By Missy Gallant <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: January 2004
Summary: In the fourth installment of the author's "Strangers" series, the investigation of Mayor Luthor brings Lois and Clark together under dangerous circumstances. Will they and their budding relationship survive?
First of all, I'd like to thank the readers for their support for this series. I would have never gotten as far if there hadn't been nags along the way. This story has had many beta readers throughout the writing process: Carol Moncado, Meredith Knight, Avia Tikosky, and Marnie Rowe. Thank you, ladies for all the hard work and encouragement you have given me. You all are wonderful!
Clark was thankful for any flat or upright surface that could support his weight as he made his way down the street looking for a taxi. Guard railings, trash cans, hoods of cars were all fair game until he had the great fortune of finding an abandoned grocery cart to push down the street. It supported his upper body weight and made it much easier to travel faster. Although he was weak from a second exposure of that strange rock, it was impossible for him stay still and wait; he had to do something to find Lois. It was just as well that it was so late at night. He didn't think that in his weakened condition he'd be able to go as far on his own. The curious stares and possible interference from passersby probably would have detained him. Or worse yet, have forced him to go to the hospital.
With the old grocery cart, though, he just appeared to be a bit eccentric or perhaps a transient. He didn't care, as long as people left him to himself so that he could tend to the business of finding Lois. Mostly, the cart was helping him, keep his balance since his equilibrium was off from being so dizzy. If only he had the ability to fly, he could make a quick zip to the other side of the world, soak up some energy-providing rays, then he'd be in better condition. But as it was, he could barely put one foot in front of the other without stumbling.
Then an encouraging thought came to mind — sugar! He knew from past experiences that sugar seemed to amplify sun's effect on him. Maybe it would give the energy stores still remaining in his body just enough of a boost to help him through the night. It was worth a try at least, because anything was better than blindly stumbling along the way he was. Now he had to find an all-night convenience store.
In the next block down the street, he could see the neon light of the Grub & Grab store. He'd have to abandon his cart once he reached the corner because he didn't think he had the strength to push it up the curb after he crossed the street. The city was still working on upgrading the street corners to accommodate the handicapped, and they just hadn't gotten to his area of the city yet.
Leaving the cart at the end of the street, Clark took a deep breath and stepped off the curb, which resulted in a hard tumble to the ground. The pain of hitting his head on the cement street blinded him for a second until it ebbed to a dull ache. He lay there for a moment, dazed by the unfamiliar feeling of being so weak and the welcome sensation of lying prone at last. The thought of being able to rest was almost overwhelming him, but not in the middle of a street, he realized with a start. If a car came barreling around the corner, he'd be struck before he knew it was coming. But he didn't know if he had the strength to move any longer.
Forcing himself to his knees, he crawled towards the cart. If he could achieve upright status again, then perhaps he could force the cart up and over the curb. His body weight should help him with that.
At last, after a few minutes of levering the cart up onto the sidewalk, he opened the door to the store, the doorbell piercing through the dull ache in his head.
The scruffy store clerk watched him with bored eyes as Clark looked for the candy aisle. It took all his concentration to walk steadily, without wobbling too badly. Hopefully, the clerk would just think that he'd had a bit too much to drink and not that he was in need of medical care.
After grabbing several candy bars, he thought to check if the donuts had arrived for the morning crowd yet. Donuts were always a great energy booster in the morning for him at the Daily Planet.
No such luck. It still must be too early for delivery, he thought as he leaned against the condiment counter provided for the hot dogs and other fast food that would be available later in the day. A heat lamp warming some breakfast sandwiches caught Clark's attention. An idea began forming in his head as he passed his hand underneath its hot bulb. Could this possibly work?
Making sure the clerk was distracted, he leaned heavily against the counter and stuck his head underneath the lamp. The heat source felt good on his skin, but after a few seconds under the light, he began to realize that the lamp was missing something.
It was probably the lack of UV rays. His dizziness was returning from holding his head sideways under the hood, his skin getting hot, and Clark realized it could easily blister in his vulnerable condition.
An unfamiliar noise sounded behind him, and he swiveled his head to see the clerk staring at him with his hands folded across his chest, a stance that was definitely intimidating. He'd have to try that sometime as Superman.
All of a sudden, he lost his balance and fell against the counter, sliding down to the floor. The clerk left his bullying pose to kneel down beside Clark.
"Are you okay, man?" he asked, then leaned over to sniff Clark's breath. "Or are you just drunk?"
The candy bars lay on the ground where they had been dropped. "No, I just need candy bars… sugar," Clark slurred mindlessly as another wave of dizziness swept over him. He must have knocked his head against the counter as he'd fallen. "Can you check me out here?"
"Yeah, sure…" The clerk looked at him dubiously. "Are you going to be all right? I'm not a doctor, but I can call 911."
"No!" Clark replied a little louder than he intended, realizing the clerk misunderstood him. "I'll be fine. My blood sugar is just low. I meant, can I pay for those here?" He rolled on his side and reached for his wallet. "Oh, no!" he groaned. He'd forgotten to bring it with him when he left his apartment, not that he was thinking about anything but Lois when he departed.
"I don't have my wallet," he said, glumly.
The clerk rolled his eyes. He had seen and heard it all from scam artists trying to pull one over on him. Of course, the usual pranksters were about fifteen years younger than this guy, but maybe this one wasn't trying pull the wool over his eyes. He wasn't trying to walk away with beer or any age-related purchase, just sweets.
The dizziness and pain were subsiding again. Clark saw questions and doubt wash over the other man's face but understood he was only doing his job by thinking the worst of a suspicious looking character. "I'm a reporter. I'm on an assignment, and I ran out of my apartment quickly. I think I left too fast because now I need a sugar fix. I promise I'll come back and reimburse you."
Clark spied a small wire newsstand for the Daily Planet across the aisle from him. The newspapers were still wrapped with twine, having just arrived from the delivery truck. "Look! If you can hand me that paper, I think I can prove to you who I am. I'm Clark Kent from the Daily Planet."
The clerk picked up a newspaper and handed it to Clark. Clark gave a silent prayer that his small photo in the advertising plug for the paper would be there today, but as he unfolded the paper, on the bottom of the front page was a photo of him and Lois at the White Orchid ball. In a very compromising position!
His jaw dropped nearly down to his lap.
The clerk peering over his shoulder grinned at him and asked, "Hey, man! Is that you in that picture? She's a doll!"
Clark gulped. He was dead meat! Lois was *not* going to like this one single bit. That was, if he could ever raise himself off the floor and rescue her from those maniacal kidnappers. Maybe honestly was the best policy right now. The clerk seemed real interested that Clark had landed on the front page in a controversial photo — he was practically drooling with curiosity. "Yeah, that's me."
"Looks like there's quite a story behind that picture," the clerk snickered.
Clark sighed and leaned his head back against the counter, hoping if he allowed himself to look like he felt then the store clerk would take pity on him and let him have his candy bars. Luckily, the plan achieved its desired effect when the clerk rose to his feet and held out his hand to help him up.
Clark groaned as he was pulled to his feet, and the clerk helped steady him once he was upright.
"I'll tell you what I can do for you, Kent. I'll spot you a five then you can come back and pay me back personally." He grabbed a handful of Double Fudge Crunch bars and stuck them in the small bag along with the ones Clark chose. "There. These are two for a dollar this week so that should make it about five bucks worth."
Clark received the bag gratefully and grinned weakly at the other man. "I appreciate this, ahh…" he answered as he looked for a name tag on the other man's shirt.
"Frank. Frank DeMello." He squinted one eye at him doubtfully and asked, "You sure you can make it on your own? You look terrible."
"I'll be fine, but I *really* need to go… my story is waiting." Clark moved towards the door, then gripped the handle to help steady himself.
"Yeah, right!" Frank said doubtfully, then straightened himself up and returned to his station behind the counter. He opened up his wallet and waved a five-dollar bill at Clark before placing it in the cash register. "Guess if it wasn't important, you'd be in bed and not up with the night crawlers like me."
"Right! And thanks again for your help. I'll repay you soon," Clark promised as he opened the door. "I don't live too far from here."
"Hey! And if you get the chance, bring your girlfriend by. She's a real looker!" Frank called out after him. "Good luck on your story!"
The doorbell drowned out the rest of the clerk's farewell. Clark put his small bag in the child's seat in the grocery cart after removing one of the candy bars. Aside from hitting his head again in the store, the small rest stop had at least cleared the dizziness.
He took a huge bite of his chocolate bars before starting his next leg down the street.
A few blocks later, Clark was back to feeling woozy and out of breath. The extra sugar he'd eaten had either not reached his blood stream yet or wasn't helping him much. His muscles and head were screaming at him to stop and rest. There had been no cabs for him to flag down, and the later it became, the quieter the streets had become. It was probably not even an hour since he'd been exposed to the rock a second time, but it seemed as if an eternity had gone by.
The pain of not knowing what those men were doing to Lois, even more than the pain caused by the rock poisoning, kept driving him onward. He was nearing the end of his stamina, he thought, doggedly placing one foot in front of the other. But if he stopped, he was afraid that he would never get moving again.
Where was a taxi when he needed one? He wished he had had the presence of mind to ask the store clerk for a quarter so he could call for one. Not having to rely on transportation all his life had blinded him into the habit of thinking that he could always count on his powers.
Then something caught his eye. A tiny beauty shop, squeezed in between a hardware store and a drug store, was only ten feet ahead of him. But what caught his attention was the cardboard advertisement reading, 'We now have No-Lines Tanning Beds'. Could that be the answer to his energy problem? Tanning beds operated using UV rays, and when he was under the heat lamp in the store, he felt that something was missing from the light. Was it UV rays? He was feeling desperate enough to try anything, and he was not going to be any help to Lois if he was passed out on the sidewalk, helpless as a baby.
Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes briefly, then looked up and down the street. No one was around, and he had to try. Someone's, *his* Lois' life could be in danger, and if he didn't do something drastic, then he'd never be able to forgive himself if something terrible happened.
With determination in his eyes, he left the stability of the grocery cart in an alley behind the drug store, then picked his way to the back door of the beauty salon. He tried the door handle, but it was locked. A small painted-over window next to the door was partially hidden by a large garbage container. After gallantly shoving the waste container aside with his body weight, he found that trying to lift the window open didn't work; it was locked also. The wood frame appeared to be old for the paint was flaking, and the exposed wood was rough and grainy. He pressed on a windowpane, and it moved a bit. He shifted his hand further down the pane and pushed against it again until it gave some more. Now his fingers could fit in the gap between the glass and the wood making it easier to pry it away from the frame. Pulling the glass through the opening in the window, he laid it gently on the ground so he could replace it later.
Suddenly, he sat down hard on the ground as his legs buckled beneath him. What exactly *was* he doing trying to get into a beauty parlor? It was breaking and entering, pure and simple! He was Superman — new defender of truth and justice! How could he justify this?
A maelstrom of wooziness forced him to sit still for a moment, gritting his teeth, until it passed.
Lois. That's how he could justify this, he thought as he leaned head against the brick wall. This was unethical, but technically he wasn't planning on destroying or stealing anything. If he had to, he'd come back as Superman and explain things to the owner, but for now, he had to try anything he could think of to regain his strength in order to find Lois.
Renewed and resolute, he pulled himself to his feet and reached up through the window to unlock it. It wasn't very easy crawling through the small opening, but once he got his large frame through, it was fairly easy to fall forward and land on the floor.
His tumble forward jumbled his equilibrium once again, causing more frustration. He was tired of feeling so poorly and practically helpless. A little bit more effort was needed here. Time to find a tanning bed.
Bed. There was an incentive. Find the tanning bed and he could rest, if only for a short time; and hopefully, he could regain some of his strength.
Clark opened his eyes, examining his location. It appeared to be a small supply room, he judged from the graduating shadows along the walls. Must be shelves. He confirmed his observation as he pulled himself to his feet using the shelves as support.
Feeling along in the dark, the doorknob brushed against his hand, and he opened the door into a long hallway leading to the front of the shop. There was a bit more light in this room, and the illumination from the street cast shadows through the Venetian blinds around the perimeter of the shop. Clark was dismayed to see exactly how small the shop was as he paused in the shadows of the hallway. He had hoped it would be a bit more private and not so open to the street.
Maybe this wasn't going to work at all. Maybe this was someone's way of telling him that he should find another way to regain his strength. No. He'd gotten this far, and now he needed to find that tanning bed. Where would they be? Not out in the open, but perhaps along this hallway.
Clark felt along the wall until he found a door and walked inside. After shutting the door, he turned the light on; and at last, he had reached the destination he'd been working so hard for. Next objective: he had to get the tanning bed functioning properly.
The last thing he wanted to do was break the contraption. A remote control panel on the side of the bed didn't look too complicated. Surely, it was something like operating a microwave oven. In theory, that was what you were doing to your skin: baking it to a nice golden brown. But, he needed it for another purpose; he had to get his strength back.
He tentatively opened the top of the bed, feeling strange as he did it. It was almost like opening a coffin. How was he supposed to do this? Where was his head supposed to go? He really didn't like the idea that he would be encased in there without any breathing room. It almost reminded him of some of the nightmares he had as a child. He never could abide being in an enclosed place for very long.
Pausing for a moment, he was almost blinded by the reflection from inside the bed, and it amplified his headache again. Where were his candy bars? He must have dropped them upon tumbling through the window. They should be in the supply room.
Clark weaved his way back to the back room once again. After completing his task, he spied a telephone sitting on a built-in shelf in the hallway. Could he possibly risk calling his mother? She might know how to operate the tanning bed.
If he really thought about it, it wasn't the mechanics of the bed that had him thinking about his mom; he just needed to talk to both his parents. They were the only people who would understand what he was going through, and they should know about this substance that could possibly kill him.
If he should be exposed to it yet again during the course of the night — it *had* occurred twice in only a couple of hours — then his parents might never know what had happened to him.
As he picked up the receiver, he noticed the long extension cord hanging down to the ground from the shelf. He might even be able to talk to them while he was in the bed; that would help his uneasiness about being in that enclosed space.
Picking up the entire phone from the tiny shelf, he brought it into the small room, taking care to tuck the cord safely in the space between the floor and door. Relieved to take the load off his shaking legs, Clark slid down the wall, put the phone down next to him, and dialed the operator.
"I'd like to place a collect call to Jonathan Kent, please," he requested, and then told the operator his parents' phone number.
He waited until the operator had secured the call, heard his mom's sleepy voice immediately accepting the charges, and then said weakly, "Mom?"
"Oh, Clark, honey! What's wrong?" Martha asked, worriedly. "You sound terrible!"
"Oh, Mom, I'm sorry for calling you at this time of the night, but I *really* need to talk to you," Clark answered, an almost overwhelming sense of relief coming over him as he heard his mom's voice.
The phone line clicked as his father picked up the additional phone. "Clark, what have you gotten yourself into, son? Does this have anything to do with becoming Superman?"
"Not with Superman, Dad, but with who I am. Lois. Do you remember me mentioning Lois? She found this rock that renders me practically helpless. We're working on a case and…"
"I knew it wasn't a good idea to let someone know about who you are, Clark! Dang it! She could be from the government. What do you know about this woman?" Jonathan raved angrily.
"Dad! She didn't know it was dangerous when she showed me this rock. She got it from a couple of thugs who have, since then, kidnapped her! I've got to find her!!" His voice softened. "When she found the rock, she was with me as Clark and didn't recognize me as Kal. I don't know if she trusted Clark enough to tell him about it. But then later, after I rescued her again, as Superman, she wanted to know what I thought of it."
He heard his mother gasp in surprise, then sighed. "Clark, now's not the time to talk about your girl, but if you want to later, I'll be happy to hear all about her. Where are you? At your place?"
"See, that's the tricky part," Clark said shakily. "You're never going to believe me, but I'm in a beauty salon in one of their tanning booths. I thought that I could regain my strength by using the UV rays in a tanning bed. I have some candy bars too."
"Son, just how much of your powers is gone?" Jonathan piped in.
Clark paused a moment, then answered, "All of them, Dad. I've never felt so terrible in my life. I didn't want to worry you, but I don't know what the outcome is going to be, so I had to let you and Mom know."
"Oh, honey! We'll be right there as soon as we can get a flight. You just stay there and wait for us."
"Mom, Lois is missing and I need to find her. I suspect that the people who have her have killed before. That's why I've broken into here, to absorb some UV rays, and eat some sugar. I've told you how that seems to energize me when I'm in the sun, and then I *have* to find Lois. If anything happens to her… " His voice broke with emotion.
"I don't know what they're doing to her," he despaired. Panic was threatening to take control. He almost dropped the phone to leave. He couldn't sit around while Lois was with *them*.
"Clark! Be quiet and let us help you." After hearing the silence on the other end, Martha continued in a softer, but firm, voice. "Are you in the tanning bed now?"
"No. I'm sitting on the floor." He left out that he didn't have the energy to stand any longer.
"First thing. Take off your clothes and get down to your skivvies."
"You want to get as much skin exposed to the rays as possible. But first, take a bite of your candy bar — it's good for you."
"Son, I'll let your mother take over. Be careful, will you?"
"Yeah, Dad. I'll try."
"We love you."
"I love you, too, Dad."
"Jonathan, hang up the phone already! Clark's got to get undressed and get in that bed."
"Bye, son." The phone line clicked, and Clark had to smile at his mother's take-charge attitude. He finally understood why kids needed their moms when they weren't feeling well. He never had gotten sick as a child and experienced Martha's nurse mode personally. There had always been animals that they'd nursed back to health together on the farm, but this was different — she was taking care of *him*.
"Have you ever used one of these things, Mom?"
"Oh, honey! I never had a need to. I always got a decent enough tan out in the garden. If I want to, I can lie out in the backyard without a stitch, and no one will see me. Now put the phone down and get your clothes off. Mind you, keep your essentials on. We don't know how your skin is going to react." Martha's voice had a hint of amusement in it. "We wouldn't want any pertinent parts getting blisters."
"Mom…" Clark sighed, not relishing the idea that he'd be practically naked in a strange place. He struggled to his feet, then walked heavily over to the door and locked it. Even though he wasn't supposed to be here, he still needed his privacy just in case.
After his clothes lay folded on a chair, he picked up the receiver and asked, "What's next, Mom?"
"Where are the dials, sweetie? On the wall or bed?"
"Um, dials?" His vision faded in and out as he tried to focus. "On the side of the bed there's a small panel," he answered wearily. "Sorry, Mom. I'm just not thinking very clearly. I'm glad I called you."
"Oh, Clark! I wouldn't have it any other way. Now Maisie told me all about her one and only tanning session. Are the buttons labeled, or is this going to be guesswork?"
Clark leaned in for a closer look, then blinked hard after he saw the commands. "I'm not so sure about this anymore, Mom. There are three settings: Light Brown, Slow Roast and Broil. I'm starting to feel like a T-bone steak."
Martha let out a tiny laugh. "They're just joking with the clients. Now get in the bed and hit the Slow Roast button. I think it should be set for about ten minutes."
"Oh, and honey, don't forget those little goggles; they'll keep you from hurting your eyes."
Clark located several pairs hanging on hooks on the wall. After looping a pair around his head and setting the controls, he settled wearily onto the bed, fatigued from all his efforts. Carefully making sure that the phone cord was safely hanging out of the open end of the bed, he closed the top and allowed his body to finally relax.
The buzz from the lights was a bit noisy, but he heard his mom saying something.
"Sounds like you got things going, sweetie. How does it feel?"
Clark felt his skin beginning to tingle a bit as the rays began to absorb into his body. "Wonderful, Mom. It feels great," he answered gratefully. As his exhausted frame savored the life- giving light, Clark felt the pain in his body beginning to ebb with every second that passed.
"I think this might work, Mom," he said lazily after a couple of minutes.
Martha could hear her son's breathing getting slower and a bit heavier, and she sensed that he was getting close to falling asleep. The poor dear! She wished she could be there with him. In a way, she was thankful. It wouldn't help him to see just how much she was worried. Even if this worked — she was crossing her fingers that the tanning rays were helping him — she didn't know to what extent that his strength would come back.
Clark had grown up being different. Although it had caused him a lot of emotional pain when he was younger, she knew in her heart that he'd be devastated if he lost his powers at this stage in his life. Being normal was not normal for her son, and she didn't know how long a time, if ever, it would take for him to adjust.
A muffled bang reached her ear, and she heard Clark grunt, then mutter something under his breath.
"Mom, I've got to get out of here! This is ridiculous!" Clark had opened the top of the bed and was swinging his feet over to the floor. "What am I doing lying around when the woman I love is missing?"
"Clark Jerome Kent!" Martha spoke sharply to her son. "I haven't had to discipline you in years, but right now I want you to listen to me." She listened intently for a second and heard him sigh.
"You love her, sweetie?" she asked, not knowing if Clark had registered his little slip of the tongue.
"I know we've just met, but yes, I love her," he said, his voice breaking.
"Then listen to your old mom. Clark, you need to get stronger if you want to help her. I know it seems like you're neglecting her while you lie there on that bed, but sweetie, you're not going to be any good to Lois if you're weak and in pain. Do you think those few minutes helped? Do you feel any different?"
"I got up quickly, but I wasn't dizzy anymore. And it didn't hurt so bad when I banged my head on the top," Clark said, more hopefully. "I think that's good."
"Of course it is, honey," Martha said lovingly. "You just need to stick it out a while longer. Grab another candy bar while you're sitting, then let's go for another round."
After a couple of moments, having munched another sugary snack, Clark spoke apologetically. "Thanks for talking me down, Mom. I know you're right, but it's so hard just waiting around. What should I set it for this time?"
"What's your skin looking like? Is it getting pink?"
"No, just a little darker. I think I'm tanning."
"That's a positive sign, honey, but let's not overdo it. I always thought that you'd look good with a bit more coloring. Hit the Slow Roast button again. Does it look like you can override the presetting?"
Clark pressed the keypad for a few moments and then replied, "Yeah, I think it's set for a half an hour now."
"Lie back down, close your eyes and relax; I'll tell you about Wayne Irig's new tractor…"
Martha prattled on about the comings and goings in a small Kansas town. Clark's responses to her came at longer and longer intervals, and after a while, she heard a faint snore. At last, he was out, she mused, smiling to herself. Guess they were never too old for you to put them to sleep. Knowing how anxious he was to get to his girl, she was sure he would wake up before too much time had passed.
She waited a bit longer until she heard the light buzzing sound of the lights click off, then she said softly into the phone, "Goodnight, my son. Your momma loves you."
Clark didn't hear the tiny click on the other end of the phone that signaled the end of their connection. He was completely oblivious to the worries of his world.
He woke with a start a while later as the phone's busy signal beeped steadily in his ear. It took him a couple of seconds to remember where he was — at the beauty parlor getting some UV rays. He felt tingly and surprisingly refreshed. After opening the top of the tanning bed, he sat up slowly, trying not to jinx the situation. The pain in his limbs was gone, and he was feeling more like his old self. For good measure, he tested his hearing: still nothing. One by one, he tested his powers just to make sure that something wasn't trying to come back. At least he could get on his way now, though it seemed that it would be at regular speed instead of super speed.
Quickly, he got dressed and replaced everything in the small shop back to where he'd found it. Sometime during his mom's rambling, she had mentioned that she'd be sure to come to this shop and get her hair done next time she came to visit him. Clark wasn't sure what he would do later for the tiny beauty shop that had unwittingly helped him out. Maybe a surprise visit by Superman or a write-up in the paper about the quality of service that small shops provided would give them a boost in their sales. Right now, he didn't have time to plan; he needed to get out of here and find Lois.
As he replaced the windowpane in the back-alley window, he hoped the time spent regaining common strength wasn't wasted and that Lois was holding her own. Clark took a breath of the night air and filled his lungs gratefully — no pain at last. He would have to find her the normal way as an ordinary Joe Blow looking for his Judy Regular.
Another daunting task was ahead of him. He had to get across town without a dime in his pocket. At least he still had some candy bars, Clark thought as he clutched the small bag a bit tighter. He rounded the corner of the alley and struck out onto the street again, wondering if Lois liked Double Fudge Crunch bars, that was, if he could get them to her. He began to jog in the direction of the wharf side of town. He couldn't get rid of the dull ache of foreboding that was growing in his heart with every step he took.
<You're going to use up your energy, Kent. Slow down!> the more sensible part of his mind told him.
<<No! I've wasted enough time! Gotta find Lois!>> he argued back to himself and upped his speed another notch.
<Mom's going to bend your ear if you end up hurting yourself again.> He slowed down a tiny bit and tucked the bag of candy in the large pocket in the front of his sweatshirt. <Pace yourself, you idiot!>
A vision of Lois falling out the Lexor Hotel window flashed through his mind. She had been so frightened! Those thugs wouldn't hesitate to kill her if it suited them. He began running faster and faster as his mind filled daunting images of a scared, hurt or even dead Lois.
He rounded the corner of a street, blindly crossing in the middle of it. A loud horn and a screech of tires were followed by a series of dull thumps as steel impacted all too human flesh. Up over the hood of the vehicle he tumbled, finally landing on the ground behind it.
The driver cursed as he sped on his way down the street.
A couple of hours earlier…
Lois crept around the bushes in front of the warehouse. The place was even creepier than she remembered, but she shrugged off an annoying case of nerves while working her way to the back of the large building. She thought she'd see if there was another entrance that she could use instead of the garage doors she had discovered the other night. Although she would try to get in that way if she had to, it seemed logical that there would be another entrance into the warehouse instead of waiting for someone to decide to open the garage doors.
The taxi driver had argued with her when she insisted on getting out in this section of town. She'd had him drop her off a few blocks away so she wouldn't arouse any more suspicion than necessary. Remembering the night before when she'd been down here with Bobby, she'd known to stay as incognito as possible. Walking out in the open, she would have been a direct target for the unsavory characters she had seen staggering out of dilapidated buildings and sleeping in trash-filled doorways last night. Plus, it was much later at night now. The lowest of the lowlifes would be out in all their glory, and she hadn't had the time, *nor* the mood to put up with them.
Finally, she had reached her destination and was now looking for a way inside. Gathering her wits, she turned another corner around the back of the building and found what she was looking for: a real entrance.
Faint light shone under the door. It was almost undetectable, but Lois picked it out after staring at the threshold for a couple of seconds. Placing her hand on the handle, she turned it slowly and opened the door a crack. She peered in, and not seeing anyone, entered all the way in, leaving the door slightly opened behind her just in case she needed to get out of there fast.
The light in the room was a single dim bulb, barely affording enough light to discern the condition of the room. Dusty boxes filled most of the floor space, but a crude hallway had been formed from stacked boxes on the one side of the room. The randomly piled containers would provide cover if she needed it, she noted while working her way along the 'hallway', the light becoming fainter as she moved away from its source. Could she have been wrong? So far nothing had turned up out of the ordinary.
As she walked deeper into the warehouse, the tiny source of light became practically useless to her. The hallway took a right turn and she was shuffling in complete darkness. She cursed at herself for not bringing a flashlight; her old one was still stuffed away in a box in the bottom of her closet. As she rounded one more turn in the makeshift hallway, the darkness lifted, revealing a more finished part of the warehouse rather than the bare construction brick she had seen near the entrance.
Voices were audible now, although nothing coherent could be distinguished. Lois peered around another wall of boxes and located the source of the voices coming from an adjacent room. The door was ajar, and Lois crept up and peered through the crack. She saw an open room with several men and immediately recognized the gunman, McInnis — the thug who had tossed her out of the ballroom window earlier — by his tall, lanky frame. The remaining two men appeared to be the ones who had taken the mayor away *and* had the green rock that had hurt Kal. She would never forget Joe Rockhead's face, even though he had a huge beefsteak covering one eye now. He looked like a perfect candidate for a Flintstones bad guy — dumb, and with a large piece of meat hanging over his face.
Another man, Luthor, was stretched out on a couch with a conventional ice pack resting lopsidedly on his head. He didn't appear to be moving; either he was unconscious or asleep.
"I still can't believe you idiots hit the boss that hard. I thought you knew that you were only supposed to graze him with the butt of that gun. Stupid mistakes. I *hate* stupid mistakes!" McInnis spat angrily.
"I'm not a mind reader, you know. And it's a good thing that he hasn't woken up yet. The boss is gonna be spitting mad!"
The boss! Some things just didn't add up from the scenario in front of her. Why would Luthor be kidnapped by his own men? She wasn't quite certain at the time that she was being held hostage that it was them in the ballroom since their faces had been covered. Now that she had the chance to actually think about it, it didn't make sense.
"C'mon Mickey, Einstein here already paid for his slip up. It'll never happen again," Larry pleaded. "What we need to do is figure what to do when he *does* wake up."
"Yeah, Larry! You told me there'd be no slip-ups at that damn ball. Now it's my head that has to pay for your stupidity."
"Hey! Not your head! I'm the one that's gonna have a Technicolor shiner," Joe Rockhead retorted as he removed the steak away from his face briefly. "Besides, I ain't stupid! I was just trying to disguise the rock until we could get it later. Who would have known that a stupid chick would be snooping around looking to ruin our plans. So what are we going to do about our good mayor Luthor now?"
Stupid chick? First chance she had, she was going to be proving just how wrong he was. Blackening his other eye would be good for a start.
"Listen, Joe! Just stay out of this. The less you know, the less you're gonna screw up," McInnis said disgustedly. "Why don't you and your brother go get us some food at Ace O' Clubs and make yourselves useful? Don't get that gut-rot chili this time either. I need time to think."
"C'mon Larry. Let's go," Joe, alias Einstein, said. "Hey, you gonna give us some bucks?"
"Whaddya we do if all they have *is* that gut-rot chili? I think that's all they know how ta make."
Lois snorted silently to herself. The only thing that concoction was good for was removing paint.
"Einstein, I don't want to tax your brain here, but believe me, you can figure it out."
"Money, Mickey," Larry blurted impatiently, anxious to get out of there before Luthor *did* wake up.
"Yeah, give me a sec. My wallet's in the other room." McInnis left the room through another door and disappeared out of sight.
Lois could barely believe what she was seeing and hearing! She had found Luthor and his thugs! Just as she'd expected, they were working together on something. Luthor was out of commission for a while, it appeared, but she was almost certain he'd be back in the thick of things too soon for her taste. You can't kill bad grass, her old editor in California used to say.
Larry returned, fumbled in his wallet and pulled out a few bills. "Here, now get out of here." The two brothers sauntered toward Lois. She was pressed up against the wall near the door as far as she could go, hoping that the darkness would be enough to cover her.
Omigosh! What was she going to do now? Wait here in the dark until something happened, or should she nose around on her own? As the men disappeared from view, she heard one of the thugs, Joe, she presumed, ask his brother, "So what are we going to do about finding that rock?"
The answer was muffled as the men moved out of earshot. Drat! Now she was torn as to whether she should stay here and wait to see what happened when Luthor woke up, or follow the goons to see if they would reveal any more information about that rock. They must know their way around, because she had little difficulty keeping pace with them in the dark as she followed the sound of their footsteps.
Now that she knew where they were hiding out, she could always find her way back here. Ace o' Clubs. It shouldn't be far, and she could call Clark from there; that was, if she decided that she needed his help with this. He'd better be home now, or he was going to hear about it tomorrow! She waited till the footsteps faded in the background before quietly followed the dark hallway back to its entrance. She opened the door carefully and looked around for Joe and the other hapless goon. Seeing their shadows disappear around the corner, she walked as fast as she dared to trail them.
The front door of the club had been propped open for some unknown reason, but once she got a good whiff of the inside, the reason became very apparent. The smell was worse than the night before. Burned food odors were added to the wonderful cocktail of beer and smoke.
Lois kept her eye on the brothers. They had bellied up to the bar and had ordered drinks while waiting for their takeout. Neither one of them seemed to be the brightest bulb in the box; although the one called Larry appeared to have a bit more wattage than Joe. Geez! Did Joe really believe he could drop a glowing rock in a punchbowl and expect her to leave it alone? He'd better think again. What kind of hiding place was that?
Turning her back towards them, she inched a bit closer along the wall, hiding her face, wanting to get into a position to where she could hear them clearly. She hadn't yet found out what they were planning to do to locate the rock. Their conversation had strayed by the time she had caught up with them. Now she was hoping they would remember that conversation and return to it so she could spy on them properly. She doubted they had enough smarts to recognize her in her change of casual clothes.
Still couldn't hear what they were saying. Darn it! Maybe if she sat right behind them with her back turned… no, that wouldn't do. Just her luck, some scum bucket would hit on her and there would be a scene. What she really needed was a place to listen to them in private.
Her eyes grew wide with determination as the obvious plan began to form in her head. Why not? If she could get behind the bar without being seen and hide, then her little stakeout should work. There was no one at the bar for the moment; the brothers already had their drinks when she had arrived.
Opportunity, or misfortune, whichever way you wanted to look at it, walked through the doors at that moment, and Lois found herself staring at a familiar face.
"Bobby?" Lois hissed. "What are you doing here?"
"Hey! Nice to see you too, doll," he greeted just a bit too loudly for Lois' taste. "I came in to report to my lovely wife. You really did a number on her last night. Now I hafta check in with her every hour, on the hour, *thanks* to …"
"Quiet, Bobby!" Lois sneaked a quick glance behind her, then turned back to him. "You're about as subtle as a bull in a china shop!"
Bobby suddenly changed his tone. "What are you doing here, anyway? Not exactly your part of town, but then again, since when has that stopped you?"
"I'm working, if you *must* know," Lois said, defensively.
Bobby eyes shifted around the smoky interior of the bar, and looked inquisitively at the rowdy drunks and cheesy atmosphere. "*This* should be rich," he retorted.
"And now that you're here, you're about to help me." She grabbed him by the front of the shirt and yanked him forward, then swung him around so that he was shielding her from the view of the brothers at the bar.
"Um… Lois?" Bobby whispered nervously as she positioned herself behind him about five feet away from the thugs. "I wanna inform you that if my dear sweet wife sees me with you again, then I may not live to see the light of day."
"Bobby! Get a grip! Those guys may know something about your good buddy, Bruno. I can't explain now, but play along."
"Gus! His name was Gus. And okay, I'll play along, but if you see Rose, you'd better duck!"
"Fine! Now be quiet so I can hear something."
"I don't know how you expect to do that. It's so loud in here my teeth are rattling."
A couple of burly men were situated between them and the two thugs, and Lois realized she'd have to get closer if she was ever going to learn any information from them.
"Bobby!" she whispered hoarsely, "Do something about those brutes next to you! I can't hear a word the other idiots are saying."
Bobby opened his mouth to speak but shut it abruptly, realizing that arguing with Lois was a losing battle. He glanced around the room, suddenly looking pleased with himself. "Hey dudes! See those two suckers over there? When it comes to playing pool, they're the champs of the place. I'll buy your drinks for the rest of the night if you can beat them at their own game."
One of the large men puffed out his chest and looked indignant. "You ain't trying to feed us a bunch of bull, huh, Bub?"
"No way! I'm a gourmet cook. I think too much of food to feed anybody bull." Bobby opened up his wallet and laid a five-dollar bill on the bar. "You guys get beatin' those braggarts, and I'll supply the beer when the bartender decides to quit sleeping in the back room. I'd play them myself, but I stink at pool."
The two men exchanged a couple of grunts and glances at each other, then they sauntered over to the pool table.
Lois nodded her approval as she pushed Bobby a bit further down the bar. The men's voices became less garbled and more clear.
"Whaddya think's going to happen to us when the boss wakes up, huh, Larry? I don't think Luthor's gonna be too happy with us."
"No, Joe. Probably not," Larry said distractedly as he swirled his beer around in his bottle.
"Maybe we should cut our losses and skip town. This is making me real scared, Larry."
Larry slammed his beer on the bar. "Dammit, Joe! I'm nervous enough without you harping in my ear about it constantly. And no, we can't run! *He* has eyes everywhere; he'd find us eventually, and then we'd be dead. And if you keep mentioning his name, *I'm* gonna kill ya personally! We gotta find a way to fix this."
"Fix it how, Larry?"
"We got to find that chick and get our rock back. Force her to tell us where it is."
Lois' eyes widened in panic at their intent to find her and the rock. And she was standing only a couple of feet away from them. Not good!
She reached down to feel for the small object in her pants pocket, and the blood drained from her face as she realized it was missing. Where was the rock? After leaving Kal in her apartment, she'd retrieved it from the alleyway, wrapped it back in its foil, and stuck it in her pocket. She hadn't wanted to take a chance that the kidnappers would come nosing around her alley and find it. Now it was missing!
Bobby's face took on a grim appearance as he pointed to the doorway and mouthed, "Let's get you outta here!"
Lois nodded, but suddenly ducked beneath the cover of the bar as Rose returned from the kitchen with a tray of clean glasses. "Sorry, guys! The kitchen help has gone home sick, and you're stuck with… Bobby!"
Bobby had turned and was about to follow Lois, who was crawling quickly alongside the bar and had disappeared around the corner. He hesitated for a moment, not certain whether to make sure Lois was out of danger or risk the wrath of his wife if he ignored her. Of course he risked the wrath of his wife if she found out that he was helping Lois, so he decided to take a chance.
He took a quick peek downwards and confirmed that Lois was indeed out of sight before turning back to his wife. "Yeah, you wanted somethin', kitten?" he asked innocently.
"It's about time you got here! Go do whatever you do in the kitchen and make us something edible," Rose ordered with an exasperated look on her face. "I'm all alone working here in this joint."
Bobby didn't want to leave the men at the bar until he could be sure that Lois was safely out of the place, but it was likely she had a pretty good head start by now. He was still on shaky ground with Rose and needed to score some brownie points. Anyway, he was getting rather hungry, and a bite to eat was starting to sound pretty good.
Lois scouted around for a telephone. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, she kept to the perimeters of the bar. Wandering over to the hole in the wall that was the bathroom, she looked for a way to escape without having to crawl back into sight of the thugs. No windows or any other exit was available in the rest room. Out in the entrance was a pay phone. She dug around in her pocket for Clark's phone number and the proper change. Although it wasn't the cleanest place she'd ever been, she could hide in the stinky room until either Clark arrived or the bad guys left.
With nervous hands she dialed his number. Please be home, she pleaded to Clark. She let it ring several times until his answering machine picked up the call. "You have reached the home of Clark Kent. Sorry, I'm not available, but please leave your message at the sound of the beep."
"Clark! If you are there, please pick up the phone. This is Lois and I need your help…"
The taxi driver almost turned the corner, but hit his brakes and thrust his car into reverse. What was he doing leaving the scene of a hit-and-run? He could lose his driver's license, or even worse, his freedom, if he was caught and convicted. It wasn't worth risking his life's work. What would his wife and kids do if he landed in the slammer? Sure, the kids were practically out of the house, but tuition for his three college-aged children didn't come cheap.
The cabbie angled his car in the street so that it was protecting the man he'd just hit from oncoming traffic. Too afraid to look at him directly, he glanced at the man reflected in his rearview mirror. A bit fearful at what condition he might find the poor bloke in, the driver sat for an agonizing second in his seat before opening the door and seeing to his victim.
The stricken man was moving.
But he was injured; the guy was clutching his side where the car had slammed into him and had not risen from the ground yet.
The driver knelt down next to Clark and started talking immediately in his own defense. He didn't know if the guy would understand him, but had to fill the panic of the moment with something. "Gee, man! Why'd ya have to go and run out in the middle of the street like that? Ya nuts or somethin'?"
Clark opened his eyes slowly through new pain this time, not caused by a mysterious rock but real human injuries, and looked into the kind face of an older man in his fifties.
"Great! You're still alive! Can you move?"
For a moment, Clark stared into the worried gray eyes of the cabby. "Yeah, I think so."
Clark gritted his teeth tightly as he felt hands turn him on his back. Suddenly, he remembered that he needed to breathe, and as he did so, felt the bones in his side grinding together. Oh no! Broken ribs?
"Wait here and lemme call 911 on my radio. They can get an ambulance here real fast."
"Um, wait!" Clark interrupted. "Just help me sit up. I think I'm fine. It's just my ribs."
"I don't think you're fine." The driver gently touched Clark's side and felt the bones give way a bit too easily in spite of his light contact. "This feels terrible."
"Oww! That's the spot!" Clark moaned and pulled away from the gruff stranger's probing hands.
"Are you hurt anywhere else? Man, you took quite a hit. I'm sorry, but the way you ran out so suddenly, there was no way I could have stopped in time."
"It's okay… my fault," Clark apologized, as he began to realize how dumb he had been to run blindly in the streets.
"Can I take you someplace? Hospital? Home? Girlfriend's?" the cabby asked, mentally keeping his fingers crossed that this guy wouldn't sue the pants off him for running him over.
"No hospital. Ace O'Clubs, if you don't mind. Do you know where that is?"
The cabby lifted a curious eyebrow and scratched the top of his head. "Yeah. Been there. Nasty place, even for an old salt like me."
"A friend, a woman, called me from there. I think she's stranded. That's why I was running. I'm so worried about her." Clark closed his eyes and remembered through the pain the reason why he was bolting.
The older man's face softened for a moment as he thought of his oldest daughter and how he would regard any young man who'd be just as concerned for her welfare.
"Come on, son," he said as he rose to his feet. "I'll take you anywhere you want to go. Within reason, of course." He bent down and supported Clark under the arms, helping him to his feet.
Clark grunted as he rose, holding his hand against his side to keep the ribs from grinding against each other as he was assisted in standing. The silver lining in this cloud of a mess was that he now had a ride to the Ace O'Clubs, and maybe even someone who was willing to aid him in finding Lois. But he wouldn't let this kind stranger put himself into any sort of danger for him.
"Wait a minute! My glasses… are they broken?" Clark remembered as he turned back to find them.
"I'll look. You stay here," the cabby commanded.
The driver opened up the back seat door to the taxi and supported Clark's weight as he got in. Clark sat gratefully down after an uncomfortable descent onto the seat and felt a bit dizzy all of a sudden. Was this night ever going to end?
The elder man returned after a couple of minutes and turned around in his seat to hand a pair of grimy, but unbroken, glasses to Clark. An old towel soon followed, and Clark was able to clean them off.
The cabby kept up a cheerful chatter all the way across town, frequently slowing down over the many potholes in the street to keep from jostling his ribs too much, but Clark was relieved when they finally pulled up in the parking lot of the Ace O'Clubs.
"Hey, man! This place looks like it's closing down. I don't think your girl's gonna be here anymore. You want me to go in and see for ya?"
Clark considered letting the cabby check the place out, but didn't believe he could sit in the taxi while the driver was gone.
"Why don't you stay here in the taxi and protect your property? I don't think this is the best neighborhood to leave a valuable vehicle. I'd really appreciate it if you could wait until I'm done here."
"Yeah… that might be for the best. If my taxi gets jacked, then we're both stranded."
Clark struggled out of the back seat, relieved to not be putting any more pressure on his injured side. It seemed that his ribs were the only part of his body that was injured; it could have been far worse considering how hard he had been hit. Maybe his Kryptonian genes were still tougher than a human's at normal strength, or the tanning session had restored him a bit more than he'd thought.
He walked through the front door that was propped open and looked around. The smell that hit his nostrils let him know exactly why the place needed airing out. His gaze fell upon the pay phone situated between the men' and women's bathrooms just off the entrance. The receiver was still dangling; no one had bothered to replace it yet.
He walked over and cradled the receiver thoughtfully in his hand, looking for any clues that might have been left behind. He saw a piece of paper that was out of place among the rest of the trash on the floor. It was of pastel design among the crushed, darkly sodden peanut shells, lipstick-stained cigarette butts, and cast away beer bottle labels. He picked it up and found it was the note with his phone number scribbled on it.
He clenched his jaw and sighed. If anything happened to Lois, the slimeballs who took her better watch out! A winter in Siberia would be too good for them.
Supporting his injured side with his hand, he wandered into the main area and noticed a rather tall waitress collecting dirty dishes in a large tray in the middle of the room.
"Ahem…" He cleared his throat, trying to think of the best way to approach the situation. "Are you closing?"
"Mr. Kent? Is that you?" Rose Cooper exclaimed, after turning around and recognizing him. "What are you doing here at this time of the night?" She glanced at the clock on the wall. "Or should I say morning?"
"Ms. Cooper? Are you working two jobs?"
"It's Rose here in this joint, honey. Ain't nothin' formal about me here," she said amusedly, but a bit wearily.
"Pardon my asking, but don't you have to be at work in City Hall in a few short hours?"
"Good thing I'll be quitting this hectic schedule soon. Couldn't leave old Ace hanging after I got the secretary position." Rose lowered her voice and asked him, "Did you hear about the mayor? He was kidnapped."
"I know. I was there," Clark said.
Her eyes held his for a long second, serious now, no longer cold and unreadable as she had been with him earlier in the day. Her personality and demeanor were totally different. She seemed warmer and more human to Clark.
Making a snap judgment, he threw caution to the wind and decided to lay his cards on the table. "Rose, my partner from the newspaper called me from here, oh, about an hour and a half ago," Clark said under his breath. "Do you remember her? She was with me in Mayor Luthor's office." His voice dropped even lower, "I need to find her, Rose. It's pretty important. Did you see anything unusual?"
Rose glanced around the room first before speaking. "No, it's been really busy here all night. But the only thing out of the norm about that time was while I was in the back preparing some takeout for a couple of guys. It's kind of strange; they waited for ten minutes and left without picking up their food. They had paid for it upfront."
"Did you see what they looked like?" Clark queried.
"Just your average-looking Joes. I think one of them was named Larry, and the other had the beginnings of a terrible-looking black eye. That's what caught my attention." Rose shook her head. "I'm sorry, that's all I have."
Clark frowned. There had been three gunmen who had busted in on the ball, but only two of them had actually taken Luthor away. The third one — if he recalled correctly, the tall gunman — had been giving the other two orders right before he had thrown Lois out the ballroom window. Perhaps he was using his higher position and had sent the other two out to get food.
Bobby suddenly walked through the kitchen doors loudly announcing, "Okay, doll! Your entree for tomorrow is done. All ya need to do is take it from the fridge and warm it on low. I don't think you can ruin it… Clark, is that you?"
"Bobby? What are you doing here?"
They both asked at the same time.
"You two know each other?" Rose interjected as she hoisted a large tray of dirty dishes off a table with ease.
"You know Clark, too," Bobby directed at his wife. "Geez! Well, ain't this all warm and fuzzy. Do you know that Clark has presented me with my most challenging project? He brings me the most delicious Chinese food I've ever had the pleasure of getting my lips around, yet I can't duplicate the recipe even if my life depended on it."
"Yeah, well that's all fine and good, but if we're ever going to get out of here, I've got to get my dishes done. Hope you find your girlfriend, Clark." With the clanking tray of dishes, Rose disappeared into the kitchen.
"Clark, my man! Have you been holding out on me? You never told me you had a girl!" Bobby exclaimed, rather proudly. "Don't tell me you're having trouble with her already."
"She's not my girlfriend yet, although I'm hopeful," Clark replied, looking rather embarrassed. "But she's missing. She called me from this payphone, but our conversation was cut off. I came as quickly as I could, but I'm having some, um… health problems and couldn't get here very fast."
"Ya look like you've been eating the chili around here," Bobby quipped, looked warily at Clark, then processed some information in the back of his mind. "Her name wouldn't be Lois, would it?"
Clark's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Do you know her? Have you seen her?"
"Oh, she was here all right, and dragged me into whatever scheme she had cooked up at that moment. You got a tiger by the tail, Kent. Ya gonna need more than dumb luck to keep up with that one."
Clark sighed, grimacing a bit as his ribs reminded him not to breathe so deeply.
Bobby saw the pain flash briefly across the reporter's face, prompting him to get back to the original subject. "She was spying on a couple of guys and overheard them threatening her. Something about a rock she had and they wanted. The last I saw of her, she was booking it on out of here."
"What about the two men? Did you see them leave?" Clark asked, anger replacing the pain in his eyes.
"No, but come to think of it, they disappeared pretty quickly. I was talking to Rose by the bar and the guys stepped past me to go to the john, at least I think that's was where they were going. I hung around to see if they'd return, but they seemed to have disappeared."
Clark's face held a concerned glare. That was probably when they grabbed Lois. His phone number that he had found on the floor was almost certain proof that she had been there. How could they have gotten away without someone seeing them take her? Bobby had been watching for them.
How and when didn't matter anyway, all he wanted was to find her and keep her safe.
"Thanks, Bobby," he muttered determinedly. "If you see her again, *don't* let her go anywhere."
"Gotcha, Clark," Bobby replied, as he watched the reporter walk out the door.
Clark was relieved that the taxi driver was still waiting outside, but was even more grateful that he could sit down again. His ribs were hurting him badly. He wished that he could get to the bottom of what happened to Lois. Every minute that ticked by could be taking Lois farther from him. There had to be a breakthrough soon.
"You know, mister," the driver said thoughtfully, "I've been thinking while you were inside, and I don't know if this'll be any help to ya, but I dropped a woman off not too far from here about three hours ago. I argued with her and told her that this wasn't a place for lady, but she told me to stuff it and just take her where she wanted to go."
"Oh?" Clark questioned attentively. "That sounds like something she might say. Where did you take her?"
"It wasn't any particular place; I dropped her off in the middle of the block, but I can take you there the long way so we can look around."
The driver began winding his way around the seedy neighborhood, taking his time so Clark could scour the area as he looked for anything that could give him a clue as to Lois' whereabouts. As they turned a corner onto another street, Clark suddenly saw something that made his blood run cold, yet made him want to shout for joy at the same time.
A tiny green glow shone through the darkness in an alleyway behind a huge warehouse.
"Stop here," Clark requested. "I think I've found the place. I can take it from here."
"Are you sure, man? Whether you admit it or not, you're hurt pretty badly. I'd hate to see you puncture a lung with one of those broken ribs."
"If I can find *her*, it would be worth it," Clark said firmly as he opened the door. "Um, mister? Thank you for helping me out. I'm sorry I don't have any money with me, but if you call the Daily Planet and ask for me, Clark Kent, we can work something out so I can pay you for your time."
"Yeah, pay me for running you down… Clark Kent? You're Clark Kent! Man, oh, man! My wife's going to kill me if she finds out that I almost killed you! She's your biggest fan! Reads your articles first when we get the paper in the morning." He finally took a good look at Clark's anxious face and smiled sheepishly. "Um, I'd better let you get going."
"Bring your wife to the Daily Planet, and I'll give you both a tour. But I'd better go now," Clark said gently as the radio started to talk to the driver. "Looks like you have another job."
"Be careful, Mr. Kent. I'll keep swinging through this area for as long as I'm working tonight."
"Thanks." Clark got out of the taxi and waited a second as it drove away. The tiny point of green light beckoned him a few yards away in front of the door. First, he had to deal with that rock again; then hopefully, find Lois inside.
Clark thought it was rather clever of Lois to leave the rock as a clue for him. Maybe she thought she was marking the spot for Bobby to locate her, but whatever reason she had for leaving it there didn't matter. He was glad to have seen it from the taxi.
The effects of the rock hadn't reached him yet; he was still far enough away, and the rock was still partially covered with foil. He could see the irregular shape of the glow and the eerie reflections off the wrinkles in the loose wrapping. He could only hope that by it being somewhat covered in lead, the potency of the rock would be reduced.
Clark looked around the alleyway to for something to push the rock away. If he could find a long enough object to shove it away from the door, than maybe he could get by without experiencing the rock's ill effects. Sending it like a hockey puck to the moon appealed to him greatly, but that was out of the question for now. More conventional means of getting rid of the object would have to do.
An old piece of rain gutter on the warehouse wall caught his eye as the pre-dawn light began to erase the dark shadows of the evening. The top fastener had come undone, and it was listing drunkenly off to one side. Clark believed that it would do nicely. It even had the slight curve on the end of it like a hockey stick, but was much longer. With the one hand that wasn't supporting his ribs, he jerked the remaining fastener free from the wall and let the gutter fall slowly to the ground.
Perfect. He could even maneuver the rock with one end of the gutter tucked between his elbow and waist with his hand controlling its movements a bit further down. Now he needed to decide on what to do with the rock. He couldn't leave it where any of those lunatics would find it, but didn't want to lose it completely. He was very curious about where it came from and why it affected him the way it did. There was always the piece in his apartment that he could take to a lab if he got rid of this one permanently when he found a technician he could trust. But for now, he wanted this rock as far from him as possible.
Clark pushed it away from the warehouse and was not quite sure where to go with it when he reached the curb. The alleyway had ended only a few feet beyond the entrance, and the three-sided area was too small to hide the rock in there without him getting exposed again. He didn't see a sewer grate anywhere, but a manhole cover was a few feet away. Hoping that the rock would fit through one of the small holes on top, he nudged it in that direction.
It was quite difficult to get the rock centered properly over the hole because of the awkwardness of the gutter, yet once he had achieved his objective, the rock fell part way into the opening.
Then, it got stuck.
That was just great, Clark thought grumpily. After trying unsuccessfully to hammer the rock down the hole, he replaced the pipe in the alleyway. He decided to brave the consequences and take a strafing run at the rock to see if it would fall through with a couple of quick stomps of his foot. If it didn't go as hoped, than he didn't know what plan B was going to be. This just had to work.
His limbs were aching again, but he needed to get this over with. The foil seemed to have been stripped away from the rock as it had rolled along the cement, because it was glowing a bit brighter now. Taking as deep breath as he could without his ribs screaming at him, he charged at the manhole cover and brought his heel down sharply over the rock. A very satisfying plop could be heard as the rock squirted through the hole and landed in the water below.
Clark staggered back to the rear entrance again, forcing himself to keep moving although he desperately wanted to rest. The handle turned easily, and he stepped into the warehouse. Lois just had to be here! He didn't know where to turn if he couldn't find her.
He bypassed the entrance area, then wound his way around the same path that, unknown to him, Lois had taken a few hours earlier. It was quiet. Too quiet, Clark thought, beginning to think that there wasn't any hope of finding even one person in this huge place. Then he turned another corner of boxes and saw the open door of the finished area of the warehouse.
Lex Luthor was sitting on a couch, looking almost as much as worse for wear as Clark felt. His tux was dirty and his tie was askew. His eyes were blinking sleepily and his hand was clutching his head. A telltale ice pack was lying next to him on a cushion as Clark remembered that the mayor was conked on the head by one of the gunman at the ball.
Where were Luthor's kidnappers? It seemed rather strange that he would be left alone without a guard or at least a rope tying him up; unless he'd been out cold all this time and was finally coming out of it. The mayor looked too disoriented to be capable of rational thought.
Clark nearly groaned out loud. How was he going to take care of Luthor and find Lois at the same time? He was in pain from his injury and barely able to get around. He needed sleep desperately and was only running on adrenaline caused by Lois being in danger.
Part of him wanted to leave Luthor and come back for him later after Lois was carefully tucked far away from these people. Alone in the room, Luthor didn't appear to be threatened at the moment, and Clark was very tempted to turn away and continue his search.
The moral fibers that made him Superman couldn't let him turn away. Here was a man for whom he had no real proof of corruption — just his personal suspicions, — and he could never let his feelings about someone get in the way of his ethical responsibilities.
If Lois was being held here, it wasn't in the room with Luthor. There was an adjoining room next to the one that Luthor was in that he would have to check out. In order to do that, he would have to reveal himself to the mayor.
He stepped into the room and placed his finger over his mouth, signaling for Lex to be quiet, then he mouthed, "Let's get out of here!"
A loud laugh followed. "Mr. Kent! Are you rescuing me?"
Suddenly, he felt rough hands pulling him off balance, then another pair jerking his arms painfully behind him. Clark was puzzled for a moment, then it hit him as a thin-lipped smile spread across Luthor's face.
"Clark, it seems your investigative nature will be your downfall," he sneered. "Put him in the holding cell, and we'll deal with him *after* we're through with more urgent matters."
"Let's go, cowboy," a hard-sounding voice hissed in his ear as he felt the hard point of a gun being jabbed in his back.
"Yeah, I think it's him. He was the one making out with the dumb broad under the table," another voice declared.
Holding cell? Dumb broad? Maybe, just maybe… Clark felt his spirits lift slightly despite his dire predicament.
"We can't have you ruining things for us, Bub. Tough luck you got caught, but we don't have time to deal with you now."
Clark didn't struggle as the two men pushed him along in the dark. He was praying that they'd take him to Lois. The broken ribs were in excruciating pain from his arms being held behind his back and hard metal of the gun causing his back to arch severely.
They arrived at an old freezer. The thug who wasn't holding Clark at gunpoint tugged at the long metal door handle and opened the door.
Before being shoved in the makeshift prison cell, the voice sneered again, "Enjoy your stay here today, because you're taking a long ride off a short pier tonight."
The other thug chimed in sarcastically, "That is if you don't freeze to death first. Makes handling you a lot easier later on if ya half frozen when we plug ya."
Clark felt himself being pushed into the room, falling hard on the cement. White, hot pain blinded him when he landed on his injured side. It was cold in the room — for regular humans, as Clark soon grew aware of — then knew the goons' last comments had meant the freezer had been turned on. As the throbbing pain in his side ebbed, he managed to open his eyes and looked around for Lois.
The room was almost pitch black, the only light coming from an almost dead fluorescent overhead lamp as it flickered in its last stages of life. Water was dripping from somewhere; the floor was wet; and in the air hung a rotting stench of mildew and staleness from longtime exposure to moisture. Old ice clung to the corners of the ceiling in frosty clouds, dark thunderheads standing over him in ominous warning.
Tied up in ropes, she was shivering on the filthy, damp floor. A faint bruise was starting to show on her cheek as it spread out from beneath a dirty blindfold. Clark's heart caught in his throat as he rasped out loud, "Lois…"
Through the thick fog enveloping her mind, Lois pulled out of a restless sleep at the sound of her name. Flashbacks of being struck in the face from not answering their questions about the rock came flooding back in bits and pieces. Cold fear began to smother her mind, and she instinctively curled up in a tighter ball at the ruckus caused by Clark's entrance.
"Lois? Are you okay?" He crawled painfully over to her and touched her shoulder but was dismayed when she pulled sharply away from him. "It's me, Clark!" he whispered anxiously as his fears began to grow about her state of mind and what these men could have possibly done to her.
Clark. She must be dreaming about Clark again. In the time that she'd been in this Godforsaken place, she'd desperately wished that he would come for her, but began to fear for his safety when it appeared that her kidnappers had no intention of letting her go alive. She'd even called for Kal in hopes that he had recovered from the ill effects that the rock had on him, but was scared for him also. He must still not be back to normal, and she didn't even know if he could have heard her cries even if his powers had returned. Now someone had reappeared and was trying to disturb her nice dreams about Clark.
The gentle hand on her shoulder shaking her awake was not like *theirs*. The blindfold had been removed from her face, but she still clenched her eyes closed tightly. Could she dare open them and hope against hope?
"Clark?" she whispered in a small voice.
"Yes, it's me, sweetheart," he exclaimed, quickly freeing her from the ropes.
"Clark?" She murmured groggily as he sat down beside her, gathering her up in his arms away from the wet floor. "Clark? Is that you?"
She opened her eyes at last and found the face of her dreams staring at her, looking extremely relieved and smiling gently.
"Clark, it's really you," she said, her voice fragile and shaking.
"Lois, my Lois…" His large hand cupped her face and held it gently. The pain from his injuries eased into the background upon hearing her voice and being able to touch her once more. Passion born of desperation and relief overwhelmed him as he lowered his face to cover her lips with his. He felt her say his name against his lips one more time before she returned his kiss with reckless abandon as slim arms wound their way around his neck.
His mouth left hers to rain kisses along her cheek and down her neck as he pulled her close, never wanting to let her go again. Her small form fit perfectly against his as he buried his face in the hollow of her shoulder. Lois' arms tightened around his neck, and her trembling slowly ebbed in the security of his embrace.
At last, they had found each other.
Lois could feel Clark's uneven breathing on her neck as they clung to each other in the dark room. He was real, warm and holding her so very close. Her lips still tingled from his kiss a few moments ago. Funny, it seemed that they had been so drawn to each other physically, and now here in the confines of a cold makeshift prison, she needed him emotionally too.
No, it wasn't pure physical attraction that had drawn her to him. Well, maybe at first, but as the White Orchid ball had gone on that previous evening, something else had formed in her heart for him. Hero worship. It had to be hero worship — plain and simple — she tried to convince herself. Yet, underneath the table earlier that night, they had both acknowledged a bond that was growing for one another. The feelings that he stirred inside of her were far beyond simple hero worship.
Could it be that thread of connection that had brought him to her now?
Soon the steady drip of water in the background began to remind her once more of their dire predicament. Reluctantly, she was the first one to finally pull away. "Where are we, and how did you find me?"
Clark sighed, then reluctantly released her, still holding her loosely around the shoulders. "I had to find you. When I heard you cry out on the phone, I… Oh, Lois! You're so cold!" He rubbed her back with his hands, trying to generate some heat by using friction. "Is that any warmer?"
"That's a little better, but I'm still freezing. My feet are starting to go numb. Oh, Clark! I didn't know if any one would ever find me!" She shivered and pressed into his warm body. "It's Luthor! He's behind all this!"
Clark replied, "I saw him here a few minutes ago."
"It was all staged by his thugs. You saw him too? Some idiot hit him on the head too hard, and now they're all worried about what Luthor's going to do to them when he wakes up."
"He's awake now, but not looking so well. Why is he doing this? Did you find out what this is all about?" Clark asked, waving his hand in emphasis.
"I have an idea, but I don't have much to go on. Did you call the police?"
"No, I got over to the Ace O' Clubs as fast as I could, but I got a bit detained," he paused, and then continued guiltily. "I thought Luthor was in trouble, so I tried to help him, but his goons appeared and I got caught too."
"Now they have you too. Way to go, professor. Now no one knows where we are," Lois retorted, pulling away from his chest to glare at him.
"You didn't seem to let anybody know where *you* were going when you charged over here," Clark protested back at her.
"Yeah, well… I called you."
"While you were being hauled away," Clark said defensively. "Let's forget about it, Lois. This is no time to argue."
"I suppose you are right," she conceded, as she snuggled back against the warm haven of his chest. "So where are we?"
"It's an old warehouse on Wharf Street."
"Oh, this place again. How did you find me?" she asked.
"Your rock. That was ingenious of you to mark the building with it."
"I didn't do it on purpose. It must have dropped out of my pocket when I came here the first time. They knocked me out as soon as they pulled me away from the phone. The next thing I knew, I woke up in here trussed up like a turkey. They've been in and out a couple of times to *question* me about it." She rolled her eyes and sighed as she recalled the verbal and physical abuse she'd received from the tall thug. A puzzling thought began gnawing in her mind, and after a couple of seconds, she realized what it was.
"How do you know about the rock?" she challenged.
He scrambled to account for his, Clark's, knowledge of the rock. "Um… Bobby Bigmouth told me that these guys were after you for it."
It had been Kal who Lois had shown the rock, not Clark. He wasn't prepared to tell her now that he was Kal, but after they got out of this, he planned to sit her down and tell her. Suddenly, he remembered the rock in his apartment — the perfect reason.
"I know of another piece of rock that someone had in his possession. Unfortunately, he's dead now."
"Another rock?" she replied despairingly, wondering exactly how many of those pesky things she'd have to field for Kal before this was all over. "Please tell me you have it!"
"It's in a safe place," Clark answered, recalling painfully how he managed to get the one in his apartment back in the lead pipe and under the metal waste can. Not the safest place in the world, but it would do providing Luthor's men didn't raid his home. "Why are these people interested in it?"
"I don't know. It's the strangest thing I've ever seen. I found the first piece in the punchbowl at the White Orchid ball. One of the goons dropped it in there.
"Punchbowl? So is that why you were sneaking around and hiding under the refreshment table?"
"Yes. I'm sorry I didn't get around to telling you about it. At the time I was preoccupied by some handsome guy in a tux," she replied, slightly embarrassed. "I wish I had told you immediately, but I've gotten burned sharing information with other reporters in the past. Maybe I was subconsciously doing some psycho thing."
Clark tightened his arms around her in a silent response.
Lois sighed, accepting Clark's unspoken answer, then asked another question. "So where is the other rock now? Do you have it with you, or did the thugs find it again?"
Clark looked sheepish and replied, "It's down the sewer. I kicked it down there so they couldn't get hold of it again. I *do* know where the other piece is. I just wanted to find you."
She threw an annoyed glance at him, then her expression softened. Clark seemed very haggard and disheveled, not at all like the confident reporter she had been with earlier. Lois shifted her weight in his lap to get a better look at him. He sucked in his breath sharply when her elbow brushed his side.
"Are you okay? I haven't even bothered to ask you… You're hurt! Oh, Clark! What happened? What did they do to you?"
He stilled her attempt to get off his lap. "Don't go. I injured my ribs before I got here. They're either cracked or broken, but you're fine where you are. Please stay," he pleaded, rubbing her arm soothingly. "Just no sudden moves."
"Okay, but I don't want to hurt you." She leaned her head against his shoulder and rested her hand on the crook of his neck in a half embrace. "What happened?"
"I got hit by a car on the way out here. I wasn't thinking and made a mistake."
"Oh Clark! Are you really okay?" She searched his eyes to see if he was telling the truth. His warm smile convinced her that he wasn't trying to hide anything.
"Just my ribs. I'm fine. Here, let me see your face," he replied. His face grew tight as he gently fingered the bruise just above her cheekbone. "Does it hurt very much?"
"No, it's okay, but my headache's back. Probably from too much champagne," Lois answered distractedly, enjoying his tender caress in spite of the war going on in her head. Her cheek was still smarting from the hard backhand given to her as she was dragged away from the telephone. The old champagne headache from earlier in the night had flared up in full force again, yet Clark's gentle touch on her injured cheek was sending warm flurries to the pit of her stomach.
Clark set his jaw, and then asked the question he'd been worried about for so long. "They didn't *hurt* you, did they?"
She could hear the tense undertones in his voice and understood the implications. "No, Clark. I'm fine," she sighed. "I just got slapped around a couple of times, that's all." She reached for his hand on her shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze to reassure him. "How are we going to get out of here?"
"I'll get us out. Don't worry. *We'll* think of something." His fingers moved up to her temples and began massaging gently. "Does that hurt?"
"No, that's helping. Thanks," she murmured. She shivered once more, but not because she was cold.
"Here, sit up for a second," he said, as he moved her away from his chest and pulled his sweatshirt over his head with one arm. Not an easy task, but Lois helped him wiggle his arm out of the sleeve on the same side as his injury. He leaned back against the wall, replaced Lois against his bare chest and blanketed her with his shirt. "There. I hope that's better. Now get some sleep; I'll try to stay awake."
"Aren't you going to be cold? I can't take your shirt!" she protested. "What about your ribs?"
"No problem. I'll be fine," Clark insisted, wincing as she relaxed in his arms. He wished he could warm her more, but his shirt and body heat would have to do.
"Just a minute, buster," she said softly. "If you're going to go all noble on me, then I'm not going to let you outdo me." She removed herself from his arms, stood up and held out her hands to help him to his feet.
Clark's eyes grew round as she first, handed him his sweatshirt, then slipped off her own.
She met his eyes boldly for a second, then turned away to tend to the business at hand. First, she tore the hem of her old sweatshirt, then split the side of the shirt. Holding it sideways, she ripped the bottom off into a huge single strip. She fashioned the ends of the cloth into ties on either end. She was glad the shirt was a few years old, or she'd have had a lot harder time ripping the thick material.
"Okay, big guy, hold your breath in while I tie this around your middle. It'll support your ribs."
Watching her actions with wonder, Clark gritted his teeth as her hands manipulated the cloth into support for his injury. Even in the dim light, she was more beautiful than he ever dared to dream. He was mesmerized by the soft graceful sway of her body and creamy pale skin, slowly growing aware that the temperature in the cold room had risen significantly. Although the most intimate parts of her body were covered, he closed his eyes gallantly and fought against his instincts to take her in his arms and kiss her passionately again.
"Sorry if I'm hurting you," she said looking up after she was done fastening the cloth.
"That's okay. I think it's feeling better; at least it will after the pain goes away," he grinned good-naturedly.
"I think it needs a little test run," she pronounced with a gleam in her eye. Lois gingerly wrapped her arms around his chest, being careful to keep her arms above the injured area.
"Does this hurt?" she asked, looking up at him curiously. She wondered if he had his eyes closed because of the pain or because he was aware of her undressed state.
"Not a bit," he replied raggedly while enfolding her in his arms once more. "But it's way too soon to tell."
"Test number two." Lois laid her head against his chest and relaxed against his warm body, very soothing next to her face.
Clark dropped his head down and rested his cheek on top of her head. Her pale skin was velvet beneath his hands as he began to caress her back in small, comforting strokes.
"Who needs drugs when I have you," he whispered into her hair, kissing it softly after he finished speaking.
"So, did I make it feel better?" she asked coyly, relieved to have a tiny respite from the danger they were in.
"Most certainly did," he answered, huskily. "I'm not feeling a thing."
A chilly draft blew across her back, causing her to shiver. "I guess we'd better try to get some rest," she sighed reluctantly while untangling her arms from his and motioned for him to sit down.
After a less painful descent down to the floor, Clark looked hopefully at her and patted his leg. She shivered again, then was in his lap before he knew it. "Got so cold all of a sudden. This old freezer *was* turned on."
"Yeah. After I kicked one of Luthor's thugs in the leg, I was able to turn the thermostat way up. That's why it's melting in here," she grinned slyly at him.
"Good thinking! Um, Lois. I think you should put the sweat shirt back on," Clark declared, trying to be noble as he felt her warm flesh snuggle up against his.
"Omigosh! I'm getting cold," Lois blurted, ducking her head down to lay on his chest in slight embarrassment. "Details, Clark. It's not like you haven't seen a woman in a bathing suit before, right? Not that this is a swimsuit, but it's like a swimsuit… I mean you've probably seen a few women without their undergarments on, though it's none of my business who you've seen. Plus, I heard that skin-to-skin contact is much warmer. Cover us with the shirt and we'll be perfectly fine."
Clark quickly blanketed her with the thick shirt. This was basically innocent, although he might not be able to see her anymore, but he could certainly *feel* her. They were doing this for warmth, right?
"Shouldn't we be trying to get out of here? After we get warm?" Lois objected weakly. Moving from her position on Clark's lap was not high on her list of priorities, although it should have been. "I, for one, am not going to stick around and wait to be killed."
"We can't do anything with those two guys standing watch. See their shadows under the door?" He pointed through the darkness at the figures moving beyond the freezer door's seal that had been long rotted away.
"They've been there the whole time as far as I know. I've heard them talking," Lois wearily said. "The door is as solid as a rock."
"So you've looked around?" Clark asked.
"Very funny! I had a blindfold on, but I managed to wiggle my way around, and there's no way out except through that door," she shuddered, remembering the frustrating and frightening moments she had in the dark trying to find a way out of her small, cold prison.
"So it appears we have to wait for them to make the next move," Clark stated.
"Unfortunately, yes," Lois said despairingly. "I hate waiting, and why did they have to put us in here of all places? Do you think they could've made it more miserable for us? How about throwing in a few rats to top it off? If I ever get a clear shot at them, they're going to be singing soprano for the Metropolis opera…"
His warm fingers silenced her lips.
"Lois, let's be patient until those guys stop moving around out there, then we can see what we can do about getting us out of here. They said something about getting rid of us tonight, and the sun's just starting to rise. I think they don't have time to deal with us now. But until then there is no sense in working yourself up," Clark said, calmly as he felt her growing fear. "Besides, we need clear heads for later, so try to get some rest. Are you okay like this? I mean… staying warm? I wouldn't want you thinking I'm trying to take advantage of you."
"I'm fine, really. Thanks, Clark. There're not too many guys that would give you the shirt off their back, you big boy scout. And it was my idea to use it as a blanket. I think it's much warmer, don't you? Well, don't do anything about them without me," Lois sighed, stifling a yawn. "I really don't want to go to sleep, but it's been a long day."
"You're welcome, anytime." Clark slouched to the side so she could lean back a little more, and adjusted his arms around her. Plus, his new position eased the pain in his ribs. Maybe he'd tell her now, that in his real life he was Clark Kent, but moonlighted as Superman and her friend Kal. Was this the right time? How would she react? She had wanted only friendship from him as Kal and told him that she wasn't ready for another relationship. But now she was snuggling up in his arms, with his real identity, showing all signs of enjoying their undressed conditions in spite of the danger they were in. He wanted to believe that it could be this way between them when she knew the truth, but he was still so uncertain.
He should be feeling guilty for relishing this contact between them, and a small part of him did, but the rest of his conscience was completely content. After they were out of this nasty place, when their emotions weren't so on edge, he'd fill her in on who he was. By then, perhaps she wouldn't think being with someone from another planet was a bad idea.
"Warmer? Lois?" Her answering 'hmmm…' was lost as she fell asleep. Although they were in the dreariest of situations, Clark was not too worried, he could do his best to protect her now. He had Lois sleeping in his arms and all was well in his world.
A sharp crack startled Clark out of a fitful sleep. He waited a long moment before realizing that the sound had come from inside the freezer and not from any outside influences. The warehouse seemed strangely quiet, and he wasn't sure how long they'd been sleeping, but the dripping in the freezer had intensified making him think that they'd been sleeping for quite a while. A rather large puddle was spreading towards where he and Lois were sitting, probably reaching them soon.
He had tried to stay in his watchdog mode for the rest of the night, but it had not been too long before he had dozed off also. He had needed to sleep so badly, and even with Lois in his arms — or rather *because* of Lois in his arms — he managed to rest well enough to feel a bit refreshed.
Now he felt he was in a better position. He knew right where Lois was, and he was going to move heaven and earth to make sure she stayed safe. He had to take full advantage of any chance to escape when it presented itself, but for now he wasn't in a hurry to start looking for a way out yet. He was perfectly content to cradle this sleeping woman in his arms as long as possible, for a few more minutes at least.
Sometime while they were sleeping, he had gently shifted her position so that she was resting on his lap in order to prevent her from sitting on the damp floor. Her feet were tucked under her now, safe and warm on top of his leg as he had sat cross- legged, sleeping with his head resting on top of hers. He didn't know that she was without her shoes; that was one thing she'd forgotten to mention to him.
Her cheek was nestled against his bare chest, and he could feel her breathe, aware of her every exhale against his skin. The smooth bare skin of her arms rested on his stomach, her hands curled in a semi-fetal position under the warmth of his sweatshirt. He smoothed away a strand of hair caught in the corner of her mouth and pressed an easy kiss on top of her head. The tenderness he felt at the moment from having Lois safe in his arms almost overwhelmed him. Even though he'd lost his powers, he knew he was in far more trouble with his feelings for her than against any enemy they were now facing.
Suddenly feeling guilty at the direction his thought processes were taking, he lifted his cheek from her hair and thought he'd better distract himself with something a little bit more relevant to their predicament. He promised her friendship, but in the light of his relationship with her as Clark, he needed to give her a chance to make a choice on which road they should travel down. But more importantly, he had to find a way for them to escape.
Looking around the small freezer that was their prison, he concluded the ice cracking on the ceiling caused the sharp noise that had woken him. A rather large fissure was beginning to widen as the ice began its descent down the freezer's wall.
Lois stirred in his arms and his attention was drawn back to her. Her eyelids fluttered open for a second, but then she was still once more. It wouldn't be long now and she'd be awake, Clark thought. Since it was still so quiet, he thought now would be the perfect time to see if there was any way to escape.
"Lois?" He shook her shoulder gently. "It's time to wake up."
Lois had a sensation of being safe guarded, somewhere warm, where no harm could come to her. Her hand uncurled and explored tentatively, its palm running over hard muscles and smooth skin. She vaguely remembered being pleasantly comfortable during the night — warm heat washing over her in a blanket of comfort. Where was she?
Her bed had never felt this good… maybe it was all a lovely dream. Did dreams have broad shoulders and corded neck muscles? Her thumb rubbed lazily against the soft pliable skin under his jaw.
As she drifted upwards towards awareness, trying to respond to Clark's gentle shaking and soft voice, her eyes felt as if lead weights were holding them down, she couldn't open them yet.
Claude, her subconscious thought. No. Claude never made her feel so… safe… like she was a treasure to be protected at all costs. Suddenly, she recalled the pain of being struck in the face, of bone-chilling damp cold. Of… Clark attempting to save her! He had tried to perform some sort of super heroics to rescue her, and now they were stuck together in some sort of hellhole! He was holding her, and she was relieved to know he was still with her.
She murmured something unintelligible, then her eyes opened sleepily, "Oh, we're still here. I was hoping this was all a big nightmare."
There was an awkward untangling of limbs as she sat up and moved herself over so she could be seated next to Clark. "How long have I been sleeping?" she said sleepily as she realized that she was not wearing a shirt.
"A few hours, I think. It's hard to tell sitting in the dark," Clark said, handing her the sweatshirt as he diverted his eyes. "How are you feeling? Were you warm enough?" He was slightly disturbed that Lois was being so casual with him, but seeing Lois awake did not give him time to obsess about it.
"I was quite warm, thanks. You're a very toasty guy. And I'm feeling a little better, but I can still sleep for a week." She slipped the shirt quickly over her head and tucked her arms in the sleeves. Smoothing down the front of the she felt something in the front pocket.
"What's this?" She looked questioningly at Clark.
Clark looked puzzled for a moment as he tried to remember, but then his face split into a huge grin.
"Those are for you. I hope you like chocolate."
"Chocolate?" Looking hopeful, she pulled out a small bag, then reached inside to retrieve its contents. "Double Fudge Crunch bars?" she exclaimed excitedly, immediately tearing the wrapper off one and taking a bite. "A little beat up, but…" Laying her head on his shoulder, she nudged it gently and sighed in delight. "Mmmm… my hero. How did you know these were my favorite candy bars?"
He chuckled and replied, "Lucky guess, I suppose."
After devouring two of them, she asked, inclining her head towards the door. "So is anything happening with them?"
"Nothing yet. It seems to be fairly quiet. I haven't heard anything for a while. Either they're sleeping or have left the place. That's why I woke you; we need to check this room out more thoroughly."
"How can we do that with so little light? Wait a minute!" She scrambled to her feet and felt her way to the wall, found the light switch and turned it off. "Sometimes these old fluorescent bulbs will work better if you turn them off for a few minutes. I have one of these in my room and it's real temperamental."
"Let's hope you're right. How long should we leave it off?" Clark asked as he rose to his feet and stood alongside her.
"Not too long. Here, let's see." She flicked the light back on. It flickered for a second, then the same faint glow came back. "Oh, come on! There's got to be some more life left in there!" Lois said in desperation.
"Maybe the connection is loose. Let's see if we can tighten the bulb up." Clark suggested. "Let me lift you up."
"Are you going to be able to do that, I mean with your ribs?" She looked at him with sudden concern.
Clark took a quick appraisal of his injury, noting that they still ached, but didn't have shooting pains as they had a few hours before. The UV rays might have revitalized him more than he first thought; his healing process seemed to be speeding up.
"They're feeling much better. I'm beginning to think that they're only barely cracked or just bruised. It won't hurt to try. Beats getting shot and thrown in the river."
"Okay, but don't do anything stupid just to prove that you're all macho."
As Clark picked up Lois, he teasingly groaned under her weight.
"Oh Clark! Am I hurting you?"
"Lois, did you have to eat *all* those appetizers last night? I may bust another rib!"
"Very funny," she said, lightly thwapping the side of his head. "If I'd known you were such a muscle man, I would've eaten two more plates full. Just a little higher… there!" The long bulb flickered a bit faster, then under Lois' manipulation, it came to life.
"Hey, good job," he said, placing her down. As Clark took a look around the newly lit room, he failed to see Lois' mouth drop open at the sight of his shirtless back.
"Clark, shouldn't you put your shirt back on before you catch a cold?" Lois gulped, attempting to pick her jaw off the floor. The new light had revealed more than she anticipated. He was so… well-defined. She picked up her old torn up shirt and held it out to him in self-defense.
"Just a minute, check this out Lois?" Clark said intently, concentrating on the big crack in the ice.
"Believe me, I'm checking," she muttered under her breath as she walked a couple steps over to where he was standing and tried to concentrate on what he was pointing at.
Beyond the thick coating of frosty ice was a small handle.
And a small door.
The door was three feet square and placed about waist high. The frost was thick on the wall, and now that it was melting, the cloudy crystals had become more opaque. What was beyond the door was hopefully an escape route if he could find a way to get through the ice.
"Clark? Is that what I think it is? A door? Can we get out?"
Flashing her a quick smile, he acknowledged, "Yep!"
Lois scooted closer to the ice to have a closer look. "I suppose this is some sort of service door. I wonder if it opens up to the outside."
"I doubt it, in this neighborhood?" Focusing at the task at hand, Clark said, "We're going to have to chip this ice away. Hopefully, if we can get through to the door, it will be unlocked. I'd like to lift you up again to see if you can pull the ice away from the wall in one sheet. Looks like it's melted enough for you to get your fingers between the ice and ceiling."
"Are you sure? I wouldn't want you to strain yourself lifting me up again," Lois quipped, thrilled to be doing something to get out of their prison.
"And who said the life of a reporter wasn't hazardous?" he said jokingly, his attention returning to Lois.
"I'll show you hazardous!" she said defensively, amazed at how easy they found it to tease each other.
"Oh yeah! I'd like to see you try!"
Spirits lifted, they flew into each other's arms in a spontaneous hug.
Their eyes locked together as Clark's grin turned into a tender smile. Lois felt her insides dissolve into mush as she said softly, "We'd better get going."
"Before they come back." He lifted his hand and gently touched the bruise on her cheek. "That's quite a shiner," he murmured, reluctant to break the unexpected moment between them.
"All in the line of duty," she said slowly, riveted to the sensation of his touch on her face.
"Not bad for not having started your first day yet." He cupped the side of her face with his hand and continued to tenderly stroke her bruise with his thumb.
"Do I get top billing on this story?" she whispered, leaning ever so slightly into his palm as she drew deeper into his gaze.
"Lois, you're pretty high maintenance, you know that?" His voice dropped even lower. Sensations of flying washed over him, but he knew his powers weren't back and his feet were still on the ground.
"Yeah, but I'm worth it."
"I *know* you are." Clark punctuated each word distinctively. His fingers trailed slowly up the side of her face to smooth back the hair that was brushing against the back of his hand and felt himself getting swept away. He knew he should back away, but the promise he'd made her suddenly was shoved in the back closet of his mind.
The intensity in his voice as he spoke those simple words hit her hard. She nearly stopped breathing as her heart pounded loudly in her ears, suddenly aware of the electricity that was building between them once more. She held his steady gaze for a second longer before glancing down to compose herself.
Clark let his hand drop slowly as he became aware that the moment was passing. "We should…" He released a heavy sigh and tilted his head toward the wall.
Collecting himself, he turned to her. "Ready partner? You might feel steadier if you sit on my shoulders. You're going to need some leverage to pull the ice away."
"So let's get this show on the road," she said, taking a deep breath. The thought of having to touch him again played havoc with her nerves.
Clark grinned sheepishly at her. "Yeah, let's blow this popsicle stand. Ready?"
"Ready," she replied with a determined smile.
After a few awkward attempts, which almost resulted in them sprawled out on the floor laughing, they gave up on having her sit on his shoulders. Clark was in discomfort from straining his ribs, so they decided that he should kneel and let Lois stand on one of his bent legs while he supported himself with the other.
Lois probed the frost and became excited when she found that some of it crumbled away easily. She scraped it with both hands after feeling more secure on her perch; soon she heard cries of protest from Clark.
"Hey, watch where you are throwing that stuff! You're getting it in my face!"
"Oops! Sorry! Clark, I think I'm almost through to the wall! The ice up here is so soft; it's falling apart when I touch it. Seems like it's been defrosting for a long time. Kind of like your grandmother's old refrigerator where it seemed to snow every time you opened up that little freezer door," she said excitedly. "My nails will never be the same. But oh, who cares about that right now! Can you raise me up a bit more? I need to get a little higher…"
As Clark obliged Lois' wish, she worked diligently for a few more minutes, her mouth working as fast as her hands as she continued to pelt him in the face with the fruit of her labor. Clark stayed on alert for the return of the guards, but mostly he was enjoying the concert of sounds coming from above his head. He cherished his moments with Lois, even if it included occasional slaps of cold ice in his face.
"Clark! I think this slab of ice is moving! It seems to be melting faster next to the wall… almost like the wall is being heated."
Clark thought for a moment, then answered, "It was almost dawn when I got here. Maybe the warehouse is warming up from the sun. I don't know how long we had been sleeping. Now that you turned the freezer off, maybe the metal is starting to conduct heat."
"I don't care if this thing is being heated by a small nuclear blast. The ice is melting and that's all I care about."
She poked her way through the old frost buildup and was finally able to touch the wall. If she only had something to pry the ice away from wall in order to break the water tension that was holding up the sheet of ice. Her hands were very cold and starting to hurt. Glancing down, she scanned the ground for any makeshift tool that she could find.
"Aha!" she yelled into Clark's ear after spying something on the ground behind him. "See if you can get that old shelving bracket. It looks like it's still a bit stuck beneath the ice on the floor."
Following the direction of Lois' pointing finger, Clark turned partially around, pried the bracket away from the ice and handed it up to her. She promptly wedged in between the ice and wall then began to apply leverage. A few seconds later, a large chunk of ice fell away from the wall, but the momentum caused her to slip off her perch on Clark's leg and fall into his waiting arms.
"We keep ending up this way," she retorted, after catching her breath. "I wonder if the gods are trying to tell us something."
<I sure hope so,> Clark thought. He was listening loud and clear to whoever was trying to give them a message, and just perhaps, Lois was thinking along the same lines. But he didn't have long to ponder on those thoughts because something caught his attention near his eye level.
With one hand that was not holding onto Lois, Clark explored the ice covering the handle and was surprised when it moved a bit. "Lois! I think we can get through to the door handle."
With the makeshift tool that Lois had been using, Clark stabbed at the ice hoping to crack it a bit so he could break it away. In a couple of minutes, the bare handle was freed and they now faced the moment they had been anticipating — a chance to escape.
The handle was a smaller version of the larger one on the main door. The door swung to the outside, away from them. Clark caught Lois' eyes briefly, pulled on the handle, and then pushed tentatively. He wasn't sure if the door was rigged to a security system and was relieved when he didn't hear any alarms go off. More than likely, the thugs didn't even know that the small loading door existed. It had been hidden pretty well behind the ice.
Clark pushed harder on the door, and it opened about two inches, meeting with more resistance.
Lois mumbled something unintelligible behind him, then pushed him out of the way.
"You're never going to be able to open that door with your sore ribs. Let me try," she ordered while shoving against the door with her shoulder. "There has to be something blocking it."
To her satisfaction, the door moved another couple of inches that enabled them to see light through the crack.
"Clark! I think they've stacked crates in front of the door. If we can push them far enough away, then we can climb out."
"Let's try pushing together," Clark suggested. He instinctively knew he shouldn't leave Lois out of the muscling job ahead of them. She seemed determined to be a part of the escape process.
"On three. One, two…" Lois anticipated that Clark would jump the gun in trying to be a hero again. In unison, their shoulders bumped against the door at the same time, causing it to move another few inches. Lois tried to stick her head through the opening. It almost fit, so she backed out and squared her shoulder for another shove.
A hand caught her arm.
"Easy there," Clark said softly. "I'd hate for you to hurt yourself. One of us being injured is enough. Besides, we don't want to knock anything down and alert the thugs."
Lois frowned. "So what should we do, city boy?" She turned around to face him and was confronted with an engaging smile *and* bare chest.
"For your information, I was raised in the country on a farm," Clark grinned. "One thing's for sure, I've never been accused of being a city slicker. Them there's fightin' words, miss."
"You mean you're a hick? A hayseed? A hack from Nowheresville?" Lois asked in disbelief. Clark was so self-assured; she never would have guessed that he had grown up anywhere else except Metropolis. Of course that could explain why he was such a boy scout and hero. Coming from the country had instilled in him some morals that were lacking in the majority of men she'd known.
"Hick, hayseed and hack. Yep, I guess I qualify for those. Maybe even someday I'll take you to the Smallville Corn Festival. You haven't danced until you've done the 'tush push' under a large tent on a late summer's night. Beats dodging Luthor at the White Orchid any day."
"Smallville? You've got to be kidding. On second thought, no one could make up a name like that." Lois inched a bit closer to him and began tracing lazy circles on his chest. "But doing the 'tush push' with you sounds… very tempting. Would you teach me?"
Clark covered the distracting hand on his chest and frowned slightly at finding it so cold.
"Your hands are freezing. We, um… should get out of here first, then talk about lessons later. But I'd love to teach you how to do the 'tush push', and maybe even another kind of dance you've never done before." He thought ahead to perhaps taking her dancing in the clouds once he told her he was Kal. "But," he protested, shrugging his head towards the door and looked half- apologetic for interrupting.
Her eyes strayed for an instant to their hands still resting against his chest, wondering what other sort of dance he was thinking about. No. He wouldn't be so bold as to suggest *that* kind of dancing to her, not this soon in knowing each other. Her cheeks burned slightly at the thought. But she *was* sort of touching him suggestively. He might be interpreting that as major flirting, but what red-blooded American woman could resist that chest, or any woman *anywhere* for that matter. Hmmm… It was so… cute, so very touchable, but Clark was right. They had to get out of here. "Okay, I'll give you that one, buckaroo." She curled her hand around his and gave it a little squeeze. "We have business to take care of."
Clark released her hand and pushed the door open a couple more inches, just wide enough for her to squeeze through. He stuck his head out the opening and looked around for a few seconds.
"There. I think you should be able to fit, although it's going to be tight squeeze. You go first and see if you can move some boxes out of the way. Unless you want me to try, but I don't think anyone is out there."
Lois looked at the tiny space that she had to fit through and then turned to Clark. "You'd never make it, not without squeezing your ribs. Besides, we don't know how much weight the boxes can hold. Besides, I am lighter than you. You farm-raised boys get awfully big."
"Make sure when you get up there, the boxes are sound enough to support you. I don't want you falling."
"Yeah, yeah, farm boy. That's just what I said. Now give my tush a push so I can get out of here. Don't be surprised if you're not the only one who's climbed up into their share of haylofts."
"Just be careful, Lois. If you end up getting hurt, I'd never forgive myself."
Lois stepped onto his bent leg to climb through the waist high door and with Clark's helping hand, managed to wiggle her way up through the hole, and land in between the space of a couple of boxes. It gave way slightly as her full weight settled on it. Clark *had been* right when he said to be careful up here.
She worked her way over to a sturdier-looking box and felt a little easier. This one wasn't quite as wobbly as the box she had first landed on. Now she had to relocate a couple of them to make way for Clark's much larger frame.
At first, she tried just shoving the boxes to the side a bit more, but it appeared that they had moved them as far as they could when they had opened the door. When she stood up, the lowest height was around waist high. The only way they were going to get down from their perch was to climb up and over, then find another way down.
But as it was set up now, there was no room for Clark unless she made space for him.
She broke her concentration from trying to hoist a smaller one up to the top of the heap and heard Clark's urgent calls.
After stepping over to the door again, Clark pressed a rope into her hands.
"Take this. We might need it later."
"I guess it wouldn't hurt to take it along. We're going to have to climb over all these boxes so we might need it to get down. Of course if we find a stray bad guy along the way, we'll have something to tie him up with. Hold on to it for a second. I almost have enough room for you.
Once the box in her arms was up and out of the way, the door was able to open a bit wider for Clark to fit through.
Soon he was seated next to her on top of the wooden box. What immediately caught his attention was not the fact that they had finally escaped — though that fact *was* pretty incredible — but that there was sunlight streaming in through the windows of the warehouse. The boxes had been shading the entrance to the freezer, and now that he was out in the open, he could feel the rays absorbing through his skin.
Had it really been almost twenty-four hours since he'd had any sunlight? The tanning bed had felt wonderful, but there was nothing like the genuine article. He sat there for a couple of moments with his eyes closed.
"Clark? Are you okay? Are your ribs hurting again?" She laid her hand on his cheek and looked expectantly at him.
A wistful smile touched his lips as he looked at her again and saw the genuine concern on her face. "I'm just happy to be out of there. We made it out of the freezer. Now we need to get out of this warehouse, but these rays feel great."
"It *is* nice to be in the warm sunshine." She rubbed her not-so- cold hands together and settled down next to Clark.
"I wonder if we should wait until it gets dark before we start sneaking around," Lois pondered. "This warehouse is huge, and I don't know how long it's going to take us to find a way to the outside. Plus, we might be able to find out what they're up to."
"They said they were coming for us after dark. I don't know if we should wait. Once they discover us missing from the freezer, they're going to look up here through the small door."
"So, do you think you have the dumb criminal mind analyzed?" she challenged with a half grin. "What if they take one look in the freezer and say, 'Hey! Those two must be long gone by now. Let's go look over here,' and we happen to be in one of the places where they look, then all this would be for nothing."
Clark lifted an amused eyebrow at her. "So what if they look in the freezer and say, 'Oh, they're not here. You go take a look out that little door, and I'll take a couple of men and look in the warehouse.' We would be discovered before the warehouse- searching thug would even be out of the freezer door. I think we have a better chance if we keep moving. I would dearly love to sunbathe here with you, more than you could know."
Lois asked, "Okay, 007, so what's the plan, or are we going to know it when we see it?"
"We'll probably know it when the opportunity hits. But for now, I'm going to crawl up across these boxes and see what's going on below. It's strange that we haven't heard anything from Luthor or his men at all. After you fell asleep, they milled around for a while outside the door, then they either left or took a nap. With all the noise we've been making, my bet is that they're not around anymore," Clark said in a whisper.
"Noise! You're the one making all the noise with your snide comments." She was silenced with a hand clapped over her mouth.
"I didn't mean you were making it deliberately," Clark mouthed to her. "I heard something. Shhh." After he was sure that she understood to be quiet, he released her mouth and whispered. "I'm going to check it out. Wait here."
He climbed up and over the crates and surveyed to find the cause of the noise. To his delight, his super hearing seemed to have kicked in very briefly. Just perhaps his powers were starting to return. But then to his dismay, Lois was right behind him, creeping on her stomach. Clark shook his head in defeat as she drew along side him. This was no time to argue.
As they peered out from their perch, the noise seemed to be coming from across the warehouse. Clark tried to zero in on the sounds with his super hearing, but it wasn't working anymore. Didn't hurt to try though. Snippets of conversation could also be heard, "Get this one… move faster… not much time… hey, that was my foot… get those two… rid of those nosy reporters…"
It appeared that not much time was left to act. Clark was getting impatient. Not being able to use his powers was getting harder now that he needed them back. He *had* to get Lois out of here. Especially now that he knew the thugs were about to return.
"Well, I don't hear anything. You're losing it, Kent. You're imagining things. Let's find a way down from here and see what going on in this place," Lois complained.
"It still doesn't hurt to be cautious. Come over here *quietly* and I'll see about getting us down."
They crawled over to the side of the roof. Clark took the rope from Lois, then wrapped the end once around area below his waist and sore ribs. "Hang on to the rope and get down carefully. Don't worry. I won't let the rope go. Then find something for me to climb down upon."
Lois looked at him apprehensively and replied, "I don't have to remind you that if you drop me…"
"No, Lois. I'd never drop you. Trust me," Clark said reassuringly.
"You're wrapped up like a filet mignon, yet you want me to trust you?" She tugged on the rope tied to his middle tentatively.
"Not a twinge," Clark declared proudly.
After Lois made her descent, the words 'trust me' rung loud in her head. Maybe she *was* starting to trust Clark, she pondered as she set about pushing a box against the wall for him to climb down.
After a couple minutes, Clark jumped softly down to the ground next to Lois and asked her, "How did you get this huge box over her? It looks way to heavy to move."
"I found it way over there. It's not exactly light. I could barely push it."
"I think we need to find out what's in these boxes. It might be our first clue as to what's going on around here."
"Already looked. It's paint cans."
"I had to make sure the box would hold your weight, so I opened it."
Clark pulled a can out of the box and placed it on the stack of boxes against the wall. Turning around away from Lois, he lowered his glasses to see if his super vision had returned. The wood faded for an instant, then reappeared. Not quite yet. He did see a flash of paint cans, but didn't see what was in them."
"We might want to take that to a lab later to have analyzed." Clark explained. He suspected strongly that the paint contained lead, but could not be sure if his vision was working properly yet.
"Good idea. I think we should look around some more. Let's go." She charged ahead, grabbing his hand, knocking him off guard as he trailed helplessly behind her.
They worked their way to the office area, checking inside a couple of rooms. Bed cots had been set up; trash cans had been filled with old leftover food. They found a small rest room, much to Lois' relief. As Lois was otherwise occupied, Clark glanced around the room for evidence and found nothing of importance except a large flannel shirt that he decided to put on. If they were caught again, he didn't want the thugs to see his vulnerable ribs. He sensed it was time to keep moving, from what he overheard while on the roof, they would be coming for them soon.
"Let's go, Lois. There's not much here," he said when she reappeared again. He tried steering her out of the door, but she balked.
"What about some sort of paper trail? We're here *now*. We might not get another chance to find anything," she insisted.
"Lois, there is nothing to find here, if we have time later, we'll do a more thorough search," he said quietly, but firmly. "After we get out and call the police." He looked outside the door to see if it was safe to leave the room and held the door open for Lois.
"What now, Sherlock?" she retorted.
"I think we should head toward the entrance, and work on getting out of here before we are caught again. I don't want to think about what those guys would do to you if that happened. They have already kidnapped, hit you and imprisoned us, *and* they plan on disposing of us in the bay later. We can still look for evidence, open up a few boxes along the way, but our priority should be to get out of here." He touched the bruise on her cheek for emphasis.
They walked out of the room into the safety of shadows along the dark corridor of stacked boxes and rounded the first turn into another section of the warehouse. Hearing noises ahead, Clark placed a hand on Lois' arm, holding her back. What lay before them was — nothing. What should have been more winding 'hallway' was gone; the piles and piles of boxes had disappeared. Clark estimated hundreds of boxes had been moved in a span of a few hours. Two large doors opened up on the floor ten feet away from where they were standing, and a half-a-dozen men were handing boxes to workers below. The light was adequate, giving the workers the necessary light to do their job, but low enough to allow the reporters to shrink back further into the shadows.
Lois immediately recognized Luthor's right-hand man Larry, who was supervising the massive move of the boxes. The workers were handling these boxes with an ease that suggested that they were lighter than the ones she and Clark had opened after climbing down from the roof of the finished rooms.
"Clark, we need to find out what's in those boxes. It can't be paint cans with the ease they are tossing them down that hole in the floor, " she stated in a whisper.
"Unless the cans are empty," Clark mused.
"Of course! That would make the boxes lighter, but why would they be so anxious to get rid of empty paint cans?"
"What if it's the paint they need to hide? There would still be remnants of paint left in the cans after it was used."
"A special paint? For what?"
"I don't know, but let's see if we can confirm that it *is* empty paint cans in the boxes first before we come to any conclusions.
"How? The boxes that are left are stacked too high to get one down without being noticed."
"Another thought is that maybe they're empty now and are being taken to have something put in them."
"A decoy perhaps?"
"Let's sit tight for a few minutes. Maybe we can find out some more information if we just wait here. They don't know we're watching so we're safe for the time being." Clark whispered as he sat down to wait. "Just a few minutes, then we *have* to get out of here." At least he could keep his eye on the criminals and Lois, but his reporter's curiosity was piqued to the highest level at the scene unfolding before him.
A few moments later as she was sitting cross-legged on the floor, Lois felt a strange sensation on one of her toes. Her wet socks had long been shed. They had been making her feet colder and more miserable. She wiggled her foot thinking it was a piece of trash or something and pushed it out of the way. A few seconds later, the feeling had returned, even more insistently. What a time for Clark to pick to play footsie, she thought disgustedly. She nudged the offender away again, thinking that maybe he would take a hint.
The workers continued with the removing of the boxes down through the hole in the floor. It had to be some sort of tunnel where they were taking them.
The unwanted presence was brushing against her feet again, and this time Lois shot a questioning glare at the man sitting next to her. To her surprise, one hand was in his lap and the other was supporting his weight behind him. It looked as though he was still favoring his ribs. So what was bothering her foot? She didn't have time to further ponder her mystery for the offender clamped down on her toe with sharp incisors, causing Lois to jump from the immediate pain.
A rat! She kicked her foot violently and tried to smother a scream in her throat at the disgust and presence of one thing she hated the most — rats!
Clark reacted to her sudden movement by grabbing and holding her still. "Quiet!" he whispered quickly as she kicked repeatedly with the foot that the rat had long since let go.
"Rats, Clark! There're rats in here!" Lois hissed back at him as she climbed in his lap. "I'm not sitting on that floor anymore. Don't they belong in a lab somewhere?"
Clark felt her shudder as he cautiously wrapped his arms around her waist. "It's okay. They won't bother you anymore," he chuckled softly in her ear.
"Did they hear us?" Lois asked.
"I don't think so. Let's keep still and stay quiet. Maybe the noise you made was covered by their sounds."
"I'm sorry. I can handle bugs, spiders and even snakes, though living in the city you never really come across snakes except in the zoo or on television. I suppose snakes don't bother you because you're one of those hayseeds from the country, and maybe even rats don't bother you, but they absolutely petrify me. You know I wouldn't risk our being found if I could help it and…"
Lois felt his arms tighten a bit as she heard him whisper in her ear, "Shhh…"
She closed her mouth and let herself relax against his warm body. That chest again! Even though it was covered up now, she had seen its perfection and it was not hard to let the image flash in her mind. What was really happening between them? She'd been attracted to men before; heck, she'd been blown over by Claude, regrettably, but what was happening between her and Clark was unlike any she'd ever felt before. Now his arms were around her and she could feel his chest lift slightly with each breath. For just a moment, she was transposed beyond their situation into a place where she felt secure and happy. His embrace always seemed to make her feel that way.
To their dismay, one of the men held up his hand and motioned for the others to be quiet. "Shut up! Did you guys hear something? When was the last time you idiots checked on our guests?"
"There ain't no way they're gonna get out. They're probably frozen stiff by now anyway," Joe Rockhead pronounced knowledgeably.
"You mean to tell me that you haven't looked in on them since this morning?"
"Uh, no. Didn't think we had to."
"Come on! You better hope they still in there."
Someone yelled from out of sight. "They're gone!! They escaped through the back door in the freezer!"
"Backdoor? There wasn't any back door," Joe clamored bewilderedly as he followed after the others who were rushing to see what the commotion was about.
Clark looked at Lois, then made a snap decision. Scooping her in his arms as he rose to his feet, set her feet on the ground and grabbed her hand in one fluid motion. They raced towards the doors on the floor and disappeared out of sight into the unknown of what waited below the floor.
The plates clinked together loudly as Rose Cooper loaded up another tray full of dirty dishes. She was exhausted but determined to stick things out until the end. She was so close to achieving what she'd set out to do, but there was still a bit of the puzzle missing and she was beating herself up trying to figure out what it was.
The tray of dishes was suddenly removed from her hands and she heard it being set down on a table nearby. Two hands were firmly placed on her shoulders, and she allowed herself to relax for just a moment. She closed her eyes wearily and leaned forward into the arms of her husband.
"I don't know how much more of this nutty schedule you can take. You're worn out, Rosie," Bobby protested softly.
"I don't have a choice, especially now that three people have turned up missing in the last twenty-four hours. If I had only come clean with Kent when he was looking for Lane last night, just maybe this whole mess would be over," she blurted without thinking.
She pulled herself upright and frowned. "Too much information. Sorry, I slipped."
Bobby sighed, then asked a bit impatiently, "Are you ready to fill me in on what's going on? I know we agreed to keep our respective careers out of our marriage, but I'd like to help. I got lots of contacts that might be useful to you. And pumpkin, that *is* how we met…"
"I know, Bobby."
"You don't agree with how I operate some of the time, but hell, Rose, don't you think that it might be beneficial for you to pick my brain a bit. I know places, people, things, thugs… Just let loose for once."
This was hard for Rose. The whole time they'd had been married, seven years, she had fought against turning to her husband for information. Not that it was illegal or anything, but it was just the principle of the matter, or some silly notion that she'd formed in her mind not to go to him for information. She just thought it was easier that way. What if a tip he gave her didn't pan out? They already had enough stuff to fight about. They actually enjoyed fighting. Arguing was a vital part of their marriage so it really wasn't a good excuse for not confiding in him. Deep down she knew that, but didn't want to be responsible if anything happened to him as a result of her asking him to snitch. They both worked in dangerous jobs, although hers was slightly more conventional — if you called being a government secret agent a normal job. But giving information for food — she could never guess where her rather thin husband put all that food anyway — was even more abnormal than what she did for a living.
Her assignments had made sticking to this self-imposed rule easy. She'd been in different cities and even other countries, so most of the time that issue was never a problem. But a few months back, she had been thrilled when she'd been assigned this case. Being in the same city as Bobby had been a wonderful treat. They had rarely shared any time together and now that this case was coming to a head, she hoped, she dreaded leaving Metropolis again.
What could she lose by picking his brain? Her job? Not likely, but she was growing weary of the rat race. Maybe it was time to break one of their rules, her rule, and share with him.
"As you know, I've been working another job in the daytime. I've gathered enough suspicions to put away a prominent businessman for a very long time, but I have nothing solid to back myself up. He leaves no paper trail, just a trail…" her voice drifted off thoughtfully.
"Rosie?" he ducked his head down to look into her eyes. "What trail?"
Rose blinked, then her expression grew serious. "Okay, Bobby! I'm gonna bite the bullet here and ask you something. What do you know about the tunnels that run under the city?"
He thought for a second and answered, "I have my suspicions that not all's peachy in the underworld and that someone is using them to export illegal drugs."
Her eyes widened and she gave him a tiny smile. "You're good, hot cakes. What else you know?"
His face broke out in a slight smirk. "That he's got his henchmen looking for a green rock. I don't know what this rock is for, but it's worth killing over." His smile disappeared, and he averted his gaze to stare at some imaginary spot on the table. "Kent's a good man. He and I go back a couple of years. Do you know I supplied him with the tip that won him his last Kerth award? He brought me food for a week. Good food too. Kent didn't skimp on the quality either."
He looked up at his wife and spoke with conviction. "There ain't nothin' goin' on between me and that Lane chic. I was just helping her out the other night."
"I know. But I didn't know if she…" she sighed. "I guess if we're going to be open with each other now, then I need to just say it. I caught her and Kent snooping around in this official's…"
Bobby interjected, "Luthor's."
She rolled her eyes, acknowledging him, "Okay, Luthor. They were in Luthor's office and I knew that Kent was a straight arrow. I had investigated him for Luthor, but couldn't figure out where this Lane woman was coming from. Didn't know if she was a plant by him to keep an eye on me or if she was just some broad with a penchant for trouble."
"She ain't no plant, just a wannabe reporter looking for a big story. I think she's gonna be good if she ain't dead."
"I wasn't sure what her part was in all this. You threw me for a loop! The morning *after* you brought her here, I caught her and Kent in Luthor's office laying lips on each other like there was no tomorrow."
"Just hope there is a tomorrow for the both of them. I should have driven that girl straight home after I pulled her from that creepy warehouse…"
"Warehouse?" Rose's eyes widened with excitement. "What warehouse?"
"Over on Wharf Street. Lois thought she was hot on the trail of some great story when I yanked her out of the way of some big garage doors falling on her. She's trouble looking for a place to happen."
"Let me ask you this, Bobby," she spoke intently, "Was there a big black limo in there? It could be Luthor's and I have not been able to find their main headquarters. This could be the missing piece that I need."
"I don't think there was a limo in there, but there coulda been. I wasn't exactly sightseeing, you know," he answered, trying to remember the details. "Wait a minute! I think Lois did say that she had jotted down the license plate number of the limo that I told her we've been seeing drive around, so it must have been there."
Rose's face split into a huge smile as she grabbed Bobby's face and kissed him hard on the lips. "If this is what I'm thinking, then Bobby, we've done it. I've been searching this section of the city for weeks trying to figure out where the headquarters were located. That place has to be locked up tighter than Fort Knox. Can you take me there?"
"You got it, pumpkin," he answered as he rose to his feet.
Rose disappeared around the bar and grabbed her jacket, checking her gun under her apron as she ran out after her husband.
Clark wished he had his powers as he tugged Lois behind him through the doors in the floor. He immediately stopped and ducked behind the long ramp that led down into the tunnel below. After pulling Lois to his side, he dropped his head down to hers for a few seconds as relief washed over him. His solace was short-lived when he heard Lois speak.
"Great, Clark," she whispered fiercely. "We just got out of a freezer, and now you're dragging me into another dead-end spot. Probably loaded with rats!"
"Just wait! This is just temporary. I'll go look up the ramp and see if any of the men are still there. They're looking for us now, so we might have to hide here for a while."
Clark took a breath, then looked at their surroundings. There were only a few overhead light bulbs shining in a thin line down to what appeared to be an underground tunnel. A few scattered boxes sat on the floor from where they apparently were dropped as the alarm had sounded when the men discovered their prisoners were missing. More than likely, the men would be returning soon to complete their tasks. He decided to take a look to see if there was anyone in sight. From what he could tell without his superhearing, no one was in the immediate area above.
"Wait here," he said to a still grumbling Lois. "I'll be right back."
He crept up the ramp quietly and stopped right before his head could be seen from anyone in the warehouse. There was still no telltale signs that someone was lying in wait for him. Clark gathered his strength, and then concentrated on activating his superhearing. It had to work, he willed with all his strength. All he needed were a few seconds to hear what was going on with the thugs.
He closed his eyes, and then it happened. He could hear the men scurrying around on the far side of the building where the freezer was locating. He heard a couple of shouts and curse words, then orders for the men to search the building. There wasn't much time before they would be back.
His hearing faded, then he started back down the ramp to retrieve Lois. He was surprised that she hadn't followed him — just maybe she was learning to trust his judgment more. Before he reached the end of the long ramp, he started whispering, "Lois, let's go! The coast is clear… Lois?"
Under the ramp where Lois should have been hiding was empty space. She was gone. There was only one place where she could have disappeared to: down the long tunnel.
Lois was not willing to stay in another spot for a moment longer. She was tired of being a passive victim and decided to see what she could do to get herself and Clark out of trouble. She was sure the big reporter would follow her down the tunnel when he realized she was missing. She hoped.
It wasn't long before it started growing darker. Where was Clark, and why wasn't he behind her yet? Unless Luthor's henchmen had captured him again, she thought, panicking. Turning around abruptly, she ran into a strong and now familiar chest.
"Lois! Come on, we need to hurry! The men will be returning soon. We need to get out of here."
"Just wait a minute, buster! You drag me down here without even consulting me, and then when I decide to do a bit of investigating *you* make the decision to go back up there where all the bad guys are? I don't think so!" She turned from him and continued walking down the tunnel.
"Lois, be reasonable! We don't know what's down here. There could be a whole army of men waiting for us around the next turn."
"There *is* a whole army of men up there looking for us." She pointed animatedly towards the entranceway to the tunnel. "And I'm tired of be reasonable, so humor me."
"I just think…"
She poked his chest with her index finger. "See! That's the problem. You're the one making the decisions without even bothering to see what I think of the situation. Scoop up the little woman and take her to a rat-filled hellhole. There's a plan!"
"I saw an opportunity and made a snap decision. But we can go back now." He grinned at her and motioned for her to start moving back towards the entrance.
"We need to see what all this is about, where they're taking these paint cans, and what they're doing with them. At least that's what I'm…"
Two warm lips pressing against hers interrupted her babbling. Her hands tensed up for a moment to push him away but as quick heat flared between them, her hands involuntarily crept up his chest in order to snake sensually around his neck.
She was partially mad at his ability to reduce her to mush, but thankful that he decided to kiss her. Her hands reached up to tangled in his hair, and she felt his arms tighten blissfully around her waist. What a way to be captured, she thought mindlessly. She opened her mouth willingly to his questing tongue, wanting more of whatever he had to offer, his kiss sending her stomach into a wild swirl.
What started out as a quick kiss to silence her babbling rant, soon escalated into time-stopping passion.
Clark felt all his willpower dissolve away the moment his lips touched hers. He didn't know what possessed him to kiss her. Maybe the flash of fire in her eyes or the pouting way her lips looked as she scolded him for… something he couldn't remember. Now she was plundering his mouth with an enthusiasm that left his heart pounding and his knees weak.
His mouth left hers to trail kisses along her neck, but suddenly he stopped and stilled his activities to listen. His lips rested on the incline of her shoulder, and he pushed aside the dizzying affects of her nearness to listen with his superhearing.
The voices were heading their way, and his superhearing faded a bit quicker this time. He must not have many energy reserves left. Clark sighed against her skin and lifted his head. Her questioning gaze turned his heart over and he immediately sought to reassure her. Dropping a soft kiss on her lips, he whispered, "Later… we have company coming."
He hugged her fiercely to himself for just a moment longer and felt her heart beat in time with his, their rhythm slowing together.
She released him first and looked towards the direction of where the men would be coming from. "So I take it you're coming with me?"
Clark chuckled and took her hand. "You first, or me first?"
Her grip tightened around his and she smiled. "Let's go together."
They were walking almost completely in darkness now. Clark held on to Lois' hand as he felt along the moist wall with his other one. He could feel the floor declining ever so slightly as they walked along. He was sure there was some kind of lighting system in place somewhere, there had to be. The workers couldn't do their job efficiently without any light.
It was sort of a mystery of why they hadn't run into a stray worker or two. There were an awful lot of boxes that had been removed and although they hadn't gone very far down the tunnel, it seemed as if the boxes had disappeared into thin air.
Clark's biggest concern was that the men would return quickly and turn on the lights, exposing him and Lois to them once more. It was a hard thought to swallow, being in their custody again. He was sure they wouldn't make it out alive if they were caught. He could feel his energy fading away quickly, not as severe as before when he had been wandering around the city streets, but enough to want to catch his breath and rest.
But the small warm hand in his was giving him a new strength. Together they were making their escape. The promise of the future never seemed brighter or more exciting.
They were moving as quietly and quickly as they could manage, communicating by touch as to not alert anyone to their whereabouts.
Clark suddenly bumped against a wall. It had angled abruptly in front of him. His hand wasn't far enough ahead of him to feel the sudden turn, and he stopped, followed by a tiny cry of protest as Lois ran into his upper arm.
"What's going on?"
"This wall is what's going on. We've either came to a sharp right, turn or…"
"We've come to a dead end!" Lois had released his hand and felt along the opposite side. The tunnel had come to a complete stop. "Clark, we're trapped!"
"Impossible! They could not have taken all those boxes and just made them disappear. There has to be some way out."
"I don't think we missed a branch off of this one. We're not that blind, even in this darkness."
Clark smiled at her sarcasm, and then added, "But we might have missed some type of door. We should start retracing our steps and check a bit more carefully."
"Let me look along that wall. You're the one with glasses. You might have missed something obvious."
They were a couple of minutes into retracing their steps, when the murmurings of a few voices could be heard in the distance. This time it was unmistakable. They were not alone in the tunnel.
Lois froze for a second, and then began frantically searching the wall in front of her. "Got to find *something*. Clark, they're coming!"
"Easy, let's not panic. Keep looking!" Clark encouraged as he searched for anything to help them get out of their predicament. The walls were damp and rough, and touching them sent dirt rolling down to the floor. This was obviously not a place where a door could be located. They should be looking for something smooth, something man-made…
"Lois! Feel around for a flat surface, a door!!" Before he could get the words out of his mouth, he heard a grunt and a latch unlocking. Lois had found the way out.
"Get over here and help me!"
He was at her side in an instant to assist her in opening a heavy steel door. They opened it partly, then stopped abruptly before going through. On the other side of the door was a narrow conveyor belt stretching across the darkness. It was hard to tell how far down it was to the bottom. The sconce lights illuminating the way down another tunnel to the right allowed them a bit more light in this section, but their eerie amber glow couldn't penetrate the massive darkness surrounding them.
Lois only hesitated an instant, then started crawling out on the conveyor belt. "Get out here, Clark, before those guys find us. We need to shut the door."
"I think they already heard us. They'll be here in a few seconds. Go on! I'll try to barricade the door."
Lois looked around for anything on the conveyor belt to assist Clark in blocking the door from the thugs getting in, but there was nothing around for her to use.
Clark was busily searching for some type of locking device on the door, something to bide them a bit more time when he saw two smaller hands probing the doorway alongside his.
"We don't have time, Lois. Looks like I'm going to have to hold the door shut. Get out of here while you can."
"Not on your life, buddy. I'm not leaving you here to those idiots again. We stand a better chance if we both try to block this door."
As if on cue, the door began rattling, and Clark felt it trying to slide open. Lois stood on her knees and leaned over him, trying to find something to help him either prop the door closed or some type of lock. Her hand slapped at the doorframe, and she felt something slide beneath her fingers. A folding latch!
"Hold it, Clark! Got to lock it!" The hasp folded over the U- shaped, and it was locked in place, but they needed something to jam in the hole to keep the hasp from slipping back over the ring. "Wait here for a second!"
Lois moved out on the belt and spied a long stick-like object protruding from the side of the metal frame. She tugged at it and to her dismay, the belt began a loud whining noise and starting moving.
"Lois?" He heard the noise and looked behind him to see Lois moving away from him as the conveyor belt began its slow trek into darkness ahead of them.
She tugged at the handle, trying to shut it off. Pulling straight back as the momentum carried her down the track, the metal bar flew out of the round insert and she landed on her bottom, nearly falling off into the darkness below.
Clark raced down the belt, arriving in an instant helping her back onto safety. Lois thrust the metal bar in his hand and pushed him away. "Go!! Stick this into the lock!" She pointed to the door rattling loudly.
The hasp was almost freed from the U-ring by the time Clark got there a couple of seconds later. He pushed the hasp against the door and stuffed the metal bar in the hole, effectively locking their former captors out. He slumped against door in relief for a nanosecond before joining Lois on the conveyor belt.
"Are you okay?" Clark asked when he finally reached her.
They were still moving slowly towards some unknown destination. Lois grabbed Clark's hand as shadows began to form in front of them. The shadows turned into shapes and soon became recognizable. They were looking into the large hold of a ship.
"Clark!" Lois whispered fiercely. "We're free!"
Their elation was short-lived as a shot rang out over their heads.
Clark immediately flung himself in front of Lois and covered her with his body. He wasn't sure if the sniper was trying to warn them or was a bad shot for the bullet hit above their heads and struck the dirt ceiling. The dirt rained down on them in a stinging shower.
Lois hissed fiercely, "What kind of idiot fires a gun in a tunnel? He's going to take down the whole thing!"
Another flurry of rocks followed her statement, preceding another couple shots, the last one coming a lot closer than the first two.
Clark was desperate. If they didn't take action, they were sure to be targeted by one of the next bullets. The dirt falling around them could be heard hitting the ground below them. He looked over the edge and saw the shadows of a rocky incline sloping down towards the tunnel to the right of them. The footing would be unsure, but the sniper wouldn't be able to see them once they had gotten off the conveyor belt.
"Lois, let's jump!"
She looked at him in surprise then glanced down into the darkness beneath them.
"They're going to shoot us if we don't get out of here."
As on cue, a bullet whizzed just above their heads and plowed into the soft rubber of the conveyor belt. They gathered their feet underneath themselves and jumped together as another round of bullets hit the place where they had been sitting.
Clark covered his injured side with his both his arms and twisted so that he would landed on the opposite side of his sore ribs. Even though he was taking precautions to not re-injure himself again, hitting the ground knocked the breath out of him. He rolled a bit down the incline, and the dirt was, thankfully, soft and giving. His ribs weren't as painful as they were a few hours ago. He imagined his body still had accelerated healing properties even though his powers were gone. As soon as he could breathe, he wasn't sure how long it actually took him as he looked around for Lois. She was sliding along the dirt and working her way over to him.
"Are you alright? Your side?" She wished she had time to take care of him but was busy glancing up to where the shots came from. They were hidden in the shadows of the metal structure above them. The sconce lights lit a eerie path down another tunnel, and Lois determined that if they kept hidden in the shadows along the wall, it was possible to leave without the snipers seeing them.
"Come on, Clark! Let's get out of here!" She grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, not letting him stand there and possibly become a target.
The pain ebbed quickly and Clark clasped Lois' hand as they sought the covering shadows. A couple of bullets were fired behind them, but guessing from where the bullets hit, the gunmen couldn't see them any longer.
Grateful that they'd escaped once again, they pressed onward through the canopy of darkness.
"Do you think we've shaken the thugs, or are they going to follow us?" Lois asked after a minute of walking in silence.
"We can't count on anything," Clark said glumly, noting that she was limping slightly from her jump without shoes. He was supposed to have rescued her by now. They weren't supposed to *still* be here running down endless tunnels and getting shot at. They'd escaped the last time intact; he just didn't know if he had the strength to keep going.
He wished he were back in the sunlight. The brief sunbathing he'd done on top of the freezer in the warehouse had helped a bit, but he was beginning to feel really tired again — bone weary and exhausted. Oh gosh! He was starting to wallow in his weariness. Wallowing. Superman wasn't supposed to feel sorry for himself; he was supposed to swoop in and save the day. He was never going to get his powers back if didn't find some sun soon. What good was he going to be to Lois if he collapsed? She wouldn't leave him to find her way out. Just like before when he told her to go, she would refuse to save herself. Then he'd be responsible for her being captured again.
Lois was beginning to worry about Clark. He wasn't walking as determinedly as he was earlier. She was tired also, but they'd been running on adrenaline for so long, it was only natural that they'd start feeling some sort of let-down, especially Clark after being injured before he'd found her.
"You can count on me," Lois said quietly and wrapped her arm around his waist. Yeah, after all they'd been through, one thing she'd learned was that they could count on each other. A surge of protectiveness filled her heart, and she rested her head against his upper arm. He'd been her strength when she needed it, and now it appeared that it was her turn to encourage him.
Clark immediately felt his spirits lift briefly as he snaked an arm around her shoulders, but her gesture still didn't erase his feeling that he had let her down. Voicing his concern, he said, "Lois, you're limping. I was counting on getting you out of here way before now. I should have done things differently, called the police or something. I…"
"Clark! It's not your fault that we're down here. It's those thugs. Luthor's fault! Don't blame yourself! I just bruised the ball of my foot landing on a rock back there. Think of the bright side. We're not freezing or being bit by rats. Still, I'm stuck with you alone in a dark tunnel. Now there's a creepy prospect!"
In the darkness, Clark smiled and planted a kiss on the top of her head. "Really spooky. I wonder if I'm better off facing that firing squad back there than taking my chances being alone with you," he joked.
"Yeah, we're in big trouble, but honestly, what else can happen? We're about due a break. I'm sure we're about to get out of here. I can feel it, but it seems like we've been in this tunnel for months.
"Or tunnels… look ahead."
About a hundred yards in front of them, the tunnel split into two, each branch eerily heading off into some unknown direction.
Lois sighed and turned to Clark. "Which one should we take? Should we split up?" At his worried expression, she replied immediately, "We'll go together, but how do we choose?"
"We know we're near the docks, so taking the tunnel on the right might be putting us farther away from the river."
"We might be able to find another secret loading dock if we go that way. Maybe this time without trigger-happy goons laying in wait to shoot anything that moves."
"That sounds like a plan," Clark agreed. Although he couldn't be sure, he thought he had seen a bit of daylight shining through a through a hole on the upper portion of the ship. Daylight meant sunshine, something that he could use desperately. The gunfire had been a bit distracting, but if there was one such dock, then there was a good chance that there was another.
In a few seconds, they approached the split in the tunnel. Lois peered curiously down the right one, wondering where it led before heading down the left. She turned away, but Clark continued to stare down the right tunnel.
"Clark? Are you coming?"
"There's something a few yards down there on the ground. I can't figure out what it is."
"Think it's important? Probably a rat, but maybe we should check it out."
As they grew nearer to the object, Lois let out a yell and ran towards it.
"My shoes! Clark, I was here. This was the way I was taken when those thugs kidnapped me. I was kicking them too hard and they took my shoes off. This must be the way to the Ace O' Clubs!"
"Ace O'Clubs?" It began to dawn on Clark that there was an eerie connection between the sleazy clubhouse and the activities of the criminals in the warehouse.
"Do you think there's a link between it and all of this?" he asked curiously, waving his hand around.
"There's got to be. I was at the Ace O'Clubs, got kidnapped and ended up at the warehouse. My shoes were found here. If it walks like a duck," she shrugged.
"Start quacking," Clark quipped, as he offered his arm to her. "Shall we my dear?"
She grabbed it willingly and commanded, "Lead on, farm boy. We've been down here way too long. People might be thinking we're never going to get out of here."
It was just around yet another turn that they found it. This time, the hidden door was easily found. It was the same design as the other one back in the first tunnel.
"Another door closer to getting out of here," Clark answered, trying to be hopeful.
Lois found the catch and slid the door open. She stepped inside, then stopped suddenly and leaned back against Clark's hard chest.
"A lab, Clark! We found their lab!"
A good-sized laboratory opened in front of them, very high-tech at their first impression. The equipment was state-of-the-art and spotless. Lois practically ran over to the counter and started opening up drawers and cabinets.
"Lois! Be careful! We don't know if there's someone coming."
Clark took her by the arm and tried to pull her away. "Come on, Lois! There's no time to look for evidence. They know we're still down here and are probably still looking for us. I'm surprised we haven't run into them again."
"But Clark, this is it!! This is what they've been trying to hide." She practically crawled into one of the cabinets.
"Look! I found some hidden files way back here." She scrambled to her feet and plopped the files on the counter.
Her eyes grew large as she thumbed through them quickly.
"Here's one that's labeled 'Element X'. Looks like they were planning on running some experiments by combining it with illegal drugs."
Clark stood next to her, picked up a file and joined in her snooping. "This is the same report that Samuel Platt had shown me the other day before he was killed. I'm really convinced that the green rock has something to do with all this. He knew what that rock could mean for the drug producing industry and was trying to keep it away from them. When Luthor started closing in, he hid it in his apartment."
"Why didn't he call the police on Luthor if he knew he was in danger?"
"My guess is that Platt didn't know who was after him and panicked. Maybe he thought he was doing the right thing by going to the press first." Clark glanced downward, wondering if he should tell Lois about the green rock in his apartment. Probably better to wait until he told her he was Kal because with his luck, she would want to see it as soon as they got of here. Then his thoughts sobered. "He did seem to have a lot of faith in me, and I let him down."
"It was not your responsibility to protect him, Clark. He was murdered by these scumbags who wouldn't hesitate to kill us."
"Yeah, I know, which means we'd better start looking for a way out." Clark looked up from the file he was still examining and found Lois rummaging some more in the cabinets.
"Hey! There're some paint cans under here. I think this is how they're smuggling it in or out of the country. I'd bet a whole month's supply of Double Fudge Crunch bars that they're hiding the drugs in the paint cans and are somehow able to pass inspection."
"Hence, the guys on the ship that used us for target practice. Let's get out of here once and for all and find the police."
Lois backed out from the underneath the cabinet and stood up. "I want to get out of here too, Clark, but these are coming with us."
She tucked the files under her arms and started looking around the room. "Do you think there's another way out, or do we have to go back out this door?"
Clark looked curiously at the door for a moment, then slid it closed. It seamlessly blended into the wall around it.
"Wow! You'd never know there was a door there." Lois stepped over to examine what used to be a doorway.
"They've done a flawless job in disguising the door, so if it's hidden from this side of the door then that might mean that there's another way to get in."
"Bingo!" Clark replied as he opened a door in the back of the lab. An old rickety staircase led upwards into the dark.
"Are you sure this isn't a trap?" Lois asked skeptically as she eyed the rundown stairs.
"Don't think so, but it is leading up," Clark noted as he peered into the darkness. "Beats heading further into this maze of tunnels."
"True, so let me go first. I don't weigh as much as all those cute muscles," Lois quipped, as she squeezed his upper arm. "And before you get all protective on me, just follow right behind. Then you can catch me if I should crash through all that rotten wood."
She started up without waiting for his answer. Clark shrugged his shoulders then followed her. Lois was going to do what Lois wanted to do, but at least she had granted him permission to help her out.
After what seemed like a couple of flights of steps, the stairs led onto a short platform then took a sharp right turn. Immediately, they could see light outlining a door at the top. It wasn't very bright, but unmistakable nonetheless.
"I think we just found our ticket out of here!" Lois whispered. The drone of many voices began to filter in their ears as they climbed closer to the opening. It wasn't a doorway at all, but a cellar door. There was a latch holding it closed, but after undoing it easily, Clark cautiously pushed the trapdoor up a couple of inches. A few soggy peanut shells fell on top of his head, falling silently to the bottom of the staircase.
"Ace O' Clubs, Lois! You were right!"
A door opened nearby, and Clark let the door lower back down on its own weight. If Lois could see his face, she would see that it was turning a bit red. It appeared that they had landed somewhere in the men's restroom. Clark could hear someone tending to his needs nearby.
After a few excruciating long minutes, the door slammed shut. Lois punched Clark in the arm and said, "That's for being a man. *That* was disgusting!"
Clark chose to ignore her slug and her insult aimed at all mankind. Instead he lifted the door cautiously once more and peeped out through the slit.
"All's clear, and we'd better move quickly."
Lois could hardly contain her disgust as moist peanut shells and used paper products fell on top of her as the door rose high enough to let them out. The cellar door closed, and Clark kicked some trash over it to keep people from noticing that it had been recently used. There was finality to the shutting of the door — a shiny new lock had been installed and had latched immediately. There was no sign of the key in the restroom. There wasn't any chance for them to hide in the stairwell now — no turning back.
Clark motioned for her to stay behind him as he opened the door to the restroom and peeked outside.
"It's clear, but we're going to have to hurry. I can't see who might be coming around the corner."
Lois stuffed the folders under her shirt and grabbed her middle, effectively hugging the evidence to her body. She felt the prickle of anticipation at finally being free to go to the police and get a shower to wash all the dirt and fear from the past twenty hours or so.
The exit door to the club was about ten feet away. All they had to do was compose themselves and walk out the door. A simple enough task, Lois thought.
She looped her arm around Clark's and pressed close to his body as he waited for the perfect timing to leave the men's restroom.
Clark determined that no one was heading their way, so he slipped out the door and tugged Lois after him. The entrance way was just beyond the edge of the bar. They would have to go past it on their way to the door.
Placing his hand on her shoulder, he moved up next to her and shielded her from anyone who might recognize her in the main room. If push came to shove, he could send Lois on her way out the door and deal with any problem that might arise.
A couple more steps and then they would be in full view. Lois froze all of a sudden as an arrogant laugh sounded from a few feet away. She pushed Clark quickly against the wall and stopped.
"Clark, it's Luthor's head goon. He's sitting right at the end of the bar," Lois whispered fiercely. "If he's here, then Tweedle Dee and Dum are sure to be here too."
"Do you think if you crawl to the door, you can make it?" Clark asked, giving her a one-armed hug as an unknown patron walked by.
"What about you?" Lois asked worriedly. "They can recognize you too."
Clark had opened his mouth to answer but was interrupted when the entrance door opened. None other than a very haggard Lex Luthor strode into the room. Lois gasped and buried her face into Clark's chest as he turned his body towards the wall.
Clark almost didn't recognize the mayor. His tie had long since disappeared, and his shirt was rumpled and halfway untucked from his pants. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Luthor glared at the men sitting on stools and could imagine the steely glare in his eyes.
His words were to the point as he addressed his head henchman. "I have two reporters running around in my tunnels, and *you* are sitting in a bar?"
McInnis gulped silently to himself. Luthor had *never* come into the Ace O'Clubs. That was one reason he'd chosen to wait here rather then play hide and seek with that bimbo and her lover — Luthor was the last person he expected in here.
"I got all the men searchin'. They ain't gonna get anywhere without us knowing about it." Larry replied nervously. "Was just waiting for them to show up 'you know where." He pointed in the general direction of the men's room, ironically, right at them.
"Have you sent men down through the lab to capture them from this direction? I wouldn't put it past them to have discovered that already."
"Didn't think that was necessary. We're sitting here watching for 'em. No way that they can get past us."
Clark was beginning to panic. The next logical step was for them to come this way and examine the men's room.
A tug on his pants leg startled him, and he looked down to see Bobby Bigmouth motioning to him to get down and follow him.
Clark pushed down on Lois' shoulders until she saw Bobby and crawled after him. After double-checking to see that Luthor and his men weren't looking in his direction, he got down on his knees and crawled after Lois and Bobby.
They never would have been able to have used this escape route if the enemies hadn't been occupied with arguing with each other. At least he hoped that they were safe at last.
Bobby led them into the kitchen, past the stove to the back of the room, then up some stairs. Lois opened her mouth to speak, but he motioned for them to be quiet and signaled for them to follow him.
They followed him into a storage room, probably an old bedroom that was used long ago by some former owners. It contained a few dusty boxes, a rickety bed and a beat-up lounge chair.
Lois couldn't contain herself any longer and blurted, "Bobby! I was never so happy to see you as I was downstairs. Are you sure you're not on their side? The way our luck's been going, it would be a miracle if you didn't pull out a gun or something."
Bobby turned to her and rolled his eyes. "That's exactly what I was thinking when I planned all this. Couldn't wait to get some of that Lane gratitude."
Clark glanced at Lois, a bit confused at their exchange, but then turned to Bobby. "Thanks Bobby! I owe you a month of pasta. But um, what's next?"
Lois interrupted Bobby as he started to speak. "You planned this?"
"Yeah, I was hoping you guys would show up sooner or later. Those guys out there got careless and started yapping at each other. I knew that you two had escaped and were being hunted."
"Did you call the police?"
"Um, I couldn't, but let's just say that somethin's in the works. And I've got a way outta here for ya."
He grinned at them proudly and led them to the small window. "There ya go! Your escape route."
Lois peered out the window and looked below. A large garbage container had been scooted up next to the wall, and the lid was opened. It was filled mostly with Styrofoam bowls and red splotches of… Lois looked a bit harder.
"I knew Rose's chili had a useful purpose," Bobby piped out behind her.
"Oh no, Bobby! I knew you were on their side! You don't expect us to jump into that, do you?"
"Hey! I provided ya with a nice soft landing. Won't hurt a bit."
"If you don't count getting acid burns from that slop."
"You got junky clothes on," Bobby retorted.
"Thank God for small favors."
Clark interrupted their rapid-fire retorts. "Do you two always argue like this?"
"Only when we get together," Lois answered. "Clark, I think we'd be better off facing Luthor." She grabbed his hand and started to tug him towards the door.
Clark planted his feet and stopped Lois' forward motion. "Lois! Bobby is just trying to help us. The dumpster isn't too far down to jump."
"Do you realize that's Rose's chili! It makes nuclear waste look like Double Fudge Crunch bars. I'm not jumping into that."
Clark shot her a sympathetic look and then turned to Bobby. "Thanks again. You put a lot on the line here. I'll talk to her."
Changing the subject quickly, Clark asked Bobby, "What do you think the chances are that they'll come up here and find us? Do you think we could wait it out up here?"
"Usually no one comes up here, but then again, I never expected Luthor to show his face around this joint."
"What do you know about all this, Bobby?" Lois chimed in. "And why are you working here?
Bobby shrugged his shoulders. "Just from what I told you before and what I've gathered working the last few hours. I'm taking my wife's place because she's, uh… been detained. And I just learned about that trap door in the men's john, otherwise I would have told you about it the other night, Clark."
"We're away from them now, thanks to you."
"Anyway, the afternoon crowd is about to leave and I need to start whipping up some fettuccini alfredo."
"For this place?" Lois asked incredulously. "I would think pig slop would be more appropriate. You could save a lot of time if you just serve those barbarians in troughs."
"Hey! I'm a chef! I take pride in what I cook no matter what establishment I serve in."
"Clark, you're a farm hack. Would troughs be a hassle to install?"
"Great idea, Lois! I'll be sure to save you the trough of honor next time you come and eat here. But then of course if you show up, the place'll clear before you even pull up a chair. "And where do you get off on calling my best food supplier a 'hack'? Don't hurt his feelin's. He might get stingy."
"After today, Bobby, you've got nothing to worry about."
"Best? Seems like you're your own best food supplier — no one could keep up with you."
Bobby winked slyly at Clark and then turned to go. "Good luck to the both of ya; especially you, Clark. I wouldn't wait too long if I was you. But I've got to get downstairs before they miss me."
"See ya, Bobby."
"Before your food misses you," Lois growled under her breath.
The door shut softly. Lois huffed to herself for a few seconds, then started pacing.
"Lois, sit down, please. They might hear you stomping downstairs."
"I'm not stomping."
She walked over to the window and began to examine the exterior of the building, but had to duck down as a door opened below them. A coarse-looking character walked down the alleyway, his footsteps crushing on the gravel barely rising above the noise rumbling below them.
"This is hopeless, Clark! We're so close to getting out of here, and now we're trapped up here in a stinky bar. There's not even a decent drainage pipe to climb down on. Let's go! Let's just get it over with so we can go home."
She climbed on the window ledge and readied herself to jump. A warm hand on her leg stilled her actions and his soft voice penetrated through her growing anxiety.
"Come here." He held his arms out to her, and she slipped down into them, sighing as his comfort wrapped around her.
"Let's sit here for a while," Clark noted the sun was beginning to shine in the afternoon window. "and wait. I think we're safe for a little longer."
He cleared a few dusty books off a chair, sat down and pulled Lois into his lap. "A little rest will do us good." After Lois settled her head against his shoulder, he closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sun. The light covered his face, but they were far enough inside the room where they couldn't be seen from any one down below. Perfect respite — even if it were only for a few minutes.
"We need to think of where we're going to go after we get out. Neither one of us has any money and this is a bad neighborhood…"
"But they have a restaurant that serves fettuccini alfredo. Can't be all that bad."
He chuckled quietly and continued, "Probably should find a telephone and call the police. We have the files…"
"And a big fat article to write. We are going to write it together, aren't we?"
"You bet! As soon as the police give us the okay."
"Police, schmolice…" she grumbled. "They aren't going to spoil our fun, will they?"
"We'll see, but I'm sure Henderson will give us first dibs on the info."
"That's big of him, especially after all we've been through. Better not hand it over to another paper," she muttered as her eyes sleepily shut. "Sure is wonderful to sit on something that isn't wet or hard or rat-lined or cold. You get the drift."
"Sure do," he replied lazily. They fell silent for a few minutes as Clark enjoyed feeling the sun on his face. The noise from downstairs was a dull reminder that they weren't out of the woods yet.
A loud noise startled them out of their rest, and Lois shared a look of concern with Clark.
"What was that? Sounded like a gun firing."
More commotion followed the gunshot, shouts of fear and confusion filtered through the thin flooring. Then the beat of footsteps pounding up the stairs.
"Lois, someone's coming! We better get out of here!" Clark jumped out the chair and nudged Lois towards the window. "You go first, then get out of the way so I can jump."
She glanced back at him nervously, then a determined look came over her face. Clutching the files tightly to herself under her shirt, she sat on the windowsill and swung her legs outside. She dove forward and gave her body a twist so she could land on her bottom.
Lois hit the garbage with a squishy plop as Styrofoam plates and chili gave way underneath her. A large glob of food splattered on her forehead as she grimaced in disgust, but remembered to scoot out the way for Clark.
He landed in a messier manner than Lois, holding onto his ribs while dropping on his other side. Chili and cheese coated the right side of his body, but the impact barely hurt his ribs at all. He didn't have time to think about them as he reached up and pulled the lid down on the dumpster.
The smell of rotting food and rancid chili was almost beyond belief as they waited in silence. Clark found Lois' hand and gave it a squeeze. She didn't respond right away, but after he repeated his actions, she returned it with a long hard grip.
Clark guessed she was still angry with Bobby for providing this as their escape route. He wondered if it was safe to try to get out. If they tried too soon, all of this would be in vain if they got captured again. Wait too long and one of them might become sick from the odor and/or rotting food.
The lid began to lift, and Clark heard Lois catch her breath while hanging on to his hand in a death grip.
It wasn't a bad guy or some evildoer that raised the cover, but the face of Bobby popped into view.
"Whatcha doing in there? You guys didn't need to do that!" he teased. "You missed all the action! It was great fun."
Lois rose out of sitting position and scrambled to climb out of the bin. "Fun? What do you mean fun?"
"We thought someone was coming after us, so we jumped," Clark said bewilderedly. "What are you talking about, and where's Luthor? We heard a gunshot."
"Somebody named Joe was shot in the a… an inconvenient location. The paramedics are on their way." Bobby replied nonchalantly.
"So what happened to Luthor?" Lois asked worriedly as a car pulled up in the driveway.
A door opened behind them and Bobby glanced behind him. "Oh, he's coming right now."
Lois watched wide-eyed as Lex Luthor was marched, handcuffed and closemouthed, out the backdoor and into the waiting squad car by none other than Rose Cooper, Bobby's wife!
"I've been after this one for quite a while," Rose answered, giving Luthor a disgusted look as she shut the door.
"But you're his secretary!" Clark chimed in. "And you work here?"
"And Bobby's wife?" Lois blurted in surprise.
"All undercover work, but unfortunately, I'm still stuck with Bobby." She smiled at her husband briefly. "Rose Cooper, DEA agent for the government. Thanks to you two, I was able to find the warehouse where they operated."
"Been searching for it for weeks, but always hit a dead end. Bobby took me to the place where you saw the limo the other night."
"Do you know about the lab?" Clark asked.
"Yep. Found that weeks ago, but didn't have the missing pieces. Coming at it from the warehouse, I was able to find the secret door that led to the tunnels."
Clark nudged Lois and pointed to the lump under her shirt. She frowned at him then reluctantly pulled out the files. Clark took them from her and handed them to Rose.
"We dug these up in the lab below. I have files from Dr. Platt that correspond with these."
Rose's eyes gleamed victoriously for a second, then she said to Clark, "I'm sorry I gave you a hard time in Luthor's office the other day. I had to know if I could trust you. If all this hadn't have come down, then I probably would have approached you to see what you knew."
Clark nodded his acknowledgement.
While Rose and Clark were talking, Bobby smiled at Lois mischievously, then decided to bruise her pride a bit. "Looks like you didn't need my little escape route after all. Glad to know it worked anyways." He sniffed at a large red stain on her shoulder and screwed up his nose.
Lois glowered at Bobby for a moment before changing her expression to smug one. She wiped her chili-covered hand first on his apron, then on his shirt, grinning triumphantly.
"Gratitude," Bobby said with a scowl.
"You owe me for making me jump in that slop!" She pointed Rose who was busily talking to Clark. "Distract your wife for a minute."
"I owe you? Who's the one who just saved your scrawny butt?"
"Oh, please, Bobby!! Just do it and we'll call it even."
"My! My! I get a 'please' out of Miss Appreciation. Must be important."
"Stop enjoying my… dishevelment and do something useful."
"Okay, sweetcakes, or should I say 'chili'cakes? Since I'm the one who hasn't been marinating in garbage, I'll humor you." He winked at her and turned to Rose and Clark. "Hey there, gorgeous! Ya did good, didn't she, Clark?"
Lois made sure that Rose was distracted before opening up the car door where Luthor was waiting. His expression didn't change; he was just staring straight ahead.
"Looks like you're going to see first hand why Metropolis' jails need renovating, won't you, Mayor? For your sake, I hope they're a bit more comfortable than the hellhole you put Clark and I in. And a bit warmer too."
She knelt down slightly and put one foot slightly in front of the other, noting the ugly bruise on his forehead. It must have happened at the ball from getting clubbed by his own henchman. "I have a going away present for you. Matches something you're wearing now," she said glibly.
Luthor turned his head at her last words and was greeted with the full fury of her fist in his eye. "*That* was for reminding me of Claude."
Luthor clutched his eye with his cuffed hands, then spat out at her, "I'll get my lawyer to throw you in jail for that."
"Don't think so. No witnesses and who's to say your new cellmate wasn't trying to get a little friendly. See you in the papers, Mayor."
She turned on her heel, walked victoriously back to Clark's side, and slipped her arm into his.
"What do you say we finish up with the police and get your ribs checked out at the emergency room?"
"Lois, if we go to the hospital, we'll never write the story in time. Can't have the Star scooping us now, could we?"
"You were in so much pain earlier…"
"I'm fine. Nothing that a little rest and some takeout wouldn't cure. If they still hurt in the morning, I'll go. I just want to get home."
"Me too. Clark, I'm so glad you found me. Thanks."
He covered her chili-glazed hand with his and answered, "Wouldn't have missed it for the world."
Lois was leaning against his upper arm as Clark fished for his keys in his pocket. Then remembering that he hadn't been thinking straight when he left the night before to even remember to lock up, he tried the knob and the door opened.
He flashed a quick grin at her and shrugged. "I left in a hurry. Had to find you."
With both of her hands, she hugged his arm and leaned against him in acknowledgment. After drawing her in for a brief hug with his other arm, he let go and ushered her inside.
He quickly glanced around the apartment to make sure nothing was out of place. His suit had been safely tucked away before he'd been exposed to the second green rock, and the secret closet door had been closed securely. The only thing that was out of place was the upside-down garbage can over the lead pipe containing the green rock. It was in his bedroom next to his desk, and he needed to think of a way to disguise it quickly, just in case she got curious and uncovered it again. At least keep it hidden until after he told Lois he was Kal, then she could help him get rid of the thing.
Lois stood in the doorway for a moment, a bit hesitant to just wander inside being that since it was her first time in his apartment. All the awkwardness of a new relationship washed over her as she stood there, seeing his living space for the first time.
Clark turned around and smiled understandingly at her, then touched her elbow and led her down to his homey-looking couch.
"Please, make yourself comfortable. I'll find something warm and clean for you to wear." He disappeared around the corner, anxious to make Lois feel at home in his apartment.
Clark appeared from his bedroom doorway with some older looking clothes in his hands. He had managed to cover the overturned garbage can with a decorative woven cloth from Borneo and had found a small potted plant to sit on top of it. Now the disguised lead pipe looked like a plant stand.
"Here. I think these will do for you. They're a bit small for me; they're favorites left over from my college days. I couldn't bear to part with them just yet."
"You're just a sentimental old softie, aren't you?" she retorted, taking the clothes from him.
"Yeah, I guess. When I find something I like, I hang on to it as long as possible." He met her eyes and the double meaning behind his words penetrated another deep, secret layer inside her. Strange warmth ran through her body, and her knees suddenly grew a bit shaky. Clark broke the eye contact first and directed her to a small hallway located in the far corner of the bedroom.
"You probably want to change in the bathroom, " he said awkwardly. "and if you need to take a shower, please feel free to do so. I think we could both use one."
"Um, yeah… a shower would be nice," she answered, noting his awkwardness.
"You should be able to find everything you need in there. Towels are under the sink, and soap and shampoo are in the shower already." A quick smile, red blush, and then he left her.
A sudden realization dawned on her that, unfortunately, her undergarments were in no condition to put back on. She spied a basket of folded laundry by Clark's dresser. Maybe there would be something she could borrow. After all, once you'd seen a guy's bare chest, and have lived through a life and death crisis with him, nothing was sacred. Black silk boxers lay folded neatly on top, causing Lois to raise her eyebrows in surprise. Heat rose in her cheeks in embarrassment as she suddenly wished that he were modeling them for her.
Yes, these would do perfectly, she decided as she snatched them up quickly and headed in the direction of Clark's bathroom. Once under the soothing shower, she let her thoughts go blank as the warm water washed over her, rinsing away the dirt, fear and uncertainty of the night before.
She'd slipped on the boxers after toweling off, then decided to put her bra back on. She'd changed into the undergarment right before she'd left to go to the warehouse. The one she'd had on at the ball had been strapless and uncomfortable. Their relationship hadn't progressed to the point where she felt comfortable enough to go without one around Clark. It wasn't that dirty. The sweatshirt she'd been wearing was thick enough that none of the garbage had seeped all the way through and she'd been careful to protect the files she was carrying under her shirt.
The sound of cups clinking in the kitchen suddenly made her aware of him again as she finished getting dressed. Here she was in *his* apartment, his bathroom, her hero's home, wearing his silk boxer shorts. He had risked his life to come rescue her, had gotten injured in the process and had worked with her to get the story of a lifetime.
She rubbed the arms of the worn flannel shirt that Clark had given her to wear. This was a good thing, being here like this with him. He was as soft and gentle as the garment she was wearing, yet he had been willing to protect her at all costs. Most of all, her heart had opened up again. He had managed to break down the stronghold that had built up on the inside of her. All this from a man who could set her blood pounding with just a smile and a touch.
Speaking of her heart pounding, it was now beating a rhythm of anticipation, of wonderment at what this new start in life would be tossing her way. The chance to start anew, now with her new job, and hopefully, she mentally crossed her fingers, new boyfriend.
Finger-combing her wet hair at first, she decided that he wouldn't mind if she used his brush, just this once. Funny, he was as neat as a pin. She couldn't find any loose hair on his brush. It was probably just another sign of his near perfection.
She knew that Clark wasn't perfect — he was a man, wasn't he? — but he was the closest she'd ever encountered. Something had changed inside her since meeting him, something that was trying to break through, but could she admit it?
Nibbling on her lower lip, she realized she didn't have to acknowledge it to him yet, but needed to bite the bullet and confess it to herself.
She had fallen in love, *was* in love with Clark — hook, line and six-pack!!
His physical appearance certainly added to the package of who he was, but it was who he was inside that she had truly fallen in love with. It was not merely an infatuation or a crush any longer, but love: a love born out of the events of the last couple of days, resulting in a newfound respect and admiration for a man she'd never dreamed existed.
Could she really love again? It had been all fun and games at the ball compared to the many feelings she was letting come to the surface now. Fear, excitement, hope, uncertainty and need invaded her senses as she leaned against the wall for support, shocked at the depth of her emotions. She bit her lip and sucked in her breath as her admission of love was dredged from a place far beyond logic and reason.
She'd been giving in and pulling away from him the whole time she'd known him, a roller-coaster battle of wills between her head and heart. Now, in the quiet stillness of his bathroom, she couldn't deny it any longer.
She was in love with Clark — truly in love.
After opening the door, she wandered almost drunkenly through the short hallway, through his bedroom, and leaned on the doorframe to dazedly watch him working in the kitchen. He'd changed out of his dirty clothes and now donned a loose-fitting cotton shirt with only a couple of buttons holding it together. Clark glanced up at her after pouring a couple of cups of coffee and let the pot drift slowly downwards to the counter again.
Lois looked into his eyes and felt something she hadn't thought she would feel so soon: complete trust. It was more than just a tiny minuscule part of her that did. Though she still had many reservations about herself, there was one thing she hadn't had before until she met Clark — hope. Hope, that she would get through this valley of disillusionment, that she would be able to hold back the fears one day and learn to love in the fullest sense.
How much more was there to find out about a man who was beginning to knock down her walls within less than forty-eight hours of meeting him? The principle of "what you see, is what you get" had never seemed to apply to a more worthy person than Clark.
"I've never met anyone who could turn my life upside down like you," she said quietly, mesmerized by his face.
He released the coffee pot and chuckled. "Shouldn't I be the one to say that to you?"
"But I said it first." She rounded the corner of the kitchen and leaned against the wall.
Clark's breath caught in his throat as the complete picture in front of him registered in his mind. Tousled Lois, in rather large clothes, complete with flushed cheeks and freshly scrubbed face, was staring at him as though she were trying to draw him into her soul.
In a couple of slow, deliberate strides, he was in front of her. Placing one hand against the wall above her head, Clark looked down into her eyes, then raked a lazy gaze down the length of her body — dressed in *his* clothes. There was something amazingly intimate about her wearing his clothes.
Warm heat spread through his cheeks as he dragged his eyes back to hers. His free hand reached up to tuck a damp stray strand of hair behind her ear.
Lois's heartbeat skyrocketed from his nearness and the brush of his hand on her face, but her eyes didn't miss his slow smile of approval.
"So exactly how," he spoke breathlessly, "have I turned your life upside down? Care to share?"
"A woman's gotta have a few secrets. Besides, you're going to have to figure out a way to weasel it out of me. It's more fun that way," she said coyly, bringing her hand up to touch the loose hanging shirt inches away. She toyed with the material, and then touched his ribs lightly. "Do they still hurt? Your ribs?"
"I hardly know that they're there," he murmured, sucking his breath in as a response to her touch. "I'm thinking about… other things."
She ran her hand lightly across his rib cage, fingered a button on his shirt, then asked, "Am I going to have to work that out of you, those other things, or is that a secret?"
"Um… no, but I'll let you wonder while I take my turn in the shower. I think I still smell like garbage," Clark said, sighing as he played with the ends of her hair. A second later, he pushed away from the wall, and Lois, before things between them could heat up any more. It was time to tell her that he was Kal in spite of all the reservations he was harboring inside. Once the truth was out, then they could take things one step at a time.
"I just poured some coffee. Help yourself and I'll be out in a few minutes." He cupped her cheek, flashed her an easy smile, then pointed to the counter where the cups were sitting.
Lois watched his retreating figure as he padded across his bedroom, and to her delight, he stripped off his shirt in the process. She watched in silent awe while he retrieved some clean clothes from his dresser, and then disappeared around the same corner where she had been a few moments earlier.
Wow! Why did she just feel like she'd been thoroughly kissed when all they had done was talk and barely touch each other? Her whole range of senses seemed to have been amplified by the not-so- simple revelation that she had fallen in love with him.
His touch had been honest, yet had created a deep craving within her, a hunger that yearned to be pampered and sated; a burning desire had been born. Where there once was simple longing to be with him, there now was a building fire threatening to rage out of control.
It was all so exciting, yet terrifying, but this was a path she could no longer make a hasty retreat from even if she wanted to. Out of control was something that Lois Lane didn't do, yet even his look had set her nerves on edge and her heart dancing with anticipation.
Smoothing her hand along the counter, she took a hot cup of coffee and leisurely wandered over to the sofa. She drank in even the smallest detail of his apartment, trying to absorb everything about the man she now freely admitted to herself she loved.
Lois sat down, and after a second of not knowing what to do, she grabbed a soft pillow next to her and began plumping it thoughtfully. Drawing her legs up close to her body, she leaned her head against the cushions, cradling her cup with both hands. Twenty-four hours ago, she had been trying to find out the truth about that dratted rock, and now she was hopelessly, head-over- heels in love.
She turned her head slightly and kissed the soft material of his welcoming, comfortable couch. Who knew what later might bring. Clark had mentioned something about 'later' in the tunnel. Her eyes drifted shut and she allowed waves of drowsiness wash over her. Just a few minutes. A tiny little catnap and she would be just fine.
Lois woke with a start, feeling the cup moving in her hands, then opened her eyes to see Clark gently trying to rescue her coffee before she spilled it on herself.
"Hey sleepyhead! Do you want to sleep in my bedroom? Um, err… I can stay out here." At her blank expression, he continued, "Or I can take you home?"
The thought of having to leave Clark snapped Lois out of her hazy stupor, allowing her to think rationally again. "Don't we have a story to type up, buster? We can't sleep yet."
She appraised his attire: comfortable sweat pants, tucked in white t-shirt with a flannel shirt over the top. Delicious. Clark was delicious. He was so close to her, she could smell the clean scent of his soap and feel the radiant, moist heat from his still damp skin.
Her own heat began to rise within her, but was suddenly very self-conscious about being in his presence. It was almost embarrassing to be near him. She hoped that all of her thoughts weren't written on her face. She wasn't quite ready for him to know how she felt. She still had to put things in their proper boxes, but with Clark standing in front of her looking so gorgeous, she might let something slip through the cracks and that just wouldn't do — not yet. She wasn't sure she should say the scary words so soon, or say them first.
Working seemed to be the neutral ground that they could share. She took another close look at his tousled hair and deep brown eyes, then mentally shoved romantic notions aside.
Patting the seat about two feet to the left of herself, she adopted a business-like expression and ordered, "Let's get to work, partner."
In gentlemanly fashion, he sat down a respectable distance from her. From the way her heart was pounding, he didn't need his super vision now to see her chest beating rapidly, causing her shirt to flutter slightly. She was apparently on edge.
Coincidently, his heart was beating in the same manner, part nervousness and mostly anticipation. He gratefully took the chance to gather his nerve and seated himself where she indicated. Maybe a bit of work first would help lead him into telling her he was Kal.
Sighing almost inaudibly, he scooted just a tad closer to her to reach his laptop on the coffee table. Popping it open, he booted it up and leaned forward to start typing.
"See that stack of papers over there?" He pointed to a couple of folders out of his reach. "Grab those and let's start piecing this thing together."
A couple of hours later, Clark was typing up the last of the article. Papers were scattered around a large empty pizza box and chocolate bar wrappers. Lois chewed on the end of a pencil as she peered over his shoulder, being quick to correct any point on which she disagreed with him.
They worked surprisingly well with each other, or it shouldn't be so surprising, Lois thought, considering how they'd gotten along since they had met. Just another facet of their budding relationship coming together.
She loved working with him as they pieced bits of information into place, everything clicking into the proper order. Clark had several pages of notes on Luthor, observations he had made over the past couple of years that had roused his suspicion that they now had evidence to support. A call to Inspector Henderson had confirmed that the security guard at City Hall had a videotape of Luthor talking to Tony Baines in jail, and the guard's hidden microphone had picked up very indisputable evidence from Luthor's henchmen that he had been the one to order her death. That alone would be enough to send him to jail for a very long time. But it was his involvement as the mastermind behind the illegal drug smuggling and sabotage of the space program that should send him there for the rest of his life.
It had been so satisfying to rid the world of political scum, and she had been very pleased to have identified Joe Rockhead and his cronies as the ones who had kidnapped her.
She allowed her mind to relax again and stared at the man sitting besides her. His jaw was set firmly, and his lips were pressed tightly together as he pounded out the last of the article. He was in his element, and she could clearly see why he was at the top of his field. The electricity between them had dissipated for the most part since they had started working. That was just as well, for the article they had produced was top-notch and should be a wonderful start to her career at the Daily Planet.
Staring at the broad shoulder only inches away from her face, she felt a tiny flutter of anticipation returning. Now that they were almost through with their article, where would they go from here? Would Clark simply offer to take her home, leaving her with a 'see ya at the office tomorrow'? Their work was practically finished, and there was no reason at all why she should stay very much longer, was there?
He had turned to business rather quickly — just when she finally realized she loved him. She gulped. Yes, it was scary knowing that she loved another man again. There were so many opportunities to get hurt now that she had put her heart on the line. She wanted so badly to lean her head against his shoulder and feel his body heat against her cheek, but did she dare? How did she know that what happened between them in the past couple of days wasn't all just a bit of temporary magic and passion caught in the heat of survival?
<You *could* bring it up with him. Before you get in so deep that you're kicking yourself in the butt because you didn't listen to me.>
But that would mean that he would know that she thinking about 'other things' first. The man was obviously concentrating on working, and what would he think if he knew that she didn't have her mind on their article?
Not that she hadn't put in her fair share of the workload, she reminded herself. Her brain was practically fried from putting all the pieces together. There had been so much evidence, and recounting their adventure in the warehouse for a side article had put her through the experience all over again.
And she was getting tired. Bone-weary tired. Her eyes rolled back into her head as she jerked herself awake.
That just wouldn't do. Not until it was determined where she and Clark were headed tonight. Another cup of coffee seemed like a good idea. It would give her something to do instead of wanting to run her hands all over Clark's back and would serve the purpose of keeping her awake just a bit longer.
She ambled to the kitchen and poured herself the last of the coffee, making sure that she added extra sugar, just in case she needed the energy. <Wishful thinking, Lane. Do you really want to go that route with Clark so soon?>
Forcing herself not to answer that pesky voice in her head, she turned to head back into the living room. She caught Clark looking down quickly. Had he been staring at her? A slight heat spread through her body at the thought of Clark watching her, especially since she'd been thinking wanton thoughts about him at the same time.
Suddenly feeling self-conscious, she placed every step carefully as she padded back to the sofa. Clark looked up at her as she approached and greeted her with a heart-stopping smile.
"Finished," he pronounced, grinning, as he leaned back against the cushions and glanced up at her. "All I need to do is send it to Perry."
<The smile that could make the world stop turning>, she thought as her careful steps faltered. That smile and its magic were putting her heart under its spell all over again.
Lois rounded the coffee table and was preparing to sit down when her foot caught on a large dictionary lying on the floor. She tumbled forward, twisting to avoid landing on the computer, effectively spilling her cup's contents down her sweat pants.
She let out a yell and sat down hard on Clark's lap. He took one look at the large steaming stain on her pants and pushed her backwards, grabbing the waistband on the sweats and pulling them off. He was immediately searching for burn marks on her legs.
"Are you okay?" He probed her legs cautiously, dabbing them with the dry end of her sweats as he sought out the red marks caused by the hot coffee.
"I think so," she said, trying to prop herself up on her elbows to examine the burned area. It stung severely; even Clark's gentle touch caused her to wince a bit.
"Do you want me to get some ice?" Clark asked worriedly.
She shook her head. "Going away. I'll be okay."
Lying back against the fluffy pillow on the end of the sofa, she soon grew aware that the pain from the hot coffee was being replaced by more pleasant sensations. *Much* more pleasant sensations.
Clark's fingers were gently caressing the area around the burn, not touching the red area but the healthy skin of her upper thigh. Just below the hem of… his boxer shorts.
Busted! But he hadn't seemed to notice them yet. He was looking so concerned and worried, he didn't realize that he had deftly divested her of her pants, and she was half laying in his lap with just her, um… *his* underwear on.
His next actions caused her to suck in her breath sharply and collapse against the cushions; he blew gently on her reddened skin, giving her goose bumps, and much more pleasant sensations in the process.
Clark's only thought was to remove the offending clothes from Lois before she was burned too badly. Although hot coffee wouldn't cause blisters, at least he didn't think so, there was no sense in taking a chance. Lois's yelp of pain had been enough to set him in motion.
Through his cloud of concern that Lois was being hurt, no matter what the source, he failed to notice immediately what his actions had produced. He blew lightly at the burn, hoping that just of bit of his super breath was available to cool the angry skin, but what happened, jarred him out of his protectiveness and straight into heart-stopping perception of his consequences. A barely audible moan reached his ears, stilling him into another level of awareness of his partner.
Long,*incredibly* sexy legs were lying across his lap, and he was involuntarily stroking baby soft skin around the slightly reddened area on her upper thigh. His eyes traveled upwards, lingering on each feminine curve, to the hem of her black silky boxers.
Boxers? It almost startled him out of his mood, supposing that it was just another fashion trend for women, but there was something a bit familiar about those shorts. How could she have gotten hold of *his* shorts? Not that it mattered. They looked incredibly sexy on her. Suddenly realizing that he was staring at an area where he shouldn't have been, he forced his gaze to look upwards.
His old flannel shirt was split open partly at the bottom where the buttons had stopped and was revealing a tiny hint of skin on her abdomen. Clark felt his mouth go dry as his eyes continued to travel upwards over the unmistakably feminine form that couldn't be hidden beneath his large shirt.
He forced his eyes to continue its upward journey, past the creamy skin of her neck to gaze on her face.
Her eyes were lazy, partly hooded slits, her mouth half-opened giving her a dreamy expression on her face. Clark caught himself feeling like he was intruding on her thoughts, interrupting a private moment.
Suddenly it clicked that *he* was the source of the enraptured look on her face, causing a surge of desire to flame through his body.
"Lois?" he murmured deep in his throat. His voice sounded strange in his own ears, almost like another person was speaking from way across the room.
Her eyes fluttered open wildly, realizing that she had been caught in her own little world. She gasped quickly, holding her breath as her eyes locked onto his. Incredible tenderness darkened by desire was reflecting right back her.
She lifted her hand up and touched his lips, tracing them with the tips of her fingers. His eyes closed briefly at the first contact, but they opened slowly as he let out a quick breath. Lois felt as though she was seeing and touching him for the first time. Guess it took love to notice the small mole on his face and the way his bottom lip stuck a bit more than the upper one. Guess it was love that adored his strong chin and firm set jaw…
She felt his hand move against her leg. His face drew a little closer to hers and he asked, "Are you okay?"
"I think this is where you can kiss it and make it feel better?" she answered while running her fingers through his dark hair.
"Yeah, kiss and make it feel better. I think I like that idea," he whispered dreamily.
He lifted himself away from her, then leaning down, dropped a couple of quick butterfly kisses on her leg. Not wanting to get too bold or presumptuous, he sat up and smiled mischievously at her. "Right place?"
Clark grasped her hand, turned it towards his lips and pressed a light kiss into the middle of her palm.
With a tiny shudder, she answered breathlessly, "Teeny bit, but still not quite what I had in mind."
Practically holding her breath because it was hard to remember how to breathe, she picked up his hand and directed his fingertips to her lips. Kissing the tip of one lingeringly, she directed, "Here… kiss me here."
She felt her head swirled as his face descended. His lips met hers in a series of slow shivery kisses.
Her arms crept up around his neck, and she opened her mouth to explore the warm depths of the man she loved.
It soon exploded into unlike any other kiss they had shared before. Desire enflamed both of them instantly, and they hungrily devoured each others mouth, tongues dancing and teasing, trying to consume each other in the most primal way possible.
Lois' arms moved back down to the front of his shirt and started unbuttoning it blindly, slipping her hand inside to caress the smooth planes of his chest. She groaned in frustration when her hands encountered his t-shirt, but she grasped the back of it and tugged it out his pants. Too many clothes were in the way and she just had to touch him and get closer.
Clark moved his arms under her legs and scooped her body close to his, pulling her completely on to his lap.
The hours of longing that he had spent for her during the night, dreaming of holding her and feeling her body next to his broke loose as Lois's soft curves pressed against his hard body.
The flannel shirt was annoying him, so he reached underneath the hem to touch the tempting skin of her back. His hands roamed up her spine, craving every inch that he could touch, molding her soft form to the hard contours of his body.
She pulled away from his frantic kisses, gasping, and helped him unbutton her shirt. In fell away after tugging the sleeves off both arms, and she pressed herself back against his chest, kissing him enthusiastically once more.
Locked in a hungry kiss, Clark held her in his arms, stood up and headed for his bedroom. Totally consumed by a force unlike anything he'd ever felt before, all he could think about was the woman in his arms, who was kissing him like there wasn't any tomorrow, who was causing his mind to go blank as the swirl of passion began to take control of their minds and bodies.
Not sure how he made it to the bedroom or if his feet even touched the ground, Clark lay Lois down, then pulled away as some awareness began creeping back into his mind. He searched her face to determine that he wasn't imagining this, and that he wasn't dreaming.
She was absolutely beautiful. Her skin was alabaster satin in contrast to the black lace bra, her breasts barely concealed by the thin material. Her body was delicate, small-boned, yet her feminine curves were breathtaking. Her stomach was flat and firm, yet soft and yielding enough for him to want to caress it forever. She was perfect.
His mind was washed with emotions but there was a nagging doubt inside that there was something he was forgetting, something he should remember…
Before he could think of the answer to the question in his mind, she cupped her hands around his face and tugged it to hers for a kiss that was sweeter than the wildest honey. He lowered himself down on top of her, gathering her in his arms, painfully aware that he still had too many clothes on.
This was so right, so good, Clark thought, as he tasted once more the sweet depths of her mouth. Sucking her lower lip into his mouth, his tongue teased and stroked it lightly. She responded by tracing his upper lip with hers and moaning softly.
That was almost his undoing as he rolled over, taking her with him. She now lay on top, which freed his hands to roam across her back. Her lips left his mouth to kiss his jaw line, and he buried his face in the hollow of her neck.
He heard her murmur his name against his skin.
Clark. Somewhere from the corner of his mind the promise that he made her began whispering to his conscious. <The promise. Remember, you're suppose to tell her who you are.>
One of his hands involuntary stroked the silkiness of her underwear and explored the incredibly soft skin underneath. She was kissing him harder and more desperately; mounting passion almost erasing any remaining thought processes for the time being.
<No, this shouldn't be happening. You're supposed to tell her you're Kal!>
Stilling his hands on her back, he threw his head back from kissing her neck.
"Lois," he croaked.
She mistook his cry of protest for something else, and proceeded to kiss his chest hungrily, planting small kisses across his muscular curves.
His arms tightened around her in self-defense, while he still had a sliver of rational thought to cling to, and drew her activities to a close.
"Lois," he said, not quite as shakily as before as his resolve strengthened. "We need to talk."
She pushed against his embrace in protest, but his arms tightened gently. "Shhh! Just listen. Stay right here."
His breathing needed to stop its rapid fire before he could speak. Gently and slowly, he began to caress her back in soothing strokes.
"Lois, honey, we need to slow down. Think about what we are doing. There's nothing more I'd rather do than to make love to you now, here and at this moment, but we don't know each other, and things have been happening so quickly."
"Clark, I know we've been through a lot tonight, but…" Her breathing slowed a bit more under his comforting hands.
"And I don't want to take advantage of this, not when I haven't told you I…" he paused slightly trying to think of the right words.
<I love you.> Lois filled in the blank in her mind. Clark didn't want to make love to her because he didn't love her.
"Certain things about myself," he continued on. "I've loved the time that we've spent getting to know each other…"
She let herself go still. Her heart was pounding loudly in her throat again. She wanted to pull away and retreat to her own corner and at the same time listen to what he was telling her. But it is was too difficult to remove herself from the warm circle of his arms. His low, gentle voice was comforting her, and his hands were doing incredible things to her senses, soothing, yet exciting at the same time. She was melting under his touch and was savoring every caress. She should be listening to what he was saying…
"…Can't pretend any longer. You deserve to know and I never intended to let it go as far as it has."
So it was true. Clark didn't care about her the same way that she cared for him. His voice was saying one thing, yet his hands were telling her something else. Why couldn't she get up and leave or yell at him or something? She couldn't. Her body was exhausted, her muscles were tired and were becoming sore from their past adventure. She didn't care that Clark was letting her down. All she needed and wanted at this moment was to rest on top of his warm body and relish the last moments she had with him like this.
She felt his lips against her forehead and felt a tiny bit of hope. Maybe all was not lost and his hero persona was kicking in, saving her from herself or some other noble cause. Yeah. He was being noble: her Clark, her love and her hero. She rubbed her cheek lightly against his chest in response, relishing the soothing beat of his heart and the intimate contact of his skin against her face.
Clark kissed her softly once again and moved his hands up to caress her hair. This seemed to be going just fine, although he wished that she would say something. Her only response to his pouring his heart out was the bit of snuggling she'd done. Looked like it was time to spill the whole bag of beans.
"Honey, before I tell you what's been on my mind, I want you to know something important. I love you, Lois. I never meant to hurt you, that is, I hope I won't hurt you with what I'm about to say. But I'm Kal, your friend. Clark Kent is my real identity."
Clark waited for a response, a yell or some cry of protest or surprise, but none was forthcoming. She was either in shock, or… asleep? He shook her gently to make sure. Her head rolled back slightly and she murmured something unintelligible, then nestled her head into more comfortable spot on his chest.
He almost laughed out loud. After gathering up his courage to finally tell her, she had fallen asleep on him. Practice will make perfect. The first run through was scary, but the next time he told her, he'd make sure he had her full attention.
Right now looked like he had no choice but to relish the moment and enjoy falling asleep with the woman he loved. His raging body had calmed to a dull aching need. Her lying on top of him was not helping matters one bit. Yet skin-to-skin contact was fulfilling a longing inside that he never knew existed. The woman he loved was in his arms; and now, he noted amusedly, snoring a bit.
He caressed her back and felt her instinctively arch her back in sleepy response. She was everything he'd ever wanted and, for the moment, was his to hold in his arms for the night.
A couple hours later as the dark heavy night was turning into shadows in the dawn, Clark awoke to tangled legs and fragrant hair tickling his face. Suddenly remembering that he had Lois in bed with him, he reached out to pull her against his body and buried his face into her soft tresses. Sleepy sounds, soft and mewing, awakened his senses further, and after turning his head a fraction, he kissed her cheek lightly.
Yes, he could get very used to waking up this way every morning. Yet there was still the fact that he hadn't told her he was Kal. Well, he had tried to tell her, but she fell asleep from exhaustion. So go the plans of mice and super men.
Morals did have their disadvantages. He was sure that if he hadn't inconveniently remembered that he had a secret to share with her that they would be waking up as lovers. Surely sleeping together this early in their relationship was a bit soon? As much as his body disagreed with him, he knew that they'd been flirting on the edge of disaster. Lois simply wasn't emotionally ready for a heavy relationship. She had told him so the first night they'd met.
Of course she had told Kal that she was running from something: people, *men* who'd let her down and abandoned her. Then she had mention something about a colleague, but the details were escaping him for the moment. Um… a colleague who had stolen her story.
Did he remember to send their story to Perry last night? He recalled getting ready to hit send on his computer, but then Lois had spilled the coffee on herself and the rest was history. He could sneak out of bed and send it quickly before Lois woke up. Perry wasn't expecting them in the office this morning after their kidnapping and ordeal, but he really should get the article in before the other papers scooped them later today.
He slid his arm from around her shoulders and scooted ever so slowly towards the edge of the bed, careful not to expose her body to the slightly cooler air outside the covers. Lois sighed and snuggled into her pillow.
Clark grinned. In a few minutes it would be him that she'd be snuggling into once more. They should have the whole morning to cuddle, talk and maybe even define what the status of their relationship was. That is if he lived after telling her who he was.
At last, he was freed from the bed and slipped quietly into the living room to tend to the article. His laptop was still opened and running, but to his dismay, the keyboard was coated with a brown sticky substance — coffee.
Lois had accidentally spilled coffee on his computer along with almost burning her legs. He hit a button cautiously and nothing happened. The keys were stuck together in what appeared to be dried sugar.
Their article! Was the computer ruined? He checked to see if he had backed-up their hard work, but didn't find a floppy in the disk drive. Darn! The one time he forgot to back-up his work was the one time he needed it the most. He supposed Jimmy would be able to help him get his computer back up to snuff or at least extract the information.
Regretfully, he realized that he had to take the computer down to the Daily Planet immediately. The article was supposed to be in the next edition, which had a deadline in about an hour. He hated to leave Lois, but hoped he could get there and back by the time she woke up. She had been so tired the night before; he was sure she wouldn't even miss him.
Quietly slipping into the bedroom to grab a suit and tie, he paused by the bed and kissed her hair with the lightest of touches. Lois rolled over and stretched sleepily, her eyes fluttering open.
"Be back soon, sweetheart," he whispered. "I have to turn in our article to Perry. There's something wrong with the computer."
"Ahmmm," she answered, awake but not registering anything in her mind.
To make sure she was hearing him, Clark sat on the bed and leaned down to kiss her lovingly on the lips. She responded back, her lips moving softly beneath his. Sitting up again, he stared at her and smiled. She was so adorable in the morning, looking totally at home in his bed. Yep! He could most definitely get used to this.
"I really don't want to leave, but I'll try to hurry back." Not quite convinced that she heard him, he added, "Honey, do you hear me?"
A hand waved wildly in the air, and she stared at him for a second before grunting and rolling over. The covers flew up over her head, and he heard her muttering something unintelligible back at him. Taking that she had acknowledged him but only wanted to get some more rest, he grabbed the computer and left to flag down a taxi.
Lois stretched languorously in her half conscious state. Omigod! Her muscles, sore from all the activities — the cold freezer, running from bad guys and walking in the tunnels — began to protest almost immediately.
Where was she? She moaned as her left calf muscle began to contract uncontrollably.
"Ow", she yelped, reaching to stretch the offending muscle manually.
Memories of the day and night before began to filter in slowly as the sharp pain ebbed, and she remembered she was sleeping at Clark's place, in his bed.
Her eyes flew open, and she peeked under the covers to check her state of dress, or lack thereof. It could have been worse, she thought after seeing that she was still clad in her underwear. Or better.
Clark had stopped them from making love last night. In the middle of their mind-blowing, heart-pounding passion, he had stopped them.
Maybe he wasn't as aroused as she was. Maybe she had imagined his need and had thrown herself at him. Could all those lovely kisses and caresses they shared not have meant the same to Clark as they did to her?
Where was he? She reached over to his side of the bed and felt the spot where he had lain. It was cold. Okay, so obviously he had been gone for some time. Perhaps he was in the other room.
She strained her ears to detect any kind of noise. Nothing.
A cold sense of foreboding came over her as she threw the covers back and jumped out of bed. Her aching muscles were forgotten as she barged into the living room.
He was gone.
And so was the laptop — with their story in it!
An eerie sense of deja vu came washing over her. Memories of waking up one morning many months ago and finding her lover gone with her story came flooding back. Omigod!! It couldn't have happened again?
No! Not Clark! Not the man she had fallen so desperately in love with! There had to be some sort of explanation, some sort of note. Surely he would be coming through the door with something delicious like chocolate donuts, or had just left for a moment to take out the trash, or…
Had stolen her story!
Just like in her past after she had given herself to a man and had declared herself in love with him, namely Claude, she was now left alone with nothing.
Nothing, not even any decent clothes. Her clothes had been ruined, and she was forced to find some of Clark's to put on. In desperation, she threw on the dried coffee stained pants that were balled up in a heap on the floor where Clark had thrown them and then located the flannel shirt she'd been wearing also.
This couldn't be happening again, she thought as the moisture began spilling down her cheeks. Clark wouldn't do this to her; he was supposed to be different. He was supposed to be her hero.
There was one way she could find out. Should she call the Daily Planet and ask for Clark? The decision was easy. She looked around the apartment for the telephone. After locating it, she dialed the operator and asked for the number. After a few moments, the switchboard had connected her to Clark Kent's desk.
An unfamiliar voice answered the phone. "Hello. CK's desk."
"Who is this?" she asked sharply.
A boyish laugh greeted her ears. "Aren't I supposed to ask that? Who are you?"
"Lois, and where's Clark?"
"Lois? You CK's new chick? I didn't know he was seeing a babe. Way to go!"
"Where is he?" she repeated irritably.
"He's in with the chief going over the final edits of his story. Or they might even be waiting for it to come back from print. Man, you should have seen the chief when he saw it. Blew him away. He was even singing Elvis songs."
Lois didn't notice that phone had drifted away from her ear, and she was staring off into space. It was true. That dweeb had said *his* story. Clark had stolen her story and had left her.
Over her dead body this time, she declared to herself as she slammed down the telephone. Better get down there before it was too late.
Worked up and clearly on the defensive, she buttoned up Clark's old flannel shirt, flew out the door and whistled for a taxi.
An hour later, Clark picked up the first copy of the evening edition that had come up fresh from the printing shop. He smiled to himself and looked proudly at the byline underneath the headline — 'Lane and Kent'.
Operating on the principle that ladies should go first and the need to show her how much he respected her work, he requested from Perry that Lois' name lead off on their first joint adventure. He knew how much this would mean to Lois and was looking forward to bringing the newspaper back to his apartment to show her.
Things hadn't gone as quickly as he'd hoped. Perry had cornered him and wanted to examine every point of the article with him. The editor was particularly happy with what he and Lois had turned out, but personally wanted to go over every dotted 'i' and detail with him. Smelled Kerth written all over the article, he said.
Hopefully Lois wouldn't mind that he'd been gone for so long once he showed her their article. A quick stop at a pastry shop and a rose from a corner flower stand would be an added touch. He smiled as he thought of her still curled up in his bed, her wonderful scent lingering on his pillow.
Yep! It was time to get out of here and take the rest of the day off. They both deserved a break after all they'd been through. He rose from his chair with a renewed exuberance and turned to head towards the elevators just in time to see a feminine whirlwind emerge and storm in his direction.
Oh, no! He was in trouble. Big trouble.
She was dressed in his old rumpled clothes from last night, the discolored coffee stain spread prominently across her upper legs. Her hair was flying in all directions and looked like it hadn't seen a comb since last night.
"Kent!" she blasted as her nostrils flared and her chest heaved from the anger welling inside. Total frustrated and fury had implanted itself in her heart as she waited for the public transportation system to get her to the Daily Planet. She had no money for a taxi, but had found a jar full of change on Clark's dresser. In her bare feet and unkempt state of dress, no cab driver would stop to pick her up, so she had fumed while sitting among the weird stares and whispers. He had caused all this embarrassment, and for all she knew had purposely set her up without clothes and had deliberately spilled coffee down her front so that she'd be totally embarrassed when he snuck out on her to steal her story.
Clark's jaw dropped in puzzlement while trying to figure out why she was so furious. Oh no! He'd left her all alone, or it had finally hit her that he'd been lying to her all along about who he was. She hadn't been sleeping at all when he told her he was Kal.
"Lois, I can explain…"
"How could you? After all we've been through… I've been made a fool of before, but never…"
A cool voice spoke lowly, but clear enough for Lois to freeze in mid sentence.
"So Lois. I see you're up to the same ol' tricks again. Sleeping with the star reporter." A tongue clicked loudly. "I must admit though, your taste in men is improving. Let just hope your performance in bed is."
Lois felt the blood drain out of her face. Cat Grant. She whirled around and came face to face with her old archenemy. The woman who had been hanging on Claude's arm the morning after *he* had stolen her story. She was living her worst nightmare all over again.
"Excuse me, Cat, but you have no idea what you're talking about," she said blindly, hoping that she would just disappear into thin air along with this horrible replay of her life several months ago.
"Who needs to talk when it's all over the front page." She produced a copy of the Daily Planet from the day before. "Oh, and Lois, " she added coyly, "your lipstick's smudged."
Lois stared in horror at the image of herself on the front page of the Daily Planet. On the bottom of the page underneath all the articles about the kidnapping of the Mayor at the White Orchid ball was the picture of her sprawled all over Clark after they had been discovered kissing under the table.
She'd wanted to have her name on the world famous newspaper, but hadn't wanted to *be* the news, at least not a laughing stock. Cat obviously had been lying in wait for her, ready to spring into action the moment she showed up here.
Clark watched in growing horror as Cat attacked Lois with accusations.
"Cat!" he growled angrily. "That is quite enough!"
They had generated a rather large crowd by now, and Lois was beginning to feel rather underdressed at this point as she realized she was the center of attention. But she could see the fury in Clark's eyes and it was not directed at her. He was defending her in front of everyone.
Her anger at him dissipated for an instant as she watched him jump into action. He snatched the newspaper with the photo and tossed it in the trash. "I will not have you talk about or to Lois that way."
A new observer wandered up to the crowd and watched the scene unfold in front of him. He was born to know what women wanted, and it confused him when they so mistakenly preferred Clark to himself. After all, he was raised in the city, and Clark was from Kansas, of all places. The guy was totally blind to the fact that he was getting stares from practically every eligible woman in the place and even a few of the ineligible ones. Maybe he had an odd screw that needed tightening; *he* most certainly wouldn't let any of the opportunities with women that Kent let slide by him disappear. Also, being slightly older, should give him the instant advantage over the ladies. Didn't they automatically choose the more experienced man?
Now it appeared that Kent had the new babe in the newsroom in his bed even before he had a chance to wile her with his many charms. Maybe Kent had it together after all.
"Hey Clark! I see you're taking up bird watching again. Looks like a double-breasted mattress thrasher to me," he leered.
"Oh, that's hilariously disgusting, Ralph," Cat laughed nervously, a little surprised at Clark's strong defense of Lois. "I think her feathers are a bit ruffled, in more ways than one."
"Enough! I said," Clark repeated with mounting rage. Grabbing Lois' hand, he pulled her away from prying eyes and headed straight into the conference room.
She planted her feet at first, refusing to follow him, but suddenly the urge to confront him alone, without the whole newsroom watching them, overcame her. With a humph and a withering glare at all her co-workers, she allowed herself to be dragged by Clark out of sight.
Clark shut the door firmly and faced her.
"All right, Lois. What's going on?" he asked, his voice devoid of the anger of only a few seconds before. Instead, it was tainted with hurt and confusion.
"Maybe I should be asking you that question." Her eyes were defiant, yet moist from the tears that had come while living through nearly the experience as before. "Where is it? I woke up and it was gone. Our… my story! It's gone." She sniffed quietly. "You were gone."
Oh no! Clark realized. Her confessions to him about that reporter who'd stolen her story came rushing back. She was afraid that it was happening all over again.
"Lois," he said gently. "I didn't steal your story. My computer got coffee spilled on it last night, and I had to bring it in. I woke you up and told you where I was going. You even kissed me back when I said good-bye."
"Yeah, you had your eyes open. I had hoped that I'd be back when you got up to surprise you with this."
He handed her the newspaper he was holding and Lois saw the prominent headline of the story they had written last night. Her side article was there also, but what caught and held her attention was the byline of Lane and Kent.
He had put her name first. Omigod! He hadn't stolen her story! For some unknown reason, he had seen that her name had gone first in the byline. As she stared at the paper, her anger dissipated and her love for him returned twofold. Her Clark — her precious Clark.
"Looks pretty good, doesn't it?" he whispered as he leaned his head down touching hers.
She lifted her face and found herself being reeled in for a kiss. Their lips met in sweet reconciliation, her legs grow weaker with each second.
"Guess that makes us a pretty good team," he whispered in her hair as his arms drew her closer.
A thud against the door interrupted the moment. Clark turned from her, flung the door open, and found all of the newsroom's employees gathered outside. Loud cheers and whistles greeted him, and he promptly slammed the door in their faces.
An unforeseen realization hit Lois as she watched Clark's grim expression upon seeing their co-workers snickering behind closed doors. She was involved with another top reporter, and this time, he stood to get hurt in the process.
This was how it would always be, Lois thought. Clark would be a laughing stock because of her and her flawed past. She couldn't do this to him, not after all he'd done for her. She loved him too much to hamper his career and his life. He already had been hurt by that front-page picture that Cat had flashed in her face, displayed like some sleazy celebrity on a rag. She had shown up at the Daily Planet looking like a refugee from a social misfit camp, and now his colleagues were spying on him trying to get a glimpse of the 'hot, new babe.' What else could she do to ruin his good reputation if she'd managed this in all of five minutes?
Argh! She was definitely *not* ready to be someone's 'hot, new babe'! This was too soon, way too soon to try to hold a serious relationship together. More than likely, she'd bungle up something along the way, just like all the other times. She didn't think Clark would want a casual fling; she couldn't handle it anyway.
She wondered briefly if she should leave and try another town, another newspaper where there would be no chance of her running into anyone she knew. Another option would be to quit journalism all together, find some quiet little job and be content to live out her dreams through Clark. Seeing his byline on the paper would kill her though. She'd always wonder how far she could have gone if she'd stayed at the Daily Planet.
No! Whether people believed her or not, she had worked very hard to get her name on the front page, and she was going to keep it there. But how could she continue to let him link his name with hers? Right now, in spite of her well-earned headline, her name and reputation were being dragged around in the dirt. She would always be the wannabe reporter who slept her way to the top if she didn't do something drastic.
"Clark, I can't see you anymore, this way. It's over." She choked back a sob and scrubbed away the tears pooling in her eyes. "I told myself that I would never mix my personal and professional lives again. You can see what happens when you do."
"What do you mean, Lois? What you do want?" he asked, suddenly confused by the fear in her eyes.
"I can't do this!" she said almost frantically, trying to make him understand. "Getting involved with someone I work with again! I've got to be nuts!"
"So what are you saying, Lois?"
"I'm not ready for another heavy duty relationship; not so soon after Claude and getting this job."
Clark saw the panic flashing in her eyes, and it was his worst nightmare come true. He'd let her down. He'd known better than to get involved with her after all she had said to him as Kal, but worse yet, he'd broken his promise to stay friends. He should have known better. He *had* known better. The night he had first met her, she had shared her fears and pain with Kal about being involved with another person so soon after being hurt. Instead of respecting her wishes, he'd chosen to disregard it in favor of his heart.
He had hurt Lois.
"Tell me, Lois. Help me understand."
"Relationships, Clark. I can't do it! Not after what happened at the Star." Her voice went up a notch. "Another reporter. I can't do it!!"
"Lois, I'll find another job, another paper. What we share is too special, too sweet to let go."
"No, Clark!" she interjected. "I've got to do it my way. You can't throw away your career and your reputation for me, and I've waited too long for this opportunity to let it slip away."
"So are you saying that your career is more important than what we have, what we've been through together in the past couple of days?"
"Yes, Clark. That's what I'm saying. I can't have a relationship with anyone. I'd much rather concentrate on my career. I don't have time for you or anyone. What we had was a mistake."
"You can't say what we have together is wrong. I don't believe you." He inched closer to her and reached up to touch her cheek. "Lois, what about last night? Didn't that mean anything to you?"
Mean anything to her? It was everything to her! The look in his eyes made her want to launch herself at him again, to kiss his face and run her hands through his hair and down his broad back. Yet his lack of actions last night spoke louder than anything, even over what he was saying now. She *couldn't* mean as much to him as he did to her, or they would have made love. *And* he had told her that he couldn't keep pretending any longer. So how was she supposed to handle this? She had no choice.
"Not a mistake, Clark. It's just too soon! The thought of trying to make a relationship work when I have this," She pointed at the conference door and the people behind it, then rolled her eyes, "to deal with, is too much. I've never been great in the romance department. You know part of my history; I'll end up screwing things up. I'm just not ready."
"Let me handle those people. I'm not worried about what others think. Lois, I lo…"
Covering his lips with three of her fingers, she shook her head violently and said firmly, "No, let's save it. I can't do this if you…"
Her mind made up, she wrapped her arms around his neck and stared at him soulfully as she was drawn into his embrace. She burned the tender expression on his face and the heavenly feeling of being in his arms into her heart. Lois pressed against Clark's body and lifted her face to place a searing kiss against his lips. His arms tightened around her; and for a brief moment, she laid her head against his chest but then pulled away to look into his eyes once more.
"Our last kiss good-bye," she said sadly, but firmly.
She crossed her arms in front her body, closing herself off from him mentally and physically. Later, the time would come when the tears would fall, when she'd let herself grieve for what could have been, or what she couldn't be to the man she loved; but she couldn't let herself go to pieces in front of him now, or it would be all over.
She looked at him defiantly, trying not to shake from his interrupted declaration of love. Pushing it out of her mind, she turned on her heels and left the conference room, past the gaping mouths of the onlookers and the snickers of the gossipers. She would come back this time, no more running away from her problems, but this time she would do it alone.
The elevators couldn't open fast enough, but she was careful not to rush in. Wouldn't do to show the newsroom that she gave a damn about their opinions.
The tears didn't come when she flew out of the building and caught a taxi, nor during the ride to her apartment on top of Mrs. Buysse' house, nor even on the long trek up and down the stairs to find money to pay for her ride. Finally, the door to the apartment was closed with finality, and she leaned against it, hugging her arms to herself.
It was the warm flannel beneath her hands that broke the barriers. His shirt. She tossed her head back against the wood as a guttural sob escaped from her throat. The tears flowed down her cheeks unchecked, her legs giving way as she slid to the floor.
It was over! The beautiful relationship that had barely had time to take its first breath had died. She'd pushed away the man she had only dreamed existed — the man she had fallen desperately in love with in just a couple of days.
Her body still ached from her ordeal, and she wanted desperately curl up in bed for the next year. Forcing herself to get up, she stripped the dirty, coffee-stained pants from her body and dropped them in a heap on the floor. She made her way slowly to the bedroom and pulled the covers down on her bed.
Standing by the bed, she hugged the shirt to herself and remembered one more time how right it had felt to have his arms around her, how right it had been to have him kiss her senseless, to sleep snuggled up next to his warm body.
No, this wouldn't do. Not this soon, not just yet.
Lois snatched a pillow from the bed and plopped it on the hard sofa. Sleeping in a bed this soon would only make her imagine having him next to her.
She paused by the window, the one through which Kal had come a couple nights before, and sighed wistfully. Worry and guilt about her friend added to the pain she was feeling. Worry, because she hadn't seen or heard anything about Superman since the night she'd left him here sleeping on her sofa. Guilt, because she had been so preoccupied with Clark that she hadn't thought much about him in days. And she called herself his friend. Ha!
Yet, she really could use his friendship now. She called his name softly out the window and looked up between the buildings hoping to see him hovering in the air with that silly grin on his face, but he wasn't there. She drew the blinds tightly to close out the early afternoon sun.
Was all this heartache a huge mistake? Could she have been wrong about why Clark had pulled away from her last night? Her lip quivered as she thought about the implications.
Clark was about to tell her he loved her this afternoon, but she had stopped him. She couldn't take hearing his words of love when she knew their relationship could never be.
It was too late though. She had already disappointed him last night, and now today in the newsroom, had stripped away any chance that they might have had. A horrifying yet heart- wrenching thought buzzed through her mind. Unless… he couldn't make love to her because he *hadn't* told her he loved her.
Omigod! No! She couldn't think about that possibility, not after her decision had already been made. The urge to leave her job, the city and to never have to face Clark again flared up strongly inside.
But she was through running. It was all her fault; if she hadn't run the first time and let those half excuses for people walk all over her, then she might be in Clark's arms now.
Where was Kal? He'd be proud of her for making the right decision. After all, she had helped him realize that running away from Metropolis wasn't going to solve his problems. She would be a hypocrite if she turned her back on her beliefs. She couldn't let him down, but most of all, she couldn't let herself down again.
She longed for his presence now. Just to rest her head on his steady shoulder would help ease the hurt a bit. Just to know that he was all right and healthy. He didn't deserve getting tangled up with that rock — it was all her fault for exposing it to him.
Although the time had come to get what she deserved, she refused to be a coward any longer. Cowards didn't win, and it was time to face the consequences of her actions. She needed to steel herself for the long, hard road she knew was ahead of her, but in order to do that, she had to stuff away her emotions and deal with the facts.
There was no time for romance in her life. It had been proven to her twice in less than a year. She had to forget Clark and get on with her life as a professional journalist.
But not tonight. Her tears freshened and spilled onto her cheeks. Tonight was hers to remember.
While waiting for the elevator doors to open, Lois bit her lip in anticipation. She was not worried about her job after talking to Perry the evening before. He had been very encouraging and had told her to take the time she needed to recover from her kidnapping, but she had assured him that she was anxious to start her new job and was ready to tackle life at the Daily Planet. There was no mention of the outburst in the newsroom yesterday, but she had a feeling that Perry had heard everything. Score one for the new boss. It appeared that he was going to be a bright spot there.
Probably the only one, she thought, as her lip trembled beneath her teeth. No, this wasn't going to do. She took a deep breath and thought about why she was here — to fulfill her longtime dream of being a top-notch journalist.
The elevator doors opened, and in an instant, Lois felt as if all eyes were trained on her. She stared straight ahead and walked purposefully out into the bullpen. She had woken a bit early and dressed herself carefully, making sure that she looked the part of a no-nonsense professional.
She made a beeline for Perry's office for she had no idea where she was going to be working or where her desk was located.
Her fingers barely knocked on the wood before she heard the editor's voice. "Come on in, Lois."
With her posture straight, she entered confidently. "Morning, Mr. White."
"I'd prefer if all my up-and-coming star reporters called me Perry. I can't tell you how impressed I was with this story you and Clark turned in yesterday." He looked at her curiously, watching her reaction.
"Perry, I think I need to work by myself from now on. It's just something I need to do. I think you heard."
"Not a problem, Lois," he returned immediately. "And by the way, I fired Cat Grant after you left yesterday. She'd taken advantage of the breakout of the Luthor story and had deliberately put that photo on the front page against my wishes while I was too busy with the breaking news. She knew I'd never allow that sort of stuff to be in my newspaper, much less on the front page. You won't have to worry about her again."
His sharp eyes grew soft once more, and he smiled warmly at her. "Your desk is just out the door to the right. You'll see your nameplate."
"Nameplate? I've got a nameplate already?"
"Anyone who goes above the call of duty for a story before they even start their first official day deserves much more than that. I went out yesterday and got it myself," Perry declared proudly.
"Thanks," she answered, feeling a bit more confidence rise inside of her.
"But remember, you're only as good as your next story. Here are some leads I'd like you to start investigating. Snoop around and see if there's a story in one of them. That should get your feet wet. And Jimmy will be by your desk later to help you find your way around our computer system."
She took the small stack of papers from Perry and stepped backwards. Nodding her head in the general direction of the bullpen, she opened the door and ventured out to find her new work place.
Her heart nearly dropped to her feet when she saw what was there. She had to check the nameplate to confirm that indeed it was her desk.
A dozen gorgeous red roses were sitting on top of it. She wandered over to them and could practically feel the stares from her co-workers as they gauged her reaction to her gift. A card was nestled in the flowers and she wondered if she should give in to the urge to pluck it from its resting spot or ignore it all together.
There had to be only one person who could have sent them.
His presence was felt before she could see him. A steaming cup of coffee was set gingerly on her desk as she stared blankly at the untouched card.
Clark. The flowers were from Clark. Their beautiful fragrance was filling her senses, and her emotions were welling up inside of her once more.
Clark had been waiting for her arrival since before the sun rose that morning having bought the roses the night before in anticipation. He hoped that the time she'd spent alone yesterday had helped to clear her head and that she'd be more willing to try to work things out.
He had gone after her yesterday but had lost her when, oddly enough, she'd managed to catch a taxi seconds after arriving at the curb. So he'd returned inside to close up his desk and go home. He couldn't look for her using superpowers yet, so he'd decided to let her cool off and try to recover from their ordeal. Instead, he spent the afternoon lying in the sun.
His parents had been very relieved to have heard from him. They had all but packed and were on their way to Metropolis, but Clark assured them that he was fine and that he was on his way to recovering. His powers were returning slowly, and he was confident that he'd be back to normal soon.
It had been a long lonely night, and Clark was glad to put his plan into motion to win Lois back. His heart had nearly stopped when he saw her. Her transformation into a professional reporter was complete, and her smart-looking business suit accentuated her figure in all the right places.
But it was her pensive look around the newsroom that stirred his heart. Her passion for the newspaper business clearly shone on her face, and he could see the fire and determination was back after yesterday's debacle. Maybe that was a hopeful sign. Maybe she wasn't going to let newsroom gossip ruin whatever chance they might have.
Now she was staring at his note and raising her hand to take it from the flowers. She read the card and stood silently.
"Lois?" Clark asked tentatively to her back.
Just then Jimmy charged up between them and declared, "Hi, I'm Jimmy Olsen. Got a minute? Chief said I was supposed to run you through the computer system. Hope I wasn't interrupting anything important."
"Just some old business. Pull up a chair and let's get this over with. I've got to get started around here."
Clark stared at her back as Jimmy pulled up a chair, giving him an apologetic look in the process. After noticing that many pairs of eyes were watching him, he walked over to his desk and tried to get to work. Clark couldn't help but become fascinated at the transformation taking place a few feet away. Lois was absolutely glowing after Jimmy had finished his brief tutorial of the computer system and the young photographer had left after she'd waved him off enthusiastically. Determination and fire was back in her eyes as she attacked her new tasks, set about making phone calls and basically, began her new career.
With a sinking feeling that he had lost her, he struck out for the elevators and left the Daily Planet.
It was well into the night and the other reporters were long gone before Lois shut her computer off and pushed away from her desk for the first time. The cleaning lady was working her way around the office, and Lois stared at the lovely roses on her desk.
As the night staff worked her way around the floor, Lois leaned over and pulled one fragrant rose from the bunch. She lifted it to her face and breathed in deeply. The heavenly scent filled her nostrils and she allowed a tiny smile to form on her face. Lowering the flower slightly, she kissed it gently.
Her love for Clark would always be a part of her, but her icy facade was beginning to stop the stares, and hopefully soon, the rumors. Technically, the first day was always supposed to be the hardest, and she had gotten through this one basically intact.
Her heart was resting a bit easier since late this afternoon. Reports of a rash of Superman rescues had filled the news, and it appeared that Kal was back in full swing again.
The elevator doors opened behind her and Lois lifted her head to see who had arrived.
Clark was back.
She looked into his eyes, which were filled with questions. He walked slowly over to her, holding eye contact with her the whole while. The silence was louder than their heartbeats, louder than the blood pounding in their ears.
As casually as Lois could manage, she said, "Thank you for the flowers, they're lovely." She gave him a weak smile, then began to study the rose in her hand.
"I had bought the flowers to persuade you to change your mind."
"This doesn't change anything."
"Yes, it does," Clark sighed. "Earlier this afternoon I was watching you while you were working, and I saw something I'd never noticed about you. There was this expression on your face as you looked around the newsroom, and it suddenly hit me how important this job is to you. I have no right to interfere in your career plans."
Caught off-guard, she asked after a few seconds, "So you *do* understand?"
"I'm not saying I understand completely, but…" He shoved his hands in his pockets and shifted restlessly. "I don't see why you becoming a top-notch reporter has to get in the way of us. We're professionals; we can keep it out of the newsroom."
"It's not only that, Clark. When I do start another relationship, I don't want to feel as if I'm about to step into a Red Cross Disaster Relief zone. I don't want to be so scared."
Her bottom lip quivered, and Clark could see her trembling. Sighing, he said quietly, "Lois, if this is your decision, then I need to step aside and let you find yourself here."
"Can we still be friends?"
Clark sucked his breath in deeply and thought of being near her day after day without being able to touch her or hold her. His heart felt heavy, and he didn't think he could stand casual conversation with Lois, not after being as close as they were last night.
"I need time. I think it's going to be too hard, at least at first."
"I feel the same way about being friends. I don't think I can do it either. Especially at work — I think it's best if we keep our distance. I don't need gossip and rumors to worry about. Making it *here* is so important to me."
"I know it is. Lois, you are good reporter. I only wish there was a way we could be partners."
"If I stay partners with you, then I'll always be that: Clark Kent's shirttail rider."
"You make that sound like a bad thing."
"Clark, I'm so sorry." She played with the rose in her hand as a distraction from the tears welling up in her eyes. "I just don't see any other way."
Clark felt his throat closing up as a huge lump suddenly impaired his ability to breathe. "I know. I'll wait for you. No matter how long a time you need, I'll be here waiting."
He drew closer to her and took the rose from her hand and laid it on the desk. "One more thing. I need *my* kiss goodbye."
Wordlessly, she stepped towards him and lifted her face. Without a doubt, there was pure love, sad but tender, shining in his eyes. His fingers traced her lips and stroked her cheek, erasing the tears that were slipping down her face.
"What are you waiting for?" she whispered hoarsely. "Please kiss me."
He leaned his head against hers and said slowly, "Once I do that, it's over."
A tiny whimper escaped from her throat as she realized he was right. "Dance with me, then."
He gathered her in his arms, her head immediately burrowed into the hollow of his shoulder. His hand threaded its way into her hair, cradling her like she was the most precious thing on earth. Hands explored tenderly, burning into their memory the feel of one another.
Slowly he began to rock back and forth in tiny circles around the floor. In the shadows of the newsroom, the dancing couple moved to only music they could hear. Their music was the thudding of their heartbeats, beating a soft tattoo against each other's breast; the lyrics were the reminiscences of the time they shared together.
The clanging of the housekeeper's cart returning finally broke the silence. Clark, realizing time was short now, pulled away, only to capture Lois' lips with his own.
With a desperate sigh, she kissed him back, lingering, savoring every moment. A few moments later, they pulled apart breathlessly. Clark tilted her face up to look her in the eyes.
With both of them teary-eyed and heartbroken, he spoke in a voice raw with emotion. "That was not a kiss goodbye, but a promise — a promise that I'll wait for you. I don't believe we could ever be over." His hand slid under her chin, and he stared intently into her eyes. "Not when we share something this powerful."
She nodded her head in agreement, then stepped away from him, knowing that if she stayed near him for another moment, she might never be able to tear herself away.
"Lois, I…" He gave her a sad smile, then let his arms drop to his side, but he still held on to one of her hands.
"I know, take care."
He drew away slowly, their hands stretching out between them until they could no longer hang on to each other.
"Yeah, see you around." Unable to maintain physical contact, Clark held her with his eyes until she looked away. In a thoughtful move, he picked up the rose from her desk, then turned around and entered the elevators.
The tears fell softly as she watched him leave. She hated to let him go, but was reassured that he would be there when she was ready. Glancing around the nearly empty newsroom, she smiled wistfully once again.
It was time to go home.
Lois paced in the small area of her living room. Why couldn't he read her mind? After all, he was Kryptonian; shouldn't that be one of his abilities? He hadn't been by to see her yet, and she was anxious to reconnect with him and their friendship. It was not that she was impatient with Kal, just concerned that something had happened to him during the time she had spent with Kent.
Yes, she had to call him Kent in her mind now. Had to distance herself once and for all from any painful reminders of what they once shared. And it was because of him that her friend Kal was in this situation, she reminded herself, hoping that perhaps by blaming Kent for this, it would help ease her feelings for him.
A piece of that green rock was still out there, probably rolling around in the sewer system waiting for any lowlife to pick it up and run rampant with it. Not that anyone would know what its potential would be right away. But dumber idiots had run amok with it before, and she didn't think they should take any chances with anyone more intelligent finding it. She owed it to Kal to at least tell him about it and see what he wanted to do.
Plus, she was anxious to see him again and reaffirm her friendship with him after the roller coaster of emotions she'd been on the past few days. He was something steady, someone she could count on.
She sighed. She had thought she could count on Clark too. In her heart she knew she still could count on him; she just couldn't rely on the world to keep him safe.
It would be a very cruel thing to allow the gossipmongers and naysayers to rip Clark's… no, Kent's, reputation apart if she stayed linked with him. It was going to be hard to tear her heart away, but it was for his own good. Most of all, she needed to build her own career away from *any* top reporter's reputation, and the only way to do that was to distance herself from Clark in any relationship.
The pompous sneer on Cat Grant's face would be ingrained in her memory for a very long time. She had to be strong this time to not allow emotions to rule her life. What she had shared with Clark was over, and it was time to move on. Time to concentrate on being the best reporter she could be and put her career first.
She heard a loud whoosh and turned around to see Kal stepping through her window.
Not with Kal. With him she could be her true self.
He was totally separated from her other life, her real life. With him, she could be at ease and not worry about controlling herself in front of others. He, and their friendship, was hers and not the world's. She suddenly realized how much she missed him.
Relief suddenly washed over her, and she stepped towards him to give him a hug, something that she had needed terribly since the other morning.
"Hey there, stranger! Been a long time."
There was something new, a bit familiar for an instant, in his eyes, then he was back to being the same ol' Kal.
"Strangers… I wonder if we can still say that about each other." Clark hesitated for an instant, then wrapped his arms around her with a sigh.
"I guess technically we can't, but there still is so much I don't know about you."
"Guess you can never really completely know someone, even if you think you do," he said wistfully.
"You know, Kal, I've been thinking. The other day when you were willing to share your real identity with me, forget it. I think that for now we just need to keep our friendship apart from the world. Would you mind terribly if we kept it just the way it is now?"
She felt his chest rise and fall and wondered if she had hurt him. But he pulled away, looked deeply into her eyes, and she was a bit surprised by his answer.
"Yeah, might be a good idea for now. But Lois, if you *ever* change your mind, let's talk about it. I guess the past couple of days have been pretty rough?" Clark probed gently. "I've heard what you've gone through."
She nodded blankly and said, "I need to keep us separated from the world, Kal. I'm an emotional wasteland, a black hole that sucks all relationships into an empty void. I've found that anything that's associated with real life is just going to hurt. Don't ask me to explain; I can't."
"I won't. I just need you too, Lois. I mean, as a friend. You're the only one who really knows the real me, or this side of myself. I need to be able to be *me* around someone who cares about Superman as a friend. I've found out things about myself in the past couple of days that I don't know how to deal with. That rock has me thinking how mortal I can be."
"So you agree? Still basically 'strangers' until we can get our lives in order?"
"Sounds like a plan to me," he replied as his arms tightened around her.
"Kal?" she asked after a minute had passed.
"You *are* fully recovered from that rock, aren't you?" she asked, remembering how sick he looked the other night as he slept on her couch.
"Just about up to full power. Been soaking up a lot of sun the past couple of days."
"There's another rock out there that we need to take care of."
"A *friend* of mine… ahem, knocked a piece of it down the sewer, and we'd better get it before some scum decides to take out Superman." She paused for a second, before continuing with a bit more confidence. "They might not know what to do with the thing at first since it's not public knowledge, but that didn't stop Luthor and his gang from wreaking havoc with it. I mean, you and me together, can get rid of this, right?"
"You and me together, sounds like an even better plan."
"Yep! Wouldn't have it any other way." She pulled herself from his arms and patting his chest affectionately, grinned at him. "I've been a girl scout."
She pointed to the table, and Clark noticed a large roll of lead foil, bug spray and a pair of hiking boots.
"Let me change into some old clothes, then we can tackle this thing."
Clark smiled back at her. Things were going to be okay. His relationship with her as Clark was on hold for now, but maybe in time something could be done to put it back on track when she was ready. His head understood her need to build her career, but his heart was still having a rough time of it.
For now, his secret would have to keep. Hopefully, all Lois needed was time to rebuild her faith in herself and in them as a couple as she built her career. He realized she'd been hurt terribly because of other people in her past. For now, this was would have to be enough.
Pointing to her bedroom, he asked, "What are you waiting for? I can't fly without you!"
She started for her bedroom, but abruptly turned around with an afterthought. "Oh, Kal! I'm so glad you're all right. I've missed you." After flashing a sincere smile, she swatted him playfully with her hiking boots and ran off to change.
The door to Lois' apartment opened, and she half-stomped, half- limped inside. Her clothes were dirty, smelly and in a sad state of disarray. Kal had to drop her off in the back of her building so he could chase down, in double time, some other two-bit criminal, but at least they had been successful in their mission.
She slowly hobbled to the kitchen table and slapped down a foil- covered rock in triumph. Scratching her face gingerly, she clomped to the kitchen counter and began rummaging through the drawers for a certain object.
Stupid mosquitoes! They actually seemed to like the bug spray she'd put on her face and hands to prevent them from eating her alive. Practically the whole mosquito population of Metropolis had turned up at the reclamation plant to bite and watch her trudge through the muck and debris to find that stupid rock. Kal couldn't help her get to the spot where he had finally located the glowing rock from high in the air, so she had to wade through the smelly mess to get to it. Kal owed her. Owed her big.
But she'd do it all over again.
Finally, she had found the object that she was looking for hobbled back to the table and sat down with a grunt. Opening the lead foil, she stared at the glowing green rock once again.
While they had been flying, Kal had mentioned that Kent had told him that the rock originally had been found by a government agency about twenty-eight years ago and had sat dormant for years until EPRAD acquired it from storage. Kal had said that he was beginning to think that it was some sort of meteorite from Krypton. Could be true. They both appeared about the same time frame, and Kal was the only one the rock affected.
She raised the hammer over the glowing object and let it fall. The small explosion surprised her for an instant, but the results left a satisfied smile on her face. One less problem for Kal to worry about. He was supposed to bring her the other rock that Kent had in his apartment, but hadn't found the time to retrieve it yet. There was no telling just how many more rocks were still in storage or floating around out there. Kryptonian meteorite. She just might have to do a bit of snooping around in the next few weeks to see if anymore of this Kryptonite could be found.
In spite of the trudging through the stinky muck, she felt a glimmer of hope she hadn't felt since the other morning in the newsroom. It was an honor to be the self-appointed protector of Superman, whether Kal knew it or not. Lois 'Mad Dog' Lane was back in action and wasn't about to let the lowlifes of the world get the best of her or her best friend.
It was time to put her love life aside and concentrate on her career. No one was ever going to accuse her of sleeping her way to top again, because she was going to get there by her own merit and hard work. She would just have to fill the emptiness left by her break-up with Kent with investigations, headlines and stakeouts, but most importantly, a bit of Kryptonian friendship.
Pushing aside the regret that started to rise in her, she opened her shiny new laptop that the Daily Planet had provided her and began typing…
To be continued in Strangers V: Kissing Friends