces of furniture he had so far, a beat-up old sofa his parents had given him. She looked tired and vulnerable, and he hated the fact that he'd had to leave her.
"I'm back," he announced; unnecessarily, since she was already looking up and smiling at him.
"So I see. You weren't kidding when you said you wouldn't be long!"
"I'm fast," he reminded her. "My parents send their love, and Mom said I wasn't to let you stay up late working." He rolled his eyes, sharing a grin with her. "Anyway, you ready to eat? We'll have to eat here — " He gestured towards the sofa. "I don't have a table yet."
He had to smile, a few minutes later, to see Lois Lane, wife of the third-richest man in the world, eating his mom's casserole from a plate on her lap as she sat on a shabby old sofa in a dump of an apartment. And yet Lois didn't seem to mind. On the contrary; she acted as if she were completely comfortable, as if her surroundings were as luxurious as she was used to.
She chatted animatedly as they ate, telling him what he, Rachel and Jill had already figured out: that it was the blood sample which had enabled Luthor to locate her. However, she said very little about what had happened in the couple of hours when she'd been Luthor's prisoner. He didn't want to push her; she'd been through more than enough trauma for one day.
So he was happy when she changed the subject to ask about his abilities. "What else can you do? I know about the flying and the invulnerability and the speed. And that you can hear things from a long way away."
"I can see things from a long way away too. And there's all my other vision abilities."
"I can produce something kind of like a laser-effect from my eyes," he said. "So, for example, I used it earlier to cut out that circle of steel from the roof of Luthor's hideout. And to shoot out the cameras."
"You shot out the cameras?" Lois stared at him, a forkful of food paused halfway to her mouth. "I didn't know that! How do you do it? Can you show me?"
Her excited questions made him grin. Lois thought that his special powers were cool. "Sure!" he agreed. He'd seen the stub of a candle earlier… now, where had it been? Setting his casserole aside, he went into the kitchen and found the candle in a drawer. Bringing it back into the living area, he set it on one of the steps leading up to the front door, then resumed his seat beside Lois.
"Okay, just watch the candle," he told her, and once he was sure that she was watching he focused his gaze on it. It took a little over a second for a tiny wisp of smoke to curl from the wick, and less than a second more for a flame to appear.
"Wow!" Lois exclaimed. "That's incredible!"
Clark laughed. "It is, isn't it?" Turning, he saw the awe on her face, and he stilled. It *was* kind of incredible, he thought. He'd been so accustomed to what he could do for so long that he forgot how much the stuff of fantasy his powers must seem to someone else.
"And then," he said with a grin, "to put it out, I could just blow from here and that would do it. Of course, I could put my hand over the flame and it wouldn't burn me. Or — " And he flashed her a tantalising smile. " — I could freeze it."
Her reaction was all that he'd hoped. "Freeze?" Her eyes widened.
"I can freeze stuff with my breath. You know, if you want a cold drink and all you have has been stuck out in the heat for hours…" He winked. "I can turn a pond into a sheet of ice. Sprain your ankle and need an instant ice-pack? I'm your guy."
She shoved her hand out towards him. "Show me."
"You sure? It'll be cold…"
"Show me!" she repeated impatiently, her eyes wide with excitement.
He took her hand lightly in his, and had to fight briefly the temptation to close his fingers around hers. Then he inhaled and, with a small amount of concentration, exhaled a slow blast of freezing air. She shivered. "You're right! It is cold!"
"Probably not the best thing to do to someone who almost died of hypothermia earlier today," he said ruefully, focusing his heat vision on her hand to warm it up.
"Wow! What are you doing now? That feels terrific!"
"Just another thing I can do with my eyes," he explained. "Well, it's basically the same principle as setting fire to things. I create heat — and here I'm just focusing a little bit of warmth on you."
She gave him an assessing stare. "Did you do that earlier too? On the island, when I couldn't stop shivering?"
He nodded. "Yup. I was as discreet as I could — you didn't know what I could do then and I hoped you wouldn't notice."
"Well, it just felt like I was close to a really warm heater, but I knew there wasn't anything like that around me." She shook her head. "So I thought I had to be imagining it."
Clark took up his plate and resumed eating. "No, it was me."
"So you saved my life in more ways than one," she mused. "I mean, even though you got me out of the water I could still have died from hypothermia, couldn't I?"
"Yeah," he said quietly. "But you know I wouldn't have let that happen if I could avoid it."
"You're really something special, do you know that, Clark Kent?" Lois said, a wondering note in her voice. "You don't know how much I wish I'd met you a year ago."
<Me too> he thought, but thought better of saying it. He was pretty sure that she did love him now, but he didn't want to rush her into further admissions that she might not be ready for. She was still married, and still on the run from a husband who wanted to kill her. He should keep it light, he told himself. "We've met now," he pointed out warmly.
Lois seemed to ignore his response. Instead, she leaned across the expanse of sofa separating them and her lips brushed his cheek. "Thank you."
His breath caught. He so badly wanted to catch her hand and tug her back to him so that he could kiss her properly. What did it matter if she was still married? She had no intention of staying married. And he loved her, so it was hardly as if he'd be taking advantage of her.
No. Hard though it was to wait, he'd told her that he would and he intended to keep his word. So, although he leaned towards her, he simply returned her own gesture by kissing her lightly on the cheek. "You're very welcome, Lois."
Was it so wrong to wish that he'd kiss her properly? Of course she was still married, but they both knew what her husband was. They both knew that she was getting out of the marriage as soon as she was able. Didn't he believe that she loved him? Or were his ethics really so strong that he couldn't contemplate even a little kiss while she was still married to someone else?
If that was the case, she could hardly complain. Her husband had turned out to be the most amoral man imaginable. To find a man who was the complete opposite in every way, who had values she could admire and respect, was amazing good fortune and something she should prize. That she *did* prize.
The fact that Clark was also about the most attractive man she'd ever met was far less important compared to the fact that she could respect everything he was. He was so completely unlike Lex in every way.
His abilities fascinated her, too. She'd been rooted to the spot as he'd whizzed around the apartment cleaning and tidying. All she'd been able to see of him was a blur — but she *had* seen countertops magically become clean, cupboard doors repaired in the blink of an eye and filthy floors become sparkling in seconds. It had been like watching special effects in a movie.
She still wanted to know a *lot* more about all the incredible things he could do. So, since he clearly wasn't about to start what would be a really enjoyable kissing interlude, he could answer a few more questions for her, she decided.
"Okay, so how is it you can do all this stuff? Who are you?"
He gave her a wry look. "I wish I knew!" He stood, took their plates into the kitchen and then resumed his seat afterwards. Leaning back against the sofa-cushions, he linked his hands behind his head. "I'm adopted. My folks found a spaceship in a field near their home one day and when they opened it up I was inside it."
Lois gasped. This sounded like the stuff of fantasy movies!
"Yeah, I know. Pretty freaky, right?" He smiled crookedly. "I was a baby — Mom thinks I was about three months old at most. Anyway, they took me home — made up some story about me being the child of a cousin of Mom's who couldn't bring me up herself — and that was that. I grew up just like any normal kid. Until I was around ten and we started noticing some weird things."
Fascinated, Lois asked, "What sort of things?"
He shrugged. "Like the fact that suddenly I could outrun Dad in the car. And that I accidentally set a bale of hay alight one day. And another time, Mom was wondering why Dad hadn't come in for dinner and I suddenly announced that he'd just come out of the barn — and I wasn't looking through a window."
Lois grinned at the self-deprecating way Clark told his stories. "That must've been pretty scary, all the same."
"Yeah, kind of. But — well, you've met my folks. Not much fazes them. They behaved as if it was all completely natural, though they did always warn me never to let anyone find out what I can do."
"Yet you told me," she said softly, struck with the realisation of how privileged she was.
He laughed softly. "I didn't have a lot of choice, if you think about it. How else was I to get you off that island?"
"Oh, I'm sure you could've thought of something." Winking at him, she added, "You seem to be pretty resourceful."
"So… a spaceship," Lois said thoughtfully. "I mean… alien? Is that what you think?"
"We really don't know." He shrugged once more. "It was the middle of the Cold War, so Mom wonders if I was some sort of Russian experiment. Or any kind of government experiment, really."
"What? An attempt to create some sort of super baby?" Appalled, Lois stared at him. "But things like cloning and genetic manipulation have really only started in the last few years. Not back in…" She hesitated, then hazarded a guess. "… the late sixties?"
"1966," he confirmed, at the same time letting her know that he was a year older than she was. "And you're right — though there are those who will say that a lot more went on in secret laboratories than anyone would ever admit. I don't know," he added, a sad expression crossing his face and showing her that the uncertainty about his origins must hurt. "Dad says the spaceship didn't have any markings that he could see, so they had no idea where it might've come from."
"You still have it?" she asked, excited.
"Actually… do you know, I never thought about that before! But, yeah, I'm pretty sure Dad said he put it in a safe place. I'll have to ask him."
"There might be a clue there somewhere," Lois suggested. "It's definitely worth checking out. And you can find so much with the internet these days. You never know." She paused for a moment as something struck her. "Would it bother you — I mean, if you did turn out to be from another planet?"
His expression thoughtful, he said, "I don't know. It's not as if it's something I haven't thought about, but I'm not sure how I'd really feel if it were true. I mean, apart from the weird powers I don't *feel* anything other than human." He grimaced. "Actually, I think the worst thing is not knowing. But I had the best parents anyone could wish for, so I think the uncertainty's a small price to pay for that."
He was right there, Lois mused. She'd only met his parents for a short time, but had instantly warmed to the older couple. She'd also been very envious of their obvious love and support for their son — their adopted son, she now realised.
Suddenly, she yawned.
"You'd better get some sleep," Clark said, getting smoothly to his feet. "I don't have a bed to offer you yet — sorry! — but I brought some blankets and pillows from the farmhouse. Will you be okay sleeping on the couch?"
"Sure, but where will you sleep?"
"In the bedroom," he called as he went to get the bedding.
"But you just said there's no bed —"
She halted abruptly and just stared. Clark lay in a horizontal position several feet away, level with her eyes.
He was watching her, his eyes dancing with amusement. "I don't need a bed."
Given the traumatic day she'd had, sleep should have come easily to Lois. But she lay awake for at least an hour after Clark said goodnight and disappeared into the bed-less bedroom.
This was a twenty-four-hour period she would remember for a very long time. So much had happened in that time — almost too much for one day, it seemed. Being almost murdered by the man she'd married, being rescued by a man who could fly, and then being kidnapped again and held prisoner, in fear for her life. And then rescued again by the man who now meant everything in the world to her.
She'd fallen in love with him on the beach over the past few days. Part of her, though, had wondered then whether her feelings were real or just the first flush of an infatuation. Now she knew. She'd known in the instant she'd put his safety before her own, back at the farmhouse in Smallville. And again when he'd come to rescue her; the rush of joy which had flooded her when she'd realised who was holding her was like nothing she'd ever experienced with Lex.
And she'd never sat opposite Lex and ached for him to kiss her. Never been aware of him in the way she was of Clark. Sitting next to Clark, she'd been conscious the whole time of his nearness, had wondered what would happen if she reached out to touch him; had wished that he would reach out and touch her.
She'd never felt like that with Lex. Even before she'd found out the truth about him.
But still, she'd known Clark less than a week. How could she possibly be sure that these feelings were real? That they were going to last?
With a frustrated sigh, she rolled over on the narrow sofa. Did that really matter? she asked herself. It wasn't as if Clark had asked her to marry him or anything. It wasn't as if she had to make any major decisions about her relationship with him immediately. Quite the opposite: he'd refused even to kiss her until she was free of her hasty, ill-judged marriage.
Her judgement had been incredibly flawed when it came to Lex, all the same. Which troubled her now; could she trust herself when it came to Clark, too?
There was at least one major point in his favour: he was undoubtedly a decent guy with a strong sense of ethics. His parents were clearly a strong influence on him, and they were the salt of the earth. Good, fine, upstanding people, reliable and honest. If Clark took after them, then he couldn't be more unlike Lex Luthor.
Point two. He said he loved her.
Though Lex had also claimed to love her…
Clark had been willing to sacrifice his secret, and thus his safety, for her. Twice, he'd come after her and saved her life. Didn't that suggest at least a deep caring, if not love?
And the way he looked at her, too — not all of the time, but sometimes when she'd turned to look at him she'd caught him off- guard. He'd been gazing at her with a tender, longing expression in his eyes. Lex had never looked at her like that. With lust, certainly — but never with anything approaching tenderness.
Time would tell, Lois told herself. She had time, anyway, if Clark was insisting on her getting a divorce before he'd contemplate beginning a relationship with her. If he still wanted it then — if she still wanted it then — maybe she could believe that it really was love. On both sides.
All the same… A slow smile crept across her face again as she remembered the way Clark had looked both times he'd told her that he loved her. And the way it had made her feel.
Having superhuman abilities was very useful when it came to getting in and out of his apartment without being seen, Clark reflected as he landed lightly on his balcony carrying coffee and doughnuts. He'd had to go out in search of food again. He really had to do something about furnishing his apartment properly, including getting a fridge and a coffee-maker. Unfortunately, that would have to wait. For the sake of Lois's safety, he couldn't afford to let Luthor know that he was in Metropolis.
Lois was sitting on the sofa when he walked into the living-area. She was yawning and still looked tired, which was hardly surprising; during the night, he'd woken her up several times to ask her what he knew she felt were stupid questions, following Jill's instructions.
"Hi." She gave him a sleepy wave as she noticed him.
"Morning. I brought you coffee."
"Oh, coffee!" She closed her eyes and a blissful expression covered her features. "You really are a lifesaver, Clark!"
He grinned and brought the drink and a doughnut over to her. "Sorry I can't offer you a better breakfast than that. This place… lacks a few of the usual homey facilities."
"I noticed." She smiled, looking amused. "And if you didn't have to spend your time helping me I'm sure you'd already have taken care of it."
He shrugged. "It can wait. This is more important. *You're* more important."
He meant that trying to prove that her husband was a murderer and getting him safely locked away in prison was more important but, judging by the blush which crept over her face, Lois clearly interpreted his words more personally. Not that he minded. She was important to him in that way too.
"Thank you." Her hand touched his lightly before she took the coffee from him.
He took a sip of his drink, watching her over the rim of the takeout cup. "You're very welcome."
She glanced down at herself. "God, I need a shower. And I'd kill for a change of clothes." As if realising what she'd said, she bit her lip. "Sorry. Stupid thing to say —"
"It's only a figure of speech," he said instantly. "As for the clothes, I can lend you something of mine again. Or — I don't think it's a good idea for you to go shopping, but if you tell me what size you need I could get you some stuff…"
She was shaking her head. "I don't have any money, Clark."
"That doesn't have to be a problem. I can lend you some."
"I can't take money from you!"
"Why not?" He shrugged faintly. "I'm pretty sure you're good for it. It's really no problem."
Avoiding his gaze, she said awkwardly, "Of course I'd pay you back. Assuming I'm not on the run for ever —"
"You won't be!" he said emphatically. "Come on — you're the best there is when it comes to investigating! We're not going to fail."
Her expression brightened, as if she'd needed the reassurance. "Yeah. You're right. But anyway, Clark," she added more soberly, "I know you can't afford to lend me money. You don't have a job either right now."
"Look, I know how you feel," he said sympathetically. "But you do need some stuff. I mean, I can lend you T-shirts, but my jeans are way too big for you. And I guess you wouldn't really want to borrow my underwear." He bet that his blush was even redder than hers. "So let me lend you some money. I can afford it. And after breakfast I'll fly you to a small town somewhere a long way from Metropolis or Smallville and you can buy a few things. Okay?"
She nodded, realising that he was right. "That sounds great. Thanks, Clark."
"No problem. How does somewhere in Georgia sound?"
Lex wasn't the only man who could take her halfway across the continent at a moment's notice. At least, Lois mused as they landed at the back of a parking garage in Gainesville, Georgia, Clark asked her first if she wanted to go. With Lex, even before he'd stooped to kidnapping her, he'd always assumed that she was happy to go along with his suggestions.
As much as it embarrassed her to borrow money from Clark, he was right. She desperately needed new underwear, whatever about outer wear. He'd given her fifty dollars in fives and tens before they'd left his apartment, telling her that he had his chequebook and ATM card with him if she needed more. She didn't intend to need more. If this town had a Target or a K-Mart, she'd get what she needed there. Even if once she'd never have dreamed of shopping at either place.
And anyway, it wouldn't be sensible for Clark to use any traceable method of payment. She had no idea whether Lex would think to connect Clark with her disappearance; to her husband, it would seem impossible that Clark could have traced him to Colorado, let alone got there himself. But she didn't want to leave any trail which could point to Clark's whereabouts.
Twenty minutes later, she rejoined Clark where she'd left him having a coffee in the K-Mart restaurant, several carrier bags in her hand. It had surprised her just how much fifty bucks could buy in a discount store like this. A pair of jeans, two blouses, two T-shirts and a couple of packs of underwear. She'd even had enough left over to buy a cheap pair of sandals; the pair of Martha's shoes she'd borrowed at the farm really didn't fit very well. She'd already changed into the jeans and one of the T- shirts.
He smiled as he approached. "You look good." And the admiration in his eyes was real.
So unlike Lex once again. Lex, of course, would have pulled a pained expression at the cheap chain-store clothes, refusing to acknowledge that anyone could possibly look good in anything so inexpensive and mass-produced. On the one occasion he'd seen her in sweats, he'd been appalled.
The fact that Lex would have hated what she was wearing made her like it all the more. "Thanks! It feels good to be wearing something that fits. And I think I've had about enough of designer clothes to last me a lifetime."
"Ready to go back and start work?" He stood.
"Oh yeah." In fact, she couldn't wait.
She let him guide her into an alley leading to the service entrances for the local shops, and in less than a second they were in the air again.
Yesterday, she'd wanted desperately to have Lex brought to justice for at least some of his crimes so that she'd be safe from him. She'd never been so terrified in her life as she'd been all day yesterday, especially once he'd come to the farmhouse and found her. Waking up in Clark's bedroom to see Lex standing over her had been the single most frightening experience of her life — even more terrifying than when he'd held a gun on her the night before. Then, it had been unexpected. Yesterday, she'd known that her husband had no compunction about killing her, and that he considered her a liability. She'd woken up, seen him and known that she didn't have long to live.
Yesterday, she'd been petrified. Today, she was angry. Blisteringly, furiously, vengefully angry.
He had fooled her. Lied to her. Taken her for a complete sucker. Patronised her. Tried to buy her with all of his 'little trinkets' — which she should have thrown back in his face. Or refused to accept in the first place, no matter how rude it would've seen. Clark hadn't actually said so, but she was pretty sure that she'd read his expression correctly yesterday — he thought she shouldn't have accepted them.
Once she'd married him, Lex had 'managed' her. Decided her whole life for her. And then, once she became an inconvenience, tried to get rid of her.
No, she wasn't afraid any more. She was consumed with cold, hard rage.
Lex Luthor had no idea just what was coming to him.
Though he was probably already beginning to realise that he'd bitten off more than he could chew by tangling with Lois Lane and Clark Kent, she thought with a sudden grin.
"What's that?" Clark queried.
"I was just wondering if he's still searching the Rockies for me," Lois explained, still smiling.
"Actually, he's back in Metropolis," Clark told her, to her surprise.
"I flew over his penthouse earlier, when I was out getting the coffee. I… was curious," he said, leaving her to wonder what he'd been curious about. "And I saw him — he was barking out orders into a telephone. Telling someone that he wanted you found, and he didn't care in what condition."
Lois shivered slightly, but then reminded herself that she wasn't afraid any more. Angry. Not afraid. Furious with Lex… and, if she were honest, with herself too, for all the mistakes in judgement she'd made which had led her to the position of being married to him.
Though at least she could be proud of having got the better of him yesterday. She'd escaped from him herself. Knocked him down and hurt him — and *that* had felt good.
"Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
He gave a faint shrug, which she felt rather than saw. "I didn't want to make you any more frightened than you already were. And it's no surprise that he's looking for you."
"I'm not scared." She saw his expression of doubt, and immediately emphasised her statement. "I'm not, Clark. I'm angry now, not scared — trust me. So, where was he sending people to look? Do you know?"
"There's a team in the Rockies. Another went to Smallville, but they won't find anything there." He smiled. "What Lex Luthor — and his buddies in the state police — don't understand about small towns is the loyalty factor. If he's asking about me, no- one will tell him anything. Especially if Rachel doesn't co- operate — and she won't. Oh, she'll pretend. But she won't give away anything."
"But… your parents…" Concerned, Lois looked at him. "Won't they be in danger?"
"I doubt it. He's got no reason to go after them. Sure, he might suspect that I have something to do with your disappearance this time too, but he can't prove it. And if he tries to suggest that I was anywhere near the Rockies yesterday everyone will just laugh at him. Even people who might suspect that I *could* get there without a plane. I agreed with Mom and Dad last night that, if anyone asked, they could say that I've gone away to look for work. Which is both true and credible, since everyone in Smallville knows that I want to get a job at a paper in the city."
People in small towns protect their own. Lois had seen some evidence of that yesterday. She just hoped, for Clark's sake, that he was right.
"So, where should we start?"
They were sitting on the old sofa in Clark's apartment, supplied with coffee, pens and paper. Lois, looking determined, had tucked her hair behind her ears and seemed deep in thought. He believed her when she said she was angry now. And he was glad; although he didn't know Lois the person very well, he was very familiar with Lois Lane the journalist, and he'd been sure that the frightened, ready to bolt person he'd plucked out of the water yesterday wasn't the real Lois. Today, the real Lois was ready to fight back.
"You said you thought he could've been responsible for the explosion at the Planet," Lois said, bitterness in her tone. "I think you're right. So we need to look into that."
Clark nodded, not sure whether Lois was angry at her husband for yet another of his probable crimes, or with herself for not having seen through him. "It's not going to be easy. The case will have been declared closed, right, since someone's in prison for the bombing?"
"Yeah. But there are still things we can look at. Maybe find a way into it…" She chewed the tip of her pen for a few moments, staring into the middle distance. Then, thoughtfully, she said, "You know that Lex bought the Planet about a week before it blew up, right?"
"Yeah. Wasn't the paper in financial trouble or something?"
"Yes, and that's the really strange bit. I mean, the Planet's one of the oldest newspapers in Metropolis. It's the most respected. We consistently picked up more awards than any other paper. So why would it suddenly be in trouble?" She hesitated, then added, "You know, I never really questioned that bit before. Newspaper management was just something I figured was the business of the suits upstairs. My job was to bring in the stories. I didn't care how they managed the paper as long as they kept paying my salary and didn't interfere with how I did my job or the sort of stories I got to write."
"So why the financial problems?"
Lois was clearly remembering. "Advertising. Suddenly a lot of our major customers pulled their advertising. You know that most of a newspaper's revenue comes from advertising, not sales?"
"Yeah." Clark nodded again. "So almost overnight most of the paper's income stream vanished?"
"Pretty much. I remember Perry seemed worried sick about it. He couldn't figure out why it had happened — we hadn't changed our editorial line on anything, or printed anything which would've upset people. I mean, it's not as if it was an election year and the paper was suddenly supporting an anti-business candidate or anything like that."
"So it's possible that someone scared — or persuaded — your advertisers away?" Clark suggested. This was beginning to make some sense. After all, as Lois had said, why would a paper as established and reputable as the Daily Planet suddenly be in financial difficulties out of the blue? If its advertisers had been manoeuvred into deserting the paper, then it would be an easy target for a takeover… by Lex Luthor.
But if Luthor had wanted to own the Daily Planet, why buy it only to blow it up? He was pretty sure that his earlier speculation about that was right on the money. But would Lois think that he was crazy?
He needed to lead up to it carefully.
"I can understand why Luthor might want to acquire his own pet newspaper," he said, furrowing his brow as he spoke. "I mean, he owns his own TV station already. It would fit very well into his empire, and I could see him assuming that the paper would be another means of getting across his propaganda."
"Not if you knew Perry White," Lois objected. "Okay, Perry never seemed to see through Lex either, but he's your textbook incorruptible editor. There's no way Perry would ever allow the Planet to be used as anyone's personal messenger."
"Hmm. Maybe Luthor thought that your editor could be persuaded?" Clark thought aloud. "But still, what wouldn't make sense to a lot of people is why buy a newspaper only to destroy it a week later."
Lois gave him a sharp look. "Yesterday, you said that the bombing was all very convenient for him. You said that's what made you wonder if he was involved."
"That's true." He frowned again. "I guess I was wondering whether it was really plausible, after all. I mean, I can see how he manoeuvred into a position to buy the paper, but it must have cost him. To start with, bribing the advertisers — I'd guess he found a way to offer them cheap rates somewhere else. Then actually buying out the paper —"
"At a knock-down price, considering the share price had hit the floor," Lois pointed out dryly.
"Yeah. So he got a bargain — but still, it had to be a few million dollars'-worth of bargain. And then he blows it up?"
Lois's eyes narrowed. "You were hinting that it was all part of his strategy to get me."
He had been. It all sounded insane, in a way, though. That someone like Lex Luthor would scheme to buy a newspaper, and then blow it up, just to get one woman in his power. Could the man really be that Machiavellian? Or was he actually not quite sane?
Though what they did know was that Luthor had been desperate to get Lois into a position where he could control her. He'd clearly wanted that very badly indeed.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"I think… that you're right. It was very convenient. I mean, I'd turned down his marriage proposal. I was still seeing him, true, but making it clear that I meant what I'd said. I was very happy with my life as it was — and he knew that. He knew how much I loved my job and loved the Daily Planet." She paused, and he could see self-disgust creep into her expression. "He knew I didn't have a life apart from the paper. I didn't have friends. Didn't have a social life." She rolled her eyes. "*He* was my social life! If I wasn't seeing him, I'd often put in an eighteen-hour day at the paper. I mean, how pathetic is that, Clark?" she threw at him, but didn't give him a chance to respond before continuing.
Not that he was sure what he would've said, anyway. His heart ached for her — for the lonely woman she'd clearly been, even if she hadn't recognised at the time how lonely she'd been.
"*I* was pathetic. I built my whole life around my job. And when it was taken away from me I completely fell apart. I saw that yesterday when I was telling you about it — saw how obsessed I'd become about it all. I mean, other people managed to get on with their lives, didn't they? They got other jobs. While I… I just stood around feeling lost. And I let myself be vulnerable enough that when Lex asked again I said yes."
Again, she paused, but resumed speaking before Clark could comment. "So, yes, you're right — the explosion was very convenient. So convenient that I guess I could believe he arranged it to make me turn to him. If he was that desperate…"
"If he was desperate enough to try to kill you once he realised you knew the truth about him — and desperate enough to want to marry you when he realised that you just *might* know something he doesn't want you to know," Clark observed, trying to keep his voice calm and not allow Lois to see the emotion he was feeling — fury at her husband's actions, and at the same time desperate sympathy for her — "then I'd say yes, he was desperate enough to blow the Planet up to force you into where he wanted you."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Just as if I was some object that he coveted. A rare work of art, a sculpture —"
She broke off abruptly and her eyes widened. And Clark could hear her heart begin to beat more quickly. "That's it!" she exclaimed excitedly.
"What I saw! What he was afraid I'd remember!"
Was that really it? Had she got it, at last?
Lois stared at Clark, almost afraid to hope. He was looking back at her, impatience and eagerness in his expression. "What is it?"
"Art!" She got to her feet, flinging aside the pen and paper, her anger and self-pity forgotten for the time being.
"Lex is an art connoisseur. Every one of his homes — and his offices — is full of art — Old Masters, expensive paintings by newer artists, sculptures, you name it. Anyway, one day I was with him in his office — he'd invited me to his penthouse for lunch and I arrived early. While I was there, the elevator opened and I looked around — it's a private elevator, so it's quite rare that anyone other than Lex or his personal assistant would use it, unless he had a visitor. So I was curious to see who was there. And I saw a guy in workman's overalls holding a painting. That didn't surprise me — I mean, like I said, Lex loves art. So I assumed it was a new purchase."
"And it wasn't?"
"Well, the thing is, Lex seemed to be pretty irritated. He waved the guy away and said 'Not now! Take it downstairs'. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but Lex definitely seemed unsettled after that. So I wonder now if that's what I saw."
"But I don't see how that…" Clark began slowly.
"Well, I never saw the painting again after that," Lois explained. "And I know how Lex gets when he buys something new. He has to show it off. I mean, he bought a Picasso in an auction back in February and he insisted on showing it to me the very next time I was at his place. And he kept talking about how delighted he was to have it. But this painting… he never mentioned it."
"That does sound odd," Clark agreed. "What was the painting like?"
"An Old Master, definitely. Actually — not that I know very much about art — it looked a bit like a Rubens. And Lex definitely would've wanted to show that off."
"Describe it," Clark said instantly.
Lois closed her eyes and thought for a moment. "Okay. It was kind of violent. There was a man and a woman, dressed in kind of Roman clothes. He was holding a spear — pointing it at her. And she had her arms up, as if she was trying to fend him off."
Clark frowned. "I wonder…" Abruptly, he got to his feet, then said, "Will you be okay if I leave you for a few minutes?"
"Sure! But where…?"
"I'll be back soon." And with that he was gone; she heard a faint booming sound and then there was silence.
In his absence, Lois tried to work out why that painting would have worried Lex so much that he'd decided that he needed to neutralise her. Clearly, he hadn't wanted her to know of its existence. He hadn't hung it anywhere she could see it; he hadn't ever drawn her attention to it.
It had to be stolen. That was the only possible explanation.
There was a whoosh, and Clark was back. He strode into the living-room, carrying a large hardback book, holding it open. "Is this the painting you saw?"
She looked. It was.
"It's definitely a Rubens. Tarquin and Lucretia," he told her. "It dates from the early seventeenth century. You know a lot of priceless art was stolen during the second world war?"
"Well, that particular Rubens went missing from its German gallery at the end of the war, and has never been seen since."
"So Lex got hold of it somehow. And he freaked out when I saw it because it's stolen," she concluded. "That's what I thought. But why would he think I'd recognise it?"
Clark shrugged. "It's a very famous painting — and even more famous because it's been missing so long."
"I wish I knew where Lex was hiding it. Then we could at least get him arrested for that. It's not enough, but it would be a start…"
"…and it would get him off our backs for the time being," Clark finished, echoing Lois's thoughts. It occurred to her briefly to wonder if reading minds was also one of his special skills. But she decided not; after all, he'd been amazed to hear that she'd fallen in love with him too this week.
"I can take a look," he offered then. "Is there anywhere likely you think he might use to hide something like that?"
Lois shrugged, frowning. "It could be anywhere. Even in that hideaway in Colorado."
"Let me take a look." Clark sounded decisive. "Tell me every building he owns in Metropolis. I'll start there."
Stolen artwork? Could that really be what Luthor had been so afraid of becoming public knowledge that he'd been prepared to kill for it?
In seconds, he was flying over Lex Towers, where Luthor had his penthouse. Lois had told him as much as she could about the layout of the building, including the fact that there was a large basement underneath which, as far as she knew, was used only for storage. She'd never been down there, which was why he thought it was definitely worth checking out.
The first thing he noticed was that the elevator shaft from Luthor's private office went all the way down to the basement. Which definitely made him suspicious. Why would Luthor need private access to a storage area? Slowly, he scanned the area underground… and what he saw made him turn around immediately and fly directly back to his apartment.
"You were right!" he exclaimed as he strode back into the living- area.
Lois's head shot up; she was sitting on the sofa and had been bent over her pad, apparently deep in thought. "What? You only just left!"
"I'm quick," he said with a grin.
"You sure are! If we ever do get to work together professionally, no-one else will ever be able to keep up with us." She looked pleased at that thought.
If they ever got to work together… That sounded like his idea of heaven. If the last hour or so was anything to go by, he just knew that he'd love working with Lois. She was amazing — even when what they were working on was something which affected her personally, which clearly upset and frightened her, she was intelligent, acute and very incisive. And it had felt to him as if they were very much in tune with each other. They bounced ideas off each other, finished each other's thoughts some of the time and complemented each other so well.
He wasn't entirely sure how ethical it would be to use his abilities to help with his career, but that was something they could discuss another time. Right now, his abilities were *very* useful indeed…
"Anyway, you were saying…?" Lois prompted.
"Yeah. You were right! There's a treasure trove down there — and it's all stolen or missing works of art. It's unbelievable — stuff experts thought was gone for good. I mean, I recognised a Renoir and a Pisarro. And I could swear that he has the arms of the Venus de Milo down there! There's a sculpture of Gutenberg which I'm positive was stolen in LA a few years ago. And I'm sure I recognised that Vermeer a museum in Boston reported stolen in 1990…"
"Clark!" Lois exclaimed. "I can hardly keep up with you… And you were only gone a couple of minutes! How could you recognise all that stuff so quickly? And how do you know so much about art, anyway?"
He felt himself blush a little. "Photographic memory," he explained. "I remembered seeing photographs of a lot of that stuff. And, like I said, I'm fast."
"Well, good!" she said, looking happier than he'd seen her for a couple of days. "Thanks to you, we've got something to nail him on."
"Yeah." He smiled, happy too. "Well, if we can do anything with this. I mean, we can't exactly go to the cops and say that I X- rayed the building, can we?"
"No, but I know what we can do…" she said thoughtfully. "Do you trust me, Clark?"
He didn't even have to think about it. "Of course I do."
"Then I know exactly how we proceed."
Lois picked up the phone and dialled a number she knew well. A direct line. Now, she just hoped that the person she wanted to speak to was there to answer it in person.
Oh, she knew that voice very well. Just as dry and impatient as always.
Bill Henderson. The most incorruptible cop she'd ever known.
"Guess who?" she said lightly.
"Well, well. I hate to admit it, Lane, but I'm relieved to know that the rumours of your death were exaggerated."
"Thanks, Henderson," she drawled sardonically. "Nice to talk to you too."
"So how come you're not at the bottom of a Great Lake after all?"
She gave him the story she and Clark had agreed on. "Dumb luck, I guess. The current must've washed me up onto a beach a little way down the coast."
"Yeah, you got lucky." His tone was sober for a moment. "Anyway, to what do I owe the pleasure? I'm sure you weren't calling just to let me know that you're still around to be the bane of my life."
"I see you haven't lost any of that killer charm." A dry laugh sounded in her ear. "I have a tip-off for you…"
Henderson listened as she explained. She was waiting for just one question from him, though, and he didn't disappoint her.
"So, how come you're turning snitch on your dearly beloved?" he enquired, the sarcasm audible.
"Does that matter?" she retorted. "Let's say I just found out about it and wanted to do my duty as a law-abiding citizen."
"Yeah, right," Bill scoffed. "Okay, I'll look into it." There was a click, and the line went dead.
"Who was that?" Clark asked from behind her.
"An old sparring partner of mine. Inspector Bill Henderson, MPD. He's a pain in the butt, but straight as a die. He's the only cop I know I'd trust with this."
"If you trust him, that's good enough for me." He smiled. "Okay, how do we make progress on the explosion investigation? You know more about it than I do."
"I guess we need to start by talking to the advertisers," Lois said thoughtfully, returning to where she'd dropped her notepad. "See whether they're willing to tell us anything."
"You think that's likely?" His tone suggested that he didn't.
Lois sighed. "Probably not." This was getting discouraging. She had no idea how they were going to get anyone to talk — especially not to her. Lex Luthor's wife. Even if she weren't in hiding, that was a non-starter.
Letting her notepad fall back to the sofa, she turned to look at Clark. He was watching her, his expression holding concern and a glimpse of the same *something* she'd noticed the last couple of days they'd talked on the beach. And she now knew what it was.
Her breath caught. And she took a hesitant step towards him.
He moved towards her, but then halted. "Lois…"
She knew what he was thinking. "Clark… I just need a hug. Is that too much to ask? I know how you feel about me being married still…"
In an instant, he was beside her. "A hug is never too much to ask." And he enfolded her in his arms, his chin resting on top of her head as he cradled her against him.
"We'll get through this," he promised her. "We'll find out the truth about everything — including the explosion. Even if we can't go the obvious routes."
"Yeah," she murmured into his chest. Even his hug felt wonderful. He made her feel protected, loved and *alive*, all at once. And, even though she longed to know his kiss, somehow for now just being in his embrace was enough.
And then their next step came to her. She pulled back, looking up at him excitedly. "And I think I know where we should start!"
"Where?" His eyes smiled down at her, sharing her excitement.
"Another phone call. Or, better still, if you don't mind, a personal visit."
Clark shrugged, releasing her at the same time. "As long as there's no risk anyone will tell Luthor you're here, I don't mind. Where do you want to go?"
"If you want… but why?"
"Because that's where Perry White is. And I think he's the person we need right now."
Clark had never met Perry White, though he knew the man by reputation as a tough and shrewd editor. What he hadn't known, and realised as soon as he saw White greet Lois, was that the man also cared fiercely about the people who'd once worked under his editorship. When White opened the door of the lakeside house Lois had explained that he'd bought for his retirement and saw who was there, Clark could have sworn that he saw tears come to his eyes.
"Lois! Aw, honey! After yesterday's paper, I never thought I'd see you again!"
"It was a close call, Perry." Lois's own voice was thick, and Clark realised for the first time how close she'd been to her editor.
He stood back as she was swept into a hug. Then, as Lois released White, she said, "Perry, this is Clark Kent. He's a reporter too — we're working together. And we need your help."
"Ah… pleased to meet you, Kent." A hand was extended for Clark to shake. "Come on in, you two. And, Lois, I want an explanation for why you're not floating face-down in that lake. Unless you were never there in the first place? Not that that would surprise me…"
White led the way inside the house and into a comfortable living- room. "Alice is out at the moment," he added; Clark assumed that he was referring to his wife. "So we have the place to ourselves. Lois?"
Clark chose to remain silent as Lois gave the brief, sanitised explanation of how she'd survived her near-encounter with drowning. White gave him a look of gratitude and admiration once Lois explained that he'd saved her; he had the impression that he'd suddenly climbed several notches in the retired editor's estimation.
"So, what did you two need my help with?" White asked eventually. "I thought you'd given up the journalism business, Lois."
"I had," she said. "Of course, I never should have. That was the stupidest thing I've ever done — and I've done a lot of stupid things in the last few months. Perry, what I didn't tell you just now is that the reason I was in the lake in the first place is that Lex tried to kill me."
White's expression changed rapidly; the genial, shrewd look was gone, replaced by absolute fury. But, Clark noticed, little surprise. "So he finally showed his true colours. I wondered when that would happen," White said bitingly.
Clark winced inwardly at that. He'd seen yesterday how humiliated and angry with herself Lois felt at not having seen through her husband. She'd hate knowing that her former editor, and a man who was clearly her mentor, had guessed.
He watched her out of the corner of his eye; as he'd expected, her heart-rate speeded up and he could see her chew her lip momentarily. She flushed. "You knew he wasn't what he seemed?"
<Oh, Lois…> He ached to hold her, to take her in her arms and tell her that it didn't matter. Of course, he knew that she wouldn't believe him; to her, it mattered enormously that she hadn't been able to see through Luthor. But, as he'd tell her as soon as he got the opportunity, she hadn't had the benefit of detachment, as Inspector Henderson and Perry White had. She'd had the full force of Luthor's charm exerted on her right from the start. He'd seen that as soon as she'd told him the story of her relationship with the man. In the circumstances, it would've been very hard to see through the facade.
He wondered if he should risk even giving her hand a comforting squeeze, but regretfully decided that he'd better not; after all, no matter what the circumstances, she was still married. And he had no idea whether it would bother her if her former editor realised that the two of them were more than friends, even if they hadn't so far done anything beyond talk about their feelings.
So he had to confine himself to a glance of sympathy in her direction. She saw it, and gave him a quick smile in response.
White shrugged. "Always suspected. Had no proof. And you seemed to like him — you're not often wrong about people, Lois. I'm sorry you had to find out this way, though."
"Well…" She grimaced. "It's done now. We're investigating the possibility that Lex might have been responsible for the Planet bombing. We're starting from the suspicion that he bribed or somehow persuaded our advertisers to take their business elsewhere. And I wondered if you might be able to help us."
"I never did believe that Jimmy did it," White growled. "But I had no proof. Near broke my heart to have to stand by and watch that boy go to prison for something I knew he didn't do. Yeah, I can help you."
It seemed that Perry White hadn't been idle in his retirement. But then, for a man of his reputation, Clark shouldn't have expected it. He'd collected a mass of documents — details of the advertising accounts which had gone elsewhere and where they'd gone, for starters. Unsurprisingly, all had gone to publications owned by one of Luthor's companies. He'd also managed to acquire the forensic report on the explosion, which had found that the bomb had been in Jimmy Olsen's lunch-pail.
"As if Jimmy ever knew the first thing about bombs," White scoffed.
"So you always thought that Lex had something to do with the bombing?" Lois asked, her voice shaky.
"Aw, honey!" White exclaimed, and reached for her hand. "I didn't have any reason to think that. I just knew it wasn't Jimmy. All I figured with Luthor was that for some reason he wanted to own the paper, and he set about making sure he got it at a knockdown price. Never thought he'd burn it down as soon as he owned it!"
Chewing her lip again, Lois nodded jerkily.
"So we should try to find out what inducements these companies were offered to switch accounts?" Clark suggested, wanting to divert attention away from the subject of what White had known or not known about Luthor.
Lois nodded. "That's a start. But unless we find a link between Lex and that bomb, we won't be able to prove anything at all about the explosion. And that's going to be tough — it was more than two months ago."
"We can still try," Clark said. "I know it's not going to be easy, but we have to get your friend out of prison."
"Lois, what about your sources?" Perry White suggested. "It's been so long since I pounded the streets as a reporter — I just don't have any contacts of my own left. But maybe someone might have a lead?"
"Good thought." Lois scribbled some notes. "I can start asking some questions."
"Only when you know it's safe," Clark warned. "Remember, you can't let him know where you are. It might be days before you can do anything like that."
And that need for caution, he knew, was going to hamper a lot of their work, at least until Rachel was able to come through with the evidence that Luthor had tried to kill his wife. They would just have to be patient. Even if it meant that Lois had to stay in hiding for some time to come.
They'd only been back in Clark's apartment about ten minutes when the phone rang. To her surprise, after answering it Clark passed the receiver to her. "It's for you, Lois."
"Yes?" she said cautiously as she took it, on her guard even though she knew Clark wouldn't have given her the phone if it wasn't safe.
"You better write this in your calendar. It's never going to happen again. I owe you an apology, Lane."
"Huh?" What was Henderson talking about?
"I misjudged you. When you married Luthor, I thought he'd corrupted you."
Self-disgust flooded Lois again. If Henderson and Perry had seen through Lex, why hadn't she? "It's worse than that, Bill," she confessed, letting her revulsion show. "He had me completely fooled."
"He had a lot of people fooled," the detective commented soberly.
Lois could barely believe it. Bill Henderson passing up the chance to jerk her chain about her idiocy? Especially since she fully deserved it. She'd been *married* to the man. She was — no, she had been; not any more — the best investigative reporter in the business. She *should* have seen what was going on. She should have known. She'd completely lost her objectivity where Lex was concerned, and now she was paying the price.
"So you found the stuff in his basement?"
"Yup. All there, exactly as you said it would be. We've got art experts looking it over in situ now — a lot of museums all over the world are going to be very grateful to you."
"All I want to know is what you've done with him," she retorted. She just hoped that Lex hadn't somehow managed to escape being arrested.
"Oh, he's cooling his heels in a prison cell right now. Not that he's happy about it," Henderson added dryly. "Last I heard, he was demanding his phone call."
"You actually got him into prison?" Lois's eyes widened. "I'm amazed you managed to move him from the penthouse. He'd have demanded a lawyer before he'd even agree to talk!"
Lex was in prison! That could mean that she was safe — he couldn't try to kill her from a prison-cell, could he?
"He didn't have much choice." Again, Henderson's tone was dry. "We turned up with a search warrant. And, thanks to your descriptions, we had information enabling us to identify some of the stuff as stolen there and then. As soon as we did that, I read him his rights and took him in. He wasn't happy — kept insisting that he had no idea the stuff was there and that it must have been stored there without his knowledge. But I made it clear it was that or be charged with resisting arrest."
Oh, Lex would have loved that! Lois stifled a giggle. "I wish I'd been a fly on the wall!"
She could almost hear Henderson rolling his eyes at that. "I don't expect him to be in prison for long," the inspector continued. "He'll be out on bail as soon as his fancy, expensive lawyer gets here, which'll be any minute now. So if I were you I'd keep well out of his way."
Oh, she should have known that it couldn't last. He was out. Free. And he'd be furious about his arrest and determined to find out who was responsible so that he could exact punishment. It was even possible that he could put two and two together and realise that Lois had remembered… and she'd be in even more danger.
But then Henderson's unspoken sympathy, and the fact that he'd had his suspicions about her husband all along, gave her an idea. "Bill, I have another tip-off for you," she said abruptly.
"What? Turning yourself in as accessory after the fact?" He laughed. "I don't think so."
"No. My almost-drowning — that wasn't an accident. Lex tried to kill me."
She could hear his sharp intake of breath, before he recovered and said, in a more businesslike tone, "Tell me what happened."
She related the facts in as calm a voice as she could manage. He was taking notes, she could tell; the way he asked her to repeat some things and clarify others gave it away to her. She'd had enough practice at it herself over the years, after all.
"How did you get away from there, then? There's no way you went back to him after you were washed up."
She explained the rest of what she'd agreed on with Clark. "A friend who'd been looking for me found me. He smuggled me back across the border and took me to his home in Kansas. We've been keeping one step ahead of Lex ever since."
"Okay. So tell me who I need to talk to to get hold of the drug evidence."
Lois turned to Clark; he scribbled for a second and then handed her a piece of very neatly-written-on paper. She raised her eyebrow. Super-hearing and super-speed. Right.
She recited the contact details for Rachel Harris, silently agreeing with Clark that it was best to route contact through the sheriff rather than the doctor. Small-town courtesy, she guessed.
"Thanks. I'll get onto it immediately. And I'll contact the Canadian police too — I can't see them refusing to co-operate in an attempted murder investigation. They can get a search warrant to look for the drug packet. Luthor's fingerprints on that should be enough to prove it, especially if they can find the empty ampoule." The loathing in Henderson's voice was audible.
It sounded too good to be true, and it was. "Bill, he had a towel wrapped around his hand the whole time. There won't be any fingerprints."
"What, even getting an ampoule out of a blister pack and breaking it open? I doubt it. Come on, Lane, you used to be better than that."
He was right. She had been better than that. Much better. But she would be again. She had to be — she had a lot to make up for.
"Thanks. I appreciate this."
"No thanks necessary." Now his tone was gruff. "I've been wanting to put him away for a very long time. You've just given me more than I ever thought I'd be able to get against him. Shame I can't give you the exclusive," he added, taking her hugely by surprise; in the past, he'd always fought her tooth and nail whenever she'd demanded an exclusive.
"Yeah, shame," she replied, deliberately aiming for a sardonic tone. It wouldn't do to let Henderson see how affected she was by all of this — including his sympathy.
Or how… elated she felt at the knowledge that *he* was going to be locked away for a very long time, if all the evidence fell into place.
"Oh, and Lois? I'll see what I can do to stall his bail application until I can get this checked out. If there's enough to justify charging him with attempted murder, he won't set foot outside his jail cell for the foreseeable future, no matter what fancy footwork his expensive lawyer tries."
Relief flooded her. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
"Hey, if anybody's going to wring your neck one of these days, Lane, it's going to be me." And with a short bark of laughter Henderson hung up.
As Lois replaced the receiver, Clark crossed to her side. She smiled at him as he approached, but he was well aware that she was far from fine. He'd noticed her heart-rate increase from fast to rapid during the phone conversation, and she'd been gripping the receiver so tightly her knuckles had been white.
"You did great, Lois," he said softly, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "He believed you. And it sounds like he's going to do his best to prove that you're right."
She nodded. "Henderson's the best there is. The only reason he never made it higher than inspector is he doesn't believe in diplomacy. He says it like it is — the top brass doesn't like that."
Clark recognised her attempt at deflecting the conversation for what it was, and refused to let her get away with it completely. "I'm glad you told him. Rachel believed us, too, but a sheriff from a small town in Kansas can't do much — especially as she doesn't even have jurisdiction. The crime took place in Canada and you live in Metropolis."
"True. Plus Henderson has contacts all over the place. He seemed confident of getting the Ontario police to co-operate."
"I noticed." Even though she was carrying on a rational conversation, Lois was beginning to shake. Reaction again, Clark knew. He tightened his arm around her, letting her know that he was there for her.
"Oh, Clark!" The words came out on a half-sob. He tugged her into his arms, holding her against his chest.
"It's okay, Lois. You're safe. He's going to get put away," Clark murmured, stroking her hair. "He'll never be able to do this to you again."
She snuggled close to him, and he ached once more to kiss her. But he wouldn't. Not until she was free.
Even still, just holding her was enough. Knowing that in his arms she felt safe. That he could protect her — and she wanted him to protect her. At the same time, her hair was silky under his fingers, making him want so much more. To taste her — to find out if her lips were as soft and inviting as he imagined.
But she wasn't free. And right now all she wanted from him was comfort. And that was what she would get.
"It's not just what he did to me," she said shakily. "Though that was bad enough… It's how *stupid* I've been!"
"Lois, you can't beat yourself up about this for ever," he said gently. "You were fooled. And, I know, because you're the best when it comes to investigative reporting you think you should've seen it and that you have to tear yourself apart because you didn't. You have to remember that he set out to fool you! He was very clever about it, too — you told me how he charmed you and courted you. He never gave you any reason to believe that there was anything suspicious about him, did he?"
She shook her head. "But if Perry knew… Henderson knew…"
"All they had were suspicions. And, okay, you missed it, Lois. I won't pretend that you didn't. But, like I said, he set out to make very sure that you suspected nothing. And anyway, everyone makes mistakes. What matters is what you do to put things right," he told her, relying on a nugget of his father's wisdom, repeated over and over to him as he'd been growing up.
She was silent for several moments. Then, just as he thought she was about to reject his advice, she nodded. "You're right. And I'm going to do everything I can to put it right!"
Too soon, she pulled away from his embrace, raking her fingers through her hair and avoiding his gaze. "You must think I'm such an idiot. Falling apart every other minute…"
"Hey, after what you've been through I'm amazed you're as together as you are!" he exclaimed with complete sincerity. "From the little you told me about last night, you must have been terrified."
She nodded. "He wouldn't say what he was going to do with me, and that made it far, far worse — I was imagining all sorts of things. If you can believe it, killing me seemed the least bad option. The creepiest thing of all was the way he kept behaving as if everything was normal — I mean, like we were still happily married and he was only keeping me there for my own good. And… and he wanted us to…" She shuddered visibly. "He talked about having… sex…"
Clark had to turn away to hide his reaction. Apart from stark, outright jealousy, which, he told himself, he had no right to feel — Luthor was Lois's *husband*, after all — everything inside him recoiled at the thought that a man who would calmly try to murder his wife still wanted to be intimate with her. No; he corrected himself. Use her body. There was nothing intimate about sex if the couple involved didn't share any emotional intimacy, was there?
But Lois didn't need to be aware of how he felt about what she'd said. "He's in jail, Lois. And your cop friend pretty much promised to keep him there. He can't get to you."
"No," she agreed. She took a deep, shuddering breath and then continued, pacing up and down the room. "But he has… minions everywhere. And even in jail he can control them. There's Nigel, for instance. Nigel knows Lex wants me dead — if he knew where I was, he'd come after me."
"Yeah, but neither Luthor nor this Nigel know who they're dealing with," Clark reminded her, wanting to reach out for her again but unsure if she'd welcome it now. He could see how hard she was fighting to keep control of her emotions. "If they want you, they've got to come through me."
At last, she smiled. "I know. I'd love to see them try to take you on!" Then she frowned again. "But you have to be careful. They *can't* know who they're dealing with. You can't afford to let them find out, Clark! Your life — your parents' lives — wouldn't be worth living. I know how big-time criminals operate. They'd use your parents to make you do stuff you'd never dream of doing."
He nodded. That was something he'd been aware of for some time — that, while he couldn't be hurt, his parents could. It had forced him to limit his activities considerably. "Yeah. That's what I hate, you know? There's so much I could do — stuff I'd love to be able to do. But if the world knew that Clark Kent could stop avalanches or put out fires with his breath or land planes on his back…"
"Whoa, whoa!" Lois exclaimed. "Back up there a second! What's this about stopping avalanches? Landing planes?"
Clark shrugged. "Just things I've done a couple of times."
"Lois, my powers are pretty amazing. I can do all sorts of stuff — I mean, so far I haven't found anything I can't lift, and since nothing can hurt me it's easy for me to fly into, say, burning buildings or the centre of a volcano. I grabbed people out of the path of the lava the last time Vesuvius erupted. A few years ago, I was hiking in the Alps when I heard an avalanche start way up on the mountain — so I flew up and pushed a few rocks in the way of the slide and managed to stop it. It's nothing to me, but it saves lives. I just wish I could do more," he added regretfully. "But, as it is, I've taken more risks than I should."
"Wow," Lois said softly, and sank back onto the couch. "You are amazing, do you know that?"
He shrugged. "I just try to help, Lois. It's only what anyone would do. I mean, if you passed someone in trouble on the street and you could help them, wouldn't you?"
"What? In this city?" She rolled her eyes at him. "You stop to help someone and next thing you've been mugged. Or worse."
"It's not that bad, Lois!" he exclaimed. "Seriously. People help other people who are in trouble. If you saw someone being attacked, you'd call the cops, even if you weren't able to come to their rescue. I *can* come to their rescue. It's just… I can't afford to let anyone know what I can do. I've had to move on before because a couple of people started looking at me suspiciously."
"Move on? You mean, when you were working in different countries?"
"Yeah. You know I said I was in London for a while? There was an incident on the subway — the Tube, they call it — one day. Someone was standing too close to the edge of the platform and she got pushed just as a train was coming. I was a few feet back, but the platform was full of people — so I jumped over their heads and grabbed her just before she hit the track. The train hit my arm as I jumped back onto the platform, and I know people saw. Including a guy who lived in the same apartment building as I did. A cop — they have transport police — tried to talk to me, but I got on the train before he could catch me. Anyway, after that I decided it was time to leave."
Lois was looking thoughtful. Suddenly, she looked up, and he could see a light in her eyes which worried him slightly. It held determination and inspiration; it made him wonder if he was seeing Lois Lane, famous investigative reporter, once more.
"You know what you need?" she said, her tone suggesting that she intended to brook no argument.
"What?" he asked warily.
"Huh?" What on earth was she talking about?
"You know. Like the Lone Ranger. Or Zorro. They wore disguises. The Lone Ranger was really a guy called John Reid, and Zorro was Don Diego. But no-one knew who the man under the disguise was. No-one even imagined that someone like Don Diego could possibly be Zorro. Not even his girlfriend. And his enemies couldn't understand why they could never find him."
"Yeah," Clark said slowly. "He was just the antithesis of his alter ego, wasn't he?"
Lois arched an eyebrow. "Encounter much trouble with blue pencils when you write, do you?"
"Use words like antithesis in articles and I could see subs rolling their eyes at you."
Clark grinned. "Not if you're writing for a better class of newspaper." But then he sobered. "I see what you're saying. If I had some sort of… disguise… then I could help people and nobody would know it was me."
"Yeah. I mean, who'd associate a masked rescue worker doing incredible things with an ordinary reporter? Especially if you acted as if there was nothing extraordinary about you. I mean, when you're saving people you'd have to be very commanding and in control, wouldn't you? If you weren't like that as yourself…"
"What, I should be weak and indecisive and accident-prone?" Clark couldn't help laughing.
"I can't see that!" Lois retorted. "But just… oh, I don't know. Not assertive. Friendly. Kind of the way you are, really." Then she grinned. "Just a mild-mannered reporter, right? No way you could be the Flying Rescue Guy in disguise."
"Right, so I should wear a mask and… what? Like a fireman's outfit? Or a great big red cross on my shirt?" Clark grinned at her in return, enjoying the game. At least the conversation, ridiculous as it was, was distracting Lois from thinking about her husband. Distracting her from the fear which he knew still consumed her…
"I think we need to work on the outfit," Lois answered. Her tone told him, to his amazement, that she was actually taking the conversation seriously. She really did think that he should adopt some kind of disguise so that he could help people the way he wanted.
Was it possible…?
He dropped down on the sofa next to her. If he did have a disguise — a secret identity — he could do all kinds of things. That plane crash in Atlanta the previous month, for example… He'd heard the news report about a plane in trouble. He'd ached to fly down and land the plane safely, but he'd known that it was impossible. Atlanta airspace was just too busy — he'd never have escaped notice. And so the plane had gone down. Crash-landed on a stretch of highway a few miles from the airport. He shuddered at the memory.
In disguise, he could have flown down. Taken care of the problem. Landed the plane safely. And a couple of hundred lives would have been saved, including those on the ground.
And there were many more occasions he could think of, where he could have helped if he'd been able to do so without fear of discovery. Earthquakes. Train crashes. Armed robberies. Fires. Traffic pile-ups. Kidnappings. Murder attempts.
He glanced briefly at Lois. Without his special abilities, she would be dead. How many other lives could be saved if he were able to do more?
Lois touched his arm; he felt the warmth of her hand and almost glowed inside. "You're tempted, aren't you?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Then do it."
"You make it sound so easy."
"What's not easy about it?" She shrugged. "Okay, so you need to come up with a disguise, but that wouldn't be too difficult, would it?"
"Probably not," he agreed. "My mom's great with a sewing-machine. I'm sure she'd help."
"Then what's the problem?"
He hesitated, trying to put his concerns into words. "I guess… I'm just unsure about the sort of reaction I'd get. I mean, what if people don't trust me? Or decide that I'm more of a threat than what I'm trying to help them with? I mean, Lois, I'm invulnerable! And can you imagine what I could to with my strength?"
"Amazing things," she said immediately. "I mean, I remember the Planet explosion. It was horrible. People were trapped under rubble for hours. You wouldn't have needed special equipment or anything like that, would you? You could've had them out in minutes."
"Probably," Clark agreed. And it was something else he'd done secretly in the past. "Lois, the problem is that people tend to be… well, scared of anyone who's different. And when those differences include making someone powerful enough to… Lois, if I wanted, I could take over the world! There's nothing strong enough to beat me. I could crush a human being between two fingers if I wanted to. That's more than enough for people — for governments — to decide that I'm a threat."
"I see what you mean," she said slowly. "But you're not like that, Clark. And it's simple — all you have to do is show people that you're *not* a threat. I mean, if all you ever do is show up at accidents and save lives, I don't see why people shouldn't trust you."
"Yeah, but nobody would know who I was," Clark pointed out. "I mean, a masked man… got to have something to hide."
"True." Lois seemed to muse on that for a moment. Then she said, "Don't wear a mask."
"What?" He stared at her. "I thought the idea was not to be recognised."
"Take off your glasses."
He did. She leaned towards him and ran her fingers through his hair, seeming to be trying to style it differently but, whatever she was doing, he really loved the sensation.
"No glasses, different hairstyle. It's a start. And if your costume is striking enough it'll divert attention away from your face anyway. Plus, like I said, if you behave differently as Super Rescue Guy then why should anyone associate him with Clark Kent, reporter?"
It sounded like a huge risk. But, on the other hand, it was very tempting…
The phone rang.
He answered it. It was Inspector Henderson again, and he passed the phone to Lois. Listening in, he heard that Henderson was calling to say that he'd spoken to Rachel Harris and the Canadian police and that he was on his way to Smallville — and that he'd already informed the DA that a more serious charge was going to be made against Luthor once the evidence from Smallville and Ontario was in Metropolis. So there was no way that Luthor was going anywhere for the time being.
Before hanging up, Henderson added dryly, "You might want to listen to the news."
Clark glanced at his watch; almost three in the afternoon. Crossing to the kitchen, he flipped on the radio. Within a few minutes, a news bulletin came on.
"…and, in breaking news, this shock report: Lex Luthor, head of LexCorp, Luthor Industries and a number of other companies, has been arrested on charges of receiving stolen goods after several priceless art treasures were found in his possession and with his fingerprints on them. In even more disturbing news, our sources within the MPD suggest that Mr Luthor is also being questioned concerning the disappearance of his wife, Lois Lane Luthor, who it appears may not have perished in Lake Superior, as was reported yesterday.
"We have reactions from some of Metropolis's business community and a leading politician to this incredible story, later in the programme…"
Lois turned from the radio to Clark, astounded. Henderson had gone public.
"He's trying to flush people out," she said, suddenly realising.
"Of course," Clark replied slowly. "The guy's so powerful, nobody would want to play snitch… unless they knew he was already going down for something."
Just as she had been afraid to come forward…
But not any more. What was already happening was wonderful — far better than she could have hoped for. She had every reason to believe, now, that Lex could be charged with her murder. That she would see him put away.
She wanted to scream and shout for joy. She'd beaten him! She and Clark had beaten Lex Luthor. The fact that he was in police custody now was entirely due to them. They were a great team, she thought with a smile.
But that still wasn't going to get Jimmy out of prison. Her smile disappeared as she remembered her friend's plight. And they weren't going to be able to get any further on the bombing as long as she was hiding away in Clark's apartment.
It was time she stopped hiding. And Henderson, whether he knew it or not, had given her the perfect opportunity.
"I have to do something," she said abruptly.
"With Perry's help, we're close to proving that Lex bribed advertisers to dump the Planet. But that's not enough. It won't prove Jimmy didn't bomb the paper. I've got to get out there and start talking to sources."
She could see that Clark wasn't ecstatic about the idea. True, it was fraught with danger. But still, it was the right thing to do. The *only* thing to do.
Walking over to him, she put her hand on his arm. "I have to, Clark, don't you see? Apart from helping Jimmy, I can't hide here indefinitely just in case Lex sends one of his minions to get me. If I do that, he's won. I said this morning that I'm not scared of him, but by doing what I'm doing I *am* still afraid. And I refuse to be any more."
He watched her, and she could see the worry in his gaze. But after a few moments he nodded. "I understand. Just tell me — what can I do to help?"
"Come with me. I need to find one guy in particular. You'll have to stay back while I talk to him, but as long as you're there you'll know I'm safe."
He agreed. And so they set off; she was pretty sure she knew where she'd find Bobby Bigmouth, and she was right.
The wiry fortysomething man did a double-take as they walked into the diner where he'd worked for the past six months or so. "Lois Lane! I heard you probably weren't sharkbait after all."
"Yeah, they didn't get me this time." She shrugged. "You know I'm the great survivor."
Bobby didn't comment. Instead, he nodded towards Clark. "Who's the geek?"
Geek… oh, the glasses. Lois rolled her eyes; she couldn't imagine anyone less geek-like. "He's a friend. You could say he's my bodyguard right now."
Bobby gave her a shrewd look. "Ah. So that other rumour was right, too."
"And what rumour might that be?"
"That you're on the run from hubby." He pulled a face. "Never knew what you saw in him."
"Yeah, yeah," Lois grunted. "Me neither, now. Look, Bobby, I need your help."
His gaze shifted from side to side. "Not sure I'm in that business any more."
"Bobby, I know what your problem is. But I've left him. I'm getting a divorce as soon as I can. If you've heard the rumours about me, then you also know that Lex is in police custody and facing at least one charge. I want to prove him guilty of more, and that's where I need your help."
He still looked sceptical. So she tried again. "Look, I remember a few months ago when I was looking for information about gang killings you hinted that there was a Mr Big behind a lot of crime in the city. But you wouldn't ever say any more than that. It was Lex Luthor, wasn't it?"
"I never said that." The reply was immediate.
"I know. I did. And I'm right, aren't I?"
There was no reply. Bobby began to busy himself wiping tables. Lois followed him around, sticking right on his tail as he moved from table to table.
"Okay," she continued. "This is what I need. You know Jimmy Olsen's doing time for the Planet bombing?" Bobby nodded, but didn't look up from his task. "Well, I don't believe he did it. I think Lex was behind it. But I can't prove it. I want to get Jimmy out of jail, Bobby. And I don't think there's a better time to do it."
He began straightening menus and condiment sets.
"Look, like I said, I know what your problem is," she said calmly. "You don't know if you can trust me any more. I'm married to Mr Big. But look at it this way. He tried to kill me — yes, that's the truth. I want to put him away for the rest of his life, if I can. And I want to undo as much of the harm he's done as possible. You help me, Bobby, and you won't regret it. I promise. And as soon as I have access to my bank account again, I'll *buy* you your own diner. Come on, you got to help me here!"
He wasn't going to. Despite her outward calm, Lois's heart was sinking. She already knew what a mistake she'd made by taking the stupid decision to marry Lex. Now it was looking as if she'd lost her credibility, too. If Bobby didn't trust her any more, then who would? She was lucky that Perry and Henderson had listened to her.
She dropped her gaze from her former snitch and began to turn. It was time to leave.
"What?" She swung back and stared at Bobby.
"He's a torch. Explosives guy. Will burn anything for the right payment."
Her eyes widened. She wanted to look at Clark, knowing that he would be sharing her excitement, but she didn't dare look away from Bobby. Not now. "Thanks." A simple word, but said with great sincerity. "I owe you one."
"And don't think I won't collect."
She laughed. "I'm good for it."
"Yeah. I know," Bobby said sardonically. "Lexel Investments netted a pretty cool figure, didn't it?"
"Huh?" Lexel? Obviously something to do with her husband, but she'd never heard of it.
"Check it out," he muttered, already turning away. "Now, I got a job to do."
John Black. Lexel Investments. It was a start.
On the way back to Clark's apartment, they'd paid a visit to the companies' registration office. Lexel Investments was a relatively newly-established company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of LexCorp, and its purpose was to manage insurance policies. It sounded innocuous, but they were both sure that it wasn't. Bobby wouldn't have mentioned it otherwise.
Lois, Clark noted, was far more animated than she'd been earlier. He'd had his doubts — severe doubts — about going to see her source. Even with his abilities, he couldn't be everywhere at once. And all it would take was a split second, a loss of concentration on his part and a bullet, and her life would be over forever. So he'd been on edge the whole time they'd been in the diner.
Now, though, despite his fear for her safety, he had to admit that it had been the right thing for her to do, and not only because they'd got potentially useful information out of it.
She wasn't afraid any more. That was obvious — it radiated from her. She was determined and barely restraining her impatience to get something done.
"Obviously one of Lexel's policies paid up, and paid up big," she said as Clark poured coffee into the filter-machine he'd picked up on their way back.
It sounded far too obvious, Clark thought. It couldn't be, could it? "Was the Planet insured through Lexel?"
"Not that I knew of," Lois said immediately, but then he saw her go still. Her expression altered, and she said slowly, "But what if it was?"
"Well, the Planet was insured, wasn't it?"
"Oh yeah. But Lex told me that the policy didn't pay out anything near enough to cover rebuilding costs. I asked Perry — he said Lex was right, it was under-insured. But I don't know what company it was insured with. Perry would know."
"Well, your friend Bobby said it was a big payout, so whatever he was talking about can't be the insurance you knew about," Clark said. "Maybe you should…"
"I should call Perry and find out who the Planet was insured with." Lois had already anticipated his suggestion.
The phone rang again. Clark picked it up; for an unlisted number, he was sure getting a lot of calls. "Clark Kent."
"Ah, Kent. Perry White here. I figured you kids would be back in the city by now. Look, I decided to follow you back to Metropolis. I want to help, and the best place to do it is here."
"Perry's in Metropolis," Clark murmured to Lois, covering the receiver briefly. "Actually, as it happens, there is something you can help us with," he said to the editor. "What company was the Planet insured with?"
"State Business Insurance," Perry replied promptly. "But it was under-insured…"
"Yeah, Lois said. Look, we've been given a tip-off to look into something called Lexel Investments. It's a company set up to manage insurance policies for Luthor's companies. We're beginning to wonder if maybe there was a separate policy taken out to cover the Daily Planet."
"You want me to look into that?"
"Hell, I'm itching to get stuck into some real investigating again. You leave it with me. You find out anything else?"
"Lois got a tip-off about a guy called John Black; we think he might have been the hired bomber."
He heard a dry chuckle. "That's my Lois. You two can't have been back in the city more than half an hour, and already she's hot on the trail. Look, I'll call you when I find anything out, okay?"
Clark hung up and relayed the conversation to Lois. "That's the sort of thing I have to be careful about," he added with a grimace. "We should only have been back a short while, instead of three hours or more."
"True." Lois nodded. "I'll remember that, for future reference. Now, I need to do some digging about John Black…"
Darkness had fallen over the city by the time Lois straightened, rubbing her aching back and grimacing. Immediately, she felt warmth embrace her, soothing her tired muscles.
She glanced around; Clark had removed his glasses and was studying her intently. He really was incredible, she thought once more. "Hey, thanks!"
"No problem. Does it feel any better?"
"Oh yeah." She flexed experimentally. "Much!" Then she glanced around the room. "You've been busy!"
"Well, you said there wasn't anything I could help with, so I went shopping." He grinned. "Look any better?"
"Definitely!" The kitchen, she noted, now had a table and chairs. A coffee-table stood in front of the sofa. Boxes of self-assembly furniture rested in the corner; from the label, she deduced that they were bookcases. A couple of rugs lay on the floor. There was an end-table beside the sofa, and a lit table-lamp stood on it. "How did you get all this in here without me seeing it?"
"You were kind of otherwise occupied," Clark teased. "I think I could've brought a whole herd of elephants in here and you wouldn't have noticed!"
"You're probably right. I didn't even realise you were gone." She must have been on her own for quite a while, judging by the amount of stuff Clark had acquired. He'd clearly decided there wasn't any risk to her safety at the moment, after all. And she'd been fine — as well as very busy. Just like the old days at the Planet, where hours could go past without her noticing them.
God, she'd missed that! The thrill of an investigation, especially if she just *knew* that she was getting close. The buzz of a busy, thriving bullpen. Sitting at her computer as the words just flowed from her keyboard. Seeing her byline in print on the front page, beneath a killer headline.
She had to get back to that life. For more reasons than that she missed it; she'd known, as she'd sat down to work at Clark's laptop, that she had to prove herself as a reporter again. She knew the saying well: pride goes before a fall. And she, proudest of them all, most confident — boastful, even — of her investigative abilities, had fallen the hardest. She'd been fooled, completely and absolutely, by a master criminal. Oh, she definitely had to prove to people that she could still do it.
She had to prove to *herself* that she could still do it. That she would never be fooled so easily again. That she could still bring in the big stories, gain the trust of sources — as she had with Bobby, though that hadn't been easy — and keep her critical edge. Not get too close to stories. Not allow herself to be fooled.
"Oh, I was never gone for more than a few minutes at a time," Clark said, surprising her. "There's a furniture store just down the road. I did do a couple of circuits of the city from the air, though. Especially over Luthor's offices."
"I wanted to keep an eye on things. Sure, Luthor's in jail, but you keep reminding me about his associates… Anyway, he does have people out looking for you. But the good thing is that nobody's talking. They don't have a clue where you are, though they're pretty sure that Henderson knows. What's even better is that his minions are getting scared for their own skins. They seem convinced that Luthor's going down, and they don't want to be dragged in on his coat-tails."
It was definitely the beginning of the end for her husband, then. "Excellent."
"Oh, and I also paid a quick visit to my folks," he added, making her shoot him an alarmed look. It just showed how self-absorbed she'd been almost the whole day; she'd been focusing on her own fears and her own safety and had completely forgotten that Clark's parents could be in danger. After all, Clark had told her that morning that Lex had sent people to Smallville.
"Are they okay?" she asked, guilt in her tone.
He smiled. "Relax. They're fine. Dad saw a guy snooping about in one of the fields this afternoon, but he ran off as soon as he noticed he'd been spotted. Rachel's had her deputies do some extra patrols around the farm and in town and told them to be extra-officious if they saw any strangers. You know, nothing other than very polite and helpful, but letting them know that their presence hasn't gone unnoticed."
"Right. So no chance of anyone keeping a low profile, then." Lois thought that she'd probably like Clark's friend Rachel very much, if she ever got to meet her.
"Exactly. Anyway, apparently a carload of city guys left Smallville this evening, headed for the nearest airport. That was after some townspeople and a couple of our neighbours told them that they hadn't seen me since yesterday and that they heard I'd gone away — to the city. Naturally, they didn't say *which* city…"
"Naturally," Lois echoed with a grin.
"And they said that as far as they knew I was alone when I left. And that if they needed to get in contact with me they really should speak to my parents."
"I see what you mean about loyalty."
"Yeah. But it's nothing but the truth," he commented. "Anyway, seems like he's given up on Smallville. Even if he does figure that you're with me again, there isn't a lot he can do about it anyway. Not from a prison cell. Okay, he's got at least some of his staff still loyal to him, but he's already in police custody and with a possible charge of attempted murder hanging over him. He's not going to risk any more attempts against you now."
That made sense, Lois recognised. Her husband might be determined, but he wasn't stupid.
"Yeah." She gestured at the laptop and her notes. "So all we need now is for this to come together so we can prove that Jimmy didn't bomb the Planet."
"Any progress?" Clark nodded at the laptop she'd been using — his, connected to the Internet.
"I managed to hack into a few sites — Jimmy taught me more than I realised. Black's got a record, all right, for exactly this sort of stuff. But we need something to tie him to the Planet bombing. And I won't be able to get that on a computer."
"Tomorrow," Clark said. "It's late. And another day won't make a difference." He reached for her hand, tugging her to her feet. "I also got a bed," he informed her. "So the bedroom's yours tonight. And don't argue."
Briefly, she wondered what he'd do if she did. But she was too tired, really, to push it. Even if part of her didn't want to go to bed yet, because it meant saying goodnight to Clark. Even if part of her was wondering, without any prompting on her part, what it would be like if… they shared that bed tonight. Not lovemaking — the part of her which was doing the wondering shied away from that. She wasn't ready for that. Not for a long time. But just to be held by him — something Lex had never done. Oh, they'd shared a bed, and sometimes even for the whole night. But he'd slept on his side and she on hers.
Clark, though, she knew without even needing to confirm it, would hold her in his arms. All night.
But she squashed that little wondering part of her. Clark had made it clear that he was keeping his distance while she was still married, and he was right. And anyway, it was too soon.
She squeezed his hand. "Okay. Goodnight, Clark."
He smiled. "Sleep well." And kissed her, very lightly, on the cheek as she hesitated by his side on her way to the bedroom.
The next morning, things started to snowball. Perry White came by while they were having breakfast.
"You were right about the insurance!" he exclaimed as soon as he was inside the apartment. "A contact managed to get the paperwork for me. Luthor had the place insured for more than twice what we needed to rebuild!"
Lois paled. "And he said he couldn't afford to throw good money after bad."
Clark squeezed her hand. "You know he's a liar — nothing should surprise you about him now." Glancing up, he noticed that the former editor was looking at their joined hands; flushing slightly, he moved away from Lois. Perry met his gaze and winked. Clark stilled briefly; was Lois's former boss and mentor saying that he approved?
And then the phone rang. He reached for it. "Kent."
"Is Lane there?" He recognised the gruff voice immediately.
"She is, Inspector. Hold on."
Lois took the phone. In view of Perry White's presence, Clark tried not to look as if he was following the conversation, tuning out Henderson's voice.
"Really? That's excellent!" Lois exclaimed. Clark noticed that Perry turned to look at her, his expression intent.
After a brief further conversation, she hung up and turned to them. "Rachel Harris has turned over the blood-sample evidence to him. DNA tests prove that it's my blood, and he has the lab report on what's in it. But, better still, the Ontario police found the box of sedatives in the kitchen drawer — and one set of fingerprints on it match Lex's. Course, as Henderson said, he could have handled them any time — but the police searched the garbage. And they found two broken ampoules, which also had Lex's prints."
"He left them in the garbage?" Perry demanded, sounding incredulous.
"Not in the house," Lois explained. "Apparently, it was in the garage — the garbage collection is today. So the cops found it just in time."
"So what's happening now?" Clark asked, although he already knew, having heard what Henderson had said.
"They're charging Lex with attempted murder right now. He needs me to come down to the precinct to make a statement."
"Then let's get down there." Clark drained his coffee. "And, given what we have already, how about telling the inspector what we know so far about the bombing? Maybe he can help us get to Black — or there might be enough circumstantial evidence so far to cast doubt on your friend Jimmy's conviction."
"Yeah, maybe." Lois looked optimistic. "Can we take this, Perry?" She picked up the documents he'd brought with him, proof of Luthor's additional insurance policy.
"Sure. I think I'll head on over to the prison, see if I can get in to see Jimmy. It'd be nice to think I could give the kid some hope."
Lois stood and hugged her former boss. "Give him my love too, okay?"
Henderson was waiting for them when they were ushered into the back room of the precinct half an hour later. "Lois." He favoured her with a rare smile. "And you must be Kent." Even more of a rarity, he extended his hand.
"Clark Kent. Good to meet you, Inspector. Lois's told me a lot about you," Clark said.
"All bad, I bet." Henderson winked. "Come on — the interview room's ready." Leading the way, he added, "We charged him right after I spoke to you. He had his expensive lawyer with him, for all the good it did him. Course, he was itching to deny everything and threaten to sue the entire MPD, but Bender — that's the shark's — uh, sorry, the lawyer's name — made him shut up. Told Luthor that if he wanted legal representation, the only way he'd get it was by doing what he was told."
Lois failed to stifle a smile. "Bet he loved that."
"Said there were plenty of other lawyers in Metropolis. But I'm not sure that he's too confident any will want to take him on right now." Henderson allowed himself another rare smile — he really was Mr Happy this morning, Lois thought, amused. "How are the mighty fallen!"
He ushered them into the interview room, where a uniformed officer was already waiting. "Okay, Lois. Like I said, we need a statement from you. And we need to know that you're going to be willing to give evidence if this goes to trial — and I intend to do whatever's necessary to see that it does. You'll be offered protection, of course." Leaning against the wall, Henderson observed her keenly.
She nodded. It wouldn't be easy, especially with the kind of sharks Lex would hire as lawyers, programmed to twist and turn her every word to make her out to be some sort of lunatic, at best, or a gold-digger at worst. Plus, even though he was safely in prison, she still had no idea who else was out there ready to carry out his wishes — perhaps to ensure that she could never testify.
But she had to do it. It was vital — and yet another part of proving to herself that she wasn't afraid. That she was back in control of her own life.
"Of course I'll testify. How can I expect anyone else to stick their necks out over this if I'm not prepared to?"
The inspector's stance relaxed. "Good. You might be interested to know that we picked up Nigel St John this morning too, by the way." There was a pause, during which Henderson examined his fingernails. "I wanted him in for questioning about Luthor's private gallery — did I tell you that his prints turned up on a couple of the paintings too?"
He hadn't. But, judging by his behaviour, Lois deduced that that was far from being the real reason Henderson had wanted St John off the streets. And she appreciated it very much. With her husband's lead henchman under arrest, she felt a lot safer.
And more than ready to do her bit towards getting him put away for good…
"…and so it looks like there's a strong possibility Jimmy could be released in the next few days." Lois, looking triumphant, finished relating the morning's events to Perry White, who'd come over as soon as they'd called him.
"The case is going to be re-opened?"
Lois nodded. "Henderson never believed Jimmy did it either." She grimaced, and Clark felt for her. The inspector, he'd thought, had been very tactful about the whole thing, simply commenting that he'd thought it unlikely someone like Jimmy Olsen would turn bomber, even if he had just lost the job he loved. "But it wasn't his case," Lois continued, "so there wasn't a lot he could do."
"He knows John Black. Thinks he can probably get the guy to talk if he's offered a deal — and he thinks the DA's likely to go for one."
"Yeah, he's up for re-election this year, isn't he?" Perry sounded cynical.
"I can imagine prosecuting Lex Luthor — with everything that's likely to come out during the trial — would get him some good publicity," Clark commented.
"Too bad we don't have a paper to report it in," Perry muttered.
Lois flushed. Aching for her, Clark restrained himself and just squeezed her shoulder gently.
"Aw, honey, I didn't mean anything about you!" Looking stricken, the editor leaned across the table and took Lois's hand. "None of this was your fault."
"No? An investigative reporter who couldn't even see what was under her nose? Perry, I deserve to have all my Kerths taken away!"
"Lois, he had everyone fooled."
"Yeah? Not you. Not Henderson. Not Bobby Bigmouth."
"Bobby might have had some idea, Lois, but you know he wouldn't talk before," Clark pointed out. "Nor would anyone else who knew. And as for those who suspected… well, maybe they knew things that you didn't. But look at who else was fooled by him! The entire business community, the New Troy establishment…"
"The President," Perry put in. "Guess Luthor'll be off the White House Christmas card list now."
"I guess." Lois smiled, though Clark knew that it was an effort for her. "And you're right, Perry. If we still had the Planet, this would be the story of the decade." She grimaced. "Look, maybe once I have access to my bank accounts again —"
"No!" The editor's growl was harsh. "Lois, if the Planet ever re- opens it'll be because a wrong has been put right. Not because you've put every cent you have into it."
Clark couldn't really see much difference, personally; he assumed that Lois's bank accounts were mostly funded with Lex Luthor's money, and he was pretty sure how Lois felt about that fact now. But it wasn't his business, so he stayed out of it — but he had a funny feeling that Lois might well get her own way in the end anyway.
"You know, if you did decide to go for that disguise, this apartment is perfect for you."
They were standing out on Clark's balcony, looking over the city as darkness fell. The balcony wasn't especially high; Clark's building wasn't a high-rise. But the absence of tall buildings on any side gave them a clear view of their surroundings.
"Why's that?" he asked, turning to look at her, his smile flashing white in the dusk. God, every time she looked at him now, she noticed how attractive he was.
"This balcony. You could fly in and out of here without ever being seen. Nobody overlooks you."
He glanced around, clearly testing the truth of her statement. "Yeah. You're right." Turning back to look at her again, he said, "You're really serious about this, aren't you?"
Lois nodded. "You bet I am. Clark, what you can do is amazing. And what you said earlier — about it killing you not being able to help at times — well, this is how you can do it, and do it safely. No-one will know it's y…"
She trailed off, realising suddenly that she didn't have his attention any more. His head was cocked sideways and he was staring off into the middle distance somewhere, as if looking at something she couldn't see… or listening to something she couldn't hear. And, though she could barely make it out in the rapidly-disappearing light, she thought his expression was agonised. And torn.
The penny dropped. Placing her hand on his arm, she said, "Something's happening?"
"Yeah." His jaw was taut as he spoke. "Someone's being attacked a half-mile away. A woman."
And it was killing him having to stand by and listen, knowing every second of what was happening, aching to help but believing that he couldn't jeopardise his safety and the safety of his parents by revealing what he could do.
"It's dark," she said softly. "No-one will see you fly. Go and help her."
His hesitation lasted less than a second. With a jerk of his head which could almost have been called a nod, he leapt over the balcony rail and took flight. And then simply vanished from view. He must have been moving so fast that her eyes were unable to keep up with him, she reasoned.
She remained on the balcony, waiting for him, even though the night air was considerably cooler now. A wind was getting up, and it felt as if rain was in the air. That didn't matter. What mattered was seeing Clark the instant he returned, finding out whether he'd been in time to help the woman… finding out how he felt about being able to help.
And then he was there, materialising just in front of the balcony before vaulting over to stand beside her. His hair was ruffled and he wasn't wearing his glasses.
Before she could say a word, he hauled her into his arms, holding her tightly and burying his face in her hair. She wrapped her arms around him, glad that for once she could offer him comfort. It made her feel as if she were giving something back for all the care and love he'd lavished on her. As if, at last, there was a way she could show him how much she loved him, even though they'd agreed that they couldn't act on their feelings for each other until she was free of Lex.
After a while, he raised his head and touched his lips to her forehead. "Thank you."
"For what? I didn't do anything!"
"You made me go. If it hadn't been for you, I'd have stayed here, listening to what was going on and torturing myself for not being able to help." He grimaced. "It took you to see that I *could* help her — and that I need to do it."
Releasing her, he began to pace up and down the balcony. "I have all these abilities, Lois. All these things I can do. I know that every day people die when I would've been able to save them… when I *could* have saved them if I hadn't been so scared of letting anyone find out what I can do. You made me see that I have a responsibility to do what I can."
Breaking off his pacing, he turned to her; the moon peeked out from behind a cloud at that moment, allowing her to see the determined expression on his face. "I don't know why I have these powers, Lois. I don't know whether they're because I'm some sort of genetic experiment, or whether I'm really from another planet, or whether it's some sort of complete fluke of nature. But I *do* have them, and I think I have a duty to use them wisely. So I'm going to do what you suggested."
"You'll get a disguise? Become Super Rescue Guy?"
He gave her a rueful smile. "I don't know about that. But I'll definitely work on some sort of disguise. I even bore in mind what you said just now — while I was still flying, I took my glasses off and messed up my hair, even though I didn't do anything especially super-human."
"What did you do?"
"Landed in an alley just around the corner from where she was being attacked. Then ran out and grabbed the guy — he was holding a knife to her throat and threatening to cut her if she didn't stop screaming. Anyway, I made him drop the knife. And then a police cruiser pulled up — someone must've called them — and the cops took over."
"That's good. But would the cops have been in time to prevent him hurting her?" Lois pointed out.
"No. She'd have been badly injured, if not dead, and he'd have got away." She heard him sigh. "And all for a purse which probably only had less than a hundred bucks and some credit cards in it."
Lois stepped over to where Clark stood and reached for his hand, squeezing it. "You saved her. She's safe tonight because of what you did. And don't you forget it." She shook his arm lightly, reinforcing her words. "Why don't we go inside and start thinking about a costume, superhero-guy?"
Still holding Lois's hand, Clark let her lead him back inside, a sense of excitement bubbling inside him. She was right. It was such a great idea. He wondered why it had never occurred to him before to try some sort of disguise — it wasn't as if he'd never watched Zorro on Saturday mornings as a kid. Or read comic-books about superheroes such as Spiderman.
And Spiderman even worked in journalism, just as he did himself. No-one ever suspected that the quiet, eager, underconfident Peter Parker could possibly be the guy under the tight-fitting Spandex costume. Of course, Parker's entire head was covered, which had to help — and he and Lois had been talking in terms of leaving his whole face unobscured. But still. It could work; he was sure of it.
It had felt so good being able to rescue that woman. As he'd told Lois, he'd felt weighed down with guilt for so long over knowing that he could help people, save lives, avert disasters, but that instead most of the time he stood by and did nothing. That weight of guilt had lifted off him the instant he'd pulled the mugger away from his victim.
He'd used a small amount of super-human ability in what he'd done — obviously, speed in getting to her so quickly once he'd landed, and strength to pull the mugger away and make him drop the knife. He'd also held the man pinioned once he'd heard the police siren, a grip which he knew had been just a little stronger than a normal man could manage — but nothing to arouse anyone's suspicions.
Wearing a disguise, though, there was so much more he could do. He could fly into situations without having to worry if anyone noticed someone doing the impossible. He could use strength, vision powers, speed and many other abilities to intervene.
"A costume," he said once they were back in the living-area of the apartment. "Something eye-catching, right?"
"Yeah." Lois stepped away from him and studied him, making him feel a little self-conscious. "We want people to notice the costume, not your face." She grinned. "So striking. And vivid colours, I think. Nothing dark or forbidding — that would scare people off." She paused, her brow furrowed in thought "You know how clowns wear bright colours? Because that appeals to kids and looks friendly?"
She was right. And, he thought, Spiderman's costume had been blue and red. Maybe they were good colours to go for. He said so. "I'm thinking maybe red and blue."
Still studying him, she nodded. "Blue looks good on you."
Glancing down at himself, he noticed that he was wearing a pale blue cotton shirt. "Oh." Blushing faintly, he felt good at the same time that Lois noticed what he wore — and liked it. "When we get time, will you come to my folks' place with me? Like I said, my mom's great at making stuff. And I'd really like your input into this thing."
"I'd love to." And she looked at him as if she meant it. As if, he thought, and felt a glow inside at the realisation, she was proud to know him and be a part of this new side to him.
"Thanks." <I love you> he really wanted to say, but the time wasn't right for that, he thought. As if by mutual agreement, neither of them had mentioned their feelings for each other since Luthor had kidnapped her at the farm.
And, of course, the nagging doubt he'd had about whether her feelings for him were as real as his for her… He was more confident of that now than he'd been before, after the way she'd sacrificed herself to protect him. But still. He had to be confident that she was sure.
"We need to decide on a name for you, too," she was saying. Clark forced his attention back to the conversation.
"Well, one thing's for sure: it's not going to be Super Rescue Guy!" he insisted.
"Oh, I don't know." Lois winked at him. "You're definitely pretty super."
Something about the way she was looking at him told him that she wasn't just talking about his abilities. And he felt warm inside again.
The insistent sound of a telephone ringing woke Lois out of a deep sleep the following morning. As she came to a degree of consciousness, she heard Clark's voice as he answered it. And then there was a pause, and a moment later she heard him call her name.
Dragging her eyes open, she looked up to see him peering around the corner of the bedroom. "It's Inspector Henderson, Lois. He says he has to speak to you and it's urgent."
"Oh!" Now fully awake, she threw back the sheet and slid out of bed. Clark disappeared, clearly giving her privacy to pull some more clothes on. Checking her watch, she discovered that it wasn't even six. She padded out into the kitchen, where Clark was waiting, dressed in a creased T-shirt and a pair of jeans he'd clearly only just pulled on.
"To what do I owe the dubious pleasure of a wake-up call from you, Henderson?" she drawled into the phone.
"Quit the smart talk, Lane. This is important." His tone was sober, a clear sign that something was up.
"What is it?"
"There's no easy way to say this. Lex Luthor was found dead in his cell this morning."
There was a funny roaring sound in her ears. And suddenly the floor under her feet felt uneven, as if it was slipping away from her.
"Wha -? I must have fallen asleep again," she muttered. "You didn't say what I thought…?"
"Lois." Henderson's voice was sharp. "Listen to me. He's dead. Luthor — your husband — is *dead*."
Suddenly, Clark's arm was around her shoulder. He was pushing her into a chair. She looked up gratefully at him; he was watching her, concern on his face. He mimed taking the phone from her, but she shook her head.
Lex was dead.
She was free.
He wasn't going to get punished for anything that he'd done. There'd be no trial. There'd be no public humiliation of the man who'd once been one of the most respected people in the country.
There'd be no trial. She wouldn't have to give evidence, to stand up in front of a jury and the press and be pointed to as the most stupid woman in existence, who'd been tricked into marrying Lex Luthor so that he could continue to hide his criminal activities from her. She wouldn't have to relate in open court how he'd pulled a gun on her, drugged her, marched her into the lake, tried to drown her…
She was free.
Her *husband*, the man she'd stood up beside in the cathedral only a couple of months earlier, whom she'd married with so many high hopes, was dead. The same man who'd terrified her, tried to kill her, turned out to have been a criminal all along…
She was *free*!
"Lois? Are you there?"
And she was shaking, suddenly, unable to control her reactions. The phone slipped from her fingers and, as if from a long distance away, she heard Clark's voice.
"She's here, Inspector. Yeah, just a bit shocked, I think… No, don't worry. She'll be fine… No, you had to tell her. And… well, no, I don't think she did, not after what he did to her… How did it happen? … Really? … Okay. Yes, I'll tell her."
"Tell me what?" The shaking had stopped and she was alert again, wanting to know what Henderson was telling Clark without her knowledge.
She heard Clark laugh briefly. "Yeah, that was her… No, I guess not." A brief pause. "Lois, he wants to talk to you again."
Lois held out her hand for the receiver. "Yes, Bill?"
"I just wanted to say, get yourself a good lawyer." His voice was dry. "I'd guess the vultures will start descending pretty soon — and for once I don't mean the press." Just as she was about to ask exactly what he did mean, he added sardonically — and yet she thought she detected a note of sympathy beneath the biting humour — "You're a wealthy widow, Lois. And he had a lot of business interests and people who are gonna assume they have a right to some of his assets."
Oh, god, she hadn't even thought of that! Everything Lex owned — well, probably most of it — was now hers. *She* was a multi- billionaire!
She took a deep breath. That was something she'd have to deal with later. "Thanks, Bill. For the advice — and for calling me yourself. I appreciate it."
She could almost hear him roll his eyes. "Thanks from Lois Lane? This is a day I'll have to mark on my calendar!"
"Yeah, well, commit it to memory," she advised him, her equilibrium well and truly back in place. "Cause it's not likely to happen again in this lifetime."
There was a click, and the connection was cut. Lois hung up and turned to Clark.
"Are you okay?" he asked, sounding cautious.
"He's dead," she said, knowing she sounded as if she barely believed it. "Lex… he's dead!"
"I know." Clark reached for her hand, held it between his two. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. It was just a shock." She took a deep breath. "I can barely believe it, Clark! After everything… he's dead!"
"At least you won't have to go through a trial now," he said quietly, and she could see that he was watching her carefully. His expression was guarded, though, and she wondered what was on his mind.
"No. I was just thinking that." She got up and went into the kitchen, finding mugs. Clark took the hint and began to make coffee. "I said I'd give evidence, and I meant it. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous of what that would mean. The whole American news media finding out what an idiot I was…"
"You brought him down, Lois," Clark pointed out.
"*We* brought him down," she corrected him. "You found the stolen art and recognised it for what it was. You called in Dr Jill and Rachel Harris. And without you I wouldn't even be here."
He smiled again, but it was faint.
"Clark? What is it?"
He didn't answer immediately, and she could see hesitation in his expression. After a while, he said, "I'm just wondering how you feel about this, that's all."
"Shocked," she said immediately. "But…" It was her turn to hesitate. After all, Lex had been her husband. No matter what he'd done in the last few days, she had been married to him. She'd made love with him. Known him — physically, at least — in the most intimate way it was possible to know another human being.
"It probably sounds terrible," she said quietly. "But I'm not sorry that he's dead. I'm… relieved."
She heard Clark release a breath, and suddenly she knew what his problem had been. He'd been afraid that Lex's death could make her realise that she still had feelings for him. As if that could possibly be true! How could she feel anything other than loathing for the man who'd tried to murder her? Who'd kidnapped her and held her prisoner, terrorising her by deliberately not telling her what he planned to do with her?
"If I have any regrets at all," she continued as the thought struck her, "it's that I never got to see him after he was arrested. So that I could tell him what I think of him. And how glad I am — was — that he was going to be put away for at least some of what he'd done."
"Yeah." Clark picked up the carafe and began pouring. "He's managed to escape that fate."
"Which reminds me… I meant to ask Henderson." Lois reached out for one of the mugs, deciding to take her coffee black this morning. She needed it. "How did it happen? How did he… die?"
"Suicide, they think." Clark sipped his coffee, and she could see him watching her warily over the rim of his cup. He still wasn't comfortable, she realised. "A guard checked on him this morning and found him stretched out dead on the floor. The light-fitting had been taken apart, and there was water spilt on the floor."
"So he electrocuted himself?"
"Looks like it. Though Henderson said they're checking the surveillance videotapes just to be sure there was no-one else involved. It fits, though. He said somebody reported hearing the tail-end of his conversation with his lawyer yesterday. The lawyer was trying to tell him that he'd probably have to spend at least some time in jail, and Luthor said something like 'I will not live in a cage.' So it looks like he meant it."
"I'm not sorry," Lois said again, savagely this time. "He deserves to be dead. If he could set out to kill me so casually, how many other people has he killed?"
Clark pulled a face. "I wondered that myself." He took another gulp of coffee, then ran a hand through his rumpled hair. "So, what are you going to do now?"
She thought for a moment, and then a broad smile curved across her face. "I need to do three things. Third, follow Bill's advice and get a lawyer. Second, call Perry and tell him to get ready to rebuild the Planet and come back as editor. Oh, and to hire a brilliant reporter called Clark Kent to work as my partner — that's if you still want to?"
A wide smile creased Clark's face. "Oh, I would love to, Lois, believe me!" Then he crooked a brow. "And the first thing?"
She put down her cup and advanced on him. "I think it's escaped your notice that I'm not married any more, Clark. So the first thing I need to do is…" She raised her hands to his shoulders, drawing him towards her. He let her, his gaze following her every movement. "…This."
And, stretching up, she pressed her lips to his for their first kiss.
Clark had known that kissing Lois would be amazing. He just hadn't appreciated how earth-shattering the very first touch of her lips against his would be. He groaned against her mouth and wrapped his arms around her, tugging her closer.
Her lips were as soft and sweet as he'd imagined in his dreams. This was better, far better, than it had ever felt to hold her before, because this time he was holding nothing back. He didn't have to remind himself that he couldn't get close to her, couldn't kiss her, because she was married.
He broke the kiss briefly, ignoring her moan of protest, and slanted his lips over hers at a different angle to allow himself better access. Her arms tightened around him and she parted her lips beneath his, inviting him inside. And he accepted the invitation.
No kiss he'd ever experienced in his lifetime had come even close to this. No sensation, even flying, was anywhere remotely as amazing. Kissing Lois was simply the most sensual experience of his life.
Her closeness, her touch, her taste, the sensations she was wreaking in his body… he felt as if he *was* flying, only far, far better.
And then he realised that he was flying. Or, rather, floating. They were a couple of feet off the ground and in danger of bumping against the ceiling.
He slid his mouth away from hers, gliding his lips over her cheek. "Oops."
She blinked and looked around, and he felt her soft laugh against his hair. "Oops," she echoed.
"Let's get more comfortable," he suggested and, without waiting for a reply, flew them into the living-area and sat on the sofa, pulling her onto his lap.
"Oh, much better!" she agreed. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she moved in for another kiss.
"You don't waste much time," he managed to say before her lips covered hers again.
She broke the kiss briefly to say, against his mouth, "We have days of kissing to make up for."
Oh, yeah. They did. And he had no complaints about that. Stroking her back and hair with hands which were almost shaking with the emotion he felt, he proceeded to show her just how desperately he'd been longing to kiss her over the past few days.
Just as she was showing him. And he could barely contain the joy and relief he felt at the knowledge. She still wanted him. Oh, he'd seen the frustration and the longing looks she'd been giving him occasionally over the past couple of days. He'd been aware that she'd wanted him to kiss her. But still, he hadn't been able to help himself; he'd wondered whether the feelings she professed for him would pass. Whether she'd realise that she'd really just been grateful for his help, and that, together with the sense of comradeship they'd felt on the beach, had made her think she was in love with him.
But this was several days later, and she still wanted him.
Worst of all had been his feelings when he'd heard Inspector Henderson tell her that Luthor was dead. That *her husband* was dead.
No matter what the man had done to her, he'd still been her husband. She'd still been his wife. They'd been a couple. She'd believed that he loved her, and she must have had feelings for him. Perhaps she'd even believed that she loved him at one stage. So, he'd thought, she would grieve his death, surely?
But apparently not — not that he could blame her one bit.
She groaned against his mouth again, and he smiled inwardly, turning all his attention back to Lois and their kiss. She deserved one hundred percent of his attention, and she would get it.
A long time later, Lois sighed and ended the kiss, tucking her head into Clark's shoulder. "That was worth waiting for."
"Yeah?" His tone was teasing, but there was also something else… a note of uncertainty, perhaps?
"Oh, definitely! You're something special, Clark Kent. And…" She hugged him. "…I'm just very, very grateful that you want to be with me."
"Oh, I do, I swear!" he exclaimed. "And… you? Do you still want to be with me?"
So that was it. He was still unsure of her — which she could understand, she supposed, given that they'd only known each other a little over a week and she'd been married to someone else until a very short time ago. "Clark," she said softly. "I told you a few days ago that I've fallen in love with you. My feelings haven't changed."
"Yes, I know." His lips traced a path from her jaw to her earlobe. "But still — it's a big step. In a very short time."
He thought she was in danger of falling for him on the rebound, then. Well, she supposed that he was right to be cautious. After all, she'd been asking herself only a few days earlier whether she could be completely sure of her feelings this time.
She could only be as honest with him as she knew how.
"I'm as sure as I can be, Clark. But… will you understand if I want to take things slowly?"
"Slowly?" he questioned, straightening and giving her a concerned look.
She missed the feel of his lips on her skin instantly. "Not that slowly!" She bent and touched her lips to his again. "I just mean… I made the wrong decision a few months ago, Clark. Married someone I never should have even been dating. I… didn't know my own mind. My judgement was completely flawed. I… don't want to rush into a serious relationship again — I want to be completely sure first."
"So, what are you saying?" he asked quietly. "You want us to stay friends for a while first? Get to know each other better? I guess that would be sensible…"
"Are you kidding?" she exclaimed. "Now that I know what a wonderful kisser you are, you want me to forgo this?" Again, she kissed him; this time he groaned and kissed her back.
"Then what do you mean?" he asked as she pulled away.
"That we spend a long time being just boyfriend and girlfriend?" she suggested. "I mean, I don't know where you want this relationship to go. But I'd like to get my own place and then just date. And kiss, and touch, and have fun together…" But she wasn't ready to make love. Not yet. Feeling kind of shy about raising *that* particular subject with him, especially since they'd only just had their first kiss, she hoped he'd understand what she was trying to say.
He stroked her hair, then combed his fingers through a few strands. "I understand," he said, smiling. "And as long as I know you want to be with me we can take it as slow as you like. Dating can be a lot of fun." He grinned. "How'd you like a long walk on a beach in the moonlight? On a deserted island in the Indian Ocean?"
She had to catch her jaw before it dropped. Dating Clark Kent was going to be *very* interesting, it seemed.
"It sounds wonderful," she whispered, before moving in for yet another kiss from the man she loved.
~ Six Weeks Later ~
"Hey, CK! I got those printouts you wanted."
Clark smiled up at Jimmy Olsen as the younger man approached his desk. When he'd met Jimmy a little over a month ago, once he'd been released from prison, all charges against him struck from the record, he'd immediately liked Perry's young protege.
"Thanks," he said, taking the papers and beginning to scan them. "Nice work."
"Glad to help. Hey, where's Lois?"
Clark glanced over at Lois's desk. Even though the Planet had been properly up and running again for the past three weeks, he still had to pinch himself sometimes to remind himself that this wasn't just a dream. He really was working for the best newspaper in the world, under the best editor he'd ever had the privilege of meeting, and partnered with Lois Lane, who was *the* best.
"She had another meeting with the lawyers," he explained with a wry smile. Those meetings had been taking up a *lot* of her time lately. Though it was all necessary, of course.
Lex Luthor's estate was taking a great deal of time and effort to sort out. Of course, there were the legitimate accounts for the above-board companies. There were the legitimate bank accounts, stock holdings and so on. But there was also the not-so-legal stuff. Stolen property which had to be returned. Secret bank accounts and deposits of gold bullion which were definitely not Luthor's by right. And, of course, even money in the legitimate bank accounts which had got there by illegal means.
The police were still combing through every aspect of Luthor's business and finances, and would be for some time to come. Some funds had been declared not part of the investigation, however, and had been released to probate; probate having been completed a week or so ago, Lois was now a millionaire several times over, with the prospect of many more millions to come once the police had finished their work.
One of the first things Lois had done, with the co-operation of her lawyers, had been to deal with the fact that many people had been hurt by her late husband in ways which weren't necessarily illegal. She'd had her lawyers issue a notice to the effect that anyone who felt that they had been damaged by Lex Luthor in any way had a month to bring their claims forward. They would then be investigated and compensation, if appropriate, agreed upon. The police, her lawyers and people elsewhere in the media had said that she was foolish to entertain those sorts of claims, but Lois had insisted. As she'd told Clark, every penny of Luthor's money felt like ill-gotten gains to her.
"It's dirty money, Clark. Even the legit stuff. He hurt so many people — every day I'm finding out more about the sort of things he did. I don't want his money, but I want to make sure that it's used wisely to compensate the people he hurt."
And so today's meeting was another one of those, Clark had assumed when Lois had mentioned it. He thoroughly approved of what she was doing, and he'd been pleased to see that her acts of benevolence, as they were regarded by some sections of the press, had gone a long way towards redeeming her in the media and business community.
She'd had a tough time in the immediate aftermath of Luthor's death as the full extent of his crimes began to be known; some parts of the media had portrayed her as a shallow gold-digger who'd married Luthor uncaring whether he was what he appeared to be or not, and who'd profited hugely from her brief marriage. Never mind that those sections of the media had not only never suspected that Luthor was a criminal, but had lauded him in their columns for years. Suddenly, they had a new bogeyman and, since the principal target was dead, they found a living substitute in Lois.
For the first few days, she'd been the biggest story in town. Everywhere they'd gone, they'd had to run the gauntlet of TV cameras and photographers and reporters; he'd had to take great care when leaving or entering his apartment by air while she'd still been staying with him. But then a new story had come along, taking most of the attention away from Lois. She'd been able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Not so Clark; he'd been the new story.
Superman had come to town.
He smiled, allowing his attention to drift further from the printouts as he remembered. His parents had been dubious at first, but then pleased for him; his excitement about the possibilities which a disguise offered had been contagious. When his mom had produced the stylised S emblem from his blanket and sewn it onto the blue and red costume, Lois had grinned triumphantly.
"See? I told you! S for Super Rescue Guy!"
He'd rolled his eyes and growled at her; his parents had laughed.
"Actually," Lois had continued, "I think Super*man* works better." And, despite his rolling his eyes again, his parents had agreed.
When he'd made his first appearance in the Suit a couple of days later, Lois had been there to christen him — quite how she'd managed to be on the scene of the fire he still didn't know. Perry had said something about her radar for news stories, and he was quickly learning that that was true.
The Planet hadn't been officially back in business then, but somehow, between them, Perry and Lois had got hold of a printing press and they'd produced a special edition of the Planet to herald the arrival of the Superhero — giving it away free, because it was good advertising for the fact that the paper would be returning soon. And Clark had been very grateful for that article. It had all the hallmarks of a typical Lois Lane piece: incisive, questioning and getting as much of the facts as possible; but at the same time she'd presented Superman, as she'd called him in the article, as someone who was there to help, who performed miraculous feats but wanted to use his abilities for the good of humanity. She'd finished her article with the comment that only time would tell if Superman's intentions were really as good as he claimed, but that by saving four lives in the inferno he'd come to help out at he'd made a very good start.
Superman, then, had replaced Lex Luthor's widow as the hottest news story around. Clark still felt nervous every time a microphone or tape recorder was pushed under his nose by a reporter when in the Suit, but so far nobody had even stopped to wonder whether the new hero had another identity at all, much less question who could be behind the disguise.
Only a very small number of people knew the secret. His parents and Lois, of course. And Rachel; a couple of weeks ago, he'd taken Lois to meet her at last when they'd been in Smallville. As they'd been leaving, Rachel had murmured with a wink, "Nice new job you've got yourself." He'd simply smiled.
They'd run into Doc Jill on that visit as well, he remembered. Lois had been very anxious to thank the doctor for her help in getting the evidence which would have gone a long way towards convicting Luthor for murder. Another good thing had come out of that incident, Clark thought with a smile; Jill was now dating Tom Newton, the town vet.
There was a sudden clatter as a pencil landed on the desk next to his arm.
Startled out of his thoughts, Clark's head shot up, but he grinned delightedly when he saw who had thrown it. "Lois! I thought you wouldn't be back for a while yet."
"Managed to get the business finished sooner," she said, looking very pleased about it. "And, even better, this will be the last meeting for quite a while."
"Excellent!" He knew how she felt about the endless bureaucracy. "Want a coffee?"
"Sure. If you can afford to buy me one," she teased.
He gestured towards the Planet's coffee machine. "Unless that's not good enough for my millionaire girlfriend…" He winked, reminding her that he was simply teasing about his reference to the money she hated.
"If you're only in this for the money, you might want to think again," she told him with a grin as they walked together to the coffee area. "This girl only has her paycheque to her name."
"Huh?" Taken aback, he stared at her.
"Right as of now, I don't have any of his money any more." And she looked incredibly pleased about it.
"Yeah?" Delighted as well, Clark slid his arm around her shoulders and hugged her briefly; they tried not to indulge in too much open affection in the newsroom. "So what'd you do? Sign it all over to Justice for Victims or something?"
"Oh, Lex would've hated that!" Lois laughed. "But better. The Police Benevolent Fund got a *very* large anonymous donation. MetU now has a fully-funded scholarship scheme for its journalism programme. Suicide Slum is getting a night shelter. And a few other things like that. All anonymous — not one of them will have Lex's name attached. That's what he'd have hated most, you know? He gave fortunes to charity, but all of it was done with a huge splash. He loved picking up the kudos it gave him."
She accepted the coffee he poured for her. "Best of all, I set up the Daily Planet Trust."
"A way of owning and funding the Planet — it's based on the Scott Trust, which owns a big newspaper company in Britain. Instead of shareholders, there's a board of trustees to administer the paper. And I put plenty of money behind it, so the paper will never have to go begging to shareholders again dependent on the whim of the stock market…"
"…or somebody's manipulation of it," Clark said dryly.
Lois nodded. "Anyway, the lawyers are working on setting it up now and they have a list of people to approach to be on the board. I'm staying out of it — I never wanted to own the paper anyway."
No, she hadn't, Clark knew, and she'd taken some ribbing, and worse, from colleagues around the Daily Planet and from other media organisations. There'd been veiled suggestions that, after her failure to see Lex Luthor for what he really was, the only way she'd got a job at a newspaper was by buying her own. That had made Clark furious; he'd actually wanted to punch the guy who'd come closest to saying it. But he'd found a better way of helping; he'd ensured that most, though not all, Superman exclusives since the re-opening of the Planet had gone to Lois, and had let it be known that it was because of his admiration for her work.
"So," Lois continued, "I'm not rich any more. I don't even have any of the things he bought me."
He knew that; once the police had allowed Lois to go back into the homes she'd lived in with Luthor, she'd collected a very small amount of personal items from each and ordered the rest to be given to charity. From the beach house she'd only wanted her laptop, and that only to salvage the book she'd begun in the week he'd met her.
She was still working on the book in what little free time she had. It had changed emphasis, however; now, as she'd put it to him, it was a story of mistakes to avoid in journalism. Oh, she'd still included the positive stuff; how she'd made a success of her first few years, the winning of her Kerths and so on. But she'd been determined to be brutally honest about what she'd done wrong, too. And Clark and Perry were supporting her in it. She needed to do it, Perry had commented, in order to forgive herself for the mistakes she'd made.
"So," Clark said, sipping his coffee and smiling warmly at her. "Could I tempt my newly-poor girlfriend to an exotic meal tonight? Seeing as you can't afford to buy your own dinner…"
She laughed. "Well, that depends. What kind of exotic meal?"
"Well, I was thinking… You know some people eat ants and grasshoppers in southern Mexico?"
He laughed at Lois's look of revulsion. "Suddenly, a Kraft Dinner sounds appetising!" she exclaimed.
He relented. "Seriously, I thought we could take a trip to the Bahamas. Dinner and a walk on the beach?" He'd quickly realised that Lois seemed to love moonlight strolls on the sand just as much as she'd loved walking with him on the beach in Canada.
"Sounds wonderful." She smiled dreamily. "You know, if this is your approach to taking it slow, Clark, let's stay at the dating stage for… ooh, the next ten years?"
"Ah, but you haven't seen me when I move into serious relationship stage yet," he pointed out. "Ever flown through the Aurora Borealis? Or over the Limpopo Falls? Or seen Sydney from the air?"
Even as he said it, it occurred to him that he wasn't offering her anything very different from things she could have done with her husband, if he'd offered and if she'd wanted it. After all, with the money he'd had at his disposal, Luthor could have taken her anywhere in the world. Exotic locations weren't new to Lois.
She seemed to work out what he'd been thinking. "Even if I had — which I haven't," she said softly, "I've never done them with you, Clark. And that makes all the difference."
Regardless of the fact that they were in the newsroom, Clark leaned over and kissed her. "I love you, Lois Lane," he murmured as they moved apart again.
"And I love you." She turned so that she was facing away from the bullpen, and he could see the sheen of tears in her eyes. "You set me free, Clark. Without you, I'd still be somewhere on a beach, living a nightmare of a life while still trying to pretend that I was happy. You showed me what real happiness could be."
He caught her hand, holding it tightly between his two, a lump in his throat. "You helped me to find freedom too, Lois," he said, in little more than a whisper. "Without you, I'd still be hiding what I could do, getting torn apart with guilt every time an emergency happened where I could've saved lives. You gave me the courage to do something about it."
Her fingers stroked his face; moved, he bent to kiss her again. And, even though whistles and catcalls echoed through the newsroom, he knew that neither of them cared.
They were in love, and love deserved to be shared.