By Michael Haney <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Rated: PG-13 for violence
Submitted: November 2004
Summary: Different back story, same old Lois and Clark romantic entanglements. This Elseworld tale pays homage to the original story of Superman while putting Clark in the center of a mystery that teams him up with a very distracting fellow reporter. The story starts in Smallville, but moves on into Metropolis where Superman must face Intergang, a rogues' gallery of villains, traumatic memories from the past and, most frightening of all, feelings for Lois Lane, who not only wants the story on Intergang, but also to know more about the mystery that is Clark Kent.
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman and all related characters are owned and copyrighted by DC Comics and Time-Warner. This is a work of fan fiction and no profit was gained from its creation.
The midday sun shone down brightly upon the Kansas countryside, providing the perfect temperature for a perfect summer day. Jonathan Kent took a break from his work installing a new section of fence along the property line of his farm and sat down on the tailgate of his old Ford pickup. He opened his canteen and took a drink of water while he enjoyed the very mild weather and looked around the farm.
Jonathan had grown up on this farm and had inherited ownership of it following his father's death several years ago. A small smile graced his face as he sat there looking out over the fields. He never ceased to gain a sense of peace when he was out alone somewhere on the farm performing some chore. It had even become a sort of therapy for him over the past couple of years since he and Martha had been having difficulty conceiving. Jonathan just wished he could share the peace he felt during these times with Martha.
As he sat there contemplating this Jonathan's reverie was interrupted by the arrival of his neighbor, Carl Tackett, on horseback.
"Hey, Carl," Jonathan said greeting the man. "I thought you'd be on your barn roof all day."
"Nah, too nice a day to be working. I decided to take the day off and exercise old Tonto here." Carl replied, patting his horse.
Jonathan laughed. "I'd have thought that a nice day would have been the best one to do roofing work."
"Not one as nice as this one. You need to learn to stop and smell the roses sometime, Jonathan. Otherwise, you'll spend all your life working and never get to appreciate the things you work for."
"You might be right, Carl, you might be right," Jonathan said. "Still, sometimes it's best to enjoy things after the work is done. Never can tell, maybe a rainstorm could be coming just around the corner."
"Trust me, Jonathan," Carl said, shaking his head, "there's nothing bad going on anywhere in the universe on a day like today."
Sweat dripped from the end of Jor-El's nose onto the warp core casing he was trying to fit into the small spacecraft. For the hundredth time that hour, he wiped a lubricant-stained hand across his face to remove the sweat that blurred his vision. He didn't need to check his chronometer to tell that the current groundquake had lasted longer than any of the previous ones. It was the seventh one that morning and easily the longest yet. Only the engineering of the building made it possible for him to continue working despite the upheaval below.
The ship on which he was now working was supposed to have been the test vehicle for his new warp drive, but the increase in seismic activity this morning had forced him to change his plans. He realized that he needed to abandon any hope of completing the larger craft and focus solely on making this smaller ship ready for an interstellar voyage.
His world was ending.
As Jor-El completed the last connection and closed the access panel, his attention was drawn by the cries of a small child. Turning around, he saw his wife, Lara, carrying their son toward him. She was attempting to calm him, but was having little luck, as she herself was unable to stop crying. Jor-El stopped for a moment and simply stared at his young wife and their child as she stopped near him and began to rock and sing softly trying to quiet the boy's fears.
They had had so many dreams, he and Lara, and far too little time together though he felt as though he had known and loved her for an eternity. The small child she held he loved still more, if that were possible. He wanted to rant at the heavens for the unfairness of it all, but knew he didn't have time for the luxury of self-pity. He was jousting against destiny today and the fates be damned he would not lose. Not this.
He stepped toward his young family and embraced them both for the last time. Looking into each other's eyes, the two spoke without the need for words and each drew strength from the other. Jor-El took his young son and placed him into the ship strapping the crying toddler into the acceleration chair. He leaned forward and placed a kiss on the child's cheek and touched his forehead with his own lingering for a moment as he tried to control his emotions.
"Rao be with you, my son," was his simple benediction before closing the canopy and joining his wife at the launch control.
An adjoining building suddenly collapsed as a fissure began to open on the far side of the street. Jor-El ignored the pandemonium as he stood with one arm around Lara staring at the ship for a moment before speaking.
"Live," he said as he brought his fist down like a hammer on the launch button.
The ship's engines ignited and it sprang from the rooftop just as the fissure reached the bottom of the building, causing it to list sideways and begin to collapse in upon itself.
The planet's atmosphere was quickly becoming choked with noxious smoke and fumes as more and more eruptions began to occur across its surface, opening new fissures and exposing the interior of the planet to the light of the sun. The radiation from the unstable core of the planet caused the smoke to take on a greenish hue which, lit by the fires that now scoured the surface of the planet, caused the planet to glow a sickly green color as smoke filled the atmosphere.
A tiny point of reflected light announced the exit of a tiny missile through the clouds. As it reached breakaway speed, the picture was shattered by the sudden detonation of the planet. The sound of the detonation itself ripped through what was left of the planet's atmosphere, but was quickly rendered impotent as it was swallowed by the void of space muffling the death screams of billions of individuals into silence.
The only witness to the incident was the young child, the last survivor of a once great civilization, who was the sole passenger of the small ship that struggled to outpace the rapidly spreading debris field. The child screamed for his mother in a now dead language as the sound of debris hitting the hull of the craft echoed through the darkness around him. He continued his futile screams until exhaustion overtook him and he fell asleep still gasping to catch his breath for his next tirade. The craft's experimental warp engine whined as it tore a hole in the fabric of space and accelerated through the artificial wormhole toward a distant point in the Spiral Arm of the galaxy followed by several pieces of the green glowing remnants of a now-dead world.
The orphan from the stars grew to adolescence on a farm in the mid-western section of a continent located on a planet hundreds of light-years from the one of his birth. Under the influence of his adopted world's yellow star his biology began to exhibit astounding advances. His physical and mental development outstripped any imagined by the people of either his adopted world or the one of his birth. Before he reached puberty, he was already more powerful than any being who had ever been born on a world whose history boasted the births of numerous powerful individuals.
His power, though, was tempered by lessons learned at the knee of two extraordinary people. Jonathan and Martha Kent had wanted a child since the moment they had said "I do" to each other. Biology, however, had proven to be a barrier that even their love could not overcome. After several years of trying, their doctor had been forced to tell them that conception simply was not possible. The news had been crushing to the couple, but they had born the burden together and came out the stronger as both individuals and as a couple because of it. After a difficult period of acceptance, the couple adjusted to the situation and began to continue their lives together. Then fate stepped in to provide them with a child from the heavens and they named him Clark.
Because of their situation, or perhaps in spite of it, Jonathan and Martha proved to be the perfect parents for a demigod toddler. They provided the perfect balance of patience, encouragement, and moral guidance. The boy's nature provided the rest. On that farm in Kansas, performing the everyday chores of the men and women who existed by the whims of nature, Clark learned the lessons that taught him to respect all life and its diversity. He also came to the conclusion that a being such as himself had some level of responsibility not to waste the gifts given to him by the vagaries of fate and perhaps he owed it to his adopted world to utilize them for the greater good.
Shortly before his thirteenth birthday, Clark approached his parents with his thoughts on how he could utilize his abilities. The three spent several evenings over supper discussing the matter and developing, discarding and refining plans. Finally, all were in agreement though each was somewhat nervous in his or her own way about the outcome. However, when Clark stepped out of his room for the first time wearing his brand new uniform of red, blue, and yellow, everything seemed right.
Clark took immediately to the role of superhero as if he was fulfilling the role that destiny had set for him. Superboy rapidly became a defining symbol of altruism and an inspiration to the world. Unfortunately, the more natural the role of Superboy grew the more unnatural the role of Clark Kent became.
In order to preserve his secret and maintain some measure of privacy and safety, it became necessary to differentiate between the two personas where the public was concerned. To help gain the trust of the public, all three of the Kents agreed that Superboy should not wear a mask. Openly showing his face would short-circuit many of the conspiracy theorists before they even started as it demonstrated that he had nothing to hide and meant that people wouldn't necessarily be looking for another identity as he was obviously not trying to hide his. The trouble was that, if he didn't wear a mask, then how could they keep him for being recognized as Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas?
To that end, a few months before Superboy made his public debut Clark Kent began wearing glasses and behaving a bit more timid and introverted. The latter was not much of a change because, due to the nature of his secrets, Clark and the Kents tended to keep to themselves anyway. They were friendly to everyone and would go out of their way to lend a hand to a neighbor, but didn't invite any "outsiders" into their own lives. Timid, however, was not something in the young Kryptonian's natural instincts and was often a difficult character trait to swallow.
Considering his incredible powers and astounding intellect, it was easy to forget that Clark was a teenager with all of the trials and tribulations attached. Indeed, when in the role of Superboy the majority of the public treated him like an adult, which sometimes made the transition back to plain, ordinary Ol' Clark all the more difficult. For Clark, pretending to be timid and having to suppress his natural tendencies and abilities for leadership half or more of the time was often a frustrating task. This became even more difficult when the thrill of being Superboy died down and Clark began to notice girls. Especially the girl next door, Lana Lang.
Clark and Lana's friendship had been steadfast since childhood, but their romantic relationship over the years was on and off at best. Often being more off than on. The necessity of disappearing at a moment's notice in order to deal with some emergency coupled with usually inconvenient timing and an inability to explain that same disappearance more often than not led to arguments and vows on Lana's part never to agree to go out with Clark again. Vows that Clark worked extremely hard to circumvent with every ounce of the "Kent charm" he could muster.
Lana usually gave into Clark because in truth she was interested and truly cared for him, but she tried each time to make it clear that she wanted a boyfriend and not just lip service to the idea. For his part, Clark wanted to be able to commit to Lana, but didn't yet feel comfortable enough to reveal his secrets. Part of him realized that soon he would be faced with the choices of adulthood and even more responsibilities with his alter ego. None of his options seemed to offer much for a relationship and he was hesitant to burden Lana with the responsibilities inherent with knowing the full truth while not being able to offer her a true future together.
But youth tends to lend itself to the belief that there will always be time to worry about things later, so when Clark screwed up yet another date with Lana he spent the next several weeks trying to convince her to give him yet *another* chance. He would not, he swore, mess up Homecoming.
The day of the dance, Clark spent a large part of his time scanning the news for reports of any incidents that might require his attention in the hopes that he could fix things quickly should they arise and hopefully leave his night free. Jonathan, seeing that any hopes of getting Clark's attention long enough to get any work done was fruitless, shoved him out the door with a laugh and told him to go on patrol so at least he would be of use to someone.
It seemed, however, like the entire world was at peace and Clark had performed only few interventions by the time he returned home to start getting ready.
Martha looked up at her son coming down the stairs in his rented tux and remarked, "My word, Clark, what are you dressed up for? Are you going someplace?" before continuing to set the table for dinner.
As his footsteps faltered and stopped on the staircase Martha looked up into his dumbfounded expression and deadpanned, "Oh, that's right, the Homecoming dance. I had completely forgotten because you hadn't really talked about it this week."
"Ha, ha," Clark said, realizing he was being ribbed and continuing down the stairs. "I haven't talked about it that much."
"No," Martha said, "I guess you really haven't. Only the few times you've come through the front door or came down the stairs, or…"
"I get the picture, Mom," Clark said with a grin.
"I was sure you would, son," Martha replied, unsuccessfully masking a grin as she continued about her business in the kitchen.
"Where's Dad?" Clark asked.
"Oh, he took the truck to get some feed at the store."
"The truck?! But I'm supposed to…" Clark stopped when he saw Martha's shoulders shaking with laughter as she kept her back to him.
"You're having wa-ay too much fun with this," Clark said with a sour look on his face.
"I'm sorry, son," Martha said, "but I haven't seen you this excited since you first put on your costume, and maybe not even then."
"Uniform," Clark corrected automatically and his expression soured even more as Martha's laughter increased to the point that she had to sit down at the table.
"I think I'll just go ahead and leave now before I cause you to accidentally injure yourself from too much laughter."
The ringing of the kitchen phone interrupted Martha's reply, and Clark picked up the receiver from its place on the wall.
"Lana," Clark said, smiling involuntarily and then freezing as possible reasons for her calling started to come to him.
"Is something wrong? Nothing's happened, has it?" he asked.
"No, I just wanted to make sure nothing was going on at your end either."
"Lana, I told you nothing was going to interfere this time. I'm going out the door right now, as a matter of fact. I figure I'm a health hazard to my mother at the moment and need to get out of here," he said, glancing at his mother, who had started laughing again.
"I've got the keys in my hand and I'll be over in just a couple of minutes. I promise, nothing's going to ruin tonight."
"Ok, I'll see you in a couple of minutes."
"Bye," Clark said and then replaced the receiver on the wall hook and gave his mom a quick kiss on the cheek."
"I won't be very late."
"I had no doubts about that. I just want to be warned if your father and I have to tether you to the bed tonight so we don't find you on the ceiling in the morning."
"Seriously, Mom. Letterman's not retiring for a while."
"Ok, Ok, I just wanted to remind you that you have a secret identity and floating while you and your date dance isn't the best way to keep it."
Clark chuckled and gave his mom a hug.
"Ok, maybe you can get Carson's job."
"And leave the glamour of Smallville? Not on your life."
Clark flashed his mom a final smile and headed out the door. Once he had started the truck and put it in gear, his hand automatically reached for the radio, but he stopped himself. Nothing had been happening up till now so he probably shouldn't tempt fate. Besides, he told himself, even a Superboy needed a night off every now and then.
Despite their early arrival, the school's gymnasium was already quite crowded.
"Clark, Lana!" a voice yelled at them from across the room as they entered the gym.
Turning toward the source of the yell, Clark saw his best friend, Pete Ross, coming toward them pulling his date, Jessica Drake, in his wake.
"I told Jessica that it wasn't a dumb idea to come early. Can you believe all of the people that are already here?"
"Yeah," replied Clark. "I guess everyone else had the same idea."
"Which makes no sense because nothing's even started," grumbled Jessica.
"Hey," Pete said, "it's the mingling portion of the evening. In a little while you won't even be able to hear yourself think, let alone talk to someone else."
"Yeah," added Lana, pointing toward one end of the gym. "Looks like the sound guy's already getting everything ready for the DJ."
The gym's speakers suddenly came to life and music played for three seconds before cutting off again to be replaced by a loud hiss from the system, which in turn was quickly shut off.
"Looks like it may be a bit before they do get it up and running, though," Clark said. "I think I'll take that moment to get some punch. You guys want anything?"
"No," Lana said and then added, giving Clark a pointed look, "just don't stray too far."
"Worry-wort," Clark said with a grin, which prompted a smirk from Lana.
Clark set off across the gym toward the table of refreshments near the DJ booth. The sound system came on and then went off twice more before he arrived at the table. A radio was sitting to one side tuned to a local radio station and the same song that the sound man was attempting to get right on the overhead system was coincidentally coming to an end just as Clark began pouring himself a glass of punch. Before he could start back toward his friends, however, his attention was drawn to the news report that came on after the song had ended.
*Repeating the lead news story of the hour, a 727 crashed shortly after take off from Chicago's O'Hare Airport a short while ago. The plane went down in a residential area and now the neighborhood of…*
Not going was never even an option. A plane crash was always serious work and, considering the involvement of a residential neighborhood, he shuddered to think how many homes and lives were involved. He looked back toward Lana and the others, but stopped himself before he could head back over to them. He didn't even have time to come up with a decent excuse anyway. Every second counted, especially since he was getting the news late. If only he had turned on the truck radio when he'd started to. If only. And he was going to be leaving Lana in the lurch. Again.
He was in uniform and airborne seconds after hearing the news and crossing the Illinois border seconds after that. His personal life would have to take a back seat to more important matters. Enough people had already been hurt because of his lack of attention.
While Pete focused his conversation on Jessica, Lana took a look around the gym. Where was Clark? It had been almost ten minutes and he still wasn't back. He wasn't near the punch bowl and she couldn't locate him in the crowd anywhere.
"Hey," Jessica suddenly said, "what happened to Clark?"
Lana, caught off guard by the question, the same one that she had just been asking herself, was at a loss for words.
"Uh…I'm sure he probably had to go to the bathroom or something," Pete stammered. "Heck, knowing how clumsy Clark is, he probably spilled the punch all over himself. I'm sure he'll be right back."
Something in the way Pete said that made Lana look at him closely. He and Clark were often thick as thieves and sometimes Lana got the feeling that Pete knew a lot more about Clark's sudden disappearances than he let on. Thinking back, she could remember several times when Pete came to the rescue with some type of excuse for Clark. Oftentimes it was also a totally different excuse than Clark himself told when he finally showed back up again. Was Pete just being a good friend trying to cover up for Clark's behavior, or was there more to it?
Even as she was thinking this, Lana found herself saying, "Yeah, I'm sure he'll be back soon. Clark never disappears for long."
The more she thought about it, the more the wheels of her imagination began to turn and an old suspicion began to rise. It couldn't be, could it? She'd had the thought in the past, but had always been proven wrong. If it was true, though, she had a lot of serious thinking to do in terms of this relationship.
"Yeah," Pete agreed. "Clark will probably be back long before they even get that darn sound system working."
Jonathan Kent snapped awake at 12:20 AM, but couldn't figure out what had awoken him. Being careful not to wake Martha, he slipped out of bed and started downstairs. Feeling strangely awake for such a late hour, he figured he would make a sandwich and perhaps drink some milk to help him get back to sleep. As he started past the living room, he became aware of an acrid smell and realized he wasn't alone.
Flipping on the light switch, he found Clark sitting alone in the dark wearing his Superboy uniform. His clothing and face were smeared with dirt and what looked like grease. His face and eyes were red and it looked as if he had been crying.
"My God, Clark, what's wrong?" Jonathan said quickly, crossing to kneel by his son's side.
"216 people died tonight because I wanted to have a date."
"A plane crashed in Chicago tonight. 187 people were on board and 29 were on the ground. 103 men, 96 women and 17 children ranging from age 2 to 15."
Clark delivered this information in a monotone, as if reciting something from a book. What worried Jonathan the most, though, was that his face held almost no expression and he never once made eye contact.
"I'm sorry, Clark, but I'm not sure what you mean about it being your fault."
"I didn't hear about it until it was too late to do anything except contain the fires and recover the bodies."
"Then how is it your fault?"
"I purposely didn't hear about it. I avoided the radio and the news because I thought I deserved a date without interruption."
"Clark, you listened to the news all day. You went out of your way to try to find out information about anything bad happening in the world."
"Not when I got in the truck today. Once I left to pick up Lana, I purposely made sure I didn't get interrupted. All because I felt I 'deserved' some time off."
The venom Clark infused into the word "deserved" gave Jonathan pause. He had heard his son angry before, but not quite so bitter.
"Clark, son, there's nothing wrong with feeling that you should have some time for yourself. You work incred…"
"Those people deserved to live," Clark said, interrupting his father, his voice rising, and turning to meet Jonathan's eyes for the first time.
"Those people deserved to not burn to death. Those children deserved to grow up and have lives. Those people…DESERVED…to not die in pain and fear because their hero was too concerned about himself to remember what his responsibilities were."
Jonathan rocked back on his feet, startled at the anger in Clark's tone. He understood Clark's feelings, but he hated seeing his son tear himself up like this.
"Son…" Jonathan started calmly, but was interrupted.
"No, Dad," Clark said, holding his hand up and bringing his voice back under control. "Nothing's going to make me feel better about this. I know I'm being hard on myself and I know I can't be everywhere at once, but if I hadn't been out tonight the odds are that I probably would have heard about it a lot sooner. The simple truth is that the choices I make affect the lives of others."
Clark dropped his head back down and took a deep breath before continuing.
"And I left Lana again. I didn't even have time to tell her that I had to leave and then once I got there the fire had spread throughout a housing development and it was hours before I could get away. The people who died tonight suffered because I chose to go to a dance and Lana suffered because I choose to live the life I do. And she doesn't even know why she's suffering."
"Are you going to tell her?" Jonathan asked.
Clark let out an exasperated sigh and shook his head.
"No. As much as I hate her not knowing, tonight made it obvious what my choice needs to be where our relationship is concerned and I can't burden her with knowledge only to walk away."
"Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
"No, it's not what I want to do, but it's what I have to do. How many times has she broken up with me only to have me talk her into getting back together and then doing the same thing to her all over again?"
"Maybe knowing might make a difference in how she handles things," Jonathan suggested.
Clark looked up at Jonathan, cocking one eyebrow.
"I know, I know," Jonathan said. "It's not natural for me to suggest giving up 'the secret', I'm just saying, 'what if?'"
A bittersweet smile graced Clark's lips for a moment, but then he shook his head.
"It doesn't matter how she'd handle things. I'd still have to go and I'd still be leaving her. It's not right for me to do that over and over again to someone and ask them to wait. She deserves a life."
"And what do you 'deserve'?"
Clark's answer came without hesitation.
"To be true to myself. To be able to look at myself in the mirror and not be ashamed of what I see. There's an old saying about staring into the abyss only to see it staring back at you. I want to be able to do that and not blink once. That's what I deserve and I won't be able to do it as long as I'm hurting everyone around me because of a lie."
Jonathan took a deep breath before continuing. He realized that it was a waste of time to try talking Clark out of this action at the current time, so all that was left was to give him the most support that he could.
"When are you going to tell her?"
"Tonight if she's still up. It won't take me but a few seconds to shower and change. Tomorrow if she isn't up and is still speaking to me."
"I'll wait up."
"Dad," Clark replied, starting to shake his head again, "you don't…"
"I'll wait up," Jonathan said again more firmly.
"Thanks," Clark said after a moment.
He stood and gave Jonathan a quick embrace before heading up the stairs.
Lana was sitting on her porch swing when Clark arrived.
"I figured you'd be by tonight so I waited up," she said by way of greeting.
"Did you get home alright?" he asked, taking a seat beside her.
"Pete brought me after it became obvious that you weren't coming back. I wasn't in much of a partying mood after that."
"I'm sorry," Clark said, dropping his head and closing his eyes for a moment to gather his courage.
"I know," Lana said, surprising him with the empathy she put into those words.
"You do?" Clark asked, glancing up at her in surprise.
"Clark," Lana said, "we've known each other for a long time. We've been friends and more than friends. I know I've been angry with you in the past for disappearing, but it finally came to me tonight that I know you well enough to know that you don't do it to hurt me and that you're a good enough person that you don't do anything without good reason. So, when you disappeared tonight, I started thinking about what it meant and decided that maybe I just need to give you the benefit of the doubt. The question is, do I want to be with you or not, and if I do is it worth all of the inconveniences attached?"
Clark looked at her expectantly, too surprised to speak. Taking his silence as consent to continue, she began speaking again.
"I do want to be with you, Clark. I realize that there are…certain things in your life that you have to do because of…who you are and that because of that there are going to be times when you aren't going to be there when I want you to be."
Lana turned toward Clark and took his hand.
"But, Clark, the main thing is that we have one another in each other's lives and that's worth whatever pain your absences cause. I want us to have a future together no matter the good or the bad because I know you'll be there when it really matters."
Clark stared at Lana, unsure of how to proceed and totally off balance by the whirlwind of thoughts in his head. She knew, or at least strongly suspected, that much was pretty obvious. But her knowing wasn't that big a surprise considering her past suspicions and his constant disappearing act. The most surprising thing was that here she was saying something that a week or even a day ago Clark would have turned cartwheels to have heard, but now he was the beneficiary of newfound wisdom that made her proclamations bittersweet.
"Lana," he started, at first dropping his gaze, unable to meet her eyes, but finally forcing himself to "I appreciate what you've just said, more than words. But the truth of the matter is that I won't be there when it matters. I'll leave you again and again and again and I can't live with the pain that I'll cause you each time I go. You deserve a full time 'someone' rather than a part-time 'something' and a something is all I can ever be because I could never give you a hundred percent of myself."
"No, Lana. I've thought a lot about this and I've been selfish to keep dragging you back into a relationship where I hurt you over and over again. I love you, but in this case love might not be enough. Or maybe it is. Enough to make me see that I'll never be what you deserve and I can't bear to be the one you'll one day grow to resent because in the end I can't give you the thing you deserve most. Me."
"But, Clark, I understand why you can't always be there. I know you're…"
Clark put his hand to her lips and stopped her from speaking.
"Then you know that part of me will always be elsewhere, Lana. You don't deserve that and neither do I. I've been dividing myself and each time I've brought you pain has made it that much more difficult to continue on with that other part of me. And I can't neglect that part, Lana."
Lana opened her mouth to speak, but then bit her lower lip and dropped her head, tears beginning to flow from her eyes. Clark stared at her for a moment, drinking in her very essence, and then finally stood.
"'I'm sorry' doesn't even begin to be adequate, Lana, but I am."
He turned and started down the steps, but stopped at the bottom. He opened his mouth to speak, but finally dropped his head and continued into the darkness.
Jonathan Kent sat at the kitchen table as promised when Clark arrived home, but didn't speak for a moment as Clark sank down in the chair opposite him.
"Here, you look like you need this," Jonathan said as he slid a glass of chocolate milk toward Clark.
One side of Clark's mouth quirked up at that, but he didn't speak as he picked the glass up and took a drink.
"How was it?" Jonathan asked.
"Like tearing my arm off," Clark replied.
"Are you sure it's worth it, then?"
"Looking at those people tonight was like tearing my soul out so, yeah, it was the lesser of two evils."
"No chance for middle ground?"
Clark sat there for a moment, pondering how to put into words the concepts that had been rocketing through his brain since he sat on Lana's porch.
"It's not just dividing my attention between her and my duties, it's more than that. I finally saw that tonight."
Jonathan sat quietly with his chin rested on his hand. His silence urged Clark to continue.
"Lana told me she was willing to accept me for what I am and that she wanted a future together."
Jonathan raised an eyebrow at that, but still didn't speak.
"She knows, by the way," Clark added nonchalantly.
Both eyebrows went up at that point.
"She admitted as much, but I never out and out confirmed things. It didn't seem to matter at that point. But when she started talking about the future it finally hit me. It wasn't just dividing myself between a relationship and Superboy, it was that she really didn't know what she was accepting."
"I'm not sure I know what you mean," Jonathan said.
"People look at the uniform and the flashy powers and all they see is the adventurous super-hero. They don't comprehend the full picture. I may look human, but I'm not. I'm the last surviving specimen of an alien species. I don't even know if I can have children with a human. Regardless of this crazy life I've chosen, I don't even know what my life expectancy is. The moment I sat foot upon this world my entire biology began to change and there's never been a test case to let me know what the long term effects will be. I could be killed by Mordru tomorrow or I could live to be hundreds if not thousands of years old. I might never age or I might age at a normal rate and eventually become a super-powered Alzheimer's patient. What kind of future could I truly offer someone?"
Jonathan sat back in his chair. Clark had just voiced many of the thoughts he had secretly had himself, but was always too afraid to speak aloud.
"In the end," Clark continued, "the truth is that I really can't offer anyone anything. My mind will always be on the job and I won't be able to offer anything but a partial relationship, and the part I can offer is tainted by too many questions with no guarantees. And, to be totally honest, I have to ask myself if I would really be strong enough to watch someone I love slowly grow old and die all the while thinking that they are resenting me because I can't. Or afraid that they're only staying with me out of some misplaced sense of loyalty because I had crushed all of their dreams of a normal life and future before we even got started. I can't do that to someone or to myself."
"But you're going to end up alone that way," Jonathan said.
"No I won't, Dad," Clark replied and, at Jonathan's puzzled expression, added, "I have you and Mom."
Jonathan's expression softened and he replied "But what happens when your mom and I are no longer here?"
"With any luck that's something my mature and wise 70 year old brain can ponder on when and if it finally happens," Clark said with a small smile.
Jonathan laid his hand on top of his son's, but remained silent, providing comfort with just his presence. Sometimes even the best parent was at a loss to help their children solve the big problems or answer the tough questions. He hoped Clark would come to his senses and realize that no man was an island, but he knew that Clark wasn't in any frame of mind to listen to that sort of advice now. And in truth though he knew Clark was wrong he really didn't have a good argument to counter his logic at the moment. The fact of the matter was that Clark's responsibilities would be a burden on whoever his partner may be and she'd have to be an extraordinary individual to shoulder it. Hopefully, though, Clark was right and he and Martha would be there until he met that person. He hated the thought of his son being alone, especially after a day like today when he needed someone to talk to.
But sometimes even adults tend toward the belief that there will always be time to worry about things later and unfortunately, sometimes there isn't.
1 year later…
In stark contrast to an occasion that cried out for rain, the sun was bright in the sky and the weather as beautiful and any seen in Kansas over the past two decades. It was the kind of weather that might make some swear that nothing bad could be happening anywhere. Unfortunately, as always, such predictions rarely held true in real life.
Clark Kent stood at the graveside of his adoptive parents, watching silently as they lowered his father into his final resting-place beside his wife, who had preceded him in death by only three days. For the second time in his life, the child from the stars found himself an orphan. The mysterious illness that had claimed the elder Kents had been as sudden as it was deadly. They had returned from a vacation in the Bahamas only a little over a month earlier and the first symptoms had appeared soon after that. Clark had consulted with the finest medical minds both on and off Earth, but not one of them could identify the malady or retard its rapid advance through Martha and Jonathan's systems. In the end, all Clark could do was watch helplessly as the two most important people in his life slowly slipped away.
He nodded his head and numbly answered each well-wisher as they passed by the grave, paying their last respects and stopping briefly to speak with Clark. He was aware of Martin Lang's presence long before he felt the older man's hand rest itself upon his shoulder as he approached Clark from behind. Clark was also aware of Martin's daughter, Lana, who had approached along with her father and now slid her hand into his.
"You're still coming to supper with us, aren't you, Clark?" Martin Lang asked.
"I'm not sure, Professor," Clark answered. "There's still a lot of things that need to be done around the house."
"Nothing that can't wait, Clark. You just buried your parents. Now's not the time to start isolating yourself."
"Yes sir, Professor Lang," Clark replied meekly, giving Lana's hand a small answering squeeze and smiling slightly at her.
"Besides," Martin continued, "I'm anxious to hear about your college plans. I understand you've corrupted my daughter into looking at journalism rather than a nice solid career in academia."
"Dad-dy…" Lana began, rolling her eyes.
"Tut, tut, dear," Professor Lang said, his hand still on Clark's shoulder beginning to guide him away from the graveside. "You obviously missed my comments on the virtues of tenure and summers off."
Clark smiled politely at their banter, recognizing it for the attempt it was to distract him from slipping into a pit of despair. They needn't have worried, he could have told them. He was raised better than that. He owed all the people who had called themselves his parents better than that. Superboy had a responsibility to the world and responsibility shouldn't be side tracked by self-pity. His parents, Clark told himself, had always reminded him to be mindful of his responsibilities and look toward the future and that was exactly what he intended to do. He silently vowed not to surrender to despair and willingly allowed himself to be led from the graveside.
Despite his thoughts to the contrary, though, Clark was consciously trying to ignore the feeling that was winding up his spine as the sight of the casket being lowered into the grave tickled at some long forgotten memory and left him wanting to jump out of his own skin. As he left the graveside, his phenomenal hearing picked up the sound of dirt and rock bouncing off the coffin and, hidden behind a polite expression, he fought the urge to scream.
Graduation Day has historically been a time for celebration. This year's graduating class from Metropolis University saw no reason to challenge tradition and so, once the final speaker of the graduation ceremony ended his oration with his congratulations and good luck wishes, the class erupted into a collective cheer and made ready for the evening's festivities. Everyone, that was, except for one departing senior who, though he rose from his seat with the rest of his class, did not join in the screaming celebration.
Clark Kent took a moment to appreciate the beauty of the day and to take in the cheering crowd before breaking into a soft smile and beginning to walk away from the field heading back to his dorm. His smile faltered somewhat as he began weaving around hugging families and shouts of congratulations. He immediately clamped down on his initial feelings of gloom, reminding himself that his father had always taught him that there was never a good time to feel sorry for yourself, and even though his parents had been gone for four years their lessons had never left him.
"Grow or die," his father had always told him. "Creatures who fail to learn that lesson don't survive very long, Clark," Jonathan Kent had said as he and Clark sat side by side on a fence overlooking their farm late one summer afternoon when Clark was ten. "Things change. It's not a good thing or a bad thing; it's just change. You have to adjust to them because they won't adjust to you. If you spend all of your time wishing for what was you miss the opportunities of what could be. There are always possibilities, Clark. Don't limit your options just because you don't like the circumstances. Grow. You do that and you'll never disappoint your mother or me and more importantly, you'll never disappoint yourself."
Jonathan Kent had been a simple farmer all of his life, but Clark knew that, no matter what he did in life, he could count himself lucky if his wisdom even came close to equaling that of that "simple farmer." Clark stopped for a moment to say a silent thank you to the couple that he knew were somewhere watching him and resolved once again to never let them down. His smile returned even brighter than before and he continued on his way. He had arranged for an apartment in the city some weeks ago and packing still needed to be completed so that he could be out of the dorm by the end of the day. Monday morning he had an interview with Perry White of the Daily Planet. Then he would explore those possibilities his father had always told him about.
Superman became aware of the apartment building fire while still several miles away from Metropolis. As was always his habit, he had tuned his hearing to the nearest radio with an emergency band when he entered Metropolis's airspace. He had just spent the day investigating rumors of a vigilante targeting high profile criminals operating on the East Coast and most of the evening dealing with an earthquake outside Tokyo. Returning home, he had hoped for a quick shower and a little reading to help him relax from a long day at both of his jobs.
Four years, a couple of journalistic awards and many adventures after graduation, Clark had found himself one of the Planet's rising stars. He prided himself on his writing and enjoyed it whenever a story was won through his writing and tenacity in going after a story rather than through any use of his powers. It also helped to take the sting out of what he still considered as cheating to get the job in the first place.
Perry White had been a wonderful man to deal with during their interview, quickly making Clark feel at ease and encouraging him to talk about himself and what he felt he could offer the Daily Planet. Clark could easily see why White was considered one of the nation's foremost journalists because his easygoing manner made Clark feel that he could open up to him about anything. Well, almost anything, anyway. However, at the end of interview, Perry had used those same skills to lessen the blow as he told Clark that there wasn't a place for him at the Planet.
"Son, the Daily Planet is the best newspaper in the world. Read in every country in the free world and some that aren't. I like your stuff. You have a great style and show potential, but I can't put someone with your limited experience on the city beat when there are more experienced reporters out there who would kill for a chance to work here."
"Mr. White, I don't expect to jump right into investigative reporting. I know I lack experience and I'll have to work my way up, but like you said I have talent. I know I can do the job and I know that I have what it takes to keep doing the job. And where could I get better experience than here? You could train me the way you want me to be trained and not deal with bad habits brought on from years working at inferior newspapers."
Perry had actually smiled at that and sat for a moment in silence, seeming to consider Clark's argument.
"I know what you're saying, son. Hell, I even agree to a point. I did exactly that with a girl two years ago and have never had the first time to regret my decision. But I knew her. She had been interning here since high school and all though college and, even more importantly, when she came for her interview she came with goods already in hand. A major league story worthy of a veteran. That kind of initiative is what makes the Planet what it is. But I don't have anything to justify taking that chance with you."
"What kind of story would convince you?" was Clark's immediate response.
White had appeared momentarily stunned by Clark's intense manner, but a smile begin to crawl slowly across his face and his eyes gained an eagerness as he leaned forward to answer.
Perry settled back in his chair and thought for a moment. "You're from Smallville, right?"
"Yes, sir," Clark replied beginning to get a sinking feeling.
"One of your fellow townspeople began making regular appearances in our fair city a few years ago."
"Superboy," Clark said, as though stating a fact, not asking a question.
"Yes, Superboy. Now since the time he made his debut he's been seen all over the globe taking care of problems, but its always been pretty clear that his base of operations was the mid-west and probably close to if not Smallville itself. Now about four years ago he's suddenly on hand for every mugging and gang fight that takes place within Metropolis' city limits. The question that comes to mind is why? Why is Metropolis suddenly ground zero for Superboy's activities?"
"Maybe he just wanted a change of pace, Mr. White. Metropolis is the world's biggest city. Surely you have a more interesting story in mind than just a celebrity's choice of homes?"
White raised his eyebrows with that. "Don't make me take back my compliments, Kent. An alien from another planet with the power to change the course of rivers and who has taken it upon himself to become the defender of truth, justice, and the American way has radically changed his pattern of behavior. That's more than just some celebrity changing houses. That's news, big news. When it first became apparent that he was operating primarily from Metropolis I put some people on it, but got nothing for my trouble. I even called some people at the Smallville Press figuring I could cash in on some hometown nostalgia on Superboy's part. Again, I came up with nothing. You bring me the story of why he made the change and I'll hand you your letter of employment. Deal?"
Clark sat silently for a moment, cursing quietly to himself, but finally stood up and took the older man's offered hand.
Clark had returned home that day and one week later, after a lot of soul-searching, moralizing and out and out angst-ridden conversations with himself, he walked back into Perry White's office carrying his "interview" with Superboy.
Clark had taken a lot of time with that interview because he wanted to make sure that certain points came across in certain ways. He had researched Metropolis crime statistics for several years back so he could claim that it was the increased awareness of urban crime which had prompted his relocation. Additionally, he stated his desire to be near the hub of global communication as Superboy was becoming more conscious of his standing in the world community. Both of these reasons were true in their own way, but left out the vital fact of his dual identity and desire for a job in journalism. Clark had also taken the opportunity to inform the world that referring to a twenty-something male as "boy" was probably no longer appropriate. From then on he was known as Superman.
As Superman dropped though the city sky toward the blaze, he quickly scanned the area and determined the positions of everyone in a two square block radius. Realizing that several people were still trapped in the burning building and in immediate need of assistance, he couldn't take the time to stop and speak with the fire-chief on the scene. In a split second, every window and door in the building ceased to exist and Superman began to fly circles around the building, varying his altitude from ground level to the height of the building itself.
Under normal circumstances, opening the building up to more oxygen would have been a mistake, as it would have fed the fire. Superman, however, was quickly creating a low-pressure system outside and the air was immediately sucked out of the building as nature tried to equalize the pressure both inside and out, causing the fire to die away.
Then came the arduous task of removing the survivors without upsetting an already unstable building. A quick scan told Superman the location of those in need of immediate medical attention and those he grabbed first and transported to awaiting EMS vehicles. The rest he left to the firemen as he busied himself shoring up the building's faltering supports in an effort to prevent its collapse under its own weight.
After the last survivor was removed and Superman had assured himself that the building wouldn't suddenly collapse once he looked the other way, he turned to the most unpleasant duty of recovering the bodies of those not lucky enough to escape. A fire this size almost always claimed several lives unless Superman was on the scene almost immediately after it started. Even after years of functioning in his superhero role, Clark still had difficulty reconciling himself as to those things he had no control over. He inevitably wound up playing the "if only" game with himself and berating himself for not moving just a bit faster, for not being aware of things just a moment sooner. He knew it was an exercise in futility because no one, no matter who they were, could be in every place at once, but the voice that told him this was a small one and was easily drowned out by the shouts of his guilt.
Attempting to take his mind off of the gruesome duty, he began composing his story in his mind. He would talk with the chief once the bodies were removed and find out if he had any idea what had caused the blaze. If nothing else, he consoled himself that perhaps, by writing a story outlining the events leading up to the fire, he would be able to make people more aware of potential dangers that could be avoided in the future.
What Clark didn't realize was that another Daily Planet reporter was on the scene and having the same thoughts. Under normal circumstances Clark made a point of scanning the spectators for his fellow reporters so as not to duplicate work or have to explain how he got a story without his co-workers being aware of his presence. It was a testament to his physical and mental exhaustion that he failed to do so in this case. Especially since it involved a reporter who truly detested being beaten to a story in general and by Clark Kent in particular.
Clark's Superman interview had not only won him employment, but had also, to his private shame, garnered him that year's Merriwether Award for excellence in journalism. It had also won him the enmity of several of his co-workers who had worked on the same story to no avail over the past few years. One of them being "the girl" that Perry stated he had taken the chance on two years ago, Lois Lane.
Lois was also a graduate of MU, but despite their shared major Clark could only recall sharing one class with her and having only one fleeting interaction during a classroom discussion, even at that. Classes at MU were so large that sharing a class meant about as much as not sharing one at all if the two people involved never had any direct interaction. Most journalism majors did some work for the school newspaper at one time or other during their time at MU, but Clark's other "duties" had kept that to a minimum on his part so he had never encountered her directly there either. When Clark started at the Planet all he knew about Lois was through her reputation and through a single personal impression gained from brief observations during their one shared class. Clark knew that Lois Lane made him nervous.
The problem was that Clark didn't know why she made him nervous. He was the single most powerful being on the planet and had dealt with intergalactic invaders, heads of state, and power mad villains without batting an eye. The first time he had laid eyes on her he felt almost as if his mind had become separated from his body and he had difficulty making his muscles obey his mind's commands. For a moment, he was put in mind of the feeling he had when Lana Lang surprised him with a kiss after walking her home from school when they were 13. He quickly dismissed the idea because he had never even spoken to this girl, let alone walked her anywhere, and it was darned silly to begin mooning over a perfect stranger when he had other responsibilities to attend to. He promptly put her out of his mind and actively proceeded to ignore future sensations as they occurred when he saw her.
But, several years later, sitting at his brand-new desk adjusting to the fact that he was now a paid member of the news media, he had reason to recall all of those encounters.
Clark Kent grew up in a world of constant stimuli. He could watch cells divide or stand spectator to the incredible impacts between asteroids near Mars. He could also hear conversations across the room or across the city as he chose. Clark was constantly aware of all things around him and as such was immediately aware when a pair of legs drew up short beside his desk as he was bent over retrieving a pencil that had rolled off onto the floor.
"How did you do it, Kent?" asked a feminine voice with a marked edge to it.
Looking up, Clark's vaunted state of awareness shut down and his mouth became decidedly dry as he found himself staring into the eyes of Lois Lane herself. He also found that he was experiencing that same long-ago sensation of disassociation of mind from body.
"Golly, with that kind of wit I guess it's obvious how you scooped all of the other, more experienced reporters. We never stood a chance."
"The Superman story, Smallville. How did you land it? Good Ol' Boy network? You and he used to drink beer and swap NASCAR stories on top of the old windmill?"
"I don't…I mean he doesn't…" Clark began to stammer, feeling out of control, but fighting to maintain some semblance of intelligence. He finally steadied himself and decided on a neutral statement. "Superman doesn't drink beer."
Lois dropped her head in exasperation. "I didn't mean that literally, you idiot. I want to know how a newbie scored an interview that the rest of us have tried to get since the Big Red "S" hit town. Was it just because he knew you from back home?"
"Well, sure, I'd met him a couple of times, but…"
"So the rest of us bust our humps trying to practice 'journalism' and you strut in here with a story and a new job because you just happen to be lucky enough to know the subject."
Clark was slowly starting to come to himself and, despite his feelings of guilt about using his alter ego to get a job, he found himself becoming annoyed at Lois's accusations.
"However I got the interview, Ms. Lane," Clark said, stressing her name, "I had to ask the questions and write the article. If it wasn't journalism, I doubt Mr. White would have printed it on the front page of the Planet. If you have any further problem beyond that, I suggest you take it up with him."
Lois's eyes had widened slightly at Clark's biting statement and then a slight smile appeared on her lips.
"Well, at least there's a backbone in there somewhere. It was difficult to tell, what with you wearing your father's suit and all."
Turning away from his desk, she continued, "Welcome to the Planet, Kent. You get in my way over a story again and I'll plant a size seven shoe in the middle of that backbone or parts slightly south." She glanced briefly over her shoulder and shot Clark a wink before walking back across the newsroom.
Clark sat in silence and opened and closed his mouth a couple of times without being able to form a reply before she disappeared. He wasn't sure if he had just been threatened or flirted with and also wasn't sure which one made him the most nervous.
No matter how many times Lois saw Superman in action, it never failed to leave her utterly amazed. The MFD had been at work on the fire for over an hour before Superman had gotten there and it had been extinguished within sixty seconds of his arrival. However, in the past few years after she had been able to observe him in action several times close up, she had discovered that his powers weren't actually the most amazing thing about him. It was his sheer presence.
Standing behind the police line, Lois was able to observe Superman as he interacted with the various emergency workers. He moved among them with an unselfconscious assurance and confidence and they in turn seemed to accept him as one of their own without question. Men several years his senior treated him with deference and his very presence seemed to inspire a more serious atmosphere and a greater attention to decorum. A living, breathing angel walked among them and no one was going to be the individual who failed to give 150%.
Normally one who appreciated the wry, vagaries of life, Lois sometimes found it strange that she didn't find it particularly amusing that emergency workers seemed to stand a bit straighter as he passed. It was probably because she had caught herself doing it as well a few times and understood the awe and inspiration this man engendered in all he encountered. You wanted to do your best when he was around, not just because you didn't want to disappoint him, but because he made you feel that you could do anything.
Besides awe, it was also obvious that his presence gave people comfort. Not just because he made them feel safe, but because the very benevolence of his nature was apparent as the "S" on his chest. It was like Santa Claus, Spring, and chocolate ice cream all wrapped into one package, she had thought to herself once in a sugar-induced fit of poetic creativity.
Lois spotted Ben Thomas, a fireman and current inspector with the MFD whom she had known since childhood, standing off to one side watching the Man of Steel and moved though the crowd toward him.
"He's amazing to watch, isn't he?" she said as she reached his side.
"LoLo!" Ben exclaimed. "Long time no see."
Lois rolled her eyes in mock exasperation at Ben's use of her childhood nickname.
Ben laughed at his own joke and Lois's reaction before replying to her earlier question.
"Yeah, he's something else. Amazes me how he does it."
Something in the way Ben said that made Lois think he was referring to more than just Superman's display of powers. Somewhat surprised to hear her private musings voiced aloud by another, she chose to play dumb to see if Ben had been thinking the same thing she had in regards to the Man of Steel.
"Well," Lois commented, "it probably helps being a walking solar battery that can't be harmed by mortal man."
Ben rolled his eyes this time and barked a short laugh.
"That's not what I mean, wisenheimer. Look," Ben said, pointing at a younger fireman standing over by one of the other trucks taking a quick break to grab a drink of water. "That's Steve Wilson. He's a rookie to the MFD, been with us six or seven months now. Worked a few fires out in the burbs where he started out, but he's new to the high rise environment of Metropolis. I just watched Superman volunteer to clear one of the rooms just so Steve wouldn't have to see the dead bodies that were in there."
"Nice of him," Lois said, "but that's the kind of compassion we've learned to expect from him over the past few years."
"Yeah, but look at Steve and then look at Superman. Steve's probably got a couple of years on him. He may be new to the MFD, but he's been in the business a few years."
Ben leaned back against the fire truck and took a deep breath, seeming to look inward for a second before he continued.
"I once had to cut a ten-year old out of a burnt-up car just so his parents would have something to bury. I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with that image in my head. Superman has been doing this since he was what? Thirteen? And he still jumps in on a daily basis and takes the time to worry about how the sight of a body is going to affect a man who chose this as a career. That's what's amazing. I've seen fires, car wrecks, and industrial accidents. He's seen that plus war, famine, and God only know what, and he still wants to help and he still worries about the feelings of others."
Lois felt a lump form in her throat at the large man's open frankness, and laid a hand on his arm to convey support to her old friend.
"I just wonder what images he has in his head that wake him up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night," Ben added, looking into the distance.
The comment took Lois by surprise. She'd never thought about how things like that affected Superman. After all, he was…well, Superman. Lois was thoughtful for a few moments before she spoke.
"Yeah, I guess he is pretty amazing. Makes you realize how fortunate we are that he's the one who ended up on this planet."
"Yeah," Ben replied, "have to wonder how he holds it together though. If I didn't have the other guys to blow off steam with I'd go nuts."
"What do you mean?" Lois asked.
"Everyday people have no idea what we go though," Ben said. "I don't mean you, LoLo, you've been around, but the average guy on the street hasn't a clue. We all know what the score is and we know when things reach a boiling point in the station house. We joke and prank around and after a fire like this or any accident with severe injuries or a death the department even has some guys come in to do an incident debriefing."
"Incident debriefing?" Lois interrupted to ask.
"Yeah, it's called a critical incident stress debriefing or CISD. A team made up of firemen, police, medics, etc. usually with someone specializing in mental health. They come around after an incident like this and we talk about what happened. It's not a time to second-guess things or play the 'What if' game, it's just a time to talk about what happened and helps you process all of the stuff going on in your head. I could have really used it in that situation with the kid back when I was a rookie. It sure works great now."
"I just wonder how he," Ben said, nodding toward Superman, "handles things like that. You know he sees terrible stuff all of the time. Heck, considering that he covers the entire world in a given day, he may see that kind of stuff every day. But he still keeps a positive attitude and he keeps coming back for more. Like I said, amazing."
"How long do you think one of your guys could function that way?" Lois asked.
"Oh, hell, LoLo," Ben said, shaking his head, "it's hard to say. We got along for years without the CISD teams. But any emergency service worker, fireman, cop, EMT, or whatnot will tell you that we have the highest burnout and suicide rates in any profession. I know I handle things a whole lot better now and I was one of the ones who made fun of the whole process when the department started using them a few years back. So, long answer short, not sure how long one would last, but I bet the rookies we're putting on the streets today will last a lot longer because of them."
"But how long can a Superman last?" Lois said, almost to herself.
"I guess that would depend on what he has at home, LoLo," Ben said. "Does he go home to a supportive family or friends? Does he have his own version of a CISD team back at that fortress you've written about? Or maybe he just spends a lot of money on therapy."
"Yeah," Lois said, "that is the question. What does he go home to?"
Clark came through the window of his apartment at superspeed and slowed as he passed his couch, but remained floating several inches off the floor as he headed for the bathroom. He was uniformly covered with soot from head to foot and his mother had taught him enough as a child not to track dirt into the house.
Entering the bathroom, he pulled off his uniform and tossed it into the hamper before entering the shower. Under normal circumstances, Clark could take a shower in a matter of seconds, but tonight he slowed to human speed or perhaps somewhat slower and simply allowed the water to wash over him as he stood with his head bowed and one arm braced against the wall for balance.
Twenty minutes later, he stepped out of the shower and toweled off. Putting on his robe, he entered the living room and crossed over to a desk with a computer and sat down. People who visited Clark's apartment were few and far between, but the ones who did always remarked about how clean and tidy everything was. Clark always thanked them politely, but would remark to himself that cleanliness was easy when one was seldom home. Between his two "jobs," he did little including sleep at his apartment. He mainly used it as a place to keep his belongings and to write the story of any of his activities that were newsworthy. Booting up his computer, he began to do exactly that. Writing the story about the fire and "quoting" Superman in a few places, as well as the few speculations that the firemen had voiced to him and not pointed out to be kept confidential.
When he was finished, he transmitted the story to the Planet's server for the night editor to review for the morning edition and then went to bed. It might only be three hours' sleep, but for one of the few times in his life Clark felt he needed every minute of it. At least Perry would be happy to get the inside scoop on the fire, and maybe the rest of the morning could be tranquil as well and allow Clark at least a few hours to focus on just one job.
"What the hell is this, Kent?"
Clark's head raised up from where he was pouring coffee and he turned around to face the speaker.
"And a good morning to you too, Lois," he said as he extended the second cup of coffee in his hands made to her preferences.
He had picked up the sudden elevation of her heart rate a few minutes ago and knew that, whatever was going on, the coffee would be a necessary step in keeping peace in the newsroom. He tried with varying amounts of success most days to ignore or rationally explain why he was attuned to the sound of her heartbeat. He had found that ignoring the issue usually worked better than attempting to explain what had become increasingly unexplainable over the last couple of years.
Lois drew up short as she took the coffee almost automatically and then suddenly shook her head as she started to bring it to her mouth for a drink.
"Don't try to change the subject, Smallville. I thought I warned you years ago about stepping on my turf."
"And I have remained suitably fearful and reverent since that date, Lois."
"Obviously not fearful or reverent enough. You stepped all over my byline about the fire over on Lincoln."
"Your byline?" Clark asked "I, uh, didn't see you there last night, Lois."
"Yeah, and I didn't see you either, so how did you manage to pull this off?" she said gesturing with the morning edition in her hand. "And with quotes? Don't tell me you played the Good Ol' Boy trick again, Smallville, or I may have to deck you."
Clark cursed himself for his carelessness in missing her last night, but he'd been in such a hurry to get home he'd forgotten to even look around for the press.
"No, I showed up just as Superman got there so I guess my attention was more on him than the crowd. Probably yours, too, which is why we missed each other. You know I would have run in the other direction back to bed if I'd known the Planet already had someone there."
Clark flashed a brilliant smile at Lois with a look of what he hoped to be suitable contriteness and backed by all of the Kent charm he could muster hoping to distract her from thinking too closely about whether or not she was that distracted by the Man of Steel.
"Spare me the wattage, Smallville. You get a free pass, THIS time, but only because Perry thought I had enough for a sidebar piece to yours AND if you'll answer a few questions for me."
"Questions, Lois?" Clark asked, not having to fake the nervousness in his voice.
Clark and Lois had become friends and even occasionally partners over the past few years, but Clark still had not stopped having that slightly nervous feeling whenever in her presence. It worsened when her thinking took light speed turns and Clark realized he had met one of the few people in the world who could possibly stay a few steps ahead of him.
For her part, Lois tried to ignore the feeling she had whenever they worked closely together and came into physical contact. As she grabbed his arm to pull him toward the conference room, she was again reminded of how solid he was despite the way he acted at times, and the realization was quickly followed by thoughts about what he had hidden under those clothes. Lois, the victim of numerous federal disasters, usually tried desperately not to consider her sometimes partner in that light and generally succeeded, but not always.
The problem, she told herself, was that she knew she made him nervous and it gave her a perverse pleasure at times to do things that increased that nervousness. She didn't set out to do it, and God knew the thought of being a tease mortified her, but there was something about that calm, mild-mannered demeanor that cried out to be messed with.
Mentally shaking herself back into reality, she continued pulling him toward the conference room and didn't turn him loose until they were inside with the door closed.
"What questions?" Clark asked again suspiciously as he tried to sit nonchalantly on the edge of the conference room table.
"Exactly how well do you know Superman, Kent? And don't try that 'aw shucks, country boy' routine with me, it lost its believability about five seconds after you turned in your first big story."
"Well," Clark said, having to swallow a couple of times to counteract the dryness in this mouth and throat. "I guess I know him about as well as anyone does. I mean, he tends to keep everyone at a distance, so I know him about as well as he allows me to."
"I'm the babbler of this partnership, Kent. Don't forget my rule about treading on my turf. Now, how 'well' does he 'allow' you to know him?"
"Hold it, what do you mean, 'partnership'? " Clark said, overcoming his mounting anxiety. "I thought you said the last time you and I were partnered that it was 'Ok, but let's not make a habit of it'."
"I also said that I'd decide when it happened again and so I am. I'm offering to let you in on the ground floor, farm boy. You don't want in, that's fine. You just answer my questions and go on about your business."
Lois dropped her head in exasperation.
"You do that just to irritate me, don't you?"
"Sorry," Clark said, sounding apologetic, but trying to hide his smile before she looked up. "I wasn't thinking there for a moment."
"Then let's take it from the top," Lois said, looking up and pinning him with her stare. "How well do you know Superman?"
"Well, like I said, I know a little about him, enough to speak to him and have a conversation, but it's all superficial. I don't know anything you probably don't."
"But you've known him longer."
"Well, yeah, but it's not like we sat down and had any heart to hearts. It's always been pretty much the way it is now."
"So, nothing you've been keeping off the record for an old high school friend?"
"High school friend? Lois, you make it sound like we shared a locker and ate fudge rounds in the cafeteria together. I think a kid in tights with a cape would have been noticed at Smallville High."
"You know what I mean, Smallville. Have you been keeping anything back from public consumption?"
"Well, Lois, if I was then it probably wouldn't be a good idea to share it with Metropolis' number one investigative reporter, now, would it?"
He said it so earnestly that Lois felt a smile start to form on her lips before she caught herself.
"You're good, Kent, but flattery won't even get you to first base, let alone knock my concentration out of the ballpark."
Lois's inadvertent turn of phrase occurred to her even as she said it and she felt her cheeks flush. Seeing a weakness form in his opponent's armor, Clark quickly moved to exploit it.
"Well, first base with Lois Lane might knock anyone's concentration out of the park," he said, flashing his most charming smile and getting up from the table so as to move closer into her personal space, but not appear threatening. He wanted to distract her and make her a bit angry, but not invite sexual harassment charges.
Lois stepped back, blushing even more furiously, but caught onto Clark's trick immediately. Clark was not a forward person where sex was concerned. Enough women around the Planet had tried over the years, with little success. Some had even speculated that he was gay, but Lois knew different. Not because of anything he had said or done with her, but from every little fidget or clumsy maneuver that he exhibited when she was close. That and well, something else, she just wasn't sure how to describe it. He definitely felt an attraction for her, but would never follow through on it, for whatever reason.
No, he was hiding something and, whatever that something was, Clark Kent, the original Mr. Lone Wolf, was willing to play this kind of game to hide it. But that was ok. Lois Lane was her father's daughter and so she didn't mind competition and she rarely lost at any game. Pulling herself up short, she met Clark's gaze, arched an eyebrow and stepped forward to within inches of him.
"If first base could do that then you should see the seventh inning stretch," she said.
She almost laughed when she saw the fear flicker in his eyes as they widened almost imperceptibly and he took an involuntary step backward, bumping into the table and almost losing his balance.
'Now," she continued, "are you through with your little game or were you hoping for some early batting practice?"
Lois moved another step closer and continued to hold his gaze. That was when she saw it. Hunger. The other "something" she had considered earlier, but couldn't place a word to. It was only there for an instant, but it was unmistakable. A deep longing that didn't make her feel the least bit threatened, but a bit excited. The look that replaced it disappeared even more quickly, but was equally as obvious. Sadness. A wall seemed to close over Clark's face at that point and the calm, mild-mannered look that she now knew to be a facade returned.
Whatever kept Clark from getting close to anyone probably caused him as much pain, or more, than actually, what he risked by getting close, Lois thought to herself. But, then again, she didn't live in his skin so that was probably easy for her to say.
Their gazes remained locked for several seconds without anyone saying a word until Clark broke the connection and moved to put distance between the two of them and kept his face averted.
"Seriously, Lois, I doubt I know anything more than you do about Superman."
"I'm sorry," she said, surprising herself as well as him with the statement.
"What? No, don't be silly. We were just kidding around. I'm sorry I joked like that. It wasn't appropriate. You just wanted to know some information. But you said it was for a story and hinted you might need my help, so why don't you fill me in?"
Lois listened to Clark babble and watched as he composed himself and was again able to maintain eye contact. Her apology hadn't been for the joking around, but for the pain she had seen in him. She knew, however, that now was not the time to bring that up, so she smiled and sat down at the table and he sat in a seat across from her.
"A friend of mine brought to my attention the amount of psychological stress that emergency workers function under. Superman's the ultimate emergency worker and the question was raised about how he handles it. I just wanted to see if you had any insight."
Clark seemed taken aback for a moment and his brow furrowed in confusion.
"I…I guess I never really thought about it. He deals with it because he has to. Losing it isn't an option for a Superman."
"Come on, Clark. If it were that simple, then emergency workers wouldn't have the problems they do. I researched it. Higher incidents of suicide, burnout and stress-related health problems. Don't tell me that Superman is invulnerable psychologically too."
"Of course not, Lois. But I don't hardly think he's a candidate for therapy either."
"I never said he was, Clark. Why are you getting defensive? I just want to know how he deals with it."
"This just sounds like a touchy-feely piece, Lois. Not your style at all, so why are you interested?"
Lois fought the urge to raise an eyebrow at the query. Clark wasn't denying his defensiveness and was trying to change the subject again, just with different tactics.
"It's not touchy-feely if it affects a million emergency service workers and it sure isn't if it involves the mental health of a man who can destroy mountain ranges."
"You think there's something wrong with his mental health?!" Clark asked incredulously.
"No, no, Clark. I really don't. But I am concerned. Not just because of a story, but personally as well. How does he handle the things that he sees or has to deal with? It has to take its toll."
"It probably isn't as serious as you think, Lois. I mean, sure, he sees some pretty bad things, but he sees a lot of good stuff too. He probably just balances it out somehow in his head. Really, I just think you're worrying about something that isn't even an issue."
"Maybe," Lois said, backing away from the conversation. Clark was acting strangely, even more than usual, and didn't appear to be looking at this matter too objectively.
At that moment, the conference room door opened and Jimmy Olsen stuck his head in.
"Hey, guys, you gotta come see what's on TV. The police just served the warrant on Maxwell at City Hall, but he took his secretary hostage and there's now a stand-off."
Robert Maxwell had been Lois and Clark's last big story together. Maxwell was the deputy mayor and had been implicated in a kickback scandal involving city contracts. The entire matter had blown up in his face when the press box at the new municipal stadium had collapsed during a game, severely injuring all of its occupants. Superman had arrived almost immediately, which prevented there being any fatalities and he had later reported to investigators seeing signs of severe metal fatigue and instability in the concrete throughout the stadium.
His report had been born out by the findings of the investigation and Perry had assigned Lois and Clark to work on the story as a team to focus on both the contractor and the money trail back to City Hall. The trail had eventually led to Maxwell and their investigation had provided the authorities with the evidence needed to proceed with an arrest.
Forgetting for the moment her questions regarding Clark's behavior, Lois bolted from her chair and ran out into the bullpen where the TV was reporting the current hostage situation.
"Clark, tell Perry I'm heading over…" Lois said, turning toward her erstwhile partner, only to find him not at her side as expected.
She turned full circle trying to locate him, but was unsuccessful.
"Jimmy," she asked her younger colleague. "Where did Clark go?"
"Huh?" Jimmy said, looking at her and then turning to scan the room. "I thought he was right here."
"Damn him," Lois muttered and then turned toward the elevator calling over her shoulder, "Jimmy, tell Perry I'm heading over to City Hall."
"You'd better hurry, it's almost over," Jimmy said, pointing to the TV.
"What?" Lois asked as she stopped in mid stride and turned to look up at the TV where Jimmy was pointing.
Superman had arrived on the scene.
The police officer moved the barricade aside and waved through an unmarked car followed by the Special Crimes Unit van. The car pulled to a stop at the curb and the van pulled to the side. As the back of the van opened and a squad of armored police officers jumped out, a tall woman with short hair and body armor matching those of the other officers got out of the car.
Maggie Sawyer was having a bad day. She had forgotten to take her blood pressure medicine this morning, had been late for work due to traffic and was a month behind on staff evaluations. Now, on a day she had set aside just for paperwork, some idiot decided to stage a crime serious enough to call out the Special Crimes Unit. Correction, not just some idiot, but the deputy mayor himself, who was currently holding his secretary hostage.
"What's the matter, Bill?" Sawyer, said approaching a middle-aged man in a gray trench coat and matching hat from behind. "Can't you even serve an arrest warrant without letting things go to hell in a hand-basket?"
"Har-dee-har-har, Sawyer," Inspector Henderson replied, turning to the SCU commander. "Who the hell knew the twerp even had a gun, let alone the stones to use it?"
"You mean no one checked to see if he had one registered?" she asked, amazed.
"He doesn't show up as ever registering one, so I'm assuming it's illegal unless he snagged it from someone else in there. God knows, every idiot in City Hall that qualified for a concealed weapons permit got one the day after they were hired. That's why it stuck out that he didn't have one registered."
Sawyer shook her head and looked around the scene.
"News people got here awfully fast," she commented.
"That one was our fault," Henderson said. "They arrived to set up for some kind of press conference just as we were going in to serve the warrant. Renee Guest from Channel 6 recognized me and had her guy start filming before we got in the front door. We think that's what tipped off Maxwell because he had the gun out and already had the secretary when he got to his office."
"Wonderful," Maggie grumbled, her gaze zeroing in for a moment on the blonde with the Channel 6 microphone talking into a camera.
"We know who the secretary is?" she asked, looking back at Bill.
"Jennifer Bowers," Henderson said, looking at his notepad. "Single, 26 years old, she's worked for Maxwell for the past year."
"Hostage negotiator here yet?" Sawyer asked.
"Just got here. The tech boys are splicing into the office lines now so the media can't listen in. If Maxwell will answer, he should be on the phone in just a couple of minutes. You got a fallback plan yet?"
"Simmons is deploying the men now. Snipers are heading for the adjacent roofs, but the rest are just for show. We dropped Turpin and a team a couple of blocks back. They're heading for the sub-basement through the sewer system. They'll set up inside near Maxwell's office and await deployment orders there."
"A squad's going in and you didn't want to join them?"
"I'm the new media darling," Maggie said with a scowl. "If I wasn't in plain view of the cameras, everyone would know something is up."
Henderson laughed and turned back to watch the building looking for any sign of movement from Maxwell's window.
"Any sign of the big guy yet?" Maggie asked after a moment, glancing briefly up at the sky.
"Not yet, but it should be any time now, what with all of the media on the scene. But, hell, he could be somewhere in space stopping an asteroid or fighting a flood in China for all I know. His beat's a pretty big one."
"Well, we shouldn't get too used to him anyway," Sawyer replied. "We don't need to get soft."
"'Soft'," Henderson said, "is not a term I think you ever need worry that someone will apply to you."
Maggie barked a laugh as she headed toward the hostage negotiator with Bill at her side.
"Now, you're just gonna make me blush," she said.
Across the street away from the police cordon, a tall man with a patch over one eye stood slightly apart from the crowd looking up toward the Deputy Mayor's window. His face wore a sour scowl and he shook his head slightly as he took a cell phone from his pocket. He flipped the phone open and pressed the "send" button without even bothering to dial a number.
"Yes?" came a voice from the other end.
"He's barricaded himself in his office and has his secretary hostage."
"Damn!" the voice grunted. "What's the police situation like?"
"They have the place locked down tight and the SCU just arrived. Standard deployment, but I'd bet the SCU has another team working to get inside for a more direct assault."
"Any sign of 'outside' interference?"
"No sign of him yet," the man replied, knowing exactly to whom the other was referring, "but, I doubt that'll be the case for much longer."
"Can you neutralize Maxwell?"
"Certainly, but not without attracting a lot of attention while I'm doing it. And if the 'interference' arrives while I'm in the middle of it, I might have some trouble getting away even with my 'insurance'. It's probably best to let the police solve our problem for us."
"And what if they don't take care of it? We can't afford to have him taken alive."
"I have an independent contractor who can take him out after he's in custody if it comes to that."
"Independent contractor?" hissed the voice. "Can't you do it yourself? I thought you were supposed to be the best?"
"Mind your tongue. You might be paying me money for my services, but never make the mistake of thinking that I work for you. The contractor's expendable and doesn't know anything about your organization. I don't fit either of those categories. But, if you don't think I'm the best perhaps I need to provide you with a personal demonstration."
"No, no," the voice said quickly. "I didn't mean anything by that. I just don't want anything to go wrong. You were hired because you're the best. I just want the job done right."
"Then trust that you've spent your money wisely and let me do what I was hired to do. If I need to act directly then I will, but until then I have other avenues I can pursue." After a brief pause, the man continued, "Just remember, I don't like to be second guessed."
"Yes, of course," the voice on the telephone said. "As I said, you're the best. I trust you'll take care of matters."
"Exactly," the man said.
Before he could add anything else though a heightened murmur and pointing from the crowd drew his attention skyward.
"Uh oh, gotta go. 'Interference' has just arrived," he said as he ended the phone call.
Clark had left the conference room on Lois's heels, but had turned toward in the direction of the stairwell rather than the TV. After ascertaining that no one was looking in his direction, his pace increased and he became a blur of motion. His departure into the stairwell was so quick that the opening and closing of the stairwell door was as a single, brief sound barely distinguishable from the normal background noise of the building.
Once in the stairwell, he never touched a step, but became an airborne blur, changing clothes as he ascended toward the roof door and out into the sky above.
As he approached City Hall Superman replayed the conversation with Lois in his mind. Was he bothered by some of the things he encountered on the job? Sure, it could be pretty gruesome at times, but most of his activities involved preventing things from getting to that point.
He shook his head. Lois was just overreacting. He'd been doing this stuff since he was thirteen. If it were going to get to him it would have done so a long time before now. He didn't feel any different than he always had except possibly just some wiriness from the weight of continued experience. Surely he would notice it if he started feeling "stressed."
He laughed to himself as he spotted Bill Henderson and Maggie Sawyer and dipped down toward the police command post. At least, that was, if he felt any more "stressed" than was normal for a man living two lives, working to meet deadlines, fighting criminal AND dealing with Lois Lane.
Robert Maxwell was in a panic. He had been tipped off several days ago that his connection to the whole stadium fiasco was being investigated and when he had turned on the TV to watch Renee Guest's commentary on the impending news conference about the proposed citywide budget cuts he knew the jig was up.
Maxwell had passed Guest earlier setting up for her newscast just outside City Hall. When he saw her interrupt her cameraman to have him follow a couple of policemen and a grim-faced Inspector Henderson as they passed behind her, he was startled. When he saw them turn down a particular hallway after entering the building he knew they could only have one destination.
Before he had even realized what he was considering, he had grabbed his gun from his briefcase and headed toward the outer office where his secretary, Jennifer, sat. He reached it just as the door opened and Henderson stepped through. Maxwell grabbed Jennifer and put the gun to her head before Henderson could even say a word. The two officers trailing him quickly pulled theirs and within seconds all were engaged in a standoff.
"Maxwell," Henderson had said, holding his hands up palms outward, "you don't want to do this. It'll only make matters worse. Put down the gun. No one's going to hurt you."
"Damn right! At least not as long as I've got Jennifer here. Now back off. I want you out of the building. If I don't see you out on the front lawn in three minutes I'm going to blow her head off!"
"Ok, Ok, we're going. But you know it isn't going to be that easy."
"Whatever, just back the hell off!"
Henderson and the other officers had left and Maxwell pulled Jennifer into his office to watch out the window as the situation rapidly grew out of his control and the crowd outside had grown. He knew his options were becoming limited because this was Metropolis and no hostage situation lasted long here and the clock was ticking. With the arrival of the SCU the lump in his chest grew and he knew his chances were dimming even more.
The descent of Superman from the sky a few moments later didn't improve his anxiety.
"Keep that freak away from me!" Maxwell screamed out the window, pressing the gun even tighter to the head of his hostage.
"Freak?" Maggie said, turning to Henderson.
"Think that would justify constituting it as a hate crime if he fires on Supes?" Henderson asked.
"Probably not. We'd better just go for the usual Reckless Endangerment charges if he does that."
"You charge everybody who shoots at me with Reckless Endangerment?" Superman asked as he approached the two.
"Hell, yes," Maggie said. "We charge them with jaywalking if we can. Bastards usually have a hundred different attorneys waiting for us by the time we reach the station house. We hit them with enough charges, then something has to stick."
"Besides," Henderson added, "when some idiot starts bouncing bullets all over the place he needs to be held accountable for the danger he places everybody else in. We just charge them for every crime they commit and let the D.A. decide what'll he'll use and what he won't."
"In Maxwell's case," Henderson added with a grin, "in addition to what he was originally being charged with he's already added Resisting Arrest, Terroristic Threatening, Possession of an Illegal Firearm, and False Imprisonment. He tangles with you and we'll at least get Reckless Endangerment and Discharging a Firearm Within the City Limits. All of it in full view of the news crews who are capturing it all for posterity if not material evidence."
Superman shook his head and offered a slight smile before continuing with the business at hand.
"What's the situation?"
"Pretty much what you see." Henderson replied. "Maxwell has one hostage, his secretary, and as far as we know only one handgun. He's threatened the hostage and ordered the police out of the building, but so far hasn't made any other demands."
"But we'll see in a second," he added, nodding toward the hostage negotiator who had apparently made contact with Maxwell as he now had a phone to his ear.
"We don't believe he's really thought this through," Maggie said. "It seems like the whole thing was more spur of the moment when he got surprised with Henderson showing up with a warrant."
"You'd think after living in this town as long as he has he'd know better than this," Henderson said, turning his gaze back to the window where Maxwell had been a few moments before.
"I'll never understand what makes anyone do something like this," Superman said, shaking his head as he too looked up toward the window.
"You know what they say, Superman," Henderson said. "We're all just one bad day away from becoming our own worst nightmare."
Superman looked at Henderson briefly, seeming to contemplate the statement, but quickly turned his gaze back to the window without comment.
"Do you see anything?" Maggie asked.
"Like you said, only one handgun and he has it to the poor girl's head. We'll need to coordinate a plan to make this end as easily as possible."
"Can't you just grab the gun at super speed?" Maggie asked.
"No," Superman replied. "Too dangerous. If I moved too slow it would give him an opportunity to shoot and if I moved too fast to be seen I would probably rip his arm off grabbing the gun."
Maggie continued to look at Superman without speaking.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm not seeing the downside of the plan yet," she said.
Superman's eyed widened slightly as he realized he couldn't tell if she was joking or not, but was interrupted by Henderson's hand on his arm before he could ask.
"Don't mind her, Superman, she skipped Due Process at the Academy in favor of extra credit riot control classes. Come on, it looks like the negotiator has him on the phone. We'll see if talking things out is an option."
"Humphhh, it's like people think riots take care of themselves," Maggie muttered to herself.
Henderson rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored her as he approached the hostage negotiator with Superman at his side. The negotiator was hanging up the phone as they approached.
"What happened?" Henderson asked.
"He's losing it," the negotiator said. "He won't talk until Superman gets out of here."
"He has to know that it doesn't matter whether Superman is here or not. He's not walking away from this," Maggie said.
"I don't think it matters at this point," the negotiator said. "He's panicked and becoming irrational."
"I agree," Superman said, staring up at the Deputy Mayor's office window. "His pulse and blood pressure are elevated and his voice is becoming high-pitched with hysteria. He could lose control at any moment."
"So what do we do?" Henderson asked.
"Maggie," Superman said, still staring up at the widow, "tell your men to stand down. They're about to hear a single gunshot and then it should be over."
Maggie stared at Superman for a second and then quickly grabbed her radio and then began broadcasting the stand-down order.
For his part, Superman continued to stare intently at Maxwell watching his every movement. His finger was tensing and untensing on the trigger of the gun, as was his hand on the grip as stiffness began to set in. When his grip loosened briefly on the gun and he straightened his finger, Superman fired a short burst of heat vision at the sprinkler head above him.
As the sprinkler went off, Maxwell moved the gun away from his hostage's head as he cast a startled glance at the ceiling and Superman then fired a second burst of heat vision at Maxwell's trigger finger. The sudden sting in his finger caused it to involuntarily convulse and contract on the trigger and the gun discharged into the ceiling. As the gun's slide moved to eject the shell Superman fired a third and more powerful burst of heat vision. This burst flash-welded the slide in the open position preventing it from moving back into place and chambering another round.
Before the police could react to these developments, Superman disappeared from the crowd and reappeared at Maxwell's side and grabbed his gun arm, holding it aloft. The entire sequence of events had taken two seconds from the time Superman had told Maggie to issue the stand down order till he had Maxwell by the arm.
Maxwell stared in shock at the man beside him who held his arm in an unbreakable grip. When he finally found his voice, though, it was Superman's turn to be surprised.
"I wasn't in on the stadium thing alone. I was just following orders. If I can make a deal and you promise to protect me, I'll name names. I'll give you InterGang."
When Lois exited the Daily Planet building, she had already made up her mind that City Hall was a dead issue. Things happened with lightning speed in Metropolis and with Superman on the scene the matter would be settled and Maxwell on his way to booking before she even made it to the building. Besides she noted glumly, Clark Kent already had the jump on her. But, she reminded herself, she was Lois Lane and the Maxwell story had originally been half hers. While Clark might have the jump in speed, Lois knew how the system worked and had the jump in deviousness.
Henderson would know what a media circus there would be wherever booking took place and would take steps to avoid it entirely. Traffic would undoubtedly be blocked off when they left City Hall with his prisoner so he couldn't be followed and he would avoid all of the logical places with high security because that would be where the media would be lined up waiting for him. No, he would choose an out-of-the-way precinct not noted for being suited to deal with high profile cases, but one where the natural architecture and location could work toward limiting access and providing security. He would know that it would soon get out where Maxwell was being held, but at least booking could be completed with relatively little hassle and perhaps some interrogation as well. Or so he could hope, she thought with a grin to herself, because she knew exactly where he could go that would meet all of those criteria.
The desk sergeant raised his head when she walked through the front doors of the 102nd precinct and broke into a grin. Lois was puzzled until she saw him hold his hand out to another officer, who had a glum look on his face as he placed a $20 bill in the sergeant's hand.
"Hey, Murphy," Lois called as she approached the sergeant, "don't tell me I'm getting predictable."
"Only for your unpredictability, Laney," Murphy said as he pocketed the money.
"They here yet?"
"On their way. Henderson's not going to be real happy that you're here, you know."
"Since when is Henderson ever happy?" Lois said with a grin.
"Actually," Murphy said, "I've seen him happy plenty of times. Just none that I can recall when you're around."
"Every Irishman thinks he's a comedian," Lois replied as she rolled her eyes.
"How'd you figure out he was coming here, anyway?" Murphy asked.
"Because you cops *are* predictable," Lois said with a smirk.
"Irishman and girl reporters apparently share the same delusion," Murphy said with a grimace.
"Girl?" Lois said, her eyebrows raised and all trace of humor vanishing from her voice.
"Hey, it's a felony to strike an officer of the law," Murphy said, holding his hands up and moving back from the desk slightly. "I just thought you should know."
"I don't see nothing," the other officer said as he spun around to continue sorting through some mail, and Murphy cast a sour glance at his back.
"With the number of witnesses apparently dwindling, my criminal record might still remain secure should I take exception to the phrase 'girl reporter', Murph."
"Point taken, Laney," Murphy said, laughing and returning to his paperwork.
Lois dropped down on a bench located beside the entrance to wait. A teenager who had been sitting there already turned to her with a large smile on his face. He was dressed in a silk jogging suit and had several gold chains around his neck and a large diamond pinky ring on his right hand.
"Hey, babe," he said as Lois sat down.
She turned to him and stared. Her face was blank of expression and she never said a word.
The boy's smile faltered somewhat and died completely after several seconds of silence before he finally turned away, blushing scarlet with embarrassment.
Lois continued staring at him for a couple of seconds before turning away and leaning back with her arms crossed and her legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles.
At his desk Murphy laughed even harder to himself.
"Hey, babe," he said, echoing the youth and shaking his head as he laughed.
The kid turned even redder and sank down further in his chair.
Lois closed her eyes and settled back to wait patiently for Henderson's arrival.
Fifteen minutes after Superman apprehended Robert Maxwell, Inspector Bill Henderson escorted him through the doors of the 102nd precinct. Henderson was feeling a bit smug with himself at the moment as he had bottlenecked the streets around City Hall with police vehicles and had executed what he thought to be a secretive exit with Maxwell to the 102nd for booking. Henderson was eager to get Maxwell into interrogation as quickly as possible to hear what the man had to say and he didn't want to have to deal with a lot of reporters' questions before he did so. His smugness, however, was shattered by two words.
Henderson froze in mid stride and closed his eyes briefly, uttering a silent curse before turning to find Lois Lane seated on the visitor's bench grinning like the proverbial cat that had swallowed the canary.
"What the hell are you doing here, Lane?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"Exercising my First Amendment rights as a member of the news media," she responded with a smile.
"No comment," Henderson deadpanned as he turned around and began to direct Maxwell toward a side door, his once cheerful mood now decidedly darkened.
"Hold on, Henderson," Lois said as she rushed to jump in front of the two men. "Let me rephrase that. I'm here to call in a favor since it was information gained from *my* investigation that led to this arrest."
"If memory serves," Henderson said, "the 'my' you refer to had another name attached, or is Kent just a figment of my imagination?"
"Well, he did have some small amount of input, but I figured you paid him back for that back at City Hall."
"A few minutes ago. The arrest. Lots of news cameras and police cars. Am I ringing any bells yet?"
"I never laid eyes on Kent back there, Lane, and I really don't want to be laying eyes on you right now either, for that matter. Now if you'll excuse me…"
"Kent didn't get any info from you before the arrest?" Lois asked as she dug in her pocket for her mini-cassette recorder and held it out toward the two men. "Perfect, then you can fill me in on all of the details along with any comments Mr. Maxwell wants to make now for the record."
"I said 'no comment', Lane," Henderson said, batting the recorder away and pulling Maxwell further toward the side door.
"Hold it," Maxwell said, "I'll talk to her."
"What?!" Henderson asked in surprise as he turned to his prisoner.
"These are important people we're dealing with, Henderson," Maxwell whispered. "It's not just a matter of someone naming names and it becomes a slam dunk for the prosecution. If you're going to get a conviction and I'm going to get out of this without having to look over my shoulder the rest of my life, then the press in going to have to be involved. These people are going to have to be convicted in the court of public opinion long before they go before a judge."
"Yeah, Henderson," Lois said, "you heard the man. He wants to talk to me."
"To us, you mean," said a voice behind them.
Turning toward the voice, Lois, Henderson and Maxwell found a frowning Clark Kent standing behind them.
"Lois," Clark said, glaring at his co-worker, "what are you doing here?"
"That's what I wanted to know," Henderson said, throwing his hands up, "but what the hell, doesn't seem like my secret hiding place is all that secret anyway so why not invite the entire Metropolis Press Corps?"
Ignoring Henderson's exasperation, Lois answered Clark.
"The Maxwell story is half mine, remember?"
"The stadium story, yes. The arrest is another matter entirely. I got there first."
"Well," Lois said, dragging the word out, "that would appear to be slightly in question at the moment, now, wouldn't it?"
Henderson looked back and forth between the two for a moment as they locked eyes with each other and didn't speak. Clark scowled and Lois maintained an impish, innocent smile.
"Have you two set a date yet or are you just planning on continuing to live in sin together?" Henderson asked finally.
Lois would have laughed out loud at the redness that instantly colored Clark's face if it hadn't been for the heat she felt in her own cheeks. Another voice, however, interrupted before either had the need to reply to Henderson's remark.
"Mr. Maxwell won't be talking to anyone until myself and his representation have had a chance to meet with him and discuss a few things first."
Everyone turned to the speaker, who had entered apparently only moments after Clark had made his own surprise appearance.
"Hagan." Henderson greeted the man. "You made good time."
Forrest Hagan, Metropolis' second-term District Attorney, nodded in acknowledgement to Henderson's greeting.
"Your message suggested haste was desirable," he said, looking first at Maxwell and then turning a cold stare at the two Daily Planet reporters. "What are these two doing here?"
"At the moment," Henderson replied, "I'm debating on Loitering or Interfering in a Police Investigation. Which one do you think will keep them out of my hair the longest? Especially the shorter one."
Lois turned her head slightly toward Henderson and gave the man a frosty glare.
"Try it, Henderson, and I'll have the Planet's lawyers land on you so hard you'll be reciting the Bill of Rights in your sleep. Besides," she said, turning back to the DA with a smile, "I believe Mr. Hagan here still has some political aspirations and it wouldn't look nice if he were found harassing the media."
"I might decide to chance it in this case, Ms. Lane. I seem to recall several unflattering stories from you over the past couple of years so I probably don't have a lot to lose."
"Ok," Clark interrupted, holding up a hand, "before this degenerates down to chest pounding and who has the biggest stick, let's try to remember that we're all adults."
Looking back and forth between Henderson and Hagan, Clark continued, "One, you owe us. It was our original information that got you Maxwell. Two, Maxwell himself just said he was agreeable to speak with us. And three," Clark said, leaning in close to the two men and lowering his voice, "I don't think anyone in this room wants mention of Intergang to get out before they're ready."
Clark dropped the bomb casually, as if mentioning the color of Maxwell's hair, and waited as the shock subsided. Henderson was the first to recover.
"Who the hell told you anything about Intergang, Kent?"
"It was our investigation that originally uncovered this mess. You don't think we'd miss all of the connections, do you? Right, partner?" Clark directed the last to Lois, who had been as equally shocked into silence as the two men.
"Uh, yeah, right, Henderson." Lois said quickly recovering and taking her cue from Clark. "What do you think we are? Amateurs?"
Henderson wisely chose not to reply to that, but instead turned to Hagan and held the other man's gaze for a few moments before the DA finally spoke.
"Ok, here's how things are going to work and it's not a matter for debate. Take it or leave it." He glanced back and forth between the two reporters to see if there was going to be an argument and, when none was forthcoming, he continued. "Henderson and I are going to wait for Maxwell's attorney to show up and then we're going to hear what he has to say. If everything checks out and it's worth making a deal over, we're going to move him to a safe house tonight. If Maxwell is agreeable, you two can interview him there this evening."
After a short pause, he added, "And I get final approval on every thing before it's printed. If I say no it doesn't see the light of day until arrests are made or any trials are over with."
"Now wait just a min…!" Lois started, but was interrupted before she could continue.
"That would be completely acceptable, Mr. Hagan," Clark said, putting a hand on Lois's arm.
"Acceptable?!" Lois said, outraged, turning to confront Clark. "What part of that's acceptable?!"
"Every single thing he said," Clark said in a low voice leaning in towards Lois and using his height to emphasize his words.
"Now hold on a minute, buster…" Lois began, but Clark interrupted her again, pulling her off to one side and whispering to her.
"Which would you prefer Lois, nothing or something, because if you push it 'nothing' is exactly what we're going to get. Intergang in big enough that Hagan couldn't care less what two reporters say about him if he has a chance to bust them wide open. Ending that nightmare would ensure whatever political aspirations he has. He doesn't need us, but we do need his cooperation if we're going to get this story."
When he saw Lois start to calm somewhat as she processed what he was saying, he added the coup de grace. "A story, I might add, that no other reporter in Metropolis has a clue about for the moment."
Clark almost smiled when he saw Lois's expression at those words. The anger drained instantly from her face, and it seemed a light dawned as she realized that she was ahead of everyone else on a story, before settling back into a grimace.
"Ok, I'll go along with it, but I'm not happy. I'm only doing it for the sake of the story."
"Of course," Clark said, keeping a straight face, "I understand completely. The truth must be heard."
Lois's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits as she looked up at Clark.
"No one likes a smart ass, Kent."
Clark's only answer was a grin that lit his entire face and almost made Lois smile back involuntarily. Almost.
"Ok, gentlemen," Clark said, turning back to Henderson and Hagan and handing them each a business card, "You have a deal. Give us a call when you're ready and we'll be over, whatever the time."
"It may be late," Hagan said.
"We'll adjust," Lois replied. "Mom eases up on the curfew if it's work-related."
"Thanks again," Clark said quickly, taking Lois's arm and pulling her toward the door before Hagan could respond.
As they exited the building, Lois pulled her arm out of Clark's grasp.
"You don't have to manhandle me. I wasn't going to say anything else." After a pause she added, "Well, not much anyway."
"It's the 'not much' that had me worried," Clark said over his shoulder as he hailed a passing cab.
Lois chose not to respond as they entered the cab.
"So," she ventured, keeping her voice low so as not to be heard by the driver, "exactly how did 'we' learn about the Intergang connection anyway?"
"I was able to speak to Superman apart from Henderson back at City Hall," Clark responded. "He said that Maxwell made some claims in that regard after he was apprehended. I figured that making them think we would leak the information was a good way to break the stalemate."
"Well, it definitely got their attention," Lois said. "Now, what's our next move?"
"Our?" Clark asked
"You called it 'our' investigation back there," Lois said innocently.
"That was *our* investigation that bagged Maxwell. This is *mine*. Besides, need I remind you of the rules *you* set on our partnerships?"
"Not at all. I told you I'd let you know the next time we would partner up. So I'm letting you know," Lois said with an indulgent smile as she patted his leg.
Clark looked at her sternly for a second and then spoke.
"Lois Lane's first rule of journalism. The first reporter…"
"Clark," Lois interrupted, "I know my own rules and, if you want to get technical about it, I was the one who got Maxwell to agree to an interview."
"But I was…"
"The first one at City Hall. I know, but you didn't speak to Maxwell. I did and he agreed to talk to me."
"Got the arrest story first, but that's all you would have except that I got the agreement for the interview so, really, we're already partners."
Clark opened his mouth to speak, but Lois interrupted yet again.
"Clark, let's be honest. We can argue about this for the next hour and in the end you'll agree I'm right or you can just give in now and we can get to work."
Clark sat frozen in place with his mouth half open and a dazed look on his face. Finally, he dropped his head and spoke.
"When we get back to the Planet we need to put together as much information on Intergang as we can so we can be ready to talk to Maxwell this evening and know what questions to ask."
"You see? That wasn't so painful, was it? I know a couple of guys who know guys that I can call and get some information."
"Good thinking, partner," Clark said, raising his head with a look of resignation on his face before breaking into a wide smile.
It was a smile impossible not to return, and Lois felt heat radiate through her body as she suddenly found herself in a losing fight against the involuntary flow of blood to her cheeks. Ignoring the blush she knew must be on her face, Lois returned the smile and leaned her head back in the seat with her eyes closed and hummed the rest of the way back to the Planet.
Later that afternoon, Lois sat at her desk, deep in thought. She had phoned her "people who knew people" and compiled all of her notes and now she found herself contemplating her current partner who was hard at work at his computer several desks away.
She kept thinking about their encounter that morning and the new impression of him that she had gained. She had known Clark for a few years now, but he was still something of an enigma to her. Perry had partnered the two of them on several stories together over the past few years and, as much as Lois grumbled about it in public, privately she had to admit that their writing styles meshed perfectly together. The two of them had even become friends of a sort and at times seemed to be brushing against something more, though usually one or the other was quick to pull away.
But, as friendly and open as Clark appeared to be on the surface, once she began thinking about it she realized how little she knew about him. Thinking back on past conversations, she realized that he always seemed to turn the subject onto her or work or something neutral so long as it included himself only in the periphery. He was a master at evasiveness. Doubly so because for years he had been able to redirect her, an award-winning reporter used to catching people up in their word games.
And then there was the fact that his smile made her always want to smile back. In the middle of their worst disagreements, all he had to do was smile and she would suddenly find it difficult to concentrate on what they were arguing about. This morning when she saw that look that she had categorized as hunger in his eyes she felt herself moving almost unconsciously toward him. Instinctively moving to feed that hunger.
Whether or not Clark knew it, Lois remembered him from MU and their one shared class together and he had made an impression upon her even then. The class had been Ethics in Journalism and the lesson Lois had learned during their one personal encounter had stayed with her ever since.
Professor Gerald was a big fan of tossing out controversial topics to his Ethics in Journalism students and then sitting back to watch them go at like participants in a dog fight.
The topic he had thrown out on this spring afternoon was right to privacy. The class had gone back and forth for over one half hour debating various points on the matter and one of the loudest voices belonged to a brash young junior determined to set the world of journalism on fire. Her name was Lois Lane.
"If someone chooses to set themselves in a public position where they are responsible in some way for the public welfare then they have no right to privacy. They sacrificed that right when they chose to operate in the public eye. The public has a right to know about the people who presume to operate on their behalf and we as the media have the responsibility and the right to investigate them."
After making this final point, there was a lull in the room as Lois looked around as if challenging anyone to debate her profound logic. A small smile had settled over her face as she satisfied herself that no one was going to be so foolish when suddenly the silence of the room was interrupted by a quiet voice from somewhere behind her.
"We may have the right to something, but don't we have to consider whether or not it is right to do it?"
Turning around, she saw a young man in glasses several rows back near the door, casually dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved button-down blue shirt. He was staring at her with an open and earnest expression, obviously awaiting an answer to his comment.
Looking into his eyes, Lois was overcome with the feeling that she somehow knew this young man from somewhere, but shook it off as just her imagination. After all, they had shared a class all semester, certainly she must have seen him before. Finding her voice, she finally responded.
"The right to do it? Isn't it right for us to know about the people that supposedly are working on our behalf?"
"I guess that would depend on what you wanted to know. Are you concerned about how he spends the taxpayer's money or are you concerned about how he spends his free time?"
"Doesn't how a person spends their free time show a lot about their character?"
"Certainly," the young man answered, "but are you concerned about his character or how he does his job?"
"One usually determines the other," Lois replied, feeling somewhat irritated at this point that this stranger couldn't grasp the obvious.
"I agree it often does," the young man responded, "but who are we to determine what someone's character is? If you found out that a public works commissioner was a convicted felon, would you feel compelled to report that to the public?"
"What if his crime was committed years ago, he had paid his debt to society and was hired with the full knowledge and confidence of city officials and had been doing an extraordinary job since assuming the position. Would you still feel compelled to report it?"
"The public still has a right to know about the people whose salaries they pay and to know whether or not they're employing criminals."
"But what would you be accomplishing? He's not a criminal now. The 'people' don't really pay his salary, they pay taxes to the city to make sure that things run properly. The individual in question is doing his part of that. Bringing his past up would serve no purpose except to possibly embarrass him and endanger his job. And if he were fired, then you would be the one responsible for not only his loss of employment and difficulty providing for his family, but also slowing down and interfering in the same public works on whose behalf you professed to be working."
Lois opened her mouth to reply, and then closed it as she realized that she wasn't sure how to respond. Then the young man spoke again.
"I'm not saying that certain people don't need to be exposed, but it depends on the circumstances. My father always taught me that you have to balance the right to do something against the rightness of doing something. Some people need to be nailed to the wall and that's our responsibility, but some people keep secrets for a reason and it has little or nothing to do with others."
Before Lois could say anything else, Professor Gerald interrupted.
"Thank you for that perspective, Mr. Kent. Your father's a wise man. On that note, class, we'll break. Please read Chapter 21 and the Right to Privacy case studies therein. It might prove enlightening."
"Mr. Kent" disappeared quickly from the room as class ended, but Lois took the lesson he left behind to heart. Her first year at the Planet, "Father Kent's Wisdom" was an often-used catch phrase when she was espousing some nugget of wisdom to a colleague. She also always remembered whenever she wrote a story not only to ask the traditional who, what, when, where, why and how, but also what was the "rightness" of the story. Her dedication to this ideal had impressed Perry right off and had even contributed to his assigning her riskier and more controversial stories because he said he could trust her to handle them "right".
Lois had fallen out of practice using the "Father Kent's Wisdom" phrase after a couple of years, and once Clark started to work at the Planet she prayed that none of their co-workers would remember the phrase and bring it up to him. Lois knew it was only human to be wrong once in a while, but she'd be damned before she admitted it.
Still, Lois never forgot the wisdom itself, and to this day continued to use it in all of her stories. After Clark had started at the Planet and she had learned that his parents had died several years before, she remembered even feeling saddened that she would never get to meet the man that she had grown to envision "Father Kent" to be. But, even though she never got to meet Jonathan Kent, she felt that she had a good idea of the kind of man he was just by looking at his son.
Lois began to mentally tick off the things she did know about Clark. He was friendly and funny and one of the brightest people she knew. He seemed to know a little bit about everything, but was never overbearing about it or gave the impression that he knew more than you did in a conversation. He never ever under any circumstances cursed, at least none that she could recall, and his manners were like something out of Emily Post.
He was helpful to everyone and she had seen him make a special effort to take the time and explain many of the ins and outs of journalism to Jimmy, even when he was in the middle of typing up a front page story with the deadline fast approaching.
He was an award-winning journalist with an innate talent for seeing the human side of a story. His prose was instantly engaging and he could bring a reader into a story about waste distribution and make them care about its effect on the world around them.
Despite all of these positive qualities, however, he never seemed to be close to anyone. He was undeniably handsome, but he seemed to make a special effort to fade into the background. He just seemed so alone and didn't seem to have anyone in his life who was there for him.
It was while pondering this thought that Lois saw the redhead approach Clark's desk.
"Hey, blue eyes. How are you doing?"
"Lana?" Clark gaped in surprise before quickly standing to hug his old friend. "What are you doing here?"
"Standing here talking to you, silly," Lana replied teasingly with a wide grin.
"You know what I mean," said Clark, adopting a dramatic frown, which only served to turn Lana's grin into outright laughter. "What are you doing in Metropolis?"
"Job interview. I flew in yesterday and would have called then, but it was late and I wanted to get a good night's sleep before the interview."
"Interview?" Clark said retaking his seat and gesturing for her to sit down in a chair beside his desk. "Who with?"
"Galaxy Communications. They're looking for a fresh face to occupy one of the on-air correspondent's positions."
"That's great, Lana. How did it go?"
"Good, I think. Galaxy's expanding their scope and wants to start taking on LNN in the global news market so they're looking for a lot of new talent to pit against LNN's rank and file. There's been talk that they're looking into publishing ventures as well. The Daily Planet has even been mentioned as a hot property that they might have their eye on."
"Great, Perry needs something else to worry about. It's been at least two whole days since that last meltdown of his over the suits upstairs trying to influence what we write. He gets some TV exec butting in next, he may actually pick up a murder charge."
"From what I've heard about Perry White, I'm sure he can hold his own. Besides, if Galaxy takes over, they may decide that those baby blues could be put to better use in luring the female demographic to GBS rather than hiding behind a newspaper column."
"Ha, I'm pretty sure one look at these baby blues would convince any Galaxy exec that I'm right in insisting that no picture accompany my byline."
"Sure, Clark. You're lucky your mirror doesn't crack when you shave in the morning," Lana said with a wry grin.
"Well, I have had to replace it a couple of times over the past year. You don't think…"
"Ha, ha." Lana interrupted him sarcastically. "Good thing you have this day job, Kent, at least I'm reasonably sure you won't starve. Which actually brings me to the real reason I'm here."
"You didn't come just to visit an old friend? I'm hurt."
"Yeah, yeah, you're killing me, Kent. I wanted to know what you're doing for Christmas. I'm going to spend it with my parents in Smallville and mom said I shouldn't bother to come unless I can convince you to join us."
Clark tried admirably to freeze the smile on his face, but a Superman is only so powerful so he was sure it faltered slightly. Pushing his solar powered synapses back into play, he responded before the silence could grow uncomfortable.
"Gee, Lana, I really appreciate the invitation, but I've already promised Perry that I'd be available here because of a story I'm working on. I've already made some other arrangements anyway."
"Uh huh, let me guess, spending the holidays with family?"
"Every living relative I have."
"Cla-rk," Lana said with an exasperated sigh.
"La-na," Clark replied with a smile mimicking her exasperation.
Lana closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head.
"You're a stubborn man, Clark Kent. You're also absolutely the best man I know. Kind and generous to the point that a lot of saints could stand to come to you for pointers. But, as nice as you are to everyone else, I wish you'd treat yourself with the same compassion."
"They wouldn't want you to be alone, Clark."
"I'm not alone, Lana."
"Really?" Lana said, glancing down at his desk and picking up the solitary picture-frame present. "I don't see a lot of evidence of other people present in your life."
"I have friends, Lana."
"Friends or acquaintances?"
"Friends," Clark said, adopting a no nonsense tone.
"But no one special. No one to make you feel a part of something," Lana replied, not put off in the least by his tone.
"Lana…" Clark started to say again, his tone softening.
"No, Clark," Lana interrupted. "You don't need to say anything. We both know all of the reasons why it doesn't work with us. Too much time and water under the bridge. You have…your other responsibilities. Important responsibilities that need to be addressed and I'm too selfish to share. But just because it's that way with us doesn't mean it has to be a lose/lose sacrifice issue for you."
A dozen denials sprang to Clark's lips, but he clamped his mouth shut before he could voice them. Finally, he settled on avoidance with a bit of honesty.
"You're not selfish, Lana."
Lana smiled at Clark's choice of reply. It wasn't an admission, but at least it wasn't a denial of what both knew stood between them and what both knew the other knew.
"Yes, I am, Clark. About the things that matter."
She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the lips and then stood up.
"While you're out saving the world, don't lose sight of Jonathan and Martha's son while you're at it. He's an incredible man and deserves to be treated with kindness."
"I won't, Lana."
Lana looked into his eyes for a moment before finally speaking again. "Merry Christmas, Clark."
"Merry Christmas, Lana."
Offering a final soft smile, she turned and left the newsroom.
Clark sat looking after her for a moment, lost in thought.
Across the room, Lois had watched the scene play itself out. She hadn't been able to hear but a couple of words from the conversation and she told herself that was ok because she wasn't trying to eavesdrop anyway. Not exactly. The kiss at the end, however, had definitely gotten her attention. Unable to bear it anymore, she stood up and crossed the room.
Clark sat silently staring at his computer screen, but obviously lost in thought. His somber mood, though, was quickly interrupted.
"You've been holding out on us, Smallville," Lois said, dropping down into the seat Lana had recently vacated.
"Huh?" Clark answered.
"Ah, that mid-western wit," Lois said, leaning forward and smiling. "I can never get enough of it."
Clark smiled despite himself, and shook his head.
"Ok, enough abusing the straight man in this act. What exactly am I supposedly 'holding out'?"
"The redhead," Lois said.
"Lana?" Clark asked in surprise. "She's just an old friend."
"Old friend, huh?" Lois said. "Looked awful chummy to me for an old friend. Does she lay a lip lock like that on all of the guys she knows?"
"Lana and I used to date," Clark said and, as Lois quickly opened her mouth to speak, he added, "in high school."
"Wow, and she still follows you around. Sounds kind of needy to me."
Clark frowned at Lois and started to speak, but Lois interrupted.
"I don't mean to overstep my bounds, Clark, but do you really want to get involved with someone who's going to be needy?"
"I mean, it really doesn't matter to me. I certainly don't care who you spend your time with, but I just think you should be careful about those kinds of things."
"You do have a career to consider, you know. You can't just…"
"Lois," Clark interjected a bit more forcefully, finally interrupting her babble. "Lana and I aren't involved and won't be getting involved. We're just friends. She just stopped by to invite me to her parents' for Christmas dinner. I declined."
"Oh," Lois said, unsure of what to say next.
Clark suddenly got a mischievous look on his face and leaned forward.
"Why exactly are you concerned about my social life, anyway?"
"What?" Lois said, suddenly realizing the turn in the conversation and fighting not to blush. "I'm not. I mean I was just…"
The ringing of Clark's phone rescued her and she grabbed it before Clark could even react.
"Daily Planet, Lois Lane speaking."
"Lane? I thought this was Kent's number," Henderson's gruff voice answered.
"Well, we are partners, Inspector. You know, what's his is mine and what's mine is mine, etc etc," Lois answered with a grin.
"Uh huh," Henderson said, "has anyone let Kent know that yet?"
Lois batted away the hand Clark held out for the phone and turned slightly away.
"I don't bother myself with technicalities, Henderson. So what do you have for me?"
"Us," Clark corrected.
Lois made a shushing motion with her hand and Clark responded by resting his chin in the palm of his hand as he placed his elbow on the desk and resigned himself to playing spectator.
"Sorry about that, Inspector, could you repeat that please? An annoying noise in my ear kept me from hearing you."
"I said, we've set up a time for you and Kent to talk to Maxwell. Kent is allowed to talk, right?"
"Clark is an adult, Henderson. He can do whatever he wants. He just happens to have the good sense to let me do most of the talking."
Lois chose to ignore Clark's answering glower and turned even further away in her seat.
"Good sense," Henderson repeated, "gotcha. A matador has the good sense to get out of the way of the bull too, but what confuses me is that he's still stupid enough to step into the ring in the first place."
"You're not Irish, by any chance, are you, Henderson?" Lois asked.
"Grandmother hailed straight from Dublin, thank you very much. I get my sense of humor from her."
"You might consider suing."
"Just find out what we have to do, Lois," Clark said.
Lois turned to find Clark with his head down, supporting his forehead in both of his hands.
"Clark's getting impatient, Henderson. He apparently doesn't understand the finely honed professional relationship we've developed. You'd better give with the goods before he has a fit of apoplexy."
"Be outside the Planet at 6:00 PM sharp. I'll have some plainclothes guys pick you up in an unmarked car and drive you to the safe house."
"Will you or Hagan be there?" Lois asked.
"Some of us have lives outside work, Lane. You might want to look into that."
"Yeah, Henderson, but we're talking about you and the Governor wannabe."
She heard Henderson sigh deeply before he answered.
"No, neither of us will be there. It'll just be you and the guard detail tonight. Hagan wants you out of there by nine, though. Trust me, Lane, Hagan wanted to be there, but he said something had come up that he couldn't let wait and he was trusting you to keep to our deal."
"We're the soul of professionalism and propriety, Henderson."
"Whatever," he answered, "just be out front at six or you'll have to be professional with someone else."
Henderson hung up before Lois could answer and she stuck her tongue out at the phone before she hung her receiver up as well.
At six PM sharp, Lois and Clark stood in front of the Daily Planet in the chilly December wind waiting for their ride. A few minutes after six, a gray, nondescript Buick pulled up in front of them and the driver motioned with his head for the two to get in the back seat.
"Still a man of few words, huh, Miller?" Lois said as she got in the car.
"Standing orders from Henderson whenever the MPD is transporting Lois Lane, 'keep your trap shut'," Miller responded as he looked over his shoulder out the back window and pulled out into traffic.
The car headed out of Metropolis over the Hobb's Bay Bridge toward the surrounding suburbs. The ride was relatively uneventful and in short order the car entered Brentwood, one of the several middle class suburbs outside the city. They passed several housing developments all built along the same lines until they turned into the entrance to one called Forest Hills.
"Forrest Hagan maintains a safe house in Forest Hills," Lois commented with a smirk. "Go figure."
"I don't think this can be considered Mr. Hagan's own personal safe house, Lois," Clark responded. "The Metropolis PD or the Sheriff's department have probably maintained this for quite some time."
Lois cast Clark a stony stare.
"Sarcasm works better without commentary, Clark. And rhetorical questions work better when they're left rhetorical."
"Well technically, Lois, you didn't ask a question. You made a statement. Those can't be rhetorical."
"Your English teacher would be proud," she said before turning to look back out the window. After a moment, he heard her mutter, "I'm surprised you learned so much what with 'Lana' occupying your time."
Clark cocked an eyebrow at the last statement, but wisely chose not to respond to it.
They soon pulled into the driveway of a small, ranch-style home and were shown inside by their driver. The security detail consisted of two plainclothes officers who were sitting in the living room watching a hockey game on TV. Robert Maxwell was pacing the floor in the adjacent kitchen.
"Sorry guys," Miller said, "you're going to have to miss the rest of the game. Hagan agreed for Maxwell to talk to these two and one or both of you guys are under orders to monitor everything said in case Maxwell 'recalls' some detail he forgot to inform Hagan about."
Miller reviewed Hagan's instructions one more time with all involved and then, before leaving, told the two reporters that he would be back at nine o'clock to pick them both up and return them to the Daily Planet.
"Hagan said to tell you to use the time you have wisely," Miller said.
"Gee," Lois replied, "I'm glad he thought of that, aren't you, Clark? Why, us two seasoned professionals might have spent all night just discussing the weather with Maxwell here."
Miller shook his head and left the house, grumbling to himself.
One of the officers excused himself to check in with the local police and the rest settled into the living room.
"Ok, Maxwell," Clark said before Lois could speak up, "where do you want to begin?"
"I'm not sure," he replied. "I just want to make sure my side of the story's heard and that those other bastards get nailed to the wall."
"Then why don't you start with how you got involved with Intergang," Lois said quickly, directing a smirk at Clark.
"About six years ago, I had a bit of a gambling problem and I got into it deep with some of the local bookies and couldn't pay up. I got threatened a bit and a couple of guys even pushed me around a little, but nothing major happened initially. Then one day I got a call that Bruno Mannheim wanted to see me. Mannheim, as you know, was head of Intergang at the time and he said that he'd get the bookies to overlook the debt if I did some work for him. That's when I started influencing how some of the city bids went."
"So you weren't getting kickbacks from the bidders then?" Clark asked.
"Not at first, no. It was purely an Intergang operation and I never knew exactly how it worked. This went on for a couple of years and then Superman busted up Intergang. Mannheim went to prison and everyone seemed to forget all about me. I was free and clear. The situation with the bookies was even scary enough that I was able to kick the gambling thing."
"So how did the city contract racket start back up again?"
"About two years ago I got a call from a guy named Marcus Styles. He said he represented the 'new' Intergang and he wanted to talk to me about some opportunities. My gut clenched at the thought that I was going to get pulled back in, but I agreed to meet him because I was afraid he had some way of proving my past connection with the organization. We meet at the Tower Gardens and he tells me that Intergang is back in business, but that it's a changed organization."
"Changed?" Clark asked. "Changed how?"
"That's what I asked. He said that the old Intergang had been a mafia full of thugs. A sophisticated mafia, to be sure, but full of thugs nonetheless. He said that the new Intergang had a vision and one that would benefit all of its members, not just the ones on top. He said he knew about my former arrangement with Mannheim and that the new organization would like to reinitiate it, but that I wouldn't be working for free this time."
"They were going to start including you in on the kickbacks," Lois said.
"Something like that, but not quite. Styles shoved a briefcase over to my side of the table and told me that it contained one hundred thousand dollars that was mine just to hear their proposal. He said that this wasn't a blackmail racket and that I could walk away any time and they'd never bother me again. All he asked was that I listen and decide whether or not I wanted to be rich."
"Nice sales pitch," Lois said.
"You're telling me." Maxwell said, shaking his head. "I didn't even need to see the money and I was already feeling like I did when I used to score big on the games. So, I listened and he said that the new Intergang was trying to phase out the old gangster-style way of doing business. He said that the organization was headed up by businessmen who knew the value of 'helping each other out'."
"Helping each other out?" Clark prompted.
"Yeah, he said that Intergang now believed in a "mutually beneficial" way of doing business. He said that more and more heads of industry in Metropolis and the surrounding cities were joining in and they were all simply looking out for each other. He said to think of it as a kind of union for big business."
"A union?" Lois asked.
"Yeah, that's the term Styles used. He said that they all helped each other get ahead. No one gets bullied and no one got hurt. This 'union' would be able to put people in a position where they could benefit each other in the normal course of business affairs. He said that I would be a key player in the game and could stand to make what that briefcase contained look like chicken feed. That's when he made his offer."
"Which was?" Clark asked.
"He said that I would get a regular monthly retainer of ten thousand dollars and a percentage of each deal I helped pass through the City Council."
Lois whistled. "That had to be a pretty hefty chunk of change."
"It sure was," Maxwell agreed.
"How many deals did you help broker?" Clark asked.
"In the past two years I helped twelve Intergang sponsored proposals pass through the Council."
"Which netted you how much money?" Lois asked.
"That's one of the things that I would prefer to keep to myself," Maxwell answered.
"Because you hope Hagan's still going to let you walk away with it so long as he nails these 'captains of Industry," Lois said.
"Something like that," Maxwell said with a grin.
"How altruistic of you," Lois said with a scowl.
"Hey, I'm no idiot. Once you two busted me on the stadium thing, I knew I had a choice of either going to prison or selling out Intergang. And you don't sell out these people unless you have the resources to run and run far."
"So, exactly what 'people' are we talking about?" Clark asked.
"I don't know them all, just a few of the players that I had to deal with because of the contracts. But those are big names, trust me."
"How about the people behind the startup of this new Intergang, or do you think those people and these names you know are one in the same?"
Maxwell paused for a few seconds before answering.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I don't think so, though. I have some ideas about it, but I don't think this whole thing is just about some businessmen helping each other out."
"Why don't you tell us some of those ideas, then," Lois said, leaning forward.
Suddenly, the door exploded inward, knocking the second officer, who was returning from another room, off his feet and slamming him into the far wall. Before Clark could do anything, though, his stomach began to twist and a pain lanced though his head. The sickening feeling became even worse as the reason for the explosion stepped through the door.
A figure dressed in silver and red stepped unhurriedly through the burning remnants of the door and calmly shot the remaining police officer, who had pulled his gun and had it at the ready while checking his fallen partner. The intruder's head was completely covered in a silver mask except for a single red optical targeting system placed where his right eye should be. Despite the mask, however, his identity was not a secret.
"Deadshot!" Clark gasped out as the pain he was feeling intensified and nausea threatened to make him pass out.
"Nice to see I haven't been forgotten by the fickle media," Deadshot replied as he turned to Maxwell and raised one of his arms which had a wrist mounted gun attached. "Interview's been cancelled Robbie, ol' boy."
As paralyzed as Clark was, though, his partner was not. Before Deadshot could claim a third victim, an ashtray glanced off the side of his head, causing his shot to go wide. As Maxwell dropped to the floor Lois, vaulted the coffee table and drove both feet into Deadshot's stomach knocking him backwards and to the ground.
"Clark, get Maxwell out of here," she shouted over her shoulder.
For his part, Deadshot had rolled with the surprise attack and was coming to his feet, bringing his wrist-mounted guns to bear on his attacker. Lois dove between his outstretched arms to avoid the weapons and drove a forearm into Deadshot's face while hooking a leg through one of his and knocking him to the floor once again.
Clark quickly scanned Deadshot with his X-ray vision looking for the source of his sickness. Just as he expected, he found Deadshot's left-wrist gun loaded with .44 caliber Kryptonite bullets. An appearance by Superman would probably have earned him a bullet between his eyes before he would even have realized anything was wrong. It was only fortune which had caused Deadshot's attack while he was present as Clark Kent.
Any coherent plan of attack, though, was interrupted when he saw Deadshot's leg sweep out taking Lois to the floor and almost in slow motion he watched the killer come to his feet and bring a gun up to point at the fallen woman.
"I like a woman with fire, doll, but you and your four-eyed boyfriend are on the list along with Robbie. I do appreciate the show of spunk, though. Don't worry, it'll only hurt until you're dead."
The fierce scream startled both Lois and the masked hit man as Clark, ignoring the pain racking his body, barreled into Deadshot, carrying them both into the kitchen.
The waves of nausea and dizziness were almost unbearable at this range as the Kryptonite radiation washed through his body, causing his cells to warp and reject the solar energy they contained. The fear, however, that had gripped his heart at the sight of the killer placing his sights on Lois was by far greater than any pain the Kryptonite radiation striking his body could produce and had spurred Clark to action.
The problem now was how to stop the killer before he claimed another victim. If he didn't do something quickly, he would pass out from the radiation sickness and then both he and Lois would be dead. Clark's nausea intensified as Deadshot brought a knee up into his stomach and pulled his left arm loose to bring its wrist gun against Clark's head. In a desperate move, Clark lunged forward at that moment, pushing Deadshot off balance, and drew back his fist to follow up his attack.
Clark couldn't afford to pull his punch a great deal for fear that Deadshot wouldn't be greatly affected and could still get off a shot. Conversely, he couldn't hit him too hard or it would kill him. Under normal circumstances, Clark had gotten pretty good over the past several years gauging the appropriate amount of strength to use with humans. Unfortunately, weakened and sick as he was from the Kryptonite, he had no idea what level of strength he had to work with. So, saying a silent prayer, he let fly a punch that he hoped would at least knock Deadshot off his feet.
He also didn't get back up again.
"You broke his jaw?!" Jimmy said amazed.
"I didn't mean to," Clark said trying his best to downplay things.
"One punch. Lois said you just hit him with one punch."
"Lois was exaggerating. She had already softened him up with a few good punches herself. I just got in a lucky shot at the right moment. I probably hit him a few more times than she said."
"Don't be modest, Smallville," Lois said, approaching from behind, "I was rather pleased that you picked that moment to intercede. I thought I was a goner for sure. And I don't exaggerate. It was just one punch. I was there, remember?"
"Well, like I said, you had softened him up," Clark said, looking up at the woman. "I would rather you had run in the other direction, though. Attacking a hit-man isn't exactly the smartest move you could make."
"And letting him kill the star witness and probably you and me as well would have been a smart move?"
"That's not what I mean," Clark said.
"Then perhaps you might explain it better. I didn't exactly see you high-tailing it out the door. Are you saying it was a 'smart' move for you to roll around with a super-villain, but not me? You wouldn't be saying that because I'm a woman, would you?"
"No, Lois," Clark said, shaking his head, "you know better than that. I just don't like the idea of you going up against a killer."
"I appreciate the sentiment, Clark, but someone had to. He'd just shot a cop and was drawing a bead on Maxwell. And you heard him. Whoever hired him apparently named us in the hit as well."
"I remember," Clark said, staring at his computer screen. "And we're left without even any names to follow up on because Floyd Lawton A.K.A. Deadshot chose to make his entrance before Maxwell could finish his story."
"Yeah, at least we know that Maxwell agreed with your version of the 'smart' move. The police still haven't found him since he took off out the back door."
"One punch…" Jimmy said again shaking his head in wonder.
"Jimmy," Clark said, feeling a bit exasperated, "seriously, it wasn't that big of a deal."
"Do you know how much force it would take to break a man's jaw, Clark?" Jimmy asked, looking at his friend.
"On average, it takes about 12 pounds of pressure to break a bone," said a voice from behind them.
"Henderson," Clark said, looking up and trying not to show the gratitude he felt for the rescue.
"It's not easy to break a bone in a fight, but it happens more often than you think, Olsen," Henderson continued as he came to a stop beside the trio.
"Which also means that you're lucky you didn't break your hand as well, Kent," he added.
"Any news on Maxwell?" Clark asked, trying again to shift the topic.
"Nothing yet. The fact is he has access to God only knows how much money through different accounts to fund his escape. We've frozen what accounts we could find and have his description out to every train, plane, and bus station in the tri-state area, but so far nothing. Right now it's even money if we find him or not, though."
"Especially if Intergang finds him first," Lois said. "Is Lawton talking at all?"
"I doubt he would even if his jaw wasn't wired shut," Henderson said with a slight smile. "That was actually a pretty good shot, Kent. The local boys said he was still out cold when they got there."
Clark began to feel sick to his stomach again, only this time there was no Kryptonite to blame it on.
"It was just a lucky punch," he repeated weakly for perhaps the hundredth time that day.
"Either way," Henderson said, shrugging his shoulders, "you might want to be on alert the next time Lawton escapes or comes up for parole. The boys downtown say that he's one unhappy inmate."
"Well, if there isn't any word on Maxwell, then why have you stopped by, Henderson? Not just to feed Clark's ulcer, I hope," Lois said.
"I just wanted to see if Maxwell had told you anything that he'd kept from us. Hagan wanted an officer there during the interview to keep an eye on things like that, but he unfortunately isn't around now to make a report."
Clark closed his eyes briefly as he remembered seeing the officer gunned down while he watched helplessly from the couch.
"How's the other officer?" he asked.
"They kept him overnight for observation," Henderson replied, "but it looks like he was just stunned by the explosion and wasn't seriously injured."
"Thank God for that," Clark said softly almost to himself.
"Yeah, he got off real lucky. Mostly thanks to you two, though. God only knows what Deadshot would have done if you hadn't taken him out."
"Are you actually thanking us, Henderson?" Lois asked, sounding shocked.
"I give credit where credit is due, Lane. And Kent," Henderson said, emphasizing Clark's name, "did apprehend a cop killer."
"I appreciate you too, Inspector," Lois said, adopting a syrupy sweet smile.
"I don't think Maxwell even got to tell us as much as he told you, Inspector," Clark said, quickly speaking to break the staring contest Henderson and Lois had started to be engaged in.
He and Lois related all that Maxwell had shared with them up until the point of Deadshot's interruption.
"I don't suppose you'd like to share any names that Maxwell provided, would you, Inspector?" Lois asked.
"You suppose entirely correctly, Lane," Henderson responded. "Don't worry, though, I'll stay in touch. I remember my debts. I expect the same from you two as well. You find out anything, I want to be the first person to know, before Perry White, even."
Lois opened her mouth to speak, but Henderson continued on.
"I don't believe for a minute that'll happen, though, so I'll settle for being the first person who finds out immediately after White."
Clark smiled for the first time that morning. "Don't worry, Inspector. What we know you'll know."
Henderson nodded his head absently and then headed for the door. He stopped before he left the newsroom, though, and turned back to address Clark.
"I think I am starting to see how you've survived Lane all these years, Kent. With a punch like that, you're probably tough enough to actually come close to holding your own."
He then chuckled and left the newsroom without a backward glance, while Lois rolled her eyes.
"Someone should file a police brutality suit just because they force people to listen to their humor," Lois said.
Turning back to Clark, she added, "But, aside from waiting for chuckles there to call, do you have any ideas for what to do next?"
"Not much," he replied. "But I do have a source in Lawton's hometown who usually keeps track of the comings and goings of people like him. I'll check with him tonight."
Superman leaned back against the wall beside a doorway while he waited for the man he had come to see to finish his work inside. Casting a glance through a side window from time to time, his acute vision cut through the darkness and he marveled at what he saw inside.
Ten men surrounded and were attempting to overcome an eleventh. That man was dressed in black and gray and seemed more a part of the shadows than actually human. He moved with incredible speed and was dispatching the men with a hand-to-hand combat acumen that defied belief.
Superman knew that any attempts at help on his part would be deemed interference so he remained at his vantage point acting only as an observer. This decision quickly changed, though, when he saw another man step into the room and level a gun at the back of the man in black. Superman's eyes narrowed and he prepared to let loose a short burst of heat vision, which would quickly end the problem.
Before he could act, however, something flew through the darkness, knocking the gun from the man's hand, and then ricocheted into his chin rendering him unconscious. Superman stared in amazement for a moment before turning his gaze back to the man in black, only to find the man glaring back at him as if he somehow was aware of Clark's presence and knew what had been going through the Man of Steel's mind.
Superman suddenly opened his mouth to shout a warning, but again before he could act the man lashed out and took down the thug who had been attempting to take him from behind. After another short glare, the man in black returned to dispatch the remaining criminals.
"Oookay, now that was just spooky," Superman muttered to himself as he turned back around to lean on the wall with his arms crossed.
He heard running footsteps approach the doorway from inside the room and he swung an arm out to halt the attempted escape. Before the criminal could knock the breath out of himself on the invulnerable arm, however, a black-gloved hand grabbed hold of his collar and jerked him to a stop.
Realizing that something had stopped the criminal from his headlong rush into an immovable object, Superman glanced into the room and found the terrified man being held aloft by Gotham City's own masked protector, the Batman.
"Oh, good, you're done," Superman said, "why don't you tie h…"
The Batman delivered a straight-armed punch to the man's jaw, knocking him unconscious, and then dropped him to the floor.
"Or you could do that," Superman finished.
"I have no idea who hired Lawton, but I'm working on it," Batman's gravelly voice stated matter-of-factly, startling the Man of Steel.
"How did…?" Superman began.
"It was on the news," Batman said as he pulled plastic restraint ties from his belt and began to secure the unconscious men littered about the floor.
"Yeah, I guess that's…"
"You broke his jaw," Batman said, interrupting Superman a second time.
Superman dropped his head in embarrassment.
"It was an accident. He had Kryptonite on him and it was weakening me. I…"
"I wasn't criticizing. I actually laughed out loud. Alfred thought I was ill."
"Well, it wasn't on purpose. I was just having trouble gauging my strength because of the Kryptonite, and besides, I needed to take him out quickly. Lois was…"
"Ahhh," Batman said as he secured the last man.
"What do you mean 'ahhh'?"
"Nothing, just Ms. Lane's presence explains some of the urgency," Batman said as he exited the building with Superman on his heels.
"Well, of course it does. A civilian was in danger. I had…what are you smirking about?"
Batman stopped in his tracks and turned around stone-faced.
"I. Don't. Smirk."
He hit a switch on his belt and headlights suddenly came on across the parking lot, and a car moved quickly toward them, only to stop a foot from Batman's still form. The car itself was completely black with opaque tinted windows. Batman opened the door and retrieved a small lead case from somewhere in the interior. He tossed the case to Superman.
"The Kryptonite bullets Deadshot had on him. I figured you might want to dispose of them personally."
Superman stared at the case in his hand for a second before responding.
"I thought these were in evidence lock-up back in Metropolis."
"They were. They're not now."
"I appreciate the thought, Bruce, but you didn't have to. I have a pretty good working relationship with the MPD. They would have turned them over to me after the trial."
"Don't be naive, Clark. They would have been buried under a ton of paperwork, and when and if they ever did give them to you I guarantee at least one if not more would have been missing."
"I don't believe that."
"Whatever helps you sleep at night," Batman said as he got in the car. "At any rate, you'll find out soon enough. I replaced them with virtual duplicates, except that they're harmless to you. There are ten of them. If they give you all ten after the trial then you can feel free to come back and say I told you so. Until then, I thought it might be safer if you had the originals now."
Clark stared briefly at the case before he spoke.
Batman grunted an acknowledgement and then moved to put the car in gear.
"Bruce…" Clark began unsure as to how to proceed.
"Yes?" Batman responded, taking his hand off the gearshift and looking up at Clark expectantly.
"Have…" Clark met his friend's gaze briefly, but dropped his eyes as he spoke. "Have you ever been bothered by the stuff you encounter on the job? Or feel like your control might be slipping?"
Hearing no response from his friend, Clark continued on, trying to find the words to explain his dilemma. "I mean, have you ever been afraid of yourself? Of the things you can do or might do?"
Batman stared blankly at Superman for a moment before speaking.
"We're not going to have 'a moment,' are we?"
"What? No…no, it was just brought up to me a few days ago that people who deal with the kinds of things we deal do sometimes suffer from some stress related problems. They tend to burn out quickly and maybe be bothered by stress from the job. I just wondered if that had ever happened to you or if you had any opinion on the matter."
Batman continued to stare blankly without speaking.
"And I guess that's a 'no'," Superman said.
"Clark," Batman said, "is something in particular on your mind?"
"No…yes, it's just last night I almost killed a man. I panicked when I thought he was going to kill another person and then, without regard for his safety, I lashed out. It was foolish and impulsive and I have to wonder if stress hasn't caused me to lose my perspective."
"Clark, you didn't almost kill a man. You only broke his jaw. And it was a man who had just killed a police officer and almost killed you and someone…important to you."
"That's just semantics, Bruce. I 'only' broke his jaw by sheer luck. I didn't know how hard I was hitting him. I thought I was just going to knock him down. What if I had snapped his neck? Because of the Kryptonite I had no idea what power level I was functioning at. It was irresponsible of me to hit him at all."
"What other choice did he leave you, Clark? He was the one with the gun. He was the one intent on killing everyone in that room. You had to act."
"Act, but not kill. There's always another option."
"But you didn't kill him and never had the intention to in the first place."
"I could have, though. And easily since I didn't know my strength level."
"Now who's talking semantics?" Batman asked.
"If you knew it was possible that something you could do would potentially kill an opponent in a fight, would you risk it?"
"It's not the same, Clark."
"Would you?" Clark pressed.
"No," Batman said after a pause, "but hindsight is always twenty- twenty. All you knew was that he had to be stopped before he killed again and you pulled your punch like you've always done. Now, let me ask you a question."
Clark looked at his friend expectantly.
"Even considering the Kryptonite, could you have hit him hard enough to kill him if you had wanted to?"
"Well, yes, but…"
"But nothing. You pulled your punch, Clark. You could have stopped him quickly and decisively, but you chose the morally right path of not taking a life. A path you've always chosen. That's the one true commonality the two of us share. We don't kill. Just because you didn't know how hard you did hit him doesn't change the fact that you knew how hard you could hit him and you consciously chose not to."
"But what if I had been wrong?"
"You're the most level-headed man I know, Clark, and I'd trust your judgment, even impaired, before almost anyone else's," the Batman responded. "The only complaint I have about you is that you're too hard on yourself and too trusting and easy on everyone else around you. I'm afraid that it's liable to get you killed one of these days."
"You tend to look at the dark side of things, Bruce. Sometimes I think you're not trusting enough of the motives of others. These bullets, for example."
"You trust that people are just like you and want to do the right thing. But they don't see you as one of them, Clark. You're larger than life. Almost a god. And people like to bring gods down to their level. You show people how they could be if they worked at it and didn't always choose the easy path. But too many people like the easy way, Clark, the comfortable way. They don't like it when someone shows them that the justifications they use to excuse how they live their lives are exactly that, justifications and excuses. It reminds them of the compromises they make every day because they're too weak to stand their ground. It's why people pull the wings off flies and crucify good men. They don't like to feel like they're being looked down upon even if just from a moral standpoint. Give them the opportunity and they'll find your weaknesses and bludgeon you with them. That's why you can't afford to trust that they'll just hand over the one thing that evens the playing field."
When Clark didn't respond, after a few moments Batman put the car in gear.
"Not everyone is as good a person as you are, Clark. Remember that."
With that, his window closed and the car disappeared into the night, leaving the Man of Steel alone in the dark parking lot with his thoughts.
"But I have to believe they can be, Bruce. I have to believe they can be," Clark whispered to himself.
He stared at the case in his hand for a few moments and then his eyes began to glow slightly. Smoke rose from the case as the seam was welded shut. When this was complete, he made a sudden move and hurled the case into the sky.
Bright and early the next morning, Lois Lane stood outside apartment 3D at 344 Clinton Street ringing the bell. Clark had been returning from an early morning patrol when he had heard the buzzer about a block away. Quickly entering his apartment, he splashed some water on his hair and changed into a robe before answering the door.
"Geez, Kent," Lois said as she brushed past him, "I was wondering for a minute there if I should get the super to let me in to see if Deadshot had some buddies pay you a visit."
"Uh, I was in the shower," Clark said, holding the door and staring somewhat dumbfounded after his partner as she proceeded through his apartment into his kitchen.
He quickly closed the door and hurried after her into the kitchen where he saw her begin going through his cabinets and refrigerator.
"Are you looking for something in particular, Lois?" he asked, feeling a bit unsure of himself.
"Yeah, something to eat," Lois said, staring into the refrigerator for a moment before closing the door and opening the cabinets up again. She finally closed the cabinet door and turned back to Clark with a puzzled look on her face.
"Clark," she began, "you don't have a single piece of food in your entire kitchen. How is that possible?"
Clark opened his mouth to respond, but found himself suddenly at a loss to explain the situation. He had never really needed to eat as his body's needs were fulfilled by solar energy, but had grown up in the habit of enjoying meals with his parents.
During college, after his parents' deaths, he had occasionally missed meals in favor of his Superboy duties, but he had still generally eaten on a fairly regular basis. He had always routinely skipped dinner more often than not in order to patrol Metropolis in the evenings and once he had begun working at the Planet he often used lunchtime to catch up on his work if he had been called away during the day. Some time ago, just as he had done this morning, he had started to occasionally skip breakfast in order to spend his mornings before work doing patrols in other parts of the world. At some point, he realized, he had simply stopped eating all together.
"I…" he began and then stopped to reorganize his thoughts and tried again, "I just cleaned everything out and haven't had a chance to go shopping yet."
"You cleaned everything out?" Lois repeated cocking her head slightly to one side. "You mean you threw everything out at the same time and didn't leave anything at all for yourself to eat until you went shopping?"
"Well," Clark said, realizing how stupid that sounded even to him, "yeah. I just had some time on my hands and figured the kitchen needed cleaning."
At her doubtful look, he added, "And I was going shopping tonight anyway."
"Okay," Lois said, nodding her head slowly as she stared at Clark, trying to decide if he was serious. "You're the bachelor. Whatever floats your boat, I guess."
"Well, um," Clark stammered, trying to cover his embarrassment, "why don't you grab a seat in the living room and I'll go put on some clothes."
"Yeah, sure." Lois responded as he turned and headed for the bedroom. "Take your time. I'll even treat for breakfast on the way to work."
As Clark disappeared into the bedroom, Lois turned back to the kitchen and did a slow, sweeping glance of the room. Stepping over to the trashcan, she stepped on the pedal, causing the lid to open, revealing the completely empty bag within. She then stepped back over to the cabinets, which she again opened and ran a finger across the lower shelves. Looking at her finger, she observed the film of dust it had removed.
She dusted her hands off and entered the living room and looked around. She had been in Clark's apartment a few times over the years, but had never really given it a great deal of thought until now. Her glance passed over the shelves of books with the one shelf reserved for his journalism awards and onto a small table containing some photographs. The photos appeared to be mainly of his parents, but a few were of Clark at a younger age and what appeared to be some high school friends. There were none more recent of Clark than what appeared to be him at eighteen years of age.
Lois stopped for a moment to study the pictures. The were several of Clark's parents alone in various scenes around a farm and one of the two of them in formal dress smiling into the camera while seated in what looked like a banquet hall. A "Happy Anniversary" banner could be seen in the background. One picture in particular caught her eye, though. It was of Clark and his father and showed the elder Kent soaking wet, holding up a large fish and smiling into the camera with a perhaps 12- or 13-year- old Clark looking up at his father in admiration.
Lois couldn't help but smile to herself while she imagined the story behind the picture. The Kents had obviously been a very happy family, if these few pictures were any evidence. Putting it down,, she picked up another of a group of what appeared to be high school students gathered together on an athletic field. It took her a moment to locate Clark, even though there were probably only ten or so people in the picture. As Lois had almost halfway suspected she would find, he seemed to disappear into the crowd. Blending in like a chameleon on a piece of bark.
Since noticing that facet of his personality, she had looked through various group photos at the Planet in which Clark was a participant. One hundred percent of the time he could be found slightly to one side, but not quite on the edge of the crowd. Just enough to be encased by the crowd but enough on the edge so as to go unnoticed by a cursory glance.
The one exception to this, and the only picture in sight that showed an adult Clark, was a single photo that hung on the wall and was of Clark with four other men. Clark stood out clearly as the centerpiece of this little group. From the background, it appeared to have been taken in the owner's box at Metropolis Metros' Stadium. Lois recognized it from having wheeled and dealed an invitation once two years ago to the World Series when it had been held there.
All five men appeared to be of the same age. To Clark's far left was a slightly shorter, handsome, brown haired man with a devil- may-care smile on his face that spoke of a reckless disregard for common sense and an intense love of fun. The kind of man Lois knew only too well and now tried to avoid. He wore an Air Force flight jacket with the name "Jordan" across the right breast and he was displaying "bunny ears" behind the man on Clark's near left whom he had his arm around in a comradely fashion.
That man was of about the same height and sported blond hair in a crew cut. The grin on his face spoke of mid-western charm much like Clark's and Lois found herself instantly liking him. He wore a Kansas State warm-up jacket and Lois could make out a policeman's badge clipped to his belt as he stood with one arm around the shoulders of the pilot beside him and was also displaying a set of "bunny ears" behind his head.
To Clark's far right was a man who seemed to fade into the background much the way Clark usually did. He was as tall as Clark with brown hair and his smile even more guarded if that was possible than the one Clark usually sported. He also had a policeman's badge clipped to his belt and he stood with his arms behind his back as if consciously avoiding physical contact with the others, especially the man to his left and Clark's immediate right.
That man drew Lois's attention, not because of his good looks, but because he was the one person in the picture besides Clark that she had instantly recognized. He was also the obvious reason all of them had access to the owner's box at Metro Stadium. How on Earth did Clark know Bruce Wayne? she asked herself. For that matter, Lois wondered what did two policemen, an Air Force pilot, a billionaire, and a newspaper reporter all have in common?
Despite this question, the thing that stood out in the whole picture, though, was Clark. Not only was he the centerpiece, but the smile on his face was one she rarely got to see and one she had come to notice that he usually reserved just for her. It was wide, genuine, and spoke of complete happiness. He appeared more relaxed than she had ever seen him and was obviously laughing at some joke the five had shared.
She studied Clark's face for a few more moments and then continued her survey of the room. She noted that the furniture appeared hardly used at all and could almost be mistaken for new, yet she knew it was the exact same furniture that had been here on her previous visits. Looking around, she couldn't decide if the apartment seemed obsessively neat or simply unused. The cushions were perfectly in place on the couch and the coffee table was bereft of any decoration or reading material. The TV remote was sitting on top of the television and there was no TV guide in sight. A small folding tray leaned against the easy chair spoke of meals eaten in front of the TV despite the lack of corroborating evidence from the kitchen.
The only part of the room that didn't resemble something out of a catalog, besides the photographs and the awards, was a desk in the corner with a computer and several file stacker trays. Crossing over to the computer, she noted that it was on, but in sleep mode. The strangest thing she noticed, though, was the keyboard. Most of the letters were worn completely off of the keys.
Pursing her lips, she returned to the center of the room and sat down on the couch. Glancing around the apartment again from her seated position, she tried to make sense of her information, but no answer was quickly forthcoming. Something was strange in the land of Kent, but she had no idea what it was. She was just left with more questions than she had originally. Before she could ponder the matter further, Clark reappeared, dressed in khakis, dress shirt and tie carrying his sports coat.
"Now," he said as he re-entered the room, "to what do I owe the pleasure of this early morning food raid?"
"I just figured we could eat and go over this list," she replied, pulling a folded sheet of computer printout from her purse.
"That the list of city contract winners?" Clark asked.
"Yep, Jimmy finally got it after you left last night and forwarded it on to me."
Clark whistled as he read the names on the list.
"These are some heavy hitters. Does this cover the past two years?"
"Actually, the past four years. I wanted to see if any names started suddenly appearing out of the blue over the past two years or if perhaps suddenly a particular company or companies started winning bids where others had been the front runners before."
"Good thinking, partner," Clark said, giving Lois an appreciative smile.
"I have my moments."
"Since I'm assuming you've already studied the list, have any patterns already jumped out at you?"
"Yes, they have," Lois said, standing up and taking Clark by the arm, "but I'm not talking until I get some food in my stomach. So decide now where you're taking me."
"Taking you?" Clark asked. "I thought you said you were paying?"
"To-May-to, to-Mah-to, we'll decide when we get there," she responded pushing him toward the door.
One half hour later, they were seated in a restaurant, eating breakfast, discussing Lois's theories regarding Intergang's interference in city government.
"Well, discounting J&D Construction which handled the Municipal Stadium, I spotted three companies that began making regular appearances on the list about two years ago. We have Linville Plumbing, Alda Paving and Concrete, and Morgan, Stevenson, and Co."
"Morgan, Stevenson, and Co.? They're an accounting firm. What contract did they get?"
"The City Council contracts with an outside firm to handle city finances. Miller and Stultz had the contract for years, but last year it came up for bid and Morgan, Stevenson, and Co. appeared out of nowhere to be the dark horse to win it."
Clark pondered this for a minute before he spoke.
"It might also pay to check out those companies that have maintained their city contracts over the long term." Clark said. "Didn't you have a theory last year about Holland Sanitation being involved with the mob? Just because they've always had the contract doesn't mean they didn't get it through shady means before and now those shady means are just controlled by someone else."
"Well, look at you," Lois said, grinning and teasing her partner, "get a little food in you and that brain starts working again."
"Exactly when did it stop working, Ms. Lane?" Clark asked teasing back.
"Well, if memory serves, someone at this table wanted to argue with me over sharing this story."
"Well," Clark said, grinning even broader than before, "if memory serves, someone at this table explained to a rookie once that stories were not meant to be shared and that the term 'byline' was only used in the plural form when discussing more than one article."
"Shut up and eat your second helping of sausage and eggs, Smallville. You'd think that someone with an appetite like that would keep food in their home.
Clark blushed sheepishly and bowed his head. When he had sat down, he had been a bit ambivalent about ordering as it came home to him just how long it had been since he had actually tasted food. But when he had started ordering he had suddenly discovered an appetite he didn't even know he had.
"I guess I didn't realize how hungry I was until I actually had food in front of me," he said with a smile.
"So," Lois asked, "did you get any information on Deadshot from your informant?"
Clark paused for a moment and looked down briefly at the table before answering.
"He said he didn't have any information on who hired him, but he'd look into it."
"That all?" Lois asked.
"Yeah, why do you ask?" Clark asked with a perplexed look on his face.
"I don't know," Lois replied. "You just seemed to get a distant look on your face there for a moment when I asked you what you found out. Like something was bothering you."
"Oh," Clark replied, looking down again and shaking his head. "It's nothing important."
"Well, obviously it's important enough to distract you," Lois said. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," Clark answered, "that's ok. Seriously, it's not really a big deal."
"Clark, I'm being polite right now, but I'm not really sure what aspect of my personality that you've encountered so far that suggests to you that I'll stop badgering you anytime soon."
Clark laughed out loud at that, and then seemed to give the matter some thought.
"Ok, but like I said it's not really a big deal."
"So, give already. What else did your informant have to say?"
"Well, we got into a bit of a philosophical debate…"
"Hold up," Lois said, interrupting. "You got into a philosophical debate with an informant?"
"Well, he's actually more of a friend than an informant," Clark replied.
"You have friends that keep track of the hirings and firings of contract killers? Exactly what kind of people do you spend your off hours with?"
"It's not like it sounds. He's sort of in law enforcement."
"Sort of? How can you sort of be in law enforcement?"
"Am I telling this story or are you?"
"Well, I'm just saying…"
"Sorry, I just didn't know how…"
"Lois," Clark said again more forcefully, with an exaggerated look of irritation on his face.
Lois pantomimed zipping her lips and clasped both hands in front of her like an obedient schoolchild.
"As I was saying," Clark began again, "we got into a bit of a philosophical discussion about humanity in general. My friend is of the opinion that people are inherently untrustworthy and that rather than be inspired though the example of others they would instead give into distrust and fear and prefer to tear them down."
"Your friend sounds like the world's biggest pessimist."
"I think that way at times myself, but other times I think he might be the world's biggest optimist."
"I'd like to know what times those would be," Lois replied.
"It's just that he's seen a lot of really bad things in his life from childhood on and yet he still keeps going out there and doing his job. I guess I just can't really believe that anyone who believes the way he claims to would keep doing that."
"But something that he said obviously bothered you."
"He used Superman as an example and stated that he felt that people saw Superman as an outsider and would never accept him"
"And this bothered you why?"
"I just remember a story that Superman once told me. He said that shortly after he went public he was invited to a dinner at the White House. Several of the world's leaders were going to be there, which was one of the reasons he accepted because he wanted to let them all to know that he wanted to help everyone, not just those with a particular political view. As he suspected, several of the leaders present quizzed him initially about whether or not he was just going to protect American interests. What he didn't expect, though, was the American President's quizzing him about his alien origins. And even more unexpected was the others joining in. He said that it quickly became obvious that he wasn't being suspected of holding one nation's people above another's, but rather holding to some unknown agenda that endangered everyone."
"What did he do?"
"He said that at first he didn't know how to react or what to say. He just sat there and stared at them. Then apparently the silence drew a little long and suddenly he noticed a couple of them get a bit wide eyed and started trying to apologize profusely. He said they seemed to be almost in a panic as they tried to placate him. That's when he realized that they were all terrified of him."
"Terrified of a 13-year-old boy?" Lois asked in amazement.
"No," Clark said quietly, "of an alien from another planet with the power to rip a human being to pieces with his bare hands or vaporize them with a mere glance."
"But he'd never do that," Lois said.
"Of course not, but they didn't know that. All they had were their fears."
"So what did he do?"
"He said that he tried to allay everyone's suspicions and fears and the entire matter seemed to be laughed off, but the rest of the dinner was strained. He said that people kept casting sideways glances at him as they ate and quickly averted their eyes if they saw that he had caught them looking. He said that he had never truly felt like an alien on this planet until then."
"Must have been hard to take for someone his age," Lois said.
"Hard enough," Clark answered, almost to himself, "but he said he shrugged it off after he consulted some people he trusted and got a better perspective on things. Looking back on that story now, though, I have to wonder if maybe my friend might be somewhat right about people."
After a brief pause he continued.
"So, long story left well…long," Clark said with a grin, "I think that's what's been bothering me."
"Because you can relate to that sense of aloneness?" Lois asked.
Almost unconsciously, Clark lost the smile on his face.
"Me? No, of course not." After a moment he added, "You know, that's the second time in the past few days someone's referenced my 'aloneness'. What is it with people? Does everyone think I'm a hermit? I do have friends, you know."
"Well, it just seems like you keep people at arm's length, Clark," Lois said. "And as for friends, I don't know, Clark, so far I've noted a strange pattern. I mean someone who 'sort of' is in law enforcement?"
"Well, that's a bit hard to explain," Clark said, reaching for his coffee to buy some time as his enhanced synapses searched for an explanation.
"Bruce Wayne," Lois said suddenly.
It took every measure of control Clark possessed not to spit the coffee in his mouth all over his breakfast companion when he heard that name. After a moment, he made an extra effort to swallow and then slowly responded.
"I beg your pardon?" he asked, almost fearfully.
If Lois had noticed the effect her speaking the name of the Gotham billionaire had upon Clark she gave no sign.
"I saw a picture of the two of you together in your apartment. How do you know him?"
"Uh, well, he came to Smallville once when we were teenagers and I met him there. We got along pretty good at the time and when I was in Gotham later on after college I called him up. We get together ever now and then, but it doesn't happen often. He's a busy man and you know the kind of schedule a reporter keeps."
"True," Lois replied. "I was just wondering. I saw this picture in your apartment and…"
Lois was interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone. Realizing it was his, Clark pulled it out of his pocket and answered it.
"Kent?" the voice on the other end asked sounding a bit panicked.
"Yes, this is Clark Kent. Who is this?"
"It's Robert Maxwell. I need help fast. They've found me."
"Where are you?" Clark asked.
"The Charleston Hotel over on Virginia Street here in the city. I'm in a linen closet on the third floor. I saw a car pull up out front a couple of minutes ago and some guys I know work for Intergang got out."
"I'll…send help right now," Clark said, standing and looking in the direction of the hotel that was out of sight to the normal eye several blocks to the west.
He disconnected the call and turned to Lois, who was looking at him expectantly. Convincing her to stay while he headed toward the hotel would be a much more difficult task than stopping a few hired guns.
"Lois, I need you to call Henderson and let him know that Maxwell called and he may be in some danger."
"What? Where?" Lois said, starting to rise out of her seat as well.
"He's at the Charleston Hotel over on Virginia Street. He said that he recognized some Intergang goons coming into the hotel. Call Henderson and have him get over there as quick as he can," Clark said as he tossed some money on the table and headed for the door of the restaurant.
"Hold it, Smallville," Lois said, running to catch up, "first of all, I left my cell phone at home, and second, why don't we both go together and you can call Henderson yourself on the way?"
Clark looked at her helplessly for a second and then down at the phone in his hand.
"I'm not going over there yet," he said as inspiration hit. "I think I know where Superman may be right now and I'm going to let him know so he can get there quickly. Then I'll head over to the hotel."
He thrust his cell phone into Lois's hands. "You take this and call Henderson and then you head over there too. Hopefully we'll meet somewhere in the middle," he said as he rushed out the door.
Lois stared at his back for a second and then looked down at the phone in her hand.
"Hey," she yelled after him as a sudden idea hit her, "don't you need this phone to call Superman?"
Clark either ignored her or didn't seem to hear as he disappeared into the crowd of people on the street.
Lois stood in place for a few moments and then let out a sigh and phoned Henderson as she hailed a cab. As luck would have it, Henderson was in his office and she quickly relayed Clark's message. Satisfied that at least that bit was taken care of, she got into the back of the cab that stopped at her wolf whistle.
Suddenly Clark's phone began to ring again.
"Hello?" Lois answered.
There was a short pause on the phone and then a man's voice responded.
"I'm trying to reach Clark Kent. Is this his phone?"
"Yes, but he's not here. Can I take a message?"
"Who is this?"
"Hey, you're the one calling me, who's this?"
There was another short pause before the man spoke.
"Lois Lane, then. At least, I assume as much from the descriptions of the attitude I've heard."
"I'm surrounded by comedians," Lois responded. "Now your turn."
"I'm a friend of Kent's. I have some information he was wanting."
"Ah, you wouldn't be the 'sort of in law enforcement' friend, would you?"
There was a short sound that sounded like a laugh and then the man answered.
"You could say that, Ms. Lane."
"Ok, give with the information."
"Not here, like I said. Now, did you have something important to say or were you just calling to play twenty questions with me?"
"Clark highly understated the attitude."
"Uh huh," Lois said, "that's something else you need to tell me. How exactly did Clark describe my 'attitude'?"
There was another short laugh on the other end of the phone.
"When you see Clark, tell him I have the information he wanted."
Lois sat straight up in her seat.
"Hold it," she said, "if this is about who hired Lawton, you can tell me. Clark and I are working on this together."
"Ok," the man responded, "the word is that Lawton was hired for some general wet work by a man named Slade Wilson. Wilson is ex- military and currently operates as a mercenary and assassin."
"Does he have any connection to Intergang?" Lois asked.
"Unknown at present. His reputation, though, is that he doesn't get affiliated with anyone beyond a specific contract, though that may change if the mood strikes him. Apparently he's already a wealthy man, but he likes to do this kind of work just for fun."
"Pretty sick way to have fun," Lois said.
"He's a pretty sick person. He was the beneficiary or victim, depending on how you look at it, of military experimentation into the creation of the ultimate combatant. The experiment left him with enhanced speed and strength. For this man, thought and action are almost instantaneous. Plus, he's a trained strategist and a cold blooded killer."
"What does he look like?"
"He's Caucasian, in his forties with silver hair. He's about 6'2'' and wears an eye patch due to losing an eye several years ago. He also likes to dress in a garish orange and blue paramilitary outfit when he's on 'the job,' so to speak. His mask only has one eyehole because he doesn't mind in the least bit to advertise the fact that he's blind on one side. Wilson's arrogant to the extreme and bills himself as the best in the business. He calls himself Deathstroke the Terminator."
"Is he really that good?"
"He's probably about half as good as he thinks he is, but that's still impressive."
"Thanks for the information. I'll let Clark know you called. If you hear anything else, let us know."
"I'll keep checking into things," the man replied, and then just before Lois hung up he spoke again.
"Lois, tell Clark that this guy may not be in Superman's weight class, but that doesn't make him any less dangerous. He's a strategist who is always thinking five moves ahead, and if he's the one who hired Deadshot then he probably has access to the same resources. Both of you need to be very careful. Tell Clark that if he needs anything just to call and I can be there in less than an hour."
"I'll let him know," Lois replied, feeling a bit touched by the concern she heard in the man's voice. "Hey, what is your name anyway?"
The only answer she received was the sound of dead air from a terminated connection.
Several blocks away, Superman was descending toward the Charleston Hotel when he saw Maxwell step out of a window and begin hurrying down the fire escape. He was altering course toward Maxwell when a second man stepped out onto the fire escape, leveled a gun at the ex-deputy Mayor and fired.
A burst of heat vision vaporized the bullet as it left the gun's muzzle and a blast of super breath knocked the would-be assassin off of his feet and sent his gun spinning through the air. Before the Man of Steel could do anything further, though, his attention was drawn by a blur of orange and blue that emerged from the alleyway and opened fire on Robert Maxwell. Superman accelerated and placed himself between the Maxwell and the bullets and allowed them to bounce off his chest.
Heeding a warning from the back of his mind, he scanned the costumed villain before he made an effort to snatch him and gift- wrap him up in a convenient lamppost. As he suspected, he found a second gun on the villain's person loaded with Kryptonite shells. What he didn't expect was the second weapon he found laced with Kryptonite.
"A sword?" he said to himself as he dropped to the ground to face the masked man.
As if reading Superman's mind, the man holstered his gun and, reaching behind his back, pulled the sword free from its sheath. Both edges of the blade were studded with razor-sharp Kryptonite stones.
"You've got to be kidding me," the Man of Steel said aloud as his opponent approached him slowly.
He fired a burst of heat vision, which caught the sword blade where it met the hilt and sheared through the metal, causing the blade to drop off and hit the ground. The hilt was also super- heated and the man let out a startled grunt and instantly dropped it to the ground as well. A second more powerful blast of heat vision vaporized the metal of the blade and left the heat- resistant Kryptonite lying scattered on the ground.
Superman took a moment to marvel at the irony that whatever process had irradiated the fragments of his home world and robbed them of their invulnerability on Earth had still rendered them so resistant to heat that the Kryptonite meteorites could pass through the atmosphere unharmed and also protect them from his best long-range offensive power.
A quick puff of super-breath, however, did send the fragments to the far corners of the alley and away from his adversary, who did appear to be somewhat surprised at the ease with which his first threat had been dealt with. Still, he didn't hesitate more than a moment before he pulled his other gun and fired three quick shots at the Man of Steel.
As was always the case in moments like this, the world seemed to slow to a crawl from Clark's perspective. He noted the flickering glow from the gun's barrel as the first Kryptonite bullet emerged. He became aware of a second gunman taking aim at Maxwell from a position on the fire escape below the fleeing man. He was also aware of the Channel 6 van that was beginning to skid to a stop on the street in front of the alley, apparently alerted to a potential story by the gunfire.
Superman dropped to one knee and slammed a fist into the pavement. As the pavement cracked, he grabbed three loose pieces and sent them at super-sonic speed toward his attacker. He then fired a burst of heat vision at the second gunman's weapon. As time seemed to speed up, he observed the gunman drop his pistol and yelp in pain as he grabbed his hand. The three pieces of pavement intersected all three Kryptonite bullets, with devastating effect. The superior mass and speed of the projectiles shattered the radioactive bullets and sent fragments ricocheting back toward the costumed man. The man's single eye widened in surprise, but he easily avoided the remnants of his bullets.
As Maxwell reached the ground and ran for the alleyway entrance, Superman and the masked man stood in a stalemate. Superman could not approach his adversary because of the Kryptonite still in his possession and his opponent had seen that Superman could easily defend himself against the man's fire.
"Looks like we have a Mexican standoff," the man said, finally breaking the silence.
"Except I can wait for the police," Superman replied, not moving from his position blocking the man from following after Maxwell.
As the two stood in silence for a moment, Superman became aware of, first, a newswoman and her camera man stepping into the alleyway and begin filming the standoff, and then, off in the distance as if to punctuate his earlier statement, he began to hear police sirens.
"Well," his opponent said, "I guess I can't fault your logic there."
He then began to run quickly toward the Man of Steel and raised his gun to fire two quick shots before turning to fire a third at one of the gunmen still on the fire escape. Superman instinctively began to step backwards as the Kryptonite-wielding assassin drew closer. One of the man's shots went wide and he ignored it as he directed a quick puff of super-compressed air at the bullet coming at him, deflecting it into the wall and then took to the air to outrace the third bullet heading toward the gunman. He snatched the man off the fire escape before the bullet came close enough for him even to begin feeling the effects of the radiation.
As he landed with the man held securely in one arm, he turned to confront the shooter and froze in shock. The other bullet hadn't gone wide after all. It had been dead on target. The news cameraman was lying on the ground, clutching his stomach and moaning, while the assassin made for the alleyway entrance.
"You've got a choice, hero," he yelled back over his shoulder. "A gut shot isn't fatal if you get him to the hospital in time, but you can't do that and catch me too. Especially since it'll kill you as well if you just pick him up and try to carry him."
As the man rounded the corner, Clark had no choice but to admit that he was right. This wasn't over, though, he told himself. Not by a long shot. He quickly knocked the gunman he did have unconscious and rushed toward the cameraman.
"Superman," the newswoman said, jumping in front of him and holding her microphone out, "Renee Guest from Channel 6 news. What happened here? And who was that man after Robert Maxwell?"
Superman ignored her questions and stepped around her with an annoyed look beginning to appear on his face. At this range, he could feel the effects of the Kryptonite as the radiation began to assault his person. When he knelt down to check the man's condition, he felt like his insides were on fire and he had to concentrate to fight the familiar dizziness and nausea.
"Superman," Renee Guest continued, again thrusting the microphone in his face, "the people have a right to know why you were engaged in a gun duel in broad daylight that endangered innocent civilians."
"Ms. Guest," Superman finally said, looking up at the woman, his expression actually making her take a step back, "the trouble with you people yelling about right to know is that you don't think to ask yourself first if it's right to do something. Your blundering in here endangered both yourself and your cameraman, and now he's paying the price for your mistake."
Not waiting to hear her reply, he stood and walked over to the news van. Grabbing hold of one of the side doors, he ripped it off and laid it on the ground. He then quickly rummaged through the van's contents until he found several long, thick power cables. He attached them to the door to create a harness and then carried it over to the injured cameraman
The man was beginning to go into shock and Superman knew he had to hurry. He ignored the pain that began to rack his body as he approached the injured man and, grabbing him by his shoulders, began to wrestle him onto the makeshift gurney while using his x- ray vision to make sure he didn't injure then man further.
Renee Guest had finally realized that she wasn't going to get an interview here and so had grabbed up the fallen camera to record the Man of Steel's rescue efforts. As police cars began to arrive on the scene, Superman took hold of the far end of the cables and lifted the entire apparatus into the air. He was still close enough to feel some of the effects from the Kryptonite, but not so close that it impeded his ability to fly.
"Bill," he yelled down at the police Inspector exiting the lead car, "I have to get this man to a hospital. There's an Intergang shooter in the alley and another somewhere in the hotel with an injured hand. I'll stop by headquarters later and explain what happened."
Henderson watched the hero disappear into the sky and then turned to the crime scene, only to suddenly have a camera shoved in his face.
"Inspector Henderson, Renee Guest, Channel 6 News. Can you tell me what happened here?"
"Wonderful," Henderson muttered to himself, "just wonderful."
Lois's cab pulled up just as the police were cordoning off the area. She made her way through the crowd and flashed her press pass at a cop who barred her way as she attempted to pass under the yellow tape.
"Henderson will want to see me, trust me," she said.
"Lois Lane?" the cop asked as he checked the name on her pass. "The same Lois Lane he once told us to shoot on sight if she showed up at another crime scene?"
She shot the cop a withering look. "Just tell him I'm here and save the comedy for the Tonight Show."
The cop smirked at her and spoke into his radio. A moment later, Henderson appeared.
"You able to fill in any of the blanks here, Lane?" he asked.
"Yes, miss, do you have any information about what happened here?"
Lois turned to find Renee Guest still wielding her own camera and still attempting to get an interview with anyone who would talk to her. She looked the woman up and down for a moment before she spoke.
"Channel 6 falling victim to budget cuts or just trying to cross- train all of their staff?"
"My cameraman was injured in the crossfire between Superman and whomever it was he was fighting. If you have information about this, it's the public's right to know," Renee replied.
"Uh hum," Lois said, as if pondering the question for a moment. "Perhaps the Chief of Police might be a better one to ask that question of," she said, pointing over Renee's shoulder.
"What? Where?" Renee said turning around and searching the crowd.
Lois stepped forward and stuck her ankle in front of one of Renee's and, as the newswoman panned the crowd, she tripped and went sprawling.
"Oops," Lois said, "terribly sorry, sweetie. I'd help you up, but I have to go answer some questions."
She flashed the woman a fake smile and took Henderson's arm as she stepped under the police tape. For his part, Henderson tried his best to disguise the grin that was threatening to split his face.
"Ok, Lane," he said as he led her further into the alley, "fourth degree assault aside, what can you tell me about what happened here?"
"All I know, Inspector, is what I told you on the phone earlier. Clark got a call from Maxwell saying he was in danger and then he asked me to call you while he went to find Superman."
"Well, I guess he succeeded because the big guy was leaving with the injured cameraman when I got here. Apparently Guest is the only witness we have beyond a couple of gunmen we nabbed. They're not talking and we can't get her out of interview mode long enough to give us more than the bare details."
"No sign of Maxwell?" Lois asked.
"If he was here," Henderson said, "then he was long gone by the time we arrived."
"Have you seen Clark?"
"Kent? No, I haven't seen him either. I thought you said he went to find Superman?"
"That's what he said, but he also said he'd come here afterward."
"Well, I haven't seen him yet, but when I do I'd be curious as to how he found Superman. The department could use that phone number, signal light, or whatever the hell he used."
"Don't bother, Inspector. If he was contacted by anyone it wasn't me," Clark said, appearing at their side as if on cue.
"Clark!" Lois said, "Where in the hell have you been? You don't just take off on your partner without so much as a 'by your leave'."
"Like I said, Lois," Clark said, looking slightly embarrassed, "I thought I knew how to get in touch with Superman, but I was wrong."
"How exactly was that then?" she asked.
"Well, it didn't work, so it's not really worth going into," Clark replied.
"The hell it isn't, farmboy. You don't just issue orders and then disappear without some kind of explanation."
"Ok, kids," Henderson interrupted. "You want to argue like man and wife, wait until after the wedding. In the meantime I have some questions for Kent here."
"Sorry, Inspector," Clark said, ignoring the angry look Lois cast in his direction.
"Ok, what can you add to any of this?" Henderson asked.
"Well, I'm sure Lois has already told you everything I know, Inspector. We were having breakfast and Maxwell called saying that he had recognized some Intergang thugs getting out of a car in front of this hotel. He was hiding in a linen closet and didn't provide a whole lot else."
"Breakfast?" Henderson asked with raised eyebrows.
It took the two reporters a moment to understand the question and then almost as one they both blushed and began to stammer explanations.
"At Bennigan's," Clark said, naming the restaurant they had been at.
"We were on the way to work," Lois added.
"Not together," Clark said, "I mean, we were together, but we had just met up with each other a little before."
"To discuss the story," Lois quickly added.
"Uh huh," Henderson said with a smile on his face, "whatever you two say. Anyway, I guess I need to figure out what Maxwell, Intergang, and a masked man in orange and blue are doing playing hide and seek in my city. And what their next move is."
"Masked man in orange and blue?" Lois asked.
"Yeah, that's who Guest said Superman was facing down when she got here. She said he was the one who shot her cameraman."
"Clark," Lois said, turning to her partner, "your contact called right after you left. He said that a man named Slade Wilson hired Lawton. He said that Wilson is a mercenary and assassin with super powers thanks to a military experiment and that he dresses in an orange and blue outfit and calls himself Deathstroke the Terminator. Your contact said that Wilson was wealthy and that apparently he takes contracts just for the fun of it."
"Just for the fun of it," Clark said, his expression darkening. "He thinks killing people and shooting innocents is fun. It sounds like someone needs to teach Mr. Slade Wilson a lesson about the sanctity of life."
On the cab ride back to the Planet, Lois couldn't help but notice the dark mood Clark was in.
"Ok, Smallville," she said, "spit it out. I'm the one who should be mad because you ditched me, but you look like you could chew up a piece of steel and spit out nails. What's up?"
Clark looked over at his partner for a second, opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again. Finally finding the words, he tried again.
"It's nothing, Lois. I guess I'm just irritated by this whole thing. I don't understand the mindset it would take to endanger others just for money and I certainly don't understand hunting someone down to kill him 'just for fun'. What kind of person does that?"
"A sick one. Your friend said that Wilson was part of some military experiment that gave him superior strength and speed. Maybe it damaged his mind too."
"Possibly," Clark said, seeming to consider the theory. "What else did my friend say?"
"Not much else, just what I told you. He did say to let you know that just because this guy wasn't in Superman's league didn't make him any less dangerous. It was kind of strange. He sounded like he was afraid you'd take on Wilson yourself. He said if you needed him he could be here in less than an hour. What was that all about?"
Clark laughed and smiled for the first time since they had gotten into the cab.
"My friend's a bit of a mother hen, whether he likes to admit it or not. He'd tell you he's a loner, but he's always picking up strays. He's probably just afraid I'll get too close in the investigation and it could get dangerous."
"Uh hum," Lois said. "Who is this 'friend' anyway? I hate referring to someone in the third person when I don't know who they are."
"He prefers to keep his anonymity, Lois. Besides, it's not important. His part in this is done."
"Sure, no problem," Lois said. "I understand protecting a source. I just thought that since we were in this together I might need to know in case there is a problem and we need his help."
"If I need him I'll call him, but I won't need him."
"Well, what if you do and you're not able? Doesn't it just make sense that I know so I can call him for you?"
"I think the only thing around here that makes sense," Clark said, smiling at his partner, "is that you hate not knowing something and it's killing you not to be in on a secret."
Lois's expression turned sour.
"I think farmboys who think they're so smart should leave psychoanalysis to the professionals."
Clark laughed and leaned his head back on the seat with his eyes shut. The half-smile he kept on his face the rest of the way to the Planet did nothing to make Lois's expression less sour.
"You two are late," was Perry White's greeting as Clark and Lois entered the newsroom.
"And a good morning to you too, Perry," Lois said as the two approached their Editor-in-Chief. "I'll try not to take too much offense at that as I hand you a front page story."
"We," amended Clark, looking briefly toward the ceiling as if seeking divine understanding for the trials and tribulations he endured.
"What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine, Smallville," Lois said with a smile as she poked an elbow into his side. "We're partners, remember?"
"And I'm sure he's bowled over with gratitude, Lois," Perry said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Now give with this story of stories."
"International Hit Man Hunts Fleeing Felon," Lois said, gesturing with both hands to pantomime the layout of a headline.
"Your alliteration could use some work," Perry said, making clear his lack of enthusiasm, "but I'll withhold criticism until you give me the body of the story. I'll warn you, though, front page or not it's not going to be the lead."
"What?" Lois said indignantly. "What could be bigger news this early in the morning than that?"
"This," Jimmy said, joining in on the conversation and using the remote to turn on the newsroom TV.
The screen came to life and showed a press conference already in motion. The cameras zeroed in on the man at the podium, Forrest Hagan, who was fielding questions from various reporters.
"What's this?" asked Clark.
"Hagan declared his candidacy for Governor early this morning," Jimmy said.
"It's not exactly news, Chief," Lois said. "Everyone's been expecting this for the past couple of months."
"Knowing something is going to happen doesn't make it any less newsworthy when it does," Perry replied. "And don't call me 'Chief'."
"He's one of the most respected men in the city if not the entire state," Clark said. "And his conviction record is one of the best in the country. The people of this state have been waiting for a Governor like him for a long time."
"Gubernatorial candidate, Clark," Lois corrected. "He hasn't won yet."
"I don't see a whole lot of chance of his losing," Perry said.
"Especially if he cracks Intergang wide open and puts the principal players behind bars before the election," Clark added.
"True," Lois conceded. "I guess we could do worse than a Governor who's not a wimp on crime."
"Then let's see what we can do to contribute to his campaign efforts, partner," Clark said. "We have the name of at least one player now. Let's see if we can track him back to one of the companies on our list."
"Yeah," Lois said, casting one last look at the television screen, "I'm as anxious to crack Intergang open as Hagan."
"I just want to see the faces of the people who like to play with the lives of others when they're pulled out into the light of day," Clark said darkly.
Three hours later, they had accomplished little except to agree on what to order for lunch. There was plenty of circumstantial evidence to bag a few of the companies on racketeering charges, but nothing to prove any connection to Slade Wilson or to Intergang. Certainly nothing to prove a vast conspiracy to control the free market.
"I need coffee," Lois said, closing her eyes and resting her forehead on the palms of her hands with her elbows on her desktop.
"I'll agree with that, Lois," Clark said, rising from the chair beside her. "My treat."
He headed off across the newsroom to the small refreshment area on the far side of the room. Lois leaned back in her chair and began to stretch the kinks out of her neck as she thought about her partner. Clark had been his usual polite and efficient self since returning to the Planet, but she had gotten hints throughout the day since this morning's events that something was bothering him. No, "bothering" was too polite a term. He seemed irritated as hell. It was only the good manners that had probably been instilled in him since birth that kept him from acting on that irritation and snapping at people.
Most people wouldn't have seen it and would have called Lois crazy for even thinking such thoughts, but she knew better. She had been around Clark long enough to pick up signs that things weren't normal if she paid attention. And she had been paying a great deal of attention of late. The question she found herself asking in her own head, though, was whether or not she was paying attention because things were starting not to add up where Clark was concerned, or was it because she was developing a deeper and more personal interest in the tall, dark, and handsome Mr. Kent.
As Lois sat at her desk pondering this question and Clark's strange behavior, her attention was drawn to where Jimmy turned up the sound of the corner television set to catch the tail-end of Renee Guest's news spot on the afternoon edition of Channel 6 news.
The news footage caught the end of Superman's battle with Deathstroke and, as the hit man fired his final rounds, the camera dropped to the ground and the perspective changed to a sideways view of the lower half of the alley. Lois saw Superman's running feet approach the camera and saw Renee Guest's move to intercept them.
"Superman," the newswoman could be heard as she jumped in front of him, "Renee Guest from Channel 6 news. What happened here? And who was that man after Robert Maxwell?"
There was no answer from the Man of Steel and he could be seen stepping around the newswoman.
"Superman," Renee Guest's voice said, pressing the issue, "the people have a right to know why you were engaged in a gun duel in broad daylight that endangered innocent civilians."
"Ms. Guest," Superman replied, "the trouble with you people yelling about right to know is that you don't think to ask yourself first if it's right to do something. Your blundering in here endangered both yourself and your cameraman and now he's paying the price for your mistake."
Lois's head jerked up to stare at the TV screen.
The camera cut to scenes of Superman's rescue of the injured cameraman and finally switched to Renee Guest and Richard Reed in the Channel 6 studio.
"While I can't say too much about our Defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way's views of the 1st Amendment, Richard," Renee said to her co-anchor, "all of us here at Channel 6 would like to express our thanks and appreciation for his rescue of our beloved cameraman, Andy Thompson.
"Yes, Renee," Richard chimed in, "it was that prompt action, we're told by the fine physicians at Metropolis General Hospital, that saved Andy's life. So, thank you, Superman and don't worry…you won't be billed for the damage to the van."
Richard Reed unveiled a blindingly white set of teeth to the TV camera as he laughed at his own joke and the Channel 6 News show faded to a commercial.
"That woman's a real piece of work," Jimmy said. "Blaming Superman when it was her bonehead decision that got her cameraman shot. And then saying he doesn't respect the First Amendment."
"Some people will do anything just to be on TV," Perry replied shaking his head.
For her part, unnoticed by the rest of the newsroom staff, Lois sat in stunned silence, staring at the television screen. For the rest of her life, Lois would always remember the exact moment the dime dropped and realization hit her. She involuntarily gasped aloud and dropped the pencil she was holding. Purely by coincidence as she raised her eyes, they locked with those of Clark, who was on the other side of the newsroom by the refreshment area and he was looking at her with concern in his eyes. Lois quickly smiled as if to say nothing was wrong and looked back down at her desk, thinking furiously.
She had to be wrong. Then it dawned on her that Clark being aware of any sound she made at all from across the room only verified her suspicions. As all of the clues came together all at once, she felt a strange numbness begin to spread though her body.
"OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod" she said to herself as she tried to compose herself and stop it before she hyperventilated.
"Lois? Are you all right?" a voice asked startling her.
Looking up, she found Clark hovering over her and she froze as she looked into his face. How could she have missed it all these years? It was like one of those pictures with a hidden image. Once you knew it was there you couldn't miss seeing it. Clark Kent was Superman.
"Lois?" Clark prompted again.
"Huh? Oh, Clark," she said shaking her head, "I'm sorry, my mind just isn't at work today. No, I'm fine, really. Just distracted. Nothing important. News stories, shopping list, Christmas shopping, all of that. Yeah, Christmas shopping was the final straw. I just remembered a present I forgot to get. Have you finished your shopping?"
"Huh? I mean yeah, uh yes." Clark said, caught off guard by the sudden change in direction of the conversation. Lois usually kept him off balance, but today she was particularly confusing.
"Are you sure you're ok?" he asked.
"Perfectly," she said, suddenly standing and grabbing her purse and coat. "But I have to get to the store before it closes and pick something up."
"But what about the story?" Clark said, gesturing at the notes strewn across her desk.
"Well, we've hit a stumbling block, so let's just take a break and come back at it later from a fresh perspective," Lois said, continuing to back away and heading for the exit.
"But," Clark continued, "what about your coffee?"
By that time, however, Lois was though the exit and had disappeared. Clark stood there for a few moments, feeling very confused, until he realized that he was standing in the middle of the aisle holding coffee in each hand, staring at the exit and looking very foolish. He quickly sat the coffee down on Lois's desk and walked over to his own to ponder his confusing partner. On the way, though, he too was stopped by the television. The commercial break had ended and the regular newscast had been interrupted by a breaking news story.
Someone had kidnapped Emily Rosen, Mayor Berkowitz's 3-year old granddaughter.
The kidnapping had been quick and violent, but had claimed no fatalities. This fact did little to improve Clark's mood, though, because apparently the girl's mother had been left alive simply to deliver a message. Her description of the kidnapper also left little doubt as to his identity. Slade Wilson had taken the young child scant hours after escaping Clark in the alley outside the Charleston Hotel.
Clark stood in the middle of Maggie Sawyer's office dressed as Superman, listening to Donna Rosen describe the events of an hour ago.
"Emily and I were sitting on her bed reading a story before she took her nap when he came bursting through the window," Donna said as she attempted to control her sobbing.
"Take your time, Mrs. Rosen," Maggie said calmly to the young woman. "You're doing fine."
Mayor Berkowitz sat beside his daughter, trying to comfort her the best he could. Donna's husband, Marc Rosen, a local circuit court judge, paced the office clenching and unclenching his fists.
"He pointed a gun at me and then grabbed Emily," Donna continued. "When I tried to stop him, he hit me and knocked me into the wall. It was so hard I almost passed out. I tried to crawl after them, but he stepped on my hand and told me to stay down. Then he put the gun against my head and told me that if I ever wanted to see my daughter alive again I needed to listen carefully to what he had to say."
"He said I needed to deliver a message to you," she continued, turning her attention to Superman, who up until then had been standing quietly with his hands behind his back. On the surface, he appeared the very picture of calm. Underneath, however, he felt like ripping something to shreds. Slade Wilson kept coming to mind as the perfect "something".
"He said that it was your fault that he was having to go to plan 'B' and that now you were going to have to pay the price."
"And what price was that, Mrs. Rosen?" Maggie asked.
"He said that he would be in touch with the police to arrange a meeting with Superman. He said he'd tell Superman what the 'price' was then."
"Have we heard anything yet?" Superman asked, speaking for the first time.
"Not yet," Henderson said from his position leaning against the wall.
"You'll get her back, won't you, Superman?" Mayor Berkowitz asked looking up at the Man of Steel.
"I'll do everything I can, Mr. Mayor," Superman responded.
"Please," Donna sobbed, "please. She's the most important thing in the world. Please get her back."
Superman stepped forward and knelt down in front of the woman. He took her hand and looked her in the eye.
"Mrs. Rosen, I'll get your daughter back and make the people who took her pay. This I swear."
Donna collapsed into tears again and Superman stood and turned to Henderson.
"I'll start searching every square inch of this city. It sounds stupid, but if you hear anything just scream my name and I'll hear you."
Henderson nodded, but before Superman could leave the door to the office opened and an officer stuck his head in.
"I'm sorry to barge in, ma'am," the officer said, addressing Maggie before turning to Superman, "but there's a guy on the phone who says he needs to speak with Superman. He says that you're expecting his call."
Everyone in the room froze for a second and Superman looked in turn at both Henderson and Sawyer.
"Line one," the officer supplied.
Superman stepped over to the phone, picked up the receiver and punched the appropriate line.
"Wilson," Clark responded hoping to rattle the man by using his name.
"I'm impressed," Slade responded, sounding completely unfazed by his discovery. "You found that out very quickly."
"You're not as good as you think you are, Wilson. I've known all about you ever since your first attempt on Maxwell."
"Oh, don't doubt me, Big Blue. Trust me, I'm the best there ever was. But you'd better be as good as they say and use those super ears of yours because I'm only going to say this once and you're on a time schedule as of now."
"Go ahead," Superman supplied as he used his incredible vision powers to scan the phone line and began the process of following the electrical impulses up and down the system and out into the neighborhood.
"Don't bother to try and trace the line, Big Blue," Wilson supplied as if knowing what Superman was doing. "I'm going to tell you where I am anyway. We need to meet face to face without the police overhearing."
"As I said, go ahead," Superman responded, continuing his efforts to trace the call. He didn't trust anything Wilson said and he didn't want to be made the fool if Wilson was only saying that so the trace wouldn't be made. Plus, the tricks that could fool the police's tracing system wouldn't apply to him.
"Meet me on top of the Parker Building in the next minute. I'm on the roof. Don't wear a wire and just a piece of advice, don't try to swoop down and grab me. You might be a bit surprised by what would happen."
Superman glanced up when Wilson named his location and scanned through police headquarters walls toward the Parker Building. Sure enough, Wilson stood on the roof, closing the flip cover of a cell phone. Even more irritating, he was waving in Superman's direction.
"He's on top of the Parker Building," Superman said, addressing the others in the room. "He wants me to meet him there in less than a minute."
"I'll have squads blanket the area," Maggie said, jumping up from her desk and heading for the door.
"I'll bring her back, Mr. and Mrs. Rosen," Superman said, before opening the window and diving out.
The chilled wind that blew through the open window didn't make the woman shake any more as she continued to sob into her father's shoulder.
As he approached the Parker building, Superman scanned Wilson, already knowing what he would find. Wilson had a chunk of Kryptonite in a pouch on his belt.
Landing on the roof, Superman could feel the fringes of the radiation as it attacked his cells, but the effect was lessoned by the distance. He stood with arms folded, trying not to show the effect it was beginning to have on him.
"That's it, Big Blue," Wilson said. "Keep your distance and we'll both be happy."
"What do you want, Wilson?"
"Straight to the point," Wilson said. "I like that. Ok, here's the deal. I have the Rosen kid and I'm going to hang onto her for a few days until I find Maxwell. You want her back, turn a blind eye to my search and his execution."
"That easy?" Superman said sarcastically.
"My word is my bond, Superman. You stay out of this and you get the kid back."
"You'll forgive me if I find the word of a kidnapper of children hard to take," Superman said.
"Hey, don't blame me, Blue. If you had kept your nose out of things to begin with I wouldn't have had to involve Plan 'B'."
"The military taught you well, Wilson," Superman said. "Too bad you didn't learn the part about protecting the innocent."
"You'd be surprised what I learned, Blue," Wilson said. "And, trust me, you'll want to listen this time because you don't want to meet Plan 'C'."
"So just turn a blind eye to a man's murder and you'll return the child safe and sound? You want me to choose between the lives of two people?"
"You're the hero, Blue. Can't stand the hard choices, you should never have put on the suit."
Superman took a step toward Wilson, but the worsening effects of the radiation reminded him of the danger of rash action.
"That's it, Blue. Remember each action has its own consequences."
"You diseased worm," Superman said through clenched teeth.
"Now, is that the type of language a role model for humanity should use? Maybe I just need to step over there and give you a big hug," Wilson said, laughing.
"Maybe I need to use heat vision to perform a vivisection on you to see what makes a worm like you tick."
The line was delivered with such coldness that Wilson actually froze in place and began to feel a dryness in his mouth he hadn't felt before. Superman took another deliberate step forward. The radiation sickness began to worsen and he had to concentrate to stay focused on Wilson.
As was often the case with Kryptonite exposure, along with weakening him the radiation also made it seem as though his senses were in overdrive. As his powers diminished, so did his ability to narrow his attention to one person or object and he often found himself looking at things using the full spectrum of his vision or being unable to turn off his super hearing. Superman fought to maintain his concentration on the man now in front of him, but something on the periphery of his senses began to nag at him.
"You piece of filth," Superman finally said.
"Best mind your tongue, Superman, and not waste your strength on self-righteous anger. And don't forget I still have this Kryptonite."
"Do you think that Kryptonite protects you?" Superman said, stepping even closer, bringing himself within a couple of feet of the other man. At this range, the radiation was like a million little knives slicing through his stomach and head and he felt as if he was slowly being cooked from the inside out. The nausea was becoming overwhelming and his knees threatened to buckle, but he would be damned before he showed any weakness to this man.
"It's a short range defense, at best," he continued. "Do you have any idea what I could do to you from a distance? I wouldn't have to kill you. I could carve you up a piece at a time from orbit with my heat vision."
He moved one step closer and his voiced dropped into a dangerously low tone.
"Or I could just drop a mountain on you and squash you like the bug you are."
Superman's hand came out and caught the man by the front of his uniform and jerked him forward.
"You still have one good eye, Wilson. I could look into it and with the smallest use of my heat vision lobotomize you. Or maybe you'd prefer I simply excise the part of your brain that allows you conscious control of your bowels. Or perhaps you'd like to have seizures the rest of your life?"
Beads of sweat were beginning to break out on his forehead as his pain was increasing and blood began to run down from one nostril, but he could see the man's attempts to hide his own anxiety and he knew the man could see that he saw it.
"If anything happens to that child I'll do all of that and more, I swear it."
"Just keep your nose out of business that isn't yours and we shouldn't have a problem," Slade said, putting as much bravado into his voice as possible when facing a demigod.
"Just pray I don't find you later, filth."
He shoved the man backwards and watched him fall to the ground.
"Because if I do I'll show you exactly how little your strength and reflexes matter."
Not waiting for an answer, Superman stepped back toward the edge of the roof and launched himself skyward.
Once he was airborne and the effects of the Kryptonite began to fade, he opened his senses up. Something had been nagging at the corner of his mind, like an old memory that just wouldn't go away. Something that was both familiar and important. As time seemed to slow, he heard and saw everything in Metropolis at once. His computer-like brain began the task of sifting through and discarding the incredible amounts of information that his amazing senses allowed him access to.
He cycled though various sights and sounds throughout the city. He heard a couple making love in a ground floor apartment on the upper west side. He heard a policeman's whistle blow as he directed traffic over on Lincoln Avenue. He became aware of Lois Lane sitting in her apartment drinking a large margarita saying "oh my God" over and over again.
Suddenly, he realized what he had been halfway hearing during his entire conversation with Wilson. The steady thumping of fists against metal and a child screaming over and over again for her mommy. He quickly isolated the sound and, using his vision powers, located a sealed metal box with oxygen tanks attached buried several blocks away under a construction site.
In an instant, he was galvanized to action and hurled himself as fast as his weakened state would allow him toward the empty lot and its precious treasure. On the street below, Maggie Sawyer saw his abrupt change in course and, hoping against hope, ordered the other squad cars to follow her as she stood on the gas pedal of her car trying to keep the rocketing figure in blue and red in sight.
Police cars came screaming to a halt at the curb, and Maggie Sawyer jumped out of the lead cruiser and ran toward Superman. He sat on the ground, his cape spread out around him like a great shroud. A large metal box lay mangled beside a larger crater in the ground of the construction site. Maggie could hear the young girl's sobs, but as she approached she realized Superman was rocking and singing to the child as he held her close. Maggie was struck by the beauty of the tune, but could recognize neither the words nor the language.
"Superman," she said as she drew close, attempting to get his attention, but the Man of Steel continued to rock and sing, ignoring everything around him except the child in his arms. She said his name a couple of more times but still was unable to elicit a response. She was about to touch his shoulder when she realized that the girl did appear to be calming somewhat and so she took a step back and motioned for her people to do the same.
"How pathetic," a voice said from above, interrupting Maggie before she could act further.
Turning toward the voice, she observed a man of middle-eastern origin, dressed all in black except for yellow boots, a yellow belt and a yellow lightning bolt on his chest, descend from the sky. He ignored her as he landed and she realized his comment had been addressed to Superman.
Black Adam. The name came to her instantly. Ordinarily he was seen around Fawcett City where his usual sparring partner was Captain Marvel, but apparently he was taking his act on the road these days. Maggie tried to dredge up any facts she could remember, but they all amounted to the fact that Black Adam was a very bad person and had enough power that he could stand toe to toe with Superman if he chose to. She stepped back and signaled her men to fan out around the villain, who contemptuously continued to ignore them, focusing his attention solely on the Man of Steel.
"I told Wilson we didn't need to persuade you to stay out of our affairs. I could have handled you well enough. You act like a woman and the day Black Adam cannot deal with a woman will be the day I am cold in my grave."
Superman stopped singing and looked up at Black Adam with a dullness in his gaze, seeming to only partially be aware of what was going on around him. The little girl became wide-eyed and attempted to hide her face against Superman's shoulder and held more tightly to him.
"Look at you," Black Adam continued, "you rock and sing to children like a wet-nurse. It wasn't even worth my time to bury this urchin."
Superman's expression at that last comment showed that he was finally starting to comprehend what was going on and he didn't like it one bit. Seeing this, a grin split Black Adam's face.
"That's right, Man of Milk. I'm the one who buried her. How else do you think she got a half-kilometer below ground? My associates thought it necessary to have leverage by which to persuade you to un-involve yourself from our affairs. My thought was that a man too afraid to use his powers to their fullest and impose order upon these wretched masses was not someone we needed to fear, but they insisted. Her hiding place was my idea, though. I couldn't abide her sniveling any longer and felt she needed some alone time."
Black Adam began to laugh at his own joke.
"You buried her alive." Superman spoke for the first time.
"Yes," Black Adam responded, still laughing.
"And you think that's funny?" Superman asked almost conversationally.
Superman stood and passed the young girl to Maggie. He then turned back to Black Adam, but remained silent.
Black Adam snorted at what he perceived as more cowardice and continued his speech.
"These mortals live and die by our will and our whim. The weak serve only to benefit the strong. Indeed, they beg for the strong to guide them, and if you are too weak for the task then other leaders must step up."
"You terrorized a small child."
Black Adam rolled his eyes and shook his head in exasperation.
"You still fail to see. She was a means to an end, nothing more. If she becomes stronger because of the incident then she will benefit her people. If she becomes crippled by it then she joins the rank of victims, which is already legion. Either is inconsequential to me because she has already done what the majority of these mortal cattle will never do. She has served a higher purpose. Her individual concerns are of no importance."
"…of no importance," Superman repeated, sounding somewhat distant.
"She means nothing," Black Adam said, emphasizing what he felt was a simple fact of life.
Superman remained silent for several seconds, staring dully at Black Adam.
"Super…" Maggie began to ask, but stopped as Superman's face suddenly twisted into a hideous visage of rage and his eyes began to glow.
Under normal circumstances, Superman's heat vision WAS invisible to the naked eye. The few times it HAD been intense enough to register in the visible spectrum of light, it HAD evidenced itself as ruby red beams reminiscent of a laser. The beams that left Superman's eyes now did so as twin icy blue beams of heat millions of times hotter than the surface of the sun and they super heated the air like a blast furnace in their wake forcing Maggie to jump back. Even with the speed of Heru, Black Adam was unable to dodge the surprise attack before the beams pierced his shoulder and continued on to strike and vaporize part of the parking garage wall across the street.
Black Adam screamed in agony for the first time in thousands of years as the beams of heat seared through him. However, the scream was cut short as 220 pounds of dense Kryptonian mass slammed into him, snapping two of his ribs in the process and carrying both of them across the street and into the parking structure.
Black Adam was caught off guard by Superman's initial actions but, as his magic began to knit his wounds, he rallied and moved to go back on the offensive. Ignoring the torturous pain in his shoulder, he head butted the Man of Steel to loosen his grip and then kicked him into a parked car, which collapsed under the impact. Black Adam's respite was short-lived, however, as Superman quickly recovered and again slammed into him, inflicting more damage to his ribs and shoving him back against a wall. A vicious backhanded blow knocked Black Adam's head sideways and was followed by two equally hard punches to his stomach.
Black Adam responded with a hard right cross to Superman's jaw, knocking him back and enabling Adam to follow with a left jab to the face, which split Superman's lip and bloodied his nose. The smile of triumph that crossed Adam's face was short-lived, though, as he attempted a third punch only to have his fist stopped in mid-flight as it was caught in the grasp of Superman's left hand. His surprise quickly turned to pain as Superman twisted his wrist, and a dry snapping sound issued from his arm.
Black Adam had little time to feel astonishment or pain, though, as the Man of Steel hit him hard in the face and knocked him backwards. Without a word, Superman continued forward and delivered a left hook that backed Adam up still more and then a right cross that put him on the ground. As Black Adam stumbled backward from the onslaught, he quickly discovered that it was almost impossible to do more than simply defend himself.
For the first time in his memory, Superman lost control and he gave free rein to the madness of his anger. He had become a raging engine of destruction and ignored the blows that Black Adam attempted to hit him with. As he pummeled his opponent, fists that could shatter tempered steel began at first to keep up with and then overcome magic that healed wounds almost instantly. No longer was he pulling his punches. No longer was he concerned about the well-being of his adversary.
Black Adam was beginning to feel his injuries keenly and was quickly coming to realize that he had finally met an opponent that was perhaps more powerful than him. Making the decision that discretion was the better part of valor, he shoved at the Man of Steel and, springing backward, took to the air to escape. Before he could rise more than a few feet in the air, he felt a vice-like grip around his ankle and he was summarily slammed into the ground.
"You're not going anywhere, animal. I'm not finished yet," Superman said speaking his first words since the battle began.
Still grasping Black Adam's ankle, Superman swung him against one of the garage pillars and then slammed him into a wall. Before Black Adam could regain his footing, a knee slammed into his stomach, causing the air in his lungs to leave his body in a violent cough and then a steel hard fist drove him back to the ground with a punch to the jaw.
A second punch lifted him off the ground and sent him flying into a car with enough force to demolish the vehicle and throw it several yards.
As Superman started again toward his opponent, Black Adam threw up his one good arm and waved him to stop.
"I…surrender," Adam choked out between swollen lips.
Superman's advance did not slow and his answer was punctuated by his violent reaction.
Superman delivering a right cross to Adam's face, initiating a sound not unlike that of a piece of pottery breaking as Black Adam's jaw was fractured.
He followed with a left hook that slammed Adam back into a concrete pillar.
Adam was smashed through the pillar and into the wall behind him.
As Black Adam attempted to rise to his feet, Superman began raining body blows to his stomach and sides at super speed, keeping him pinned to the wall and breaking still more of his ribs.
"Is it still funny, Adam? The suffering of another being? Am I finally using my powers in the appropriate fashion? Do you still think might makes right? Do you?!!!!"
His next punch caught Adam in the face and pushed his head back into the concrete wall, which began to crack under the strain. His followed that up with several more blows to Adam's head, which virtually buried it into the concrete wall. Finally, he grabbed Black Adam by his neck and pulled the almost unconscious man from the indention that he had made in the wall and began to slowly and unerringly squeeze the hand that held the man aloft.
"That's enough, Superman." He heard Maggie Sawyer's voice from behind him. "Put him down."
"No," was the only answer he gave her as he continued to squeeze the life from his opponent.
Adam was grasping futilely at the hand that held him, but his struggles were getting weaker.
"Listen, Big Guy…" Maggie said, coming around into his view and holstering her weapon. She paused in shock at the sight in front of her. A mask of cold fury covered Superman's face as blood ran freely from his mouth and nose. The most frightening aspect, though, was the dull red glow that rose and faded in his eyes in time with his ragged breathing. Maggie noticed that Black Adam's gaze never wavered from those eyes and she could imagine each rise and fall of that glow making him more and more aware of his mortality.
Taking a deep breath, she continued, "We both know that there's nothing the M.P.D. has that can stop you if you don't want to be stopped. Only you can do that. God knows, this monster deserves what's coming to him and the odds are there's probably not a court in the land that would convict you after what he's done, but you don't want to do it. Trust me, Big Guy, you don't want to cross that line because when you do there's no coming back. I know that's a line used in every movie during a scene like this, but it's a cliche only because it's true. I've been there, Superman. Believe me, it's true. Please, don't do that to yourself. He's not worth it. Please."
Superman continued to hold Black Adam aloft for a second, looking into his face, before suddenly slamming him into the wall, causing Sawyer to jump.
"Say the word," Superman said addressing Black Adam and only loosening his grip enough to allow him to get a breath of air.
"Uh, I…" Adam gasped in answer and Superman quickly reapplied his grip and slammed Adam's head twice into the wall."
"Say it!" he roared.
"Sh-Shazam," Adam croaked out without hesitating a second time.
A bolt of lightning lit the room for a second and Superman stepped back as it transformed Black Adam into his mortal form, Theo Adam, and removing all traces of the savage beating from his features.
"Superman, I…" he started to say, but was quickly silenced by a blow to his forehead from Superman's index finger, which knocked him unconscious.
"Shackle him and prevent him from speaking. You won't have any trouble from him if he can't say his magic word," Superman said to Maggie, without turning to face her.
Maggie, somewhat stunned by the sudden turn of events, quickly signaled for her men to take custody of Adam and ordered a sonic gag originally intended for Silver Banshee brought up and put on Adam while he was still unconscious.
"How's the little girl?" Superman asked, still not facing her.
"She's fine." Maggie replied.
"Fine?!" Superman's fist lashed out, turning a concrete support pillar to dust, before spinning around on Sawyer, who had stepped back in surprise, her hand automatically going for the gun at her side.
"How can she be fine after what that monster did?!" he screamed, advancing on the startled officer.
The surrounding cops had also swung their weapons around at the sudden outburst, but stood there helplessly, knowing that they were about as useful as water pistols against the Man of Steel.
"Whoa, Big Guy," Maggie said, bring her hands up and holding them, palms forward, between them. "She's physically fine. Yes, she traumatized by what happened, but she wasn't injured and her parents should already be with her. She's going to be Ok, thanks to you."
"Thanks to me? She was only in danger because of me! They kidnapped her to control me!" Superman was getting louder as he spoke and continued toward Sawyer, who continued to backpedal keeping her hands in front of her.
"No, she was in danger because some bad men broke the law. You're no more at fault for their actions than I am. If it hadn't been you they were focused on then it would have been someone else. You saved her. But you need to calm down because you're starting to scare the hell out of me."
Hearing that, Superman suddenly seemed to become aware of what he was doing and looked down at his clenched fists. His knuckles were cracked and bleeding. He stared at them in horror for a few moments before speaking, as if realizing for the first time what had happened here.
"Maggie, I'm sorry, I didn't mean…"
"That's Ok, Superman. You've been though a lot today. Let's go sit down away from all this and we'll talk for a bit."
"No, I…I can't. I…I need to go."
Before Maggie could react to stop him, he simply disappeared. She stood, stunned, for a minute, surprised at the suddenness of his departure. Taking a deep breath, she steadied her frayed nerves and, looking around, her finally spoke.
"Ok, people, let's get this place cordoned off, and somebody call the city planning office and get a building inspector down here ASAP with a crew to shore this place up before it collapses like a bad game of Jenga."
She shook her head and continued out to her car. For the first time in years, she was considering calling in sick tomorrow. That was if she could finish the mountain of paperwork this fiasco had generated before the end of the shift today.
A nanosecond after he left Maggie Sawyer standing in stunned silence, Superman was clearing the upper atmosphere heading into space. The darkness that surrounded him, however, only seemed to heighten the anxiety he was beginning to feel and a man who didn't need to breathe suddenly found himself short of breath and was forced to re-enter the atmosphere.
Only partially conscious of his actions, Clark turned toward the Arctic, where his landing could have been termed more of a crash than anything remotely resembling a controlled descent. Once he was on the ground, he unconsciously assumed a fetal position, bringing his knees into his chest, trying to control his shaking body.
He lost track of how long he remained there on the ground shaking, but finally lapsed into sleep, having rolled onto his side while still hugging his knees as the falling snow covered his body.
"A little harsh, don't you think?" Perry said, tossing the article down on Clark's desk the next day.
"He lost his temper and almost killed a man, Perry. No, I don't think it was too harsh."
"The man in question kidnapped a three-year-old girl and buried her alive. I think a little loss of temper wouldn't be outside the human norm."
"Superman isn't human, Perry. He's Kryptonian and has enough power to level a city if he doesn't keep it under control. He can't afford to lose his temper, no matter what the provocation."
"Don't you think you're asking just a bit too much from him?"
"No, I don't. He has to be accountable for his actions. 'I was angry' doesn't cut it. That shouldn't work for people who break the law if things don't go their way and it shouldn't work for him either. Maybe you should ask yourself if perhaps you're not asking enough of him."
Perry paused for a bit, studying Clark before speaking.
"How much do you think he expects from himself?"
"A lot more than he gave us yesterday," Clark snapped.
Perry nodded his head absently. "Either way, I can't print your piece as is. The Op Ed section has already been filled and I need a news story. Give me a re-write in twenty minutes."
"Yes, sir," Clark responded more calmly, sinking back in his chair and, lowering his head and shoulders, almost seeming to deflate.
When Perry walked off, Clark closed his eyes briefly and tried to center himself. He had lost his temper again and it was beginning to be a bad habit that he wanted to break. Keeping his eyes closed and taking a deep breath, he suddenly had the sense of being closed in and could hear the sound of something banging on the walls around him. He began to shake involuntarily and opened his mouth to speak, but a hand on his shoulder caused his eyes to snap open and the feeling faded.
"Are you Ok, Clark?" Lois asked.
"What? Oh, I mean, yes. I mean I think I might be coming down with something. Nothing serious, though. I think I should go to the bathroom."
He rose up from his desk so quickly that Lois had to jump back to keep from being knocked over. Muttering an apology, he hurried toward the bathrooms.
Lois stood watching his back, eyes narrowing. Entering the newsroom that morning, she had been unsure of how to approach her partner. Should she tell him what she knew or keep her discovery to herself? The news last night had covered Superman's rescue of young Emily Rosen as well as Superman's battle with Black Adam, but had not gone into a lot of details. She glanced down at the article Clark had left on his desk and quickly read through it.
Armed with the knowledge she now had, she realized that the article wasn't a criticism of Superman so much as an angry blow directed at himself. Self-induced penance for what he saw as the worst kind of action he could take against another human being.
Something was wrong, and she knew it. Something more than just a loss of temper. The problem was that she had no clue what "it" was. And she had no idea how to approach Clark. Still, that had never stopped her before and she saw no reason to develop bad habits now. Squaring her shoulders, she headed toward the bathrooms as well.
In the men's room, Clark leaned heavily on the washbasin trying to gain control of his rising anxiety. He had no idea where his sudden case of claustrophobia had come from nor why he was hearing things. The only thing he knew for sure was that, before Lois had interrupted him, he was about to say a Kryptonian word aloud. He just didn't know why he was about to say that word. It was the Kryptonian word for "mother."
The bathroom door flew open suddenly and Lois barreled in.
"L-Lois," Clark stammered, "this is the men's room!"
"So?" Lois asked, glancing briefly around the room, "It hasn't changed since the last time I was in here, so what's the big deal?"
"The last time?" Clark asked, feeling confused, a feeling he was beginning to become familiar with around this woman.
"That's not important," Lois replied, shaking her head. "Are you ok?"
"I'm fine," Clark said, a bit too quickly, but dropped his gaze as Lois's drilled into him, her skepticism apparent.
"Well, mostly fine. I-I just felt a little dizzy, is all. I might be coming down with something," Clark added.
Lois stared into his eyes for a few moments, debating whether or not to confront him.
"Are you feeling better now?" she asked.
"Yeah, I just needed to get up and move around a bit. Whatever it was has passed now."
"Are you sure?" Lois asked, looking at him with a slightly perplexed look on her face, as if trying to find something in his eyes.
As he recognized her expression, Clark's panic began to rise again and he quickly turned his face away to divert any close examination that might reveal more than just whether he was "ok" or not.
"Yeah, I think I've gotten my second wind."
Lois opened her mouth to speak, but shut it again as for perhaps the first time in her life she allowed her common sense to overwhelm her urge to dig into a mystery. Instead, she decided to rely on other instincts to guide her through. He wasn't the world's mightiest superhero now, but a colt who would bolt if he felt threatened or cornered.
"Ok," she said, allowing a smile to brighten her face as she reached out to touch Clark's arm, "if you're sure, then do you feel like digging back into the Intergang case?"
Not for the first time, Clark looked into Lois's eyes and realized how easily he could lose himself there. This time, however, he was acutely aware of how desperately he wanted to. As she sometimes did during moments like this, Lois's expression seemed to convey an understanding of the thoughts warring in Clark's head and she took an almost imperceptible step closer but, as he had done during dozens of these moments over the years, Clark broke eye contact first. And for the thousandth time he told himself that whomever had said it was better to have loved and lost had no idea what they were talking about.
"Yeah," he said and then allowed himself his own smile. "I think I can muster up enough gusto to dig in. Just be patient if I show some difficulty keeping up with your dazzling intellect."
"Sure, Smallville," Lois said, punching his arm, "but only because you're feeling under the weather today. Otherwise there would be no free rides at the Lane School of Investigative Journalism."
"You humble me with your generosity, Ms. Lane," Clark said, returning her gentle ribbing as he started for the door. "I will endeavor to improve my performance in order to be worthy of the time you have given me."
"Just see that you do, Smallville," Lois replied, following him toward the door and allowing herself to indulge in the urge to get in the last word. "My time is valuable, you know."
Clark's answering chuckle told her he was graciously going to give it to her. This time. Kid's gloves, she told herself as she followed him toward her desk. She wasn't sure how she knew it, but she was positive that this was the best way to handle things for the moment. She needed time to get to know this Clark Kent, anyway. Her friend had always been a bit of a stranger to her, but now she had a frame of reference with which to judge and evaluate a lot of his seemingly odd behavior over the years.
Last night, after she had stopped rocking in place while drinking and eating ice cream, lost in the shock of her new discovery, she had engaged in a long heart to heart with herself. Prior to this, she had been ready to admit to herself that she was interested in Clark as more than just a friend and had even been prepared to pursue the issue. She had actually felt a bit excited at the prospect.
Now, she had to admit that her newfound knowledge had dampened her fervor a bit. Did she want to get involved with a man who could not only juggle planets, but walked around with the weight of them on his shoulders every day? Someone who was called away at all hours to do everything from rescuing a kitten from a tree to stopping an intergalactic invasion. A man who was looked at by everyone in the world, including herself, as the perfect example of…well…perfection. For that matter, was there even a chance that such a man would want to get involved with her?
Even as she had asked herself that question, she tossed it and the self-doubt out of her mind. She had looked into his eyes and had seen his reaction to her on numerous occasions. He was interested, there was little question of that, but now at least she knew what it was that kept him from pursuing that interest. He probably had just as many doubts as she did about a relationship with someone. And he probably had an even better frame of reference than she did as to the difficulties that were inherent in such a relationship.
In fact, now that she thought about it, it probably explained why he kept everyone at arm's length. From what she knew of Superman, he was an orphan from another planet. From what she knew of Clark, he was an orphan as well, only from Kansas. In a span of less than two decades, he had lost two families. Almost literally everyone in the world who was important to him. Probably the only people he could even talk to about himself and the things he encountered.
Ben had been right. A lot did depend on what he went home to. Unfortunately, now she knew that he went home to an empty apartment to eat meals alone in front of the TV. When he did eat. My God, she thought to herself. That was why he had no food in his apartment. Obviously he enjoyed eating, she had seen that yesterday morning, but with no one around to prompt him he obviously lapsed at times and maybe even forgot to eat.
For all she knew, the only social contact he had with anyone where he could totally be himself was with those people she saw in that picture in his apartment. And since she saw him at least five days per week and many evenings and weekends because of shared or parallel stories, she knew that didn't happen often.
The people in the picture, she just realized. They had to be…
No, she told herself. You can't think about that now. It's too much. One thing at a time, Lane. One thing at a time. She would take things slow and after she got to know this new side of Clark then she would make her decision as to whether or not a relationship with him was a good idea. Until then she would take it slow and not let him know that she knew about his dual identity. The last thing she needed was for him to get some idiotic idea that she was interested in him solely because he was Superman.
The thought caught her off guard and she stopped in mid-stride. It was the straw that almost broke the proverbial camel's back. She began to feel slightly disoriented and her breath started to come a little bit faster as she started to hyperventilate.
Hearing Lois's heartbeat suddenly elevate along with her respiration, Clark turned around toward his partner, to find her frozen in place staring at him a bit wide-eyed.
"Lois, are you ok?" he asked, tentatively stepping toward her.
"What?" Lois asked, suddenly snapping back into control of herself and calming her breathing back to a normal pace. She forced a smile on her face and addressed Clark. "Sure, just got a little dizzy there myself. I probably shouldn't have skipped breakfast. Or maybe whatever you have is catching."
"You looked panicked, Lois, not dizzy," Clark responded.
"And you got your advanced psychiatric degree along with your medical license since the last time we talked, did you?" Lois said, adopting a pugnacious look.
"Well, no, but I'm just saying…"
"I was dizzy. I know dizzy. I know dizzy because I sometimes get dizzy and cranky when I have female problems. Would a discussion of those things help to prove to you my familiarity with dizziness? Would you like to discuss my female problems, Clark?"
"What? No, no, I just thought…I mean…"
"You see," Lois said, pointing to his face, "that's panicked. I didn't look a thing like that. I was dizzy."
Without giving him time to respond, she stepped around him and continued on to her desk, where she sat down. Clark swallowed once and then followed her and sat down in the chair next to her desk.
"Ok, where do you want to begin?" he asked.
"Well, if either one will agree to it, we probably need to talk to Black Adam and if possible Floyd Lawton."
"I doubt if either would agree even if their attorneys would let them, and I don't think Lawton would agree to talk to me in any case," Clark said.
"Only if he thought he could arrange for it to be in a dark room with him armed and you tied up," Forrest Hagen said as he approached the two from behind.
"Mister District Attorney," Lois said, turning to the newcomer, "to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?"
"I wanted to stop by and see if you had found out anything new that could be of use."
"Nothing more than we've already told you," Clark said. "Failing talking to our two super-villains, I think our next move needs to be tracking down Marcus Styles. Has your office come up with any leads to him yet?"
"Only a list of sixty-three Marcus and or Mark Styles in the Metropolis phonebook. We're working to narrow down that list somewhat. We figure the 73-year-old retired postal worker over on Perez can be ruled out."
"The efficiency of the Judiciary branch of government is awe- inspiring to behold in its investigative skills," Lois said with a sarcastic smirk on her face.
"Well," Hagan responded, "we don't have the expertise of you hotshots here at the Planet, but we get by the best way we can."
"Anytime you need lessons, just let me know," Lois said. "My rates are cheap."
"I'll keep that in mind, Lane," Hagan said with a scowl. "In the meantime, don't forget to keep me apprised of any progress you make. I want these jerks shut down."
"Yeah," Lois said, "it probably wouldn't bode well for your gubernatorial campaign if it became public knowledge that you couldn't clean up your own backyard, would it."
"Dammit, Lane, it's not all about politics. Sure I want to be elected, but these monsters need to be shut down because they're pure evil. They buried a three-year-old girl alive. Can you imagine being that young and being locked up in a box in the dark?"
The word flashed through Clark's mind like a dagger being driven into his brain. Neither Lois nor Hagan noticed his eyes glaze over for a moment as something more than a thought, but not quite a full memory, came unbidden to the forefront of his mind.
"I mean, Jesus," Hagan continued, "what kind of thing does that do to a kid? What kind of memories is she stuck with?"
The word flashed through his mind again and he recognized his own voice screaming it in his native tongue. It was accompanied by that feeling he had experienced earlier of being closed in, and for a moment he saw himself in some kind of enclosed space that shook and rattled and he again heard the sound of something like rocks striking the walls around him. This time, however, he also felt pinned to his chair and unable to raise his arms due to the pressures of acceleration. Blind panic was the only name he could give to the feeling that assailed him.
"Kent? Are you ok?"
Clark suddenly came back to reality as he became aware of Forrest Hagan leaning in towards him and felt Lois's hand clutch his.
"Clark?" she asked, both looking and sounding concerned as she squeezed his hand.
"What? Oh, yes, I'm fine. I guess I sort of zoned out there for a second."
"Zoned out?" Hagan said. "You were actually starting to shake."
"I've been feeling sick today," Clark replied. "I think I may be catching the flu or something."
"Well," Hagan, said looking somewhat skeptical, "I guess it is the cold and flu season. Just make sure you're well enough to testify against Lawton when he comes up for trial."
"Don't worry, Hagan," Lois replied for Clark, "that's something we're both looking forward to."
Hagan nodded once absently and turned as if starting to leave.
"Oh, before I forget," he said. "Has Maxwell tried to contact you again?"
"No," Clark answered. "Why? Have you heard anything from him?"
"No, I just thought that if he tried to contact you once then he would again."
"Well, I think that was simply because Intergang had him cornered," Clark answered. "If we hear from him again it'll probably only be if he's in similar circumstances."
"Yes," Hagan said, nodding thoughtfully, "you're probably right. Well, anyway, good hunting in regards to Styles, but don't approach him alone. Let us know where he is and we'll pick him up. I'll see about letting you talk to him after he's been booked."
"Sure, Hagan," Lois said, adopting a doubtful look, "we're used to all of the sterling cooperation from the MPD. Trust us, we won't get within 100 yards of Styles."
"I mean it, Lane. If he's Intergang he could be dangerous. At the very least, he probably has Wilson looking out for him. If you want the next murder I prosecute to be yours, feel free to ignore me."
"We hear you, Hagan," Clark said, standing up and interposing himself between Hagan and Lois before she could say anything else. 'We'll let you know what we find."
Hagan nodded and then headed for the exit. Clark turned and gave Lois a hard look.
"What?" she asked.
"Do you really think it's a good idea to needle the D.A. like that?"
"I can't help it. He gets on my nerves."
"All public officials get on your nerves."
"True, but politicians are the worst."
"He's been a good D.A. so far, Lois. He'll probably make a good Governor."
"Well, from the polls I'd say we'll definitely get the chance to find out. He still gets on my nerves, though."
Clark rolled his eyes heavenward and uttered a silent prayer.
"Hey," Lois said, changing the subject, "you did seem to space out there for a second. You sure you're ok?"
Clark lowered his eyes and looked into hers for a second before answering.
"Yeah, I am. Just a bit under the weather, is all. I'm sure it'll pass."
"Well," Lois said drawing the word out, "if you're sure."
This time it was a bit less startling and Clark's reaction less obvious. He closed his eyes for a second and willed himself to concentrate on the woman in front of him.
"Yeah, I'm sure. Don't be such a mother hen," he said with a slight grin.
"Ok, but only if you're sure. You could always take the day off you know. I could follow up on Styles myself."
"Oh, no, Ms. Lane," Clark said, shaking his head. "Hagan is right about one thing. There's little doubt that Styles will be dangerous and an even bigger chance that Wilson will be with him. Whither thou goest, so do I."
"You think I can't take care of myself?"
"Against Wilson I'm not sure that we could take care of each other, but I still would feel better if we did it as a team."
Lois broke into a wide smile at that.
"So would I partner, so would I."
They stared into each other's eyes for a second and each felt that now familiar tugging. This time, though, Lois was the one to break eye contact first.
"Ok, any ideas about how to find Styles before the crack team of phonebook detectives solve the riddle?"
Clark smiled. "Elementary, dear Watson. We start with the people who probably already know him."
Lois's face lit up.
"The list of new city contract holders," she said. "Somebody in each company was probably contacted the same way Maxwell was."
"And if we can convince one of them that the gig is up and their only hope is to turn State's evidence they may lead up down the yellow brick road…"
"Straight to the Wizard," Lois finished.
The two looked at each other, smiling for a second, and then turned toward the newsroom and yelled in unison.
"Ok, guys," Jimmy said, throwing a sheaf of computer printouts on the desk between Lois and Clark. "Here's everything I could find on everyone on your list. It's everything from who they do business with to any campaign contributions they've made in the past five years. Everything in the public domain and a great deal that isn't."
"Thanks, Jimmy," Clark said as Lois grabbed the papers and began flipping through them.
"Any thoughts on who we should go after first?" Clark asked.
"Morgan, Stevenson and Co," Lois answered without hesitation.
"Seriously?" Clark asked. "Lois, those guys probably have more lawyers than Intergang has henchmen. How exactly do you expect to scare them into talking?"
"Clark, let's be honest, they're a bunch of accountants. The odds of scaring one of them are a lot better than some guy who already has a sizable rap sheet and has poured more cement for more Mob driveways than city projects. Those guys not only wouldn't talk, but they'd probably dump us in the next day's mix and then call their Intergang contact to ask for permission. They're the ones with the best access to attorneys, not a bunch of suits who count other people's money and wear coke-bottle glasses." She stopped for a second, a look of horror crossing her face. "No offense."
"None taken," Clark said dryly as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
Lois grinned for a moment and then continued. "We pick the most junior partner in the combo of Morgan, Stevenson and Co. Someone who hasn't been around the block enough to know the score, but is high enough within the company to know what's going on."
"And someone with a lot more to lose than a guy who already knows what the inside of a jail looks like," Clark finished.
"Exactly," Lois said, smiling brightly.
"That just might work, partner," Clark said looking up at the ceiling, appearing to ponder the plan. "That just might work."
"There was ever a doubt?" Lois asked, arching her eyebrows as if amazed that he would ever question her reasoning.
"A momentary bout of insanity, Lois. I forgot for a second there who I was dealing with. My deepest apologies."
"You know, you're joking, but when was the last time I was wrong?"
"Well," Clark said, looking heavenward again, appearing to be deep in thought, "there was the Durham story…"
"Now, how was I supposed to know he was really a woman?"
"…and then there was the city councilman election…"
"I wasn't the only one who didn't know that Jacobs was part owner in a chain of strip clubs."
"…and didn't you talk Perry into sequestering that one guy as an informant and he turned up on America's Most Wanted the next night?"
"Are we going to work on this story today or sit around obsessing over the past?"
"Terribly sorry, Lois," Clark said with a wide grin. "I don't know what came over me."
Lois answered his grin by rolling her eyes before turning back to the printout. She must be getting used to things, she decided, because she was becoming more successful at hiding her reactions. She succeeded in not passing out or collapsing into hysteria as the realization that it was Superman who was flirting with her sunk in.
"So, do you have someone already in mind or do we need to do some more research on Morgan Stevenson and Co.?" Clark asked.
The question startled Lois out of her reverie.
"What? Oh, sorry," she said, grinning sheepishly, "I was lost in thought there." Then her smile turned a bit wolfish. "Yeah, actually I do have a starting point in mind. I think it's time to call on an old acquaintance."
"Lois Lane," Stuart Short said with a wide smile, "after six months of not hearing a word I'd given up hope that you'd take me up on my offer to come see me some time."
At 32, Stuart was the youngest full partner in Morgan, Stevenson and Co. history. He was also probably the most arrogant. He was just under six feet tall, 160 pounds, blond hair and lots of bright, white teeth. He thought he was God's gift to the world of business and women everywhere. Lois thought he was one of the most irritating people she had ever met. One year ago, he had been at a party Lois had been at and had decided that she was worthy of his undivided attention. It had taken most of the night to shake him and he had only relented when she had taken his card and promised to call him.
"Well, Stuart," Lois said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders, "you know how it is. You get busy and forget to stay in touch sometimes. But, as they say, better late than never, right?"
"Yes, very true," Stuart answered and then glanced briefly at Clark. "But I always sort of thought you'd come alone."
"Awww, you caught me, Stu," Lois said as she sat down on the edge of his desk, picked up his rolodex and began to idly flip through the cards as she talked. "The truth is that we're working on a story we hope you can help us out with."
"What kind of story?" Stuart asked, beginning to feel a bit suspicious. He reached over the desk and took the rolodex from Lois's hands and placed it back on his desk, only now much closer to himself.
Lois smiled to let him know she wasn't offended and left the edge of his desk to take a seat beside Clark. It didn't matter, after all; she had found Styles' name and number two seconds after she had begun flipping through the cards and had already committed it to memory. A rookie mistake, really, keeping something like that in a rolodex but, as she had figured, utterly in keeping with Stuart's bureaucratic mentality. Stuart wasn't a master criminal, but he obviously had dealings with those who were. The question was how deep he was in and would he break if enough pressure was applied.
"A mutually beneficial one," Lois said in response to Stuart's question.
Stuart narrowed his eyes at the two reporters.
"Sort of 'helping each other out'," Clark added, catching on to Lois's phrasing.
"You know," Lois added, "kind of like the union of big business."
Stuart turned slightly pale at that and had to clear his throat before he spoke.
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"I'll cut to the chase, Stu," Lois said, leaning forward slightly. "We want to talk to you about your relationship with a group of businessmen who have resurrected Intergang."
Stuart betrayed his lack of criminal experience by inhaling deeply at the name of the infamous organization. Realizing his mistake, though, he moved quickly to cover for his reaction.
"I don't know anything about that."
"Marcus Styles would appear to disagree with you on that point, Stu," Lois said, pressing the point.
Now Stuart's face got a bit green, which wasn't a big improvement over the pallid expression it had worn before. He glanced down at his rolodex for a second and then caught himself and looked back up at Lois.
"What? I-I mean who is that?"
"Stuart," Lois said, "I think you know exactly who that is and you know exactly what he is as well."
"I don't know anything, Lois," Stuart replied nervously, looking down at his desk again, having difficulty maintaining eye contact now with his two visitors, "and if that's all you wanted then I'm sorry you wasted your time, but I'll have to ask you to leave now."
"Come on, Stu," Lois pressed, "you know exactly what we're talking about and unless you want to see a front page story about it in the Planet with the caption "Company Executive Refuses To Comment" in bold face below the headline you'd better start talking to someone."
"My name, Ms. Lane," Stuart said as he straightened in his seat and smoothed his tie, "is Stuart, not 'Stu' and part of the reason I was made a partner was because I could deal with people like you. I will not be intimidated and should you print anything libelous you will be sued."
Stuart hadn't gone for her bluff, Lois realized. He apparently had a bit more of a backbone and a couple of more brain cells than she had given him credit for. She wasn't finished yet, though, because she was sure he was the weakest link this company had to exploit. Before she could say anything else, however, she was interrupted by her partner.
"When exactly were you named a full partner, Stuart?" Clark asked as an epiphany suddenly hit him.
Lois looked at Clark in surprise for a second, and then realization hit her.
"The youngest partner in the company's history," she said, as if that explained everything.
Clark nodded his head.
"Or more likely its youngest fall guy."
"What the hell are you two talking about?" Stuart demanded, his face turning red.
"You've been set up, Stu," Lois said, turning to face him.
"Let me guess," Clark said, "you were named partner and told it was because you were the type of person this company wanted as their front man. A real people person with the kind of charm and poise they wanted to have represent them. Then they handed you an important project to oversee, including handling all of the firm's dealings with a man named Marcus Styles."
Stuart would have made a lousy poker player, Lois thought as she watched the man's reaction to Clark's statement. His eyes widened into saucer shapes and he paled once again as he began to stammer.
"So your bosses didn't tell you that they wanted you to deal with Styles personally? Every single face to face meeting, phone call, and memo ordering proposed changes can't be linked directly back to you and you, alone thereby absolving the other partners of any wrong-doing?"
Stuart was quiet for several seconds as he stared back and forth between the two reporters, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, but with no sound coming out.
"Oh my God," he finally said.
"I know the feeling," Lois muttered.
The office door behind them suddenly opened and an older gentleman stepped in. He was followed closely behind by two much larger gentlemen who looked like they would be more at home as extras in a Mafia movie than the dark blazers they were wearing with ID attached identifying them as security.
"Mr. Morgan!" Stuart said, startled to see one of the senior partners enter the room.
"Stuart," Mr. Morgan replied, but not looking at him. Instead he was staring at Lois and Clark. "I'm afraid, Mr. Kent, Ms. Lane, that I'll have to ask the two of you to leave."
"May I ask why?" Lois asked, without rising from her chair.
"May I ask the nature of your visit with Mr. Short?"
"Background," Lois answered evasively.
"Yes," Morgan answered, his mouth drawing into a tight line, "well, the firm has no comment about 'background' so I really must insist that you go."
He gestured for the two men behind him and they circled to either side, each grabbing one of the two reporters and pulling them from their seats.
"Hey!" Lois exclaimed as she was jerked to her feet.
Reacting almost by instinct, she stomped down on the large man's instep and, when he yelped in pain and loosened his grip, she brought her elbow into his throat and then, turning, she brought her knee up into his groin, dropping him to the floor.
The other security guard turned loose of Clark and attempted to go to his partner's aid. He grabbed Lois by her arm and started to twist it. Before she could react, however, a vice-like grip attached itself to the guard's wrist and he turned Lois loose as he went to his knees in pain.
"If you lay a hand on her again, friend," Clark said in a menacing voice, still applying pressure to the man's arm, "I'll remove it. From both of you."
"All right!" Morgan's voice boomed behind them. "Enough of this. Mr. Kent, Ms. Lane, you will leave the building now or I'll call the police and press assault charges against both of you."
"Stuart?" Lois said, turning toward Short, who was still seated but appeared to be in shock.
"Mr. Short has nothing more to say," Morgan said, stepping in between the two reporters and the young executive.
"I think that should be up to Mr. Short," Lois said, stepping forward and locking eyes with Morgan.
Morgan held her gaze for a moment before turning to his subordinate.
"Tell her, Stuart," he ordered.
Stuart jumped slightly in his seat and then spoke.
"Yes, yes, please leave. I have no comment. No comment about anything."
Lois looked briefly at Stuart and then turned back to Morgan.
"He'd better not wind up dead somewhere, Morgan, or, trust me, you'll find out what they mean when they say the pen is mightier than the sword."
"Continue with these baseless allegations, Ms. Lane," Morgan responded without blinking, "and you'll understand what is meant by the terms 'libel' and 'litigation'."
Lois held his gaze for a moment and then turned to Clark.
"Come on, partner. I feel the need for fresh air."
The two left Stuart's office and Lois caste a frosty glare at his receptionist as she passed. She was sure that Morgan's visit to Stuart's office hadn't been a coincidence. The woman wore a self-satisfied smirk on her face that faltered slightly under Lois's gaze. The two security guards followed, but kept a decent distance back from the two reporters.
"Well, we certainly got their attention," Lois remarked to Clark as they headed for the elevator.
The only answer he gave was a short grunt and Lois looked over to find an expression on his face much like the one he had worn this morning when dealing with Perry. When the two got on the elevator the guards started to follow, but Clark stepped forward barring their way. Without speaking, he raised both arms and, placing his hands against their chests lightly but forcefully, pushed them back as the doors closed.
"Well," Lois said, looking over at her partner, "someone had their Wheaties this morning."
"I'm sorry, Lois," Clark said finally, dropping his head. "I really should apologize for earlier. I know you can take care of yourself, but I just didn't like that guy grabbing you that way. I shouldn't have interfered."
"That's ok, partner," Lois said, reaching over and giving Clark's arm a squeeze. "I'd be offended if just anyone did that, but I think we both need to admit that we're not just 'anyone' anymore where each other is concerned."
Clark looked up at Lois in surprise. He wasn't sure if she meant that the way it sounded or just as a friendly nod to their partnership. Either way, it lightened his mood slightly while at the same time evoking a slight feeling of panic. For her part, Lois simply smiled at him in a friendly fashion, released his arm and turned back toward the elevator doors.
The cab ride back to the Planet was accomplished mostly in silence as both reporters spent the trip deep in thought. Clark leaned back in his seat, gazing out the window, but paying little attention to the scenery as they passed. He had lost his temper again and this time almost to the detriment of his dual identity. When the one guard had grabbed Lois, his first instinct had been to shrug off the other one and intervene. He'd caught himself just as he was about to throw the other guard into the wall and the pause was long enough to allow Lois the chance to deal with her guard on her own. When the second one grabbed her, though, Clark had seen red and could no longer restrain himself. The best he could do was not break the man's arm and that he accomplished only barely.
Yesterday and the incident with Black Adam was still fresh in his mind and then this morning he had experienced what he could only term as flashbacks to his exodus from Krypton. He wasn't foolish. He understood enough about psychology to realize that the sights and sounds of little Emily Rosen's claustrophobic hell had obviously stirred up feelings and memories he had buried regarding the trauma of Krypton's destruction and his forceful separation from his birth parents.
He was also self-aware enough to know that the crimes he had been investigating had already made him somewhat susceptible to anger because they pushed every button he had in regard to public welfare. The betrayal of the public interest by government officials was only the tip of the iceberg. First Slade Wilson's callous attempts on the lives of two men simply as a means to distract him, and then Black Adam's blatant threats and abuse of Emily Rosen, had evoked a level of anger in him that he wasn't truly aware that he possessed. Lois used to call him idealistic and naive, but he firmly believed those traits weren't bad things because they kept him from becoming pessimistic and jaded. Anger, though, was a trait he knew he couldn't afford to allow to get out of control. What was it Henderson had said to him the other day about everyone just being one bad day away from becoming their own worst nightmare? He couldn't afford to let that happen because his worst nightmare would be everyone else's as well.
Lois was another matter altogether. He had vowed years ago after the roller-coaster he had subjected Lana to that he would never again drag someone else into the madness that was his life. He had even reconciled with the fact that this meant a lifetime, possibly even an immortal one, spent alone because it was safer and healthier for everyone involved. He wouldn't have to worry about anybody and no one would have to worry about him.
Lois broke all of the rules, though. Her life was possibly as chaotic as his. She certainly was as obsessed about her job as he was and her life was put in danger more by her own actions than anything he could possibly cause. And despite his best efforts she seemed to care about him and he about her. This had become even more apparent over the past few days. He didn't know if his resolve was weakening or just that Lois's interest was increasing, but he had told himself he would have to start taking steps to curtail things before they got out of hand.
The problem, though, was that he was rapidly beginning to realize that he had been putting off curtailing things because he liked what was happening. He liked the feeling that came with caring for someone and having them care for him. It wasn't something that he had felt for a very long time. This morning he had been a neurotic mess and ten minutes after Lois had pulled him into the mad world of 'the chase,' as she liked to term investigative reporting, he had felt light and relaxed again. Back in Stuart's office, they had played easily off each other and seemed to almost be able to read each other's mind. The entire affair made him wonder if perhaps he should rethink his decision about relationships.
But he was also aware enough to know that, considering the chaotic mindset he was in now because of recent events, he shouldn't be making any big decisions simply for the fact that he wasn't in total control of his thoughts or emotions. Just because something seemed like a good idea at the time didn't mean it was.
When Lois had asked him a few days ago about his thoughts regarding Superman's reaction to trauma, he had shrugged the whole thing off as simply over-thinking a trivial issue. Now, having had time to give the issue some thought, he realized that he hadn't been entirely honest. He did sometimes wake up in a cold sweat reliving things he had witnessed. The plane crash that he had dealt with as a teenager that prompted his original decision to forego relationships had been a source of numerous nightmares for weeks back then. Fortunately he had his parents to help him work through the guilt and the dreams had eventually stopped.
Since his parents' deaths it had been a bit more difficult to deal with some things and he had to admit that one of the ways he had coped was simply to sleep less. If one didn't sleep one didn't dream and, while this wasn't a perfect solution for normal people, being a Kryptonian living under a yellow sun gave him options others didn't have because he didn't require a great deal of sleep at all. Of course, considering his reactions yesterday and this morning, he was probably going to have to rethink the wisdom of that strategy.
Until then, he told himself, perhaps it would be harmless and even a bit helpful to his own mental health if he didn't create more stress for himself by alienating Lois. It wasn't as if he was encouraging her in a relationship. Lois would probably laugh in his face at the idea. They were just working on a story together and didn't need any silliness to distract them. And silliness would just be the only thing accomplished if he pulled his typical Clark Kent shtick designed to discourage interest.
Who was it that coined the phrase about denial not just being a river in Egypt? he laughed to himself.
"I'm not sure if we really learned anything back there or just put Stuart in danger," Lois finally said, breaking the silence and startling Clark from his thoughts.
"I don't think Morgan would risk doing anything to him just yet after the comment you made to him," Clark replied, "but we should let Henderson know and maybe he can convince him to accept some protection."
"Protection like he gave Maxwell?" Lois asked scornfully.
"Maxwell's still alive, at least, Lois."
"Thanks to me and you," Lois said, "not the police."
"Well, unless you and I want to hang up the reporter thing and go into the witness protection racket, the police are all Stuart has."
"Ok," Lois agreed grudgingly, "We'll tell Henderson, but I'll keep Styles' number to myself until we check it out."
If she was expecting a surprised reaction from Clark to the information that she possessed the phone number, she didn't show it and Clark didn't give it. In fact he had expected nothing less from Lois from the outset of their visit to Stuart Short's office.
"Agreed," Clark said. "I'm looking forward to meeting the mysterious Mr. Styles in person."
As the ground fell away beneath his feet, Clark marveled for maybe the millionth time in his life at what he viewed as his greatest power. This, perhaps more than anything else, was the best form of therapy he had.
He and Lois had returned to the Planet earlier with Marcus Styles' phone number and had given it to Jimmy to track down. He told them that he had a friend with the telephone company who could get them a name and address to go along with the number and that he'd have it by the morning. After a quick phone call to Henderson informing him of the situation with Stuart Short, he and Lois had parted company to go home for the evening and Lois had promised to swing by his apartment in the morning so they could get an early start.
In light of the events of the past few days, Clark had little desire to return to an empty apartment and brood so he had taken the opportunity to head for the roof rather than the lobby and had launched himself skyward.
Usually in late December at this time of day, the people on the streets below had already experienced the setting of the sun. Once you rose above the skyscrapers as Clark was now doing, however, one was treated to a spectacular view as the terminator between day and night became clearly visible as the sun slowly trekked across the sky.
Clark did a quick flyby through the city streets, ducking in and out of the canyons created by the throng of buildings. His flight continued uneventfully as it seemed the Christmas spirit was permeating the city and crime, for the moment anyway, appeared to be non-existent.
When he completed the circuit of the city, he paused momentarily a thousand or so feet up and let his gaze travel over the cityscape below. He wasn't using any of the myriad visual powers he possessed. He simply gazed upon the spectacular view of his hometown with appreciation.
After a few moments he turned and flew in the direction of some of Metropolis' suburbs. When he reached the home of Emily Rosen, he paused and took a brief glance inside with his x-ray vision to check on the young girl. He didn't mean to spy on them, but he was concerned about the little girl and didn't want to create a fuss or bring back bad memories by visiting her in person. He found her in the living room, quiet, but smiling slightly and appearing content as she sat on the couch between two very attentive parents. The surprising thing, though, was that she was clutching a stuffed Superman doll. Satisfied that, for the moment at least, she was doing better, he allowed himself to slowly drift high into the sky. Then, almost before the idea to do so completely formed in his mind, and perhaps before he could have second thoughts about the matter, he turned west and raced the sun to the horizon.
Over Ohio he dropped down low enough to admire the landscape as he flew. Even covered in snow, farmland looked like farmland and the sight of it brought back to him memories of his youth. Just north of Columbus, he came across a young Amish couple struggling with a horse-drawn buggy that had broken a wheel. He dropped down from the sky and, speaking in what he hoped to be the correct dialect of German, offered to help.
The young man gaped in amazement, staring at the Man of Steel as if he was one of the Angelic Host dropping from the sky. Superman gave the man a reassuring smile and disappeared for a second before returning with an appropriately sized piece of wood, which he proceeded to trim and lathe into a wheel-shape. Then, salvaging pieces from the original wheel, he completed the project and placed it onto the buggy.
When he was finished, he stepped back and favored the tongue-tied couple with a smile. He noticed that the young woman wore a white bonnet and that the young man had the beginnings of a new beard. Remembering what he had read of Amish customs, he surmised that they had only recently been married and so congratulated them on their new union, hoping to put them at ease. Only after the fact did he realize that this knowledge without any prior disclosure only served to underscore his strangeness rather than allay it. So as not to be the source of continued shock, he quickly excused himself and, wishing them happy holidays, took to the sky once again.
Leaving the scene, he couldn't help but reflect on the parallels he shared with the Amish. Both were a part of society while yet standing apart. He might walk among humans, but he knew that many still looked on him with awe as well as some distrust and many still did not accept him as one of them. He realized that he even wore clothing much the way the Amish did as an outward reflection of his faith and duty, which probably added to his separateness from the rest of humanity. But, as with the Amish, he knew he must be true to his beliefs. Even though the uniform he wore had been originally designed to catch people's eyes and direct them away from his face while leaving him easily identifiable, he also realized that it had become a symbol of hope and inspiration the world over.
He had never set out to be an icon, but rather had simply been desirous to help others. He really didn't like the idea of posters, statues, and dolls of him. The first time he had seen a child running around with a red towel tied around his neck and a Superman T-shirt on, he had been horrified. But no matter how it happened, it had happened, and he couldn't ignore it. So, he took the matter seriously and was always careful about his actions and words in public, trying to make sure that he did nothing to tarnish the image that had been created in his name.
That was a lot of what was bothering him about the Black Adam affair. He didn't want people thinking that it was all right to savagely beat or perhaps kill another human being because they had committed a crime, even a heinous one. Punish, yes, but never inflict undue harm and never set yourself up as judge, jury and executioner. He was sickened by the thought that an individual such as that might one day be heralded as a hero of the people.
One of the first pieces of advice that his father had given him when he donned his uniform was that he should balance "the right to do something against whether or not it was right to do something." A lot of people, he said, gpt hung up on doing something because they could and don't worry about if they should.
"Don't get so caught up in doing something because you feel you have the right to do it that you forget the effect your actions and words have upon others," Jonathan had told him. "You don't live in a vacuum, Clark. People who shout that it's their business and no one else's are foolish. Every action you take affects another person in some way. You have to balance what you can do with what you should do and think at least five moves ahead."
"But how will I know what the right thing to do is, Pa?" Clark asked.
"Sometimes you won't, son. You just have to do what you feel is best, no matter what else is going on, and stick to your guns. Then, unfortunately, you have to live with the consequences. But I have to believe that if you stick to your principles, even when easier and faster ways present themselves, that by the end of the day you'll have a lot more marks in the right column than the wrong one."
These thoughts continued to occupy his mind as he crossed state after state until he finally neared his destination.
For, as much as he loved Metropolis and viewed it as his city, Kansas was his home. Much of the countryside was covered in newly fallen snow, but he flew unerringly across the sky toward a single small town.
Even several years after his departure, Smallville still benefited from its status as "The Hometown of Superboy." Tourism had become the leading market, even above corn and wheat, and its benefits were passed down to the townsfolk and Smallville as a whole. It was probably the only part of his fame that he didn't regret. Unlike most towns its size, Smallville's Main Street shops did a thriving business and as a result the town appeared to have been unchanged for the past two decades, retaining its charm and leaving the town with an almost Mayberry-type quality about it reminiscent of simpler times. There was still evidence of modern commerce as chain stores and a mall had sprang up on the outskirts of town, but so long as Superboy memorabilia or landmarks related to the Boy of Steel remained, Main Street was left largely untouched.
Looking down upon the town as he passed over, Clark could not help but be assailed by memories of his childhood as everywhere he looked brought to mind some connection he had to his past in this little hamlet. At the end of Main Street was the bank where he had made his first public appearance. Each year the bank held a reenactment of the robbery that prompted this appearance and a local high school boy was chosen to play the staring role.
In the center of town in the main square was a statue of him at about the age of 16. It depicted him standing straight with his feet slightly apart and his hands made into fists and resting against his sides in a traditional heroic pose. He had been embarrassed when it was first erected, but now he was mortified each time he saw it because it made him feel ridiculous. He made a special effort in public to never actually stand that way because he knew he would never be able to do it and maintain a straight face. Things like that littered the entire area, including various plaques embedded in the sidewalk throughout the town noting some incident that he had been involved in on those spots.
But the things that held the most memories weren't marked at all. The soda shop where he used to sit and eat ice cream whenever his parents brought him to town. The movie theater where he and Lana used to go on dates. The corner cafe where he, Pete, Lana and various others spent afternoons and evenings after school when he didn't have farm chores or Superboy duties to attend to. And, of course, the high school.
Smallville High was on its Christmas break and was deserted at this time of day, as the sun sank into the horizon and disappeared from sight. The street in front was devoid of traffic, so he landed on the front lawn and walked slowly up to the main entrance. He stood and stared for a several moments. College had been a wonderful time but, to be perfectly honest, he had been much too focused on his dual careers in super-heroism and journalism to maintain a lot of fond memories. High school, though, was a time he remembered well.
He walked around the outside of the school, remembering doing the same thing in the past with the sun beating down on his face and the sounds of conversation and laughter all around him. He could still hear the coach's whistle and the sound of the bell signaling either the end of one class or the beginning of another. He walked onto the football field and remembered fall evenings spent cheering for Smallville to beat Easton. In his mind's eye, he saw the bright stadium lights illuminating the field and heard the sound of the announcer providing commentary on the game. Lighter times. Happier times, with the weight of responsibility made easier when counterbalanced by the love of good friends and family. He stopped and stared at the school for a long moment before finally taking to the air and heading out of the city limits.
Five miles from the edge of town, he landed in an open field surrounded by a sturdy fence with a farmhouse in the distance. His boots crunched in the snow as he walked slowly across the field, surveying his surroundings. If the sights in town had brought a flood of memories then the farm brought an entire ocean. This had been the rock of his life. The anchor that held him firmly in place when nothing else had made sense.
A sub-zero breeze blew by, rustling his cape, and he remembered a time at age eleven when he had stood in the same spot and felt a very similar breeze. His father standing beside him had made a noise upon feeling the chill and just for a moment Clark had wondered what it was like to actually feel cold. It was probably the first time he had consciously felt different from his adoptive parents, but he had quickly shunted the thought aside. It wasn't until the incident at the White House when he was thirteen that he had allowed himself to think of himself as truly different.
The smell of a home-cooked meal brought back even more memories. Focusing his vision on the farmhouse, the walls seemed to melt away and the interior came into sharp focus. Three people, a man, a woman, and a young boy about the age of 14 sat around the dining room table sharing a meal. The three were laughing as they ate sharing some joke or funny story as they talked about the events of their day.
Clark had allowed the farm to remain untended for a couple of years after his parents' death, unsure of what to do with it and unwilling to sell it. Martin Lang had finally convinced him to rent out the property to a young couple with a son who wanted to move to the area and farm. Now, several years later, he was glad he had done it. A farm was a place where things should be allowed to grow, not for the fields to lie fallow.
The Kent farm had been passed down through several generations from father to son, but Clark had known from an early age that farming was not his destiny. He remembered a time when he worried that this would be a disappointment to his father, but Jonathan Kent had been nothing if not a pragmatic man. He had also been almost precognitive in his reading of his son's thoughts and feelings, but that was his way, gaining more from an expression than most men did from hours of conversation. These thoughts and fears had barely formed in Clark's mind when Jonathan had taken him aside to talk to him about expectations.
He lectured Clark on the importance of traditions and responsibilities. Then he told him that as important as those things were they were nothing compared to being true to yourself.
"Son," Jonathan said, looking into the eyes of the young boy, "this farm has been in our family for a long time. My great- grandfather worked it, my grandfather worked it, my father worked it, and now I work it. If you decide to work it then nothing would make me prouder than to turn it over to you when it's time."
Clark steeled himself for the inevitable request as he continued to look, unwavering, into his father's face. Then, as his father tended to do despite the boy's oaths to not allow it to happen again after each time it did, he surprised his son.
"But if you don't want to work it, then I would be just as proud to turn it over to someone else. My great-grandfather bought this farm because he wanted it. He wanted to work the land. So did my grandfather and father and so do I. That's the important tradition, Clark. Not farming, but doing what you want to do and not wasting your talents. You and I both know that you have extraordinary talents that are going to take you to extraordinary places and those places probably want be a small farm. Man or child, Earthling or alien, it doesn't matter. Don't waste your life on some misguided sense or doing something you know is wrong just because you think it's expected of you."
Even through his amazement, Clark felt a curious sense of peace as what seemed like a weight lifted itself from his shoulders.
"Even though I'm not really a Kent, I thought you would want me to keep the Kent farm alive," Clark said.
Jonathan's face softened even more as he leaned in close to his son.
"Son, you are a 'real' Kent, and don't you dare ever think otherwise. Doesn't matter where you were born. Nature gave you a lot of good qualities, not just the 'super' ones, and I bless your biological parents every day for passing them on to you. But there's something to be said for nurture and I see your Ma's stamp on you every time I look at you."
Then the elder Kent laughed. "And when you're at your most stubborn I even see a little bit of me."
Clark laughed in return and ducked his head shyly.
"But still," he asked, "I thought this farm was just about the most important thing in the world to you?"
"Oh, it's important, Clark," Jonathan said. "You don't put as much work as I have into a place and it not be important, but in the greater scheme of things it's a far distant second to your Ma and you. And remember, like I said, it's not working the farm that's important. It's being true to yourself. Farms are where things grow, including people. And once it's grown not all produce stays on the farm, you know."
Clark smiled at the memory as he continued to watch the family at their dinner. He felt his father would have approved of the Palmers. They had made several offers over the years to buy the farm outright, but he had always resisted, reluctant to part with this huge piece of his childhood. Maybe now it was time to let go and let another family build their own traditions in a place that had allowed the son of another world learn some of his own.
As the walls of the farmhouse slowly came back into focus Clark shifted his gaze westward and slowly took to the air headed for his next destination.
While it was Superman who rose into the sky above the Kent farm, it was Clark Kent, dressed in casual winter wear, who entered the graveyard on the edge of Smallville. He crossed a time-worn path that he knew by memory and came to stop beside the graves of the two most important people in the world to him.
Children take many things for granted and Clark had been no different, but when he became old enough to consider such things he found himself in utter awe and amazement of his parents. The strength of character and will it must have taken for this simple couple to have adopted and raised a child from another world was almost unimaginable. Where most people would have run to the nearest phone screaming for the air force, Martha had bundled the small child into her arms while Jonathan had loaded the remains of the small spacecraft onto the bed of his truck.
Martha had told him years later that she had never even stopped to consider the consequences. It had simply been the "right" thing to do without question in her mind. Jonathan had agreed that while he had been in shock at their discovery he too had never questioned Martha's orders at the moment.
For Clark's part, despite his amazing brain and power of almost total recall, he had little memory of those events. He concentrated for a moment, trying to call up something to the forefront of his mind. He could only remember screaming.
Clark stumbled backwards and went to his knees as the flash of memory assailed him. He remembered screaming for his mother over and over again until he had been too weak and tired to continue.
He fought the dizziness and disorientation that began to close in on him as well as the growing feeling of panic in his stomach and forced himself to concentrate and not shy away from the memory. He remembered being awakened as the ship began to buck and shake due to what he supposed was its entry into the Earth's atmosphere. He remembered the blue sky spinning in his view and the frightening crash as the craft had plowed into the Earth's surface. And he remembered being rescued from the darkness and held tight and protectively by someone who had smelled wonderful.
His anxiety calmed at that. He remembered that smell well. It had been his mother's favorite perfume throughout her life and the scent he had always and would always associate with her and feelings of safety. Now, he guessed he knew why. He also realized he had some unresolved issues that he needed to deal with before he had to face Slade Wilson and the rest of Intergang.
Stepping forward, he placed his hands on the two gravestones in front of him and bowed his head.
"Thank you," he said quietly and then after a second of silence he simply disappeared, leaving the graveyard as silent and empty as if no one had been there at all.
Moving at several times the speed of sound and much too fast for conventional radar to reliably track, Superman crossed into the Arctic Circle, following an unerring course toward magnetic North. Just short of the Pole, he dipped down toward a large yellow course marker. From the sky, it appeared simply to be a yellow arrow marking the way to the North Pole. At ground level, it revealed itself to be a gigantic key.
Picking it up as only someone of his power level could do, Superman flew though a dark curtain of mist toward an anonymous mountain of ice and snow in the distance. Set into the face of the mountain was an immense metal door with an equally immense keyhole. It was the entrance to Superman's own private getaway from civilization. His Fortress of Solitude.
Entering through the large door, Superman felt something like a doll in a full-sized house as he hung the key on a set of hooks by the entranceway. He then continued deeper into the Fortress toward a special room. He had no true memories of his natural parents and indeed had started his life on Earth with no idea of how or why he was there.
Eventually, Clark learned of his origins and the sacrifices made by a couple named Jor-El and Lara to ensure the survival of their only son and this knowledge only strengthened his resolve to make use of the chance he had been given. He had been taken from one set of loving hands and delivered across an unimaginable distance into another equally loving set. He took this as proof that good ultimately would win out as long as he kept his faith. And he vowed he would keep it in the face of whatever the future brought.
As he reached his destination, he opened a door and approached the only true relic he had that linked him to Jor-El and Lara, the broken and crumpled remains of the small ship that had traversed the cosmos from Krypton to deliver him to Earth.
He stood for a moment in the doorway, simply staring at the small craft. The Fortress had never seemed so silent and empty as it did now. He felt as if he had traveled thousands of miles from Smallville only to end up in another graveyard. He took a deep breath and approached the ship, running his hands along its exterior as he walked around it.
For perhaps the first time in his life, he considered what must have gone through Jor-El and Lara's minds as they looked at the ship, shining and new, sitting on the launch pad as their world rumbled around them. He had always focused on the strength Jonathan and Martha must have possessed in order to raise him. However, in doing so he had never stopped to truly appreciate the desperation and hope that must have gripped a young couple awaiting their deaths, who with literally their last breath and ounce of strength ensured the survival of their only child.
God, he thought to himself. Would I have had the strength? Would anyone?
"Go not gently into that good night," Clark wondered aloud, recalling the famous line from the poem by Dylan Thomas. Truly his father and mother had "raged" against the fates and refused to let his "light" die out.
He concentrated on what he remembered of his real parents. His father's face he knew to be much like his own now in adulthood, with only the few features he had inherited from his mother marking the difference between them. In a flash of memory, he suddenly remembered the man's laugh. He could vaguely recall being held aloft and tossed gently into the air, only to be caught by the laughing man when he descended.
Once that came ,he found that he could remember several more moments. Riding on his father's shoulders just like human children did with their fathers, lying on some type of carpet with his father laughing about something, and holding his hand as they walked, while he used his other hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the red sun above. And several more memories like that followed, which gave him a tiny window into his interactions with this virtual stranger.
He turned his focus toward his mother and tried to remember what he could about her. He found that once the wall had been breached it was easier the second time and his mind was flooded with dozens of small moments such as he had remembered about his father. Moments captured from another life. A life that he found difficult to think of as his own.
The one overwhelming piece of information he was sure of, though, was that he was loved. Somewhere out there, millions of miles away a young couple had laughed and cried with their small child. They had walked in the park together, read stories together, played together and for three short years had been a family together.
Clark smiled slightly at the thought as he continued his survey of the ship. Looking into the cockpit, he suddenly had another memory of his father. It was his father who had strapped him into the tiny acceleration chair. He remembered crying and yelling for his mother and begging his father not to buckle him in. He had known that they were sending him away. And he had known that they were going to die.
"Those fools have doomed us all!" Jor-El had shouted, pounding his fist on the wall in frustration as he had entered their home.
Clark remembered sitting on his mother's lap when the door had opened and his father had entered making that startling proclamation.
"They wouldn't listen?" Lara had asked calmly, but holding little Kal-El just a bit tighter.
"Some of them actually accused me of making it up as some sort of play to gain power within the council."
"That's ridiculous," his wife had exclaimed.
"It was almost better than the others, though," Jor-El had said sinking into the couch beside her. "At least they treated me like I was intelligent. The rest just shook their heads and muttered about my foolishness and naivete."
"Did no one listen?"
"Zor-El believed me. He's going now to Kandor to attempt to raise what resources he can."
"Wasn't he able to help you convince the council?"
"At best, they thought he was simply trying to save his feeble- minded brother from embarrassment. At worst, they accused him of being in collusion with me in my grab for power."
"What will we do, then?" Lara asked.
Jor-El had met and held her gaze for several seconds in silence before he dropped his eyes to look at Kal-El.
"Live," he answered finally looking back up at her. "All of us if possible, but I promise no matter what that the two of you will at least. I'll not see your lives ended this soon because some fools refuse to recognize their own mortality."
"Kal-El is the most important, Jor," Lara said, taking her husband's hand. "Promise me that above all else he'll be our first priority."
"Promise!" she demanded. "If we all can then we will, but he has to. Promise me that, Jor."
"We can't leave him alone in the universe, Lara." Jor-El pleaded with his young wife. "You at least have to go with him. I can't bear the thought that he'll grow up alone."
"He won't be alone, Jor-El. He's our son and no matter what happens he'll never be alone. If we can be with him in body as well as spirit, then we will, but I know my son and he's too loving a person to be alone all of his life. Promise me."
"I promise," Jor-El answered and then clutched his family to him.
Clark realized that sometime during this recollection he had sunk to the floor by the ship and tears were running down his face. He had been loved and he had loved them in turn. And now he knew the legacy and wishes of both sets of his parents. And he knew he wasn't alone.
He rose to his feet and began to stride more confidently toward the door of the Fortress. He didn't think he was going to be bothered any more by flashbacks. At least, not the unpleasant kind. In the meantime, he had a very special woman he needed to tell how much he cared for and a certain criminal gang he needed to remind of how tired he was of having them operate in his city.
Lois hummed nervously to herself as she rode in the back of the cab toward 344 Clinton Street. Beside her was a plain white bag containing the breakfast she had purchased from the corner shop by her apartment before she had hailed the taxi. After her last experience, she knew that she could expect little in the way of food at Clark's place. Besides, she told herself, he might not need to eat, but he obviously liked to if their aborted breakfast from the other morning was any indication.
He didn't need to eat.
The reality of that thought went through her mind for the second time and she noticed that the butterflies in her stomach that usually accompanied thoughts like that were less than before. Could she actually be getting used to this whole idea? No, she told herself, it was probably just the shock setting in.
"Stop it," she said aloud, "you're acting like a neurotic teenager."
A slight movement caught her eye and when she glanced up into the rearview mirror to see the driver staring at her she realized that she had been talking to herself.
"What are you looking at?" she asked menacingly.
The man instantly dropped his eyes down and back toward the road. After a moment, he cast a second glance at the mirror, but quickly jerked it away when he saw her still staring at him.
Satisfied that the matter had been settled, Lois turned her thoughts back to her pending meeting with Clark. Should she make the first move? Why not? She'd asked men out before…hadn't she? Oh, God, she said to herself. I can't remember if I have or haven't.
"No matter," she said, "it's not like it's hard to do. I mean guys do it all the time."
She suddenly realized that she had been talking out loud again and that the cab driver was again looking at her. She narrowed her eyes and drew her lips into a grim line.
"Didn't we just go through th…"
Her comment was suddenly cut off as the cab swerved to get out of the way of the black police tactical van that screamed by with sirens blaring. It was followed swiftly by a second van and several police cars.
"Follow those cars," Lois said, switching thoughts without hesitation.
"You got it, Ms. Lane," the driver said instantly as he accelerated to keep up with the vehicles in front.
Lois jerked her eyes back to meet the cabby's in the rearview mirror.
"Do I know you?" she asked.
"Nah," the man answered, "your picture is up down at headquarters. Boss says more cabs have been wrecked because of you than Hurricane Hugo. He said that the law requires us to transport you from point A to point B, but only that and nothing more. We're supposed to refuse if you ever say…"
"Follow that car," Lois continued for him.
"Exactly," the man said, grinning.
"Son of a…that explains the Willhoit case a few weeks ago," Lois said, shaking her head before suddenly looking back up. "So how come you're not saying no?"
"The little pipsqueak docked me a day's pay last week for calling in sick. Besides, safe is boring and how dangerous could it really be hanging out with you?"
The cab was suddenly rocked by an explosion as one of the police cars that had drawn up to a stop at the Metropolis Savings and Loan suddenly erupted into a fireball as it was tossed down the street. Its two occupants had only just vacated the vehicle and dove to either side to avoid the debris.
"That's kind of a subjective question," Lois answered as she tossed the wide-eyed driver some money and moved to get out of the now-stopped cab. "Keep the change."
Lois ran toward the line of police vehicles now ringing the bank, but was stopped short by an officer who jumped up from the concealment of his car and grabbed her arm, pulling her down.
"Hey!" Lois exclaimed, "I'm with the press!"
"Lady," the cop answered, risking a quick glance over the hood of his car, "right now it doesn't matter who you are. Unless you're a cop, a crook, or a super hero, you don't need to be anywhere near here."
Another police car suddenly exploded as it was hit by a bolt of energy fired from within the bank. The volley was instantly answered by the surrounding police who returned fire into the building.
"Or haven't you noticed," the officer continued, "that it's a little bit dangerous right now?"
Lois's answer died in her throat as she saw Maggie Sawyer stand and begin issuing orders for her Special Crimes Unit Squad to spread out around the building. While, moments before, the police had seemed outgunned as they matched conventional bullets against energy weapons, these officers were all decked out in high-tech gear and looked ready for anything.
"Maggie!" Lois screamed, trying to get the woman's attention. "What's going on here?!"
The SCU leader turned toward the sound of her name being called and seemed to grimace and squeeze her eyes shut just for a moment as she identified Lois. She looked briefly back and forth between the bank and Lois and after a moment, when no other weapons' fire seemed to be forthcoming, she ran toward the other woman.
"Ok, Lane," she said as she skidded to a stop and dropped down behind the dubious protection of the police car, "how the hell do you do it? The bad guys have your pager number and let you know when they're going to strike?"
"Reporter's instinct," Lois answered as she dug her mini-recorder out of her purse. "Now, what's going on? Who are those guys and what do they want?"
"No clue," Maggie answered. "They hit the bank hard this morning and took out a couple of civilian vehicles as they did it. We got the alarm and calls from witnesses at the same time. They started firing again when we got here."
"No attempts to communicate?" Lois asked.
"Not so far," Maggie answered. "Unless you count opening fire as communication."
"No attempts to conceal their entry, no negotiations, armed with high-tech artillery, and all for a smash and grab at a major financial institution that isn't even open for business right now."
"That about sums it up," Maggie said.
"And it's all done in Superman's hometown," Lois finished.
"They're either the stupidest crooks in the world or something's up."
Maggie looked at the younger woman for a second and then grabbed her radio.
"All units, hold your position. If Superman shows, don't let him enter that bank before I talk to him."
"Too late, Inspector," someone radioed back. "He just got here."
Maggie and Lois jumped up at the same time and turned toward the bank. Superman had just landed and was facing the bank. Instantly, the men inside let loose a barrage of gunfire toward the colorful figure. It only took a couple of seconds for them to notice that their various energy beams and projectiles were bouncing off of his invulnerable skin, and so they shifted their fire to the surrounding vehicles and police officers.
Superman quickly saw the danger and began moving at super speed, deflecting the various bolts before they could do any harm. He then scanned the building and located his attackers. His X-ray vision identified the men inside as Intergang, thanks to the presence of their leader. Slade Wilson was inside decked out in his paramilitary orange and midnight-blue costume and was at this moment placing a gun to the forehead of one of the bank's security guards. Enough was enough, he thought to himself and kicked it into high gear to end things before someone was hurt.
Superman came crashing through the wall of the bank and fired a burst of heat vision, which caught Wilson's right hand and forced him to drop the gun he had aimed at the other man's head. What happened next, though, did so with almost agonizing slowness as his super-fast brain processed information far quicker than his suddenly slowed reflexes could keep up with. Several things happened at once. He suddenly felt the searing pain of Kryptonite radiation as it cut into his body, he noticed the Kryptonite rocks next to each of the walls covering all possible entry points and lastly he became aware of the second gun Slade Wilson brought up in his left hand.
The bullet caught him in the right shoulder and slammed him back against the wall. He stumbled forward slightly as he rebounded from the wall and collapsed, catching himself on one knee to keep from falling. The pain was terrific. Most gunshot victims talk of the startling lack of pain as shock sets in almost immediately. In Superman's case, the radiation coming from all sides as well as the bullet that was now lodged in his shoulder kept every nerve in his body alive and on fire, so he experienced the trauma from the gunshot wound fully.
Surprisingly, Superman saw that Wilson was holstering his gun rather than following up on his attack.
"I thought you'd never get here," he said as he sprang forward and delivered a roundhouse kick that slammed the Man of Steel back into the wall behind him and dropped him to the floor. When he attempted to roll to his feet, Wilson followed and sent a vicious kick into Superman's stomach, forcing the air from his lungs in a sudden burst and rolled him over.
"What?" Slade asked sarcastically. "No speeches or threats about what you'll do now that you've found me?"
Slade kicked Superman's shoulder wound and drew a short scream of agony from the injured man as he tried to move away.
"What? Are you trying to say something?" Slade asked, laughing as he continued after the fallen man who had finally been able to rise up on his hands and knees.
"What was that, Stupid-Man? Some profound comment?" Slade asked as he bent down close to taunt his victim.
The super-fast, backhanded blow caught Slade under the jaw before his enhanced reflexes could even register that a punch had been thrown. Even weakened as he was by the Kryptonite, Superman's blow was hard enough to knock Wilson off his feet and send him with a bone-jarring crash into the far wall.
Slade fell to the floor, shaking his head to regain his senses. Damn, he thought to himself. He had gotten too cocky and forgotten the first rule of this business. Don't get personally involved. That would be the death of him someday if he wasn't careful. Time to end this. He regained his feet and pulled the Kryptonite-loaded gun from his holster and brought it to bear on the Man of Steel, just as he noticed the other man's eyes begin to glow a bright red.
The outcome of the duel became moot at that point as suddenly the widows and doors blew apart with a loud detonation and a burst of bright light momentarily disoriented the Intergang gunmen. The Metropolis SCU hit the building like a Kansas twister, following their flashbangs with immediate and deadly gunfire.
Intergang gunmen began to fall left and right before they could even recover from their disorientation and bring their guns to bear. Wilson's enhanced reflexes and past experience allowed him to dodge sideways at the first explosion and flash of light, knowing what was to follow. As he moved sideways and dropped into a roll, a three-round burst from a military-style MP-5 stitched the wall where his head had been. He fired two quick shots from the Kryptonite gun at his would-be assassin and Maggie Sawyer went down from a bullet to her chest and another to her head.
Fortunately for her, the bullets were made of Kryptonite rather than some more resilient metal and so the trauma plate in her vest protected her heart while her helmet survived its encounter with only a slight dent which translated into a headache for the SCU commander.
Seeing the ineffectiveness of the weapon against SCU body armor, Slade returned it to his holster while removing and priming a grenade from his belt, which he quickly tossed at the assault team to cover his escape as he dove through the remains of the main window.
Out of the frying pan into the fire.
Over a dozen weapons came to bear on his position as he hit the ground outside the bank and rolled to his feet. Beneath his mask, Slade flashed a wolfish grin at the surrounding police. This was his element and the danger of it was what truly made him feel alive. He raised his hands as if in surrender and the police relaxed for a second until they noticed the grenade each held. Before they could react, Slade sent them in the direction of two police cars, which instantly exploded into fireballs.
As explosions made everyone dive for cover, Wilson used the distraction to vault a police car and relieve an officer of his assault rifle, which he then began using to pin everyone down as he primed his last grenade and tossed it at another police cruiser. When that car exploded, he turned and disappeared amid the smoke and confusion.
From her vantage point behind one of the few remaining intact police cars, Lois watched Wilson make his escape. She then stood before the officer beside her realized what had happened and ran toward the bank. Lois wasn't as foolhardy as many thought. She wasn't above risking her life for a story, but she didn't do so senselessly. Every risk she took was weighed out and carefully considered. She just did so a lot faster than most of the people around her, she told herself smugly. Like in this case, for instance, she was smart enough to know that since the chief bad guy had just headed in the opposite direction all gunfire had stopped inside the bank. The police obviously now had control, but since Superman hadn't come out in pursuit of Wilson then something bad had happened inside and she wasn't going to wait for some by-the-book police cadet to decide where she could or couldn't go when Clark might need her.
Inside the bank, Dan Turpin, Maggie's second-in-command, helped her to her feet while the rest of the assault team secured the building.
"Clear!" one of the element leaders shouted from the lobby of the bank after all of the gunmen in that area had been secured.
The same shout echoed from other parts of the building as other teams circulated to ensure no surprises still lay in wait. In the meantime, Maggie shrugged out of her vest with the green glowing bullet in its center and she and Turpin converged on Superman, who had settled back against a wall trying to staunch the flow of blood that darkened his shirt front.
"Get that stuff out of here," Maggie yelled, indicating her vest and the Kryptonite rocks around the room, "and get a medic in here!"
"Oh my God," Lois said as she drew up behind the two officers, having jumped in through the window that Slade had left though moments before.
"Lane," Maggie exclaimed, turning in surprise toward the newcomer, "what the hell are you doing here? This area hasn't been secured yet. Someone could have shot you coming in like that!"
"Hell, Maggie," Lois said, shouldering by the woman to drop down beside Superman, "your people recognize me faster than they recognize you. I wasn't in any danger."
"Stupid question first," she continued, now addressing the Man of Steel, completely ignoring the police, "are you ok?"
"Ha," Superman barked a short laugh. "Nothing a little trauma surgery and a minor miracle can't fix."
"Paramedics are on the way," Maggie said, kneeling down beside the man.
"How long?" Lois demanded.
"As fast as they can, Lane," Maggie said, glaring at the other woman. "You want to wait outside for them?"
"Ladies," Superman said, before Lois could utter whatever she had just opened her mouth to say, "not to sound ungrateful or impatient, but I can't wait. Right now it's even money if the radiation or blood loss will get me first. I have to do something now, so if I may…"
He pointed at the multi-tool in Sawyer's leg side pocket.
"I need the needlenose pliers, please."
"What?" Maggie said, surprised. "I wouldn't even know where to begin without causing more damage."
"Not you," he replied, shaking his head. "Me."
"There's no way you can…"
She was interrupted by a sudden movement from Lois, who had been looking back and forth between the two people and had quickly reached a decision. She grabbed the multi-tool from Maggie's pocket and opened them to the pliers.
"Hey!" Maggie yelled.
"How can I help?" Lois asked, ignoring the officer.
"Keep my head from bouncing off the floor when I pass out," Superman said with a pained smile as he took the offered pliers.
Using his x-ray vision, he could easily see the bullet. He could also trace the path it had made in his shoulder on the way in so it really was easy not to cause any more damage removing it. The trouble was that only he could see it and it was in his shoulder. This was going to hurt. He plunged the pliers into the wound and cried out in pain. Two pairs of hands instantly rose toward him to grab the pliers, but he shook his head. He gritted his teeth and, concentrating on the bullet, pushed in further. When he was close enough, he grabbed the end of the projectile and began to slowly remove it. Once it was clear from his body, his hand suddenly began to shake and he was no longer able to hold onto the pliers. They and the bullet slipped free from his hand and fell to the floor.
"Get this out of here!" Lois yelled, quickly grabbing the bullet and handing it to Turpin, who then ran out of the room.
The blood suddenly began to gush from the hole in Superman's shoulder and Maggie pressed her hand hard against the wound trying to stop the bleeding.
"S-s-s-un-l-l-li…" Superman stammered drunkenly as he tried to move sideways.
"What?" Maggie asked, trying to press harder on his shoulder wound, her hands now a bloody mess.
"Sunlight!" Lois suddenly yelled, realizing what her partner had been trying to say, and pointed in the direction that he had been trying to move. A ray of light streamed in through the broken window and bathed the floor.
The two women looked at each other and, as if reading one another's mind, they moved to his head and feet and began to drag the now almost unconscious man toward the light. When they reached it, the result was almost magic. As the light hit the shoulder, the blood flow stopped immediately and then at an astounding rate the tissue began to knit itself. The two women actually watched the wound close and Superman's expression lightened as the pain dispelled.
Sitting back on the floor, Lois dropped her head and breathed a deep sigh of relief. After a second, she looked back up at the semi-conscious form in front of her as he began to stir.
"Well, so much for breakfast," she muttered.
When Clark had fully regained consciousness, he had given himself a quick scan to assure that he was generally intact, if a bit sore. He asked for and received the Kryptonite that the SCU had recovered from the bank and, securing them in a lead container, hurled them toward the sun. That was when he discovered that despite the solar energy he had absorbed he still wasn't 100%.
"Aaaarrrggg!!!" he screamed as he pitched the lead case into the sky.
"Superman," Lois asked, moving to his side in concern, "what's wrong?"
"My shoulder seems to be a bit more damaged than I'd originally thought."
"And playing Cy Young just now probably didn't help," Maggie Sawyer said, walking up beside them. "You didn't have to get rid of the Kryptonite yourself, you know. We could have disposed of it."
"I'm sorry, Maggie," Superman answered, "I'm afraid I've fallen victim to a friend's paranoia. I didn't even think to ask the police to do that. I just wanted rid of the blasted stuff."
"I guess I can't blame you," Maggie answered. "If that stuff fried my insides like it does yours I'd probably feel the same way. Speaking of which, are you sure you don't want to get checked out at Met U Hospital? You had that bullet inside you for a while."
"I'm sure, Maggie," he answered. "I just need to soak up some more solar rays and I'll be fine. Really, thank you both though. You saved my life."
"Well, my multi-tool did, anyway," Maggie joked. "You think I could get much for it on eBay?"
Superman laughed and then slowly rose into the air. Lois watched him go with a critical and worried eye. When she had first discovered the truth, Clark had seemed to suddenly become much more…well, "super". Now that she'd had time to think about it, though, it was Superman who seemed to have become more human. And that human was someone she cared about and she wasn't as accepting that he'd just be "ok" because he said so. Clark didn't always take care of himself like he should, so she'd have to make sure he took it easy despite his best intentions.
Speaking of which, she told herself, looking at her watch, she was supposed to be at his apartment right now. If she went on over, he would probably rush to clean himself up and act like everything was normal. Probably hurting his shoulder even worse in the process. She knew she wouldn't be able to convince him to take the day off without letting him know that she knew, but she could at least give him a bit of breathing room.
She pulled her cell phone from her purse and quickly dialed. After a few rings, his answering machine picked up. Oh hell, now what do I do, she asked herself. Of course he wasn't home yet, flying as slow as he was, and since she was supposed to meet "Clark" at his apartment it would look suspicious if Lois Lane didn't wonder why he wasn't there waiting for her.
"Oh…er…Clark, it's Lois," she stammered, thinking quickly. "I guess you're probably in the shower. I'm sorry I'm late, but I ran into a story on the way to your place so I'm just going to head into the Planet and type it up. You can take your time. It'll take me a bit to write it up anyway and I'll tell you…"
"Lois." Clark's voice suddenly cut in on the line as he picked up.
"Oh," Lois said, surprised, "you're home. I mean of course you're home. You're waiting for me. You're just out of the shower. I mean…"
"I'm not sure what you mean, Lois," Clark said, laughing, "but yeah, I'm here and I did just get out of the shower. You got my place bugged or something?"
"In your dreams, Kent," Lois responded, quickly recovering. "It was just keen deductive reasoning. They probably didn't teach that to you hayseeds at Littleville High."
"Smallville, Lois. Say it with me, Small…"
"Spare me the geography lesson, farmboy," Lois said, beginning to enjoy their banter. "You've seen one wide spot in the road, you've seen them all."
"Oh, you big city sophisticate, you," Clark responded, laughing. "So, what's this big story that interrupts our breakfast?"
"Intergang just tried to assassinate Superman," Lois responded, wondering what Clark's reaction really was to this morning's debacle.
"What?!" he asked, seeming surprised.
She really hadn't appreciated what a good actor he was, she thought, smiling to herself as she began to "fill him in" on the morning's events.
"They couldn't warn him off by kidnapping little Emily Rosen, so they've decided to just kill him," Clark said when she was finished.
"And they almost did," she replied, beginning to fully appreciate what had just happened.
"They're trying to tie up all of their loose ends now that the knowledge of Intergang is public."
"Which means Stuart may be next, or even Styles," Lois said.
"And us too, Lois," Clark added. "Remember what Deadshot said when he first made the attempt on Maxwell? We've been on the list since he agreed to talk to us. Now that they've failed twice with him and twice with Superman, they may move on down the list and make a run at one of us."
"I can take care of myself, Smallville," Lois said. "I'll be safe enough at the Planet for the time being. You just hang out at your apartment and I'll tell Perry you're hiding out. I'll run by later this afternoon and we can pay Styles a visit if Jimmy has tracked him down."
"You're trying awfully hard to keep me away from the Planet this morning, Lois," Clark said, starting to feel suspicious. "What's up?"
"I just figure that if you're home you're not around to step on my byline," Lois replied, figuring that was probably what she would have been thinking in this situation if she didn't know the truth.
"Hmmmm," he said, as if pondering her comment, "good point. I'll be right in."
"Funny, Kent. Real funny," Lois said dryly. "Seriously, stay at home. I'll hurry and type this up and then come and get you. If Jimmy hasn't found anything out I promise I'll call you right away and you can come on in."
"Or I could come on in anyway and be there if he hasn't found anything and leave straight from there with you if he has. That'll be safer for both of us."
Lois sighed, knowing a lost cause when she saw one.
"Just be careful," she said in a small voice that surprised even her.
"I will, partner," Clark answered, softening his tone. "See you in a few minutes."
Clark hung up the phone and dropped into a chair, still wearing his Superman uniform. He knew he really should rest and allow his shoulder time to heal properly, but he also knew that if Intergang was trying to take out everyone who had any information about their organization then he and Lois were probably the next ones on their hit list. He wondered idly for a moment whether Clark or Superman rated higher on that list, before he laughed ruefully to himself and then slowly pulled his uniform shirt over his head, taking care of his sore shoulder.
It was only a small hole that decorated the shoulder of the shirt, but the rest of the right front side was almost black with dried blood. Focusing his vision for a moment, he let loose a sustained burst of one of the few things that could clean Kryptonian blood, his heat vision. The stain began to slowly disappear as he vaporized the blood and effectively dry-cleaned his shirt. When he was done, dizziness swept through him and he was glad he had been sitting or he would have fallen down.
Obviously his reserves were not what they should be, so he was going to have to take extra care if he encountered Wilson or any other Intergang thugs over the next several hours. He allowed himself to rest for a bit and then used his heat vision combined with his microscopic vision to fuse the threads around the hole in order to seal it up. In moments the shirt was as good as new.
"Well," Clark said aloud, smiling to himself, "at least I know that if the journalism thing ever gives out I make a pretty good seamstress."
Rising from his chair, he then proceeded at slightly more than human speed to strip completely and shower before re-donning his uniform and a fresh work suit and heading for the door. He might not beat Lois to work, but he wouldn't be more than a few minutes behind her. He'd forego the Superman express to work, though, in favor of a cab and trust that even Wilson wasn't organized enough to execute a hit on the team of Lane and Kent so soon after a failed one on Superman. Besides, he told himself as he settled back into the rear seat of the cab, if he didn't get some rest he wouldn't be able to save anyone anyway.
"Now the only question is how do I ask Lois out," Clark said, the sound of his own voice startling him as he realized he had said that last thought aloud. Quickly looking up at the rearview mirror, he saw the cab driver staring at him.
"Sorry," he apologized sheepishly.
"Hey, buddy," the cabbie replied, shrugging his shoulders and turning his attention back to his driving, "as long as no one's throwing cars at me then you can do anything you want."
Arriving in front of the Daily Planet, Clark got out of his cab in time to intercept another visitor to the newspaper.
"Mr. Hagan," Clark greeted the District Attorney, "what are you doing here?"
"Just seeing if your investigation had turned up anything, Kent," the other man replied.
"Don't you have an entire police task force on this, Mr. Hagan? Why be concerned about a mere investigative journalism piece?" Clark asked.
"The Metropolis police are highly competent and professional, but you and Ms. Lane seem to have the talent for finding yourselves in the middle of things that puts you a few paces ahead of 'traditional' investigative techniques, Mr. Kent," Hagan said, somewhat ruefully. "Besides, Maxwell seems to trust you more than the police."
"He's only called me once, Mr. Hagan, and I haven't heard back from him since. Besides, I told you before that I'd let you know if we heard anything else from him."
"I know, I know, Kent," Hagan said as the two of them boarded the elevator and Clark hit the button for the floor of the City Room, "and it's not that I don't trust you. I just like to get out of the office sometimes. Feel like I'm really in the middle of things, you know? Being in charge of things doesn't always mean that you feel like your contributions really matter. I feel a responsibility to the people of this city. They may have elected me to prosecute the criminals the police catch, but it doesn't mean I need to just sit around and accept the status quo if they can't catch them. People demand that a certain amount of order be imposed."
"I'm sure the people of Metropolis respect all your efforts, sir," Clark responded, "both in and out of the office."
The elevator doors opened and the two of them stepped off, Hagan following Clark into the City Room.
"And I appreciate the sentiment, Kent," Hagan said, "but I think people would appreciate it more if we shut Intergang down sooner rather than later."
"Sounds like your speech writer has been watching too many Dick Tracy Crime Stopper cartoons, Hagan," Lois said as she approached the two from the side.
"Lois," Clark said, breaking into a big smile despite himself.
"Clark," Lois said, just realizing who it was that had accompanied Hagan into the City Room, "how are you feeling?! I mean…did you get enough sleep?"
Clark raised a slight eyebrow at Lois's strange turn of phrase. "Sleep? Well, I guess I…"
"And what are you doing here anyway, Hagan?" Lois said, turning toward the District Attorney trying to cover for her slip. "Don't you trust us to keep you up to date or were you just hoping to learn how to run a proper investigation?"
"Like I told Kent here, Ms. Lane," Hagan said with a tight smile, "you two tend to luck into things from time to time that someone conducting an investigation through more 'traditional' means might not encounter."
"Luck?" Lois exclaimed, her face beginning to redden. "What do you…"
"I told Mr. Hagan that we hadn't encountered anything new yet, Lois," Clark quickly interrupted, taking his partner's arm and turning her slightly toward him and away from Hagan.
"Hmmph," Lois snorted, "and even with us not being limited by the boring and usually ineffective 'traditional' methods, too."
"I was actually especially curious about whether or not Maxwell had attempted to contact either of you," Hagan stated, ignoring Lois's sarcasm.
"And I told him that neither of us had heard from Maxwell since the morning Wilson attacked him," Clark interjected.
"Is that true of you as well, Ms. Lane?" Hagan asked. "Have you heard anything from him?"
"Spare me the Perry Mason routine, Hagan. I haven't spoken with Maxwell since the night of our interrupted interview," Lois responded. "Have you made any headway in finding out how Deadshot found your 'safe house,' by the way?"
"Um, no, no, we haven't," Hagan said his smirk becoming a grimace.
"That might go a long ways toward solving this thing faster than waiting around to find Maxwell," Lois said.
"We're working on that, Ms. Lane," Hagan said as his frown deepened.
"Just thought I'd bring that up," Lois said as her smile deepened as well.
"Kind of you to keep me on the straight and narrow."
"Watchdogging the government has always been the first job of the press."
"Have you found any leads on Marcus Styles?" Clark said, interrupting the two before things got worse.
Lois glanced toward Clark and her smile disappeared as her face darkened, but she held her tongue for fear of Hagan suspecting something was up.
"No, we've come up empty on him as well. Have you two discovered anything?"
"Nope," Lois quickly chimed in before Clark could speak. "We searched the world over…" She let the sentence taper off as she shrugged her shoulders.
"Yes, yes," Hagan said, "'and thought you found true love'. I know the song, though I'm surprised that you were ever a Hee Haw fan Ms. Lane."
"Comes from hanging out with the farmboy here," she replied, jerking a thumb toward Clark. "Had to do my research so we could work effectively together."
"I'm sure he's overjoyed. So nothing on Styles then?"
"Nada, zip, the big zero."
Hagan held her gaze for a moment and she returned it, smiling innocently. He looked up at Clark, who was remaining studiously quiet.
"What Lois says goes for both of us, Mr. Hagan."
The District Attorney looked at both of the reporters for several seconds before finally nodding his head and responding.
"Well, just make sure you keep me informed and don't run off by yourselves. There are dangerous people involved in this and we don't need two more bodies turning up just because you wanted to get to a lead before the police."
"We'll let you know if we discover anything," Clark said before Lois could respond, and for once she didn't look like she wanted to interject.
Hagan nodded his head again and headed for the door. When he was out of earshot Lois adopted a mimicry of his voice and said, "'There are dangerous people involved.' Well, no…"
"Lois!" Clark exclaimed.
"…joke, Dick Tracy," she finished with a wide smile. 'What's the matter, Clark? Don't trust my newsroom etiquette?"
"I've just learned to be careful," Clark said, smiling back. "I take it from your reluctance to bait Hagan and the look of death you gave me when I brought it up that Jimmy found an address to go along with Styles' phone number."
Lois produced a folded piece of paper from the pocket of her jacket and held it out to Clark.
"It's a condominium over in Lancaster. Very posh, very exclusive little neighborhood."
"Just the kind of place a ganglord would feel is his just desserts."
"And if he likes to sleep in and we hurry we might catch him before he leaves for his day at the office," Lois said standing and grabbing her purse.
Arriving in Lancaster, the two quickly located Styles' condominium. Approaching the front door, Clark turned to Lois.
"So, how do you want to play this?"
"Simple and straightforward," Lois replied, ringing the bell. "He opens the door and we hit him with questions until he confesses everything."
"Okay," Clark replied and waited a few moments without anyone answering the door. "And if he doesn't answer the door?"
"We break in," Lois replied with a smile, reaching into her purse for her lock picking tools.
Clark let out a small sigh and as she retrieved her tools he stepped around her and turned the knob. The door was unlocked and opened freely.
"Or," Lois continued unabated, replacing her tools in her purse and shouldering Clark aside, "clearly thinking we heard someone call from inside we enter and look around totally in compliance with the law trying to find out who might have called out to us."
The imaginary "who" turned out to be a surprise for both. Styles and Maxwell lay on the floor of Styles' den, each with a small neat hole in his forehead and each clearly dead.
"Damn," Lois said. "Intergang got to them first."
For Clark's part, however, the surprise he felt was for an entirely different reason. When he and Lois had first entered the home, he had fully expected to find Styles at home and alive because he had distinctly heard three separate heartbeats, his, Lois's and what he thought had been Styles'. If Styles and Maxwell were dead, though, then that meant…
"Well, well, well. And I thought I was having bad luck today."
Clark and Lois whirled around to confront the speaker and Clark's stomach dropped as he recognized Slade Wilson in his traditional garb. Sweat beads began to break out on Clark's head and a slight headache began to form along with stomach cramps as he felt the Kryptonite radiation as it leaked from the gun holstered at Wilson's side.
"You two were next on my list to track down and I thought I'd have to spend the whole day reconnoitering to find the perfect place to take you out," Slade continued, walking toward the two. "And here you drop right into my lap along with Maxwell. If I had known Styles was such good flypaper I would have used him in the first place."
"You want a cookie?" Lois asked defiantly, eliciting a laugh from Deathstroke.
"I'd heard that you were the spunky one, Lane. Hell, they said you laid into Lawton like a pro. That was gutsy. But, you, Kent," he said, turning toward the male reporter, "you were the surprise. Nobody said anything about you being any trouble and then here you come wading into the fray like George Foreman. Broke Lawton's jaw with one punch. Now that's something I can respect."
"These two," Slade said, gesturing toward the two dead men, "went down without a fight begging for their lives. No backbone. But you, you took out a trained killer with a punch that would have made his old sparring partner, Batman, proud. One punch, Lawton said. I laughed right in his face. Now that was gutsy too, Kent, but that was also effective. Takes a hell of a man to throw a punch like that. A man like that would almost be a challenge."
"I thought you had enhanced strength and reflexes?" Clark asked, trying to draw Wilson's attention toward him and away from Lois as he took a half step to the side away from his partner. "How could any normal man be a challenge?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised what a normal man can do if properly skilled and trained," Slade replied. He saw Clark's move and knew exactly what he was doing, but felt confident enough in his skills that he didn't care and so he turned along with Clark. The man thought he was being gallant by drawing Slade's attention away from the woman. Wilson wouldn't be so cruel as to destroy his hope outright. At least, not yet, he laughed to himself.
"Still," he continued, "you're right that things are a little lopsided. So I'll tell you what I'm going to do. You both know I'm going to kill you, but I'll offer you a sporting chance. One punch. I'll give you one free punch, Kent and if you can take me out like you did Lawton then not only do you get out of here alive, but you get one hell of a story."
Clark couldn't believe it. Even weakened from the Kryptonite and lower than normal energy levels, he knew he was strong enough to take Wilson. When he had first seen the masked killer his initial fear was for Lois. Then he switched to wondering how he could save her and take out Wilson while protecting his secret identity. Now this idiot was handing him the solution on a silver platter.
Fast on the heels of this, however, was the fear he had harbored since his fight with Deadshot. He was strong enough, but was he too strong? Hurt as he was by the Kryptonite, he had had trouble gauging his strength in taking out a normal human and had almost killed him. Now he was not only suffering from the same radiation exposure, but also an injury to his shoulder, depleted injury levels from healing a gunshot wound, and having to gauge how much strength it would take to knock out a meta-human without causing permanent or debilitating injury. What if he guessed wrong?
Too much and he'd snap Wilson's neck like a twig, exactly as he had first feared he had done with Lawton when he'd heard the crack of bone and the man had dropped to the floor unmoving. Too little and the man would then launch a counter-attack, the result of which at the best would reveal his identity to both Lois and a hired killer and the worst being that Lois might be injured in the crossfire.
Wilson saw Clark's hesitation and the sweat on his face and misinterpreted it as fear of the mercenary. He smiled viciously at the thought before he spoke.
"What's the matter, Kent?" he asked, placing a hand on his holstered gun. "Do I need to shoot Lane in the stomach to inspire a response?"
Clark's reaction was instantaneous as he brought his fist up from his side in an almost perfect right cross that moved fast enough that Slade's superior reflexes barely saw it coming, but not so fast as to raise undo suspicion in the mind of the mercenary or his fellow reporter.
Deathstroke went down on one knee, but was by no means unconscious. He shook his head and rubbed his jaw, but proved by speaking that Clark's punch had been far less effective on him than it had been with Deadshot.
"I'll give you this, Kent," Slade said blinking his eye and trying to retain his balance to rise to his feet, "It wasn't enough, but your punch sure is like the kick of a…"
The rest of his speech was halted by the impact of a wooden driver with the side of his head. This time he went completely down and stayed there.
"You know something?" Lois said, looking down at the unconscious man. "You're a real pain in the neck."
She tossed the now bent golf club down on the floor and turned to Clark.
"I mean, what is it with these megalomaniac super-villains and talking you to death? In the old days they caught you on a deserted street and just gunned you down. Sure, you got shot in the back, but at least they didn't yak your ear off first."
She suddenly noticed that Clark was staring at her, a bit wide- eyed, and was slightly pale.
"You ok, partner?" she asked, stepping forward and reaching out to touch his arm, a look of concern on her face. She had known Clark was still not 100% and had worried that he wouldn't be able to take Wilson down, so she had sought her own way out of their predicament. Now she worried that he might have been even more hurt than she had originally thought.
Her fears were allayed, however, as a slow grin began to cross his face.
"Getting better every day," he replied. "That was one heck of a swing."
"Probably the only thing I ever listened to my father about," Lois said as she pantomimed a golf swing. "It's all in the follow-through."
She saw his glance flicker down toward Wilson and then he took a couple of faltering steps back.
"We'd better find someway to secure him and then call the police," he said as he tried to be subtle with his retreat from the crippling radiation.
I'm an idiot, Lois thought to herself as she realized the true reason for Clark's paleness. Sure, he was still suffering from the effects of his wound from earlier, but Wilson must still have Kryptonite on him somewhere. She glanced down at the unconscious villain and quickly bent to take off his holster and belt, the only places his costume seemed to allow for him to carry anything like Kryptonite. She stopped, though, before she undid his buckle as a thought occurred to her.
"We probably need to disarm him first, but you don't think he's the type to booby-trap his belt, do you?"
Clark looked up at her in surprise and she could see him suddenly have the same thought that had struck her a moment ago. She saw him lick his lips slightly and his eyes narrow as he turned his attention back for a moment on Wilson's belt.
"No, I don't think he'd want to risk anything lethal on himself in case it came loose during a fight."
Satisfied that he had taken her hint and scanned for any dangers, Lois turned back to the fallen man and removed his belt and gun and quickly retreated, moving them into the next room. Once the danger had been removed, Clark quickly retrieved a knife from the kitchen and removed some electrical cords from ready appliances and used them to secure Wilson as Lois called the police.
"Two for two, Kent," Henderson said as Maggie Sawyer and some other members of the SCU removed a now fully conscious Slade Wilson from the premises and into a waiting police van. "You thinking about giving up this reporter thing and partnering with Superman full time?"
"Oh no," Clark said, throwing his hands up, "reporting is much less stressful, even with Perry White yelling about deadlines. Besides, I'll claim Deadshot, but Wilson was all Lois's. The superpowered ones are out of my league."
"You'll just take on the homicidal ones armed with twin magnums and an uncanny talent for shooting," Henderson said, nodding thoughtfully. "The simple ones."
"Something like that."
"And you, Lane," Henderson said. "I thought reporters were supposed to report the story not become a part of it."
"Hey!" she exclaimed, "you congratulate him for stopping bad guys and give me grief?"
"I figure he falls into these things because of who his boss makes him associate with and he needs the work. You actually seem to thrive on this stuff."
"Beats racquetball," Lois said, shrugging, "and I hate book clubs."
"Uh huh," Henderson said with a scowl. "So, how did you two end up here playing Batman and Robin?"
"Yes, I'd be interested in hearing that as well since you told me a little over an hour ago that you had no information on Styles," Forrest Hagan said as he entered the room.
"Uh oh," Lois muttered under her breath.
"Mr. Hagan!" Clark said in surprise. "I, um, was given the address by an informant right after you left. I knew you hadn't had a chance to get back to your office yet and we didn't see the harm of checking it out ourselves first just to make sure it was legitimate."
"Mr. Kent," Hagan said, turning slightly red, "Ms. Lane has a reputation for this sort of thing, but I had hoped you were cut from a different cloth. I'm beginning to see now that that was a wrong assumption, so let me make this clear. This is an on-going criminal investigation. If you have any information about this matter that the police do not then give it over now because if I get even the hint that you're 'checking things out' on your own again without letting us know first I'll see both of you brought up on charges and your entire newspaper shut down while we investigate it for complicity."
"That's about enough, Hagan," Lois said as she thrust herself between Clark and the D.A. "I'll see your 'on-going criminal investigation' and raise you a Constitutional amendment. We're reporting the news to the public here. If we learn anything conclusive we'll share it, as not only required by law, but also because of the responsibility we owe our fellow citizens. If all we have is rumor and conjecture, however, then we'll decide the appropriate disposition of the matter."
"Now see here…!" Hagan sputtered as he began turning bright red now, but came to an abrupt stop as Lois produced a tape recorder and thumbed the record button as she placed it in front of his nose.
"So, for the record, Mr. Hagan, as a candidate for governor would you like to comment on where you fall on the subjects of Due Process, the First Amendment, and the people's right to know. Should reporters be arrested and silenced and entire newspapers shut down when they receive information from dubious sources and choose to pursue a line of inquiry before wasting the time of the police, who are busy protecting the people? And should the government have first refusal on all information and get to decide what is and is not passed along to the public?"
Hagan's face remained beet red, but he clamped his mouth firmly shut and did not answer.
"I didn't think so," Lois said as she shut off the recorder and put it back in her pocket. "Come on, Clark, we have a story to write up. You can reach us at the Planet for the rest of our statement, Henderson."
Henderson bowed his head to hide his face as he nodded slightly in acknowledgement as the two passed by him. Lois thought she caught the hint of a smile on his face, though. Hagan did too, it seemed from the sound of the argument she heard begin as she and Clark exited the room.
"So, unless Wilson starts talking we're back to square one," Clark said as he leaned back in his chair.
The story of Styles' and Maxwell's murders, as well as the capture of Deathstroke the Terminator, was already being sent to the printers for the evening edition's front page. The team of Lane and Kent sat around Clark's desk along with Jimmy Olsen trying to brainstorm next steps.
"Wilson talk? Not likely if what I've heard is true," Lois said. "Maybe we should see if we can get in to see Black Adam."
"I'd say the odds of him talking are as slim as Wilson's," Clark replied.
"And he was probably just hired by Wilson anyway, so he wouldn't know anything," Lois admitted.
"Maybe," Clark said, but something about that scenario bothered him.
"I just don't get Black Adam's involvement, though," Jimmy said. "From what I've heard about him, 'hired thug' doesn't meet his profile. He was actually considered a hero at one time. Intergang is a long fall from being the right-hand-man of a pharaoh. And mob enforcer is a totally different gig than meting out eye for an eye justice to Ancient Egyptian bad guys. I thought he was a would-be world conqueror, wanting to rule with an iron fist and bring back the old laws, not break all of the new ones."
Clark turned slowly around in his chair and stared at Jimmy, the pieces of the puzzle beginning to fall one at a time into place in his mind.
"My thought was that a man too afraid to use his powers to their fullest and impose order upon these wretched masses was not someone we needed to fear, but they insisted," he quoted almost too himself.
"What? Clark, is something wrong?" Lois asked.
Ignoring her question, Clark addressed Jimmy.
"Jimmy, did you say that you had the financial records of all of the companies we suspect of having deals with Intergang, including the record of their campaign contributions?"
"Yeah, I have the printout on my desk," Jimmy replied, rising and heading toward his workspace with Clark on his heels.
Lois looked back in forth between the two men as they talked, and as they walked off she hurried to catch up. At his desk, Jimmy quickly skimmed through several pages of printout and finally handed a few to Clark. Lois watched as Clark scanned each page in turn, a grim expression forming on his face. After a moment he laid them down on the desk.
"I'll be back in a bit," he said, turning and heading for the bank of elevators. "I have to take care of something."
Jimmy looked at Clark's departing back for a second and then cast a puzzled look in Lois's direction.
"What was that all about?" he asked.
Lois didn't answer, but instead grabbed the sheets of paper that Clark had just looked at off Jimmy's desk. She quickly looked through them and soon knew what Clark had found.
"Oh, no," she said her face turning white.
"What?" Jimmy asked even more puzzled than before.
Lois turned and ran to her desk to grab her purse and then headed in the direction Clark had just left.
"Jimmy," she called over her shoulder, "call Henderson and tell him to get Sawyer and a squad of men and head over to the Court House. Tell him we know who the head of Intergang is and that he'd better be prepared to head off a very angry Man of Steel."
Forrest Hagan sat in his office, feeling for the first time in several days like the weight on his shoulders had been lightened. He even took a moment to settle back in his chair, close his eyes and utter a brief sigh of relaxation. The moment was cut short, though, as he felt a sudden breeze hit his face and move the papers about on his desk. Opening his eyes, he was startled by the sight of an angry-looking Man of Steel in front of his desk.
"Superman!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"What were you hoping to accomplish?" Superman asked in a deadly calm voice. "It couldn't have just been election as governor. Your plot was too involved."
"What in the hell are you talking about? Are you insane? Get out of my office!" Hagan sputtered in indignation.
His indignation quickly turned to fear, though, as a very angry Superman's face was suddenly very close to his and a steel-hard fist slammed onto his desktop.
"The people demand a certain amount of order be imposed," Superman said.
"What?!" Hagan, asked shrinking back into his seat.
"A friend of mine reminded me that Black Adam isn't your garden- variety supervillain. At one time he enforced the pharaoh's will in ancient Egypt. Now, unfortunately, his way of 'imposing order' conflicts with modern views on the subject, so he often ends up in conflict with people like me. But, either way, he's not a candidate for Intergang enforcer. That would just make him one of the things he hates. The only way he'd join up is if he thought it would give him some say in imposing his version of order."
"I still don't see…"
"Then Clark Kent speaks to me about his admiration for our District Attorney who doesn't like to just sit in his office when he feels the people want and deserve more. 'They demand that a certain amount of order be imposed.' When I heard that quote, it rang just a little to close to Black Adam's speech and it gave me the first step in filling in some blanks."
"You don't have any proof of these ridiculous charges," Hagan said as he seemed to get hold of himself. This was a legal argument and he knew how to win those.
"You'd be surprised, Hagan. At the very least I can tie you to Intergang campaign contributions. That's enough to stop any gubernatorial dreams until I can get the rest."
Hagan's face went from a mask of resolve to fury.
"You son of a…you have nothing! You're trying win with a lot of conjecture and no facts."
"You somehow found out about the old Intergang network and found a patsy in Maxwell. You used him to set up some big businesses with some juicy government contracts and consequently to make them ripe for blackmail. Then you sat back and filled your coffers with ill-gotten gold. The problem I have is why run for office? Why didn't you just keep it all for yourself? Was the title and position that attractive that it was all you really wanted? And how could that alone have bought you Black Adam's help? Even he isn't that much of a fool."
Hagan brought his hands to the top of his desk and laid them flat as he composed himself.
"Is this the part where the evil villain foolishly tells all of his plans so the hero can expose him and put him away forever?"
"No, that's only if you have the hero captive and thinks he's about to die so you have nothing to lose and an overwhelming need to gloat. This is where you're already exposed and come clean so you can gain at least the small victory of watching my face as I appreciate how truly cunning you are and how close you came to winning."
"Oh, well, I guess that's why evil villains are rarely lawyers then," Hagan said as he shrugged his shoulders and dropped his hand to his desk drawer. "We generally know when to keep our mouths shut, but since you do have some points I should at least show you the rest."
After a decade of crime fighting, Clark should have been expecting what came next, but a lifetime of invulnerability sometimes played against you so he was still surprised at Hagan's audacity when the man produced a gun and pointed it at the hero.
"I was always much more of a fan of the villain who gloated to the hero who was about to die rather than the one who wanted only the small victory," Hagan said.
"But I thought we covered the fact that the hero usually gets out of these things, Hagan, and defeats the villain."
"Those villains never had access to police evidence rooms, hero. I mean, really, how many times do you have to be shot at with Kryptonite bullets before you get a little careful about guns?" Hagan said with a slight shake of the gun to emphasize its contents.
Superman became aware of the faint glow from the barrel of the gun, indicating the makeup of the bullet in its chamber. What he didn't feel, however, was the other evidence that should have been present, and a slight smile crossed his face at the foresight, paranoid or otherwise, that wiser minds practiced.
"Don't smile too soon, Superman," Hagan said, the gun deadly steady in his hand. "I have no problems pulling this trigger and I'm a fast thinker so, believe me, I'll have a plausible explanation when people come crashing through that door at the sound of the gunshot."
Superman met the eyes of Forrest Hagan above the gun he held.
"Oh, believe me, I know you'll pull that trigger. After the last few days I have no doubts as to the depths you'll sink for your own gain. So, please, gloat away."
"You're a fool, hero. You think this was all about money or power? You have no idea what this is about. You won't be here to see it, but you can take heart that the sheep on this little mud ball will be well taken care of in your absence. Order will be imposed and the world as you know it will change. I'll become governor and then I'll become President and then we'll have to make up a title for my next post."
"The world?" Clark asked, laughing despite himself. "You're right, this is a lot bigger than I thought."
"Laugh all you like, Kryptonian," Hagan said with a smile. "I'm not some demented fool with delusions of grandeur or even one who would reveal all even to a dead man. Just know as you die that someone much greater than yourself will soon be here to guide this world down the path of true freedom. We'll stop all crime permanently and follow a higher path. The people of Earth will know the meaning of order and the importance of obedience."
He fired the gun point blank between Superman's eyes.
The bullet stopped an inch short of his face as he caught it between his thumb and forefinger. He stared at it a few moments in fascination before he placed it lightly upon Hagan's desk and then turned his attention to the man himself, who was staring wide-eyed in shock. The chemical composition of the bullet had been fascinating and Clark reminded himself to ask Bruce about it later, but Hagan's expression was priceless and stole all other thoughts from his head. He almost laughed out loud and probably would have if he hadn't been interrupted by the sound of splintering wood as the door was kicked in and Henderson came though, gun raised, with Lois Lane hot on his heels.
"No one move!" he shouted as other officers entered, weapons at the ready and trained on Hagan.
"Hagan, put the gun down now!"
If Clark though Hagan's expression was funny before, it was hilarious now. The man seemed almost ready to pass out from shock.
"I told you the hero always got out of these things," Superman said quietly as he leaned forward and took the gun from the attorney's hand.
Hagan's expression of shock was replaced by red-faced fury as he turned his attention to the Man of Steel.
"You fool! You think this stops anything?! My master will give me your head as a trophy to sit on my bookshelf. All you've done is delay the inevitable. This city will be burnt to the ground as an object lesson to others of your ilk unless they submit!"
The man was becoming almost hysterical and even Superman was shocked by the venom in his tone.
"All of you will die for his greater glory! All Hail D…"
The air was suddenly split by a deafening roar, as a hole seemed to appear in the air behind Hagan. An enormous arm snaked out and grasped Hagan by his head, yanking him from his seat, and pulled him back though the hole, which immediately shrank to the size of a quarter. All before even the astounding reflexes of the Man of Steel could do more than take a half step forward.
Bringing his other senses to bear, Clark was trying to focus on the warp in space and define its nature when suddenly it increased in size to allow a face to appear. The head was enormous and its features obscured by darkness, but the eyes glowed a dark red and seemed to smolder with energy. The distant sound of weeping and wailing could be heard in the background, punctuated by the occasional distant scream of agony.
"The darkness is growing, mortal," the being addressed Superman in a voice that sounded as if it were straight from the grave, "and while you have gained a brief reprieve soon nothing will stop it from swallowing your world."
The face then drew back and the hole closed completely, leaving not even the smell of sulfur as would have seemed appropriate in its place.
"What in the hell was that?" Lois said.
Superman stared at the empty space for a moment before answering.
"I'm not sure, Lois, but 'Hell' might indeed be the apt term, and if so then Hagan hasn't escaped payment for his crimes after all."
"You know what that was, Superman?" Henderson asked, stepping forward to the hero's side.
"I'm not sure, Bill," Superman said, "but I remember encountering something similar when I was a kid. Let's hope it's not that, though, because that took an entire legion of super-heroes to stop it."
"Who is it?" Lois demanded.
"Evil incarnate," Superman answered before turning toward her. "Evil incarnate."
Back at the Planet, Lois tried her best to play along with the others who bombarded Clark with questions as to how he broke the story. Truth be told, even she was curious as to how he had put two and two together and came up with Hagan.
"It was Jimmy, really," Clark said with a self-deprecating shrug. "He's the one who realized that Black Adam wasn't your typical mob errand boy. He wanted to re-institute the old ways of order and law. With that in mind, I didn't even have to think very hard to notice that another purveyor of law and order kept popping up in this. One who knew about the safe house and was keeping close tabs on our investigation. The only times we were a step ahead were when Hagan didn't know what was going on. I played a hunch and there it was in black and white in the printouts Jimmy had of the financial records of the businesses tied to Intergang. Forrest Hagan was the universal recipient of all campaign contributions for Intergang."
"What I want to know, Kent," Perry said, chewing on an un-lit cigar, with arms crossed, leaning on Clark's desk, "is if you figured it out first, then how come Superman and Lane along with Henderson got there first?"
"Simple, Perry," Clark said with his best disarming mid-western smile, "Lois figured it out right after I did, mobilized the police and headed over there for the story. Me, I was side tracked by having to contact Superman."
"And that was accomplished how, exactly?" the elder man wanted to know.
"How else?" Clark asked. " I went up to the roof and yelled for help."
"Uh huh," the editor said, "and why didn't you show up right behind them then?"
"Well, when I made it to the street to hail a cab I realized, uh, that I had lost my wallet and didn't have cab fare."
Perry raised an eyebrow at that.
"I tried to convince the cabbie that the Planet was good for it, but when he asked for a press pass I, um, well, I realized that was in my wallet too."
The surrounding crown burst into laughter and Perry just smiled and shook his head.
"However you did it, good work you two." He stood and headed back to his office. "Who knows," he said over his shoulder, "this went so well I might need to make you partners on a full- time basis."
As the crowd began to disperse, Clark and Lois turned to look at each other.
"Partners?" Clark asked.
"Only if my name comes first in the by-line, Smallville," Lois said with a grin.
"Alphabetically, Kent comes before Lane, Lois."
"And if we worked for the alphabet you might have a case, but at the Daily Planet Lane always comes first."
"Because that's the way of the world?"
"Nope, because what Lane wants Lane gets and don't make me go and get a golf club to push the point."
"So you get what you want even if you have to use force, huh?"
"Absolutely, Mr. Kent, but also with hard work. When Lois Lane sets her sights on something she may use force on the way, but never doubt that she'll work extra hard to win it."
"And what if force isn't even needed?" Clark asked, leaning in closer to his new partner.
"Then that energy can be saved for something else," Lois replied, also leaning in.
She saw the old familiar war being fought behind Clark's eyes, but this time she saw a different part win out.
"What are you doing later this evening, Ms. Lane?"
"I have a date," she replied.
"A date?!" Clark asked surprised.
"Yeah, he's taking me to that new French bistro over on the south side," Lois said, standing and retrieving her purse and coat.
"He is? I mean…"
"So what time are you picking me up, Farmboy? I mean, we don't have reservations so we'll need to be early."
Clark seemed hopelessly confused and it brought a smile to Lois's face.
"Sometimes it's fun even without the golf club," she said, patting his cheek and heading for the elevator. "Pick me up in an hour. That'll give us both time to change into something more appropriate."
"Yes, ma'am," Clark murmured, also starting to smile as he watched her retreating back. "That'll give me more than enough time to take care of everything I need to."
The Martian atmosphere was almost non-existent, but that was all the better as it would help to keep things withering and allow for privacy.
Clark stepped back from the pair of gravestones that he had placed in the Martian surface. He had a memorial to his parents in the Fortress, but there was something more personal about a tombstone even if there were no bodies beneath the soil. The stones stood five feet high above the ground one with an image of Jor-El carved into it and the other depicting Lara. Kryptonian writing decorated both with their names and a prayer to Rao. Lilies graced each grave.
"I wanted a place that wouldn't be disturbed by the public, or by battle, or any of a hundred things that happen on that blue-green dot up there in the sky," he said, addressing the gravestones. "And I thought it appropriate it be somewhere in space. I hope you like it."
He looked around the vista for a moment drinking in the view.
"I checked with J'onn to make sure he wouldn't mind. He said his people would be honored to have you here. They were great respecters of family."
He swallowed the lump he felt in his throat and then continued.
"I'm a great respecter of family too, and it's time I paid you your due. I've lived my whole life as Clark Kent and I haven't given Kal-El much thought. But he was a real person and he was loved. I don't have a lot of memories of the two of you, but what I do have are all good and more and more are coming back each day. I'd like to think I've honored your memories by fighting the good fight. Now, I'd like to think I'm going to honor them even more by actually living."
He rose slowly in the air and stopped a few feet above the stones.
"I'll be back to visit and to talk soon, I promise."
In a cemetery in Kansas a man in a dark suit and glasses knelt and placed flowers on the graves of two other special people.
"Hey, Mom and Dad. I'm sorry I didn't get to talk much the last time I was here, but things were a bit hectic. It's calmed down now, though, but I have to leave in a bit. I have a date. I think I found that middle ground you talked about, Dad. I didn't think it existed before, but the thing is, someone helped me realize that when you want something to be a certain way you have to work hard at it and maybe sometimes you even have to force it."
He stepped back and smiled down at the two people who helped him become the man he was and knew that somewhere they smiled back at him. An instant later, he was gone.
"So, Mr. Kent," Lois said as they walked out of the restaurant arm in arm into the snowy night, "how do you usually spend Christmas?"
"Huh? Oh, I volunteer at the mission and help serve meals."
Lois looked up in surprise at her companion and then laughed out loud.
"Now why does that not surprise me even a little bit?"
"Just seemed like the right thing to do," Clark said, shrugging his shoulders.
The two walked in silence for a few moments before Lois spoke again.
"You think they could use an extra volunteer this year?"
"As a story on graft and corruption at City Hall perpetrated by aliens in league with Nazis that gets me a Pulitzer."
"You ain't just whistling Dixie, Smallville. I get you for Christmas evening, though."
Clark became silent for a moment.
"You don't want to?" Lois asked tentatively.
"No, I want to, believe me I want to more than anything. It's just…"
"Still a new idea?"
"Yeah, and, well, this isn't just a step that I take lightly. Relationships are important to me."
He looked at her with a smile.
"I'm glad to hear that."
"Then what's wrong?"
"Nothing, really, it's just that you need to understand that a relationship with me might get a little complicated."
"Really? Why? You seem pretty straightforward to me, Smallville."
"There are things about me you don't know," Clark said.
"Then you can tell me when you feel that you're ready."
"You'd trust me to move at my own pace?" Clark asked, looking incredulously at Lois. "Who are you and what have you done with the real Lois Lane?"
"Hey, goofball," Lois said playfully, slapping her partner on the chest as she took his arm again and continued walking with him down the street. "I'm not that pushy and, besides, you're talking to the number one investigative reporter in the country. How do you know I haven't already figured all of your secrets out?"
"You think so, huh?" Clark asked laughing.
"Of course," Lois replied, beginning to laugh with him. "After all, what do you think I am, galactically stupid?"