By Nan Smith <email@example.com>
Submitted: August 2004
Summary: After marrying Lex Luthor and being widowed shortly thereafter, Lois goes into hiding from the media. But what she finds may be worth all the trouble.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They belong to DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else may have any legal right to claim them, nor am I profiting by their use. The story is extrapolated from the ending of the Lois and Clark script "House of Luthor" and all parts and ideas taken from that script are hereby credited to the writers of the show. Any new characters, settings, and any changes in the story belong to me.
This story follows "Wedding Aftermath".
Lois glanced at the copy of the National Whisper that Clark had brought into the apartment. The front page, as might be expected, had a huge photograph of her face, framed in its wedding veil, and the headline: *Luthor's Widow Kidnapped by Aliens!*
"Can you believe this garbage?" she demanded.
"Well, the inside page has the feature on Elvis's return," Clark said. "He's running a deli in Minnesota. Seriously, Lois, you don't want to go out there right now. The papers are all hunting for you. Your apartment is a mob scene. The tenants can hardly get into the place without being buttonholed by half a dozen reporters looking for some kind of scandal on you. Perry was nearly mobbed when he went in to feed your fish, but he backed them off pretty fast. None of them want to take on Perry White." He grinned faintly. "Jimmy and Jack are being pestered day and night, and you know how many phone calls have come in here." He jerked his head at the phone. He had turned off the ringer and set the telephone answering machine to take the calls two days ago, and she hated to think how they must be hounding him when he set foot out of his apartment. She had peeked out the window the night before and seen at least five news vans stationed across the street. The mob of reporters on his doorstep hadn't thinned in the three days that she had been here. Clark had installed curtains to cover the glass of his front door and was keeping them pulled.
She shuddered. The thought of facing the press not as one of them but as the subject of their frenzied quest for scandal and interviews made her quail. She would have to do it eventually but right now the whole idea terrified her.
"Lois." Clark rested a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry. I can handle them. No one besides me knows where you are except Perry, Jimmy, Jack, and Inspector Henderson, and none of us are going to tell them a thing. You don't have to go out there until you're ready."
"I hate to be a burden," she fretted. "It's just that …"
"Don't worry about it," he repeated. "Luthor's lawyers are taking care of the legal aspects of it and the investigation is proceeding very well without you. I let them know that I could get a message to you if they needed you, and they said they'd be in touch."
"I can't hide forever," she said, "but I'd like to wait until the furor dies down a little more."
"They aren't going to let you alone, you know," he said softly. "You're big news. According to the information Jimmy dug up, Luthor hadn't made a new will yet, but the laws of New Troy mandate that, as his widow, you inherit half of all his legitimate assets. It looks like you're heiress to several billion dollars. Perry has been fending off every con man in the country and out of it, hundreds of distant relatives that you never knew you had have popped out of the woodwork, and dozens of old friends that claim they were very close to you in kindergarten are calling daily. It was only to be expected, but thank god for Perry. He knows how to deal with them."
She clenched her hands in her lap to hide the trembling. "What am I going to do? I can't handle this yet, Clark. I just can't."
"Wait," he said. "After while something else will come up to take you out of the headlines."
She nodded. "If you're sure I'm not being a bother," she said.
"Lois, you're never a bother to me," he said quietly.
"I know. That's one of the reasons I feel guilty," she said. "Maybe I should have taken Perry up on his invitation. They won't pester him."
"They've staked out his place too," Clark said. "At least none of them have had the nerve to try anything else since the guy from the Dirt Digger tried to climb in his kitchen window. Alice nailed him with an iron skillet and he's going to be facing breaking and entering charges after he gets out of the hospital."
She couldn't help a soft laugh. "Good for Alice."
"Anyway, I don't think we could get you out of here without them seeing you right now," he added.
She nodded. "It wouldn't look very good if they found out I was here, would it?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Personally, I don't care what they think. They know we were partners and they suspect I know where you are but I haven't admitted anything to them. They've been following me, though."
"Oh, Clark …" She shuddered. "This is all my fault. If Lex hadn't been so determined to make me his wife, he wouldn't have destroyed the Planet. You don't have a job, Perry, Jimmy … all the others."
He shrugged. "I have some money saved up. I don't need to get a new job right away, although I did sell that piece I was working on last night to the Intelligencer this morning. I've free- lanced before, and I can do it again until I land something better."
"When you do," she said, "would you mind taking on a partner?"
He smiled sadly. "I'd like that."
"Clark, I can't live the life of Lex's widow. I can't even imagine living like that!" She jumped suddenly to her feet. "I'm a journalist, not a society woman. What on Earth was I *thinking*? It's almost as if it wasn't me doing all those things! Lois Lane sort of crawled into a hole and let this other person do all that stuff. What happened to my investigative instincts? It was like I put them all on hold where Lex was concerned."
"Luthor was very plausible," Clark said quietly, "and he was always on his best behavior where you were concerned. He was an expert at manipulating people."
"And he knew exactly which of my buttons to push," Lois said, bitterly. "Clark, I'm so desperately sorry I didn't listen to you. It could have saved us all of this."
He put his arms around her. "Lois, it's past. We'll deal with whatever happens and get it behind us, and then we'll move on."
She nodded against his shoulder, unwilling to move out of the haven of his arms. Somehow when he held her, as he had many times in the days since the wedding while she cried, or railed against the deceiver that Lex had been and the havoc that he had wrought on her life, it seemed that all the chaos swirling around her and all the complications still to come couldn't touch her. She should have realized how she felt about Clark a long time ago, but she had hidden behind the fiction that she regarded him as a brother. She didn't. There was no way she could ever regard him as a brother when she had been in love with him for — how long? — months, at least. It was obvious to her now. Why on Earth hadn't she seen it before?
Because she had been dazzled by Superman and swept off her feet by Lex. It had been a heady feeling that someone as wealthy and charming as Lex Luthor found her to his taste. He had dangled an incredible lifestyle in front of her, from four private jets to a luxurious penthouse at the top of Lex Tower. There had been dinner in Paris and lunch in Italy and cruises on his private yachts. And she had let it blur her judgement until it was too late. Or it would have been if not for Clark.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"You're welcome," he said quietly. "Lois, you know you're welcome here as long as you want to stay."
"That wasn't why I was thanking you," she said. "I was thanking you for being you. For caring enough even after what I said to you to try to save me from myself."
"I didn't have a choice," he said. One of his hands came up to cradle the back of her head. "I couldn't stand the thought of what he would do to you if you were tied to him, Lois. He's done enough of it already."
"You mean to me."
"To you. And to the rest of us too. Even to Superman."
She nodded. "I need to apologize to him, too."
"To *Superman*? Why?"
"Because of what happened when I saw him that night. I think I insulted him terribly, Clark. He was angry when he came, and I didn't realize it. But now I think I understand why. He knew that I was saying that if he didn't want me I was going to marry Lex. It was a horrible position to put him in — and then on top of it, I put him in the same category with Lex. I only wish he'd told me why he was so angry."
"How do you know he was angry?" Clark asked.
Lois looked down. "He was rude to me. He said that unless I put on a lead-lined robe, it wouldn't matter what I wore. I didn't understand why he would say such a thing, then — but he knew about Lex, didn't he?"
"He knew, but he didn't have any proof, either, Lois. I'm sorry."
"You have no reason to be sorry. You tried to tell me and I threw it in your face. I guess he didn't want to be in the same position."
Clark sighed. "It sounds to me like he should apologize to you. That was a pretty cruel thing to say."
"Clark, if I hadn't put him in that position, I'm sure he wouldn't have. That's why I know he was angry with me, and I think he was hurt, too. I need to apologize to him," she repeated. "I did a terrible thing to him as well as to you." She paused, blinking back the tears that were burning her eyes. "I just about said to your face that you weren't good enough, and then I practically tried to blackmail Superman into saying he loved me. I was so stupid, Clark. I didn't realize that the most extraordinary man that I could possibly wish for already loved me. I had to reach for the 'god in a cape'. He was right, too. I don't really know Superman, so how could I possibly be in love with him?"
Clark's arms tightened. "I don't know what I expected when I … told you what I did. How could my resources possibly compare to Luthor's? I — just wanted you to know, that was all. And I was afraid for you, or I might not have said anything then. I knew you didn't love me."
"Oh, but I do!" The words burst out of her before she could stop them. "I think I've been in love with you for months. I just didn't realize it!"
The silence that followed her admission could only be described as charged. Clark went completely still, his arms still encircling her. When he did speak, his voice didn't sound like Clark's at all.
"You … have?"
"I realized it when it was too late," she said, her words muffled in his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Clark. If I'd figured it out beforehand, we wouldn't be in this mess right now. I was looking for moonlight and roses and starbursts. I didn't realize that sometimes real love kind of sneaks up on you in the form of your best friend. I was never comfortable with Lex, you know — even with all his practiced compliments and charm — and Superman is my friend, but I've never really had the time to get to know him well enough to fall in love with him." She pulled a little away and looked up into his face. "I had a huge crush on him, of course. I guess in some ways I still do — but that's all it is. And in that, I guess I'm the same as about fifty million other women in the world. I don't know why I should be any different."
"Don't kid yourself, Lois. You're one of a kind." His voice sounded choked.
"I guess I am to you," she acknowledged, "and you're the only one whose opinion matters." She smiled sadly at him. "It's funny to say that. Me, Lois Lane, the Daily Planet's star reporter. Star reporter, hah! If it hadn't been for me the Daily Planet would still be here!"
"It wasn't you, Lois!" The harshness of his voice startled her. "It was Luthor's fault, not yours. You didn't tell him to blow up the Planet. He did it on his own. It doesn't matter what his reason was."
Lois didn't answer. She didn't completely agree, but she had come to the realization two days before that blaming herself upset him. He might not blame her for what had happened, but she knew that it was going to be a long time before she let herself off the hook.
"I've been watching a lot of the news when you weren't here," she said, after a moment. "It was interesting — when they weren't speculating over where I am. The evidence about Lex is coming out so fast …"
"In a criminal organization like the one he ran, once it cracks open, it cracks wide open and a lot of people start talking like crazy to try to get themselves in a better bargaining position."
"I know that. I've cracked more than one, myself. It took you to crack this one, though. I was asleep at the switch."
He shook his head. "I didn't do it alone, Lois. I had Perry, Jimmy and Jack to help. Superman helped, too — finding out things the rest of us couldn't. He didn't give up on you either."
"I'd like to thank him for that, too," she said. "Along with the apology. But Clark — I haven't seen a mention of him anywhere in days. It's like he's vanished off the face of the Earth."
In a way, Superman *had* vanished off the face of the Earth, Clark thought. At least his powers had. He hadn't seen a sign of them since he had been trapped in the Kryptonite cage for over a day. And, he acknowledged bleakly, it was possible that Superman had vanished forever. He hadn't given up hope yet, but every day that hope grew a little dimmer.
Still, some good things had come out of this mess, too.
When Lois had told him she loved him on the day of her wedding, he had attributed it to shock and reaction to the horrible events of earlier in the day, as well as the fact that he was her closest friend. The words had given him hope, however, that someday his love for her might be returned, and had stopped him from telling the lie that had been on the tip of his tongue. He couldn't crush her that way when she was so upset.
But that had been three days ago. She'd recovered somewhat from the horror, and seemed to be regaining some of her balance, however precarious. And now … this. She actually meant it, he thought. She really meant that she loved him. It was much too soon to do anything about it, of course. She was a newly bereaved widow — not just any widow, but the widow of Lex Luthor. The tabloids would have a field day with them. But maybe after the furor had died down somewhat and the attention was off them, it would be different.
"Clark?" Her voice brought him out of his thoughts. She was looking at him with slightly worried frown on her features.
"Sorry," he said quickly. "I was thinking about what you said. Lois … do you remember what I told you that day?"
"You said you'd been in love with me for a long time," she said. "Why?" Her eyes widened. "Oh god, don't tell me you didn't …"
He caught her hands. "I meant every word of it. Don't ever think I didn't. I was just thinking that the tabloids are going to go crazier than they already have if they find out."
She put her head against his shoulder. "It's going to be a nightmare."
"No." He shook his head. "I can face down any tabloid reporter without a qualm as long as I have you. But it will be easier on both of us if they don't find out until this whole brouhaha dies down."
She nodded against his chest. "You believe me, don't you, Clark?"
He stroked her hair. "Yes. I'm still a little flabbergasted, but I believe you."
She gave a small choke of laughter. "Do you know, I think that's the first time I've actually heard that word used in conversation?"
"Oh, I know a lot of words that you big city types rarely hear," he said and he could hear the smile in his own voice. "You know, I wonder if you and I might not benefit from a couple of weeks away from the city and the press. It's been a pretty stressful week. Maybe by the time we get back, something will have come up to take their attention off of us."
"It would be nice," she said a little wistfully, "but where would we go that they couldn't find us, and how would we get out without being followed?"
"I'm pretty sure Mom and Dad wouldn't mind if we came to visit," he said. "As for getting out of here without being followed, give me a little time to think about it. I think that with Perry's help, we can manage something."
The small dinner party that Clark Kent had prepared for his three friends — the editor of the Planet, Jimmy Olsen and Jack Brown, the people who had helped him to bring about the fall of the House of Luthor, as the Metropolis Star so cleverly phrased it — went off without a hitch two nights later. Unfortunately, the light over Clark Kent's door was out, and when the guests left, the tallest figure carried a flashlight to guide their feet down the flight of steps to Perry White's car.
Several of the journalists who had camped out around Clark Kent's apartment made a move to approach, but the presence of two burly members of Metropolis's police force, supplied by Inspector Henderson, in response to a request from his old friend, Perry White, kept the eager news hawks at bay.
One of the two silhouettes accompanying the heavier figure of the Planet's editor opened the driver's door for him and then got into the rear seat. The other and taller one climbed into the passenger seat. The car pulled away from the curb and the newsmen settled down for another long night of watching Kent's apartment. The men and women were persistent. Kent undoubtedly knew where his former partner was hiding out. Sooner or later, he would lead them to her.
Inside the apartment, Jimmy Olsen and Jack watched as the taillights of their boss's car, carrying Clark Kent and Lois Lane, vanished down the street. Jimmy twitched the curtain into place and grinned at his fellow conspirator. "Looks like they bought it," he said.
"Yep," Jack said, smugly. "Told you it'd work. So, we've got a couple of hours to kill. What do you want to do?"
"Well, CK's got a bunch of videos here," Jimmy said. "Let's see. 'An Affair to Remember' …" They looked at each other and shook their heads in unison. "Definitely not," Jimmy said. He quickly surveyed the remaining tapes. "How about 'Lethal Weapon IV?'"
"That one's not bad," Jack agreed. "Put it on. Clark's got a lot of junk food in there. I'll get the chips and soda."
"I got it all set up for you," Perry said. "Plane rental, and the pilot is a friend who owes me a couple of favors. He'll fly you into Wichita and ask no questions."
"We owe you a lot for this, Perry," Clark said.
"You don't owe me anything, son," Perry said. "By the time you get back we'll have the Planet up and running again, and I'll expect the team of Lane and Kent to be ready to get back in the saddle."
"I can't believe Mr. Stern reconsidered," Lois said in a low voice.
"He didn't want Luthor to win any more'n I did," Perry said. "He's got a bunch of ideas for modernizin' the place that I'm not so sure of, but maybe it'll work out okay. In the meantime, honey, you relax and try to forget about this whole mess. The lawyers and the press can deal with me and your lawyer in the meantime. Don't worry about it. If we really need to get hold of you, I have your number."
"A day or two of my mom's home cooking will have Lois feeling like her old self," Clark said, and if Perry noticed the slight hint of strain in his voice, he didn't remark on it. "With luck, maybe something else will happen in the meantime to distract them."
"It probably will," Perry said. "There's another scandal in the city government brewing. I think I'll assign that new hire, Ralph What'sisname to it. He seems to have a nose for scandal. Maybe he'll be able to dig up some dirt that will take the public's attention off the whole mess."
"I hope so," Lois said. "If you see Superman in the meantime, tell him I said thank you for helping Clark."
"I will," Perry said. He turned onto the Bayshore Parkway, headed for the Metro Private Airport.
"Clark, are you all right?" Lois turned to look at her partner as he leaned back in the passenger seat of the small plane. They had been in the air for seven hours, not counting the stop for refueling, and Lois wished, not for the first time, that they had been able to take a passenger jet or even Superman Express. Still, although it might take longer, this way offered the anonymity that a 727 certainly would not.
In the dim light of the little four-seater plane's cabin, it was hard to tell, but Clark didn't look quite right. His face was drawn and there were dark patches under his eyes. He smiled briefly at her.
"Yeah." He had to clear his throat. "I'm okay."
Was she imagining things, or was that sweat on his forehead? She put out a hand and touched his cheek lightly with the back. He felt warm, and his cheek was damp with perspiration. "Clark, you're running a temperature."
"No, that's not … well, maybe," he conceded. "I might have picked up that stomach bug that's going around."
"Why didn't you tell me you weren't feeling well?" she demanded. "We could have put this trip off a day."
"I felt okay a little while ago," he said. "Besides, the faster we got out of Metropolis, the better off we were. For all we knew, one of those guys staked out across from my place might try to climb in *my* kitchen window." He pulled the light jacket he wore more tightly around him. "It's nothing, Lois. I'll be fine."
"Clark, I've *never* seen you sick before! Even when you had amnesia, you were the picture of health!"
"Even the best of us can catch a cold," he said. He rubbed his temples, grimacing slightly.
"What's the matter?"
"Just a bit of a headache," he said.
"Well, that's not surprising, if you're running a fever," she said. "Look, lean back in your seat and try to sleep, okay? You'll feel better if you do."
He nodded and obeyed. She put a hand over his on the seat's armrest. Even his hand was hot, she thought, but she didn't comment. Instead, she leaned forward in the seat. "How much longer?"
The pilot stretched. "About another four hours, Miss."
"Okay, thanks." Lois looked at her companion. Clark definitely looked as if he had felt better, but the stomach bug that had been making the rounds in Metropolis in the last few weeks wasn't serious — just uncomfortable, as she knew from experience. It lasted about 48 hours and produced a fever and mild symptoms of nausea, but nothing worse. Still, the timing could have been better.
Once they were on the ground, Clark would probably feel better, she reassured herself. The motion of the plane was undoubtedly contributing to his discomfort. Perry had rented a car for them in Jimmy's name. They would pick it up at the airport and then they could drive the rest of the way to Smallville. Correction; she would drive while Clark slept. Fortunately, she knew the route, having traveled it twice before on her previous trip to Smallville last fall, and this time there would be no Jason Trask awaiting them. It would just be two weeks on a Kansas farm, with no yacht cruises, no French chefs and definitely no reporters to intrude on their peace and quiet. Normally, she would have regarded such a program with distaste if not downright revulsion, and probably by the time the two weeks were up she would be glad to go back to Metropolis, even if she had to face the tabloids. At the moment, though, the thought of Jonathan and Martha Kent and their small farm was unbelievably attractive.
Clark's head fell sideways and his heavier breathing told her that he was asleep. She put her hand over his and held it lightly. The skin was too warm but she continued to hold his hand anyway. How incredibly fortunate she was to have him. He had kept his vow that he would not see her married to Lex, and she couldn't blame him, but he must have come to be there for her when Henderson arrested Lex. She kicked herself figuratively again. How could she have been so callous, walking over Clark's feelings as if they didn't matter? He had been there for her through thick and thin over the last months but as usual she hadn't been thinking of anyone but herself. That was going to change. From now on, she would think before she spoke. Clark deserved better from her.
Lois sighed softly. He still loved her in spite of what she had put him through, and that was something of a miracle. They were going to have to wait to start any kind of official relationship until the novelty of the events at the wedding wore off, but maybe in a year or so …
After a time, the soft drone of the engine and the gentle swaying of the cabin blended into a kind of haze, and Lois dozed.
Clark leaned back in the seat, following Lois's instructions. He had never felt like this before, and the fact scared him a little. What was going on? Superman didn't get sick … but he wasn't Superman any longer, he reminded himself. It had been five days now since he'd escaped from the Kryptonite cage, and there was no sign of his powers coming back. Did that mean that they were gone for good? Even if they weren't, did the lack of powers mean that he would now become vulnerable to ordinary Earth-germs? Or was it something else?
He heard Lois's voice asking the pilot how much longer the trip would last, but it was a pleasant murmur in the background. He hadn't slept well for the past few nights — well, if he was honest with himself, he hadn't slept well for weeks, ever since he had discovered that Lois meant to marry Lex Luthor, but without his powers, sleeping on the couch the last few nights had been nearly impossible. His joints were still full of aches and pains from the Kryptonite exposure, and his muscles were sore. There was also the added complication that he had felt it necessary to maintain a certain level of alertness in case one of the less reputable members of the press stakeout outside his place decided to try to find out what secrets he was hiding behind the closed doors of his apartment. Now that the trip was nearly over, he finally felt able to relax and the fatigue rushed over him like a great wave.
Perry White jerked awake at the sound of his ringing phone. He sat up, reaching for the instrument, fumbled for a moment and managed to grab the receiver without knocking it on the floor. "H'lo?"
"Perry?" The voice of Bill Henderson on the other end brought him quickly awake. "Is that you?"
"Yeah," he answered, keeping his voice low. Beside him, his wife rolled over and opened one eye.
"Who is it?" she mumbled.
"Henderson," he mouthed silently. "Yeah, it's me, Bill. What's up?"
"We think we may have a problem, Perry. Your pilot friend, Barry Jones, just turned up at the emergency room with a big lump on his head. He'd been assaulted and all his identification taken. According to the dispatcher at Metro Field, the plane took off on schedule. Did Lane and Kent get on it?"
White sat up so fast that his head swam for an instant. "*What*?"
"Did Lane and Kent get on that plane?"
"Far as I know they did." He pushed the covers aside and swung his feet out of bed. "Is Jones okay?"
"Concussion and a big lump on his head, but they think he'll be all right. Okay, we're going to try to trace the plane. It sounds like someone substituted pilots. Damn!"
"Is there anything I can do?" White asked.
"Yeah. Where were they going?"
"They were supposed to be headed for Wichita Field in Kansas. Clark's parents live in Smallville."
"Well, it sounds like someone else had other plans. With the amount of money involved, and the business Luthor ran, I can see somebody wanting Luthor's widow out of the way. I'll keep you informed." Henderson hung up.
Perry put the receiver down slowly. Alice had pushed herself up on one elbow. "What's going on?"
He told her. Alice bit her lip. "Is there anything we can do?"
"Henderson's on it," he said. "Normally I'd expect Lois and Clark to be able to take care of themselves, but before they left, both of them were looking like they'd about reached the end of their ropes. Clark wasn't feelin' good, either. He didn't say anything, but I could tell somethin' was wrong. I figured gettin' the two of them out of town so they could recuperate was the best thing we could do, but it looks like somebody else might have his eye on Luthor's money. Of course lots of people have tried to kill Lois, but right now she's still shaken up over the Luthor thing … and there's been no sign of Superman for a week. This is bad."
A change in the motion of the plane brought Lois out of her light doze and for an instant, blinking around in the dimness of the cabin, she didn't remember where she was, but memory returned quickly. They were in a four-seater private plane, headed for Kansas. The cabin light had been turned off. Only the little emergency light gleamed on the cabin wall, dimly illuminating her partner's sleeping face. The plane must be coming in for a landing, she thought.
Clark was still soundly asleep in his seat, his head drooping sideways onto her shoulder. His face looked more flushed than it had before, and there was a sheen of perspiration on his upper lip. The slight growth of beard on his chin and cheeks scratched her arm lightly when she moved.
The plane dipped sharply, and she gasped. "What was …
The pilot's seat was empty. For a second, the fact didn't register, then she unfastened her seatbelt with trembling fingers and lunged forward to peer over the seat back, looking to see if the man had collapsed or something. Nothing. The pilot was gone.
"Clark!" She screamed the word as she scrambled to climb into the front.
"Wha …" She heard his voice, blurred with sleep as she squeezed between the seats and hastily belted herself into the copilot's position.
The controls looked halfway familiar, the result of having ridden in a number of small planes in the course of her duties, but she had no idea what to do with them. "Clark!"
"What's going on?" The muzziness of sleep had disappeared from his voice and an instant later he was peering between the seats.
"The pilot's gone!"
"Gone! What are we going to do?"
She could hear him fumbling with the seat belt and a soft exclamation of pain, then he was squeezing between the seats. He folded his long frame into the pilot's chair, and she saw him turning his head rapidly as he took in the instrument readings. "The autopilot's on," he said. "We're okay for a few minutes at least, but there's not much fuel left."
"What are we going to *do*?" she wailed.
"We need to find a place to land this thing," he replied. "I don't know what's going on here, but it looks like we've been set up."
"Not by Perry!"
"No, of course not. But Lois, did it occur to you that you're a very wealthy widow?"
She gulped. "It hadn't, no."
"Not to mention, some of Luthor's associates weren't the most upstanding of citizens."
"I get the picture," she snapped. "How are we going to get down? Do you know how to fly one of these things?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. First, though, we need to find a reasonably flat place down there to land. Can you see anything below us?"
She peered down at the dark countryside below. "Not a thing."
"Keep looking. I'm going to bring us down a bit closer to the ground so we can see the details a little better."
Lois bit her lip, watching her partner as he handled the little craft. "Where did you learn to fly a plane?" she asked finally.
He didn't remove his gaze from the instruments. "We're over mountains," he said, "but it looks like there's a field ahead and to the left. It's the best we're likely to find. I'm going to try to bring us down there."
Lois nodded, gripping the arms of the copilot's chair so tightly that she thought they might break.
"Hang on," Clark said, suddenly. "I need to get this on the first try. We may not have enough fuel to try again."
Silence, broken only by the droning of the engine. The dark field came dimly into sight, but Clark wasn't watching it. His gaze was fixed on his instruments. Wasn't an instrument landing the hardest of all? On the other hand, considering what she could see ahead of them, it might be the only option.
Her partner seemed completely calm. The plane seemed to float toward the ground and in the end, she squeezed her eyes shut and simply held on.
She knew when the wheels hit because there was a jolt as if Clark had misjudged the distance. They bounced once and then again, and then the plane was rolling forward over rough ground, and they were coming to a stop.
Lois opened her eyes. Clark cut the engine and leaned back in the pilot's chair, closing his eyes. He blew air out in a gusty sigh. Only then did she realize that the calm he had maintained during the descent had been a faáade. He'd been almost as scared as she was.
"You did it," she croaked.
"Yeah." He opened his eyes and smiled at her. It was a wobbly smile, but it was still a smile. "I hope I don't have to do that again for a while."
"They say any landing you walk away from is a good one," she said, trying for lightness. "You saved our lives."
"Well, I got us on the ground, anyway."
"Where did you learn how to fly?" she asked again.
He shrugged. "I was in Africa for several months after I graduated from Midwest U," he explained. "For a little while I worked with a group of medical missionaries, flying in and out of the interior. I never had a license, though. It was simply a matter of one of the pilots teaching me to be a backup pilot, just in case. I haven't flown a plane in nearly four years."
"Thank god you remembered how." She fumbled with the seat belt. "I guess we'd better get out."
He shook his head. "We may as well stay where we are until the sun comes up," he said. "We haven't got a clue where we are. This sure as heck isn't Kansas."
He was right about that, she knew. "How about the radio? Can't we call for help?"
He gestured to two dangling wires. "I think our pilot made sure we couldn't do that, on the off-chance that we did get down safely," he said. "I'll take a closer look when it's daylight, but …"
"Yeah. Oh, Clark …"
He put his arms around her. "We'll get out of here, Lois," he said. "It takes more than this to kill Lane and Kent."
The cabin was cold, now that the heater was no longer on. Lois pulled her legs up under her and wrapped her arms around her upper torso, tugging the light jacket tightly around her shoulders. Clark huddled in the pilot's seat and even in the dark of pre-dawn, she could tell that he was shivering.
"Clark?" she whispered. There was no reason to whisper but something about the hour and the circumstances seemed to make it appropriate.
"Are you cold?"
"A little." The words were clipped, and she thought she could hear the quiver in his voice.
"I'm freezing. It's summer. Why is it so cold?"
"I think it's the altitude," he said, and she was sure that his voice shook this time. "We're pretty high in the mountains."
"Where do you think we are?"
His dark silhouette turned toward her and she saw him shrug. "Anywhere within about fifteen hundred miles or so of Metropolis, maybe more — but definitely *not* in Kansas." She saw him pull his jacket more tightly around himself. "If I didn't know better, I'd think we were in the Rockies."
"Could we be?" she asked. "How long were we in the air?"
"I'm not sure," Clark said. "I was asleep."
"So was I. What are we going to do?"
"Wait until morning. After the sun comes up we'll see what the lay of the land is." He shivered suddenly and violently.
"How do you feel?" she asked. She stretched out a hand and felt his face. "Clark, you're burning up!"
"Maybe your hands are just cold," he suggested, but there was no conviction in his voice, and she could hear it quivering.
"Don't be silly. We've got to get you something to wrap up in before you catch pneumonia. How do we get to the suitcases?"
"I'll get them." He started to unfasten his seat belt.
"You'll stay right where you are. Here." She pulled off her light jacket and covered his legs. "I'll get some of the clothing out of the suitcases. It may not be heavy, but three or four layers will provide insulation."
"Don't argue with me, Clark!" she snapped. "You're the only hope we have of getting out of this mess, and I'm not going to let anything happen to you!"
He gave a faint laugh that turned into a cough. "Okay, you're the boss. There's a door in the rear. The suitcases are in there."
Some time later, Clark awakened to discover that he was covered in various articles of clothing, but at least he was warmer than he had been. Some. His throat was raw, his head pounded and his stomach had definitely been in better shape. He would never dismiss the suffering of a victim of motion sickness again, he thought vaguely. He'd had no idea.
He turned his head to see that the seat beside him was empty, and slowly it dawned on him that it was no longer dark. It was broad daylight. His chair had been tipped back as far as it would go and Lois had covered him with several of his shirts and her best skirt.
He raised his head and dropped it back on the headrest as the pounding behind his eyes threatened to make his head burst. "Lois?" he called. Then, louder, "Lois?"
"I'm right here." His partner hoisted herself into the cockpit. "How are you feeling?"
"Not too bad," he said.
Lois regarded him skeptically. "Right. Well, you look ghastly. Why not tell me the truth? How do you really feel?"
He hesitated and gave in. "Pretty awful."
"That's what I thought," she said. "I've been looking around. We're in the mountains, all right. No sign of civilization that I can see, but there could be a town two miles away and I wouldn't know it. There was some frost on the ground, but it melted when the sun came up. Anyway, there was a lunch pail with a couple of sandwiches and some coffee in a thermos back there with the suitcases. Probably the pilot's lunch. Would you like one?"
Even the thought of food made his stomach lurch alarmingly. "Not right now."
Lois wasn't fooled. "Is your stomach upset?"
She rested her hand on his forehead. "You're still running a fever. I think you have the flu, Clark. Try to go back to sleep if you can. The more rest you get, the better."
He wasn't so sure about her diagnosis. It just didn't seem right that he should suddenly catch the stomach flu when he'd never been susceptible to any kind of infection as a child, even before his powers had started to come in. The only thing that he could guess was that it had something to do with his prolonged exposure to the Kryptonite cage — some kind of delayed reaction, maybe. If he survived this, maybe one of Jimmy's friends at STAR Labs could figure it out. In the meantime …
"Um … Lois, I need to …" He made a vague gesture toward the outside world. "I'll be right back, okay?'
"Oh … sure." She stepped back to let him out. He unfastened the catch of his seat belt and tried to lever himself out of the seat, and nearly fell as his knees wobbled. Lois grabbed him.
"Clark! Are you all right?"
"Uh … yeah." He paused to breathe. "A little shaky. Do you think you could give me a hand out of here?"
"Sure. Sit down on the floor and slide your feet out. I'll make sure you don't fall …"
A short time later she left him to his privacy behind a clump of scraggly bushes and tall weeds that she had designated the "little boy's room". Clark hoped that he got over whatever was wrong with him quickly. This was downright embarrassing.
She was waiting for him when he made his shaky way back to the plane. The thought of climbing the two steps back to the pilot's chair in his current unsteady condition was daunting. Clark sank down on the bottom step, breathing hard, and lowered his face into his hands until the pounding in his head lessened somewhat.
"Do you want to sit here in the sun for a few minutes?" He lifted his head at her words to see that she had flattened the tall weeds in a three-foot circle and covered it with several pieces of clothing.
"Yeah." He gratefully lowered himself to the spot she had made for him. She sank down beside him, again, feeling his cheek.
"I think your temperature is coming down a bit," she said. "I hope so. I've never seen you sick before, Clark."
"I don't get sick too often," he said.
"Well, you're making up for it this time," she said. "You were kind of muttering in your sleep a while ago. You seemed kind of upset, and I think you were having a nightmare. I wanted to wake you up, but I decided you needed to sleep more."
"What did I say?" he asked.
"I couldn't make out most of it, but there was something about a cage, and Lex. It must have been one heck of a dream."
"I guess so. I don't remember." He glanced up at the sun, which was high in the sky. "What time is it?"
"Almost noon. I know you don't want to eat anything, but would you like a little water?"
Water sounded good. "Yeah."
"Okay. There's a stream over that way." She waved in the direction of a line of greener vegetation. "I boiled some water for us, just to be sure it's safe. I don't trust these mountain streams."
"Neither do I," he said. "How did you manage that?"
"I started a fire," she said. "I happen to have a little magnifying glass on my pocket knife. It's not very big, but it worked."
She brought him a thermos cup full of water and he drained it in two swallows. The liquid tasted wonderful on the dry tissues of his mouth.
"Thanks," he said. The cloth with which she had covered the trampled weeds was looking more and more inviting and the blood singing in his ears made him feel light-headed. He lowered himself to the ground, folding his legs up so that he could fit in the space she had created. Lois put a hand on his shoulder.
"Do you want me to help you back into the plane?"
He shook his head in negation. "Mind if I sleep here for a while?"
"No, of course not. I'll get something to cover you." She stood up and moved out of his sight. He closed his eyes, and was barely aware a moment later when she returned to lay several articles of clothing over him. Clark slept.
The sun was swimming on the horizon when he woke again. Lois was sitting next to him and she looked around as he stirred.
"Hi," he rasped.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Good." She took his hand. "A little while ago, I noticed you were sweating like crazy. I think maybe your fever broke."
"The headache's gone, so you're probably right." He felt like a washrag that had been wrung out and hung up to dry, but that was a lot better than feeling as if his head was on the verge of exploding.
"Do you want some more water?"
He nodded. His mouth felt like a desert.
"Here." Lois produced the thermos cup once more. "Take it slow."
He hoisted himself up on one elbow and took the cup. She steadied his shaking hand as he drained the contents.
"In a few minutes," he said. Carefully, he lowered his shoulders back onto the ground. "I don't want to get sick again."
She nodded. "Clark, you were talking about a cage again. You kept muttering about it, and about me marrying Lex, and needing to stop the wedding. What happened to you?"
"What did I say?"
"Something about a cage, and being trapped and in pain. It was kind of garbled. You kept saying things about needing to stop Lex from marrying me, trying to save me from him. What was it about?" Her hand tightened. "Clark, what did he do to you?"
He closed his eyes for a long minute. She hadn't added it up, but why was he hiding it from her, anyway? She'd already told him that she loved him; that her crush on Superman was only that: a crush. Why hadn't he told her the truth?
"If you're too tired, I'll understand," Lois said. She stroked his forehead. "I'm sorry, Clark. I shouldn't be bothering you with this right now, but you kept talking about the cage and Lex … It's … Lex did something to you, didn't he? Something you didn't want to tell me about. He couldn't be satisfied with destroying the Planet and marrying me. He had to try to hurt you, my partner, too."
"Luthor knew I was a rival," Clark said. "He knew that I'd do anything to stop you from marrying him. He was going to kill me."
Her hand tightened around his. "That bast …"
"Shh." He opened his eyes again. "You'll probably call me that in a minute, too."
"Clark, I'd never …"
"Don't say never. There's something I haven't told you. I've wanted to for weeks … months. But I couldn't … as long as you were going to marry Luthor."
She bit her lip. "If it was something that Lex could have used to hurt you, you were probably right."
"He could have," Clark said, slowly. "He definitely could have. There's no question of that. I should have told you afterwards, though." He pushed himself shakily up on his elbow again and raised his free hand to remove his glasses. "Luthor lured me to the basement of Lex Tower — his wine cellar. He wanted me to use my influence to convince Clark Kent to attend your wedding. He couldn't know, of course, that he was speaking to Clark. I told him I wouldn't do it — that I'd use every power at my disposal to stop the wedding. That's when he told me that he had no more use for me. He dropped the cage over me. The bars were coated with Kryptonite, and I couldn't get away. I was there for over a day. I thought I was going to die there." He raised his face to let her look him directly in the eyes. "Look at me, Lois. Tell me who you see."
It was all falling into place.
Lois stared at her partner's naked face, unmasked by the horn- rimmed glasses. In the past week she had discovered that many of the things she thought she knew weren't true at all. She shouldn't have been surprised.
Superman's face. Superman.
She had been working unknowing alongside the man of her dreams all this time, the man she'd had a tremendous crush on, and had constantly compared him unfavorably to the hero.
"Clark is the before, Superman is the after. Make that the way, way after."
She'd been so utterly, utterly blind. She'd taken advantage of him, she'd done things behind his back, she'd criticized him, she'd insulted him and made fun of his country background. He'd taken it all with good humor and even handed it back to her a few times.
"You like to be on top. Got it."
That retort from the načve "hack from Nowheresville" had both offended and startled her and she'd never once acknowledged to him that she'd been incredibly rude. He'd let her know that he knew it, though, without backing down, just with that answer.
He'd tried to tell her about Lex numerous times and she'd accused him of making things up out of jealousy. He'd declared his love for her and she'd thrown it in his face and asked him to find Superman for her. No wonder Superman had been angry with her when he'd come to her apartment that night. She had hurt him, and insulted him unforgivably and not even known it. And in spite of it all, he'd assembled a group of his and her friends and worked desperately to save her from making a horrible mistake. Because he loved her. In spite of the cruel way she had treated him, he still loved her.
And the man that she had married had tried to murder him with Kryptonite. Kryptonite, the meteorite from Superman's home world that Jason Trask had believed would kill Superman; the poisonous mineral that had vanished mysteriously from the lab where Wayne Irig had sent it. It had been Lex. Of course it had been Lex. He'd had tentacles everywhere. He had tried to murder Superman and would have succeeded if Clark hadn't somehow managed to save himself. She'd been no use. She had been attending the opera the night before her wedding, while Clark had been lying in a cage in horrible pain, if the things that he had said in his sleep were true. She'd have been already sleeping with the enemy if she hadn't had the sense to wait until she and Lex were married. The very thought made her almost physically ill.
It was just one more revelation added to all the others that proved to her what an arrogant fool she had been. How could she have ever thought she was an investigative reporter when she had been so unbelievably wrong about everything important? Someone had once said that pride went before a fall. Well, it had been a big one, and she'd deserved it.
She didn't realize that tears were leaking down her face until she felt his arms close around her. "Lois, please don't cry. I can't stand it when you cry."
She couldn't answer. Clark held her while she sobbed against his shoulder, murmuring soothing words to her that she couldn't hear. His hand stroked her hair comfortingly.
"Lois, please. It's all right. Don't cry; it tears me apart when you cry."
She sobbed harder. "How can you still say that, after all I've done to you?" She choked out the words between shuddering sobs. "It's all my fault! It's probably my fault that you were so sick, too! He tried to *kill* you! If I could get my hands on him, I'd wring his neck!"
"Shh." He didn't loosen his arms or try to stop her after that. Instead, he rested his cheek against her hair and continued to hold her until the sobs began to die down.
She had cried more since her wedding, she thought miserably, than she had since she was a child. The tears finally stopped but she still burrowed into his shoulder and he hadn't removed his arms. He simply went on holding her, making no effort to let her go.
"Better?" he whispered softly.
She shook her head negatively. "Clark, I'm so sorry! I've been so awful to you!"
"You haven't," he said. "You've been my best friend. You've helped me more than you have any idea of. Lois, it's all right. It wasn't your fault."
"It was *all* my fault!" she whispered. "Some best friend I was! I was so mean to you, Clark. I treated you so badly, and I wouldn't believe you when you tried to tell me the truth. I couldn't believe that I could fall in love with a country boy from Kansas. I thought I knew it all. I had to have the best, the richest, the most powerful … and I nearly threw away the best man I know because I couldn't see the truth when it was right in front of my face. I had to pick a man who was everything you aren't — including being a monster in disguise. I can't understand why you still love me. I'm such an idiot!"
"You're the smartest woman I've ever met," he said quietly. "And the most fascinating. It's not your fault that you didn't know. I didn't want you to know about me in the beginning . My dad always warned me that if anyone found out what I was they'd put me in a lab and dissect me like a frog. I changed my mind about you, though. I wanted you to know, but I didn't know how to tell you."
"And then I got engaged to Lex." She made an effort to free herself from his embrace and he released her immediately. "Clark, I'm so horribly sorry about that night …"
He put a finger across her lips. "You've apologized enough," he said. "I was an idiot, too. If I hadn't been so jealous I'd have come to you as Superman and told you what I suspected. Instead I threw a tantrum, insulted you, then flew off to the Arctic to sulk. That wasn't very helpful, you know."
In spite of herself, a tiny giggle, marred by a hiccup, escaped her. "You did?"
"I sure did." He was smiling at her. "If I'd used my head instead of acting like a jealous dope, it would have saved us a lot of trouble, so it's at least as much my fault as yours."
"I'm not so sure of that," she muttered. "If I weren't so pig- headed …"
"Hey, you're insulting the woman I love," he said, lifting a hand to cup her cheek. "Besides, you wouldn't be my Lois if you weren't a little pig-headed. I owe you an apology too, so no more kicking yourself, okay? Wait until my powers come back and you can kick me instead."
She knew he was teasing her to make her feel better, and surprisingly enough, it was working. Clark had always known how to lift her spirits, just as he had always known how to deflate her gently when he thought her head had gotten too big. How she could ever have regarded Clark Kent as a lightweight was a complete mystery to her now. He wasn't perfect, but he understood her like no one else ever had, even Perry. "Okay, okay," she said, grudgingly.
"I promise," she agreed.
"I'll hold you to that," he said. His smile faltered a little, and Lois saw that his face had gone paler. What was she thinking? She'd been indulging in a bout of guilt and he had felt it necessary to comfort her, when all the time he should have been resting! He'd been so sick all afternoon, and the last thing he should have to do was to use up his reserves that way. She'd been doing it again — thinking only about herself when she should have been thinking of him!
She caught his arm. "Clark, lie down," she commanded. "You're still not over this thing!"
"I'm all right," he said. "I feel a lot better than I did a while ago."
"Well considering how bad you felt then, that's not saying much," she retorted. "Do what I say!"
"Aye aye, ma'am," he said, with a slight smile. "You're the boss."
"Just do it," she said. "I don't care if you're Superman or not. You've got to get well if we're going to get out of here."
He obeyed her order and she didn't miss the tiny sigh of relief when he was lying on the ground once more.
"Just a minute. I'm going to get you something for a pillow," she informed him. "And some more covers. It's getting chilly."
"We can go inside the plane," he said. "It's warmer in there."
"But not a lot." She dithered a moment. "You're probably right. I'm going to get out the rest of the stuff in the suitcases so we can cover up tonight. I nearly froze this morning until I put on some extra clothes. You stay here until I get back to help you."
"Lois, I'm not an invalid," he protested.
"No, but you were pretty sick, Clark. I think you were out of your head for a little while, just before the fever broke. If you'd died, I'd never have forgiven myself." She scowled at him. "From now on, you're going to take care of yourself. No more of this macho 'I'm a guy, I don't get sick' stuff, got it, Kent?"
"Got it," he said, more meekly. "You're the boss."
"And don't you forget it," she couldn't resist adding.
"Are you hungry?" Lois asked. Clark had settled into the pilot's chair again and Lois had just finished tucking shirts, a skirt, a couple of pairs of slacks and a sweater over him. "I know you didn't want to eat anything earlier, but I saved you one of the sandwiches, just in case you changed your mind."
"A little," he said, sounding surprised. "I guess I could eat part of one. What is it?"
"Chicken," Lois said. "I left it in the lunchbox in the plane," she added. "I think it was probably cold enough to stay good. Why don't you try one of the halves?"
"Okay. If you'll eat the other half."
"You need it more than I do," she said.
"No, we both need to eat," he countered. "Tomorrow we'll try to figure out which way to go. Maybe we'll find some fruit or something to eat."
They ate in silence, rounding off the meal with the water Lois had boiled.
Lois watched her partner as he slowly finished the food, trying to reconcile what she thought she knew about him with the new information. He still looked pale but at least his appetite was back.
He had been studying the slowly darkening landscape without as he munched his sandwich, but now he turned to see her watching him. He smiled slightly. "What?" he asked.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Better. I think the worst is over."
"That's a relief. Clark …"
"This Kryptonite … what is it?"
He shrugged. "I don't know, really. Probably a piece of Krypton. Whatever it is, it's poisonous to me. It's a green crystal, and it glows. Trask said it was radioactive but didn't seem to hurt humans. I've only run into it once before."
"Where?" she asked, curiously.
"On my parents' farm." He studied the dead instruments on the control panel. "Trask was partly right. When Wayne Irig found the meteorite, he didn't send all of it to the lab in Wichita. He only sent them a little chunk. When Trask and his gang showed up, he took the rest of it to my dad and asked him to hide it for him."
"Why didn't your dad get rid of it?"
"He didn't know what it was. No one had ever seen it before. The night you and I arrived, he took me out to the barn to see it. He showed it to me and I collapsed. When you came into the kitchen a little later, Mom and Dad told you that my allergies were acting up."
She thought that over. "It must be pretty nasty stuff to knock you out like that."
"It was a big piece. Anyway, it took my powers away for a while — for two days, actually. I was afraid they were never going to come back."
"What happened to it?"
He shrugged. "Trask eventually got hold of it and attacked me with it, just about the time my powers came back. I managed to destroy it, but I didn't have any powers again for another day after that. He and I got into that fight, and you know the rest."
"So it's gone," she said. "Then Lex must have managed to get hold of the sample Wayne Irig sent to the lab. It's the only thing that makes sense."
He nodded. "Probably. Why?"
"I've been trying to figure out where it came from. The thought of a lot of this stuff out there floating around bothers me."
"It bothers me too," Clark said. "I doubt there's much more, but it may not matter. I was exposed to the Kryptonite in that cage for over a day, and so far my powers have shown no sign of returning. They may be gone for good."
"You seem to be taking it awfully calmly," she said.
"I don't know what else to do," Clark said. "I can't *make* them come back. The only thing I can do is wait and hope."
And Lex had used his love for her to lure him in, and now because of her, Superman was gone — maybe forever. Lois bit her lip. She had plunged headfirst into risky situations before, but until now, no one else had ever had to pay the price because she had failed to check the water level. Now it was Clark who was paying the price. No, she wasn't going to forgive herself for this very soon.
"It wasn't your fault," Clark said, correctly interpreting her expression. "Luthor wasn't trying to kill me just because of you, Lois. That was just a bonus. He's been my enemy since I arrived in Metropolis. He'd have tried to kill me even if he hadn't thought I was his rival for you." He reached out to take her hand. "You were the bait to get me where he wanted me. He knew I'd come if he wanted to talk to me about you."
"How many others did he plan to murder, Clark? Some of the things you said made me wonder …"
He looked uncomfortable. "He intended to kill Clark Kent. I was too close to you."
She would never tell him the other things he had rambled about in his sleep. That was when it had dawned on her that Lex had somehow tried to harm Clark. She shouldn't have been surprised, after all that she had learned about him, but she had been. There had been no depths to which Lex Luthor wouldn't sink. He had been intent on destroying everything that she loved — everything that had been her anchor. Would he have gone after her other friends? Perry, perhaps? She would never know now, but he might have.
But Clark and the others had already done their work when he had sprung his trap on Superman. He would have been arrested whether Superman had escaped the cage or not, but it might not have been in time to save Clark.
Clark's hand tightened around hers. "It's over, Lois," he said quietly. "Let it go. Beating yourself up over mistakes isn't going to do a bit of good. All I can do now — all any of us can do — is to make the best of things as they are. When we get back to Metropolis, I'll go to STAR Labs. There's a new researcher there; his name is Bernie Klein, and he's been studying Kryptonian physiology with the aim of helping me out if it ever turned out that I needed a doctor. He may be able to help me figure out what's happened — whether I can reasonably expect to ever regain my powers or whether Superman is permanently retired."
"Clark do you think that maybe the long exposure to the cage had something to do with you being so sick? Some kind of radiation sickness, maybe?"
He shrugged. "How can I tell? I've never been sick before, even before I started to get my powers." He was studying the blank instrument board again. "I'm not human. Like Trask said, I'm an alien. I don't think Earth germs affect me the way they do other people, so you could be right."
"I hope you won't be shocked, Clark, but I'm not sorry Trask is dead," Lois said. "He was a dangerous lunatic. He wanted to kill Superman, and was perfectly willing to kill anybody else who got in his way. At least now he can't hurt anyone ever again." She hesitated and added, "And neither can Lex." She squeezed his hand. "Look, I'm going to want you to tell me everything about yourself later, but now I think you should try to get some sleep. You've just barely gotten over whatever was the matter with you. We've got a long walk ahead of us. I know you slept almost all day, but do you think you can sleep some more?"
"I think so," he said. "I hate to admit it, but I feel pretty wiped out."
"You're not telling me anything I don't know. Are you warm enough?"
He glanced down at the hodgepodge of clothing tucked around him. "I think so. Are you?"
"I'm wearing three layers of clothes and have all this stuff over me. You go to sleep. I'll be fine."
Lois stayed awake for some time after her partner had fallen asleep.
The cockpit of the little plane was not large and the quarters were thoroughly cramped. Clark's sleeping face was barely two feet away and she could hear him breathing softly. He didn't snore, she thought in surprise. Her father's snoring had resounded throughout the house when she was little, and it had always brought a sense of security to her — at least before the big breakup. She had known that her Daddy was there to protect her from the monsters under the bed. She had missed it when he was gone. And Claude had snored, too. She had thought that all men did.
He snuffled a little in his sleep and shifted his position slightly. She smiled, reaching out to touch his cheek lightly.
The moon was rising, round and full, flooding the landscape outside with pale light. Through the windshield of the plane, she could see the silvered field and the line of scraggly bushes that marked the streambed.
Her gaze returned to Clark. He had removed his glasses and she studied Superman's face in the moonlight. His hair was mussed, and there were lines that she had never noticed before her disastrous wedding to Lex.
She supposed that she could have chosen to be angry with him. A few days ago she might have been, she knew, but now she just didn't have the energy, and much as she might want to be, his reasons for not telling her were compelling, especially now, after she had been forced to face the truth about the man that she had married. Lex Luthor, sociopath and criminal mastermind, murderer many times over, and would-be murderer of her partner. The man who would have killed Superman.
If he had discovered Superman's real identity, Lex would have taken the knowledge and used it to attack Clark. She didn't doubt that for an instant. He would have threatened Martha and Jonathan Kent for certain. Clark would have been forced to protect them every second. Lex would have used them to try to control Superman, just as he had controlled the lives of countless other more insignificant persons. As he had begun to try to control her, even before their wedding. Clark's only safety, and the safety of those he loved, depended on the Superman disguise and the fact that probably very few persons could conceive of someone like him living the life of an ordinary newsman. He hadn't been free to take the risk of telling her when so much depended on the deception.
She sighed softly. How many times had she hurt him without knowing or caring? He had loved her for months. That part was obvious now, but she had been so dazzled by the man in tights that she hadn't looked farther than the powers, the magnificent body and the flashy suit. She had never stopped to pay attention to the man who worked next to her every day, even though he had quietly and without fuss wormed his way into her heart.
He'd called her a snob once. He had been right, she reflected bitterly. Back then, she couldn't conceive of falling in love with a načve country boy. Lois Lane, sophisticated city woman, wouldn't settle for anyone so far beneath her. And yet, it had been Clark all along. She just hadn't been willing to see it until her world had come crashing down around her and Clark had been there to pick up the pieces.
She reached out to brush back the lock of hair that fell persistently onto his forehead. His skin was cool and dry in the chill of the plane's interior. At least the fever was gone now, thank god. For a while during the afternoon, she had feared that she was going to lose him too, and that would have been too much to bear.
But he'd gotten into this situation because of her. In a way, it had been she who had brought him to this point.
The feverish ramblings earlier in the day had driven that point mercilessly home, no matter how much that he denied the fact now. Lex's name, over and over. The cage, and his inability to get away. His pain and hopelessness as he fought his battle to escape, and his desperation to save her.
And the one-sided conversation with Lex. He'd repeated that so many times that she could have recited it by heart. That part had been chillingly vivid.
And his conviction that he was going to die.
Lois shivered. She had hoped against hope that that part had been a dream, knowing all the while that it wasn't. She could almost visualize Lex standing there and taunting his victim with that amused, superior little smile that he had when he knew he had the upper hand.
But in the end, Lex had been just a little careless while he basked in his victory. Somehow, Clark had used the last of his strength to reach the key. He'd got the door open finally and, against all odds, managed to get away, barely able to crawl.
She slipped a hand over his and held it tightly. He'd nearly died because of her. She had even more to forgive herself for than she'd thought.
Clark obviously had no intention of telling her what he had endured in those hours, but she would never forget the horror as she listened to him mumble and fight his battle over and over again in his sleep. He had fought so hard for her as well as himself, because of his determination to save her from Lex.
And ironically, the loss of his powers had been the deciding factor in the end. If Superman had been able to fly he would certainly have felt duty-bound to save Lex when he jumped, and then she would have been trapped forever, bound to a monster possibly for life. She would never mention to Clark the relief that she had heard in his voice at the fact that Lex was dead. Hate didn't come naturally to a man like Clark. He could usually find some sliver of good in even the worst of the criminals that they had exposed over the last few months, but even Superman could hate, given a good enough reason. He hated Lex, she thought, even if he hadn't acknowledged it, and she was equally sure that he wouldn't have let it stop him from saving the man if it had been within his power. That was something that she would never mention to him, either.
"Oh Clark," she murmured very softly, "what have I done to you?"
The infuriating tears were leaking down her cheeks again and she let them fall in silence. Clark didn't blame her, but she blamed herself and always would. At the very least, though, she could learn from this. Trying to control everything and everybody around her, never being willing to admit she was wrong, even to herself, never listening to anyone else because she always knew best … Those were the qualities that had gotten her into this mess. They were what she was going to have to try to change. Some, anyway. Clark deserved that from her, if nothing else. If anyone had proven that he wouldn't betray her, even in the worst circumstances, it was her amazing partner. And if, as he had said, he still wanted her after everything that had happened, she was his.
Even if Superman never returned.
Clark awoke at the first light of dawn. He lay still for a moment, looking out at the pink sky with its layer of pink-tinged clouds. It was just after five.
Lois was sound asleep beside him, her hand resting over his. He smiled a little at the discovery but the sight of the streaks on her face where tears had run caused the smile to fade. She must have been crying after he'd gone to sleep. He wished he could help, but Lois had it fixed firmly in her head that everything that had happened was her fault and nothing he could say had been able to shake the conviction.
True, her refusal to believe him had been maddening at the time, but the mastermind behind this mess had been Lex Luthor, and it was on Luthor's shoulders where Clark squarely placed the blame. If he hadn't schemed to destroy everything that Lois depended on, if he hadn't manipulated and tricked her, none of this would have happened. He just didn't know how to make her see that. She was determined to blame herself, and it was tearing him apart. A contrite and submissive Lois simply wasn't in character. He couldn't regret Luthor's death, any more than he could regret that she now knew his secret — not that it would matter if his powers never returned.
Very carefully he turned his palm under her relaxed fingers and clasped her hand in his. He had dreamed of being able to do this, to openly admit that he loved her, for months. He just hadn't envisioned it as being in circumstances such as this. If he could turn back time, would he have his powers back if he had to give up Lois? The answer to that was decisively no. Given the choice, the powers took second place.
His stomach growled suddenly and he grimaced. It wasn't often that he felt genuine hunger, but in the last day and a half he had eaten half a chicken sandwich and drunk half a dozen cups of water. He was definitely hungry and there was nothing else to eat in the plane. Maybe, he thought, they could find some blackberries growing out there or something. They seemed to grow just about anywhere. Or maybe there were fish in the stream.
Carefully, he disengaged his hand from Lois's and tucked hers back under the miscellaneous pieces of clothing that she had used for a blanket. There was no point in waking her up yet.
A moment later, he was pulling extra shirts on over the one he was already wearing. Out from under his own covers, it was *cold*! He'd never been uncomfortable in the cold before, even though he had been aware of the temperature. Being without his powers was certainly becoming an education. Even as a child, he'd never been really uncomfortable in the extremes of temperature. His mother had frequently expressed her exasperation at him in the mornings when he would start off on his walk to the school bus and forget to take his jacket. The jacket he had brought on this trip, unfortunately, was no more than a windbreaker. Kansas in summer was always hot, even at night. He would remember this situation in the future, even if his powers came back someday, he decided. Taking a warm jacket wasn't such an inconvenience and there were occasions when weird situations popped up out of the blue — especially when you weren't prepared for them.
His legs were cold too, he realized, after he put on the third shirt. He grabbed the pair of jeans that had been part of his covers and pulled them on over the ones he was already wearing. Hmm — pretty tight, but wearable, and the difference in comfort was noticeable with the extra insulation. Had Lois left the suitcases out? There were extra socks in his bag, and it looked as if his feet were going to need them, too.
Carefully, he slid out of his seat. His legs were a little wobbly, but he felt immeasurably better than yesterday. With great care, he opened the door of the plane and, clutching the doorframe for support, made his way to the ground.
The suitcases were sitting a few feet away. He opened them, rummaged for a minute and retrieved his extra socks. He was going to look ridiculous in all this stuff, but at least he'd be warm. Besides, there was no one to see him but Lois and she was wearing extra clothing too. She wasn't likely to criticize.
A few minutes later, carrying one of his T-shirts as an impromptu bag, he was making his way through the hip-high weeds toward the line of bushes that Lois had indicated the night before. If there was a stream there, he might find blackberry bushes growing, he thought.
His legs seemed to be less wobbly now, although he stopped to rest, breathing hard, every few steps. The sun was fully up and the rays felt good on his face. Birds were singing everywhere, their morning songs filling the air around him. It they hadn't been in such a mess, he would have enjoyed the scenery more, he thought.
Eventually, he made it to the stream and sank down on the ground to rest. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea, since he was still recovering, but the thought hadn't occurred to him at the time. How long did it take someone to get over a high fever, anyway? He had no experience to tell him, but he hoped it would be fairly soon. They were going to have a hard time getting out of here if he couldn't stay on his feet for more than a few minutes at a time.
Blackberries, it appeared, had taken root here all right. The tangled, thorny vines were everywhere. And the thorns were extremely sharp, he discovered very quickly. Being Superman had given him more advantages than he had realized. For many years while growing up, he had wanted to be like everybody else. Now he was, and he was discovering that it wasn't nearly as great as he had imagined. Humans had to be so careful! There were so many things in the environment that were sharp or heavy or just plain dangerous, that he'd never had to worry about before. If his powers ever came back, he'd never wish to be normal again.
He rested often, but he was able to gather plenty of blackberries. The reddish-purple juice stained his fingers and the T-shirt, but even if the stains never came out he figured that he could stand the cost of a new T-shirt. He ate almost as many blackberries as he picked, and discovered that as his stomach filled, the feeling of weakness abated somewhat, although he was still shaky. Maybe all he had needed was food and liquid, he thought hopefully.
He was working so hard that he even began to feel a little overheated, and stopped to take off his extra shirts. Exercise had never made him sweat before, although he knew that normal people did. This being normal thing definitely wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
At last, he stopped. His hands were trembling with fatigue, but the bag made out of his T-shirt was full enough that Lois, who was never a heavy eater anyway, should have enough to eat. He sucked at one of the many punctures in his hands and regarded several places where tiny black thorns had embedded themselves under his skin. Oh well, maybe Lois could help him get those out with a pin or something, if they had any. The important thing was that they weren't going to go hungry, even if this wasn't exactly bacon and eggs.
The thought of the walk back to the plane was a little daunting. His legs ached and even though he definitely felt better than yesterday, he still didn't feel back to normal — even human normal. A little beat of pain had begun to throb behind his eyes. Maybe a long rest before he started back would be a good idea. At least it was warmer now and the rays of the sun felt wonderful on his face and arms. He sank down on a big rock and closed his eyes, soaking up the sunlight and waiting for the feeling of fatigue to diminish.
Within minutes, he was pulling on his extra shirts again. It was amazing how quickly he had become chilled after he stopped moving around. Was this normal, or was his fever returning? His legs and arms still ached, but he'd thought that was the result of the activity. He buttoned up the shirts and noticed at once that he was more comfortable. Probably it was all right, he assured himself. He'd just cooled off, and the air temperature wasn't really that high. He'd rest a little longer and he would start back to the plane.
Bracing his elbows on his knees, he rested his forehead on his hands and closed his eyes.
"Clark? Are you all right?" Lois's hand on his shoulder and her worried voice awakened him from the light doze into which he had fallen.
He sat up quickly. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"When I woke up you were gone," she said, "but I followed the trail you made here. What happened?"
"I was getting breakfast." He rubbed his face with one hand and reached down to pick up his harvest. "Blackberries."
"Is that what they are? I saw them yesterday, but I was afraid they might be poison or something."
"No," Clark said. "I figured they'd be better than nothing. They're a little sourer than the ones from the supermarket, but they're good to eat."
"And they're definitely better than nothing," Lois said. "Are you sure you're okay, Clark? You were asleep when I found you."
"I was resting," he said. "I guess I tried to do a little too much at once, but I'm ready to go back to the plane now."
She took the bag of berries and tried one of the fruits. "You're right; they're a little sour, but they're good, and I'm starved. Let's go back. Then we can decide what we're going to do."
Clark snagged a berry from a nearby vine, avoiding the thorns, and popped it into his mouth. "Go ahead and eat," he suggested. "I already ate mine while I was picking yours."
"I can tell. You've got juice stains on your mouth," she told him. "But thanks. I just hope you can figure out some way to get us out of here."
"Well …" He glanced around at the empty field and at the mountain view in the background. "Since I haven't got any idea where we are, the only thing I can suggest is that we go downstream. Sooner or later, we'll probably come to some kind of civilization. And who knows; maybe there's a search on for us by now."
"I sure hope so," Lois said. "This isn't exactly how I planned on spending my vacation." She hesitated. "I guess there's no sign of your powers coming back yet, huh?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid not. I have to accept the possibility that they may never come back."
"Well, I don't," Lois said. "You said the first time you encountered this stuff it took your powers away for two days. You were exposed a lot longer this time, so it just makes sense that it will take longer for them to come back."
"I hope you're right," he said.
"Want to make a bet on it?" she inquired, popping another berry into her mouth.
He laughed softly. "I never bet with Lois Lane," he said.
"I knew you were a smart man," she observed. "Now, if you'll just give yourself time to get well, you can prove it. Let's head back to the plane. We'll go slowly, and if you need to rest, tell me. Got it?"
"Got it ma'am," he said and pretended to dodge the light punch she threw at him.
William Henderson hated to be the bearer of bad news, Perry White knew, which was ironic since he was so often faced with that exact duty. The Police Inspector paced back and forth, wearing a trench in the brand new carpet of the editor's office of the Daily Planet. His face was as usual deadpan, but his voice, although he probably was unaware of it, was colored with concern. He would never admit it to anyone, Perry thought, but Bill Henderson both liked and respected Lois Lane and Clark Kent. The situation for the Daily Planet's two star reporters didn't look good, and Perry knew that it would grieve Henderson tremendously if it turned out that the worst had happened. Perry wouldn't be very happy himself. Lois Lane and Clark Kent were not only his two best reporters; they were also his friends.
"They never arrived in Wichita," Henderson said. "We've located their last known position before they disappeared and are trying to track down any unexplained radar sightings from there on that might have been the plane. There's a possible from an Air Force installation near Colorado Springs that places them over the Colorado Rockies."
"How'd they manage to get there?" Perry demanded.
Henderson didn't bother to answer. "We've notified the authorities in the area, but that's a lot of rough terrain to search."
"Yeah," Perry said.
"You've talked to Lois's lawyer," Henderson said. "Who stands to benefit if … do you know?"
Perry swallowed. "I've already been through it with him," he said, working to keep his voice steady. Even the thought that something could have happened to Lois or Clark nearly made his throat close up. "Since Luthor hadn't had the time to make a new will before he died, the law states that if for some reason Lois should die within thirty days of Luthor's death, the laws of the State of New Troy apply, and the inheritance will be treated as if she had predeceased him. The other heirs will receive her share in the proportions stated in Luthor's last valid will."
"Pretty standard," Henderson said. "Ten billion dollars is a pretty good motive for murder. I've seen people killed for a lot less. I suppose we can raise suspicions about the way they disappeared and tie the money up for a while with a police investigation, but we may not be able to prove anything to the satisfaction of a court — and in the meantime LexCorp's lawyers and Board of Directors have control of the company. At least," he added, "we have some idea where to start investigating."
"Yeah." The thought wasn't a bit satisfactory. "Lane and Kent are usually pretty good at taking care of themselves. I'm still prayin' for a miracle."
Henderson cleared his throat once and then a second time. "Don't tell anybody," he said, "but so am I." He scowled. "There's one last thing. By any chance, have you had any sort of contact with Superman? He seems to have completely vanished."
Perry shook his head. "Not a word."
"That's what I was afraid of," Henderson said, after a short pause. His voice sounded grim.
The Police Inspector shoved his hands into his pockets as he continued to pace, seemingly unaware of the fact that he was doing so. "This is off the record, understand?" At Perry's nod, he continued. "As you know, the Metro PD has been conducting a thorough search of Lex Tower over the last week. Two days ago, we found something in the basement. A heavy, metal cage."
Henderson nodded. "The bars were coated with a substance that no one could identify. It looked like some kind of green paint with an odd glow to it. According to the analysis, it's radioactive, but it isn't anything the science guys ever saw before."
"What has this got to do with Superman?"
"I remembered that article Lane and Kent wrote a while back — about those government UFO nuts that claimed they'd found a meteorite made of some unknown substance that would kill Superman," Henderson said. "Lane and Kent called it Kryptonite. I had a kind of hunch, since nobody knew what this stuff was, and contacted the lab in Wichita that had analyzed the rock before it vanished. They sent one of their people to take a look."
"They identified it."
Henderson nodded grimly. "They think this stuff was their missing meteorite. Something about the impurities being the right proportions or something. I didn't get all of that part, but somehow Luthor must have gotten his hands on it."
"You think Luthor …" Perry broke off. "Not Superman?"
"Nobody's seen him since the day before the big wedding," Henderson said. "This isn't for publication — yet, anyway — but that woman, Mrs. Cox — Luthor's assistant — told us that Luthor was working on some kind of project that he claimed would rid him of Superman. I think she knows more about it than she's admitting, but it fits. We've got four units dragging the Hobs River as of this morning. So far they haven't found anything. It's possible that he somehow got away. I hope so, but if he did, I'd like to think that he would have contacted us. Luthor may have disposed of his body in some way that he'll never be found." Henderson sighed heavily as he prepared to take his leave. "This was the guy that all of Metropolis thought was a great philanthropist," he said. "At least you and Kent managed to bring him down. He won't be able to do any more harm."
"Yeah," Perry said. "I just wish we'd been able to do it a little sooner."
"All right," Lois said. "I agree that the sooner we start, the sooner we'll get somewhere, but we're going to take it slow and *you* aren't carrying anything but your own weight — at least until you're a lot steadier on your legs than you are right now." She glared belligerently at her partner. "I'm not going to argue about this, Clark. We're leaving everything behind that we don't absolutely have to have, and that's final!" She opened the small leather bag that had been her overnight case as she spoke and stuffed in a second pair of socks. "This will do to carry the stuff we need. It doesn't weigh much."
"But Lois," he protested, in a tone that told her that she'd already won, "what if we don't find any sign of civilization for three or four days?"
"Then we'll cope," she retorted. "None of that stuff is essential. The last thing we need is to be toting along a heavy suitcase. This thing will hold the thermos and the pan I used to heat the water. It will also do to carry the extra shirts, pants, socks and the other stuff that's too hot to wear during the day but that we're going to need at night, and I'm carrying it, at least for now; got it, Kent?" She crammed several items into the case as she spoke. "I'm also bringing my wallet and pocket knife and nothing else. I can carry those in my pocket. When your powers come back, you can fly back here and pick up the rest."
He opened his mouth, looked at her face and closed it again. "All right," he said after a moment. "I give up. I just thought I might point out that my powers may never come back."
"If they don't, I can buy more clothes," she told him, "and so can you. Trying to drag along a bunch of junk is a recipe for wearing you out in the first fifteen minutes. In any case, I haven't given up yet on your powers coming back and you shouldn't either."
His lips twitched and suddenly he grinned widely. "All right," he said. "Whatever you say. Who am I to argue with Lois Lane? Are you ready?"
"I'm ready. The question is, are *you*? We could wait until morning if you want. A solid night's sleep would give you a little more time to rest."
He shrugged. "We might as well go. With nothing but blackberries to eat — and minnows, or whatever they are, swimming around in the stream — I think there isn't much to be gained by waiting around here. Anyway, I feel a lot better than I did this morning."
He *did* look better, she acknowledged. His color was healthier and the tired look seemed to be fading. "Okay, but we're going to rest as often as I think you need it," she informed him. "I'm not going to let you wear yourself out, trying to be a hero."
"Yes, Mom," he said patiently.
Lois reached out to take his hand. "Clark, I mean it. I don't want you to try to be a hero for me right now. I want you to get well. Once you're in better shape, it will be easier for both of us. Stop trying to … to be Superman for just a little while — please? You'll recover a lot faster if you do. I know." She swallowed. "I don't want to lose you now. I've only just begun to realize how close I came to it, and it scares me."
She saw his face change and moved closer to slide her arms around his waist. "In case you don't remember, I happen to love you, Clark Kent. I loved you before I knew you were Superman. I'm still pretty mad at myself for not realizing it before I married Lex, but at least I can try to make up for it now. You don't have to prove anything. Please, just do this for me."
He put his hands on her shoulders. "You're right. I'll try to behave; I promise."
She rested her head against his shoulder for a long minute. "Thank you."
His arms tightened around her and he rested his face against her hair. His voice was muffled when he spoke, but there was a smile in it. "You don't play fair, you know that? How am I supposed to be all manly for you when you ask me that way? I've never been able to say no to you, Lois."
She giggled softly. "Thank heavens one of us has some common sense. I'm going to hold you to that promise, you know."
"I know. You drive a hard bargain, Ms. Lane." He slowly released her. "I suppose we'd better get going."
"Yeah." She stuffed a final shirt into the bag and snapped the catch. It wasn't heavy when she hefted it to check. "Okay, I want you to set the pace. Just walk as slowly as you want to and rest when you feel like it, okay? No rushing."
He nodded. "Got it. No rushing. Just a walk." Slowly, he started toward the stream once more, Lois walking beside him. The only sound besides the occasional birdcalls was the crunching of their feet in the tall grass. They had proceeded on for several minutes before Clark broke the silence. "You know," he said, "if any rescuers do show up, I hope they find that note. You did put it in an obvious place, didn't you?"
"I speared it on one of those sharp whatchamacallits on the instrument panel," she said. "They can't miss it. Trust me."
"Good," he said. "I hope someone finds it before long. Perry must be going out of his mind worrying about us, and I hate to think what my parents are going through."
The thought of what their friends must be thinking had been bothering her as well, but she hadn't said so. Clark had enough to worry about without her bringing up problems that they couldn't do anything about. "Do your parents know that your … your powers are gone?"
He nodded, threading his way through the field in such a way as to avoid the worst of the stickers and rocks. "They're probably worried sick. There's nothing I can do about it, though, until we find some sort of civilization. Maybe we'll run into a road or something eventually. If we do, our problems will be solved."
"I sure hope so," Lois said. "I'd sure like to know where we are, though."
"Judging by the temperature at night, we're at a pretty high elevation. I'm betting we're in the Rocky Mountains," Clark said. "What I'd like to know is why they dumped us here!"
"Well, they expected us to crash," Lois pointed out. "They couldn't know that you could land a plane. If it happened in a remote area, it would be quite a while before searchers found the wreck — if they ever did — and that gives whoever is after Lex's fortune plenty of time to prepare legal stuff to try to get control of it again. They could probably do it, too."
"I wouldn't bet against it," Clark agreed. He stopped for a minute, and Lois waited patiently. Clark had been anxious to get going, and she suspected that part of his eagerness was because of his concern about his parents, but it looked like the initial part of the trip was going to be slow going. Maybe tomorrow he would be able to make better time.
She glanced back at the little plane, sitting alone in the middle of the field. Well, if Superman's powers ever came back, he could retrieve it for its owner, too, she thought.
Clark started slowly onward again, heading in the general direction of the line of greenery, but downstream as well, and Lois trudged silently along beside him, keeping pace. The ground was rocky and uneven, and the walking wasn't easy. Burrs from the tall weeds clung to their clothing, and insects of all kinds buzzed around them, including clouds of tiny gnats of some sort that Lois could have sworn were following them. The sun hadn't reached zenith yet, shining down from a brilliantly clear sky. She glanced at her watch, noting that it was just before two in the afternoon, Metropolis time. It was already growing warmer than was strictly comfortable, although the breeze that ruffled the tall grasses of the field had a chilly edge to it. In the distance, pale against the sky, she could see mountain peaks capped with a layer of white, and not a single sign of civilization anywhere, not even the smoke from a chimney or a jet contrail high in that entire cloudless arch of blue. As far as she could tell there was nothing but a howling wilderness ahead of them. It was going to be a very long walk.
"Clark, sit down. Remember what I said. You're not going to try to be Superman right now." She glared at him. "Sit!"
Clark laughed breathlessly, but obeyed. "You sound just like my dad used to when he ordered Wilbur around."
"Wilbur?" Lois asked.
"My dog, when I was a kid," Clark explained, adjusting his position on the fallen log. "He was just a little black and white mutt, but he was my best buddy after my powers started coming in."
Lois settled beside him on the log. Clark looked more animated than he had earlier. His face was flushed from the heat and exercise and a light sunburn reddened his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, but the tired look had almost vanished. Whatever had caused that awful fever was apparently going away.
He wiped sweat from his upper lip. "I was hoping that we'd get farther today," he said. The smile had dimmed slightly as he looked back the way they had come. They might have made as much as five miles in almost as many hours, Lois thought, with frequent stops at her insistence for Clark to rest.
"We'll do better tomorrow," she said. "It's better to go slowly than for you to have a relapse. What would I do if you did? I can't possibly carry you."
"I really think the worst is over," he said. "I feel pretty much okay, really. Just no super powers."
"And that's probably because I wouldn't let you do something stupid," she said, unwilling to give an inch. "What is it with guys anyway? They either act like they're dying over a hangnail, or they can get their foot cut off and they try to act like there's nothing wrong! My dad was the first sort, and you're the second. I don't know which is worse!"
He grinned, refusing to meet her eyes. "Sorry. It just seems wrong to let something like a little personal inconvenience stop me from doing what I should be doing."
"A little personal inconvenience!" Lois said, unable to keep the incredulity out of her voice. "Clark, you could have died!"
"Well, I could say the same thing about you when you go after a story," he pointed out mildly. "Do you have any idea how many times you've nearly given Superman heart failure since we met?"
She shook her head. "But that's my job," she said.
"Being Superman is my job too," he said. "Or was. One of them. Old habits don't just disappear overnight."
"You'll be Superman again," Lois said. Somehow she was a lot surer of that than he seemed to be. "I guess I get your point, though."
"I hope so. I can't come charging to the rescue anymore like I used to. We're going to have to get out of this thing without super powers, and deal with whoever tried to kill us the same way."
"Well, I used to handle bad guys before Superman came to Metropolis," Lois said. "Remind me to tell you about the time a guy who was running a forced prostitution ring in Old Town had me thrown into the Hobs River, tied hand and foot. I got out of that and put him away for the better part of the rest of his life. I can do it again, especially now that I have you to depend on — and you have me. Together we're stronger than either of us is alone, Clark — super powers or not."
"Let's just try not to get thrown into the Hobs River," Clark said, but the smile that had disappeared earlier was back. "All right, it's a deal. We're partners and we'll find out who's behind this and put him away too, whether Superman ever comes back or not."
"That's more like it," Lois said. She swung the bag to her lap and opened it. "One thing, though."
"I brought sunscreen because I figured I'd be out in the open a lot while we were in Kansas," she said, extracting the tube from the bottom of the case. "I put it on this morning, but you didn't. You need to put some on. You're getting burned."
"I am?" He felt the skin of his face. "It's sensitive. I never thought about getting sunburned."
"I guess you never had to worry about it before," Lois said, matter-of-factly. "Hold still. I'm going to put this on you, since I can see your face and you can't."
"Okay." He removed his glasses and held perfectly still while she applied cream to the exposed skin of his face and neck.
"There." She stood back, surveying the results of her handiwork. "That should help. It's a good thing you don't have a bald spot like my dad or you'd have a sunburned scalp."
"Well, if it works for Kryptonians like it works for humans, I shouldn't have to worry," he said. "The hologram of my father had a full head of hair."
"What are you talking about?" she asked. "What hologram?"
"Oh." He looked disconcerted for a moment. "Do you remember the globe that Jack stole from my apartment?"
"Uh huh." She was instantly all ears. "What about it?"
"It was my ship's navigation system. My father — my Kryptonian father, I mean — included a message for me in it."
She had been so occupied by everything that was going on that she hadn't followed up on the questions that she had about him. "You never did tell me the whole story."
He smiled. "Well, we've got a long way to go. I guess it should help keep us from getting bored. Are you ready?"
"Sure." She got to her feet. "We're going to want to stop somewhere before the sun goes down. I want to be able to start a fire to help keep us warm tonight."
"Blackberries for dinner tonight, I guess," Clark said.
"Looks like it." She glanced sideways at the stream that they had continued to follow for the last five miles. The open fields that they had traversed for most of the distance were slowly giving way to more forested land. The trees, largely pines, were still somewhat scattered but their growth had progressively thickened, and ahead she could see that they grew even more densely until they became a genuine evergreen forest that must go on for miles and miles. She couldn't help giving a little sigh of discouragement.
"I used to like walking in the forest," Clark said.
"Oh yeah? Where?"
"Just about anywhere," he said. "I've been hiking in Canada, and South America … the Midwest … even China. The difference, of course, is that back then, when I got tired of it, I could always fly home. This time we're going to have to do it the hard way."
"I guess now you get to see how the other half lives," she said, with forced lightness. "We'll make it, Clark. It's just going to take some time."
"Sure." He straightened his shoulders. "Are you ready?"
For answer, she picked up the overnight case and started forward. Clark fell in beside her.
"So," she said. "You were going to tell me the story of your life. I guess you might as well start."
"Okay," he said. "I guess if you want the whole story I'd better begin at thebeginn ing."br "Sounds reasonable."
"I suppose I should say 'Once upon a time'," he observed, "but actually, it was probably around the end of February of 1966 by Earth's calendar that Mom and Dad figure that I was born. They based their guess on the fact that when they found me I was around eleven or twelve weeks old. They were driving along past Shuster's Field about dusk on May 17th when they saw what they thought was a meteor in the sky. It came streaking low overhead and crashed among the trees in Shuster's Field. Of course my Mom, being who she is, had to go see what had happened, so they jumped out of the pickup and ran across the field, not knowing what they were going to find."
"And what was it?" Lois asked, already sure that she knew.
"Well, it wasn't a meteor," Clark said. "It was a tiny ship with one passenger. Me. They took me home. A few days later, Dad got hold of his cousin, George Kent, who was a doctor in town, and told him some kind of story about me being the illegitimate son of one of Mom's distant cousins. He filled out the paperwork, they got me a birth certificate, and I became Clark Kent. They had no idea where I had come from, but it was at the height of the Cold War, and they kind of thought that I was some kind of Russian experiment or something. It wasn't until you and I found Bureau 39's warehouse that I learned the real story. My ship was there, and that's where I found the globe …"
The real story was more fantastic than Lois could have imagined. A dying world; parents determined to save their child's life, no matter how astronomical the odds; an almost unbelievable journey across millions of miles of space for a tiny ship that had been deliberately intended to land in Kansas, and a boy growing up with no idea where he had come from, except that he was developing amazing abilities that no human being should have.
And, although he didn't say so, a very lonely young man who traveled the world after college, searching for something that was missing in his life, never able to stay in one place for very long because his need to help others inevitably raised suspicions and forced him to move on.
And then, his arrival in Metropolis and his meeting with her: his sudden knowledge that he had found what he was looking for when she had burst into Perry White's office during his interview, and his determination to stay, no matter what it took. And later, the offhand suggestion that she had made about bringing a change of clothing to work, which had led to the creation of Superman.
When Clark had finished speaking they walked slowly along for some time in complete silence.
"Wow," Lois said finally. "That's some story."
"Yeah," he agreed.
"And you've known since we met that it was me that you wanted?"
"Wow," she said again. "I wish I'd known, but I guess I see why you didn't tell me. I wouldn't give you the time of day, and then I kind of went nuts for a while after Superman appeared." She cast a quick glance at him, walking along beside her. "I'm sorry, Clark."
"No, if anyone's sorry, I am," he said. "I didn't think about what an impact Superman's appearance would have. I suppose I should have expected it, but it just didn't occur to me."
She snorted. "That's my Clark. You're incredible, do you know that?"
"Well, I guess I was. I'm pretty ordinary now."
She stopped in her tracks, grabbed his arm and swung him around to face her. "Clark Kent, you're an idiot!" she said, glaring at him. "You don't have any idea, do you?"
"About just what an amazing person you are, and I'm not talking about the powers!"
He blinked. "I'm not anything unusual, Lois. Clark is who I am; just a guy from a Kansas farm who had some unusual gifts and an ability to write well."
She gave an exasperated sigh. "You're wrong, you know. Clark Kent is an incredible person. Stop and think about it for just one minute. You had all these tremendous powers and you used them to help. You didn't use them to get rich, or gain political power, or anything else! Just think for one moment what Lex would have done if he'd had your abilities!"
She saw his face change.
"Exactly!" she said, although he hadn't spoken. "Superman was who he was because of you! You *made* him Superman, not Super Business Magnate, or Super Crime Boss, or Super Dictator, or even Super-Massively-wealthy Playboy-with-women-swarming-all-over-him! Super *Man*. *That's* why you're so amazing, Clark, and that's why you'll always be amazing, whether or not your powers ever come back. It's just what you are, and will always be. Now do you understand?"
The sun was sinking toward the horizon when Lois called a halt. The air was already becoming chilly, and she wanted to stop and make a fire before the sunlight was gone and her magnifying glass became useless for the purpose.
Clark hadn't said much after their conversation, but she suspected that he was thinking a great deal. She had caught him watching her occasionally when he probably thought she wouldn't notice. She hoped that was a good thing, but his expression wasn't one that she could read.
"Here's a good place," she said, surveying her selection critically. The area she had chosen was a small depression in the ground, sheltered on two sides by outcrops of rock and a clump of pine trees that gave them partial protection from the evening breeze.
Clark stopped obediently. "Looks good," he agreed. "We're not likely to find anything better."
She nodded, dropping the bag with relief. It hadn't been heavy when they started this walk, but it had progressively gained pounds as they proceeded. "Let's get some fuel for a fire," she directed. "I'll need some kindling — dead twigs and dry leaves, and some bigger pieces of wood to add to it once we get the fire started."
Clark nodded. "Right away, boss."
She glanced sharply at him, but he was smiling at her in a way that told her he was joking. Together, they set about gathering the needed materials and a few moments later she was focusing a tiny beam of light from her magnifying glass onto the little pile of dry leaves, pine needles and twigs that Clark set in front of her. In a gratifyingly short period of time, the tinder was sending up a thin stream of smoke.
"You're pretty good at this," he said, as she blew gently on the smoking tinder and fed more dry leaves and shredded bark into her baby campfire.
"I was a Girl Scout," she explained. "I got a merit badge for this. Didn't you ever go camping?"
"Yeah, but Dad always brought along matches and lighter fluid," Clark said. "And after I was ten, we didn't even need that."
"Oh yeah … heat vision. Start feeding in the bigger twigs now," she added. "I think we've got it."
It took a little more work, but eventually the fire was blazing satisfactorily. Clark insisted that she stay by their fire while he hunted around for dry branches to feed the flames during the night, and she let him. He was definitely looking better, she thought. It looked as if the worst was over.
The air had a distinct bite in it by the time Clark had amassed what he considered to be a sufficient supply of branches, and settled down beside her to enjoy a dinner of blackberries. A little ways off, she could hear the gurgle and babble of the stream, and the sound of some sort of creature peeping and chirping as darkness began to creep over them. With no sources of light beyond the gibbous moon riding low above the mountain tops, night was coming amazingly fast, but with the rocks to their backs and the campfire blazing between them and the blackness beyond, the night was peaceful rather than frightening.
"I hope we can find something to eat besides blackberries before long," she said. "Do you have any idea if there's anything else to eat around this area?"
"Well, since I'm not sure what area we're in, that's hard to say," Clark said. "We're probably in the Rockies, but what part …" He shrugged. "I guess I'll probably recognize some edible plants if I see them. And there's always roots … and snails."
Lois shuddered. "I guess if we get hungry enough we could eat them," she said, "but I'd rather not if I don't have to. Maybe the stream has bigger fish than we've seen." She turned to open the bag she had been lugging along since they had started. "It's getting cold. I think we'd better put on our extra stuff, and then we can eat."
Two layers of jeans, three shirts, a sweater, and two layers of socks seemed to make a difference, but Lois suspected that it was still going to be an uncomfortable night. She admired the effect of the tight jeans on Clark, but didn't comment. Despite the fact that he had flown around in a skin-tight outfit as Superman, her partner was surprisingly bashful about certain things.
They ate the blackberries in silence and occasionally threw another branch on the fire. Lois found herself yawning after the unaccustomed exercise, and once saw Clark nearly dislocate his jaw.
"I think we'd better go to sleep," she said, finally. "We've got a long walk tomorrow."
"Okay." He moved closer to the fire and began to pile branches over it, and ashes and dirt around it. "Let's see if I can bank this thing as well as my dad used to," he added. "If we can keep it going on low overnight, we'll be a bit more comfortable."
She grinned at his description. "I'm all for that. I have the feeling it's going to get pretty chilly tonight."
"Um … yeah." He finished his work on the fire and returned to his spot. "Uh …" He hesitated, and then seemed to gather his courage. "If we huddle together, I think we'll be more comfortable," he said, and she was surprised to see his cheeks burning dark red in the firelight. "I promise, no funny stuff, but …"
Since the same thought had occurred to her, it was a relief to hear him voice it. "You're right," she said, trying for a matter-of-fact tone. "I think we should."
"Don't look so surprised," she said, unable to keep from grinning slightly. "I don't want to freeze tonight, and I can think of some other people that I'd rather freeze solid than cuddle up to. Pete, for instance. You're not exactly repulsive, you know. In fact …" She let her gaze travel from the top of his head to his toes and back again, "you're pretty darned acceptable."
He gave a sheepish grin. "You think so?"
"I know so." She held out her hands and he gratified her by scooting quickly over next to her. She curled up against him and he slipped his arms around her.
"Nice." His shoulder made a very good pillow. She could feel the warmth of his body dispelling the chill of the night air. "You're very comfortable."
"So are you." He adjusted his position until she was cradled in the curve of his body. She could feel his breath against her hair. "Let me know if you get cold."
"Okay." She yawned. "Thanks, Clark."
"For being you. For rescuing me. For wanting me even when I acted like such a fool."
"We're not going to think about that anymore," he said softly. "You're here with me now, even if 'here' is out in the middle of nowhere."
They were silent for several minutes. The night noises were surprisingly soothing.
"I never slept with Lex, you know," she said suddenly. "I never wanted to. That should probably have warned me that something was wrong."
She felt him kiss her hair. "You didn't need to tell me, Lois."
"Yes, I did," she said. "You deserved to know. At least that was one mistake I didn't make."
He kissed her hair again. "Shh," he said, quietly. "It wouldn't have mattered. You're mine now, if you'll have me."
"Do you still want me?" she whispered.
"More than anything."
"I love you, Clark."
"I love you too," he said. "I have from the beginning, and I always will."
Long after Lois was asleep against his shoulder, Clark lay staring upward into the darkness. The moon had sunk behind the hills and the stars blazed overhead. From somewhere not far away, he heard the screech of a hunting owl.
He shifted his position slightly, careful not to wake her. The night air was chilly against his face, and the various aches and pains of his muscles and joints made it difficult to sleep, in spite of his fatigue.
He might have thought that the discomfort came from a body unused to the kind of activity that he had put it through today, but that didn't seem right. Despite the loss of his powers, his muscles were well-developed and in good condition. He was still as strong as a normal human male and he doubted that he would suddenly become flabby and out of shape simply because that extra something that made him Superman had disappeared. Besides, his body had hurt more this morning than it did now. No, whatever had made him so ill was probably at fault.
One more time, he considered that. Why on Earth would he suddenly become so sick? The fact that his powers were gone was probably connected, he thought, but he couldn't believe that he had suddenly become susceptible to Earth germs. Even as a child, before he had developed any of his super-powers, he had, according to his mother, never so much as caught a cold and if anyone should know, it would be her. So what was really behind it?
Thinking back to the moment that he had crawled feebly out of the Kryptonite cage, he tried to recall when he had first begun to realize that something wasn't right. After he had escaped from the influence of the Kryptonite, the agony of the direct radiation had disappeared although his body still hurt. He'd been barely able to stay on his feet when he staggered into the lobby of Lex Tower, and he had a vague recollection of people staring at him as he lurched toward the doors, but no one had tried to stop him. He'd hailed a cab to take him to the Lexor and the wedding reception, not sure what he intended to do when he got there, but that was rendered moot by the events playing out when he arrived. Perry and Lois, and masses of guests, out on the sidewalk. Lois, in her wedding gown, looking dazed and barely aware of her surroundings. Luthor's body hurtling downward to strike the pavement with a wet, nauseating sound that still made his stomach lurch. He'd tried to fly, tried to save the man, in spite of all that he had done, in spite of what the consequences would have been if he had succeeded, but his powers were gone. In a way, Luthor had won. He had killed Superman, and Clark Kent hadn't been able to prevent Luthor's death.
He'd fully expected to be without powers for a day or two. He'd felt normal the day after the wedding, and the two days after that, but by the fourth day he'd begun to feel … well, not quite right. His throat had been a little raspy, and other, more uncomfortable symptoms had begun to make their appearance. He'd hoped that it was simply the result of the lengthy Kryptonite exposure that would disappear after his regenerative abilities had started to kick back in, but by the time he and Lois had been on the way to the airport he'd definitely felt sick. His head had been pounding and his stomach had been upset, although he'd tried hard to hide the fact, and he'd been a little dizzy. It had been a relief to settle into the little plane's seat and lean back. He'd slept a large part of the way, which was unfortunate, as he now had no idea how long they had been in the air, and thereby had no more than a general idea where they were at present. But this illness, he thought, had apparently been coming on for several days before he had actually realized it. It had to be connected to the long exposure to Kryptonite. It was possible that Lois had been right when she'd suggested that it might be some sort of radiation sickness. Maybe Dr. Klein would be able to tell him when they got back to Metropolis, but if that was the source of the problem, if he'd been fighting off long-term effects of the deadly radiation and had reached a point of crisis two days ago, it was no wonder that his powers hadn't returned. Still, he seemed to be genuinely on the mend now, so maybe everything wasn't lost after all. Maybe, after his body had a chance to repair itself, his powers could still come back.
The surge of hope at the thought was all out of proportion to the current situation and the facts, he knew, but it was hard to quell his excitement over the possibility that Superman might return after all. Gently, he ran his hand over Lois's hair, careful not to wake her. Maybe before long he would be able to give her Superman as well as Clark Kent. It would be a shame, after all, for her to have lusted after Superman all this time only to have the man without the powers. The thought was unexpectedly pleasant. Maybe his wish for her to love only Clark had been a bit silly, he thought for the first time. After all, such a development could certainly add spice to a marriage, which certainly wasn't a bad thing, was it?
Whatever happened, though, he was determined to get Lois out of this mess and find whoever had tried to kill her. Someone was after the money that the laws of New Troy said was hers as Luthor's bride. They would have to find some way of protecting her now and in the future, too. As long as that much money was at stake, there would be attempts to extract it from her by fair means or foul. There had to be some way to put it out of the reach of such predators without forcing her to give up the luxury that in his opinion she deserved. Besides, wasn't it far better that it be in her hands than in the hands of the corrupt influences that ran the less reputable arms of LexCorp? If he knew his Lois, she would find ways of using it that Luthor had never envisioned, and that could only be a good thing.
The sound had been tugging at his hearing for nearly a minute, almost drowned out by the night noises around him, but the faint thunk-thunk-thunk sound so characteristic of a helicopter in flight reached him at last. He turned his head, looking frantically for the source, but there was no tiny blinking light that marked the position of the chopper to be seen anywhere in the sky. He strained, trying to pin down direction, but the noise had not been loud, and now it faded and disappeared even as he listened.
He lay listening for long minutes, but the sound was not repeated. It was unlikely to be a search copter, he knew. In the first place, no one was going to be visually searching for them in the pitch darkness. Maybe it was the Forest Service, he thought hopefully, or possibly they were nearer to a military base than they knew. If so, there were bound to be more helicopter flights and maybe they could attract the attention of the crew.
He debated awakening Lois, but decided against it. It would certainly mean that neither of them would get any sleep for the rest of the night, and for all he knew that might be the last aircraft to pass nearby for days. He had only been aware of it for a few seconds before it disappeared; certainly not long enough for him to have begun to get the fire going high enough to signal for help, even if the passengers in the copter were close enough to see a tiny pinprick of light below them, and even if they had realized that it was a signal for help. But he stayed awake for a long time, listening for a sound that never came.
It was Lois stirring against him that awakened him the next morning. The horizon was ablaze with the fiery colors of sunrise and the birds were making enough noise that he wondered how he could possibly have slept through all the racket. The air was chilly against this face, so much so that he couldn't feel the tip of his nose, but the entire front of his body was warm, which was readily explained by the presence of Lois Lane curled as closely as it was possible to get against him.
He smiled, tightening his arms. The rolled-up windbreaker under his head didn't make much of a pillow. There was a crick in his neck and something sharp was gouging him in the back, but he'd never awakened in a more pleasant way in his entire life.
She huddled more tightly into him, if it was possible, and he freed one arm to drag the windbreaker out from under his head, shook it out one-handed and spread it over her as well as he could. The item was thin, of course, but it would help keep the breeze off of her. At least there was no frost this morning. Following the stream they had moved slowly but steadily downhill. Before long, they should be in an area that didn't get frost overnight at all, or at least he hoped so.
Clark looked at his sleeping partner and sighed softly. He supposed that they should get up. They had a long walk ahead of them, but the temptation to stay here for a few minutes more with the woman he loved nestled in his arms was too appealing to resist.
All too soon, however, she opened her eyes, bare inches from his own, and blinked sleepily at him. After an instant's surprise, she smiled. "'Morning."
"Good morning," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Mmm. You're good at keeping a girl warm," she said, beginning to push herself into a sitting position. "Brr, but it's cold! Can you get the fire going fast?"
"If I banked it right, I should be able to." He pushed himself up as well, retrieving his windbreaker that had fallen to the ground when Lois sat up. "Let's see if my dad taught me as well as he thought he did."
He winced as he got to his feet. His heels hurt — not a surprising circumstance, considering that the night before when he had put on his extra socks he had discovered the beginnings ofblistersoneachheel. Today, temperature notwithstanding, he intended to wear both layers of socks. He couldn't afford to develop crippling blisters on his feet. They had much too far to go.
Lois bent backwards and he could hear her spine click as she did so. He rubbed at the cramping muscle in his neck and moved to the campfire, and with the help of one of the branches lying beside it, began to uncover what he hoped would still be the glowing embers of last night's fire.
"Well, I'll be darned," Lois said. "It's still burning!"
"More or less. Let's see if I can get this thing going," he said, cautiously. "Are there any blackberries left?"
"No, but there are more bushes by the stream," Lois said. "I guess we're going to have to harvest our breakfast again."
Amazingly enough, he was able to coax the campfire into life once more, and a few moments later they were warming their hands over the flames. Clark stood up, slipping on the windbreaker over his three shirts. "Why don't you stay here by the fire and warm up. I'll go get us some breakfast."
"Hold it, buster." Lois's voice stopped him in his tracks. "How are you feeling this morning? The truth, Clark." She met his eyes steadily. "No macho nonsense."
"Well, no powers, but that's not a surprise. Other than that, I actually feel pretty good," he said, honestly. "A few muscle twinges, hungry as all get out, but other than that, all right."
"As for the hungry part, that probably a good sign," she said. "When you were feeling bad you weren't hungry, either. Okay, go ahead, but if you start feeling sick you come right back, got it?"
"Got it, ma'am," he assured her, pretending to cringe, and she laughed.
"Just hurry up! I'm starved!"
He snatched up the red and purple-stained T-shirt and headed for the stream.
The berries were more plentiful here at a slightly lower altitude. He was able to be more selective in his choices, and shortly had enough to feed the pair of them. Maybe they would cross a path or a road today, he thought hopefully as he headed back to their campsite. They were, of course, extremely lucky to have the blackberries, but as a meal, blackberries were going to get old pretty fast. He was going to have to start looking for other stuff to eat. Didn't gooseberries grow in the Rockies? He seemed to remember reading that somewhere. Just the thought of his mom's gooseberry pie could make his mouth water, and maybe once they got to lower elevations they could find other stuff. Or more likely, they would come across a road that would lead them to civilization of some kind. That would be the best solution of all.
Lois, he saw, was doing stretching exercises when he returned to the campsite. She probably had the right idea, he thought. It would undoubtedly work some of the kinks out of stiff muscles. She straightened up when he strode back into camp with his booty and eyed the bag with a certain resignation. "I take it there wasn't anything but the berries, huh?"
"Nope. I might be able to spot some gooseberries if they grow around here," he said, setting their breakfast down on a clear spot, "and I know some things like lichens and stuff are good to eat, but I haven't got a clue how to tell the edible stuff from the poisonous, so I think we'd better stick to blackberries for now."
"Maybe we could find some birds' eggs," she said, wistfully. "On the other hand, I'd feel really bad stealing some mother bird's eggs, so …"
"It's the wrong season of the year for birds' eggs anyway," Clark said. "Maybe I can try tickling some fish if we can find a river or something large enough to have fish in it bigger than minnows."
"How do you tickle fish?" Lois asked. "And why?"
"It's a way to catch fish without a hook and line," he explained. "I used to do it when I was a kid on the farm. We'd get some good-sized catfish in the irrigation ditches, and they're pretty good eating."
"Oh. Well, if we come across a river or a lake I guess you can try, but it doesn't look like that's too likely just yet. I think we're going to have to settle for blackberries for now."
"Yeah," he said. He lowered himself to sit cross-legged on the ground beside her. "Breakfast is served, my lady."
"Thank you sir." She picked up a berry and popped it into her mouth. "Not bad. Am I wrong, or are these bigger than the ones you picked yesterday morning?"
"I think so. We're at a little lower elevation. That may have something to do with it." He took several berries and ate them. "I think these are sweeter, too."
"I think you're right." For some time they were silent as they consumed their breakfast.
Clark finished his portion and wiped at a trickle of juice with his thumb. "Well, I've had more filling breakfasts, but as Dad always says, 'Beggars can't be choosers'. Maybe we'll get lucky and spot a crab apple tree or something."
"Do crab apples grow in the Rocky Mountains?" she asked.
"Yeah, but a lot of them have problems with fire blight," he said. "Not to mention, a late frost can kill the developing fruit, so —"
"Never mind," Lois said. "I almost forgot for a minute. You're a farmer's son."
"Sorry about that." He grinned unapologetically. "Anyway, we may run across civilization before long. You never know." He paused. "Oh, I almost forgot."
"After you'd gone to sleep last night, I heard what sounded like a helicopter. It was for less than a minute, and the sound was a long way off," he added. "I couldn't see it anywhere, either, but we might not be too far from, say, an Air Force installation. The Forestry Service has posts around areas like this, too, and possibly stations for keeping watch for fires. We should keep an eye out for planes."
"Why didn't you wake me up?" she asked.
He shrugged. "By the time I realized what it was it was already gone," he said. "I listened for a couple of hours after that, but I didn't hear anything else. We should be alert for stuff like that now, though. It's daytime, and we'd have a much better chance of being spotted."
She nodded. "You're right. One thing, though. It just occurred to me. Do you suppose whoever tried to kill us will be looking for the plane — just to be sure he succeeded? I kept dreaming about being chased through the mountains by them last night — whoever 'they' are. I'm probably being a little paranoid, but that's how I managed to stay alive before I met you."
"No," Clark said. "You're right. I should have thought about that before."
"You had a few other things on your mind," Lois said. "If they're looking for us, and they find the plane, they're going to follow us. We'll need to be a little careful if we see anyone. Just as a safety measure." She wiped her hands on one sleeve of the T-shirt. "The first thing I'm going to do when we get to civilization is get a bath."
"I don't blame you," Clark said. "Icy mountain streams aren't the best choice for bathing."
"Brr," Lois said.
By noon, they had made more distance than they had in twice the time the day before. They followed their guiding stream gradually downhill, through an arm of dense pine forest, into a field of high grass and masses of high bushes, and several times down rugged slopes. The noisy little stream meandered briefly through a short canyon and emerged on a shelf of rock from which the water dove twenty feet into space in a tiny waterfall, and wound its way onward into a sea of evergreens. Lois sighed.
"Do you see any sign of civilization?"
"Not yet," Clark said. "Actually we haven't come that far, though — maybe twenty — twenty-five miles or so from the plane. There could be a road or something a couple of miles away and we'd never see it until we were practically on top of it."
"Yeah." Lois stared at the path they were preparing to traverse. "I may never look at a tree again. My feet are killing me."
Clark glanced down at the jogging shoes that she had chosen. They looked considerably more comfortable than his own. "Why don't we sit down and rest for a few minutes?" he suggested. "There's no reason to rush."
Lois promptly sank down on the nearest rock and stretched her feet out in front of her. "How are you feeling?"
He shrugged. "Pretty much okay."
"Any sign of your powers?"
"No." He grimaced. "Believe me, Lois, the second my powers show any sign of returning, you'll be the first to know. I'm as anxious to get out of here as you are."
"Yeah, I guess so." She rubbed a knee that she had banged against a rock on the last scramble down a short, rugged incline. "What on Earth do people see in hiking for fun? They must be masochists."
"Well, they usually have the right equipment and supplies — and they know where they're going," he said with a faint grin. "I wouldn't mind going on a hike, or camping with you, if we had all the right stuff with us."
"I suppose not." She made a face. "Sorry to be a grouch."
"Hey, is this the Lois Lane I know?" he inquired. "She never apologizes for anything."
"Well …" She gave him a half-hearted grin. "I figured I could make an exception with you. You already know a lot more about me than I intended."
"Sorry about that," he said. "You know I'd never tell anyone else anything about you, don't you?"
"Yeah." She reached out to pat his knee. "Lighten up, Clark. I know why you didn't tell me about Superman before, and I don't blame you a bit. Besides, I know all about those irritating ethics of yours. I'm not worried."
"Well …" he couldn't help grinning in return. "Clark Kent's ethics are a little different than Superman's, but he still has to stick to them. And I still don't tell anyone anything that was told to me in confidence. But you know, neither do you."
"Clark, do you have any idea how weird you sound, talking about yourself in the third person?"
He shrugged. "Mom says the same thing, but it's how I keep the two separate."
"Kind of a deliberate split personality, huh?"
"I suppose I'll get used to it." She laid a hand over his. "You've gotten used to a lot about me. I can't complain."
He put his other hand over hers. "I'd like to do a lot more than that."
"You'll get your chance," she said. "Assuming we manage to get out of here. Clark, I've been wondering. Would the Superman Foundation be able to take over managing Lex's money? I'd like to get it out of my control so people don't figure they can get hold of it by threatening me — or you, or anyone else that matters to us. We could work some kind of deal where they invest it and use the dividends for various projects and such, and maybe be sure there's an income for us in case of another emergency or something — but the principle would be out of reach. And we could make sure everybody knew it. What do you think?"
"I guess we'd have to talk to your lawyer and the legal division of the Foundation, but we could probably manage something," he said. "That's not a bad idea. I've been wondering how to fix it so you aren't a target. That much money is always dangerous. You don't want to have to live your life behind electric fences with guards and Dobermans protecting you."
"Exactly what I was thinking. I'd go insane in no time. Besides, you never know when one of the people you hire to guard you will decide that he'd like a cut of the money, too. It's happened before."
"Yeah, it has," Clark said.
"Besides," Lois said, with a hint of malice, "Lex tried to kill Superman. It would drive him nuts to know that the Superman Foundation had control of half his fortune."
"Have I ever mentioned how smart I think you are?" Clark said. "Not to mention devious. I like it."
"It's only fair," Lois said. "He hurt a lot of people trying to manipulate me into marrying him. We should use his money to repair as much of the damage as we can. I want to try to do some good with it, considering how much harm Lex did during his life."
"That's my Lois." He squeezed her hand lightly. "I think you're brilliant. But —" with a glance at the evergreen forest still ahead of them, "I guess we'd better get moving."
"I suppose so," she said.
It took a while to find a slope that was less intimidating than the one before them, but eventually they rejoined their guide and made their way into the forest.
The underbrush wasn't as thick once they were under the trees. The tall evergreens blocked out a good deal of the sun for the lesser plants, and the going was easier. They had gone perhaps a mile farther when Clark heard the sound that he had been listening for since last night. The distant beat-beat-beat of the rotors echoed around them, magnified by the mountains on all sides.
"Helicopter!" Lois said.
"Yeah." Clark looked up. The thick canopy of pines cut off any possibility of them signaling for help. They looked at each other in frustration.
"Well, if someone's hunting for us, they're bound to see the plane," Lois said, after a moment. "It's right out in the open. I said in the note that we were following the stream, downhill. They ought to be able to track us down."
"Yeah." Clark glanced upward again. "I guess the only thing we can do is keep on going."
The beat of the rotors faded as they listened, and again only the whisper of the pine trees and the occasional birdcall broke the silence. They started onward once more, both straining their ears for any indication of the returning aircraft, but the sounds didn't repeat themselves. Lois sighed.
"I always wondered why searchers had such trouble finding people lost in the wilderness. Now I know."
"Believe me, it's difficult," Clark said. "Superman has participated in searches like that. At least if they find the plane, they'll know to follow the stream. That's a big help right there."
They were still in the trees when darkness began to fall. In the deep shade of the evergreens, there was no possibility of using Lois's magnifying glass to start a fire, so after a short debate, they decided to camp near the stream, using a clump of the smaller fir trees for shelter. It wasn't the ideal situation, but at least, as Clark pointed out, surrounded by the Christmassy evergreens, nothing dangerous would be able to reach them without alerting them to its presence.
It was while they were setting up their camp that Clark heard the sound of voices.
"Clark," Lois whispered, "do you hear something?"
He nodded and held a finger to his lips. They froze, listening.
"… Have to be somewhere along here," a familiar voice said. "They said they were following the stream. How far could they get in two days, anyhow?"
Clark saw Lois's eyebrows fly up. It was the voice of their erstwhile pilot, and from the sound, the man was approaching from downstream.
"Maybe something ate 'em," a grumpy voice answered. "Besides, who knew either one of 'em could land that crate? If the old bat had done her homework, she'd have known it and you coulda just shot 'em."
"Nope. No shooting," the voice of the pilot said. "When she shows up dead, there can't be any way anybody can prove for sure it wasn't an accident. Unless you want to explain to the Mrs. why she can't get the money back. Personally, I wouldn't want to have to do that."
A disgusted grunt. "So we have to plow through this jungle hunting for them?"
"If you want to stay alive, yeah." The pilot's voice held a faint chill. "I like living, and that depends on Lois Luthor's death." The voice was growing closer. A flashlight flickered indistinctly through the pine needles of the surrounding trees. "Look, we're not going to get much farther tonight. It's getting so dark, they've probably already stopped anyway. Let's find a clearing and set up camp."
"What if an animal finds us?"
"We'll light a fire, moron. Animals are scared of fire."
"I'd rather go back to the chopper."
"Then we'd have to plow through all this in the morning, if we could even find the thing in the dark."
Clark wrapped an arm around Lois and they crouched down as the crunching of feet passed, barely five feet from their hiding place. The pilot didn't speak, but the other man continued to grumble. The footsteps continued on in the direction from which Lois and Clark had come.
"There's a spot," the pilot's voice said suddenly. "We'll camp there."
"I don't like it," the second voice said. "It's too close to the water. It's going to be cold."
"You think you can find a better one?" the pilot asked. "Look, it's a clearing. This is as good as we're likely to get. We're not going to be cold in sleeping bags."
More grumbling. "Fine, we'll camp here. You know anything about building a fire?"
"Sure. I barbecue all the time," the pilot said sarcastically. "It's not exactly rocket science."
>From somewhere not far away, Clark heard a screech and a sudden chattering. Some night bird, he thought. He'd heard such noises frequently when he had gone camping with his parents.
"What the blazes was that?" the pilot demanded.
"Some kind of animal," the other man said. "Hurry up, let's get a fire lit. You said animals are scared of fire."
"Okay. Get me some wood."
"Are you nuts? Whatever made that noise is out there."
"It was out there before you heard it, too," the pilot said. "You've got a gun. Just get some dry sticks and stuff. You won't have to go far."
"Like hell! If I'm going out there in that stuff, you're going with me. I can't carry wood and shoot at the same time."
A four-letter word. "Fine! Come on big brave hero. I'll protect your butt for you while you get the branches."
The voices grew fainter as the men apparently went in search of fuel for their fire. Lois stood up. "They're going back the way we came," she whispered. "Let's get out of here!"
As quietly as they could manage, they pushed their way out of the little grove of evergreens. Clark took the lead, holding Lois's hand, and they made their way slowly downstream, trying to make as little noise as possible.
He strained his ears, listening for the sound of footsteps, any indication that the men might be coming back, but there were none. Once, he heard what sounded like a scream, a long distance off to their right, but concluded that it was unlikely to be the hunters.
"What was that?" Lois whispered. "It sounded like a scream!"
"I don't think so," Clark said. "I think it was an animal."
"What kind of animal makes a noise like that?"
Clark was slow to answer. "I think it might be a puma," he said, reluctantly.
"A *puma*? You mean a mountain lion?"
"Maybe. Maybe it was just a bird or something."
"Do they have pumas around here?"
"I think so," he said. "It was a long way off."
"I hope it *stays* a long way off!"
Twice more they heard the scream, but it didn't seem to be getting any closer. Still, the back of Clark's neck prickled. He sincerely didn't want to run into any of the larger wildlife around the area. The men were enough to have to deal with without adding any large feline carnivores to the mix. Probably the big cat wouldn't bother them, he thought. He had always heard that the predators didn't bother humans unless they were starving or something, but they couldn't be sure of it, and he didn't want to test the theory.
It was slow going, but gradually they left the men and their campsite behind them. Neither of them said another word. In the woods like this, they couldn't know how far sound might carry, but considering the conversation between the men hunting for them, it could be heard at a considerable distance. It was just as well that the two men evidently weren't experienced woodsmen.
Lois followed him, one hand clasped in his. She was certainly as tired as he was, but she offered no complaint, nor did she let go of his hand as they trudged doggedly along.
"How can you tell where we're going?" Lois whispered finally. "I can't see a thing."
"My night sight must be better than yours," Clark said. "I can see — some, anyway. Come on; the farther we get away from those guys, the better. You heard what they said."
"Yeah." She was quiet again as they crept slowly onward. An hour passed, and then another. The gurgling little stream was their guide, and also covered the faint sounds they made, but it was the awareness that Lois was literally reeling on her feet with sheer fatigue that caused him to finally stop.
"I think we're all right, here," he said.
She shook her head. "Like you said, the farther away we get from those guys the better," she said. "Besides, they said there was a helicopter this way. Maybe the one we heard earlier."
"Lois, I don't know how to fly a helicopter."
"I know that," she said, impatiently, "but a helicopter has a radio, doesn't it? We can call for help!"
"We could miss it in the dark," he whispered, instinctively keeping his voice down.
"You can't land a helicopter in the trees!" she shot back. "It has to be out in the open somewhere!"
"I know, but it's still pretty dark, even in the open," he countered. "The moon has set by now. Besides, we don't know how much farther we have to go. Anyway," he added, knowing full well that Mad Dog Lane would never admit weakness on her own account, and driven to his last line of defense, "I'm tired."
"Oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth. "I forgot! Do you feel okay, Clark? I shouldn't have let you go on so long without resting!"
"No, I'm all right," he assured her, aware of a small twinge of guilt at his subterfuge, "but I really think we're safe for now. Let's find a place with some cover, just in case they come back, or there are more searchers in the vicinity."
In the dimness, he saw her bite her lip and then nod. "You're right. We'll be better able to handle things by daylight, anyhow. Let's find a place like we had back there."
They found a thick patch of evergreens a short distance from the stream, and crawled into the middle of it. It gave them safe, albeit somewhat scratchy cover, and lying on a layer of pine needles, surrounded by a windbreak of pine trees was, in Clark's opinion, a good deal more desirable than sleeping in the open. The heavy scent of the evergreens all about was almost intoxicating. As they curled up together for warmth, Lois turned and snuggled into the curve of his body as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and he put his arms around her. The thought occurred to him that, although he would be glad when they were rescued and safe, he was going to miss this part of their adventure when it was over.
"G'night, Clark," she whispered. The last part of his name was interrupted by a yawn.
"Good night, Lois," he whispered. "Sleep well."
As he had the day before, Clark awoke with the dawn. The morning chorus of the local bird life was going full blast, and the sky through the trees was ruddy with sunrise. The trees were thinner here, and between the gaps in the spreading evergreens above him, he could see little pink scudding clouds painted gold on one side with the rays of the morning sun. The mist off the stream wasn't as thick as it had been the morning before, either, and although there was still a distinct bite to the air, the patches of sunshine were warm on his face.
Lois was curled tightly against him, her face inches from his. Her hair was tangled and adorned with pieces of foliage and dead twigs, and muddy streaks marked her face, but he found himself staring at her and marveling at how beautiful she was. He smiled at the thought. Yep, he had it bad, all right, but then Lois would probably look beautiful even after losing at mud-wrestling — at least in his opinion. Not that Mad Dog Lane would be likely to lose such a contest.
It was early yet, he thought, and considering how tired she had been the night before, it would be just as well if she slept a little longer. He lay still, soaking up the warmth of the sunlight. With the small trees all around them, even someone standing five feet away would be unable to see them unless he knew exactly where to look.
Which was fortunate, he realized, seconds later, when he heard the footsteps.
It was a single person, he thought. Carefully, he placed a hand lightly over Lois's mouth to muffle any outcry and shook her shoulder.
The precaution had been unnecessary. She opened her eyes, raised a hand to where his covered her mouth, and he could feel her close her lips tightly. He touched his own lips with a forefinger.
She gave the slightest of nods and turned her head cautiously toward the sounds.
The screen of evergreen branches between them and whoever was approaching was thick enough to give them cover. Clark held his breath as the footsteps came within feet of their hiding place and went on past. Neither of them moved. When the sound of the footsteps had disappeared, Lois sat up and parted the branches to look out.
"Nobody." She mouthed the word. "Come on."
Quickly and quietly, they left their thicket. The heavy carpet of pine needles left few traces of the passerby. Lois turned downstream again, and Clark followed.
The trees were thinning noticeably as they went, and within moments, they had reached the edge of the pine forest. A field of waving grass stretched before them. The little stream flowed out into the open, and some distance away, Clark could see some kind of hoofed animals, most probably deer, grazing. As he watched, several of the animals' heads came up, and an instant later the entire herd was bounding away. But what caught his attention was situated five hundred yards away and to his left, on a flat, grassy area. The helicopter looked vastly out of place in the pastoral setting. It was unoccupied, its rotors motionless, and its white sides reflected the pink light of the rising sun.
Neither of them made a move, but Lois looked back over her shoulder. There was no sign of whoever had passed their hiding place bare moments ago, but he was bound to be back shortly. Clark was evidently thinking the same thing, because he beckoned to her silently, and together they moved a short distance away from the water, skirting the edge of the field, until they were concealed by piney shrubs and yet could see anyone who emerged from the trees near the stream.
"What do we do now?" Clark asked.
"I don't see anything about Search and Rescue, or Forest Service on that, do you?" Lois asked, jerking a thumb at the aircraft.
Clark shook his head. "It's a private helicopter. It's part of the LexCorp fleet. See the circle with the LL logo on the door?"
Lois squinted. "I think so. How did you see that? I didn't even notice it until you pointed it out."
"I've seen them before, around Metropolis."
"When? I've never seen them."
"In the air," Clark specified. "I've passed them, now and then." He glanced at the copter. "Careless of them to use one of their own."
"Not necessarily." Lois hesitated, momentarily embarrassed that she had forgotten for a time that she was talking to Superman. "Maybe it's one based in the area. Lex had offices all over the country. Maybe they're 'helping' to hunt for us. There's probably some kind of search for the plane, by now, and they'd have a much better idea where we went down than anyone else." She chewed her lip, thinking. "Do you know anything about operating one of the radios on these things?"
"Sure," Clark said. "I've used them — in the course of my other job."
"Yeah, I guess you would have." Naturally, Superman would have used radios like the one in the copter before. "Can you use it to call for help?"
"Good. Here's what we'll do …"
Lenny Bryce was bored, to say the least. What the devil was he supposed to do for hours on end, babysitting a helicopter in the middle of nowhere until George and Mike tracked down Lois Luthor and her partner — what was his name? Kent; that was it, although he didn't give two hoots about the guy's name, actually. Why hadn't he had the sense to at least bring along a Game Boy or something to pass the time? He'd worked out the fatal accident that was going to cause the heiress's unfortunate death in the crash of the airplane. This time when they took it up they would see to it that the two passengers didn't have a chance to land it safely. No one would be able to tell that the bumps on their heads hadn't been sustained in the crash.
Finished with his immediate business, he followed the stream out into the sunlight again, squinting at the unfamiliar brightness. The sooner they got this particular assignment settled, the better, he decided. Then Lenny could get back to his normal haunts in the smoky back rooms and plush business offices of Metropolis, and the very lucrative job he did as an enforcer for the Boss.
Of course, the Boss was dead, but that didn't matter. There was already a new Boss giving the orders. This Boss was a woman, but from the little that Lenny had seen, she was certainly due every ounce of respect that he had once given to Lex Luthor. This new Boss was to be feared as much as the old.
He barely glanced at the copter as he waded into the hip-high grass, following the trampled trail he had made in his trip to the forest line. He hated the thing. It was cramped and noisy, and besides, though he would never admit it to anyone, he was afraid of flying.
There was something wrong with the copter, he thought as he approached. There was someone standing next to it. At first, he thought it was one of his companions, but as he drew nearer he could see that it was no one he knew. Instinctively, his hand sought the handgun in its shoulder holster under his jacket.
The other man was leaning against the body of the copter, his arms folded casually across his chest, and from inside, Lenny could hear the sound of official voices issuing from the radio, which he knew very well had not been turned on when he left.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded.
"Clark Kent," the man said. "Hope you don't mind. I used your radio to call for help."
Lenny's instincts overrode his good sense, and he pulled out his gun. "That was a big mistake," he said.
Kent raised an eyebrow, eyeing the weapon. "The Mrs. wouldn't like it if you shoot me," he said calmly. "Remember? They want it to look like an accident. If it doesn't, the money goes to Lois Luthor's heirs, not to the beneficiaries in Luthor's will. Do you really want to explain that to her? She'll skin you alive — if you're lucky."
Lenny gaped at him. The Mrs.? What did Kent know about her?
It was the last clear thought he had for some time. Something hit him across the back of the neck and he pitched forward, the gun spinning to the ground. By the time he was conscious enough to think clearly again he was on his face in the dirt and his hands were tied behind him with a leather belt. Another belt around his ankles confined his feet and Lois Luthor was standing beside Kent, rubbing the edge of her right hand.
"Nice work," Kent said. "Maybe I should take up Karate, too."
"Wouldn't hurt," she said. "How long before the cavalry gets here?"
"Pretty soon," Kent said. "They're tracking the signal."
"Why don't you go back and talk to them," she said. She nudged Lenny's leg with the toe of her muddy shoe. "Tell them we've got a small complication."
"Chief!" Jimmy Olsen burst into his editor's office, but contrary to the annoyance his boss might have expressed at his precipitous entrance, Perry White sat up straight. Jimmy's face told the whole story.
"They found them?"
"They're alive!" Jimmy panted out the words, almost breathless. "We just got a call from the Colorado Forest Service. They were just picked up, along with some guy with a LexCorp search team that pulled a gun on Clark. Lois talked to me for a minute, just long enough to tell us she'll be sending in a story to the rewrite desk as soon as she can get to a regular phone. They're both okay."
"Thank god," Perry said, aware of a lessening of the knot in his gut for the first time since Henderson had called him in the middle of the night with the news that Barry Jones had been assaulted, and that Lois and Clark were missing. "Did she say what happened?"
"I asked her, but she said she couldn't tie up the radio. They were relaying the call from the rescue copter. She wanted us to call Clark's parents and let them know."
"I'll take care of that right now," Perry said. "I guess we'll have to wait for the whole story, but at least we know they're all right."
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "I wonder what happened?"
"Well," Perry said, "Henderson said that his guys found a bug on my phone, so I guess somebody in Luthor's will wanted more of his money. It's not over, but Henderson's playing it pretty close to his chest."
"I hope he gets whoever the so-and-so is," Jimmy said, with unaccustomed venom. "It figures that some of Luthor's heirs would be just as dirty as he was."
"Whoever it is, he made a big mistake," Perry said. "If Henderson doesn't get him, you can bet Lois and Clark will. Anyway, I feel a lot better. Now if Superman would just turn up, it would be perfect. I don't suppose that's too likely, though."
"Henderson hasn't found a body," Jimmy said, his enthusiasm slightly dampened.
"Yeah. That's what I think everyone's holdin' onto," Perry said. "I know I am." He reached for the phone. "Better get back to work, kid. I need to call Clark's parents."
"Please let them through." The Forest Service officer plowed ahead through the mob of media, cutting a path through the crush of bodies that literally fought with each other to reach Lois. "Please stand back. These people have had a very difficult time. Please move aside …"
Clark clamped an arm around her, his jaw set as he pushed away a photographer who thrust his camera practically into Lois's face. Lois buried her face in his shoulder, her eyes squeezed shut. The man staggered back, going to one knee. Several more members of the Forest Service hurried forward to surround the two of them and help force the way through the mob of reporters hemming them in.
"Please stand back." The officer in the lead stood his ground as a man with a microphone tried to push past him, nearly screaming a question as he shoved the instrument under Lois's nose and jabbing Clark in the chest. Clark shoved the thing back into the face of the man who held it. Another uniformed figure stepped in front of them. "Move aside. Let these people by." A jumble of shouted questions followed them as one of their escorts pulled the door open to let them through and shut it in the faces of the frantic representatives of the media.
Lois half-collapsed against Clark. One of their rescuers muttered a four-letter word under his breath and turned to them. "Are you all right, Mrs. Luthor?"
"Lane," Lois said. Clark saw her visibly take a deep breath and then another before she straightened up and faced the man. "It's Lois Lane. I never legally changed my name."
The officer's lips twitched before he resumed his officially solemn expression. "'Lane'," he repeated. "If you and Mr. Kent would come this way, Ms. Lane, we have a paramedic here to check you over. Don't worry about them." He jerked his head at the door. "They won't be allowed in."
"Thanks." Lois took another deep breath. Clark could feel the hand that clasped his tighten for an instant. "Come on, Clark. Let's get this over with."
The trip back in the Forest Service's rescue helicopter had been mostly occupied by the quick call to the Daily Planet, in between stuffing down the emergency rations presented to them by their rescuers. They had been followed closely by two newscopters. When they arrived at the station, the crush of bodies all trying to reach her for a photo or a quote hadn't been a surprise, but Lois had been astounded by the panicky sensation of sheer claustrophobia that swept over her as the members of the Fourth Estate surrounded them, refusing to let them past. She had been part of mobs like this, she knew, and it had never occurred to her before to empathize with the hapless target of her questions. In the past, it had always been about the story, not the distress of the unfortunate human being before her, in her drive to be first with the all-important interview. Such people, if she had thought about them at all, were supposed to be adults. They should be able to take it, and if they couldn't, well, that was unfortunate, but not her problem.
Only instead, she had felt nothing but the urge to crawl into Clark's arms and hide. Suddenly she could more than empathize with the individuals that she and others of her profession had cornered with questions that they had no desire to answer, persons in the midst of their own personal crises whose privacy was being ruthlessly violated by obnoxious and uncaring strangers.
She had always stood righteously by her convictions that the public had the right to know, but did the public really have the right to know *everything*? Did she and her colleagues legitimately have the right to intrude so callously into innocent people's lives and rip a human being's dignity to shreds in the course of their jobs, all for the sake of a story?
It was a sobering thought.
Stepping out of the bathroom amid a cloud of steam, forty minutes later, she saw Clark, a telephone receiver jammed in the space between his shoulder and his left ear, glance around and give her a thumbs up gesture.
"Thanks, Perry," he said. "We'll give you a call when we get there." He listened for another minute. "Yeah, she's okay. She just came in. I will. Bye." He hung up.
"That was Perry?" Lois asked.
"Yeah. He asked if you were really okay, and to tell you that your desk is waiting for you at the Planet when you get back." He looked her up and down. "You look like you feel a lot better."
"I do," Lois said. She raised a hand to steady the towel wound around her hair in a kind of turban effect. The plain, utilitarian robe that they had given her in place of the extremely dirty clothing that she had been wearing for the past few days was at least two sizes too big, but it was clean. She padded across the room to sit down beside him on the cot. "I never realized before how wonderful a hot shower could feel."
He nodded agreement, rubbing a hand across his clean-shaven jaw. "I know exactly what you mean. Even a couple of razor nicks was worth it, just to get rid of the beard. It itched."
On their arrival at the station, the paramedic had checked them over and pronounced them amazingly fit after their adventure. Only Lois had noticed Clark's sigh of relief when it was over, and they had politely but firmly refused the offer to have a doctor do a more complete examination later.
"So, what did Perry want?" she asked.
"He's making arrangements for us to catch a plane to Kansas — for a few days at the least. He said to stay away at least that long, or we'll be sorry." Clark made a face. "The press is howling on his doorstep, and he had another tabloid guy arrested for trespassing, too." He shook his head.
"Clark, what are we going to do?" Lois asked. Just the thought of facing that mob downstairs again made her throat clog up. "How are we going to get out of here without them following us?"
"Jim Thompson — one of the guys from the rescue copter — and I were talking while you were in the shower," Clark said. "We kind of worked something out. I'm going to give a statement to the press as your spokesperson, and then we're going to get out of here."
"They'll follow us," Lois said.
"Not the way that we've worked it out," Clark said. "There's a van making a delivery that's due here in about three hours. When it leaves, two people dressed like us are going to be seen getting into the back. Just after it pulls out, an official car is going to follow it, with two men in the front and no one in the back. Jim thinks he can keep them after him long enough for the car to get out of sight and drop us off. A friend of his is going to pick us up in his private car a few minutes later, and take us to the airport."
Lois thought that over. "It should work," she said. "Do you really think we should go on to your parents' farm or should we just head back to Metropolis? I want to get on this thing as fast as we can."
"I talked to Henderson and told him the whole story," Clark said. "He didn't say much, but I got the feeling that he's putting a lot of effort into tracking down whoever was behind what happened. If we go back now, though, *you're* going to be the story. Every tabloid in the city is still fixated on you." He hesitated. "They also think Superman's dead. I wish I knew what to do about that."
Lois seated herself on the cot next to him. "I think the only thing we can do is wait and see what happens. After we get back to Metropolis, you should probably go see that researcher at STAR Labs, too. Then, when we know one way or another — at least as much as we can — Superman can either reappear or get in touch with Henderson and give him the scoop. Either way, we don't want him connected with you." She took his hand. "And when we do get back, the first thing I'm going to do is arrange for my lawyer to talk to the Superman Foundation for me. Maybe that will get the tabloids off my neck."
"Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
She nodded vigorously. "It's the only chance I have of getting my life back. I'll still want to have some say in how it's used, and be sure I have an income, just in case, but the sooner the Superman Foundation takes control of it the better. Once that's done, the paparazzi — and the tabloids — should eventually lose interest in me. I can't be an effective investigative reporter as long as those parasites are following me around." She shuddered. "Or even the regular press. Being the story isn't nearly as much fun as chasing it."
"I think you're right," Clark said. "It should frustrate the heck out of whoever tried to kill you, too. I have to say, I like that angle a lot."
"The thought," Lois said, "doesn't exactly upset me, either."
"If you like, we can give Perry a call from my parents' place, tell him what you want to do and have him contact your lawyer and the Superman Foundation," Clark said. "Then maybe most of the paperwork could be settled by the time we get back to Metropolis."
"That's an even better idea," Lois said. "Let's do it that way." She removed the towel from her head and began to rub her hair vigorously. "I can hardly wait."
Lois paced anxiously back and forth in the small room that she and Clark had been given temporarily during their short stay at the Forest Service station.
This had to work, she told herself. Clark was going to be her spokesman, and if Superman didn't know how to handle the press by now, no one did.
But she knew how persistent the Press could be, having been one of their most aggressive members for several years. Not much stopped her, and while she was — or had been — one of the best, there certainly had to be others with an equal amount of determination out there. Whether any of the slavering mob outside ranked in that category she didn't know, but it was possible. Surely, some of them might suspect some kind of ruse to get her out of this place, away from their clutches. If they figured out how, they were going to try to stop her, and besides, one or two of them were entirely likely to try to sneak in to get that award-winning interview in spite of all the guards around her.
She glanced down at herself, clad in her newly laundered clothing. She didn't look much like the frazzled, filthy woman who had been escorted into this place a couple of hours ago.
She turned to go into the bathroom. There was a pitcher of cold water on the counter in there, and she could use a drink of it. Her mouth felt unusually dry. She had read somewhere about men about to go into battle spitting to show that they weren't nervous. She would certainly fail that test right now.
Behind her, someone knocked on the door. A voice said, "Mrs. Luthor?"
She grimaced. She had told them that she was Lois *Lane*, but apparently the word hadn't circulated to everyone in the place. Still, she couldn't be very irritated with them. The men and women here had been more than helpful to both Clark and her.
"Yes?" she called.
"Mr. Kent asked me to give you a message. May I come in?"
"Just a minute," she said.
The door opened and one of the uniformed men entered. She frowned at him in irritation.
"You know, I might not have been dressed," she said, a little coolly.
"Sorry," he said. "We're in a bit of a hurry. Your ride is here. You need to get into it while Kent is still talking to the reporters."
She hesitated. "Let me get my bag."
He nodded, and she went to pick up the leather case that held the few remaining items that she and Clark had brought from Metropolis. He checked the hallway outside the little room and gestured her ahead of him toward the stairs.
The stairway was deserted, and their footsteps echoed on the wooden steps as they descended. When they reached the bottom, he pointed toward the rear, where a door opened into the shed that served the station as a small garage.
Why she hesitated, her hand on the knob, she couldn't say. Some instinct that she didn't even recognize, perhaps, made her pause.
"Go on," the man said. "We don't have much time."
"Is the van here?" she asked. "Clark said it wouldn't be here for another hour and a half."
"It's ahead of schedule," he said. "Kent will be here just as soon as he finishes talking to the media."
Something was wrong here, she thought. This wasn't how the plan was supposed to go. She hesitated again, glancing up at her escort. He was considerably larger than her, taller even than Clark. "I'll wait for Clark."
"He wanted you to go first," the man said. "Hurry, before someone sees you."
"No one's going to see me in here," she said, her earlier speculations coming suddenly to mind. "Which paper are you from?"
He moved suddenly, and she found her arm twisted up behind her. His hand covered her mouth. "Open the door," he said softly.
He hadn't changed in appearance, she saw as he pushed her toward the door, holding her in a painful grip from which she couldn't hope to simply jerk free. Contrary to the various novels, he didn't *look* like a killer. He looked just like anybody else, with a pleasant, bland face, blue eyes and dark, waving hair. He could have been anybody she passed on the street. He didn't smirk in triumph, or chortle maniacally. "Open the door, Mrs. Luthor," he said again.
She made a sound that she hoped meant refusal. He twisted her arm cruelly and she couldn't restrain a muffled yelp.
"Open it," he said, quietly. "I really don't enjoy hurting you."
She gritted her teeth. If he got her out there, she would certainly be found dead of an accident while trying to escape the members of the media.
Another twist to her arm. It felt as if he was ripping the muscles from their attachments. "Now," he said.
This couldn't go on. He was a lot bigger than she was and if she refused to cooperate, he could physically wrestle her through the door if necessary. She made what she hoped was a sound of assent and reached for the doorknob.
"Good girl," he said.
She would have once chance, and that was it. They had taught an escape from this kind of hold in her Tae Kwon Do class. If it didn't work, she was dead.
She lifted one foot and raked it down her captor's shin with everything she had, almost simultaneously pivoting left to partially release the tension on her trapped arm, and struck with her free hand at his groin.
The move was more effective than she had dreamed. His grip on her arm loosened, and she was able to rotate her wrist, breaking free of the arm lock. She deflected his instinctive grab with the other hand and struck at the bridge of his nose with the heel of the newly freed one.
The blow connected and blood spurted. He screamed, grabbing blindly for her, but she ducked easily under his flailing arm and drove her elbow into his solar plexus with all her remaining strength. He doubled forward with a strangled grunt, the breath knocked completely out of him.
"Help!" she shouted, belatedly. "Somebody, help!"
"God, Lois! When I heard you yell …" Clark seemed unable to remove his arm from around her shoulders. Their escape plan had been put on hold for the moment, and the county sheriff had finally finished taking her statement. He had escorted Lois's somewhat battered attacker from the room only moments before, bound for his squad car.
"I'm okay," she reassured him for probably the fiftieth time. "I didn't take Tae Kwon Do just for fun, you know."
"No, and thank god you didn't." Her partner's face was still unnaturally pale under its normal olive tone. "They're still trying. The sooner we get you somewhere they can't find you, the better."
She nodded. "You're right."
"Sure." She nodded vigorously. "I don't want to have to be looking over my shoulder for hired assassins who are trying to arrange accidents for me all the time. But once the thing with the money is fixed, we're going back, media or not."
His eyes widened and then a small smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "What brought this on?"
"I did," she said confidently. "I guess the real Lois Lane has been in hiding for a while, but I was just reminded a little while ago that I *can* take care of myself. It isn't going to be fun, but it's time all the people trying to push me around get a taste of what it's like with the shoe on the other foot."
The smile on his lips widened into a genuine grin. "I guess the real Lois Lane is back," he said. "Metropolis better watch out."
"And 'The Mrs.', too," Lois said. "I'm tired of her games."
Jim Thompson stuck his head into the room. "Our media friends are trying to get the story from the Sheriff," he said. "Come on. We had the van wait, so now's your chance."
The last time Lois Lane had seen the old Kent farmhouse had been under circumstances that she would rather not think about. It had been only one day after she had seen a madman try to shoot her partner in the back. That experience wasn't something she liked to remember. One second's delay would have meant a far different outcome and her best friend would have been dead, no matter what had happened to Trask afterwards.
Now she knew that much more had been going on than she had known. Clark's father had been hiding a chunk of Kryptonite in the barn, Superman's powers were in abeyance because of it, Jason Trask had nearly succeeded in killing Superman, as he had intended from the first, and because she had told Rachel Harris to get to the Kents' place, the sheriff had been in time to save his life. Every now and then, however, that scene would replay in her dreams and she would awaken in a cold sweat.
As Clark pulled the rented car to a stop and cut the engine, her gaze flitted to the pond with its little bridge where she had seen Trask die, but she resolutely turned her attention to something else. Those things were in the past. Now she and Clark had a much-needed period of peace and quiet ahead of them to rest and recuperate from the traumatic events of the past several days — before they returned to Metropolis to face the tabloids and the furor.
She opened the door of the car and got out, looking around at Clark's home. Both the house and the barn had a new coat of paint, she saw. The small bridge over the pond where the rail had been damaged during Clark's fight with Trask had been repaired. There was no trace left of the events that had taken place during that first trip to Smallville.
Clark opened the driver's door and stepped out as well. He glanced around, and Lois saw a smile on his face. This was where Clark Kent's roots were, she thought, the place that had made him the person that he was, and that had given the world the man who would become Superman. And the world would doubtless laugh derisively if it knew.
She had laughed at him, sneered at Clark Kent's Midwestern values, at the same time respecting those identical values in Superman. It was sobering to realize what a difference that an image could make to a person's perception. The last few days had been a lesson in more ways than one, she thought. It was something she wouldn't soon forget.
When she had needed Clark, after Lex's death, he had been there for her. Could she do less for him? If Superman was indeed gone for good, which was something that she wasn't willing to accept yet, Clark might need her more than ever. And besides, she needed him.
Clark rounded the car to open the trunk and remove the little bag that had accompanied them on their journey from the field high in the Colorado Rockies to the farmhouse in Kansas. It had a very few of her possessions in it. She would have to buy more if they were going to remain here for two weeks or more, she thought. They had talked to Perry White by phone after reaching Wichita Field, and the decision had been to wait until the thirty days were up after Luthor's death, to make certain that Lois's death would benefit no one in his will.
He closed the trunk and extended a hand. "Looks like Mom and Dad aren't home. Let's go in and get a snack. I may never stop feeling hungry again." He looked briefly at the sun, now sinking toward the west. "It's been a busy day."
"That's for sure," Lois said. She reached out to take the case, but instead he caught her hand in his free one.
"I'm glad we're out of that mess," he said suddenly and unexpectedly, "but I'm going to miss part of it."
"Oh …" To her vast surprise, she felt her cheeks growing warm. "So am I."
He was silent, looking into her eyes for what seemed ages. At last she broke their locked gaze, dropping her focus to his collarbone, aware that she was certainly blushing deeper than ever. "Clark …"
"I'm sorry," he said, obviously misinterpreting her flush. "I didn't mean to …"
"No." She raised her fingers to his lips stopping the words mid- sentence. "You know, if not for you, I'd be on my honeymoon right now. Do you have any idea how glad I am that I'm not?"
He moved closer, not releasing her hand. "I couldn't just let it happen," he said. "Not when I knew what he was … what he'd do to you. I had to try. I'm only sorry that I didn't manage to stop things in time to keep all the rest of this from happening."
Her hand was trapped between them. She wiggled it free, but only in order to slip her arms around his waist. "Clark, I don't remember if I ever apologized for the terrible things I said to you, for the things I accused you of … but I'd like to do it now. To tell you just once how sorry I am, and how grateful."
"Yes," she said, overriding his instinctive protest. "I'm more grateful than I can ever say. You saved me from myself, and we both know what a tough opponent I am." His lips twitched in a slight smile at her feeble joke, but she hurried on before he could speak. "But mostly, I want to tell you again that I love you — and not as a brother, either. That's something that I kept hiding behind the whole time, pretending it wasn't so. I guess when I'm determined to do something stupid, all the evidence to the contrary doesn't matter. I'll have to remember that, if I ever want to be an investigative reporter again." She drew a deep breath. "I have to say this now, though, before I lose my nerve. I'll never know why, but you say you still love me."
"I do. I always will."
"Will you marry me, Clark?"
His eyes widened. "*Now*?"
She shook her head. "Oh, not now. That wouldn't look very good, and the tabloids would never leave us alone. But maybe in six months, when all this mess has died down, and the paparazzi have forgotten about us."
"Are you sure, Lois?" His hand came up to cup her cheek. "Are you sure that's what you really want?"
She nodded. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life."
He didn't hesitate. "In that case, yes."
The overnight case landed on the ground as she flung herself into his arms, but neither of them noticed.
Lex had never kissed her this way. She had never even wanted him to kiss her this way. No matter what happened in the future, she thought dizzily, as Clark's arms tightened around her and his lips covered hers, today had to rank as the most wonderful day of her life.
Clark was in the process of making thick sandwiches for both of them when he heard the rumble of the Kent pickup truck's engine. A glance out the window told him that the ancient vehicle had just turned onto the narrow track leading from the highway that ran past the Kent property. It sounded as if his dad needed to get the muffler fixed again.
"Mom and Dad will be here in a few minutes," he said. "That's their truck." He sliced Lois's sandwich in half, added a thick dill pickle to the plate and presented it to her with a flourish. "Here you go, my lady."
"What's their truck?" Lois asked. She picked up half the sandwich and took a large bite. "This is great," she added, with her mouth full.
"That motor," he replied, as he sliced his own sandwich and set the plate on the table across from her. "Mom and Dad just turned off the road."
She swallowed and raised the sandwich for another bite. "I don't hear … Oh, yeah, now I do," she interrupted herself. "Your ears must be better than mine."
"You didn't hear that?" Clark sat up straight, and at the same instant Lois's eyes widened.
"Clark! Your hearing! You don't suppose …"
"I … I don't …" Quite suddenly, his voice had begun to shake.
"Can you test it?"
He nodded, training his attention on the truck as it approached. The murmur of his parents' voices was indistinct, but …
"I can hear their voices," he said, aware that his own voice was shaking harder. "I can't tell what they're saying."
"Yet," Lois added. "Clark, I think your powers might be coming back."
He nodded, blinking at the sudden stinging of his eyes. He had told himself not to hope and tried not to think about it, but now he realized just how much he had missed the part of him that was Superman.
Lois's hand was suddenly covering his. "Superman's not gone," she said. "I'm so happy for you."
He squeezed her hand, swallowing the lump that seemed to have formed in his throat, and took a bite of his sandwich. Suddenly, the food tasted wonderful.
The truck pulled up in the driveway and the engine went quiet. A moment later, the kitchen door swung open and Martha Kent came in, carrying a large bag of groceries. Jonathan followed, another bag in his hands.
"Clark! Lois!" Martha set the bag down on the counter. "I wanted to be back before you got here! Are you two all right?"
Clark got to his feet to take the bag from his father. "Pretty much," he said. "Is there anything more to bring in?"
"Just one bag. I'll get it. You sit down and finish your sandwich." Jonathan turned and went out again.
Clark set the bag on the counter. His mother pointed to the sandwich. "You heard your father, Clark. Sit. Eat. I imagine the two of you haven't had much food for the last few days."
"Well," Clark hedged, "there were blackberries. We didn't starve." At his mother's stern look, he resumed his seat. "As you can see, Lois, my mom runs the whole show around here. Dad and I do what she says, if we know what's good for us."
Lois smiled. "Then you're used to it," she said. "I'm glad I won't have to retrain you."
Martha's eyebrows flew up. "Is there something I should know, here?"
"When we got here, Lois asked me to marry her," Clark said, offhandedly. "I said yes."
Martha's face broke into a delighted grin. "I always said you were a smart boy. Congratulations, both of you."
Jonathan stepped through the door, bearing the last bag. "Am I missing something?"
"Lois and Clark are engaged," Martha told him. She hurried to Lois and bent to hug her. "I always wanted a daughter. Now it looks like I'll have one."
Jonathan turned to look at Clark. "That was fast. When's the big event?"
"In six months or so," Lois said. Clark could see that her cheeks were faintly pink. "First we have to take care of some things. At least this time, I know I've made the right choice."
"There's something else, too," Clark said. "My powers are starting to come back. They're not a hundred percent yet, but it's happening."
Jonathan glanced at Lois, and nodded. "That's a relief. We were a little worried."
"Finish your snacks, and then we want to hear about what happened," Martha said. "Dinner will be in about two hours. Do you think you'll be able to eat again by then?" she added, looking at Lois.
She swallowed another large bite of sandwich. "I've got several days to make up for," she said. "I don't think there'll be any problem."
Lois helped herself to the chicken casserole and let Clark shovel more mashed potatoes and chicken gravy onto her plate. The food was delicious, especially after four days of being hungry in the middle of nowhere. She made a mental note to ask Martha Kent for a few cooking lessons. Since she and Clark were going to be married, it would be nice if she could make something besides macaroni salad for dinner occasionally, and Martha looked like a very good prospect to teach her. After Clark's powers fully returned, it wouldn't be too difficult to visit Kansas frequently enough to gain a little skill in the kitchen, she thought.
"You know," Clark said, "I was afraid the media might have staked out the farm. I was wondering what to do if they had. Did you have any trouble with them?"
"The first day we did get a few calls, trying to get our reaction to what had happened," Martha said. "After some slimy character from the Tattler called, looking for any kind of scandal between you and Lois, we turned off the phone. We never saw any of them, though. Later Rachel told us that people had been directing the few that showed up in town all over Kingdom Come when they asked how to get here. It was kind of a game about who could send them to the worst spots, or get them going in circles."
Clark grinned. "That I'd like to have seen."
Jonathan chuckled. "After the pair from the Whisper had to have their car towed out of Potter's Slough, she said they kind of lost their enthusiasm. Fortunately, most of the papers were much more interested in Lois than you, Clark. Our local paper printed the story, and Carrie Johnson interviewed your mother and me, but that's been pretty much all of it, at least so far. A couple of tabloids called this afternoon, but your mother told them that although we'd talked to you by phone, that we wouldn't be flying out to Metropolis to see you until next week because we were going to be butchering hogs and would be too busy until then."
"I didn't see any hogs," Lois said.
"We don't have any," Martha said. "They don't know that, though. I gave them both a graphic description of the process — until the guy at the other end hung up."
Lois had to work not to laugh with a mouthful of potatoes. Clark grinned approvingly. "Well, with the rental car in the shed, if any of them come snooping around, there'll be nothing to tell them that we're here," he said. "I guess we'll just have to lay low. Maybe you could go into town and get Lois a change of clothes," he added. "I won't be able to go get what we left behind at the plane until my powers come back fully, and that might be a while."
"How about your family, Lois?" Jonathan asked. "Did you get to talk to them?"
"I called my mother after we got to civilization, just to let her know I was okay," Lois said. "She's been on tranquilizers since the wedding, anyway though. The press has been camped out in front of her apartment ever since, too, so nothing has really changed. Besides, I think she kind of likes the drama."
Martha shook her head. "Don't these people realize that the last thing a family needs during a crisis is to have reporters crawling all over them?"
"They realize it," Clark said. "A lot of them just don't care about the feelings of the people involved, if there's a story to be had."
"I'll never forget it again, after this," Lois said, quietly. "I got a close look at just how it feels from the other side. I think it can only improve how I do my job in the future. Clark and I have been discussing how I can become a non-story as soon as possible. If it's all right, I'd like to call Perry tomorrow morning, and ask him to do some things for me. By the time Clark and I get married, we don't want a bunch of media attention. It might make it hard for him to do his job. His other job," she clarified. She turned her head to look at Clark and smiled. He smiled back and his hand slipped over to clasp hers under the edge of the table.
It was funny, she thought, how everything had changed in the days after her wedding to Lex. The things that she had thought important a couple of weeks ago didn't seem to matter anymore. The unreachable hero who had haunted her dreams had been replaced by her best friend, and all the glitz, power and luxury that Lex had waved in front of her to impress her had become a stone around her neck: a barrier to the important things that she wanted to do with her life.
Well, they would return to Metropolis when the thirty days were up and ride out the storm of their fifteen minutes of fame. She would rid herself of the burden of Lex's money, and then she and Clark and Superman would go to work as a team to find out who had tried to kill them. The "Mrs.", whoever she was, was going to find out the hard way that she had tangled with the wrong people.
And then, when everything was back to normal, she and Clark would be married quietly. Their partnership at work would become a partnership in life.
That was going to be the most thrilling adventure of all.