By Sara <email@example.com>
Submitted: July 2005
Summary: What if Lois had married Luthor at the end of the "Barbarians at the Planet"/"House of Luthor" episode arc? Lois is on the run, Superman has disappeared, and Clark has found a new life elsewhere. Can things get any worse?
Authors Note; I have many people to thank here, and much roundabout explaining to do, so for any impatient souls — I'd skip down to where you see the warnings <g>
First and foremost — the largest amount of gratitude and appreciation goes to my fantastic beta/best-readers, sounding boards, psychiatrists, lexicons and punch-bags.
Starring in order of appearance; Lynn, Saskia, Pel, Erica, Rachel, Sara K and Avia. I still can't believe I had so many <g> but they were all *utterly fantastic*. They nitpicked. They sorted out plot points. They disputed phrase issues and characterisation. They patted me on the back. They moaned and grumbled and shrieked in horror. They waited through my cliffhangers. They stuck by me through periods where the Muse abandoned me. They nagged. Endlessly. This story is dedicated to them, because it wouldn't have happened without them :))
Thanks to Jose, Elena, Kaethel, Saskia, Pel, AnnaBTG and Julie for their marvellous help with a particular scene.
A *huge* THANK YOU to DocJill for her *invaluable* help a few months ago with some medical queries.
Another thank you to Jen and Jenni who helped me out on Easter Sunday with some A-plot issues, which included bomb-making and lock-picking. Still slightly scared that you knew so much about them both, guys <g> but your help was *invaluable*.
Yet another thank-you to all the wonderful FoLCs on the boards who offered feedback while I was posting this story. You were all *amazing*, but I'd like to say a special thank you to Wendy, KathyM and David for their comments, nitpicks and tremendous help :) You guys are the best.
This is a what-if story, partially inspired by the fantastic Near Wild Heaven I by Kaethel — still more thanks to her for letting me off a few months ago when I mentioned it :)
Finally, thank you to Jeanne Pare, my GE, for tackling this monster and for catching so many things I'd missed.
In this story I've twiddled with the timeline in a few parts, edited the BatP/HoL arc drastically, and I let Lois 'stay home and watch for Superman' in tGGGOH… so she never went to Smallville, but did meet the Kents.
Disclaimer; most characters and some dialogue are the property of Warner Bros, DC comics and whoever else has the right to claim them.
WARNING: Seriously high ick factor. WHAMs, angst and evilness galore. The only other thing I'll say is that, abiding by the precedent set by some of my favourite writers, I've done my best to put my toys back in the same condition — bar a few scratches ;)
FDK *very* welcome at the above address :)
*And you can't fight the tears that ain't comin'
Or the moment of truth in your lies
When everything feels like the movies
Yeah, you bleed just to know you're alive.*
*And I don't want the world to see me
'Cause I don't think that they'd understand
When everything's made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am*
— "Iris," by the Goo Goo Dolls
She gripped the ceramic sides of the toilet, her sticky hair clinging damply to the back of her neck, her breathing irregular. She choked, her throat constricting — and emptied the contents of her stomach into the bowl.
After the sea of nausea had ebbed, she rocked back on her heels, one hand clasped to her forehead.
She couldn't believe it. She'd thought this sickness had passed. It had been weeks… well, no, not weeks, but days, certainly, since he'd laid a finger on her… why, oh *why* was she still…
Staggering to her feet, she washed her face, pausing only once to stare in the mirror.
It reflected a twenty-seven year old woman, it reflected someone she didn't know, someone wearing her face but with a different soul entirely.
Rubbing her aching stomach, she padded back into the cold glow of the room, pausing and leaning against the doorjamb to survey the bed. The king-sized bed. The luxurious bed, Egyptian-cotton sheets and a down mattress.
He wasn't there, had never been there. His side had been stone cold when she'd woken up, the pristine blankets unsullied and the under-sheet smooth. He wasn't there.
She sighed, wondering wearily what earth-shattering disaster had called him away this time. Night after night she woke up to find his side of the bed empty, his nightclothes thrown over the chair, the hanger on which his suit hung empty and the door swinging wide open. She'd never thought she could play the role of a forgotten wife, but night after night, she did it in her sleep, not even realising it. He never woke her up, he never left a note.
She had gotten used to it, but still, the odd time her heart would twang, and she'd be left feeling desolate, reminded of how important he was and how much time he needed to spend away from her. Away from the house. Away from their life.
Away from their life together.
She laughed sharply into the empty room. //Our life together.// What a joke.
A life that she wouldn't have chosen except on pain of death…
She choked, the bile rushing up her throat and filling her mouth with a sour taste. Swallowing deeply, she forced it back down, groaning as the bubbling waves of acid resided in her stomach.
Not from any form of sickness this time. From the memory of him, of what he had… what he had…
She grasped the handle of the door as the world spun around her. Praying that she wouldn't black out, she managed to stumble her way over to the bed and collapse upon it, gathering her nightgown up around her and huddling into a tight ball.
She couldn't take it anymore. She couldn't stand it. The knowledge was too much. The worthlessness she felt in knowing that she hadn't been enough for him. That he had needed more.
Other women. He had needed other women.
Every time, she had known. Instinctively. She had *smelt* them on him. Watching him undress and slip into the bed beside her, leaning to turn off the light and settle down, turning away from her, she had been reminded of the fact that she wasn't enough.
He had needed more. And of course he could get any woman he wanted. No trouble to a man as famous and attractive as himself.
<…don't you dare accuse me of being unfaithful… If you would just be home for once when I get here…>
Back then… oh, short period of time, but it felt like years… she'd been so *angry*. She couldn't understand her logic now — she knew now that affairs were something to be expected, unfortunate but typical. Men were like that, even untouchable, perfect men…
She'd been furious, though, that first time. She'd had to ball her fingers into the palm of her hand to keep from reaching out and wrapping them around his throat. Watching his back rise and fall with the gentle rhythm of his breathing, she had wanted to kill him. She had even begun to plan how she would do it.
Oh, she'd been a coward. It would have been so easy to banish his existence, both physically and mentally, from her life… so easy to win back her former life. Even if he appeared invulnerable, she knew him by now — knew the chinks in his armour, imperceptible, minute cracks. Cracks that were there, nonetheless, flourishing and ugly.
A window of opportunity had opened briefly…
…and she hadn't taken it.
She had wanted to. She had steeled her muscles in readiness. She'd known what to do, how to, what she'd need. She was one of the only people on the planet who knew exactly how to kill him.
Time and time again, she had told herself to do it. Told herself that it was fair, it was right. Reminded herself what he had become. Repeated the word over and over again.
It would have been so easy.
But she hadn't.
<You're worthless. Can't even cook a decent meal…>
As the night went on, she had figured a few things out. It made sense, this betrayal. Nobody had ever been truly satisfied with her, when all facades were gone. Nobody had ever loved her for who she was… nobody had ever *loved* her, period. Why should her husband be any different? She couldn't keep him happy, she was wrong, flawed in some way. That was why he needed others.
Nobody had ever accepted her for who she was. Nobody except… except…
<…I've been in love with you for a long time…>
Her stomach plunged as she remembered that unconditional acceptance. How different her life would have been if she had only made the right choices. If she had walked away, run, sprinted away from him as if her life depended on it… because in the end, it did and it had, and she'd thrown it away, and it was *her* fault after all, wasn't it?
It was. Her life wasn't meant to be like this, had never been meant to turn out like this. If she'd followed the warning signals, it would have been so different… she would have been…
<…you belong to me…>
She had given it away. She had *thrown* it away, preferring to bind herself to a cruel world in which everything twisted and distorted and turned itself into a warped image of perfection.
She had given her love to that world — a world which didn't want it.
<…where will you go? Who wants you now?>
Sixteen months ago, in front of hundreds of people — it had seemed like the whole of Metropolis was in attendance — they had promised to love, honour and cherish each other. His eyes had been soft as they looked into hers — brown orbs filled with… with…
<…I love you… love you… love… love… love…>
<I love you so much… please, if there's anything wrong, you *have* to tell me…>
…with some shadowy emotion.
She had been scared. She remembered the endless hours she had spent agonising about her wedding. She had still not been absolutely sure that she loved him, one hundred percent, forever, when she had walked down that petal-strewn aisle.
<…this is forever… only you… you're all I need…>
She had been pushed into it — pressured by her mother, him, her own insecurities. Every single thing she'd thought permanent had turned to shale and crumbled beneath her feet. She'd been rejected, scorned. Acceptance of the fact that he was the best she would get — the best she could ever get — had come easily.
So she had married him.
Her lip curled as she thought about how short their honeymoon period had lasted. Not even a year and a half married and he was already occupying other women's beds.
<Nobody loves you. Not me, not your family, not your friends…>
He had broken her. She didn't know him — had never truly known him — and he had taken her over. Her naturally rebellious spirit was almost non-existent now; the mind games he played taunting her, making her head spin. He was cleverer than she, stronger — obviously stronger — and much more cunning. He had bent her, broken her, until she was nothing like the woman he had married.
She drifted through life in a sort of bubble these days, barely aware of who was around her, who she was communicating with. Living, but not alive. She was buried so deeply inside herself that every word that came out of her mouth seemed to reach the surface five minutes after she had said it. The fire, the intensity that had defined her as a person was long since quenched. Gone. Blown out, completely.
She smiled bitterly. There was no need for fire or passion in his house. She made no decisions. She helped nobody. She did nothing. She sat around all day and decided what colour to redecorate the front room, what she was going to wear to that charity gig next week.
<You're not wearing that rag. I wouldn't be caught dead in public with you… and do something about your hair…>
He had done that.
She wondered vaguely if that had been the reason why he had married her. To break her. If she had been a prize only so long as she was independent.
Independence, liberty. She craved it, an everlasting thirst that would never be fulfilled. She'd never wanted to be a housewife. She'd thrilled with the adrenaline of knowing that the people of Metropolis *knew* her, were familiar with her work… she'd been a public figure. She'd sacrificed so much in the name of marital harmony…
A harmony that meant an end to the long silences, cold shoulders, blazing rows and heated exchanges — exchanges in which *he* had had the upper hand. A harmony — though unsteady, at best — that had proved essential for her very safety.
Now she had a minder to monitor her activities. She had a spending limit. She had a 'bodyguard'. Everywhere she went, people watched. Waiting to pounce. To accuse. Gleefully relating her misdeeds to her husband.
And he was only too happy to distribute punishment as he saw fit for her supposed crimes.
She touched her cheek, remembering the first time he had hit her. Four months a newlywed, she had been out working, doing what she did best, and hadn't come home till the wee hours. Walking into the house, she had noted that the bedroom light was on and had assumed that he was up reading.
She had been vaguely surprised to enter the room and find him sitting, fully clothed, in the armchair by the window, his fingers steepled and his gaze steely.
He'd been angry.
<…where the hell were you? Don't lie to me, I know all about your work… another man, perhaps?>
She had been strong back then, infuriated by his domineering, possessive attitude. She had argued back ferociously, insisting that she had been needed, that she had the right to stay out for as long as she wanted. That she was an individual. A person. Not a possession.
Her rejoinders had quickly ceased when he had backhanded her onto the bed.
<I'll teach you the meaning of wife…>
Oh, she'd fought him. She *had*. No matter how many times her mind taunted her with how
inadequate her strength was next to his, she knew she'd tried. Because — she was trembling, she noticed belatedly, trying to make herself stop — because if she hadn't tried, it would have made it all right, and it wasn't all right. Right?
She shook her head, images spinning before her. She *had* tried, dammit, she had tried! She had! She'd tried to get out of there, so many times -
<not good enough>
- but it hadn't worked, and eventually she'd just given up, because it was easier and safer and because she'd -
<weak little woman>
- been scared of what he could do to the people she loved… that was why she'd stopped…
Afterwards, while he slept, she had taken a shower. Under the jets of near-boiling water, she had scrubbed and scrubbed at her body until it was red and raw. Intent on wiping his touch away. Desperate to get him off her, she had near-clawed at her skin in an attempt to wash the memory into oblivion.
See? That was a small rebellion, right there. She hadn't gone back into bed beside him either, had she? No, she'd huddled in a high- backed chair till dawn… and then, well, she'd *needed* to. She'd been forced to… if she was caught avoiding his touch so blatantly… it would be her fault again, just as it was her fault for coming home late… if she'd just forgotten about the stupid story, none of this would have happened… he wouldn't have… it was her fault…
She had been terrified that day — terrified of the stares, scornful dismissals, of the coolly knowing eyes of his minions. Now that she knew his character was as evil as the stretch to the unthinkable, she had become paranoid, seeing and hearing things where they had not been before.
Still, she had not thought that he would have her followed.
<You belong to ME…>
She had been wrong.
She would get him on the rape laws, she had thought. She would nail the bastard now — there was no excuse, no excuse at all. She would go to the nearest police station and report him, immediately. She would show him that she would not -*could* not — be crushed.
Dammit, she had been *stupid*. She'd assumed… thought… believed… she'd been wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. She had had blind faith in the justice system — in good cops like Henderson. She hadn't begun to imagine how far his influence had stretched.
At least, not until she had attempted to file the complaint. Not until she had been told to reconsider. Not until she had been reassured that a man like her husband would never do a thing like that. Until she had been warned not to stick her neck in any gratuitous noose. Until she had walked out, fuming, unaware of the watchful eyes of the rookie cop behind the desk, dialling a well- known and often-used number.
Until she had met him that evening.
<I own you. The clothes on your back. The house you live in. The very air you breathe. I own it all.>
She choked, pressing her lips together to form a thin line, her eyes welling with tears. He was right — he was always right. She had nothing — nothing to call her own. She *was* nothing. She couldn't satisfy him — that was why he had to… to do that, because she wasn't… she wasn't good, in some way, she wasn't right… had never been right…
<…get the message…>
She had gotten the message, all right. All too clearly. There were worse things than death.
The pain had been bad, that first time. She had fallen down the stairs, he'd explained to everybody who asked, with a careless wave and a shrug. Turning himself into a caricature of every man she'd ever despised. Turning *her* into a caricature of every woman she'd ever pitied.
<She fell, didn't you, my poor darling? Oh, you know how women are…>
After that, he had gotten smarter. Hurt her in places that couldn't be shown. The bruises on her stomach, back, thighs, legs. Legs. Places that couldn't be shown. Trousers. All she wore was trousers. Tailored. Exquisitely cut. Prisons of the best material.
Bruises. Not on her arms, though, or her face. He never touched her face any more. Faces were for the kind of drunken idiots his cops arrested every day. Even if the woman kept her mouth shut, too many bruises or broken bones where people could see them and they stopped believing the fell-down-the-stairs excuses and started asking questions, and sooner or later the loving husband ended up on parole… because people didn't know how to mind their own business anymore.
<But you'll never spill, will you, my love? Because you know what'll happen if you do… you're not the only person who'll regret it…>
But the pain wasn't the worst thing. Knowledge was. Knowledge was undoubtedly worse than pain. The realisation that her family, her friends, the man she… the people she was closest to, could be in danger just because of one toe out of line, one mutinous action, was worse than her own demise could ever be.
*That* was why she'd stopped trying. Their lives depended on her.
<Do you have any idea what I can do with a simple phone call? How easy it is to arrange "accidents"?>
She had stayed. For their health. For their safety. For their happiness. For *her* health and safety as well, admittedly, because if she left, he would follow, and he would inevitably find her.
And she had quit her job after six months. Just because she had no energy. He'd probably have let her keep it — reports were good on that score, she hadn't been poking her nose into anything that didn't concern her — but she'd quit anyway. Extremely weak of her, but she had done it. Chained herself to the house well and truly. She'd been afraid that maybe one day she'd overstep the line, make him angry…
And if she thought she had had it hard before… it would be *nothing*. Compared to what he could do if he… what he would do if she ever…
<…if you ever think of leaving me…>
Her bruises would seem like child's play. That she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
<… think they're going to notice if you suddenly "disappear"? I just have to click my fingers… I own you…>
She'd never realised — before — that there was a difference between living and being alive, but she knew now. She felt so unreal, as if she was a ghost or a shadow, a lost wraith, a balloon with too much air, tugging to escape from Earth. She'd stopped caring about her appearance, she'd stopped caring about her weight, she'd just… stopped.
He'd wanted her like that. That was what he liked, his creation as his wife, somebody who was so terrified of him that she couldn't think for herself, couldn't escape when the going got rough…
She held her hands over her ears, whimpering. She didn't want to think. She didn't want to feel. She didn't want to breathe. She didn't want to live.
Numbness. Wasn't that what death was all about? Being numb. Not living. Not thinking. And definitely not feeling.
It would have been a blessed release. Such a relief, to cease to exist. To cease to remember. To cease to think. To just… float.
<…till death do us part…>
It would have been.
But she was a coward. Just like always. She hadn't been able to do it, because some stupid… stupid optimist in her wouldn't let her.
Though with the way things were going, she wouldn't even have to *try*… just a few more nights of sickness like this one, and she was sure she'd die… she felt so lousy when she had to get up in the night to vomit, but strangely enough, she always felt fine by morning. She hadn't ever heard of any sickness that did anything like this, she assumed it was a direct result of what he'd done to her. It dragged on for so long, made her so sick and made her…
Her blood froze in her veins.
…long for things. She did long for things, didn't she? Grapefruit and oranges and lemons, citrus fruits, sour things… things she'd never liked before… she was longing for things… she could even say that she…
…craved for them.
Holy *mother* of…
Her heart started to thump, the blood pounding in her ears as she tried to think rationally. She creased her brow, doing some quick calculations in her head. How… hold on… why… what?
//You haven't been eating much,// a quiet voice inside her whispered, //and you've been under a hell of a lot of pressure… remember what you assumed, he messed more than *that* up… wasn't that unusual, happened to other women…//
She swallowed. God, she'd been stupid… why the hell hadn't she figured it out?
She pinched the bridge of her nose, suddenly desperately tired. She couldn't deal with this. Not now.
She'd have to make a doctor's appointment, wouldn't she? She'd have to verify it. How was she going to explain that one to him? If *she* didn't tell him, one of her watchers would, and then she'd be in trouble…
And that would be dangerous, wouldn't it? Extremely dangerous, now.
But… maybe she should… after all, how bad could it possibly…
She didn't even *know* that she was p… pregnant. Wasn't that right? She wasn't certain. She couldn't make any decision, about anything, until she knew for sure.
And to know, she'd need to see a doctor, wouldn't she? And not Dr Mitchell, either — the specialist hired by her husband would doubtless send a report back. She couldn't let him know. Not yet.
Because she had to tell him carefully. In such a way to make it seem as though a baby would be a great thing, an heir to the throne, as it were… a little son or daughter to carry on the family name… she had to make it sound appealing…
But… hold on a minute.
She sat up straighter in the bed.
She *didn't* have to tell him. Did she? Not really. It was… not really necessary…
She laughed bitterly, a knife in the quiet room. How was she going to explain herself when she turned up with a baby in nine months? *If* she turned up with a baby in nine months?
What if… what if he kept on doing this? Kept on… hurting her? Kept with this existence, stuck to the precedent? What would that do? Wasn't that… bad? Couldn't she lose a baby, if she was carrying one?
She had to leave him.
She shuddered, placing her hand in her mouth and biting her knuckles hard. So much effort required, so much energy she didn't have, a sharpness that she'd blunted, now the only thing that would save her life.
Maybe a baby would bring the… the spark back into her marriage. Maybe it would change him, so he'd be as kind and gentle and solicitous as he'd been when they were dating. Maybe he'd be happy about it — a son or daughter to carry his name would surely appeal to him. Maybe…
…was she *crazy*? What was she thinking? This man had… had lied and betrayed and deceived and… he'd driven someone to his death… because he knew she loved that someone… because of *her*, he'd driven someone to his death… a man… much, much more than a man… her friend…
And she was thinking about staying in his house and having his baby, with him? Trying to act like the Walton's of Walton's Mansion? Her at the head of the table, eating a meal she'd cooked, in her grandmother's pearls, her adoring children and husband beaming happily at her? She was seriously contemplating it? What was *wrong* with her?
She had to leave him. She had to somehow… screw up her reserves of strength and… and…
…just *do* it.
//You don't *have* to… there's another option you're not thinking about…//
With a start, she placed both hands on her stomach. Where her baby possibly lay. Her baby. *Hers*.
//It's not a baby right now, just a bundle of cells…//
She shook her head with a small sigh. This child was a part of her. A very tiny part at the present time, but within her nonetheless. It would be her son or daughter. Not his. Hers. Hers to care for, hers to protect — hers to love. And she couldn't hate it, or want it gone, just because of the method of conception. It wasn't the child's fault. She was all for the right to choose, but… she could never live with herself.
She would have it. She was going to have a baby.
Or… she cautioned herself. She might *not* be having a baby. She didn't know. She wasn't sure.
But… if she *was* pregnant… she would have to leave him. There was just… no choice in the matter.
<…there's no place on this Earth you can hide… I'll find you, and I'll bring you back…>
She would flee. Somehow, someway, she would manage it. If she had to claw her way out of his citadel with her bare hands, she would do it.
Lois Lane was back, and she was not going down without a fight this time.
~*When all the world is a hopeless jumble, and the raindrops tumble all around, heaven opens a magic lane…*~
"Wake *up*, you great lump…"
The voice came calling dimly, reaching the deepest recesses of his mind and stirring his un-co-operative brain into a bleary place between waking and sleeping.
"What are you, comatose?"
It became more insistent now, more impatient, and he had the absurd urge to reach a hand out and swat it away.
Kenneth's head shot up off the desk. Now fully awake, he looked around for the source of the disturbance, perturbed. The hazy, golden glow from the lamp on his desk was the only immediate source of light. The Independent was almost deserted.
Almost… because there was one other occupant in the room. Daniel Hayes, cub reporter, go-fer, copy boy, and all-round pain in the neck was standing close beside him, rubbing his overly large head in pain and annoyance.
"Thanks, *sir*," he spat, his voice thick with scorn and annoyance. "Didn't really need my head, anyway."
Kenneth stared at the kid incredulously. What was he *talking* about?
Unless… he hadn't… had he?
"Oh, Daniel, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean…" he exclaimed, jumping up from his seat to push the copy boy down onto it. "Can I get you anything? A glass of water? Some aspirin, maybe? I'm sure I have some lying around…" Already he was rummaging in his desk.
Daniel looked at him derisively and returned to his feet. "I think I'll survive, sir. Strong and all as you are, I don't think I'll need an ambulance this time."
"Are you sure? Because I'm…"
//…you're what? Faster than a speeding bullet? Invulnerable? Impervious to scorching heat, blistering cold, pressure, puncture…?//
"…I'm… I was Weightlifting Champ for ten years running back home."
The attempt at a recovery was rather weak, but still he felt a flicker of irritation when the young assistant rolled his eyes dramatically.
"Mmm. Your mother must have been so proud." Daniel snorted. "Anyway, I was just trying to help. You fell asleep at your desk. Again. Don't you have a home to go to? It's past twelve."
Kenneth followed Daniel's gaze to the large, domed clock hanging above the elevator. Another day passed without a single glimpse of the sun. How long had it been since he'd seen the sun? Did it *ever* shine in this wretched, wretched city?
His irritation blossomed into full-blown anger. It wasn't any of this kid's business how long he stayed at work. If he wanted to work through the night, then who was this copy boy to interfere? Or anyone else, for that matter? It was *his* life.
~*Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me…*~
Kenneth glanced at the kid's shirt. Out of his breast pocket a rather large bulge loomed, and a snaky wire was twisting its way round his neck, leading to a set of headphones out of which the annoyingly chirpy song was blaring. He felt his lip curl. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.
He folded his arms across his chest and nodded in the direction of the Discman. "Judy Garland? Dan, you surprise me. I would have thought rock music would have been more your type. Like that group I heard you blundering on to Emma about the other day. What's their name again… Red Hot… Red Hot Turnips… Red Hot Radishes…"
"Red Hot Chilli Peppers," Daniel hissed, his face scarlet. "And my taste in music is -"
"-cultured and widespread, yeah, I know. So what else you got on that CD?" Kenneth eyed the kid in interest, wondering how much the blood vessels in his face could take before they exploded. "'Tomorrow' from Annie? 'Hopelessly Devoted' from Grease? 'Show Me' from My Fair Lady?"
"You need to hurry," Daniel snarled, "if you don't want to miss the tube. I would hate for you to have to walk; Camden is dodgy around this time of the night. Wouldn't want the Weightlifting Champ getting roughed up."
"Well, thanks for your concern," Kenneth hissed back, "but that's probably why your first article is still a long-distant dream — you're not observant enough to be a reporter. I drive a *car*."
With a hard tap on his computer's "save" key — not that there was anything in that article worth saving, or even worth glancing over — he shoved his chair away from his desk. Preparing to go home.
Home. Where the nightmares waited. And the emptiness.
Collecting his coat, he felt a mild twinge of guilt at how he'd treated the kid. It wasn't his fault he was a pompous, ignorant idiot. He clearly didn't know any better. And it wasn't his fault that Kenneth's patience for idiots was a little shorter these days.
"Hey, thanks, buddy. For waking me up," he called out to Daniel's departing back.
"Buddy?" Daniel turned and rolled his eyes again. "Another one of those quaint American endearments, I suppose."
His sarcasm exaggerated the plummy English accent colouring his own speech, and Kenneth felt a flush of embarrassment creeping up his face. As hard as he tried, he could not erase the telltale American twang from his voice — even more telling, the bits of slang that were so ingrained in him that only fierce conscientiousness kept them at bay. All of it, his speech, his lack of formality, made him stand out.
And these days, he was uncomfortable with anything that made him stand out.
Suddenly, the embarrassment was replaced with a hot twist of anger. He was tired. Tired of it all. Tired of watching his speech, watching what he said about himself. Tired of dodging questions about where he was from and what he had done before arriving at the Independent. And now this punk kid had the nerve to give him a hard time.
~*If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow… why, oh why, can't I?"*~
"Yeah, we Yanks have quite a few choice endearments," he bit out through gritted teeth, staring directly at the insolent copy boy. "Maybe I could teach you some of them."
"Maybe *I* could give you a crash course on how much crap the British are prepared to put up with. Because clearly the Americans have a much higher tolerance for complete gits," Daniel replied, his face etched with an undisguised challenge. He took a deep breath and inflated his thin chest.
At this, Kenneth sighed, the anger hissing weakly from his lungs. He should simply report Daniel to his editor, for treating a senior member of the staff so disrespectfully. But his head was pounding, and he just didn't have the energy to deal with anything. This kid wasn't worth it. Nothing was worth this headache.
He turned his back. "Goodnight, Daniel," he called over his shoulder.
"Goodnight, you son of a…"
"Right," he muttered tetchily as he headed for the bank of elevators, cutting out the hissed remark before it was finished. He hadn't been meant to hear it anyway, he was sure — or maybe he had. Either way, another five minutes in the same building with the copy boy and he would have likely strangled him with his bare hands, weightlifter or no weightlifter.
He nodded to Craig, the security guard, on his way out of the door. The Independent was a good place to work — a secure, high- quality newspaper — and yet he still felt somehow alienated from the staffers, as if there was some sort of impenetrable barrier between them. One that blocked out everything but the stiff smiles and empty words of distant acquaintances.
He sighed in irritation as he reached the small green Vauxhall Astra that was his preferred choice of transport nowadays, fiddling with the keys and finally sliding his tall frame into the tiny car. Another evening of fighting London's unbelievable congestion — a job nearly impossible for even…
… the weatherman had predicted that it would be starry out, that night. Kenneth craned his neck inside the small hatchback, looking for them in vain. As in every big city, the glaring lamps from nearby buildings and offices hid the twinkling balls of light that had brought him such comfort and inspiration for so long. He would never forget what it felt like, to be up there, above the feathery clouds, floating on a tiny pocket of air to gaze at the sparkling orbs that hung above him…
… and it was late. Very, very late. He would have to rise with the chickens in the morning, as per usual, and doubtless he would be exhausted, and would need a strong helping of caffeine before he could start his normal morning activities. How he missed not having to…
<…guess you're not so special any more…>
… he blew his horn angrily as car swerved out in front of him. Idiots! He had right of way! Not only did everybody drive down the wrong side of the road in this godforsaken country, but *nobody* could actually *drive*!
<…no future for you here… leave town… better yet, the country…>
He stalled at a red light, sighing as he pushed a hand through his hair. He was desperately tired. He needed to think more — to remember that he now needed more sleep than he had been accustomed to before. An ordinary…
<…think you're better than me, huh? Not so superior now, are you?>
He pounded his forehead against the steering wheel, as if he could forcibly remove the troubling thoughts from his over-taxed brain. Why did he have to keep torturing himself like this, images of foolish dreams and a life that was long gone dancing behind his tightly-shut eyes? Why did every thought that ran through his brain eventually lead to…
<…if you even so much as whisper to her… she'll take your beating. You know what I'm willing to do when I feel that my interests are being threatened… >
He shuddered, the fragments running through his mind like a sinister train, circling the tortured track of his brain.
<…mine… she's mine… >
He shut his eyes tight.
<You'll never see her again…>
The force of his yell shook the windows of the small car, and he pulled over onto the curb abruptly, shaking his head. Fighting a strange sense of claustrophobia, he opened the door and bolted out of the vehicle, barely remembering to lock it behind him as he made an open break for his apartment, where there would be plenty of distractions to take his mind off…
His apartment. Not his home.
Never his home. Never home.
Not any more.
~*One Month Later*~
Running to her doom. That was the thought that kept reverberating through her brain with every slap her feet made on the marble floor. The walls in the brightly lit corridor were cream, and at various intersections a painting hung, originals, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet. Even without them his house felt like an art gallery — quiet, subdued, reverent. In her mind's eye, the vase of red tulips balanced on the nearest windowsill were bloody hands reaching out to her, begging for mercy.
She skidded to a halt, tasting acid in her mouth again, as a thought assaulted itself in her brain.
She was pregnant. Definitely. Absolutely.
In fact, she'd been pregnant for almost three months now, without realising it.
She'd nearly fainted at the doctor's office when he'd confirmed it. With no small measure of disbelief, she'd told him flat out that he must be mistaken. She *couldn't* have let three whole months go by… three months without a cycle. Why hadn't she suspected, or even *noticed*?
//You haven't been eating properly… just chocolate, mostly… a lot of stress, and all the bruises and — //
She derailed the mental train of thought. She didn't want to think about that, about where the bruises were, what he'd done, the assumption she'd come to believe in… that he'd made her…
Three months. Three months since she'd sat, that night, in the bathroom, cried her eyes out for the children she'd never have. She'd just *assumed* — the worst thing anybody could do — and now…
Three months. It scared her, terrified her into a state of rigidity. Where had the time gone? Why hadn't she noticed? The days had melted into each other so that she could hardly remember what *day* it was, let alone what date… time had meant nothing to her. She'd seen that half-life stretching into infinity, and in the face of infinity, days passing were nothing.
She shook her head sharply. No! That road led to painful memories, to terror, pure and blind, and she didn't want to trip up. She couldn't afford to trip up. She needed to be cleverer than she'd been in months. She needed to be astute and… and calculating and… a damned good actress and… she needed to be able to convince…
She was pregnant. A thought she'd never relished, a situation she'd never believed she could find herself in. A situation she'd thought was impossible for her, especially after… especially now.
And she damned well wasn't going to go through it alone, she thought fiercely, resuming her march through the corridors. She couldn't *handle* it alone. Maybe she could have, once, but… not any more. No. She'd lost that ability.
<You can't do a thing right…>
For all her brave thoughts about leaving her husband, once she thought it through, she knew she couldn't. It was incomprehensible. Somebody as weak and as incapable as she couldn't handle a small child. She had no money to call her own — if she left him, she'd have nowhere to live. She couldn't get a job with a tiny infant that needed to be taken care of. It was extremely unlikely that anybody would employ her, anyway, and she didn't blame them — she wasn't competent enough to do anything. She didn't know even the first thing about babies and if she left, she would have nobody to help her.
She couldn't live in a cardboard box and raise her child. He or she would hate her, would long for the life she'd walked away from. She needed support.
And if the baby got sick… if it got very sick… if she couldn't afford a proper home and it got an infection… if it died, because she'd walked away from protection and security and…
The very best. That was what she was walking away from. And — she felt a strong surge of protectiveness, she placed a hand on her stomach, on the tiny, tiny bulge — didn't her child deserve the best?
She needed support. Financial *and* emotional. Surely… surely he'd be pleased, a child to carry his name… she hoped it was a boy, she thought he'd like a boy… she needed so much…
She needed… she needed…
…she needed to… just to…
She reached his door. A symbol, closed, locked, his life separate from hers. Holy ground, forbidden ground, somewhere out of bounds to her.
<A man needs his privacy, darling… you understand…>
She raised her hand and rapped very hard on the wood with her knuckles. And then froze. Good grief, what had she done? That stunk of impatience, of spirit even… what, did she *want* him to get angry? Did she want to forfeit the game before she even saw her cards? What was *wrong* with her?
A beat, and she knocked again — timidly this time. Funny, how easily you could convey emotion. Emotion you'd had once, or thought you'd had, before it was taken from you.
She stood as if turned to stone, her breathing light and rapid. And then she stepped a little closer to the door, and pressed her ear up against it. Knowing what she was doing, what it meant, yet unable to stop it.
The thought made her unbearably angry. She… she didn't want to be Lois Lane, Girl Reporter any more! She didn't want to stay there, outside his sanctum, and possibly be caught, and then what would happen? Then where would her long-buried reporting skills get her? Stupid! She was stupid!
A hand reached down and grasped the handle of his door. She looked down on it. She didn't know it, didn't know the person it was attached to, had never known her. *She* was altogether braver than Lois herself. Far more reckless too.
Her heart thudding madly, she heard the catch snick open. Unbelievable. He'd left his door unlocked. What had caused this, this sudden lapse in his security?
//Maybe he thinks there's no need to lock his doors. Maybe he's stopped seeing you as a threat.//
She clenched her fists and, sucking in her stomach, sidled in the door. Her back to the door, she had a sudden, horrifying thought and scanned the walls intently for signs of surveillance cameras. To her eye, the room was clean. Of course, he wouldn't want cameras in here, in his private room… and he wasn't expecting anyone else to be in here… he wasn't expecting her to deliberately disobey him… wasn't expecting her to fight back…
Well, she'd show him! She'd get some of her old spark back, darn sure she would! She'd uncover some damning evidence, and she'd run, beautiful and alone, to the nearest police station, and the cop she'd meet would be sympathetic and handsome, and he'd support her in her endeavours to find a quiet way to kill him, and at the very end she'd maybe set up a pottery shop or a restaurant. Wasn't that how it happened in those battered-wife-meets-handsome- younger-man, kills-her-abusive-husband and sets-up-an- enterprising-business books she used to read?
Yeah, that was right. She'd lose a few pounds while she was at it, too, and she'd end up with her baby on her hip, writing a best- selling novel with one hand and carelessly tossing a crème brulée together with the other, while her new husband and troop of witty business acquaintances watched in admiration.
She took a deep breath, pushing the air out of her lungs slowly as she fought to remain calm. Staring across the room at the desk, she listened carefully for any movement outside before picking her way across the wooden floor. It was freezing to her bare feet, almost a trap in itself, biting at her skin, reminding her… she shouldn't be in this place, at this time, no, she shouldn't be…
Cautiously, carefully and ever-so-slowly, she eased herself into his chair, teeth gritted in anticipation of an ambush, an alarm sounding, a trapdoor opening beneath her feet. When nothing happened, she breathed out, the relief making her high.
She wasn't even sure of what she was looking for. She wasn't even sure why she was in the room.
Another hand that didn't belong to her grasped the handle of a desk drawer, pulled it open smoothly. She looked in, her eyes scanning lazily over the contents. She wasn't expecting to find anything. Wasn't that always how it worked? Things only happened if you truly didn't want them to.
Then her eyes glanced upon it — a small transparent package filled with white powder. Her heart skittered to a halt for an instant, and she could literally feel the blood leaching from her face.
Drugs? Was that what her husband was into? Mind-altering narcotics? Illegal substances?
Not to inhale them himself, she knew. He was always perfectly in control — around other people. But then what? To sell?
To give… to give to…
//That's ridiculous, Lois,// she told herself instantly, her mind reeling with the absurdity of it. Why would he give her drugs? Drugs numbed things, took away pain. Drugs would have been a blessing to her over the last sixteen months. It would have been an act of kindness, not cruelty.
She turned the package over in her palm, contemplating. It was bad, whatever it was, she knew that… she could feel the evil soaking through. She almost felt sick with it.
For the second time that day, her heart tripped to a standstill for a nanosecond as she turned the bag over fully. To reveal a… a label. And on it… printed in deep black letters, as plain as the nose on her face… a name.
Her name was written on the label. Clear as day.
And under that… under that…
A skull. With crossbones. Stupidly, her eyes filled with images of eye patches and parrots, the ocean, "yo ho ho and a bottle of rum".
Then she returned to sanity — or the masquerade she was passing off as sanity. And she dropped it. One word echoing through her mind, like a gunshot.
Uncertainly, she leaned down, held her head between her legs. Instantly the blood pounded back into her temples, purple dots obscuring her vision.
This… this wasn't proof. This wasn't confirmation of anything. It wasn't. It couldn't be.
He… he wouldn't be so *careless*, so downright stupid. To leave a package in his desk with her name printed on it? What kind of idiot would do something like that? It was completely out of character… the desk wasn't even *locked*!
//Maybe he feels so safe here that he didn't think it necessary,// a voice in the corner of her brain whispered gently. //Maybe he knew there was no chance of you rebelling. And who else would be in here? Maybe that's why…//
Like one in a dream, she heard the tramp of footsteps outside from far away. Far away… but getting closer. Advancing.
Advancing down the corridor. In her direction. And… this room was the last one in that row, and they'd passed all the others by now. Which meant… they were headed… for her.
She hadn't locked the door.
In one movement she shoved the container of… of whatever back into his desk and dove for the window. There was a ledge outside that she was sure — almost sure — would hold her weight… please god, please god…
Then she was out and she was clinging as hard as she could to the stonework, wishing, praying. Her husband was in the room behind her, chattering with his manservant, and if she was caught she was dead.
"Sir, may I inquire as to how your wife's been feeling recently? A little… green around the gills, I hope?"
She wondered how he would kill her. Maybe he'd stage an accident. Maybe he'd order one of his henchmen to… She strongly doubted she was important enough for him to do it himself. Maybe he'd actually use that stuff in his desk, if he wasn't planning to already…
During the lapse in concentration her foot slipped slightly off the ledge. She was surprised when she didn't have to bite back a scream. Then she realised that falling wouldn't be the worst thing. In fact, if it was a choice between falling and being discovered, she'd take the former.
She swallowed deeply, trying her best to ignore what was being said and straining to hear it at the same time.
"Don't be ridiculous… I haven't even started it yet… needed to get used to eating with her first, so I'd know what she drinks…"
Her confusion, the past few evenings, when he'd shown such an interest in dining with her… not out saving the world, spending time with her… she'd thought… she'd actually thought… when he'd fixed her drink for her, she'd thought he was…
She'd thought he was being *kind*!
"Should work fairly well in her wine… there *is* a definite trend of alcoholism in that family, so useful… made it so much easier to get her mother out of the way…"
Her throat clogged suddenly as he confirmed what she'd long suspected. After nearly fifteen years of being completely clean, her mother had relapsed uncontrollably earlier that year and was now in therapy in one of the cushiest clinics in the country. He'd paid for it. Patted her back and said softly that it didn't matter, he'd do it for her.
"I'll start tonight… can't afford to waste any time — she's become tiresome, boring… no challenge anymore… and so damned unresponsive, like a rag doll… I'll have to find someone with more spark in her… and who'll be able to give me children."
Her gaze dropped immediately to her stomach. Wh… wha… what?
"That's the damned annoying thing about women… so flimsy, so fragile… barely one year married and already her reproductive system's mucked up… she's no use to me now."
An appreciative laugh. So he *had* noticed when her cycles had stopped.
"No evidence later, I presume?"
"No — arsenic gives the impression of a natural death…"
Her mind shot back to that white package, to her reaction, Poison!Poison!Poison! flashing through her brain.
"…no real side-effects… aside from the fact that the body doesn't decompose properly, but we'll hardly be digging her up again…"
"…excellent. Really excellent, sir… ingenious…"
"Yes, it was one of my more brilliant ideas… poor Lois, she has no idea what's coming to her… start preparing my press release, would you? About how I'm riddled with grief about the death of my beloved wife, life partner, etc etc. Some Hollywood schmaltz for the masses… their hero, grieving for his wife…"
Grieving for his wife. And his unborn child.
If she died, her baby would too.
Her baby would die if she stayed with him.
Dimly, in the background, she heard the door slam closed, heard the voices of her husband and his manservant disappear back down the corridor. Then she put one foot, then the other in through the open window and collapsed in a heap of raw nerves on the Oriental rug.
He was planning to poison her. Because he suspected she was barren. He assumed he'd made her barren and now he was trying to kill her for it.
He'd actually noticed when her periods had stopped. She'd thought he was indifferent to her, but of course, he still insisted that they share a bed, share a room — keeping his friends close and his enemies closer, as always. He'd actually noticed, and he'd assumed, like she had, that he'd damaged her reproductive system… now he was planning to discard her like a used tissue because she was of no more use to him…
Some part of her numbed brain registered that she should be angry, that this should make her unbearably angry, and determined to fight back, but she didn't feel any of it. She didn't feel anything. Except maybe loss. And… protectiveness.
Not for herself. Never for herself. For her child. Her tiny, innocent, perfect baby.
Consequences be damned. Cardboard box or no cardboard box, she wouldn't let him kill her child. She'd never seen herself as a mother, but she loved it too much already. She'd rather die herself than see it hurt in any way.
What did you do? Where did you go when you decided to leave your husband? What would she need?
Money. And a place to run *to*. Right?
She looked around her slowly, evaluating her situation. Whatever about the latter, she could sure as heck do something about the former, now that she was in his private domain.
Moving faster now she had a purpose and an aim, she strode — strode! Like she had confidence! — over to his desk, pulled open the desk she'd inspected earlier. The bag of poison was gone — how careless it was for him to have left it there in the first place, he must really have felt safe in her meekness — but that wasn't what she was looking for. None too carefully, she swept her hands through the contents of the desk, and *there it was.* Her one way ticket out of his clutches. Her freedom shone at her from the plastic face of a small ATM card.
The air hissed out of her lungs as, carefully and deliberately, she removed the card from its resting place. Staring down into the drawer, she nearly whimpered as she spotted the wad of bills, concealed underneath. Another tough decision.
She picked it up, her hands shaking, and flipped through it. Her eyes boggled as she counted the number of hundred-dollar bills. Five, ten, fifteen…
//In for a penny, in for a pound…//
She peeled off three of the bills, breathing hard. Her fingers itched to take more — three hundred wouldn't get her very far — but the money would surely be missed. He couldn't *not* notice a loss of a thousand dollars, could he? It would be… negligent and… idiotic of her to take more… when she needed to be on her toes… a thoroughly stupid manoeuvre…
No. She couldn't risk it.
She slid the drawer back into its place and turned around, walking slowly out of the room, trying her hardest to appear nonchalant.
Stuffing the money and card into her pocket — Versace prison- trousers this time — not daring to stop and stare at it, she reflected that it was the simplest things she missed the most. Money. Her own money. It had been… what, six months? More? She couldn't remember, but it seemed like a lifetime. A lifetime ago that she had controlled her finances independently, free to scatter and distribute at will.
<…what's yours is mine…>
She didn't even know where he had put her cards. ATM, credit, everything. Even her chequebook.
<…where did you get this?…don't need this junk… frivolous spending… are you trying to ruin me?>
She stopped, caught short, at the sight of the ornate door. Twisting around, she looked down the hallway in astonishment. She had crossed the entire house, already? She was moving that quickly? She'd thought she'd forgotten how to move that quickly.
She twisted the handle of the door carefully, wincing at every squeak and fault. Slipping inside, she closed it behind her, thanking the ceiling silently for the second easy entry — a blessing, indeed. She'd planned to retrieve her lock-picking tool from its hiding place if needed, but was extremely thankful that the instrument had proved redundant — in the time lapse, her memory and skill had grown as rusty as the old doors she used to pick so dexterously.
How she had hidden that… that little lock-picking thing. How she had kept it away from him. How she had kept it with her as a remnant of her old life, a realisation that things had been better once, a tiny piece of something real that might save her life, someday.
She looked around the empty room philosophically. Strangely enough, even though it was the place that… the place where… everything had happened; she had something to be thankful to it for. Her epiphany had taken seed here, and now it was about to help her escape.
But if she was caught in this particular room, at this particular time of day…
She swallowed and shook her head. No time for thinking. Just do it. Walk over and do it.
She was in front of the wardrobe in the next instant, her eyes wide and her breathing harsh and irregular. Grasping the handle of the door, she pulled it firmly toward her, wrinkling her nose as the smell of expensive clothing wafted out.
She swallowed roughly as she spotted the dress. The white dress. The backless one, with a slit up the skirt and thin straps. That was the one, undoubtedly. He preferred that dress to any other garment of clothing she had.
Taking it firmly between her hands, she glanced up and down the seam, searching for points of weakness. Clenching her fists, she brought them apart suddenly, grimacing as the resulting tear and rip of the fabric echoed around the cold room. Thank goodness chiffon was so flimsy — if it had been cotton or wool, she was sure she'd never have been able to rip it.
There. It was done. No going back now.
//Right. Go. Now. Get out. Get out of here. Right now.//
Turning around purposefully, all rational thought flew out of her head as her wedding picture, encased in a grim silver frame, leapt out at her from the bureau. Letting the dress fall in a pool at her feet, she stepped over it, as if hypnotised, and let her feet carry her unwillingly over to the photograph.
She picked it up, and the deathly chill radiating from it nearly made her drop it again. Staring at herself, she wondered how she could have been so blind. Unable to see. Or do. Unable to stop herself. Unable to fight, to run. While she still could.
The woman in the picture was a totally different person. She knew that now, as she never had before. A true bride, radiance beaming out of her face as she looked at her new husband.
She wasn't a bride any more. She wasn't beautiful or radiant or self-assured. She was a wife. Invisible. Retiring. Meek. Not like the woman in the picture, sure and…
Although… she peered closer, looking at her not-self. There was a hint of hesitation in her face in that photograph. How…?
She bit back the bile in her throat.
//Stupid. So, so stupid, Lois.//
She had *known*, back then. She had *known* that she wasn't in love with him, had never truly been in love with him. On her wedding day, she had *known*, and that knowledge had shone out of her face, imperceptible to anybody except herself, and maybe a few of her closest friends.
Was that why they had abandoned her? Had they been disgusted at the fool inside of her who had insisted she go through with the wedding? Had they seen, back then, what she could not?
Had he noticed? Was that why this life had been bestowed upon her — because he knew? Was the stinking hell that she had suffered for the past sixteen months essentially of her own making? Was that why she had failed so miserably as a wife — because he had known that she didn't love him? Was that why?
She peered closer at him, almost afraid to move her finger over his immortalised face. As if she were afraid the stiff cardboard would come to life and bite her. Tall, dark-haired, brown-eyed as ever — and handsome. So damned handsome in that stupid tuxedo.
A bride's dream. A *woman's* dream.
How could she not have seen, that day, the evil that lurked within, waiting to appear? How could she not have seen past the kind, caring, compassionate facade that was his everyday life? Why couldn't she have known back then, so that she could have saved herself now?
She stared in disgust at the wedding ring, stationed on his finger as it clasped hers. Just beside his monogram. Those sickening initials. That sickening name, now clamped to hers.
She slammed the picture back down. She was procrastinating again. She was sure to get caught if she didn't move. After all, she wasn't supposed to be here. If he found her, he'd automatically assume…
<Oh, so you want more, do you?>
She strode out of the room, the ruined garment swinging on her arm, the ATM card burning a hole in her back pocket.
It had been easier than she had thought, she reflected, thirty minutes later. The sentry had taken the torn dress at face value; she was now certain that she wasn't being watched and that nobody was — or would be — suspicious of her motives for some time to come. To the slow-witted security guards, she had gone shopping to replace a dress that had gotten ripped on a nail. Stupid woman. So careless. The boss would be angry later, no doubt. Might as well give her a chance to hide it. Wouldn't make any difference, but hey…
She took a deep breath, steeling her muscles in readiness. She opened her hand, trembling, and gazed in enthralment at the knife in her hand. She had filched it from the kitchen months and months ago — as a promise, perhaps, an insurance that no matter how bad things got, she could always get out of it.
The smallest corner of her mind — the Wife part of it — was screaming at her not to do it. This was going to extremes, surely! She didn't need to do this. She could just go back. It would be so much simpler, and wouldn't involve feeling. Not much, anyway. It certainly wouldn't involve pain. Or if it did, it was no change. She was used to it, by now.
She gritted her teeth, shaking her head wildly and pushing Wife to the very back of her brain with an effort. This was going to be a *little* cut. Nothing much. Just enough so that she could leave a few droplets on the dress, and maybe on the ground leading up to it. Yes. It wouldn't hurt — not much, anyway. It was only a *nick*!
Breathing hard, her hand moved of its own accord, bringing the instrument down across her palm, hard and fast. She cried out; a second later, the knife clattered to the ground, and she watched in horrified fascination as beads of blood welled up on her palm. Gritting her teeth, she squeezed the incision, and the wound began to throb, bleeding freely.
Whether it was the fact that her heart was suddenly pumping wildly, sending burst after burst of precious, life-giving blood to her hand, or just that time had stopped for that short while as she watched her blood flow out of her, splattering the dress luridly, the whole scenario took mere minutes.
She had bled in this dress before. And she knew — blood didn't come easily out of chiffon. He had awful trouble trying to hide that fact. Then again, being who he was, he had managed it — all but a tiny brown speckle on the shoulder that nobody would notice unless in close proximity to her.
And he had made sure that nobody got in close proximity to her.
As she sat there, watching the life drain out of her, she had a sudden flicker of concern, deep in the pit of her stomach. She clamped her unhurt hand to her abdomen, suddenly scared.
What would the loss of blood mean to the baby? Could it mean — heaven forbid — could it mean that its life was now at risk? Because of a few seconds' pain endured by its mother? Could she — could she lose it now? Because of a little blood?
This baby was her lifeline. Her reason for survival. The spur that had made her run. She couldn't bear to lose it — if she ever…
Swallowing hard, she scrunched the chiffon tightly. Her basic human instinct made her hang on to consciousness, but at this point it would have been a blessed relief to let it go.
//Breathe. Think. Come on, Lane — you're *smarter* than this!//
It was only a *little* blood. She had what — eight pints or so of the stuff in her body. This was a mere drop in the ocean. Nothing major. Nothing life threatening, to her *or* the baby.
She took a glance at the cut, feebly trying to brush the excess blood away from it so she could gauge how deep it was. Growling in frustration as her efforts turned up nought, she quickly stuck it up to her mouth, cringing at the metallic taste.
A few minutes later, her patience wrought and her disgust raw, she pulled away, peering closely at the wound. Her own cowardice had stopped the knife from penetrating too deep into her skin. She wouldn't need stitches, thank goodness.
Just enough and not more. Hadn't that been her mother's motto, once upon a time? Yes, it had — and very useful to Ellen Lane, as well. When the subject wasn't alcohol, of course.
She scrunched the sheer chiffon up tighter, balling it into the smallest bundle she could manage, and deposited it quickly behind a garbage can. Gasping, she caught her hand below the wrist, squeezing in and out in convulsive movements as she walked up out of the alleyway, careful not to get any of it on her clothes.
She leant back a few minutes later, satisfied. There was no way anybody could *not* notice the trail — now all she had to do was get out of there. Fast, before anybody saw her.
Her husband was a powerful man. Worth a lot of money. It wasn't completely outside the realm of possibility that his wife could be kidnapped. Held for ransom. Missing, presumed dead had a… sinister ring to it, but it worked for her. For the moment, at least.
He closed his eyes briefly. "Hi, Emma."
"It's… good to hear your voice."
"Y-yours, too," he struggled, pinching the bridge of his nose with his finger and thumb. "What can I do for you?"
"Well…" He had caught her unawares, and he knew it. She hadn't expected him to be so forward — she was used to beating around the bush. Now she didn't know what to say. He could feel her hesitation. He could almost taste it. "What are you up to?"
"Right now?" He tried to sound blase, not wanting to appear either rude or interested. It was late — he was tired. "Getting ready for bed." He glanced at the remote control in his hand, his eyes darkening at the lie. "Why?"
"Oh." The disappointment in her voice rang through the phone line, echoing hollowly inside his head. "I… I just… oh, gosh, it's not important, but…"
"Well, we know each other pretty well, now — I mean, we work together, and we're pretty good friends… right?"
"Sure we are." He gritted his teeth in selfish annoyance. //Get to the point…//
"I was wondering… I don't know, maybe I thought that some evening after work, we could… grab a bite to eat together? There's that new restaurant in Lewisham that I've been dying to try… The Granary?"
"As friends, I mean. Purely professional." She laughed nervously. "Oh, I knew it was a stupid idea… it's just that you're always so nice and kind to everybody, and I thought… well, I guess I thought wrong. I'm sorry to bother you at home, I know you're probably busy…"
"No!" His head was spinning now — round in circles. God, he *hated* women. How could she hold such power over him when he barely knew her? "I mean… no. Don't apologise. I — uh — that… that would be g- okay. Sure."
"Really?" She sounded absurdly pleased, and he winced. Some tiny part of him was watching what he was doing, warning him of the consequences — of what would surely happen if he took this woman up on her offer.
He berated it to keep quiet. Emma was one of his colleagues — an old hand at the Independent, a high-driven career woman… but one who asked what people were thinking, one who didn't let her job dominate her life, one who enjoyed human-interest stories. She was effervescent and… safe. So unlike…
Anyway, there was nothing to lose here. There was no chance of…
"Sure." He forced himself to keep his tone light. "I'll… uh… I suppose tomorrow works?"
"Tomorrow does work." Her answer was quick. "Tomorrow works brilliantly! Shall we say… eight?"
"Um… okay," he mumbled, fighting a rising wave of panic. The last time he had picked a woman up for a date… "Shall I meet you there?"
"Great!" Her voice was pathetically eager. "See you soon!"
"Right." He clenched his eyes shut, wishing for solace. For peace. For the carefree attitude that was so hard to find. "See you soon."
The dial tone buzzed in his brain, shutting out all other thoughts, and as he replaced the receiver gently, he was struck by the thought that he was alone again.
An hour later, not one person would have recognised Lois Luthor as she walked slowly along the sidewalk of downtown Metropolis.
She was struck by the sudden, ridiculous thought that it was terrifyingly easy to kill somebody. It had taken no time — no time at all — and it was so *simple*… so perfect that there was no way anybody could have anything more than the slightest twitch of doubt in their minds about her health. *He*… couldn't think anything other than that. Heck, it was probably a relief to him. Save his poison for another day. People would joke about it — maybe rib each other about the fact that with all his money, he couldn't stop his wife from being killed.
<I'll kill you…>
She swallowed, patting her baseball cap to make sure that none of the chin-length strands of hair were showing. It was probably a little uneven, she knew — she hadn't had a mirror, and the knife, though quite sharp, was still too blunt to make an elegant job of slashing through her thick hair, but she had done the best she could.
At the time of her marriage, it had been to the middle of her neck when completely straight. She had liked it like that… but he hadn't. More feminine, he had thought, to have hair stretching halfway down your back. That was his excuse, anyway. Sometimes she wondered if it were just another easy method of silencing her — pulling her hair, twisting it around her neck in a solid, deadly coil. Cutting off her air supply so she couldn't scream. He had nearly strangled her to death with her own hair.
Now she was free. Free. Her first taste of liberty had been cutting and dying her hair, one-handed in the Ladies room of a bar, which no other woman would have dreamt of going into. She'd never thought of herself as a blond and she had been straightening the heck out of her curls since she'd been a teenager — he'd never seen her with her hair curly. Back to nature, and what a blessing it was.
The red sweater she had been wearing as she left was perfectly adequate once she ripped a hole in the arm of it. Also her baseball cap, which she had bought to stuff her hair into, as an extra precaution. Her jeans… Calvin Klein jeans… well, they would have to do. Still a pretty good disguise. He would not tolerate her wearing jeans, they were altogether too common and they made her too pretty, too young.
She hadn't dared to use a taxi, hadn't dared to exhaust any more of her funds until she knew her situation, so she had walked. Just… walked. For what felt like miles.
She glanced around her, for the first time absorbing her surroundings, and started in surprise. Where the… what… where *was* she? Was she even in Metropolis any more?
She glanced across the street, wildly searching for any sign of familiarity. She had been on autopilot — *stupid*! Stupid, stupid woman! Just like always, not thinking about what she was doing, not considering the consequences…
A large, yellow-and-black taxi with the blocky word 'METRO' stamped on the side in bold black letters immediately affronted itself into her line of vision.
Right. Still in Metropolis. Pretty far away from where she had started out, obviously.
She blew her breath out slowly as she came to the first intersection, debating as to where she should go. Getting out of town was a top priority, that she knew, but…
She wasn't used to making decisions for herself anymore. She turned right, then left, then right again, stumbling across the crosswalk to slump against a shop window at the other side. Her head was going round in circles, her stomach plunging. She clamped her hand to her sweaty forehead, desperately trying to think.
She swung it abruptly away from her forehead, glaring at it as if it were a dog about to bite her. Of course! She should have known. She had turned *right*. That was *bad*. Years beforehand, Bill Henderson had told her that when people were running away, trying to be clever and confuse their followers about which direction they were going in by trawling through various intersections, they were usually only going in the direction of their dominant hand.
She was *right*-handed. This would be the first place any detective, hired to find her, would look. She was being *stupid*!
She crossed over the road again and turned left, this time, looking down at her hand with a pleased expression. It had been ages since she had actually thought about what she was doing — a week ago and she would have continued on that way, not caring about whether her husband…
The name whirled around in her brain, madly, as she stared at the proof, stationed conspicuously on the third finger of her left hand. The hand that still bore the mark of her desperation to get away from him. Her injured hand.
She tugged them off swiftly; appalled to have anything that had once belonged to him touching her skin. Cradling it in her hand, she glared at them, twinkling up at her so innocently. Clenching her fist, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut as the edge of the rings bit into her palm.
The last tie. The last connection.
She opened her fist, looking at them again. The pure, shocking rage that had gripped her at the sight, moments before had ebbed now, and all she was left with was a detached, clinical sense of contempt.
For the rings. For the man who had given them to her.
<Love, honour and cherish…>
She took three steps, debating what to do with them.
Rubbing her aching foot, she glared at the object that she had walked into, darkly reflecting that…
A garbage can.
A *garbage can*.
She looked slowly at the entity, then back down to the ring in her hand. Several times. The thought, struggling to reach the top of her brain, broke through all at once, with a splash, and she was standing before the bin almost before she knew she had moved.
Such an easy way. A quick, easy way to finally rid herself of the last things tying her to him.
<I'll always be with you…>
She opened her hand, slowly tipping them sideways, making them slide back and fro in her palm.
She couldn't do it. She was weak. She was… it was like he…
They would buy her food. Wouldn't they? She could sell them, if things got too bad. She could *pawn* them, for goodness sake! It would be foolish to throw them away. Like money down a rat hole. Stupid, when she had so little to begin with. The rings were huge and expensive, especially her engagement one. It would buy her so many things, if she sold it wisely. A chunk of rock that she could live on for months; maybe even years, if she was careful.
She clenched her fist, breathing hard.
"Hey lady, you okay?"
She looked around, wide-eyed, to spot a youth with psychedelic red hair and bulbous pimples in an apron with a sweeping brush in his hand, surveying her curiously. A sign in the window of a restaurant bearing the same logo as his apron caught her eye — "Help Needed, Apply Within".
"Yes," she began, and choked as something became suddenly, terribly apparent to her. "No!"
She clapped a hand to her mouth, and retched. Alarmed, he caught her by the elbow, hurrying her into a side-alley, where she was copiously, disgustingly, slowly sick into a dumpster. Twice.
He waited as the last retches ceased, and magnanimously produced a large handkerchief.
She nodded, leaning her head back against the dumpster and closing her eyes.
"Thanks," she said, and cringed at the weakness in her voice. "For the hanky, I mean. I'll wash it and… mail it to you, or something…"
"Don't worry about it," he said nobly, "I have plenty."
A few minutes passed in silence. Not caring how dirty the alleyway was, Lois slid to the ground, rested her arms on her raised knees and buried her head in them, trying desperately not to faint.
"Hey… you got pretty sick there," he said, accurately if a little obviously. "You feeling OK now?"
Lois nodded, rubbing the back of her hand across her mouth in a vain attempt to rid it of the sour taste. "Yeah, it usually goes away in a few minutes."
"I'm sorry?" His young face was a mixture of concern and confusion.
"The nausea." She smiled at him weakly. "I'm pregnant." She felt a tiny thrill, sharing that — a spark of excitement igniting as she said the words out loud — as if by giving the words form and exposing them to light, she had physically forced it into being.
She surveyed him, as he digested the words. She didn't know what strange twist of fate had ensured that this kid should be the first person who she told about her pregnancy, but somehow it seemed right.
He opened his mouth, and promptly closed it again. And again. And again.
"Oh," he said, finally, then blushed to the very roots of his ginger hair. He glanced at her hand, then frowned. "Are you in some kind of trouble?"
Lois felt a tendril of panic twist in her still-churning stomach. Could he tell that she was running away from someone? That she was disguised? Oh god, what if this kid called Lex?
Her voice was unnaturally high when she answered. "No, of course not. Why would you think I was in some kind of trouble?"
"It's just that I noticed…" he mumbled bashfully, gesturing towards her left hand.
She glanced at it herself, noting with surprise the bare, independent look about it, the doughy texture of the skin around which her rings had been.
"You're not married?"
She considered the question.
<I now pronounce you…>
"No." It flowed out of her, truer than any lie she had ever told.
He held his two hands up. "Hey… it's none of my business."
Another pause, in which she started thinking about getting to her feet. It might help. Maybe. Too soon, though. The ground was too unpredictable. You never knew when it might suddenly rear up on you.
She looked at him, heavily curious to know what he was exclaiming at, to find that his gaze pointed northward.
She looked down, and gasped, clenching her fist immediately.
The fist that had gone limp as she lay there. The fist where the rings had been before she had had the sudden attack of nausea. The fist out of which a half-a-million-dollar diamond was now peeping.
<Do you have any idea how much I paid for that? How much I spent on you? And now you're asking for *more*?>
"Damn," she whispered reflexively, squeezing her eyes shut.
She leant her head against the dumpster, and opened them wearily. He was staring at her with an expression of amazement — awe, even. She looked into his eyes, and had the strangest sensation of unrealism — almost as if dollar signs would pop into them at any second. Then the look was gone, replaced by something hard and suspicious.
"I thought you weren't married? Where did you get those?" he asked, his tone aggressive. She almost burst out in hysterical laughter. Great! Just great. It was over before it had begun.
The urge died in her throat as she looked at him. No. No. She'd come too far and worked too hard to blow it now.
"I'm on my way to pawn them," she said, cool as you please, looking him straight in the eye.
"You're going to *pawn* your wedding rings?"
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Thought in the great scheme of things, if it came to a choice between owning a diamond ring and not starving to death, the last one would be more important."
His eyes bugged slightly, and she felt victorious. She'd read him right. He had no real authority in him, no command. He was faking it, as was she.
"How in the world does a woman go from owning a rock like that to being in danger of starving to death?"
She sighed, feeling the vestiges of impatience stir inside her, savouring the feeling, the freedom. She could snap at people all she liked now. "Long, sordid story."
He looked at her sharply. "I've got time."
"Have you? How nice for you," she bit sarcastically, jumping to her feet. A moment later, she regretted the action as the world swung around her. She put a hand on the cool steel of the dumpster to steady herself. "Unfortunately, I'm fast running out of it, so if you don't mind I'll just…"
"You're really in trouble, huh." His expression was very serious.
She rolled her eyes at him, set off for the street again. She desperately needed to get out of there, away from this stainless kid before she doomed them both.
He trotted after her. "I'd like to help." It came tentatively.
She looked at him suspiciously. "Why?" she demanded. "Why? I'm just a woman who staggered in off the street and got sick in your dumpster. Why would you want to help me?"
"Hey, lady, my Mom taught me better than to just look past someone in trouble," he said tetchily. "I'm just trying to do my civic duty, or whatever they're calling it this week. I appreciate that you're under pressure and broke, but that's no excuse to…"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" she apologised, flushing at his speech. The kid was just trying to help, and here she was jerking him around over it.
He looked at her warily. "Apology accepted."
She sighed. "I guess… it's just hard to believe that there are still good guys left in the world."
"I'm a good guy." His eyes were very earnest. "I'll help you. However I can. What do you want?" He made a sudden convulsive movement with his shoulder — as if shrugging off a lingering doubt about her.
<Come over here, Lois. We have some things to discuss.>
She flinched. His arm immediately flew up from his side, but he evidently abandoned his original intention because a few moments later she felt the lightest touch on the tender, exposed inside of her wrist.
"Hey. You okay?" he whispered.
She swallowed roughly. "Fine. Just fine." She looked around her for a moment, before shaking her head viciously and stamping her foot. "No, dammit, no, I'm not fine!! I'm not fine!! I'm standing here, pregnant, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, with a total of…" She slipped her hand inside her jean pocket and drew a bill out, "…twenty dollars in the world, standing here in an alleyway, talking to some strange kid who doesn't even know my name, and you know what? You know what?" She grabbed him by the arm and shook him. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to do or where I'm going to go." Her voice was deathly quiet all of a sudden.
"So that's the first thing we have to figure out." His voice was amazingly calm, considering the fact that a pregnant stranger had just yelled at him and was now hanging onto the lapels of his apron for dear life.
She released him abruptly, suddenly feeling sick again. She drew a hand tiredly across her forehead. "Oh, it doesn't matter. No matter where I go, where I run, he'll find me. Eventually." She clenched her fists. "He always does," and a second later, "Ouch, dammit!"
"What? What's wrong??"
She looked at him, then slowly opened her clenched left fist. He gasped when he saw the blood, a sickly brown where it had flowed and dried, and breaking freshly out of the tender, minutes old film which had formed over the cut.
"We have to get that cleaned up," he pronounced gravely. At her sceptical look, he added, "Hey, you don't want to get an infection," defensively. Inwardly, she smiled. He sounded like the kind of kid who had been reared on those little tissues, soaked in disinfectant that came in the tiny blue paper satchels. She could almost imagine him sticking a band-aid with green and yellow dinosaurs over the wound.
In the course of the next half hour, she learned his name was Charlie, that he had a girlfriend named Amber, that he had turned eighteen the month before last, and that someday, he and his garage-band friends hoped to sign a record deal. He played the drums, was partial to the Guns n' Roses but still appreciated the classics — Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles.
She'd always thought teenage boys were sullen and withdrawn. Not Charlie. He kept up a steady stream of conversation, which meant, thankfully, that he didn't seem to expect much of a response from her. She still felt slightly queasy, and her nerves were stretched to near breaking point.
He fixed her a grilled cheese sandwich and poured her a tall glass of milk, which she forced herself to drink although she would have preferred it with a healthy dose of chocolate syrup. After she had something in her stomach, she felt better. At least physically.
But as she looked around the empty diner, the terrifying doubts started to pull at her again. She stared out the window, wondering what was supposed to happen next. What exactly did a newly- murdered, beloved-wife do? And where, precisely, did she go? As far as she knew, there was no road map out of hell.
<You'll never escape…>
She released a deep sigh, then blushed when she realized that it had been louder than she'd planned.
He looked at her, silently enquiring. She twisted her mouth. "I have to get out of here, Charlie," she whispered.
"Hey." His voice was concerned, and even in the midst of her desperation, some tiny part of her smiled as he tugged on the sleeve of her sweater rather than put his arm around her. "It'll be okay. Nobody else saw. You can get out of town as easy as pie…"
She looked at him sadly. "I can't afford an airplane ticket. And even if I could, it would be traceable. Not that I have anywhere to go anyway."
He frowned. "You don't have any family? No friends?"
She looked down. "Too dangerous. For them and me. And my friends have long since… no. No friends I can go to."
He tried again. "Nobody who would take you in, even if only for a day or two? Come on, think about it. Nobody is *that* alone. Surely there must be somebody who lives in the middle of nowhere that can help you out?"
Nowhere. Nowheresville. Just like the dollar signs in his eyes before, if she had been in a comedy short, a light bulb would have exploded above her head.
He had noticed her face. "There." His voice was almost pathetically eager. "You *do* know somebody, don't you?"
She nodded cautiously. "I do. Or… at least, I *hope* I do."
"So… you have someone to stay with?"
"Once I can figure out a way to hike halfway across the country on five dollars… then I'll be all right. I think."
He frowned again. "You could take the bus."
She laughed. "The bus? Have you seen the kind of people that ride on those things? And what if I get sick?"
"Greyhound buses have bathrooms, you know."
"Joy. Do I have any other options?"
"You could always hitchhike."
She threw up her hands. "Perfect!"
He took her elbow, a determined expression crossing his face. "Come on," he insisted.
"Where are we going?"
"To the nearest bus station. We're going to find some kind of a map and draw up a travel plan for you."
"You don't have to do that," she protested weakly.
"Sure I do. I won't feel right till I see you safely on your way."
"It's not safe."
"Sure it is. I don't know you. You don't know me. I'm just a guy helping a lady out." She wondered at his simple, unquestioning manner.
"What about your job?" She pointed at his large, conspicuous, and official-looking apron as they crossed in front of the shop.
He ripped it off and balled it up. "Forget that. Lou never gets back from lunch before three. He'll never even know I was gone."
For the first time in what felt like years, Lois smiled.
*"Superman! Help, Superman!"*
Somebody was calling him — he could hear her, but he couldn't see her. The thick fog smothered any attempt at X-ray vision, the holes he tore in it through flying filling up as quickly as they had come.
"Please help! God — my husband — my baby — help! Help me, Superman!"
There! Columns of flame leapt up out of the mist and he levelled his body at it, desperately praying to reach it.
//Come on, come *on*…//
He was with her at last. She was sobbing so intensely that her breath came in great hiccups and he could barely understand the spluttered sentences she gasped at him.
"Bobby… he ran back in to save Carter, but the stairs collapsed…"
He didn't need to know any more. Gathering his cape tight around him, he dashed into the inferno, desperately trying to scan through the smoke to locate the father and child.
//Find them… find them, dammit!//
Somewhere a baby screamed, and he made a bolt in that direction, desperately, stupidly batting at the thick smoke with his hands. Finally, he stood in front of them — the father was nearly unconscious with smoke inhalation, still hanging onto the baby for dear life.
"Stay calm," he tried to instruct, "I'll get you out."
He took the child from the father and tucked his arm around him, motioning towards one of the upstairs rooms, which hadn't yet been affected by the blaze.
"Come on… over here… I'll help you out of the window if you'll just…"
But he was way beyond the point of reason, and slumped to the ground. Gritting his teeth, Superman managed to hoist the man onto his shoulder while still cradling the baby in his other arm. He made an open break for the window, swinging out of it just before the house collapsed.
Landing quickly, he gave Carter back to his mother and hurried over to the ambulance, where the paramedics had a stretcher waiting. The team got to work and within seconds, the man was lying comfortably.
He hurried over to the nurse by the stretcher, who was frantically feeling the man's wrist. "Is there a pulse?" he asked desperately.
The young woman looked up, her face a mask of sorrow. Slowly she shook her head.
He was dead. The baby's father, the woman's husband, was dead.
A strangled gasp sounded behind him and he turned and watched as the life drained out of the young widow's face.
"It's all your fault," she gasped. "You… if you had just been here three minutes earlier… you killed him."
"I'm so… I can't…"
He reached his hand out desperately, needing to sympathise with her, to express the depths of his sorrow, and winced as she recoiled.
"Get away from me!" she screamed. "Murderer!"
Her words struck him directly in the chest and he staggered back, physically rejecting the word. Her image swelled until it was all around him, her face waxen white, and screaming… screaming so loudly… and suddenly it wasn't her face at all, but another woman's, dark-haired this time, screaming the same word at him…
"No!" he screamed, reaching out and shaking her. "Noooooooo!"
Her eyes grew wide, her body limp. Suddenly her head flopped back, and he dropped her, terrified. The young nurse who had confirmed the man's death rushed over and put her fingers on her neck. A second later, she looked up at him, her eyes wide, and slowly shook her head.
He was falling, falling, down a deep well, her image multiplying and flipping so that no matter where he looked, she was there. He knew that there was going to be an end to his fall that would be infinitely more painful than the falling itself, but some idea told him that it was a long way off. A distant noise greeted his ears, and he wondered faintly who was screaming.*~
Three seconds later, a man called Kenneth Clarkson sat upright in bed, flailing his arms wildly as echoes reverberated around his head.
The bottom came swiftly, then, clumping him so hard over his head that he felt dizzy. Gathering his sheets around him, he lay shivering there, feeling the loneliness, the isolation. It was cold. He looked up, expecting to see a circle of light somewhere up ahead, but the room was black and unmerciful.
It took a while for it to sink in that he wasn't at the bottom of a well, but lying there, awake in his apartment, at three in the morning, crying.
"You're sure you'll be okay from here?"
"Exactly what do I have to do to get you to buzz off and leave me alone?"
His expression was very serious. "Tell me you'll be all right, and promise you'll look after yourself."
She sobered immediately, recognising the sincerity in his voice.
"I'll be fine. Thanks to you." She swallowed, realising the enormity of what the kid had done for her. "Go on, then. Get back to that café before you lose your job."
<You don't *deserve* to work… freedom? What do you want with that? You don't *need* to be free… you're dependent on me. Never forget that.>
He grinned sunnily at her, raising his hand to his forehead in a mock salute. "Aye aye, cap'n."
"You are so weird," she exclaimed, laughing at him.
They smiled at each other for a few minutes, before Lois broke eye contact and cleared her throat.
"Well… the bus is due to leave in ten minutes … guess I should find out where it is. And maybe make a pit-stop."
"And you're right, I should get back. I need this job. Gotta save up for a new drum kit, you know."
She nodded appreciatively, smiling. "Goodbye, Charlie. Thank you… thank you so, so much."
He nodded. "Anytime."
She was walking away from him when suddenly he yelled, "Hey!" Twisting around, she looked at him with a puzzled expression. "What?"
"You never told me your name," he shrugged, burying his hands in his pockets.
She paused, thinking hard.
"My name… it's Lo-Louise."
"Yes. Just Louise." She was definite on that front.
"Okay." He was silent for a few minutes. "Bye… Louise."
She smiled at him and he finally turned, walking away without a glance behind. She watched him leave, feeling foolish for the twinges of sadness in her stomach. Another friend, gone out of her life. Another face that would haunt her dreams at night. Another man, leaving her to be blown around like a thistle in the wind. Another departure.
She swallowed roughly, bringing her hand up to bat fiercely at the sudden salty moisture on her cheeks. She was being a sentimental idiot. And Charlie hadn't abandoned her. Heck, he was just a kid! Just a kid who had helped her a little. Got her on her way. It was just… unfamiliar, after all this time, a man showing any kindness towards her. That was the only reason why she was crying.
With a start, she realised that the dam had broken. Sixteen months of hell, and she had never cried. Not once. Crying was not something you did in his house. Neither was screaming. Neither was fighting back. If you absolutely *had* to vomit, then do it neatly into your apron, as soon as you got enough breath back. Contribution to conversation was not tolerated. Passive submission. Blankness. That had been the name of the game. For sixteen whole months.
And it had been a *kid* — an adolescent, barely eighteen years old — who had made her cry.
She shook her head viciously, dabbing at the corner of her eye again. Taking another look around her, she slipped the card out of her pocket, swallowing queasily at the shininess and texture of it. She could almost feel his oily business dealings seeping through it, staining and shaming her.
Trying her hardest to appear nonchalant, she sauntered over to the machine and slotted the card in, breathing hard as the welcome message appeared on the screen.
She knew the pin. Date of her wedding day, backwards.
<A nice simple number, darling, that you'll remember… happiest day of our lives…>
He'd been so like that in the first few months of her marriage — kind and solicitous and unbearably patronising. She hadn't even noticed the patronising part till that very second — how cruel, that she should be reminded just now, standing at this ATM, how blind she'd been, what a cruel sadistic powerful *monster* she'd married…
She froze, her heart thudding to an abrupt halt.
Power. Powerful monster. Lots and lots of power, and lots and lots of money, and lots and lots of contacts…
Contacts who could let him know exactly where and when his ATM card had last been used… and how much had been taken out… instantaneously.
Her hand came down hard on the 'cancel' button, and she watched as her card reappeared and the machine wished her a nice day.
What… what in the *world* had she been thinking? What kind of stupid, *stupid*, idiotic, self-destroying psycho was she? *How* could she have taken his ATM card? How could she have knowingly taken it all the way over to the bus station, punched in those numbers and never have figured out the direct link to the area?
But now… what was she to do for money?
Her mind flashed back to the wad of cash she'd discovered in his desk drawer, back in that horrible imposing shadow of a house he'd built them. How she bitterly regretted her timidity now. She should just have taken the money and left the area as fast as her feet could carry her…
If she withdrew a couple of hundred dollars — the maximum a card would allow her take in one day — from the *wrong location*… that way if he did figure it out — when he figured it out — he'd lose valuable time looking in the wrong place.
Not her original escape plan, sure. She'd wanted to drop off the face of the planet and make him think she'd never existed.
But this was… a suitable alternative. Make him sweat. Make him pay. Make him doubt himself. And then peel that carefully- constructed public mask away and reveal the horror within…
She whistled for a cab.
~*One hour later*~
She'd done it. She'd actually done it. She'd ridden all the way back to the outskirts of their — his — house, and she'd withdrawn almost eight hundred dollars from their — his — account.
And now she was back where she'd started, about to take a Greyhound bus to…
Glancing around her to ensure nobody was watching, she withdrew the map that she had received and pored over it. Charlie had ringed her destinations in red Magic Marker — she grinned as she remembered how proudly he had whipped it out.
<Hopeless, Lois. Just hopeless.>
Missouri. Home of the Ozarks and that banjo-playing boy from 'Deliverance'. She shuddered. She'd been to St. Louis, which was a nice enough place, but other than that large city, she didn't have great expectations of the state as a whole. Rural, backwards, boring. Altogether not a first choice of vacation destinations.
But the perfect place to lose yourself, if one needed to get lost.
>From St. Louis, she'd make the transfer to Joplin, where hopefully she'd be able to lose any scent of a trail he might have picked up, should the dress fail to convince him of her untimely death. Then on through towns that got progressively smaller the further west she went. Hill City, Plainville, Greensburg… until she and the bus parted ways in the last town that had a bus station … Friend.
That name sounded comforting, even in her head. It would take her three long days of bus-riding misery, and still she'd be thirty miles or so shy of her final destination. How she was going to manage it eastward when the time came was beyond her, but it was a start. A… beginning. Definitely better than her other option, which was to stay in Metropolis until he inevitably tracked her down.
<You'll never escape…>
Crumpling the paper viciously, she shoved it back into the pocket of her red sweater, biting her lip as she walked into the main terminal of the bus station. Suddenly feeling daring, she withdrew five dollars from her funds and ordered a large latte and chocolate brownie from the Starbucks stand. Taking a distracted step away from the stand, sipping her coffee, she bumped headlong into a tramp, who promptly fell to the ground.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she exclaimed, standing her coffee on a seat nearby, hefting him to his feet and trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell. He brushed his hand down his coat distractedly, smiling toothlessly at her at last.
"No harm done, ma'am," he croaked, his eyes fixated on the brownie in her hand.
Suddenly feeling a cold twist of pity in the bottom of her stomach for him — he who had so many more troubles than she — she smiled encouragingly at him and slipped her hand into her pocket, then tucked a bill into one of the pockets of his greatcoat. "Here," she said, trying her hardest not to appear like she was being charitable.
He caught her hand and squeezed hard. "Thank you… thank you," he said, nodding fervently and wringing her hand between his two. She nodded back, slightly apprehensive now, and pulled her hand from his grasp.
It felt good to be generous again, she reflected as she walked away, heading over to the stop where the bus would pull in. She didn't see his jaundiced eyes watching her every step, and she didn't see him darting a sharp glance at the glaring neon sign that displayed the time and destination of the next bus.
She didn't see him. If she had seen him doing that, she might have gotten a little nervous.
But she didn't, and she boarded the bus five minutes later, confident that she had escaped at last.
<And she was walking towards him, as bold and beautiful and *real* as ever. For four weeks, his subconscious had taunted him, time and time again with fleeting images of her — deep, fathomless eyes, silky, gilded hair brushing against a creamy shoulder, lips pursed in a perfect Cupid's bow — but, faced as he was with the real picture, he could see how pale the impression had been. A mere pencil sketch, as opposed to the real colour photograph.>
"…fourteen, I saw this television show — funny, I don't even remember the name of it now — and from then on, I knew I wanted to be a journalist…"
<She was smiling, her teeth a perfect contrast to the dusky, tanned hue of her skin, the suppressed radiance in her face making him feel pale and grey beside her. He folded his arms in front of his chest, suddenly painfully aware that he was clad in black from head to toe. Hades against his Persephone.>
"… wanted me to be a secretary, or a nurse… a 'woman's job'. He had very fixed ideas. It was… tough, especially since I've always been shy, but eventually I managed to break away." A tinkly laugh. "I waited tables and saved my birthday money for almost eight years, and at the end, Daddy finally relented and sent me. All the way to Cambridge…"
<"I've missed you," she said, almost shyly.>
"…you decide to go into journalism?" she asked, smiling encouragingly. "Did you go to college, or did you do it the old- fashioned way?"
<He swallowed, hard. "I've missed you, too.">
He blinked, leaving his fork down. He suddenly wasn't hungry any more.
"I… uhm… that is…" He broke off, shaking his head hopelessly and looked at her, despairing.
<He cleared his throat awkwardly, breaking the silence that had woven its spell around them. "So… how've you been?" he asked uneasily.>
"…didn't go to college?" she asked, clearly surprised. "Gosh, I would never have had the patience to start as a novice! Was it difficult?"
//Smart. Real smart.//
"No!" he burst out. She raised an eyebrow.
<"Oh… okay, I guess." She laughed nervously. "Tiring. This month. I mean, I know that you're supposed to relax on your honeymoon, but…"
"Yeah," he said, cutting her short. He couldn't bear to hear the rest of that sentence. "Where'd you go, anyway?" he asked, more out of politeness then any real interest.>
"…of course, I wouldn't know, I went to college from the first day and started when I had my degree, but I suppose it's as good a way as any to do it…"
He shook his head viciously, trying to clear his brain, not registering the fact that she was taking the gesture as a knee- jerk reaction to her statement.
<"Paris is lovely at this time of year…">
"…but I suppose anybody would think that. I mean, I didn't think college was so great, either, when I was going, but now I think it was really the best option… for me, I mean…"
He snapped to attention, shaking his head irritably. "No, no. I went to Midwestern University. In the US," he added for her benefit.
A long silence followed.
Funny, how you never really noticed detail unless you were looking close at something. The pattern of the wallpaper was actually very intricate. Some kind of circular, loopy thing. It almost seemed to depict… he held his head on one side, trying to figure it out.
"So… whereabouts are you from, then?" She was off again. "In America, I mean."
He gulped. Not good. "Oh, no fixed spot, really," he lied through his teeth, shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably. "We kind of drifted from place to place. Then I went travelling myself when I got my degree."
<"I'll have to see for myself one day … when I'm in a better mood to enjoy it," he said meaningfully. He realised belatedly that the sentence had been cruel when he noticed the red line creeping along her cheekbone.>
"…must have been fascinating. I've always wanted to do that, myself. I suppose you've seen a lot… more than I have, anyway…"
"Yeah, I've lived through some pretty… interesting experiences." He shifted around in his seat impatiently.
<"Can we still be friends?">
He was lost in thought, swirling in the never-ending cesspool that was his memory, sinking deeper and deeper into the echoes of a broken man and the sweet torment of her…
His head snapped up, and he was suddenly staring at her, embarrassed, under the glaring lights of the little restaurant. She was uncomfortable, he could tell — and trying desperately to hide it.
"I don't really mind," she admitted bashfully. "I mean, the meal was lovely — I just wanted to know… who wants dessert, anyway? Only makes you fat…"
He glanced at the column of black-and-white that suddenly arrested itself into his line of vision, colouring as he noticed the inquisitive waiter hovering at his elbow.
"Oh, Emma, I'm sorry," he gasped, acutely aware of his rudeness. "I was… a million miles away."
She smiled half-heartedly. "I did notice," she admitted.
"Dessert sounds… good," he hurried. "Chocolate, I assume?"
She made a face. "Nope. Never worked for me." She was addressing the waiter now. "I'll have the creme brulee, please."
He swallowed, mumbling, "Just coffee," at the waiter and looking down at the tablecloth. He had to remember. This wasn't… this was Emma. *Emma*. Not… not…
<He walked away, trying desperately not to succumb to the melancholic twists in his stomach as the image of tears rolling down her face swirled and span around him. He was swallowing heavily, trying to quash the cataract of water threatening to make its way up his chest and out through his eyes.
It was better this way. No more hurt. No more pain. Not now, not ever again. It was easier. He could move on, now — find another apartment, another job, see other women…
And he was running, running in the wrong direction, back to where she was. A feral sob tore at his chest as he pulled her into the circle of his arms, and he stifled his rough cry of torment in the silky russet of her hair. He clutched at the glossy strands with desperate fingers, crushing her head to his shoulder almost cruelly. Her arms, questing, curious, made their way up his back, and he almost keeled over at the weight of emotion that flowed over him like a sweet, cruel cataract, choking and confusing him.>
"…all right? You're so pale… and Daniel says you've been working long hours lately. There's a 'flu bug going around, did you know? You should really take better care of yourself… get some chicken soup or whatever you Americans are so obsessed with…" Another tinkly laugh.
<"Clark," she whispered, her eyes wide and tremulous. "Clark…">
"I'm fine," he blurted out. His voice sounded too loud to his own ears. "Absolutely fine."
<And suddenly he was kissing her, his mouth stroking fire and heat against hers, as his arms crushed her to him. He felt her groan, deep in her throat, and then she was kissing him just as urgently as he was she. He felt like he'd been starving, parched, desperate for all this time, and suddenly there was a sumptuous banquet before him. He was kissing her as if he'd been waiting to kiss her his entire life.
And he had. He really had.>
"You look so haunted…" Emma remarked worriedly.
<The slap came unexpectedly, stinging the side of his face, the vibrations making his heart throb. He brought a hand up to his offended cheek, rubbing it in surprise. He looked at her, puzzled.>
<The sun glinted off of the burnished white gold band around the third finger of her left hand. He barely heard her single, stuttered sentence — "I'm married" — before he ran, the image of her flushed cheeks and scandalised eyes playing over and over again in his mind's eye, like a sick sort of movie reel. He was aware that he looked strange — probably spooking the various small children scattered around Centennial Park — but at that point, it was a blessed relief to be *able* to run. To have an escape route. To get away from her — in body, at least.>
A soft hand touched his own, and he jumped back as if scalded, cursing his luck as he saw the immediate withdrawal in her soft blue eyes.
Blue eyes. And coppery hair. And human interest stories. A non- chocolate-fan. And totally, completely wrong for him.
The back of his knee connected sharply with the chair behind as he stood up, throwing his napkin on the table beside a shell-shocked Emma.
"This was a bad idea," he blurted out. Remembering his gentlemanly attitude at last, he threw five twenties on the table, adding "For the meal," as a way of explanation. Brushing past a taken aback waiter, he made his speedy departure from the stuffy restaurant, cursing his situation, his stupidity, his shame.
He walked through the streets, hands in his pockets, as the flaring, old-fashioned lanterns chased the shadows away from his mind, leaving it free to remember his intolerable cruelty, his boorishness, his total and absolute lack of decency.
One hundred dollars. No, one hundred *pounds*. Surely too much for the meal — but then again, what did he know? This was London. Food was horrendously expensive in London. He was an outsider. Of course, that was nothing new — he'd been an outsider all of his life — but somehow, this time it was… different. More painful. More acute. He had some inkling of what it felt like to belong, and now that he didn't… it hurt more.
So what if he had overspent? Forget the money. She could have it. Compensation for the lousy way he had treated her all evening. He'd arrived at the restaurant nearly thirty minutes late; he'd fallen asleep again, of course. She had accepted that excuse without question.
Somehow, he thought that had been the part that hurt most.
He broke into a run, determined to leave the bitter memories and half-remembered dreams spinning in the dust behind him. The movement didn't allow for thinking, and the cobbles that feet so easily stumbled upon stole his concentration. He didn't have time to dwell on exactly *what* reminiscences had drawn his attention for most of the meal. That would come later.
While he was conscious, it was easy to distract his brain with other things. But when he slept, when he dreamt, he couldn't escape. Couldn't escape the bitterness. Couldn't escape the pain. Couldn't escape the confusion.
He couldn't escape…
…and it was killing him slowly.
<…she shrugged. "That sort of thing doesn't really matter to me anymore."
He looked up sharply, the papers in his hand falling limp as he stared at her, looking strangely crestfallen. "It doesn't?"
"I need to concentrate on making my marriage work," she explained. "I don't think I'd have that much time for reporting anymore. Besides, I've already *got* a job, remember?"
He cocked an eyebrow at her. "At LNN? But Lois, you've always been a newspaper reporter!"
She shrugged, again. "I've been working with newspapers for almost ten years now. I think it's time for a change."
"I see." He stared at the coffee table for another minute, his fingers laced and a vein twitching in his temple.
"Besides, repairing the Planet is economically illogical. It would be twice the cost of building it in the first place. You know how flippant insurance companies are; for the most part, they fell through. No help there."
He glanced at her, and for a moment, the look in his eyes scared her. She was killing him, she knew, but she couldn't help that. Better to do it metaphorically than for real.
"Don't you even want to know what happened that day?" he asked, and his voice was desperate. "Don't you want to know who destroyed our lives? Don't you want…"
"Perry, they've caught the guy who did it. Remember?"
He stared at her as if she had some sort of strange disease.
"Jack," she explained, looking at him as if he were three sheets in the wind. "They caught him, Perry. You don't have to worry."
He recoiled instantly. "Lois, you can't tell me that you really believe that!"
She raised an eyebrow at him, politely enquiring.
"Do you really think that boy would have had the knowledge it takes to create a bomb big enough to destroy a building like the Planet was? And besides, why would he *want* to? It was his job, as much as anybody else's."
"He lived on the street, remember? Who knows what he could have picked up? And I don't *know* why he did it. How am I supposed to figure out what drives a sick, twisted…"
"Lois, don't you talk about him like that." He was growing angry now.
"And besides," she continued, as if he hadn't spoken, "the Planet is gone now. There's no getting past that. What's the point in figuring the cause of the thing if it won't do us any good, anyway? It's not going to bring it back, is it? We should all just try and move on — *especially* me. I mean, I'm married now, Perry! I need to concentrate on…"
He waved his hands in the air irritably. "I know, I know, you've told me already." He cleared his throat, and threw a glance at her. "It's just that somehow I always figured the Planet meant more to you than that."
She straightened up. "The Planet does… did mean a lot to me, but…"
"Not as much as your new life does," he finished for her. "I see."
An uncomfortable silence stretched between them. He looked as if he were trying to swim through cement — he was still having difficulty believing her. Swallowing the story.
A cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She *had* to make this work — she had to make him believe her. To save him, she had to push him as far away from her as possible.
"That chapter in my life is closed, Perry. I have to move on. No good dragging in the past — I have to make my future work. You don't know how important my marriage is to me — I don't want to -"
"Jeopardise it. I know."
On impulse, she stretched out her fingers and caught his hand, staring up into his face. "I'm… uhm… I'm very…"
She swallowed, disappointed. "Yeah. Happy." She squeezed his hand and gave it a gentle shake. "You don't have to worry about me."
He grunted, nodding briefly. "I… uh… well, I wish you all the best, Lois. You'll… you'll do just fine."
A corner of her mouth quirked up. "I will," she promised, idiotically.
She watched him shuffle his papers together, get to his feet and take one more look at her before leaving the small cafe. She bit her lip viciously, trying desperately to stop her disobedient mouth from calling after him.
"You deserve an Oscar, Mrs. Luthor. I must admit, I'm impressed."
She winced as Nigel's plummy, bored voice echoed around her eardrum, and put a hand up to her head, nervously making sure that the tiny earpiece was still concealed. "I'm glad you appreciated it," she hissed irritably into the microphone, pinned onto the front of her jacket, concealed as an elegant brooch. "Now can you *please* get out of my head?"
He snorted. "Trust me, Mrs. Luthor, I have no desire whatsoever to be in your head. I assure you, I have no wish to trail after a nosey, stubborn shrew all day."
"Yes, well, the feeling is mutual," she muttered touchily, as she watched Perry disappear around the corner. "So I can assume you're satisfied? *Both* of you?"
He chuckled darkly. "I'll let you find out for yourself. That hand gesture was a bit friendly, wasn't it?"
She glanced around suspiciously, under her eyelashes. "How did you…"
"See the man sitting on the park bench, right across from you?"
She darted a glance over her shoulder. There was indeed an old guy sitting there, feeding the ducks.
"Yeah?" Her tone was wary. "What about him?"
"Helpful when you have friends in low places, isn't it? Barry was always eager to please…"
She stared at the man in shock. As if he had read her mind, his gaze lifted and he was suddenly looking straight into her eyes. He grinned widely, shooting her a thumbs-up.
She ripped the device out of her ear, shuddering as Nigel's bark- like laughter washed around her brain, making her head throb hopelessly. A single tear rolled off her nose and plopped heavily into her coffee as she sagged forward, over the table.
At that precise moment, she knew three things. She knew that that look which had lingered in her surrogate father's eyes would haunt her for the rest of her life. She knew that she would always remember the worthless feeling that thumbs-up had brought. And she knew that from that day on, she would live with the realisation that she had given her soul to the devil incarnate.>
Her forehead met the clear glass of the window with an audible crack; cursing softly, she brought a hand up to soothe the ache, rubbing her fingers in a circular motion all over her head. Blinking, she groaned as the rollicking motions of the bus brought her sharply back to reality. The girl next to her shifted away; glancing at her, Lois could see that she obviously had noticed her discomfort. Looking back out the window, her reflection jumped out at her from the clear pane, and she saw that her face had turned a delicate shade of pea-green.
She swallowed queasily, regretting the brownie she had eaten earlier as it threatened to hurtle upwards, as the memories and remnants from her dream spun around her crazily, tilting her world from side to side.
She closed her eyes and rested her forehead gently against the rattling glass as a hot tear made its way slowly down her cheek. She would carry that image with her till the day she died — her surrogate father, mentor and great friend, walking away from her like a defeated puppy as Nigel's cackles echoed in her brain. She had pushed them away — she had pushed them *all* away — but sometimes she thought doing that to Perry had hurt even more than the rest.
He had been the final straw. The second she had seen that photograph of him, asleep on a beach in Florida, with his sunglasses perched jauntily on his nose and his hat slumped over his forehead, she had given in.
Lucy, her mother, her father; there had been little risk to them. How long had it been since she had spoken to any of them? How much had they had to do with her life? Not a lot. Certainly not a lot, and pushing them away then had only been a slight intensification of what she had been doing all her life.
It had been Perry who had hurt the most. Perry… and… and…
<I have no place in Metropolis anymore.>
She let out a slight whimper as her throat closed over her anguish. That had hurt a lot. That had definitely hurt a lot.
She suddenly felt cold… so, so cold. The light red sweater she had on was insufficient to protect her from the stiff breeze that was suddenly rattling in the window. She huddled up in a tight ball, her teeth chattering, folding her feet up underneath her, tucking her head tight into the hollow of her own shoulder and slipping her hands into the large pockets on either side of the sweater, curling into herself.
All of a sudden unable to prevent the heavy fogginess of sleep from settling on her eyes, she uttered a fervent prayer to whoever was listening for the sweet blank silence of oblivion.
The elevator pinged and expelled him into the newsroom. He stepped cautiously down the small flight of stairs, looking around at his bustling colleagues, trying to spot her before she spotted him.
He breathed a sigh of relief. No firm hand on his shoulder, no accusatory tone, no blunt objects thrown full-tilt at his head. She must be out of the office…
He groaned mentally. She wasn't out of the office. English women were just a good deal more reserved than American women, that was all…
Banishing the painful thought from his mind, he turned around, presented her with the withered flower of his smile.
"I called you last night," she said, her head on one side, a steely undertone in her voice. "A couple of times."
He winced. He'd heard the phone, just hadn't bothered answering it, too caught up in the memories which had haunted him on their date…
"I… I was… um… busy."
"I gathered." The steel had spread to her eyes, to her stance. He gulped.
"We need to talk." Inwardly, he moaned, recognising the take-no- prisoners tone in her voice. There was no room for discussion. They would talk, whether he liked it or not.
He eyed her doubtfully for a moment, then sighed, nodded, and followed her in.
Once inside, she swung around, folding her arms under her breasts to face him full-on. He groaned mentally again. Not the stance. Please, not this. It had been far too long…
"I want to discuss our 'date'," she said tightly, "and why you felt the need to abandon me in the middle of a busy restaurant halfway through it. Is my company really that bad? *Why* did you do it, Kenneth? I don't understand."
Her face was an endearing riddle of confusion, and for a moment, he loathed himself for putting her through this.
The moment passed, and he found himself doing a complete about- face. Now he loathed *her* for putting *him* through this.
He swallowed, opened his mouth to speak, and promptly shut it. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and looked at his feet.
"I dunno," he mumbled sullenly, opening his mouth as little as possible. "I just had to get outta there." He hated himself for the slang coming out of his mouth, but at that moment, he didn't think he had enough energy to form the words fully.
"Was it… I mean… did *I* do something? You just looked so troubled — almost ghostly."
He gulped queasily, his stomach churning. "Emma, I just can't talk about this right here."
A very unfamiliar look set over her face. It took him a minute to realise that it was determination.
"Well, it's lunchtime," she said, checking her watch and looking at him keenly.
He sighed, shaking his head at her. "Mr Lewis won't allow it."
"You mean Kevin?" Her expression was incredulous, obviously amazed at his formality regarding their editor. "Kenneth, Kevin's already gone to the Merry Fiddler. He won't be back till two for love nor money. We have plenty of time."
He swallowed. Oh. This editor didn't work through lunch. This editor was overweight and lazy and friendly. This editor didn't demand the impossible. His reporters didn't *achieve* the impossible.
He stabbed a thumb backwards, out of the window, in the general direction of his barren, empty desk for a moment or two. She obviously anticipated the excuse before it popped out of his mouth, and she beat him to it.
"Oh, don't tell me you've got a lot of work to do," she exclaimed impatiently. "The only reason that could possibly mean you can't go to lunch is if you really can't stand being around me for more than five minutes at a time."
Where was the hesitant, blushing woman? Where had she gone? Why was he being forced to deal with this… this… *tornado*?
He got to his feet. "Don't be ridiculous," he said brusquely, collecting his coat and shrugging it on.
She smiled brightly and made a movement as if she intended to thread her arm through his. He jumped back as if he'd been scalded, covering the move hastily by grabbing her own coat and holding it up for her.
Looking slightly puzzled, she stepped into it, and they walked up the stairs together.
He groaned silently as she led him in through the door of the establishment. Oh, god, not another pub. Not again. To his left, a group of excited students chattered loudly. To his right, two old men sat bent over a pint, contemplating life. He coughed as a wave of evil-smelling smoke hit him. Why, in the name of all that was holy, had she chosen this place? Why couldn't she have chosen something nice and airy, somewhere that served pastrami on rye and creme soda and… why couldn't she?
She led him straight over to a secluded booth, slid in, and gestured to the seat opposite. He sat down, ordered his food with her, watched her warily as it came, as he raised his fork to his mouth. He was sending out a plea to whatever higher power was listening that she'd hem and haw for a little, engage in some light pleasantries before…
"Kenneth, I just don't understand it. I thought you liked me, I thought maybe this was the start of something… but then, the other night. What happened? Was it my fault?"
<Oh God, this is all my fault…>
"Kenneth?" A sigh. "Good Lord, can't you concentrate on *me* for two minutes? Can't you even stand to talk to me?" She looked at him for a few seconds as he struggled to answer, then sighed again and raised her fork to her mouth.
"I don't know *how* to talk to you."
She looked up, her loaded fork falling onto the plate with a definitive clink. He watched the strands of spaghetti unravel and fall back into the sauce slimily, feeling the same sensation in the pit of his stomach.
"I don't know what you want to hear. I don't even know why I did it. I just had to go — to get out of there."
Her eyes were bright with interest, now. She wiped her mouth with her napkin, her entire body sitting upright. He considered that this was probably the longest she'd ever heard him speak. The thought made him strangely sad.
"You're the first woman I've dated in… almost six years. Since college, in fact."
She had been taking a sip of her mineral water; at this, she choked. He watched disinterestedly as she coughed discreetly into her napkin.
"Ex-excuse me?" she spluttered finally, her eyes wide with shock. "*Six* years?"
He nodded, then shook his head, then finally nodded again. "Six years since I've taken a woman out — seriously, I mean."
She cocked her head to one side. "How old are you?" she demanded, all etiquette suddenly forgotten.
He allowed the corner of his mouth to quirk up. "Thirty."
Her eyes expanded even further as she did the mental calculation. "So you haven't had a date since you were twenty-four?" she squeaked.
He wriggled, smiling bashfully. "I travelled a bit… a lot. Left no room for a relationship."
//Liar,// his mind taunted. He'd had plenty of room for a relationship. The object of his affections just hadn't been interested, that was all.
Her eyes narrowed. "But you did settle, right?" Her tone was suspicious, suddenly aware that there was a drifter sitting across the table from her.
He nodded slowly. "I… well, I stayed in a major city in the US for a year and a bit. I was…" He broke the sentence off, swallowing painfully. "…pretty well settled there."
<Get out of Metropolis…>
"Oh." She fell silent for another minute; probably pondering his enigmatic existence, he thought, depressed. If only she knew how enigmatic it really was.
"Why did you leave?"
"Why did you leave this… this city?"
He was pretty sure that his lower jaw was hanging slightly open. He closed it, wincing as his teeth clicked together.
"Um… There was some… personal problems." He cleared his throat carefully. "The newspaper I used to work for… it burned down. And… well… a few things didn't pan out. It ended — pretty viciously — with me handing my apartment key to my landlord with two month's rent and taking a cab to the airport." He cleared his throat. "I haven't looked back."
She nodded. "A woman."
He would have tried to deny it, but her tone was so flat, so defeated, so certain that he knew there was no point in protesting. He stared into his plate, moving his head in a tiny, lightning-fast nod. Maybe if he didn't make it last, it wouldn't hurt so much.
"She broke your heart?"
His voice was low. "You could say that."
She cleared her throat, clearly uncomfortable. "This fire… that you told me about… she didn't… did she?"
He shook his head slowly. "She didn't die, if that's what you mean. She…" He paused, unsure of how to phrase it. "She married… someone." His voice sounded cold, detached to his own ears. "Else," he added, just to clear any confusion.
As he watched, a dart of sympathy flashed across her face. "I'm sorry," she said softly. Her hand reached out, and for one terrifying moment, he thought she was going to take hold of his, but she evidently thought the better of it, and the next instant he felt a butterfly pat on his knuckles. "That must have been… tough for you."
He swallowed roughly, wondering if the tears would spill when inside the restaurant or whether they would wait till he got to the car. "Yes."
She was playing with her spoon now, threading it between all her fingers, clearly uncomfortable. "Last night… when you were… err… when you kind of — zoned out for a minute or two — you were thinking about her?"
This was too hard. Much too hard. "I don't want to talk about it, Emma," he said, harshly, desperately.
She looked at him oddly, her head on one side.
"Do you know what's wrong with you?" she asked, almost angrily this time. "Do you want to know what you have to do?"
He looked at her mutely.
"Stop running away. Stop hiding. Sooner or later, you have to face your demons."
He put his hand up to his mouth instinctively, his fingers scraping off of the rough moustache that covered his upper lip. "I… I…" he said faintly.
"I don't know if you heard me saying last night that my father was very strict when I was growing up." Her eyes were bright, intent. "About little things. Things like food, clothes, makeup… since my mother died when I was just a child, he was anxious to prove he could bring me up properly on his own. Made me a regular little Quaker," she added, dry irony in her voice. "It took me fifteen years to finally have it out with him, to tell him how I felt — but I eventually did it. And you know what?"
He had a feeling there was going to be a moral to this story.
"I don't regret it. Not for a moment. It was hard, at the time, tough to face him and the black mood he was in for months after, but I stuck it out — and look at me now."
There it was.
He had to admit that she had a point, though. One of the best reporters at the Independent, she was their Editor's favourite girl, and she knew it. Of course, she could never replace… but she was intelligent, and plucky, and he respected her in her own right.
He hadn't shown her that respect last night.
"I'm sorry for what I did to you, Emma." His voice was painfully sincere. "It was arrogant and wrong, and you deserve better."
She smiled warmly. "Glad you realise it, Clarkson!"
He swallowed, hard. The teasing slur, the twinkling eyes, the affection in her gaze… it would be so easy at this point, so easy to hide, to pretend. So easy to just sink back into his body, make believe as if nothing was wrong, that this was all new and exciting. That she had a chance.
No. No matter what name he took for himself, he was still a gentleman. He sure hadn't behaved like it, but he was.
"It won't happen again."
She nodded. "I know that. I appr-"
"No, Emma… I mean, it *won't* happen again." He locked his gaze with hers. He'd spent too much time creeping around the edges, fearful of getting hurt again. An inconsiderate buffoon. He needed to remember that he wasn't the only being in the world capable of feeling pain. "It shouldn't have happened in the first place."
He watched her face fall in agony.
"I'm sorry," he rushed to explain. "It has nothing to do with you, believe me! You're smart and funny and pretty, and under different circumstances…"
"Please don't say…"
"It's not you, it's me."
She groaned. "You said it."
He nodded. "And I really do mean it. I should never have tried to… I shouldn't have led you on when I knew that nothing could happen. You deserve better than that."
"You've already said that," she pointed out, her voice heavy with disappointment.
"I can't say it enough. I haven't exactly acted like it."
She sighed, nodding slowly. "I respect your wishes."
He deflated slightly. This was going easier than he thought, she hadn't even…
She laid her hand lightly on top of his, searching his eyes.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked gently.
He looked at her strangely. "What do you mean?"
A quirked eyebrow. "Are you going to stop running? Are you going to turn around and face whatever's haunting you?"
He stared at her, hating the feeling her words were inspiring in him. "How do you know all this about me?" he asked in a near whisper.
Her face contracted sadly. "I only had to glance at your face last night, Kenneth," she whispered regretfully. "You don't belong here."
"Are you trying to push me away?" he asked, almost desperately, then cursed himself. That was exactly what he wanted her to do, wasn't it? He *wanted* her to stop caring about him. He knew it was right that she shouldn't care about him… and yet some tiny stubborn part of him wanted to hang onto that, a tiny connection, a bizarre comfort, someone liked him enough to be hurt by him.
"I'm trying to stop you pushing other people away. Before you ruin everything."
He shook his head at her. "Why do you care? Why do you give a damn about me?"
She sighed. "Life's too short. Too short to spend it hiding, away from other people. You never know — till it's too late — what you really want. There are times when I see you… just there, sitting at your desk… and this really — intense expression flits over your face, and you look so… peaceful all of a sudden, but then it's like you snap. Back into yourself." She watched him carefully. "That's when you think about her, isn't it?"
He gave the tiniest of nods.
"I've seen you, Kenneth," she whispered again, intently. He let himself sink into the web she was spinning, hearing the genuine care behind the words, the frankness in her speech, uncaring of how highly charged the air was becoming. "I've seen you for what you really are, times you haven't been on guard — and you're beautiful, do you know that? I don't want you to lose that… that spirit that shines out of you when you slip."
He rubbed his forehead tiredly. "What were you, a therapist in another life?"
"You never can tell."
He shook his head, closing his eyes. "I don't know what you mean."
She raised an eyebrow at him, and he raised both hands defensively. "I really don't!"
They lapsed into silence for a moment. Her brow was wrinkled, her expression concentrated.
"It's like," she said, finally, slowly, "it's like you're wearing these really stiff, shiny, formal shoes, and your toes pinch a bit, but you're trying to look distinguished, so you pretend you don't care — but for a second or two, the facade slides, you pull on a pair of slippers and wriggle your toes around. And you relax, but then you remember that you're around other people, so you have to put the stiff shoes on again. You hate it, but you feel embarrassed walking in there wearing the slippers."
He shook his head again. "Now I've lost you completely."
She looked at him. Just looked. For hours. Or was it only a few seconds?
He rubbed his forehead tiredly. "Okay, so maybe the metaphor makes a tiny bit of sense."
The corner of her mouth twitched slightly upwards.
"Wear the slippers, Kenneth," she whispered intently. "They're much more comfortable, and they look natural."
~*"Lois… I have been in love with you for a long time now… you *had* to have known." The sound of his voice whirled around her, piercing through the humid, cloying atmosphere of the day to make a direct hit for her heart.
She stared at him, the moisture in the air making it hard for coherent thoughts, to form. Her dazed brain, struggling to come to terms with the sunlight after the hours she had spent inside the artificially lit offices of LNN, refused the sentence that her heart knew to be both true and genuine.
"Clark, you… you can't be serious… you don't *love* me!!"
//Don't fall for me, Farmboy. I don't have time for it.//
She winced at the thought, bouncing out of the corners of her memory like a curveball that darted away at the last, critical instant. She had been so *stupid* that day, so utterly blind, that she hadn't paid any attention to him, that she'd dismissed the man that would come to mean so much to her.
"Clark, you can't be serious," she whispered softly, looking fearfully into his stricken face. "You can't… you're not… I'm your *partner*, Clark! You… you were never in love with me… in my dreams, perhaps, but not in… not like this…"
He shook his head and closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were filled with an odd tenderness and something that almost looked like amusement. Was he laughing at her? Her face reddened, suddenly understanding that she'd made a huge mistake. She recoiled instantly. Now she knew what he was talking about.
"Oh, I get it," she snapped, and her voice was like ice, "You mean like a sister, huh? Or like a best friend. Not like a… not like a lover."
He blushed, and she was astonished to see an ancient sense of pride, synonymous with stubbornness but none the less admirable, blossom over his face.
"No, Lois," he said firmly, taking her hand impulsively. "Not as a friend. Never as a friend. Like a… like a…" His voice was now soft again, his words urgent, seeming to tumble over each other in an attempt to get out of his mouth, "…like a lover. Like a girlfriend," he told her bashfully, a red glow creeping over his face. "I *love* you, Lois."
She swallowed harshly, the sound echoing around the cavernous aperture of her ribcage. Her heart pumped and swelled, almost paining her.
"And Lex?" she murmured, watching a cascade of emotions spatter across his face.
"As long as we're together," he whispered urgently, "as long as you're nowhere near him… I couldn't care less about him!"
"I never knew," she whispered roughly, a tear squeezing into the corner of her eye, making his image shimmer and pulse until there were a hundred Clarks, twinkling all around her. "I never even guessed. Otherwise I would have… otherwise we… oh, Clark, we've wasted so much *time*!"
His expression was incredulous, his heart — not a shrunken heart, like hers; a vibrant, beautiful heart, teeming with life and full of love — seen clearly on his face.
"You mean… are you saying…" he gasped out, finally, his voice rasping.
"Of *course*!" she burst out impetuously. Then, deciding that trivial little things like words were not the best way of communicating, she threw her two arms around his neck and kissed him soundly.*~
Lois woke up feverishly, kicking the tangled blankets off of her legs wildly, clawing at the pillow. She lay frozen for a minute, before the fact that she was awake registered. As it did, she turned her face into the pillow and choked her sobs out into its feathery warmth.
Why? Why did she keep torturing herself, not only in her waking hours, but also in her dreams? Why did the image of what she could have done, what she *should* have done, continue to dance in her mind's eye? *Why* was she continually reminded of that day, night after night after night?
She swallowed harshly, remembering the emotion that had filled her veins and sent her blood bubbling, back when Clark had loved her a little…
Attraction. Strong, heavy attraction, overpowering and gentle at the same time. For the first time, she'd *really* noticed the man next to her, and somewhere deep down inside, she'd voiced her approval and appreciation quietly, berating the hardened, mordant cynic who refused to listen, who had leapt out of her mouth, quashing any flickering particles of desirability that danced across his face and sang in the words, so softly spoken, with such gentle intelligence.
But she was smarter now. She saw what she could have had; more importantly, she knew what she had lost.
//…I never knew…//
But she *had* known, hadn't she? In the end, she'd known.
She rubbed her stomach fretfully, musing at the strange sort of comfort it provided. It seemed to emit warmth from within that soothed her, a reminder of why she had left… *what* she had left. The knowledge of the tiny baby that lay sleeping inside appeased her troubled mind and alleviated her fears.
She looked around the small dank room of the motel where she had spent the night, sighing. This was a far cry from the airy open rooms in which she had spent most of her married life, but even as her brain reminded her of the horrific incidents that had taken place in those rooms, some stubborn little gnat inside of her refused to accept the appalling conditions she was staying in.
She swung her legs around the side of the bed, walking slowly over to where her wallet lay. Peering inside, she grimaced. What the heck had happened to her? She should have known that a thousand dollars would never be enough to tide her over — not really. Sure, it had been enough to pay for her bus ticket, and for her cab to "Sleep-EZ Motel" — or S ep -Z ot l, as the sign over the main entrance proclaimed — but it would never keep her going, not even if she continued staying in dives. She had to somehow find a way to… hitch a ride or something. She'd walk if she had to.
And when she arrived…
//Your own money…//
She glanced down at the wad of bills in her hand; suddenly feeling sick as the grim, green faces of Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin stared up at her accusingly. The money that had opened her gate to freedom… that was not hers. That had never been hers. She hadn't worked for it — she had no part of that aspect.
//But you paid for it.//
"Yes," she admitted aloud, agreeing with the tiny voice of her self-righteousness. She had paid for it — paid in full, with interest. She didn't owe him *anything*.
Suddenly feeling sick, she folded the money in her hand and stuffed it back inside her purse quickly. She couldn't keep looking at it. Otherwise she would turn tail and run.
And he would catch her.
She shuddered, and made her way back to her dishevelled bed. Maybe she could catch a few hours sleep before rising in the morning.
Bed. Sleep. Dreaming.
She closed her eyes, willing her demons to give her solace for a few hours. Tomorrow would be a big day. She needed whatever ounce of instinct she had left. And for that, she needed sleep.
She coughed as the evil-smelling fumes belched out of the exhaust pipe, rubbing her rounded stomach miserably in a gesture that was becoming more and more frequent.
"Baby, what am I going to do with you?" she muttered under her breath. Three months pregnant, the day had started off with her being horribly sick in the cramped bus-bathroom that smelt of Toilet Duck and carbon monoxide.
She'd thought that she would never eat again after staring at the inside of that bowl for a full ten minutes, but now she was ravenous. She could eat for three, let alone two.
//Old wives tale,// she berated herself immediately. //Easiest way to raise a stomach more fat than baby.//
Still, she did have to eat. Preferably something more nutritious than the limp lettuce sandwich she'd had for her main meal the day before. Eating for two or no eating for two, she did have her pregnancy to think about. She'd learned to read on those pamphlets her father had taken home from the hospital in his briefcase; she knew what was required.
//Plenty of protein,// she remembered, //and carbohydrates. Right?//
It was as though the three-day ride had frozen her brain. Protein… found in… erm…
Red meat! That was it. Red meat, and green leafy vegetables. She needed lots of red meat and green leafy vegetables. And eggs. Carbohydrates… well, that was an easy one. Bread, pasta, potatoes, chocolate.
//No chocolate, Lane.//
She groaned. No chocolate. No coffee, either.
Blinking a little, she picked her feet up and started walking, drawing a map in her mind. This was obviously Friend's Main Street.
She snorted. A small newsagent, a drug store, a drapery, a mini- market, a bookshop, and…
She hurried over automatically, scanning the front of the shop. The might-once-have-been-white paint was peeling off the walls, and the window was a little grimy, but it looked clean enough inside.
Once in the door, she slid into one of the secluded booths and picked up the menu with an eager hand, scanning the lines interestedly. Her face fell as she pondered her choices. She could have a burger, a cheeseburger, a bacon-double cheeseburger or a salad burger. All with fries and soda.
Well, beef was red, right? Red meat. Protein. Yes, protein was good.
Ten minutes and a gum-snapping waitress later, she was poking unenthusiastically at her limp bun, covering what seemed to be a very large piece of lettuce and a very small slab of meat. She sighed, and drenched the burger in tomato ketchup. Tomato was a fruit, right? It had to be good for her, somehow or other. Good for her and her baby.
Sometime later, the unappetising meal washed down with a large mouthful of lukewarm milk, she strolled up to the cashier nonchalantly. She glanced at the woman's nametag.
"Thanks, Annie," she said, smiling brightly as she handed her the money. "Say… you wouldn't happen to know if there's a private bus service running out of here, would you?"
Annie's gaze flickered immediately from the till to her face. "A bus service?" she asked, clearly surprised. "Heck, no! We don't have no need for a bus service round these parts." She glanced sharply at Lois's face. "You ain't from around here, huh?"
Lois flushed. Was it that obvious?
"No," she murmured deferentially, and paid her bill.
Outside, she leaned against the doorframe and considered her options, She had about two hundred dollars left. There was no bus, and she had no identification so she couldn't rent a car. Obviously she couldn't hitch-hike. Even more obviously, she couldn't walk.
She could always ring the Kents and tell them where she was…
A shiver went down her spine as a sly voice whispered 'accomplice' in her ear.
The Kents. Good people. Friendly, generous, sweet, welcoming. Never a bad word to say about anybody.
Helpful and discreet and…
…so, *so* vulnerable…
He'd loved his parents, hadn't he? He'd lived for his parents. She remembered the first time she'd seen them all together — how surprised she'd been. She'd never seen a fully-grown man hug his mother, let alone his father. They were — had been — such a wonderful family…
She'd been Lois Luthor long enough to know that the name carried weight. Luthors trailed poison wherever they went. They fouled the most tranquil of places, reached into your heart and ripped out the best part of you, they lied and stole and *killed* and…
She couldn't. She couldn't consciously go to that house, that milk-drinking, peanut-butter-eating, all-American, Norman-Rockwell house and tear it apart. She couldn't destroy their lives for absolutely nothing. She couldn't make them a part of her life, and a part of her death. She couldn't give him any kind of lead to them.
If — when — he came for her, he would find her alone. At least she could die knowing she'd tried.
In the meantime, though, she needed money… and a place to stay…
Rubbing the pad of her thumb against the grit of the window ledge, she took a deep breath, then swung her bag onto her shoulder and breezed back through the double-doors of the diner.
~*Three months later*~
It had been three months, now, since his reconciliation-of-sorts with Emma. Three months in London, still surviving, still with the formal shoes. Stupid metaphor. He hated it, hated how she'd seen through him so easily.
His colleagues had entered into a new attitude towards him. Far from being indifferent to his presence, they now seemed to actively despise him. He could only assume that what he'd done to Emma had been circulated on the grapevine. He was sure Daniel wasn't helping matters — he still treated him with the utmost contempt.
Although he wasn't exactly going out of his way to be nice to the kid. He'd taken to humming snippets of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' as he walked by, and he could swear he'd never seen anybody blush so hard or so often, or throw him such hideous looks.
And Emma… Emma just looked crushed. He knew that she saw what he was doing, but he wouldn't let her talk to him about it. Every time she tried, he flinched, turned himself to stone, shut her out. He'd fallen back into the trap of letting women control him, and he couldn't let himself go back there. It was dangerous, for a variety of reasons, and…
…he wouldn't survive, this time, if he let himself… not again, god, not again, please…
How easily we fools who love think we can forget. Love cannot be turned off like a tap; he had yet to learn that, but he would, in time. In fact, the process had begun already.
In *fact*… it had begun with a simple phone call.
Years later, when he was old and grey and wise, he would admit that it had probably started — *really* started — with the look on Emma's face as she listened to him stutter and waver and search for an explanation, but that beginning had been so infinitesimal that he hadn't noticed it.
The phone call was by no means infinitesimal. It was a tidal wave, roaring towards him, drowning him in memories. It was some kind of blunt object, striking him full in the chest and making him stagger backwards, into the past. It was a mirage of images, creeping into his mind as he slept. It was the shrill whine of the phone, the cream hue of the receiver, the crackle and snap on the line that spoke for thousands of miles.
And it was one hell of a shock.
Her voice had trembled and wavered, and all the time he had heard the undertone that told him she was bordering on tears. He hadn't wanted it. He hadn't wanted the guilt to come as swiftly as it had, clawing at the pit of his stomach and making him physically sick. He hadn't wanted to go back there, ever. He'd just wanted to stop it hurting, to cut off all his ties to the past. He'd just wanted a fresh start, and they hadn't been part of it.
It was despicable. It really, really was. He couldn't believe what he'd done to her, to them, running away like a gutter rat, no excuse, no forwarding address, nothing. Not even a proper goodbye.
And he'd barely spared them a thought during the last six months or so. They'd passed over his mind, of course… he wasn't completely heartless, after all… but they had only skimmed the surface. Other matters had occupied the largest piece of his brain, and at the very corner, way back, there was a blank, empty space, but they had no part in that. That nothingness wasn't their fault. They shouldn't have been punished for that.
He hadn't understood, at first, how she'd manage to secure his address, but then he'd stopped. He'd never understood her, how she worked, how she knew all of his deepest secrets and forbidden dreams without even trying. It was one of the things he loved about her. Securing a phone call, for her, was child's play. He was surprised it had taken her so long.
<I want you to come home.>
He shivered as her voice spoke directly in his ear. It was as if she were standing beside him. He couldn't hide from her. He'd never been able to hide from her. The bond between them was too strong.
Go home… go back to America… go back to face the society columns and special features… the pain… the photographs. Go back to Metropolis…
But, he remembered, she hadn't said anything about Metropolis. In fact, she had completely avoided the subject. She didn't want him to go back there… or maybe she just didn't care *where* he went, as long as he came home.
Home. Where was that? He couldn't remember.
He'd once believed that the city was his home, was the place where he belonged. Among the elegant skyscrapers and stretch limousines he'd literally floated, finding a sense of peace he'd never known before.
But never again. That would never happen again.
London wasn't his home. He knew it. In the beautiful city, overflowing with culture and colour and art and history, he stuck out like a sore thumb. He didn't belong with the British. But then again, that was really nothing new. He'd never belonged with the Americans either.
Except for one particular American…
But what about now? Where was his home now?
Home was with his mother now, he supposed… at least, that was what she seemed to think.
<I miss my son…>
Did she? Did she *really*?
//Don't do that,// he told himself tiredly. //Don't be cynical about that. You know she does. She misses you as much as you miss her… as you miss both of them…//
He closed his eyes and allowed himself to think, for a minute, to imagine…
A peaceful farmhouse, in a tranquil setting of lush golden wheatfields. A purple sky, with the biggest, brightest stars he'd ever seen. The smell of pecan pie and cornbread filling his nostrils. The gentle grumbling of a tractor.
What was more…
Warmth. Security. Love. Both given and returned.
Did he want love?
Love had done nothing for him. Love had caused nothing except pain. Love had reduced him to this- this empty shell of a man. Love had been cruel. Did he really want to face that forbidden emotion again?
But, he reminded himself, this was a different *kind* of love. The love of a farmer and his wife for an alien they had brought in from the cold. The love of two parents for their child, and the love of the child for his parents. This love was safe, right? Sheltered. This love was all right. He could handle it.
Yes, he had handled it. Handled it brilliantly, taking advantage of his childhood home as some sort of sneaking lair for a few weeks, then driving to Wichita in the dead of night with his one- way ticket to Heathrow Airport in his coat pocket. Running away from them like a snake, not bothering to tell them how much he regretted it, how much he was going to miss them. Not even a note. He hadn't even left a note.
Okay, so his parents might have forgiven him. But Smallville wouldn't. Neighbours whispering at the Dairy Freeze, wondering about that poor Clark Kent, throwing him sneaking looks. If he went back, the kindness and curiosity of his neighbours would pour over him like a cataract, reminding him of all he had lost.
And the first time he saw a glossy magazine or special feature, headed "The Fabulous Life of Mrs Lex Luthor…"
She was happy, wasn't she? She had everything she'd ever wanted. She had cash to buy whatever it was she required. Clothes, jewellery, makeup, she had it all. And her career… she had the connections, the possibilities. She'd told him, time and time again, that she was happy with her new husband. That she was happy in the life she had created for herself. That she was contented. That she didn't need him. That she wanted to be left alone.
He'd believed her. He did believe her. She'd been convincing. He supposed that maybe he could have tried to dig a little deeper before he left, but he hadn't seen any point. She'd *looked* happy. Besides, the loss of his powers had taken over the most part of his brain.
He'd tried to forget about her. It hadn't worked, of course, but he'd tried. If he went back to the place where they had been together, if he saw her again…
//But you don't *have* to see her again. As if she'd ever come to Smallville!//
But the first time he turned the television on… special reports from LNN… her face, doubtless healthy and full and just as beautiful as it had always been… peering out at him from the glassy front of the television… what would he do then? Did he seriously think he'd survive for long?
Going back was never an option. He'd made that decision by himself, more than sixteen months ago. He'd known, when he walked out the door and heard the lock snick shut behind him, that there was no going back. There hadn't been then, and there wouldn't be ever. It was just impossible. No matter how long or how hard his mother talked, no matter how often the phone trilled, he couldn't go back. He'd known that. He'd made the decision. He had to deal with the consequences. There was nothing he could do. It was pointless, hopeless.
He leant back against his couch and rubbed his eyes tiredly, flipping the button on the remote control. Surely there must be something brain-numbing on, something that would take his attention away from those morbid thoughts for at least a few minutes, something that would…
His breathing stopped abruptly. He'd gone too far. He'd pressed the forbidden buttons.
Channel Thirty-Five. The one he'd never looked at before… that he'd avoided on purpose… his finger moving straight from Thirty- Four to Thirty-Six without a second thought…
He was watching LNN.
He froze as the warm tones of Sandra Ellis's voice washed out of the speakers, throbbing in the air around him. Without thinking, he hit the mute, his eyes freezing on the screen.
Oh… he couldn't bear it, he couldn't bring himself to watch it, and yet he couldn't bear to turn it off… in a few seconds, he'd see her… she'd be there, she'd be reporting, Mad Dog Lane, she'd be looking directly at him, her eyes reaching into his soul and… and… and…
He waited, breath held, heart beating a wild staccato in his chest, for a full ten minutes. Then, cautiously, the sound came on, and no, his vision wasn't suddenly freeze-framed, Sandra Ellis was still the reporter on screen. They'd switched to a view of the courthouse, corrupt politicians shielding their faces from the camera, and still she wasn't there, still there was a hole in his heart that she needed to fill.
And then… the Metropolis Tigers, Burt Wilson snagging a home run, the vision clogging his eyes. It was time for Sports.
Sports came after the headlines. First the current news, then the sport, then the weather. Wasn't that how it worked? Surely he hadn't been away so long, that he'd forgotten? Surely not!
Lois detested all forms of sport. And she wasn't a weather-girl. No way was she a weather-girl.
So… what… where… what? What was happening?
Ignoring the disappointed downbeat of his heart, he stabbed the 'Off' button viciously, leaning back on his couch.
Maybe… maybe he'd missed her. Maybe… she had been on before that. Maybe the fates had conspired against him again, damning him to not-see-her, saving him so he didn't have to see her. That was probably it, wasn't it?
But… no. He'd watched the broadcast from beginning to end. He wouldn't have missed her. And it was… it was a weekday. Mad Dog Lane wouldn't miss work on a weekday. Mad Dog Lane wouldn't miss work, period.
So… she hadn't been on.
He shook his head, suddenly, waking himself out of the trance he'd sunken into. Maybe she was sick. Maybe she was on vacation. With her husband.
He nodded firmly, his eyes fierce behind his glasses. Yes, that was it. She was happy, wasn't she? She'd assured him, time and time again, how happy she was, how much she loved her husband, how she was having the time of her life while he withered inside. He had to start believing her. He had to *keep* believing her. He had to stop caring about her; it wasn't healthy. It wasn't right to be so obsessed with someone he could never have.
He picked up a paper, determined to leave it at that. The Tribune; he never had a copy of the Independent around, preferring not to torture himself with his page-two stories, his mediocre writing.
He flipped through the paper, looking for distraction, and then he saw it. Maybe it was that his brain was still obsessed with her, on a level even he couldn't contemplate. Maybe it was a sheer coincidence, that his eyes scanned the page so tiredly, so lethargically, and just happened to land on a tiny sub-article, buried deeply in the text.
The headline was unremarkable to anybody except him. Indeed, it was unremarkable to him, at first, but something compelled him to it, all the same, and he read it in a few breaths, thinking nothing at first, and then…
Then it snapped. Then it clicked into place. Then he jumped, a bolt going through him, and reread it, thoroughly this time.
"Search for American billionairess called off… in a statement early this morning… police chief confirmed that… no suspects… no solid leads… Mrs Lois Luthor, missing, presumed dead… Lex Luthor unavailable for comment… said to be out of the country…"
Mr Luthor. Mrs Lois Luthor. Missing. Presumed dead.
She was missing.
Dear god, she was missing.
Lois… missing… maybe kidnapped… maybe in danger… maybe killed…
Lois. Missing. Gone.
He heard a harsh sound echo in his apartment, and he wondered for a moment who had cried out in that horrible, torn voice. It took him a moment to realise that the sound was vibrating in his own throat.
He closed his eyes, breathing profusely, crumpled the paper into a tight ball, threw it away, then stood up, his hand reaching blindly for the telephone. He had to… fly over there, right now and do *something*, help with the search, look for clues, scour the area, find some leads…
Alongside Lex Luthor? Would he find her again, only to hand her over to her husband? Would he put himself through that? Would he offer the man his sympathies? Clap him on the back and boom "Sorry, buddy," in a hearty voice when the search proved fruitless?
And then… what would he do? Come back? Come back to England and resign himself to working in papers like the Independent, with women like Emma who only served to remind him who he really was and what he had lost?
He was a fool. A sad, sorry, lonely fool.
"Operator, may I help you?"
He slammed the receiver back in its cradle, his forehead tense. So what if she was missing? She was Mrs Luthor now. It was Luthor's wife who had run off and left him. It was his problem; let him deal with it…
Hold on a minute.
Ran? Ran off?
Kidnapped, lost, possibly murdered… he could live with all that, if barely. But… left him? If she had left him…
//Don't be stupid, Kent,// he rebuked himself instantly. Why would she leave him? She had no reason to. She'd told him herself, hadn't she? Told him that she was perfectly happy, that she was living in a state of marital bliss. And she'd certainly looked every inch the happy bride.
No, there was no doubt about it. She hadn't run. She'd been taken.
She was Lois La… Luthor. She'd worked herself out of many a dangerous situation before. There was no reason for her to stop now. There was no reason why she couldn't manage without his help for once.
He swallowed hard, trying his hardest to ignore the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
He would just stay in London, like he'd planned. He would stay until his nightly torture and daily pain killed him. Until he died of a broken heart.
//Except you might not. Have you thought about that? You might *not*.//
He passed a tired hand over his eyes. He'd never thought about that before. He'd always just assumed that sooner or later, his pathetic, lovelorn existence would come to an end. The idea that he could go on, living in this hell for ten or twenty years more…
Well, he was an ordinary man, after all. It wouldn't be too hard. Sooner or later, he would escape, permanently. And then he wouldn't be a prisoner any longer. He wouldn't be bound to his earthly memories, his earthly thoughts.
Maybe it was possible to drain happiness from others. Maybe Lois had sucked his happiness dry, till he was crusty and morose as an old sponge. Maybe she was okay now, okay that he was gone. Maybe that was what he wanted. Maybe he wanted her to be happy.
Maybe everyone had a certain measure of happiness allotted to them at the beginning of their lives. Maybe he'd used all his up already. Flying, falling in love… adding it up, it seemed altogether too much.
Maybe he'd be free, eventually. Maybe he'd survive it this time. Maybe it didn't matter where you lived. Maybe it didn't matter if you were possibly dying.
Maybe you just got through it. Maybe that was all you could ask for.
Maybe that was enough.
Maybe that would have to be enough.
He took his time packing, placing each individual item carefully into the cardboard box, checking and re-checking drawers for trinkets of no importance that would not be missed. The desk seemed strangely bare, even for him, and every second he delayed, the black hand of the clock took him further into the future, further away…
That hand was his enemy, he reflected dully. It was cumbersome, ponderous — it moved so slowly. A strange contrast — for those few, fleeting, golden moments of his life, it fairly flew, but for those times when he desperately needed it to move, it refused. Stupid, idiotic, un-co-operative time. There had seemed like there was so much of it, and then it had run out.
He ran a hand through his already-rumpled black hair, sighing tiredly as he surveyed his desk. Polished mahogany gleamed everywhere — not a speck of dust touched it, no worthless knick- knack or candy wrapper defamed it. It was perfect.
It scared him, things being perfect. Perfect was always too much to ask for.
He began to seal the box, then, wincing as the ripping sound of the Scotch tape echoed through the large, empty newsroom. No Daniel-Hayes-Wannabe disturbed his peace tonight. Daniel was so much more arrogant to every other office gopher he'd met… one particular office gopher would *never* have dreamt…
He closed a desk drawer with a louder-than-required bang. He couldn't afford to wander down memory lane. The point was, nobody was interrupting him, and that was *good*, because…
He rolled his eyes to heaven as the elevator door pinged behind him. Was the world deliberately trying to kill him, or was it just a fun little pastime?
Yep, definitely trying to kill him. He carried on, ignoring the twist of unpleasantness in the pit of his stomach, and watched as his parents' faces, enclosed by a silver frame, disappeared slowly into the dark depths of the box.
"What are you doing?" Her voice was definitely suspicious.
"Packing." He was brusque. If the woman had any small iota of sense, she would back off.
"Packing for what?"
"Packing — to go — home." The words sounded awkward even to his own ears.
"Home — as in apartment-home?" She was coming nearer now; he could feel her presence behind him. "Or as in America-home?"
"America," he said distractedly, ripping the end of the tape off at the edge of the box. He had the strangest sensation that he was somehow apart from his body — as if he were floating around the room somewhere, shocked at this stranger's brusqueness to an innocent woman.
"You're leaving?" Her voice was shocked, her gaze sweeping over the table.
He gathered the cardboard box in his arms. "Yup."
"I've been on standby at Heathrow for two days now. I just got a call. I have to go now if I don't want to miss the plane."
"Dammit, Kenneth!" Her hand hit the desk with a definite thud.
It was the first time she had ever blown up at him. It was also the first time he had ever heard her swear. He felt a perverse sort of satisfaction in that fact.
He spun on his heel, looking at his watch with one hand. "I have to go home, to America, because somebody I care about is in danger," he snapped. "Happy?"
Her mouth dropped open.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Amazed, he watched her as she blushed.
"Don't be, you couldn't have known." He turned around again and started walking towards the elevator.
"But I should have. You're my friend."
Despite his hurry, he spun around again, looking at her in incredulity. "Friend?"
She moved towards him. "Friend," she reaffirmed.
The corner of his mouth quirked into a tiny, stunned smile. "Friend."
He looked at her for a long moment. Her copper hair shining over a green linen shoulder. Her huge eyes staring into his.
"I have to do this, Emma."
She was so small, so delicate, but she'd been a force in his life for a time — however short. She'd been a friend to him. He hated to admit it, but she had. And he was abandoning her, like some cheap, worthless piece of flotsam. Without even an explanation.
"I'm sorry I can't say more," he said quietly, "but I'm not altogether sure of the situation myself. I just know that I have to go."
"Will I ever see you again?" she asked quietly.
One hand reached out mistily and touched a single curl. Somehow, smooth skin was under his lips, and when he drew back, he could see a circle on her forehead where he had touched her with his mouth. He swallowed harshly.
"Goodbye," he said simply. And Emma Denton had her answer.
And then he was in the elevator, watching in a daze as a drop of moisture made its way down her cheek the same instant the doors closed.
A beat, and his own eyes produced an identical pearl.
And then he was out in a lobby. And then he was in a cab. And then he was at the airport, staring aimlessly around him in the departure lounge. Seconds, hours, decades later he was in the plane, a heavy monster, rattling through endless darkness. And then… andthenandthenandthen…
And then his cheek hit his arms, crossed on the convenient fold-up table, but he didn't feel it. He slept.
~*"Au secours, Superman!"
All the smoke. So, so much smoke, *everywhere*, in his eyes, in his mouth, in his *head*.
"Tabhair cabhair orm, Superman, in ainm De!"
Why had it always to be a fire? Sometimes he thought he could deal with the torturous strains his subconscious put on him at night- time, if it weren't for the repetition of endless burning buildings, night after night after night after night.
"Superman, hilfe uns, bitte!"
He knew why, though. Knew why his subconscious chose to torture him in that way. His least favourite emergency had always been a fire, and it had been the last thing he had ever helped at.
He glanced down at his chest. He was wearing a black turtleneck sweater. No Suit. In fact, he wasn't wearing the Suit at all.
There was somebody yelling, a few different voices. Yelling out of the darkness. A group of people, obviously. Agitated. The worst kind.
"Il y a le feu a la maison! Au secours!"
He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with a gasp of fogged oxygen and dived forward into the haze, willing his eyes to pierce through the smog.
There they were. Both men and women this time, he noted with relief. Hopefully no accusing witch, then. Hopefully no guilt. Hopefully no pain.
He snorted. Yeah, right. It was a dream. More importantly, it was *his* dream. He could almost sit down and write a script for the little group to follow.
"Il y a le feu a la maison!"
"Ta an teach tri thine agus ta a lan daoine isteach! Foireann orthu!"
"Everything will be fine," he tried, desperately, "if you'll just tell me what's wrong in *English*, I can find Superman and maybe…"
"C'e un'emergenza. I vigili del fuoco hanno bisogno del tuo aiuto!"
He shook his head wildly, cursing his stupid brain. His stupid memories. His stupid life.
"I don't understand you…" he tried desperately, at the group. "I speak English, not… not…"
"Vamos Superman! Salvalos!!"
"I…I…" He stared at them all desperately, willing *one* of them, *any* one of them, to speak a language he could understand.
"Wir brauchen deine Hilfe!!"
"Foireann orainn! Foireann orainn, in ainm De, go *tapaidh*!"
"Pourquoi vous restez plante la?!?"
"C'e gente in pericolo! Perche non aiuti?"
"Cen diabhal ata ort??"
"Waarom ben je nog niet onderweg?"
"No… stop it…" He held his hands out to the crowd, as if to shove the stubborn words aside. "I can't…"
"Cosa c'e che non va?"
"I don't know… I can't help you, I…" he tried desperately.
"Esta ahi quieto sin moverse…"
"Parece confundido. Crees que necesita ayuda?"
They were beginning to talk amongst themselves, and he wheeled around, wretchedly trying to stop the situation he could see happening in front of him.
"Een groot ongeluk in de Hoofdstraat! We hebben je hulp nodig! Snel!"
He shook his head. "I don't… can't…"
"Schiet op! Er zitten mensen vast in hun auto's en de benzinetank is waarschijnlijk lek… ze gaan dood als je niet komt, *nu*."
At that moment, he heard a great creaking and buckling behind him, and swung around just in time to see a huge and majestic mansion, where there hadn't been one before, toppling to the ground slowly.
The crowd reacted as one. A great and terrible scream rose up over his head, ringing in his ears and driving him mad. He looked at the crowd, desperate.
The young wife turned to him, her face ravaged with fury.
"Ortsa an millean! Diabhal agus daichead ort!"
He cringed. He didn't understand her, but the venom and anguish injected behind those words spoke their own story.
He wheeled around madly, clapping his hand s over his ears in an attempt to block out her face, her eyes. The haunted look that was present in every *single* person he met, there waiting to be discovered if he just looked hard enough. The single scream reverberating through his head day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, no matter which language it was spoken in…
//It's my fault… it's all my fault…//
He shuddered deep inside his soul and tried to fly, tried to get away…
"As me voithisi kapios!"
Tried, because suddenly he couldn't. Couldn't fly. And he felt so weak… so, so weak. He put a hand up to his face, and it came away bloody.
Somewhere, a woman was crying, sobbing as if her heart was breaking. He wanted so badly to help that woman, but he couldn't for the life of him remember what her name was. He put a hand out, desperately searching for something, *anything*, that would let him…
"Edo pera ime!"
Abruptly he felt a piercing, penetrating pain, delving straight into the core of his being. Collapsing in a helpless heap on the ground, he moaned as the green rays of beautiful, deadly light shone through the darkness that had suddenly engulfed him.
//No more… I can't take any more…//
And then there was only blackness. Only blackness, and the sound of that woman's helpless tears, and somewhere, very dimly in the background, there was laughter…*~
Three months. She'd been safe from him for three months. "Friend" had lived up to its name — it had been absolutely perfect. Big enough so that she wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb, and yet small enough so that stories from Metropolis rarely made an impact. Who would think of looking there for Lois Luthor, bored trophy wife? Nobody would expect her to be waiting tables in a shoddy diner, wearing an itchy polyester uniform, six months pregnant with the body to show for it.
She stared despondently into her cup of coffee. Above her, the light flickered on and off, zapping a few flies in the process. Wincing, she placed a hand to her lower back and shoved inwards, grimacing at the crack. Her uniform didn't absorb sweat, so it pooled in a sticky puddle around her waistband.
She couldn't stay for much longer. Her boss had hinted as much, time and time again. She wouldn't get maternity leave, and she was starting to slow down. If she kept going at the pace she'd been going at, she'd burn out.
She sighed, rubbing a hand against her damp forehead. The prospect of packing up and riding out of town again was *not* tempting.
If only she could…
//No,// she told herself instantly. //You already thought about that, remember?//
How much of a problem was it, though? Logically, *how* dangerous would it be to go to the Kents? Surely if he hadn't found her by now, he never would.
Her heart in her mouth, she jumped up from her seat, suddenly invigorated.
That's what she'd do, then. She'd call them, maybe, or maybe she'd just *do* it, maybe she'd just pack her bags and head west again, she knew she'd be welcome, maybe… maybe…
She'd be welcome. Definitely. The Kents radiated feel-good heart- warming hospitality. They were both like some kind of brilliant force, so kind, in such direct contrast to her own parents… and her husband.
When you were a kid, you got lulled into thinking good overcame evil. All those wonderful fairy tales — the villain gets shoved in a cooker and the kids skip home to the parents who'd abandoned them in the woods.
But real life wasn't like that. In real life, the bad overshadowed the good. Every artist knew that black dominated every other colour on the palette — obliterated it, warped it, turned it into something ugly.
She swallowed. Sighed. Grabbed a wet mop and swished it around a little, trying to look as though she was working.
She had no idea what she was going to do. No idea whatsoever. She couldn't stay, she couldn't go, she couldn't ask anybody for help, she couldn't work everything out on her own…
//Jonathan is great with working out plans… all that farm routine stuff…//
She didn't know what to do about the baby… she didn't know if she needed to visit a doctor… she didn't know what she was going to do in labour…
//Martha has been through all this already…//
She ran her tongue over her dry lips, irritated.
Advice. That was what she needed. Advice, and a game plan.
In, out. Thirty minutes.
"Annie," she called, her stomach squirming, "you don't know of anybody heading west today, do you?"
Her co-worker — pah! Co-worker could only be used when the other one *worked* — looked up instantly. Lois could practically see her nostrils flare, sniffing gossip.
"Where'd you be thinking of goin', Louise?"
She ignored the alias, her heart thumping. "I have an aunt in Smallville. Bill gave me leave." Referring to her fat, balding, chauvinistic boss.
Annie was already looking away, obviously disappointed. "Tom Irig's out there, filling gas in his car, he mentioned he was goin' to visit his grandparents. Maybe he can give ya a lift."
Her breath hitched in her throat. She ripped off her apron and stuffed it in the nearest refuse bin. She was going home.
Smallville. Comfort… security… advice. No danger, no trouble. Just…
~*Five Hours Later*~
She was home. She was home. She was home, to all that was familiar and dear.
And that made no sense at all. No sense whatsoever. She'd never visited Smallville. Nothing was familiar about the Kent family house. Nothing at all.
But still it felt safe. And welcoming. She'd met the Kents before. Felt the aura of security around them.
The road did pirouettes around her as she jogged up the track, but she didn't slow her pace or take her gaze from the sturdy farmhouse in front of her. An assault of air hit her and she breathed in deeply, the scent of freshly mown grass and pure unadulterated country striking a chord within her.
Somebody inside was singing, her voice like leather, textured and contradictorily smooth. She thrilled at the sound of that voice, at the owner, at the knowledge that Lex didn't know this woman, this symbol of motherhood. He didn't know her, so he couldn't take her away.
"Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you…"
She was getting closer. Her breath came in tiny excited puffs, her chest rising and falling agitatedly.
"Away you rolling river…"
Her jog became a full-on sprint.
"Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you…"
She was nearly there… nearly…
"Away I'm bound to go…"
She reached the door, and the singer came into view, bending over her plants.
She knocked at the door.
"'Cross the wide…"
There was a long, long silence. Lois felt the blood racing in her temples. It seemed like an age before the door was opened.
She looked at her, the woman who had been so gracious, so kind, so motherly to her from the very first moment she'd met her.
"…Missouri," she sang softly, and then fell forward, into her arms, arms which opened readily to receive her.
"Martha," she managed, before giving in to the sweet silence of oblivion.
~*Two weeks later*~
The office was a bustling hive of activity, the centre of the city, a thousand phones ringing at once. Having been in the business for so many years, Detective Wolff was afforded the honour of a whole desk to himself, and it was here he sat, tapping a pencil off the polished wood as he stared at a photograph, deep in thought.
Wolff was a good cop. He prided himself on his skill, his tenacity, his unwillingness to let a case go. He'd been in so many situations where he needed his gut instinct — this was no exception. His eyes were trained on the photograph, but he wasn't really seeing it.
She had been beautiful, some remote part of his brain realised. He remembered seeing her photograph beside her by-line every day in the Daily Planet, remembered bumping into her dozens of times at crime scenes. She'd been extremely beautiful, and strong. A capable woman, radiating fire and passion. He'd been bowled over by her, he'd trusted her immediately, recognised himself in her a little. She was as good a journalist as he was a cop.
But this picture didn't match his impression of Lois Lane. This picture had been officially released by her husband, in an effort to find her. This picture… this picture spoke to him, somehow. It had obviously been taken at some function or other; she was dressed in diamonds, glittering like an exotic butterfly on her husband's arm, astonishing in white, a colour he'd never, ever seen her wear before; and he'd been in contact with her pretty regularly.
There were marked differences in this woman and the woman he remembered. The woman he remembered had been slender, yes, but not painfully thin like the picture depicted. The woman he remembered had radiated good health and vitality; the woman in the picture radiated insecurity and isolation. Even her smile was false, pearl teeth bared in an almost-grimace.
He shook his head, sighing. He was obviously losing his edge. Surely it didn't matter what differences there were between Lois Lane and Lois Luthor? Surely it wouldn't help him solve anything? He did *need* to solve it — needed it with surprising intensity. He'd always managed to stay detached from his cases, but this one was different. He'd known this one. He'd worked alongside this one, admired her. He owed her, somehow, owed it to her to find out what had happened. As a testament to her fierceness, he needed to find who had snuffed that passion out…
…and lock them up for the rest of their lives.
A small, polite cough startled him out of his musing, and he looked up sharply. Standing in front of him was a man, a man he vaguely recognised but couldn't place…
"Can I help you?" He frowned slightly — the guy's identity was bugging him. He knew the name, had it on the tip of his tongue…
"I… um… I was wondering if I could enquire about a case?"
A husband? A… boyfriend? A father? Surely not a father, but maybe… somebody going out of his mind with worry, obviously… poor guy… which case, which case could he be connected with…
He spread his hands. "Go ahead."
"Lois L… Luthor. I was wondering if there'd been any developments?"
Suddenly, it clicked. "Kent… Clark Kent. You were her partner?"
The man nodded slowly, a strange, almost frightened look in his eyes.
"Take a seat." Clark Kent, the man he barely knew, nodded again and pulled up a chair, still looking somewhat ill-at-ease. Wolff eyed him thoughtfully. It wasn't every day something dropped into his lap like this.
"Mr Kent. Usually the details of these cases are confidential…"
"I know that, but…"
He raised his voice, rode over him. "…but I know how well you two wrote together. I imagine you want her found." A fervent nod.
"Where did you last see Mrs Luthor?" Clark Kent started, as if the name didn't ring right. He ran an agitated hand through his hand.
"It must have been… about eighteen months by now… I…"
Wolff quirked an eyebrow. "So long? I thought you guys were pretty good friends?"
Kent swallowed, Wolff could see his throat quivering. "Her marriage… we've been busy…"
He nodded, let it lie for a little. He knew, or thought he knew, he was on the cusp of one of those flashes of inspiration…
"Mr Kent… I'm afraid that there's been a slowdown in the case. Mr Luthor has called off the search… said he didn't want to waste valuable police time… I'm holding it open for as long as I can, but you can only do so much when the leads dry up."
Clark nodded, his eyes tangled behind his glasses.
"There is one thing you could do for me… do you recognise this?" Wolff reached under the desk, pulled out a sample of cloth, the least bloodstained one. "We think this was Mrs Luthor's…"
Again the involuntary start, and Wolff's gaze suddenly caught Clark Kent's fingers, laced tightly in his lap. So tightly that his knuckles were white. Startled, he glanced at his face, and noted the vein throbbing in his temple. He looked like a dangerous man, a man teetering on the edge of sanity.
"It's Lois's, all right." Kent's fingers were red and purple and almost pulsing with the strength of his own grip. "I know it is."
Wolff nodded carefully, watching him. "Do you know anyone who might have had a grudge against Lois Luthor?" He noted again, the little jump of alarm at her married name.
Kent stood up, and he was suddenly struck by how tall the man was.
"Try her husband," he bit out, then spun tightly and almost ran out of the office.
Wolff stared after him, his brain ticking madly. A tiny beginning.
He glanced back at the photograph. At that strange, haunted woman.
"Luthor, you *bastard*," he muttered under his breath.
~*Two weeks later*~
He stood at the edge of the path, the waving breeze playing gently with his dark hair, looking at the house. The lines of his face and shoulders seemed to be somewhat blurred in the morning mist, melting into the greenery behind him — contrary to other times when his outline had been as hard and crisp as steel. A duffel lay on the dusty ground, at his foot — his sole item of luggage.
Slowly, desperately slowly, with limbs that creaked and grated against each other, he bent down, caught the strap of the bag, swung it over his shoulder in one movement, and started walking. He took his time about it, ambling down the path, seeing, smelling, listening. He felt like a travelling soldier, returning from war after a long absence — shaky, scarred, but home.
He rested a hand lightly on the door, studying it as though he had never seen it before. He could hear the cattle lowing in the next field, and somewhere, far in the distance, the gentle grumbling of a tractor.
Inside the house, the cuckoo clock was ticking. He knew that with a certainty that was satisfying in one way and frightening in another. The large, ornate, carved clock, once his grandmother's, would be ticking, just there, inside the door.
The shiny, domed chronometer at the Independent had been his enemy. This one, with its soft, almost melodic ticks, would be his friend. Time was precious to the people of Smallville — they didn't waste it, and nor would he.
He wouldn't waste any more time. He couldn't afford to.
A whole month. A month of looking, of running out at five in the morning to pursue new leads, of talking to just about everybody he could think of, of stalking Detective Wolff, of tracking her movements for the last six months, of racking his brain, of trying and *trying* until he thought he'd explode…
…and nothing. Absolutely nothing. No leads. No clues. Nothing.
She was gone, and he had to accept that. Maybe he could finally move on. Maybe he could finally banish her ghost.
He'd wasted so much time already, and here he was, gazing around like a mystified cow…
He raised his fist swiftly and rapped on the door with his knuckles — three quick, hurried taps, the knock of a visitor…
And took a step backwards as his mother came into view.
She'd obviously been doing the dishes — she was wearing a pair of yellow Marigold gloves and had a soapy plate in her hand. He watched it shatter in a million pieces on the ground in stupefied silence, before looking at her again.
She was pale, trembling, her eyes wide, the cornflower blue almost black in the smooth oval of her face.
He cleared his throat, awkwardly, still staring at her, drinking her in… his mother. His mommy.
"I'm home," he managed at last, and then her arms were around him, squeezing him the way only a mom could. She made a convivial circle around him, and as he breathed in the clean country air, he wondered how he could ever have left.
She drew back, a hand going up to her mouth, and he caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes and cursed himself. No matter whether he was three, thirteen or thirty, the sight of his mother crying would always generate a particularly vicious pang in the bottom of his stomach.
She was unusually quiet — he wondered, as she led him into the kitchen, if the sight of him was that unexpected that it rendered even his mother speechless.
"Oh, Clark," she whispered, raising her hand to brush a lock of his hair back from his face before giving him another ferocious hug. "I've missed you so much, honey… my boy…"
He hugged her back briefly, his eyes closed tightly to prevent the tears escaping. "I've missed you too, Momma," he murmured, the childhood endearment rolling off the tip of his tongue before he could call it back.
A large hand clapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to see his father standing beside him, stoic as always. Releasing his mother, he stepped back slightly to look at the elder Kent warily. He had run from his parental home in the middle of the night, like a rat; he was still unsure as to how his father would receive him. He had been the cause of so much pain…
He held his breath as Jonathan inhaled as if to speak, and let it out quickly in one short, exulted puff as his father enveloped him in a bear-like embrace, which though slightly more awkward than his mother's had been, was no less fierce for that.
"Welcome home, son," he heard choked into his ear.
A glass of buttermilk, a slice of pie, a thousand babbled words. How-was-your-flight, oh-that's-good, I-hope-you-got-leave-from- work-okay, oh-that's-great, do-you-think-you'll-be-staying-long, good, that's-good-honey…
It soothed him, the endless sound of his mother's voice, but still he had a nagging feeling that the giant rubber band of his destiny was there, pulling tighter and tighter until…
"There's… something you should know, son."
He lifted his head, his heart both thrilling at the use of the long-dormant name and aching at the tone of his father's voice.
"What is it, Dad?" he asked, trying to keep the long-lost, newly- regained normality in his voice.
His father was studying his own great paws, fiddling with the small pastry fork. Clark looked at him, wondering. As a small boy, he'd thought that nothing could make his father uncomfortable. That illusion had worn off with age, of course — every time a stranger had asked questions about why Clark was so fast, or so strong, his father had been uncomfortable — but still, it wasn't a sight he was accustomed to.
"You know that there have been a lot of changes since you went to London."
Clark nodded, wondering what this was leading to. Another thing he wasn't accustomed to — his father, beating around the bush. This wasn't in the script. This wasn't normal. This wasn't home.
"Well… uh… a lot of things have happened. Things you might not expect, might not believe."
His throat closed suddenly.
"You know about Lois," he whispered hoarsely.
Jonathan's head shot up. "Yes."
"But… you don't understand," he stuttered. "That's — that's why I came back. To… to help." He paused carefully. "Is she… is she still… have they done… anything? Do they have any leads? Do they have any clue where she is? I've been… travelling for a few days, haven't had time to read the papers… do they have any idea?"
His father was staring at him, a man baffled. "Well, we hope not."
He raised an eyebrow. "*Not*?"
His mother broke in at this point, looking at him with no small degree of shock. "Surely you don't want anyone to find her, Clark?"
His knee hit the table with a bang as he jumped out of his seat. The glass fell and shattered on the ground in a million tiny pieces, but he barely even noticed.
"Of *course* I want somebody to find her!" he cried in disbelief. "The reason I'm here is to find her! I've been going out of my *mind*, in Metropolis, looking everywhere, researching since I left England, for a whole month, talking to her parents and her sister and Wolff and just about everybody I knew who wasn't connected to Lex… God, Mom…"
He broke off, shaking his head disbelievingly. "I've been looking so hard. And I've gotten nowhere. How could you think I didn't want her found?" he whispered finally, croakily, and looked down at the table. A single tear fell out of his eye and landed on the grainy wood, glistening there, alone.
Her arm came up and tugged at his hand, squeezing it tightly.
"What do you mean, Clark? Lois isn't lost!"
His stomach went into a sudden, painful spasm. "She… she's not?"
"She's here, son." His father's deep voice, echoing in his mind. "She's here. Lois is safe, she's here, with us."
He swayed dizzily, one hand reaching out to grab at the table. He felt something push hard into the backs of his knees and suddenly he was sitting. He didn't know how he ended up sitting, but he had the strangest idea that the chair had flown up to meet him.
And then she was holding something to his mouth — something that was hard and clinked against his teeth. He was suddenly drenched in ice, shivering, as the lukewarm wetness slipped down his throat.
Her voice broke through the frazzle of static in his brain. "How long is it since you've eaten?"
He shook his head distractedly, mumbling. "Lois… here? She's…"
A deep rumble somewhere nearby. Something about Lois-gone-walking and she'll-be-back-soon-you-have-some-time and you'd-better- prepare-yourself. He couldn't really hear properly, because something was crashing down around his ears. His life, maybe.
Everything was a sham, a reflection of horror. Everything was cruel, everything was hope. Everywhere, there was the ringing of bells, and he had the strangest feeling that he was the only one who heard them.
They rang and rang and rang, and he was suddenly, painfully reminded of a woman in white tulle, of enormous hats, of funny lamps and droning voices, of monsters all dressed up in beautifully tailored tuxedos.
She took her time walking back, scuffing Martha's old sandals along the ground, letting her arms swing freely and admiring the greenery all around her.
It was taking time, but she was finally beginning to appreciate the country. There was something… something most complicated in the air, some… refreshing pureness that puzzled her now. How could anything be that perfect, how was it possible, why did perfection frighten her so much?
The Kents had been wonderful, she reflected. Welcoming, unassuming, considerate, not what she was used to, exactly what she needed.
She swallowed her guilt, biting her lips. She hadn't meant to stay so long. She would move on, soon, she would go… she'd just wanted to sink into their kindness for a little while, let herself be loved a little… the reasons for leaving still stood.
The past month had been… unbelievable.
And she still had to leave.
She was living in some sort of bubble, pretending she was fine, pretending she was normal, pretending she had come to Smallville on a whim, for some sort of vacation, lengthened by necessity. She didn't know if they wondered at her lack of luggage, at her thinness, at the heavy dark circles under her eyes.
She didn't know if they knew about her disappearance. She didn't know if they wondered why her dress sense had suddenly disappeared, or if they noticed her by-now-prominent abdomen under the bagginess of her sweaters — though she supposed they'd have to have been blind not to.
Her stomach had bloomed into a distinct baby-shape. At almost eight months pregnant, she supposed it was to be expected. She was just barely managing to conceal the evidence by schlumping around in a loosely-buttoned gingham shirt of Cl… that she'd found in the closet.
She was… she was pleased, she supposed. She would make a good mother really, wouldn't she? Previous experiences… well, they wouldn't matter. Once the baby came, maternal instinct would take over, and… and… she'd be perfect, she'd darn the socks and bake the cookies and she wouldn't ever drink while her child was around and she'd…
…she'd probably put the diaper on backwards, and if the child started crying she'd surely burst into tears herself… and the day he or she asked who Daddy was… if it looked like him, what would happen if it looked like him?
Martha would understand. She would be sympathetic; she would know what to do. Lois was more worried than she let herself believe, more frightened than she let herself dwell on. Martha was a mother, she had experienced this childbirth lark first-hand. She would know what to do, right? She knew what Lois would need to prepare herself for the baby… she'd know what was right…
But she would also know who the father was.
And awkward question would follow awkward question, and sooner or later, Lois would be telling her the whole story. The whole, long, sordid, sad, twisted, disgusting story. The story of the woman who was too blind to see, too weak to run, too stupid to care, until the unthinkable happened and she had no choice…
…her life as Lois Luthor.
Could she live with that? Could she live with the twist of disgust on Martha's face? Could she live with the harsh words, the gibes, the one-liners? Could she live with the cold knowledge in the other woman's eyes, the knowledge that she had let generations of her ancestors down? That she had sat back, for the first time in her life, and let a man dominate her? That she'd joined the long line of women who accepted violence because it was easier not to fight back? Could she live with that?
No. No, she couldn't. She needed a story. She needed a cover.
She was ashamed, she realised belatedly. She was ashamed of her body, her baby. She was ashamed of what he had done to her.
<And well you should be,> her wife-voice piped up. <Well you should be, running away from the only stable home you ever had, giving up all security, all sanctuary, dooming your child to be born a bastard…>
Was this really her? Was she really thinking those things? What the hell was wrong with her?
Her nails dug into her palms, creating white slivers, pale crescent moons, as she forced herself to remember.
//The dress,// she thought. //Remember the dress? After that charity function? With the fencing lance? What he did? And remember Mrs Cox? And remember the day you called -//
She whimpered aloud, a tortured sound, cutting off the thought in mid-air.
//None of that. No going back. Not now.//
She sank to her knees in the middle of the field, one hand going up to her forehead, as if to hold her brain in place, as if to shake some sense into it.
Suddenly it was too much. She'd wanted to remember, remember the reasons why she'd had to leave, remember the things he'd done, but that last "remember" was too much.
//You have to go back, Lois. No doing things halfway. All or nothing.//
The cape, slashed beyond repair, the glimpse of yellow. Her tears, shining like pearls on the spandex. Her nose, buried into the silky folds, trying desperately to smell any hint of cologne, that musky smell that was him… her hands, bunching the material, rubbing it to her face, hoping that a molecule of him still clung to it…
<Your hero is gone. Don't you see, Lois? He's not coming back. He's left you. They all do, eventually.>
She hiccupped harshly, her eyes spilling over.
<Except me. I never leave. I'll always be with you. You might think you've escaped, but you never will. Not really.>
She was being moved, over rough ground, her head cradled in some sort of hollow. She tried to get her eyes open, but they were leaden weights.
She was obviously in the throes of some kind of whacked-out dream. There was no way this was happening. And that buzz of words over her head… well, she was imagining things. That was all.
Thirty minutes later, Martha Kent leant up against the doorjamb, her eyes scanning the horizon intently, searching for any sign of her son. Her shoulders sagged as her attempts once again came to nothing.
He wasn't there.
A warm hand rested on her shoulder, but she didn't turn. She didn't need to. She could feel his presence behind her, warm and solid, just like always. After thirty odd years of marriage, there were a lot of "just like always's". A lifetime full, in fact.
"He's not there." His voice came, quiet, comforting. She reached up and laid her hand over his.
"I know. I guess I just feel like I have to…"
She fell silent. Another "just like always". They were so well shaped, so accustomed to each other that it was as if their brains were linked. They often finished each other's sentences.
"He just ran out," he said, wondering, "just ran like the wind, when we told him where she'd gone… you'd think, after such a long time separated, that he'd manage a couple more minutes without her, but no…"
If her mind was any less quick, if her heart was any less knowing, she would have been afraid to let him see the thoughts swirling in her brain. As it was, she understood that he already knew. And she knew, as she pieced the next sentence together in her brain, what answer she'd get.
"You don't think he's going to…"
"No." His answer was out before the question was over.
Her hand tightened on his gratefully. "I needed to hear that."
They sat down together, a pair, on the small bench. She fitted into him easily, laying her head on his shoulder, his arm tightening around her waist.
"This is hard," she muttered. "This is so hard. Harder than I'd ever imagined."
"We knew what would come when we took her in," he said, his voice a gruff murmur. "And we both agreed that we wouldn't change anything. That she — they — were more important than any of this."
"Oh, I know. I wouldn't change a thing." A pause. "It's still hard, though."
"Sometimes you just want to…"
"…knock their heads together."
She felt him smile against the top of her head. "I was going to say 'shake some sense into them'."
She shrugged. Couldn't win 'em all.
"Is Lois all right?"
She nodded. "Sleeping naturally."
"I've never seen anything like it. She just fell… just fell there out in the grass, like a big ol' boot knocked her over."
"One of the drawbacks of pregnancy, I suppose."
"Yeah. Think she'd be offended if we -"
"Yes! Let her tell us in her own good time."
"Why would she want to -"
"I don't think you want me to answer that."
His hand tightened at her waist. "I think I already know."
She nodded. Simply. And he stiffened.
"To think," he choked, "that anybody — any *man* — could… could…"
She nodded tightly, feeling his anger echo in the pit of her stomach even as she tried to soothe him. "Remember, now, we don't know the whole story… she wouldn't be comfortable with us knowing, maybe… we can't interfere until we know she wants us to…"
"Do you think she needs to -"
"All she needs is for us to be there for her."
"And we will be." His reply was sure.
"We will be," she agreed. No doubt about that.
The sun was high in the sky. She watched the shadows play tag in front of her.
"Clark doesn't know?"
"He doesn't need to know."
"Not until she tells him."
"If she tells him."
"*When* she tells him."
"When she tells him," he admitted finally. She closed her eyes, anticipating the next question.
"Do you think he'll be able to…"
"I hope so."
"*Do* we know him, Jonathan?"
The arm at her waist fell slack.
"Of course we do," he said, and his voice was astonished. "He's our son. We *raised* him, we live with him -"
"Not for the last year," she reminded him gently.
He shook his head. "Still…"
"Still nothing. Something happened to our boy, Jonathan. He's all in shreds inside."
A long, fearful pause.
"Will he…?" He left the sentence unfinished, and she knew he was afraid. She sighed.
"Right now? I don't know. I think, maybe, if he lets her in, if he lets her see…"
"She could move mountains, that one."
She shook her head against the side of his neck. "Not right now. Right now, she needs to be taken care of."
"And Clark will do whatever is necessary."
"He still loves her?"
"…is the very same Lois that we knew first, in that respect."
She felt him grin. "She'll give him a hard time," he said softly.
She chuckled. "I sure hope so. He does deserve it."
"In the end…"
"They'll be okay," they chorused.
Together, on that bench, they watched the world go by, watched the sky move overhead, watched the ants scurry in the grass below. They were so wrapped up in their own world, in their own soulmate, that they didn't even realise Lois was there until she pointed one shaking finger straight in front of her, at a tiny dot on the horizon, and asked, in a hoarse voice: "Who's that?"
His blood was pounding in his ears. Something was rushing around him with the power of a tidal wave, threatening to sweep him away if he didn't cling to the edge of his sanity as hard as he could with the tips of his fingers.
He sighed, gave up, released the rock of reason and flew away on the buzz of emotion inside him. He wasn't aware of anything but her. He was at least two yards away from her, and yet she was filling his senses. He wasn't Superman, wasn't even close, but he was engulfed in her.
He'd thought she was dead. He'd thought he'd never see her again. He'd thought he had no more chances left. He'd thought his reason for breathing was dead. He'd thought…
"Oh god," he choked finally, the first sentence he'd said to her in sixteen months, and then he was striding towards her, wanting, needing to take her in his arms, to verify her realness, to make sure she wasn't another ghost, that she was there…
His hands were nearly on her shoulders, lingering half a millimetre above the cotton of her shirt, feeling the warmth of her skin there when she jumped back. Puzzled, he looked into her face — her beautiful, *beautiful* face, so familiar and yet so new — and a bolt of sheer agony went through him at the look in her eyes.
Terror. Pure, blind terror.
She was… she was…
…she was *afraid* of him!
<The sun glinted off of the burnished white gold band around the third finger of her left hand. He barely heard her single, stuttered sentence — "I'm married" — …>
Something was gnawing at the inside of his ribcage, he noted with detached surprise.
He'd given up all hope, he'd finally given up on hope, resigned himself to his bleak existence without her, and now she was here, he'd given up on her again and she was still here…
He hadn't wanted this. He hadn't wanted her to be there. Not now. Not now that he'd finally just about come to terms with his loss, come back to the shreds of his life, determined to make a fresh start. The world, his twisted fate, was once again throwing his uselessness in his face. *He'd* wanted to find her, to make her safe…
He'd wanted to be her hero again. It was a job he'd forgotten how to do, but it was heartbreakingly familiar, and he'd been so sure… She wasn't supposed to have saved herself of her own accord, she wasn't meant to be here, she wasn't meant to look so fragile, as if her atoms could drift apart at any second — no! She wasn't supposed to face him, delicate and priceless and beautiful, when his raw heart was still so unprepared for her…
And he certainly wasn't supposed to start hoping. He hadn't done that in an awfully long time. That was a room with no doors. He didn't want to be stuck in hope again. It was too hard. It was all much too hard.
He shook his head hard. This wasn't Lois. This *was not* Lois. This was a mirage. The real Lois, the real, true Lois, wouldn't have recoiled from him like that. She would have stood up and poured a blistering torrent of words over him, outlining each and every reason why he couldn't touch her. And… and…
Lois was dead, he reminded himself harshly. She was gone. It was over. No matter how many times his cruel, cruel brain called up images of her to taunt him with… she was gone. This was… this wasn't real.
It was a mirage, a dream, a fantasy.
Not real. Not now.
It couldn't be.
He stole another glance at her, and his resolve strengthened. It was working. She was fading. This wasn't Lois, this wasn't Lois at all. Lois was capable, strong, a nineties woman in every way. She didn't look as though a gust of wind would blow her away. She was too solid for that. Her face was full and tanned and healthy — not a piece of porcelain that looked as if it could crack at any second.
Lois didn't even *stand* like that. She didn't round her shoulders, she didn't wrap her arms around herself, as if to keep from drifting apart. His memory was obviously faulty. This wasn't Lois. No way was this Lois.
She was a breath of moonlight, a whisper of air, a thread of sunshine that would disintegrate at any moment. She wasn't real.
She had bright hair, he realised belatedly. Unnaturally bright hair. *Blonde* hair. Why would Lois have blonde hair? Lois had dark, lustrous strands, soft as silk, glossy, thick and straight. Another delusion of his mind. That, above all else, convinced him. There was no way it was her. No way at all.
Another trick. Altogether too easy to call up that long-dormant memory, that remembered bell of her voice. He was clearly fraught and overtired and…
He should just walk past her. Right on past.
She wasn't real, right?
She wasn't real, so it couldn't be rude, couldn't be wrong to just sweep by, and then she'd cease to exist, and he'd realise that it really was a fantasy after all…
"Do it," he muttered to himself, through clenched teeth.
He tried, but of course, it didn't work. He was a fully-grown man, strong as an ox, though completely normal — and all it took to stall him was a slim hand brushing quickly against his shoulder. His entire body tingled at the fleeting contact, and he froze.
No fantasy in the world could create that effect in him.
She was real. Dear god, she was real.
Alive. Breathing. Safe.
He made an inarticulate sound, somewhere between a strangled gasp and a yelp, his heart in agony as he looked at her.
His worst nightmare. His favourite dream.
Was it essential to breathe anymore?
Did anything matter, now that she was here?
Didn't everything matter, now that she was safe?
A timid, feminine, long-lost voice was speaking somewhere, asking something, but he couldn't listen — not now. He looked desperately into her face — her beautiful, confused face — and said the very first thing that entered into his head.
"I guess this means more pie." Simple, easy, idiotic, as he wrenched his arm away and walked forward, into the kitchen, where his parents were waiting with all that was familiar and dear.
Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god. No. No. Please. Not him. Not here. Not now. Please.
She'd thought she was over this. She'd thought he was long gone, forgiven, forgotten, finished, done. He'd left the country, for *goodness* sake…
It had been… how many months? To her, it seemed an age away, but maybe he hadn't had the same problem. She was easy to forget — her parents had taught her that. He didn't look very melancholic, anyway, or very lovelorn. Just sad and tired.
She'd thought he was a ghost of her former life that had disintegrated along with the rest of it. She'd thought he was… was…
She'd thought he wouldn't be here, dammit!
But he *was* there. Sitting across the table from her, alive, breathing, sturdy, safe. He was there, he was real, dear god, he was Clark Kent again, reborn, come back to her. Of all the people in the world, she'd never in her wildest dreams imagined she'd run into him. Not even in his own home had she imagined she'd run into him.
//Liar,// her mind berated her silently, but she shushed it, not wanting to recognise the true reason she'd flown to the Kents, not wanting to confront that emotion, it was altogether too hard.
Anyway, point was, he *was* here. And so was she. And *she* was the invader this time, horning in on his home ground, infecting his privacy and ruining his peace. She was the ghost here. Not him. He'd never been a ghost. He was too solid for that.
He was staring at her. In fact, she realised belatedly, he'd been staring at her for quite a time now. What was he thinking? Was he sitting there, silently hating her for stirring up all these memories?
//Cocky, Lois. You were always so cocky.//
She swallowed. For once, her inner voice was speaking the truth. Why would she stir up any memories at all for him? He'd left her, hadn't he? He'd gone away, and he hadn't even looked back. Why would the sight of her elicit sadness or pain or joy or lo — any of that? He didn't feel anything for her. Not any more. He'd made that painfully clear.
<What are you really thinking? Why do you look so frightened? What's he doing to you? Don't lie to me, Lois, please god, I never wanted you to have to lie to me… if there's anything wrong, *please* tell me, I'll help you…>
She swallowed harshly, banishing the memory. That had been a lifetime ago, back when she'd had no choice, back when he'd loved her a little, or thought he did. That didn't mean… that didn't prove anything.
He was still staring at her, and now he was opening his mouth as if to speak.
"Lois," he began, and she shivered to hear that hoarseness in his voice, it had been so long. He cleared his throat, tried again. "Lois… I'm so glad to see you… I've been so worried, you have no idea…"
Oh, the feelings. That he still cared. That he *worried*. She wasn't alone after all, someone still thought of her.
She trembled in terror, fought down the rising tide of feelings. That was *all* wrong! Completely and absolutely! She did… she did stupid things when she felt like that. It wasn't… it wasn't safe.
"Oh, really?" Her tone indicated surprise and carelessness, she hoped and hoped it did. "That was nice of you. No need to, though." She forced a chuckle.
His brow was furrowed, she noted, panicked. He was looking at her like she was sprouting antlers. God, no, no questions, don't let him ask any questions, please…
"So how've you been?" She headed him off at the pass, determined to make this work. "I haven't been paying much attention, I'm afraid — how's the career going? How come you're down from Metropolis?"
She noticed his withdrawal with a wince. Maybe that would register with him, maybe it would hurt him. He couldn't know that she knew exactly when he'd left Metropolis, that she'd known when he started writing for the Independent in London, how she'd printed out every single article and hidden them where she was sure Lex couldn't find them.
How she'd pored over them, those hidden moments, the creased paper, soaking up his familiar style. She'd noticed the change, noticed the deterioration of his excellence. In her madder moments, she liked to think that he missed her, that his writing reflected that. It was a comfort to cradle within her.
He coughed, bringing her back to the present. "I… um… haven't been living in Metropolis."
"Oh?" Her tone spoke of polite curiosity but no real interest.
He nodded, watching her carefully. "Lois…"
"I'm great, thanks," she interrupted. She indicated her stomach. "Preparing, you know…"
To her left, Jonathan choked on a mouthful of tea, but she barely registered the coughing attack that followed. Clark's gaze flickered to her bump, and silently she thanked whatever deity was listening for the unease men felt around pregnant women. Surely he wouldn't ask her any hard questions now.
No, he definitely didn't look up to asking questions, she noted with no small degree of surprise. For the first time, she allowed herself to really look at him. His face was ashen, and the *stubble*… eww! That would definitely have to go. She'd make him get rid of it, she decided, another lapse in sanity.
Some remote distant part of her brain noticed his parents making excuses, leaving, she sent out a thousand thanks to them both, as her eyes kept scanning the planes of his face. His eyes… his eyes were still as comforting and warm and friendly and beautiful and lov — kindly as they'd always been.
At least… they *had* been all of those things, outside — they'd flashed at her, they'd made her think he was somehow glad to see her.
Not for the first time, she cursed herself for her reflexive reaction. His sudden movement had called up too many violent memories, and she'd recoiled automatically, without even thinking about it. She hadn't missed the withdrawal in his eyes. For that hesitance, she hated herself. Why did she always have to suck the joy out of him, couldn't she leave him alone, ever?
She looked at him full in the face, a dangerous venture, and yes, there was a certain degree of iciness in those eyes now. He inclined his head a little sharply, towards her stomach, and suddenly she felt a little ashamed for her brazen attempt at distraction. It wasn't what you'd call a delicate situation, especially considering the baby's father.
//Way to go, Lane,// she applauded silently, hating herself.
"Congratulations." Those eyes were cool now, and distant, but he was still a gentleman. Hurting, but protecting her.
"So tell me," he continued, a certain bite in his tone now, "what's Lois Luthor -" She winced, not quite able to believe the reaction those words drew from her. " — what's Lois Luthor doing in Hicksville? I thought this was the very last place on earth you'd contemplate visiting? What was it, you said… that you'd rather walk naked down Main Street in January than visit my hometown?"
<Really? I'm seeing farmers in overalls discussing hog futures. Let Clark go. I'll stay behind and watch for Superman…>
She winced, then forced a shaky laugh. "Oh, you know… I thought to relax… to get away from it all…"
"You came a thousand miles to a backwater little town to relax? Surely Hawaii would be a more suitable bet for the wife of a billionaire?"
That was twice he'd mentioned her marriage now.
"I… I don't know. I guess… I…"
"What?" His eyes were cool, regarding her, and she had a sudden, petrifying thought — 'He knows.'
"I'm doing a story for LNN," she blurted. Quick and easy. Altogether too easy.
"You don't work at LNN any more." She froze, her muscles locking, screaming at her. "You quit six months after you got -"
"I'm a freelance," she interrupted, terrified, willing that word back down his throat. She couldn't hear that. "I do a few stories occasionally…"
"I haven't seen one from you in months."
Damn. He'd done his homework.
She didn't pause to reflect on that, didn't wonder at how he still knew so much about her.
"Maybe you haven't been looking hard enough," she replied tartly. She had to be rude. She had to push him away. Again.
"Anyway, I'm doing a story. You know — the EPA cleanup, the rock you found? I was looking at the article you wrote recently…" she continued desperately. He was looking to her as if she were some new and repulsive type of fungus.
//Think, dammit! The EPA thing… Jason Trask…//
"That rock," she babbled, "its properties… I'd be interested to know. Superman hasn't been seen in months…"
Clark winced as if she'd kicked him in the teeth.
"A, Superman disappeared over sixteen months ago. B, nobody knows whether the 'rock' was real or a figment of Trask's imagination. C, Superman if finished, gone, dead," he ground out, his eyes sparking.
The cape… the spandex… pearly tears glistening there on the fabric…
"It would be better if you just forgot he ever existed." He was angry. Why was he so angry?
"How do you know?" she challenged.
"I'm a journalist," he responded icily, his eyes boring into hers. "I have sources. I was Superman's friend. I have the facts."
She heard the hidden meaning in there, behind the words. ~*I didn't abandon him. I didn't drive him to his death.*~ He knew, didn't he? He knew it all. Inside her, a flower withered and died. Slowly, she threw the last of her hope away.
"Facts? Care to share?" She tried her hardest to keep her voice light, hoping he wouldn't hear the nervousness.
He folded his arms, leant away from her as if disgusted by her desperation. "Don't think so, Lois. I'll be looking for a job pretty soon. You're the competition."
She swallowed, her heart twisting. "I guess," she muttered, looking down, too quickly to notice the tide of confusion that passed across his face at her meek response.
A long silence reigned. Desperate to break it, she made as if to get up. His eyes flashed fire at her.
"Sit down," he said firmly. She was too weak to stand up to such a display of power — unwillingly, she sat. Again the wave of confusion rushed across his face, again she didn't notice it.
He leaned forward, placed his elbows on the table. "I'll cut the crap if you will," he said, evenly. She recoiled, her mouth opening. Good grief, had Clark Kent just cursed?
"What do you… what… why…"
"I said, I'll cut the crap -" He cursed again! Twice in the space of two seconds! Clark Kent was cursing freely in her presence! "- if you will. Deal?"
She straightened up, lifting her chin, trying to act like someone who had an ounce of self-respect in her body. "I'm not…"
"Yes you are."
She stared at him, enraged. "No I'm -"
"You are." He sighed. "Guess this is gonna take a while."
A long silence reigned cruelly over the kitchen table, but Lois was glad. She feared the moment when the silence would break. She didn't want the silence to break. She was afraid.
"There have been reports," he started at last, speaking very slowly, as if to a child, "of your death on the news."
She started, a bolt of electricity going through her. "There have?"
He nodded grimly, his eyes never leaving her face. "There's also been a search. A pretty conclusive search. Lasting a month, in fact. Thorough. Forensic reports. Top detectives called in. You know, the usual procedure when somebody's missing, presumed dead."
"Oh." She stared at her hands, playing with her wedding rings, squeezing them so the diamond bit into her flesh. God, she hated wearing them — but she had to. To keep up the pretence. "How… how'd that happen?"
"There was a dress."
She faltered. Dammit, this was what she'd wanted to happen, wasn't it? Why was she suddenly so ashamed of her actions? What was wrong with her?
"A dress with blood all over it. Your blood."
She swallowed. "Well, this is obviously a mistake, because I didn't get blood on any dress…"
"Don't lie to me, Lois. There've been so many forensic reports, there's no doubt it was you. I remember the one — it was white. You wore it to see me, one day in the park."
She shook her head, training her gaze firmly downward. "I don't know what you're talking about. There's obviously been a huge mistake. I just needed a vacation, I don't know anything about any dress…"
"You're lying." His tone was scornfully disbelieving, and she swallowed again. Why did she care so much? Why was she caring about what he said, what he did? She thought she'd stopped caring about him months ago, a lifetime ago. She'd tried her hardest to stop caring about him, when he'd left her.
"You faked it, didn't you? You faked your own death."
She injected as much iciness in her voice as she could, dragging her eyes up to meet his with a huge effort. "Don't be ridiculous."
He made another sharp movement, her heart leapt wildly inside her chest but she managed to contain it that time. He rested both elbows on the table and stared at her, a gimlet gaze, and suddenly she felt ridiculously immature, a giddy schoolgirl in the principal's office.
"What other explanation is there? You're suddenly in Smallville, you're pregnant, you're a… a *blonde*," he spat, as if her hair was somehow repulsive to him, "your 'death' has made international news and yet you claim to know nothing about it… what do you expect me to think, Lois? What did he *do* to you? Why are you here?"
"I told you, I'm here to write a story. And you… you're not my husband." She shivered, trying to force some anger into her voice. Dammit, this was hard. "You have no right to do this to me…"
"Do what? Ask you why you're here, stirring up all kinds of hell with my parents and terrifying me three ways from Sunday? I have more of a right to know than anybody else!"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't flatter yourself."
"I'll expose you, Lois," he said, his voice suddenly very quiet, eyes chips of granite. "I'll expose you as a liar, to the world, and you'll be stuck then…"
Suddenly the anger came, flooding all at once, exactly when she needed it. "How dare you? How *dare* you even think you have the right… *any* right… you… you left me, Clark! You left me behind, and you gave up any merit in my eyes when you did so. It's your fault I'm in this mess…"
All the colour drained from his face, and suddenly she realised that she'd said too much. Clamping her mouth shut, she sat deeper in her chair, feeling suddenly sweaty.
"So you did run. You didn't die, you just left him." His voice was smugly satisfied, she wanted to hit him.
"What is this, an interrogation? What, are you gonna start breaking my fingers next?" She flung her hand out for him, fixing him with a glare that would have stopped elephants. "Go right ahead."
It happened in an instant. His hotly furious gaze dropped to her palm, and as one in a daze, she watched as every drop of blood in his face seemed to leach away. She gasped, realising her mistake, and made to withdraw her hand, but he was too quick for her. He grabbed her wrist, forcing her to spread her fingers, his grasp like steel but strangely tender at the same time.
He held her palm up, an exploration from all angles. As if her body was conspiring against her, the blood caught in her hand by his fingers started to throb through her veins, and yet again the wound burst open. It had been opening and re-opening for so long, forever broken by the convulsive movements of her fingers every time she forgot it was there.
She watched his eyes follow the droplets down past the heel of her hand and onto his, unable to read the expression on his face. Eventually he looked up at her, and his eyes were strangely moist.
"Good god, Lois," he croaked hoarsely, and then he up in one quick movement. She watched him bustle around the kitchen in amazement. In an impossibly short amount of time, he was back, with a bowl of lukewarm water, a damp towel and a selection of band-aids.
He didn't say anything to her, just grasped her wrist lightly with his long fingers and stroked the damp cotton across the wound. She winced slightly, the liquid stinging her, and she hoped that he couldn't feel her pulse thrumming wildly under her skin.
She was awed by his peculiar tenderness, but still, when he reached for the cotton padding and band-aids, she withdrew her hand and shook her head. "It needs to bleed, Clark," she said, quietly, and watched him as he nodded. Wondering if he truly appreciated the truth of that. People needed to bleed. Bleeding helped, it reminded you that you were human, that you could feel pain and sadness and overwhelming need. When you weren't allowed to bleed, you forgot things, and forgetting things wasn't healthy.
A long silence stretched out over them, but this one was more… peaceful, somehow. She knew he was surveying her; she let him, sat back and closed her eyes, knowing he saw the marks of her time with Lex. She wanted it to show. She didn't want to be beautiful. She wanted people to look at her and gasp; she hoped she bore the weight of those sixteen months. How could something look so perfect and be so twisted? How could she look like she was still Lois Lane and always be Lois Luthor inside?
"I'm sorry," she whispered finally, when the silence began to weigh too heavily on her. "I'm sorry for yelling." She didn't want to see him, basked in the purpleness in front of her eyes, wouldn't open them, refused to.
"It's just a little difficult, coming back here, seeing you, knowing you know… I didn't want this to happen; that's why I lied…"
It was a dreadful pity her eyes were closed. If she'd flashed a look at him, she would have jumped at the look that passed across his face; puzzlement, faint understanding, and finally, a sense of realisation; he could learn more if he kept his mouth shut.
A big fat tear rolled off the bridge of her nose.
She almost yelped when he slid down next to her, putting an awkward arm around her heaving shoulders, it had been so long.
"Lois… aw, Lois, please don't cry…" Her heart thrilled at the Old Clark Kent in his voice, the friend she'd had once.
"You must think I'm a monster," she hiccupped, wiping her tear- stained cheeks.
"I would never think that," he corrected her gently.
"I didn't want to lie, but I couldn't take you knowing… I thought you *didn't* know… but you do, and now you must think I'm such a deceitful little… I slept with the bastard… put his ring on my finger… and then…"
"Then? Then what?"
He was confused, she was intoxicating him to the point of dizziness, they were so close now. Dimly, he heard her babbling, he knew it was important, he tried to listen.
He could only wonder.
"I was surviving," came the bitter, broken whisper. "I wouldn't let him rule me. I was still *me*, inside. But then… then…"
He froze, she had all his attention now. He wasn't focusing on the cotton-clad skin beneath his arm, he wasn't focusing on the scent of her bright — blonde, she was a blonde, yet another thing he didn't understand about her — hair, her warmth around him, he was apart from all that. "Then… what?" His voice was a hoarse murmur.
"He was right about me. I *am* worthless… scum… the lowest life force there is… Superman is dead," she said, her voice wobbling. "He's dead, and it's all my fault… the cape, Clark…"
<You won't be needing this anymore…>
"Cape?" His mouth was opening, saying stupid things, and he couldn't stop it.
"In our bed, all ripped… and there was *blood*, Clark, so much blood… all over, stuck to the fabric, like nothing I'd ever *seen*…"
He raised a hand to his nose, his cheek, fragments spinning around him.
"I bled…" His voice was a torn whisper, and some tiny part of his brain was infinitely grateful that she was too wrapped up in her own horror to hear it.
Metallic, the taste in his mouth. Dull copper rusting on the steel blade, a broken scream, waking in the pool, in his hair, down his front, drying and cracking on his face…
There was a buzz of words over his head but he didn't hear them properly, so wrapped up in those fleeting memories…
"All my fault…"
Tears. So many tears. Pooling into his eyes. Dribbling down his suit. Tears.
"His eyes, watching me… didn't say a word, just watched me there, alone, crying…"
His throat torn apart by hacking coughs, his mouth filled with dust, the sickly green glow, the pain, the pain.
"You saw Superman die?" His voice, hoarse, growling.
"Worse." She was shaking now, her eyes huge. "Worse."
"You know what happened to Superman?"
She started, her eyes trembling up to look into his, her mouth opening. One hand caught a piece of her hair and twisted.
"You saw it? You know what happened? All of it?"
"What, you want a blow-by-blow account?" she bit savagely, desperately, and he winced.
"I'm not trying to pry," he muttered. "I just…"
"Why are you doing this, Clark?" she cried. "Don't you think I've suffered enough? Want to raise the bar a little, want to remind me of what I've done?"
He recoiled, his mouth opening.
"I'm pregnant!" She nearly screamed it, and he felt the colour drain from his face in one fell swoop. "I'm pregnant, and I'm alone, and I have about twenty dollars to my name, and —" She gulped, her teeth clinking against each other, "— and if Lex catches me, he'll probably kill me, and…"
A cold sweat broke out on his forehead.
He shook his head wildly, banishing the memories. He needed to focus on Lois, Lois possibly needed him, he could help this time.
"I wouldn't let him *touch* you." His voice was very definite, until she turned to look at him, raised her eyes to his, and met his gaze properly for the first time. He very nearly yelped, but managed to sustain it.
Her eyes carried the weight of whatever hell she'd endured for sixteen months. Her eyes were bottomless, reflecting the ocean, though they were a hundred miles away from any sea. Her eyes were so heavy, he was surprised they didn't drop out of her head, surprised she could bear to raise her eyelids. With a shock, he realised that she'd suffered as much, if not more, as he had. It was like an icy hand around his heart.
"You couldn't stop him." Her eyes were so sad. "Not even Superman could stop him."
"I'd find a way." He said it quietly, and in that instant, he knew it was true. Knew he'd go to hell and back for her. Knew that perhaps he already had.
"I can't believe you can sit here with me," she whispered, her eyes huge. "I can't understand how you don't hate me."
Late, his apartment, his razor tears ripping the air around him, her image dancing, soft curves under flimsy blue fabric, his curses, how he wished he'd never known her…
But he hadn't meant that. Never. Never never never.
"I could never hate you, Lois," he said simply, and it was true.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked him, very quietly, and his heart screamed at the trust in those heavy eyes.
"I… I don't know," he said, confused by the question and the answer, confused by the pent-up longing he felt, a longing he couldn't bear to look at too closely for fear it'd engulf him.
She stared at her hands. "I didn't want you to know," she said dully. "I didn't want you to know anything about this. That's why I lied."
"I'm not sure if I want to know either," he said softly, his head spinning. Wasn't that strange? He wasn't sure if he *wanted* her to tell him what had happened. Surely, if he was anyway normal at all, he'd want to fill that empty space, he'd want to know how he'd lost his powers. Surely his… journalistic side, his investigative side would *need* to know what had happened.
Maybe he was better off not knowing. Maybe people didn't *need* to know things like this, things that could potentially hurt them. Maybe that was everybody's problem, they were too caught up in the past, they couldn't move on, snared rabbits in a million traps.
"I don't blame you, Clark… I really want you to know that. I… I don't *blame* you for not wanting to know any of this…"
His head shot up, she was making no sense at all. "What do you mean?"
"He was… he was a friend of yours, and I… I *killed* him, murdered him, it was all my fault…"
Through the roaring in his ears, he made some sense out of her words. She somehow thought he was dead, that she had killed a man, when it was plain she hadn't, when the dead person was sitting right next to her; she just didn't know it.
He should tell her. He should tell her everything, right now.
<If you had no powers at all, if you were just an ordinary man, I would love you just the same…>
He shivered, shook his head, terrified. All these things he'd blocked out were suffocating him, all the things Clark should have felt over sixteen months, all the things Kenneth had suppressed.
Could he take it? Could he take her knowing? Knowing that the hero she'd idolised for so long was only, after all, her partner, her best friend?
//Her *one time* partner, *one time* best friend…//
Could he add another weight to her eyes, another man who disappointed her, another person who was indifferent to her, sometimes? Could he handle her disgust at the betrayal? Could he survive with her knowing what he'd done to her, without even *realising* it?
He looked at her, sitting there, Ocean Eyes, she had been the sum total of his dreams once-upon-a-time. Her blond, dark-rooted hair, her rounded stomach, strange, unfamiliar, scary, precious, beautiful. Could he bear to lose her again? To somebody who didn't even exist anymore? *Could* he bear it, could he stand to have her walk out of his life again, his fault this time, no loss of memory, nothing to hide behind?
This… this Superman thing was redundant. Not important. Right?
But… it was *killing* her. And surely if he still felt so much for her, if he still loved her, her happiness would be the most important factor in this whole problem? Surely her peace of mind should come before all else? Wasn't that exactly what love was; caring about somebody more than you cared about yourself?
No, he had to tell her.
His mind went back to what she'd said, minutes ago. 'I killed him. I murdered him.' But… why would she think that? Why? What had he fed her? What…
That dark space in the back of his brain. Things he didn't remember. He didn't remember how he'd lost his powers. He didn't remember.
Which suggested trauma. Suggested horror. Suggested something being blocked out. Suggested deep and terrible pain, beyond the comprehension of everyone but the person who was feeling it.
Like betrayal. Like… like…
Fed her. Lex Luthor, feeding his wife stuff about Superman. But… but…
What if it had been the other way around?
What if… what if… what if *she'd*… done something? What if she had… helped? In some way? Helped Luthor strip him of his powers?
He took a second to rake through the war zone of his memories, delicately. There were landmines buried here, he knew, and… and…
Lois. Lex. Lois. Lex. Kryptonite, there was Kryptonite in there somewhere.
He… he remembered something… remembered Lois… calling him. Somehow. Calling him there… calling him to… to help. To help. Her.
She'd… said that Luthor was abusing her…
And he'd promised to help, and then… Lex… had Kryptonite with him… and… she… he…
He shook his head wildly, madly. It couldn't have happened. It was impossible. Utterly impossible. It was… was…
But he couldn't shake that image. Of him, hugging a tearful Lois, being so angry that she could have been in pain… of promising to help her in any way he could… of Luthor standing over him with Kryptonite in his hand, threatening him… of Lois's eyes, very very wide in her pale face, staring down at him… not doing anything to help.
And he wouldn't have ventured into that… stinking nest if she hadn't called him.
If she hadn't called him.
Very quickly, his arm shot from around her shoulders and he moved an inch away from her.
Her tearstained face was looking up at him. Her tearstained face, she hadn't been this upset when she'd lured him to his death.
"You killed Superman." He searched her face, looking for signs of confusion, of anger, even. He saw blank submissiveness, timidity even, and nothing else.
She bowed her head. "Yes."
The world whirled around his ears. He was turned to ice, a cold so bitter it burned, he was burning, burning till he thought he'd scream with the sheer pain of it.
And he was up. And he was out. And he was running. Faster than he'd ever thought it was possible to run.
Running. Away. Running away. From the woman he'd loved. From the woman he'd gone to hell for. From the woman he'd come back for.
From the woman who'd betrayed him, coolly, casually, without a second thought, to her husband.
He didn't give a damn what happened to her now.
Packing. That was the only thing she was concentrating on. Shoving as many things as was possible into her backpack. She wasn't focusing on the tears running down her face, on her breath, coming in wild, silent hiccups, or on the hair sticking to her neck. She'd reached that stage of grief when she didn't care how she looked or what she felt or who might see. She was focused on one goal, a task that was diminishing by the second.
All too soon, she was done. Pausing on her rampage, she eyed the backpack, the pitiful contents of which equalled two of Martha Kent's famed pecan pies, encased in Tupperware, an array of maternity clothes she'd picked up two weeks ago in Wichita, a couple of books on childcare, and five hundred dollars, in neat bundles of ten. Her life, bundled into one bag. How easy it was. How terribly depressing.
She leaned back to survey the room, wanting to leave it as pristine as she'd found it, so eventually all proof that she'd ever been there might fade. A glimpse of white caught her eye, and she turned her head sharply, groaning at the array of sodden, wadded-up tissues lining the bedside cabinet.
Trying not to recoil, she gathered them together with some difficulty and dumped them unceremoniously into the wastepaper basket, wishing she could do the same with her sorrow, with the thing inside her that was making her sob so.
Satisfied that she'd done all she could, she knelt — bending at the knees, proud of herself for remembering that rule with pregnancy — to pick up her bag, slung it carelessly over her shoulder, dismayed at how light it was. She paused to run a finger down the immaculate patchwork quilt, smiling as she recollected what a comfort it had been in the cold. She'd knit one herself, she promised idiotically, fiercely, when her own baby came. A little memento from Kansas.
As she made her way out, photographs leapt from every surface, glaringly obvious, but she refused to look, to cave. If she'd stopped, if she'd delayed a second longer, she'd surely have collapsed there on the rug and cried till Judgment Day.
She closed the door, heard the catch snick shut behind her, and stood there in the hallway, trying to control her breathing.
She really hated to leave. She hated to leave this house, where everything was secure and stunk of family unity, of solidarity, where she'd been safe for a while.
Jonathan had hauled Clark out of the middle of the cornfield that afternoon. Barely functioning, he'd made his way to the couch and promptly collapsed onto it, his eyes closing even before his head hit the cushions.
She'd stood there, looking at him. He'd gotten so much thinner, so much less muscular, he was all angles and joints, and there in his glasses and his torn jeans with his hair rumpled he looked about ten years old. A very tall, very forbidding, very moustached ten- year-old, with strains of abhorrence tingeing his face.
He'd still been there when she'd retreated upstairs, to "go to bed"; she assumed he was still there now.
He'd been through a lot. Discovering how much she'd changed, what she'd done to Superman, the many ways she'd deceived them both, had obviously nearly killed him. She just couldn't add another burden to his shoulders, another worry to his face, another hole to his heart. She'd hoped and prayed it would be different, but it wasn't. She would leave him be.
She'd done all this before, she thought bitterly, and then she was running from danger, somebody who would hurt her. She wasn't running from danger now — this should be easier, shouldn't it? Why did it hurt so much more?
She was on the first step of the stairs now, the straps of her backpack clinging sweatily to her shoulders. She threw one glance backward, at the Kents' bedroom, and swallowed hard, realising the enormity of what she was giving up, realising how ungrateful they would think she was.
And then she was descending, down and down into the yawning mouth of the farmhouse, trying to be as quiet as possible. Like what she was — a rat in the night.
She reached the bottom with a thunk and a sigh — lowering the straps of her backpack, she placed it on the ground and picked her way across the wooden floor to the telephone. If she could quietly… dial for the operator and ask her for any taxi service in Smallville… somehow get to Wichita… go on standby…
She halted in her tracks, her thoughts frozen, as a soft but definite snore waved through the air towards her.
Clark on couch. Clark on couch asleep nearby. She'd never see him again.
Clark. She'd never see him again. She'd wanted to save him and now she was never going to see him again.
For an instant, she felt like climbing into a very large hole and pulling it in after her. She was falling through an endless expanse of time and space, totally alone. She was more alone than she'd ever been in her entire life.
The moment passed, and she knew it wasn't true. It wasn't. She wasn't alone now. She had her baby. And… and… she had herself. Or at least… she thought she did.
She would never outrun her ghosts. She'd never have forgiveness, have grace back again. But she could pretend. Once upon a time she'd been a fairly good actress.
<You deserve an Oscar, Mrs Luthor. I must admit, I'm impressed…>
She understood. Of course she did. Who would *want* to be around her with what she'd done?
She'd tried to protect Clark. From the truth. From what had happened. But it hadn't worked — he'd made it very clear, before she'd confirmed it, that he'd had the facts. He'd known, ever before she'd turned up, what she'd done. And she couldn't expect him to accept her, accept her past, present and future. It had been foolish to hope in the first place.
She knew, now… everything that came in contact with her ended up damaged, broken. Including people. Especially people. She couldn't blame him for wanting to get away, once he'd heard her say she'd killed his best friend.
She swallowed, very hard. She'd cried too much already. She had to accept it.
Because of her, a man was dead. She was fully aware of it. She was fully aware that it had been all her fault. But oh…
She bit back a sob from the curve of her throat as another definitively masculine snore smashed her thoughts.
One look. That was all she needed. One look to verify that he was alive, that he was safe, that she hadn't killed Superman for nothing…
And then she was there, standing over him, her breathing very light and quick. His long limbs were sprawled across the couch, a piece of furniture that had once been much too small to contain him, and his mouth was gaping wide open.
He was still wearing his glasses, she noticed dumbly, and without thinking, she reached down and tugged them off, placing them on the nightstand behind her. A small smile tugged the corner of her mouth as she noted his hair, falling over his forehead, and again without thinking her hand stretched and pushed it back for him.
She stood stock-still, glorying in his quiet breathing, in the silkiness of the lock between her fingers. There, on the couch, with the moonlight illuminating his deathly-pale skin, he was at once Clark Kent and something deeper, more tangled.
All the people she'd ever met were contained in neat categories in the filing cabinet of her mind — folders marked Lovers, Friends, Mothers, Sisters, Fathers, Hound Dogs, Gophers, Jerks, Monsters — but somehow, she couldn't slot him away. None of her neatly-formed groupings suited him. He was a little bit of everything.
She was faced, once again, with the enormity of what she was giving up.
God, she wanted to stay…
She shot one more look at Clark, the man she'd sacrificed everything for, and without really knowing why, she leaned forwards and pressed her lips softly to the skin of his forehead.
Then she was through the kitchen and her bag was swinging madly from her wrist and her hand was nearly on the doorknob when she heard a sleep-filled voice that filled her with equal amounts of ecstasy and icy dread.
He was sleeping, the sweetest repose he'd had in months, when he felt her lips graze his forehead. He smiled contentedly, basking in the warm, sweet sensation that flooded through him. God, he loved this dream…
He mumbled something, not very sure of what it was. It wasn't important, the only important thing was that she should stay there, that she should stay touching him.
He cracked his eyes open. He could see her dimly lit shape in the soft twilight of the room, and he smiled dreamily. This felt so real… and so perfect…
A beat, and he was up and over the back on the couch, floating on air — his feet weren't touching the ground, he was sure of it, how easy it was to fly in dreams — and he touched her shoulder, swivelling her around to face him. He looked, and *yes*, her eyes were as big and luminous as ever, her lips as inviting… he put his hand to her chin and applied gentle pressure, pulling her to him…
And… stopped, as something as round and resilient as a soccer ball came directly between them. Befuddled, he looked down, and saw… a bulge. A bulge… that was connected… to Lois.
Lois. Bulging stomach. But that didn't make sense, his dream-Lois was petite, same as she'd been when he'd known her first… what…?
He looked at her — properly this time — and barely managed to bite back a gasp. Wan features… blond hair, dark at the roots… and an unmistakable expression of terror in her eyes.
Everything came flooding back, and he sprang back in horror at what he'd… what he'd almost…
Kissed her! He'd almost kissed her?
Her voice was soft, and he felt fluttering of panic quiver to life inside his chest. Soft! Her voice! Soft her voice when addressing him! When he'd practically assaulted her!
"I'm s-sorry," he stuttered wildly, his tongue a block of wood. "I d-don't know what I was thinking…"
"It's okay." Lois Lane, *not* leaping on him and tearing his spleen out with a spatula? Giving in meekly? What was… huh?
Lois Lane. But… but not. Not Lois Lane anymore.
He swallowed roughly, then jerked his thumb back in the direction of the couch. "How did I get… get…"
Her eyes were lowered now, her lashes casting shadows on her cheeks.
"Jonathan brought you in," and her voice was very quiet.
He remembered… pain. And… and unbearable confusion. He'd… run somewhere? Out in the… grief, what had he been thinking?
<"Oh god, Superman, I never meant for this to happen… Lex, he's completely different, he's hurting me, Superman… I'm scared…>
He nearly yelled on the spot, horribly shaken. The memory had surfaced from the pit of his brain like oil clogging a clear pond.
He looked at her again, now more awake, and noticed — the blotched skin on her face, the way she kept avoiding his eyes, the backpack dangling from her wrist.
"Where are you going?" he blurted out. His voice sounded as foggy and confused as his brain was. His throat constricted further as she mumbled something. Surely she wasn't… wasn't…
"You're not leaving, are you?"
Finally, her eyes landed on his face, somewhere above his left temple. Her skin was translucent in the moonlight…
Moonlight. Dead of night. Sneaking out of his parent's house like a common thief. Him. Sneaking out. She… what?
"I didn't think there was anything else I could do." Her voice was braver now, but he heard the tremor behind it.
He shook his head. "I don't… I don't…"
"You don't what?"
He paused. 'I don't want you to leave' seemed like the most logical response, but… how weak he was, that was so true… she'd *killed* him, she'd betrayed him in so many ways, and he… he still didn't want her to leave…
She was still watching him.
"I don't understand." His voice harder now. He would not let her see how she affected him. He wouldn't.
"Earlier," he began hesitantly, "earlier… I freaked out a little, I guess. I didn't… I wasn't expecting… I didn't mean…"
"Freaked out? Yeah, I'd say you freaked out, all right. Unless running out into the middle of the cornfield to faint is par for the course in London," she said dully, her eyes somewhere to the left of him.
He swallowed. A long, long pause.
"You don't have to leave, Lois."
"Yes I do." Such a small whisper. How he hated her voice, hated that it could be so bravely convincing and so vulnerable at the same time. He hated it. Hated. It.
Distance. He needed distance. "You're welcome to stay here. You should know that. It's not a patch on what you're used to. But if you need us, you know, we're here." His voice seemed to be coming across a great distance.
"I don't know, Clark… I don't think I could stand it…"
"Stand what?" His voice as hard as nails. He watched her flinch in grim satisfaction. Good. Why should he make it easy for her to cut him open?
"I should go back to Metropolis… don't know why I came here in the first place…"
"Why *did* you come here?"
He wanted to know, he realised in bleak surprise. If nothing else, she'd stirred up the long-dormant reporter's instinct in him, and he was desperately curious as to why she'd chosen his parents for sanctuary.
"I came because of you," she said faintly, and a bolt of sheer agony went through him. "I wanted to say… a thousand things. I've wasted so much time, Clark… I thought I could make it better…"
She looked down again, and with the movement of her eyes, a single tear plopped into the bridge of her nose and then off. He swallowed fiercely, battling against every nerve and instinct and sense he had, willing himself not to hug her, not to touch her in any way.
His voice came, like a badly tuned television, flickering from sound to static and back again. "I'm not saying… that it doesn't scare me. What you did to Superman." He drew a long, deep, shuddering breath. "But I still don't understand *why*… and… you're here. And Luthor…"
She jumped at the sound of his name, then darted a glance at him, obviously checking if he'd noticed. He ignored it, ignored the sick feeling it gave him, and carried on.
"…Luthor is in Metropolis. And you're pregnant. And supposedly dead. At the very least, I want an explanation of all this before you go back."
If it was possible to be angry, concerned, determined, afraid and sincere all at once, he'd achieved it. He watched a light flicker on and off uncertainly in her eyes.
"It's not pretty." She said it carefully, watching his every reaction. "I mean it, Clark. I wouldn't think any less of you if you…"
"I want to." He set his jaw, feeling a mixture of relief and trepidation flood through him.
"And you're not going to stop me halfway and tell me you can't take anymore?"
He shook his head vehemently. "Never, Lois, never."
She closed her eyes and swayed towards him. He surveyed her there, marvelling at himself. No matter how thin or heavy she was, no matter if her hair was brown or blonde or pink or blue, no matter whether she was carrying another man's baby or not, to him, she was achingly beautiful.
She was a fool. An idiot. A blithering little idiot with a tissue crumbled damply in her hand, a spineless fool who dissolved into tears when a man smiled at her.
She scowled ferociously as she watched him moving around the kitchen, wishing with all her might that she wasn't here, that he wasn't here, that she hadn't been so sentimental, that she hadn't woken him.
*Why*, in the name of all that was holy, was he doing this? She'd tried to make it easy for him, tried to slip away unnoticed, but still he persisted in looking after her, wanting to talk, of all things, making her coffee in the middle of the night in his parents' house…
He was trying to be the hero, to protect her. No. She couldn't let him. She *had* to leave, for him, for her and for him, and she wasn't changing her mind, wasn't going back. Once she'd told him, she would get up from the table and walk out the door.
She set her chin firmly. It wasn't like this was new to her, she'd driven him away before. This should be a cinch. Child's play.
"Low-fat, decaf, right?"
She started at the sound of his voice, rolling around the familiar words. She closed her eyes for a moment, revelling in the past, the place that phrase belonged to.
"No." Her voice was distant, she thrilled at the distance in her voice, maybe he would treat her a little more badly. After all, she deserved it. "Full-fat, three sugars. Still decaf, though."
She heard him still, she wanted to cry. She knew what he was feeling — the sharp realisation of how far apart they were.
Somehow, the coffee was made, and he was sitting in front of her. His hair was adorably sleep-tousled, his eyes wary and full of some fathomless emotion she couldn't quite name. Her throat constricted as she surveyed him; how safe he was, how lost.
Spooked, she picked up her mug, blowing on her coffee slightly before she took a sip. If he'd put three spoons of sugar into it, it was the bitterest sugar she'd tasted in a while. She looked back up at him, caught the glimmer of a smile on his lips. He gestured towards her, and she fought back the urge to flinch at the sudden movement.
"You always made your coffee too hot," he said, his voice injected with false lightness. "Then you raised hell when it burned your tongue. I'd forgotten that…"
She allowed herself a small smile. "And you always put too much cream into it. You have to make it really hot, otherwise it cools too quickly on your desk -"
"— so that when you go to take a sip two hours later it's lukewarm and not ice-cold. Which of course makes a fundamental difference." The corner of his mouth was quirking up, and she had a moment of fierce joy. Was he… *teasing* her?
A couple of moments passed, and Lois allowed herself to relax slowly. This… this wasn't as bad as she'd thought it might be.
"I suppose you have people to make your coffee for you now," he said idly, his big hands splayed across his mug. "Must be nice, not to have to inconvenience yourself."
She closed her eyes, hearing the rigidity in his voice. "I guess," and it was her time to force lightness now.
She wished he could understand — how helpless you felt, after a while, when you had nothing to do but sit around in an empty house all day. When you had people to cook for you, clean for you, iron for you, make coffee for you, mock you, scorn you, deride you, treat your husband with expressions of pious deference in comparison.
"I guess this place seems a little banal, after what you're used to," he said, gesturing around the empty farmhouse. "You never did relish the prospect of country life."
A gigantic lump formed in her throat, and she blinked rapidly. How could he possibly think that his home was somehow inferior to her husband's? How could he think she wouldn't go down on her knees and thank the skies if there was even the slightest chance that she could stay?
"I forget…" He was speaking again, his voice even more unforgiving, steel shot through with faux casualness. How did he expect her to sit there and talk to him, how could he expect her to function normally when he spoke to her like that? Like he didn't care, like he'd never cared?
"I forget… Is Luthor the second richest man in the world, or the third?"
She looked at him, really looked at him, at the slump in his shoulders, at the defeat and that fathomless *thing* in his eyes, at his moustache. A disguise, a cover-up, or maybe just there because he was too lazy to shave it off.
"Why are you doing this, Clark?"
He ignored her, his eyes suddenly rigid with hostility, and hatred, and more than that, worse than that — a sense of shocked politeness, a sense of inbred courtesy. He wouldn't allow himself to yell at her, to scream at her. He was being polite. Because she was a stranger to him.
"So tell me Lois," he ground out, his teeth flashing at her. "Tell me — what's the third-richest wife in the world doing sitting in a dark room sipping coffee in Kansas with a man she tried to kill twenty months ago?"
He was shaking, suddenly drenched in ice-cold sweat. He couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand doing this, pretending he was all right.
He darted a look at her, at the moonlight bouncing off her bowed — bowed, like a supplicant, like a sinner — blonde head. His every wish and dream and terror and nightmare contained in one small body. What was the difference between dreams and nightmares, anyway. They could each turn upside down and into the other in a split second.
She wasn't going to answer him, she could see that. She wasn't looking at him. Was hardly breathing.
He was *such* an idiot. He'd had a golden opportunity to have her out of his life back there, and he'd thrown it away. Gladly. Willingly. Offering suitable alternatives. Damning himself.
That was how it went, wasn't it? He damned himself for her, resigned himself for her, put up with pain and exile and blankness for her, and in return he got a life spilling over with darkness.
What he should *really* do… what he thought about doing more and more often… was ring Lex. Ring her husband, and tell her where she was. The man must be out of his mind… his pregnant wife, missing in action… and that dress… that horribly bloodied dress…
He shook his head viciously, wondering how he could be so utterly and totally *stupid*. To have the woman he… to have Lois walk back into his life, and then to lose her again. To… *give* her away. It would be crazy, when he'd been waiting the past twenty months to see her again… slowly dying every day that passed, wishing for her… and by some twist of destiny she was back in his arms again and she…
He checked himself abruptly. Back in his arms. No. Not back in his arms. She'd never been in his arms in the first place, so how could she be back in them? And she wasn't back, not really. Not like this. They could never go back, he knew that now.
And he *hadn't* been waiting for her in London. He'd been evaluating the situation, waiting to make himself more secure, working, working, working… he hadn't missed her at all.
He hadn't been waiting for her, no. He couldn't have been. He couldn't have been waiting for the woman who'd destroyed him.
He exhaled sharply, throwing a glance in her direction. She looked decidedly uncomfortable, and well she should be. It wasn't fair that she should sit there, looking endearingly vulnerable, thin around the baby, precious and somehow *his*, it wasn't fair at all.
He wasn't sure what she thought he knew. Heck, he wasn't even sure what *he* knew. The only thing that stuck in his head — painfully clear — was that image of Lois's face floating over him while Luthor's laughter echoed around the bedroom. Looking… what was the word? It was… strange. The expression on her face was… a horrified kind of curiosity, and a strange sense of revulsion… there was fear there as well, he was sure… she'd probably been thinking about what he might do to her if he ever got up…
And then Lex had ordered his henchman to drag him down, down concrete steps and into a place illuminated by the green glow of Kryptonite. The cage, that horribly morbid iron-and-Kryptonite cage…
Caged. Like an animal, like a beast, something sub-human and dangerous.
And Lois hadn't done anything. Hadn't screamed, hadn't tried to stop them. He'd pleaded with her, to help, to help him up and out and away from there, but she hadn't moved. The last time he'd seen her had been there in that bedroom, her arm linked through Luthor's as she watched him being dragged away.
He bit his cheek roughly, cursing himself. Why, oh *why* hadn't he remembered all this sooner? If he'd just stopped to examine his memory a couple of times in London, he might have recalled how he'd lost his powers. And he wouldn't be in this situation now. He'd never have come back for her, no, never ever, not even if he'd known she was missing…
A slight cough to his right caught his attention. She was looking at him, staring at him, probably wondering why he hadn't started talking yet. And yet again, he cursed inwardly.
God, he hated her. So much and so completely that he couldn't ever see an end to it. She was the cruellest woman he'd ever met in his entire life. She had done things to him that were beyond anybody's comprehension, so infinitely painful that he flinched at the mere memory of what he'd felt. And she didn't even *realise* it.
He *should* call Lex. But, god help him, he couldn't — couldn't bear to think of her back with her husband, couldn't bear to think of her with anybody except him. Nobody but him deserved her. Heck, he didn't deserve her himself, but he'd do whatever he could to make her happy…
…and she wasn't his, would never be his, now. She was married, and she was pregnant, and she had betrayed him.
Staring at him. She was still staring at him. And her mouth was gaping open, very wide.
He checked himself suddenly, terrified. What had he said? What had he told her?
A hand to his face revealed that he wasn't wearing his glasses. His heart gave an almighty thud. Oh… god…
"Hold on a minute. What did you say?" Her voice was quaking. With what? Anger? Fear? Confusion? A mixture of all three?
All the fright went out of him. Who *cared*? He didn't *care* anymore.
He shook his head wearily. "It doesn't matter, I just…"
"You said I tried to kill you," she pressed, leaning in. Against his better judgement, he looked up and into her eyes, and almost jumped straight out of his skin. There was an unholy light shining there, and for a second, she looked uncannily like MadDog Lane — the woman he'd known once.
He had a momentary flash of fear at how much he'd revealed, but he shrugged off the sentiment in the same thought. There was nothing further she could do to him. It didn't matter to him whether she knew or not. It didn't make a difference.
"But… but that makes no sense."
What did it matter? It was a thing of the past — he really was plain old Clark Kent now. There was nothing further she could do to him. Nothing further her husband could do to him. Even if Luthor tried to have him killed — well, he was dead already.
"That makes no sense… because I *saved* you. Or at least… I tried to."
He snapped to attention, his heart pounding. "What? When?"
Her gaze bore into him, the sharpest of knives. "I think we're getting wires crossed here. How much, exactly, do you know?"
"I know you betrayed Superman," he said levelly. "I know you called for him, and then did nothing while your husband tortured him with kryptonite and had his goons drag him away. After that… I'm not sure."
Suddenly, MadDog puttered out. He felt a strange triumph at this; he'd known she couldn't hold it up for long. He'd been right about her.
She was swallowing very hard, her eyes bright. Slowly, she nodded.
"Did you try and help him any more after that?" He surveyed her with a detached eye. He had to try to distance himself from the conversation, but he couldn't help feeling — he wanted to know, he needed to know, desperately; it would either kill him once and for all or regenerate him slightly.
"I… didn't know… that he was still… I mean…"
She was starting to babble, her words disjointed, but he knew in a strikingly strange way that every word out of her mouth was the truth. How unreal that was, that he could trust that after so long. He could trust that Lois Lane wouldn't lie to him about anything important. How stupid, when he hadn't trusted her with *anything*.
"He… he… promised me, when I called him, that he wouldn't…"
He lifted an eyebrow at her. "He? Who? Lex or Superman?"
She winced horribly at the sound of her husband's name, and his eyebrow lifted further. She'd done that before, hadn't she? When he'd used Luthor's name, she'd jumped a mile. What was it with her? His name was somehow holy? She couldn't bear to hear it used so casually?
"L-Lex," she said, and he got a kind of perverse pleasure at the obvious effort it had taken her to say that. "He said… when I called… that he just wanted to *talk* to Superman… and then, when he walked into the room with that rock in his hand, and Superman collapsed…"
He swallowed deeply. Hearing her admit that she'd called him at her husband's request hurt deeply, but he had to keep going… he had to understand *why*… what had he done to make her hate him so?
"I… I just froze. I wasn't expecting… I didn't think that… he would *do* that. I guess I was a little naive… I couldn't move… I remember looking down at him, on the carpet… and he was… he was in so much pain, and I… I…"
He remembered too, he thought bitterly. //Oh, Lois…//
But this wasn't the story of the woman he'd built up in his mind. *That* person had known exactly what she was doing when she'd called him. *That* person had stood over him, superior to him, had linked her arm through Lex's as he was dragged out of the room.
He remembered that as he looked at Lois, trying to glue the two together in his mind. How was it that people had such great capacity for change, how could they be one person then suddenly another? Lois was so similar to him — she'd been Lois Lane, he'd been Clark Kent.
And now… she was Lois Luthor, and he was himself — whoever the hell that was.
"But Clark -" Here she leaned towards him, her eyes burning fiercely, "- I did that… I did it because… because Lex was going to kill you, if I didn't. I… I wasn't fully… broken at that stage, but after that… I just couldn't let you die…"
A tremor of electricity went through him, from his head to his toes, and suddenly he was trembling, his hands shaking.
"You… what?" he croaked stupidly.
"I couldn't let him kill you…"
"You betrayed Superman… to save me?" His voice was coming from somewhere very far off, cracked and garbled. He cleared his throat, trying to make it clearer. It was important that he get this right.
"It was a choice." She said it very quietly, blood staining her cheeks. "Between you and him. And… Lex told me that all he wanted was to try something… there was this rock, and Superman reacted — really strongly — to it, and then they dragged him away… Lex told me they'd let him go, and they had, but the rock, it made him vulnerable, and…" Here she broke off and swallowed twice. His head was whirling, faster than he'd ever been able to fly.
"Nobody knows this, Clark," she said quietly. "You've probably seen all those shoddy news reports — asking where Superman was, all those people with their aggrieved sense of betrayal because they have to fend for themselves now, and they'd almost forgotten how — all those news reports, they're so *wrong*. I wanted to scream with it, I wanted so desperately to tell the truth, but he had me there and he would have killed me, Clark…
"Superman… he was vulnerable. And — he was walking along West Avenue, he was in pretty bad shape — and there was this mugging, in a side street… he must have known, what would happen, but he did it anyway… ran in and tried to stop it…"
He tried to say something, but his throat was swollen with confusion and loss and guilt and betrayal and wild, wild hope.
"…and of course, he got stabbed… numerous times… he died from blood loss at LexLabs… they were afraid to give him a transplant, they didn't know what human blood would do to him…
"Nobody ever knew; it was hushed up. His body was taken off to be… well, to be examined. The mugger, the one who did it, he turned up three days later in Hobbs River, and the old lady, she died of a stroke… so there was no proof, and no evidence. Except for a cape… Lex left it in our bed…" She broke off, and shuddered. "It was sick… disgusting… blood stuck to the fabric, like nothing I've ever *seen*…"
"Wait. Wait." He held up his hands, shaking his head frantically. "Stop speaking. Stop. Hold on a minute."
He could sense her confusion, her frustration, her anger even, but right then he didn't care. There was thunder in the room, somewhere around him, anyway, he was amazed that she didn't seem to hear it.
He delved back into his memory, back to that all too vivid image of Lois's face, standing over him. He looked carefully at her in his mind's eye, his eyes suddenly open to every tiny detail of her. The details he'd missed before.
Like the tears on her cheeks. Tears on tears, built up and up and up, layered upon each other, old and new. Dripping down onto his face. Suddenly he could feel them acutely, he could taste their saltiness. How could he have forgotten that?
And her neck, right where her blouse opened. There'd been a dark mark, hadn't there? It hadn't been a shadow, or a smudge, it had been a… a bruise. A series of bruises.
He concentrated on them, that mental snapshot, and yes — they were the right circumference, all the measurements matched up.
The marks of a man's fingers around her neck. That'd been what had convinced him that she was telling the truth in the first place.
His ears suddenly rang with her sobs. <Oh, god, Superman, I'm sorry, please forgive me…> How could he *ever* have forgotten her sobs, as they dragged him out of the room, how could he have passed over them when they were so unbearably full of torture?
<Leave me alone, Kent. I don't ever want to see you or hear from you again. Leave me alone with my husband.>
He winced, his heart drumming beneath his chest, so loudly and forcibly he was sure it would burst. He'd known, that time — all the times — he'd known that everything wasn't as it seemed.
He'd *known*. Known that she wasn't okay, wasn't fine, wasn't having the time of her life in Luthorville. And he'd walked away, regardless of how thoroughly suspicious the whole thing was.
He'd thought, all along, that he was being forced to live with her mistakes. He could now see how wrong he was. It was the other way around, had always been the other way around. Because of him, she'd gone through nightmares and persecution, through never- ending pain and heartbreak — colossal anguish. Because of him.
He'd never been stabbed. He didn't know exactly what had happened, but he sure as heck knew he'd never been stabbed.
<Get him out of my sight, he's no use to me now… he's an ordinary man, no better than the rest of us…>
His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, like a goldfish.
Being let out. Out into the blinding sunshine. Being kicked so that he rolled along the path. Being put in a taxi. Being… an ordinary… man.
Dressed in ordinary-man clothes.
And sent… they'd sent him…
They'd sent him to Clark Kent's apartment.
She sniffed, and he looked up, startled out of his revelations and their implications. She looked absolutely miserable — tiny and defeated. Whitewashed into the background, as she'd been in her marriage.
She'd said, back there, that she'd chosen him. Chosen to save him, chosen him above Superman. But… but if that was the case — why had she driven him away? Suddenly, desperately, he needed to know.
"Lois," he said, urgently, his fingers reaching out and wrapping themselves around one of her wrists, "you said — back there — that you… you saved me, but — if that was the case, why did you push me away? Constantly? You told me never to come near you again, don't you remember?"
She sniffed again, he could see her swallowing.
"Remember that day in the park? The day that you… that you kissed me?" Her voice sounded very muffled, and he could see a pink line edging its way along her cheekbone. He nodded mutely, not trusting himself to speak, not trusting himself not to say something totally dumb, like 'I'll never forget it' or 'The best day of my life' or 'I love you, Lois'.
"Nigel… was watching us," she continued, and he could see her shaking. "That's why I slapped you. I couldn't… I couldn't let Lex think…"
Explanations. So many things cleared up at once. And the months of torture, for nothing. Wouldn't have happened if he'd talked to her, if he'd believed in her.
"And then he did *anyway*, and he began threatening… so I had to try and drive you away… I was obsessed, I did it to everybody, Perry, Jimmy, Lucy, Mom… I had to make you believe me… and then it didn't work, I hurt you for nothing, lied for nothing, and now Superman is dead…"
Dead. Superman. Dead. She thought she'd killed Superman. She was bolstering the blame for killing Superman, when she hadn't at all.
He would ask himself about everything else later, obsess about her choosing him over Superman later. Here was something he could fix for her, straight away.
"You didn't kill Superman," he said, interrupting her. "Superman isn't dead."
She stilled, fixed her dark eyes on him. Her chin was wobbling, and he felt a surge of protectiveness. It was inconceivable that she could be carrying a baby; she was almost a child herself, vulnerable and so easily destroyed.
"You didn't kill Superman," he repeated, reaching forwards and taking her hand. Maybe if he was touching her in some way she wouldn't hate him.
"How do you know?" she whispered, her cheeks drained of all colour.
He took a deep breath, preparing to throw his life away — for her. Just like he'd always thought he had, just like she'd done for him. Strange, that they could sacrifice so much for each other and be so utterly alienated.
"I know, Lois," he said calmly, amazed that his voice wasn't trembling. "I know — because he's sitting in front of you."
"W…what?" she asked, and her voice sounded shaky to her own ears.
"I'm Superman, Lois. Or at least… I was."
Clark Kent was Superman. He wasn't dead. Clark Kent was Superman. He wasn't dead.
Superman wasn't dead. He wasn't. He was *not* dead. He was sitting right in front of her. Superman was Clark Kent. Clark Kent was Superman, and he…
He wasn't dead.
She wasn't responsible for him dying, because he wasn't dead.
Lex hadn't murdered him in the end… because he wasn't dead.
Air seemed to be thundering around her, heavy but light at the same time, and suddenly she was euphoric, tears sliding down her face in joy. He was *not* dead. He was *alive*, and he was… he was…
She shoved that dark creature into the back of her brain. Powers didn't matter. He was *alive*.
He was terrified, she knew; looking at him, she had the strangest feeling that he'd thought she'd be somehow *angry* — that she would be angry at him and his Superman-ness. Angry that he had lied to her for so long and plunged her into months of guilt…
…but hang on a minute.
She *was* angry. Wasn't she? She was! Surely she was! He had lied and he had somehow betrayed her, hadn't he? He had betrayed *them*, by not talking to her… and *god*, he'd let her sit there and beat herself up over causing his death, when he knew full well that wasn't possible… he'd let her suffer…
She *wanted* to be angry. She wanted storms of passion and gales of fury to pour out of her mouth. She wanted a tempest, a sea of rage, wanted enraged words to stab him into submission, wanted to see him crumple in defeat, a shadow of himself, just as she had been.
But somehow, only one sentence came out.
"You're not dead."
Weeks, months of self-torture, and now, now that she knew it had been for nothing, all she could do was state the obvious.
He shook his head very, very slowly, and she felt another avalanche of tears slide down her cheeks.
"Oh god," she choked, and suddenly she was standing and pulling him up and hugging him to her as tightly as she possibly could, around the mound of her stomach.
He was stiff, and she suddenly loosened her grip a little, terrified, but then something seemed to crack. He sagged into her, his arms encircling her, and oh, the feelings, it had been so long.
She buried her head in his neck, let herself relax as best she could and stayed there for minutes, hours, just holding onto him, reassuring herself that he wasn't going to melt away.
"You're a jerk, you know," she mumbled into the side of his neck.
"I know, Lois. Good grief, I know it too well," he groaned wretchedly in response.
"I should hate you."
"Why didn't you just *tell* me, Clark? My god, I thought that you were dead — that *I* had killed you — and I thought that you, Clark, didn't care…"
He pulled back a little, looking down at her. "I didn't know you were there," he said slowly. "I… I didn't remember. Not… not really. It's only starting to come back into focus… and the bits that I remembered — well, they weren't particularly true to what happened." He looked downcast, shamefaced, and she had a moment of glorying lightness — she didn't *care*! She didn't *care* what he had or hadn't remembered, what he'd thought, because it was okay now; he was with her now, and *none* of that mattered!
"And you had no idea whatsoever… of what I'd done…"
He rested his forehead against hers, closed his eyes. "A little… I mean, I dreamt of you so often… bits and pieces only, things that I didn't think made sense…" At this, a tremor went through him and he withdrew a little.
"My god," he said in apparent horror, "I *knew* — deep down — I knew and I left you there — left you to Lex…"
She shook her head. "No. From what you're telling me, you really didn't have any idea at all."
He was growing more agitated — his arms had dropped from her waist and while she watched, he started to pace.
"No — no, that day, after I'd kissed you, the last time you saw me as Clark, I thought you looked different. You sounded less than convincing. I *knew* something was wrong… and still, I left you to that monster… I only cared about myself…"
"Clark, stop this." Her hands on his face, forcing him to look at her. He was allowing her to touch him. In some corner of her mind she felt a giddy joy at that fact. "You couldn't have known. *I* pushed you away. Me. That was my choice, and I did it gladly — because if I hadn't, Lex would have killed you." She giggled, a tad hysterically. "Isn't that ironic — I tried to save you, Clark, by helping Lex hurt you, Superman. Yikes."
He pulled away from her. "But that doesn't work, Lois. He wouldn't have been able to kill me." His voice was strangely muffled. "With the whole invulnerability thing. He didn't know Clark was Superman. If I'd told you Clark was Superman, we wouldn't be in this mess. He wouldn't have been able to kill me."
"He nearly *did*!"
"But that was as Superman. He was trying to kill Superman, not Clark Kent. Before that… I should have done something…"
"There was nothing you *could* do!"
"But I should have tried…"
"How could you have, Clark? Lex had ordered me to drive you away. If you had attempted to see me, you would have made him angry with me. Who knows what might have happened?"
"I could have protected you…"
"And risked revealing your secret? No, Clark, no."
"It wasn't that important -"
"Oh, don't make me laugh."
"It wasn't as important as you."
They were both on their feet, staring at each other. Lois could feel the waves of obstinacy rolling off him, hitting her full in the chest. It took her back, to another place, a busy newsroom — happy, happy days.
"Yes, as important as me." She was definite on that point. "Yes. You were as important to me as I was to you. Haven't we shown each other that? For *goodness* sake, Clark, I decided this. Me. You didn't have a choice."
"I could have stopped it…"
"Tell me *how*, Clark? If you'd started snooping around, Lex would have had us on the next plane to Paris or Australia or Timbuktu, to some impenetrable fortress. You actually did me a favour by accepting it."
"Oh god, Lois. No. How could I have?"
"It could have been worse."
He was staring at her as one demented. "How? You haven't told me what happened to *you* yet, not really. How could it have been worse?"
"He could have killed me. He could have killed my baby."
The blood drained from his face in one fell swoop.
"How — what -"
She shuddered slightly, though there was no breeze, and stared out the window.
"He doesn't know I'm pregnant," she whispered hoarsely. "He probably would have killed us, otherwise — he still can. He was planning to kill me — there was this whole escapade that I'm not going to go into — but I know for certain he was planning to murder me. That's partly why I came here."
She turned to face him, and she could feel the shameful sting of tears in her eyes. She hated that. She really hated that.
"I could have faced anything." She swallowed. "I drove *everybody* away. You, Perry, Lucy, Jimmy. I had to, to keep them safe. And yes, it was hell, and yes, he caused me a great deal of pain, mentally and…" She paused, unsure how to proceed, terrified of plunging him deeper in the sea of his guilt.
"Mentally and…?" he prompted.
"And otherwise," she returned defiantly, not missing his flinch. "But I knew I couldn't let him abuse my child, Clark. No matter what else I stood — not that. Never that."
"If only I hadn't left -"
"Don't. Don't start this."
"No, Clark." She crossed the room and took his chin in her hand, making him look at her.
"I chose this," she told him firmly. "This was my decision. I married him. I have to deal with the consequences. If I hadn't chosen to obey him and drive you away, he would have found a way of killing you. Don't feed me any of that invulnerable crap," she continued as he opened his mouth to protest, "because I'm not buying it. This is the third richest man in the world we're talking about. He would have figured the connection between you and Superman, and he would have murdered you. And I — you — that would have killed me, Clark."
She looked him square in the eye. "I wanted to protect you. So I did. In more ways than you know. You had absolutely no choice in the matter. So quit making it so it's your fault. You don't always have to be the hero."
He shook his head, laughed bitterly. "I was never a hero, Lois."
"Well, you saved me, didn't you?" she asked simply.
"I *left* you -"
He closed his mouth, shook his head helplessly. "How do you do this, Lois?" His voice was a bare murmur. "How do you make everything okay? I'm supposed to be the optimist here…"
She smiled at him. "I learned from the best."
He sighed, his body quivering, and drew her into another deep hug. He was hugging her and she was hugging him and it was okay for them to do so…
"I don't deserve you," she heard mumbled over her hair, but she didn't want to dwell on that. Not right then. It was something to be taken away and treasured in the lonely days ahead.
Yes, he had saved her. He had saved her in more ways than he could ever begin to imagine. Without him, she would still be in Metropolis, still be Lex Luthor's quiet little wifey — she wouldn't even know the difference.
She *should* be furious, but the transgressions of a past life suddenly didn't seem to make a difference. He had been Superman once; she had been MadDog Lane once. She saw how he was hurting, saw how tired and pale he looked, and she ached for him. Try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to add to that pain — couldn't bring herself to rip that wound open again. He'd — they'd — hurt too much already. He'd suffered too much because of her already.
She pulled back slightly and, more daring than she'd thought she remembered how to be, ran a finger over the moustache on his upper lip.
"This was for Europe?"
He nodded, his eyes full of regret. "I even took an alias."
She laughed, a choked sound. "Kenneth Clarkson, I know. Yeah, nobody would have figured that one out."
He dropped his head so his forehead rested against hers. "I wouldn't have won prizes for my originality, I admit." A tiny smile was quirking the corner of his mouth.
"Whereabouts in England did you stay? I mean, besides London."
He stilled. "You knew I was in London? I thought…"
She shook her head. "I knew." She let him digest that for a minute. "But you didn't go there right away, did you?"
"I went to Bromley first — that's in Kent, by the way, thought it was apt, and I wanted to stay away from the big city — but I hot- tailed it out of there when I saw an English replica of Centennial Park…"
She giggled slightly, then sobered, realising what she was doing. "Oh god. Sorry. I don't mean to laugh."
"It's okay, it's a pretty stupid reason… anyway, *then* I moved to London."
She nodded, her head against his shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"Hey. Don't be. I always wanted an excuse to wear a moustache."
She giggled, taking quiet content in his teasing.
"Do you need it anymore?"
He thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I guess not."
"Shave it off."
He leaned backwards, looking down at her. "Huh?"
"It was a disguise, right? A cover."
Slowly, he nodded.
"You don't need a disguise anymore, Clark."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Guess not."
"So shave it off. It doesn't suit you."
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Oh, and you think your opinion matters to me, do you?" Her heart thrilled to hear the old facetious note in his voice. It had been so long…
"No, but I definitely think the fact that people are gonna think a rat crawled onto your face and died there makes a difference to you."
He stared at her for a moment, his eyes wide, and then he threw back his head and roared with laughter. She grinned, watching him enjoy himself.
When his mirth subsided, he took a single curl between his finger and thumb and rubbed it, grinning down at her.
"If I get rid of the moustache, you get rid of the hair."
"What, you have some weird preference to bald women?"
Another pause while he laughed. This felt good, this teasing. This felt… normal.
"Maybe." He grinned. "I could compromise, though. Leave the actual hair, just get rid of the dye."
She pouted up at him. "You don't think I'm a good blonde?"
He pulled a face, and she giggled. "Okay, okay, point taken. No disguises."
He looked thoughtful for a minute. "No disguises — not even a pair of sunglasses?"
"No." Her tone was definite. "No more hiding."
"Okay," he agreed softly. "No more hiding."
"I mean it, Clark." There was a warning note in her voice as she looked up at him.
He nodded. "No hiding. Not now, not ever again."
"Now — how about a fresh cup of coffee? Partner?" The word sounded like an afterthought, and she caught her breath at the bittersweetness of those two syllables.
She linked her arm through his and smiled brilliantly, the gesture belying the weakness in her knees. "Sounds good to me. Partner."
And with that, they waltzed arm in arm to the counter-top, and they made coffee.
~*One Month Later*~
Lois stood still and stared blankly at the plughole, where the dirty yellow water was draining away. She knew that the dye was trickling out of her hair, but still she had the unpleasant feeling that she was getting dirtier in the shower rather than cleaner.
The past month had been wonderful, she admitted as she stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around herself. Once Clark had told his story, the air had been cleared and everything was okay again.
Martha had been especially solicitous. Lois had forgotten what a love like that felt like, what a mother could do, what miracles she could work. She dreamed of being like that someday — being an anchor in an otherwise chaotic world, loving and being loved unconditionally, baking cookies and darning socks and…
…and she had no *example* to go by! Her baby would hate her, as she'd hated her own mother growing up…
She paused in the process of towelling off, her hand drifting down to her eight-month-pregnant stomach, fingers stroking fitfully there, and she thought of how much she loved her child already, how she would fight and fight and never give in just so it would be happy.
She'd been a fool to think that she could give herself up. She couldn't live like a shadow; she couldn't pretend to be less than full of stubbornness and fire and everything that was important to her. She'd been afraid of that; she'd been afraid of what he'd do to her because of it. She'd been afraid to die when she hadn't been living.
A dreamy smile floated across her mouth as she thought of them all, the Kents, how good they'd been, how kind. How Jonathan had fixed the lock on her door before she'd even asked. How Martha was constantly piling fruit and cakes and cornbread and buttermilk on her. And… Clark…
How… how helpful Clark had been. How polite.
How he'd driven her to Wichita just to see a doctor, how he'd held her hand through it, how he'd asked her in complete seriousness whether she wanted him to pretend he was her husband, to save suspicion.
How he'd watched the baby on the little screen, a miracle, a tiny little bundle, how incredible it had been, how the tears had poured down her face. How he'd squeezed her fingers tightly in his own and held her close and made her feel safe and protected. How the doctor had assumed he was the father, how he hadn't contradicted her.
How distant he'd been afterwards. How brusque. How he'd avoided contact with her ever since.
She ached for him, for the loss of his personality, the sheer vibrancy about him that had affected her since the first time she'd met him. He'd been so remote, the past few days, as if his smiles and greetings were something expected of him, purely perfunctory. It was as if suddenly he'd snapped back inside his shell, and no amount of prising would get him back out.
The same old story, she thought bitterly. Clark Kent promised her everything, and then when push came to shove, he didn't deliver.
Turning around, she gasped sharply as she caught sight of her reflection, her train of thought sharply derailed. Swallowing, she fingered a large welt on the top of her right thigh. It wasn't so tender now — in a while it would disappear completely. She traced a pink scar up her side, frowning slightly. In time that would be a silver-white ghost, imperceptible to all senses but touch.
Her fingers trailed lightly over the skin of her abdomen, and she smiled at the eight-months-pregnant mound that had risen there, thinking of the child that was sleeping within. She was no longer thin around her pregnancy, a result of Martha's cooking. The baby was making her insatiably hungry.
Further up, she frowned. Her hair was disgusting — the dye wasn't washing out properly, probably a testament to the store she had bought it at. Dirty-looking brown patches were scattered amongst the blonde like enormous pockmarks. She looked washed-out, pale and sickly.
She was tired of it. She was tired of the wounds, the scars, the red pustule of skin stretched across the palm of her left hand, tired of the doughy texture around her left ring finger where her wedding rings had once clung. She was tired of feeling lonely, of being that person halfway between Lois Lane and Lois Luthor. She wanted herself back.
She wanted *him* back. Just the way it had always been, the two of them, working, thinking, laughing, a partnership.
Sighing, she headed back into the shower. She had to stop aching. She had to pull herself together. With or without Clark Kent.
A few more shampoos should do it.
He was sitting in the kitchen reading the Star when she appeared in the doorway with her hair a mass of brunette shine. It blinded him and formed such an abscess in his heart that he didn't even think of disobeying when she crooked a finger at him, a quizzical frown on her forehead.
That was how he'd come to be standing in the bathroom with the door open, staring at himself in the mirror with a pristine razor in one hand and a can of shaving foam in the other.
"So, how exactly do I do this?"
He heard the dubiousness in his own voice, he could see her looking at him oddly in the bathroom mirror. He gave her a self- deprecating grin. "Hey, I've never done it the old-fashioned way before."
She shook her head. "I guess not."
He caught the uncertainty in her tone, felt a little apprehension grab him. "Look, wait, Dad'll be home in a few minutes…"
"What, and miss the opportunity to see that… that *thing*… reduced to a hairy pile of foam? Not a chance, Kent!"
He laughed freely, in a way he'd almost forgotten. She put both hands on his shoulders, and smiling, he allowed her to steer him around the small room and down onto the closed seat of the toilet. She leant back, surveying his face intently, in a way that made him flush, then ran a warm, damp washcloth over his upper lip.
His hand caught her wrist gently. "Lois, I don't think this is a good idea… let me do it."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Clark, you've been procrastinating about this for a whole month now. For heaven's sake…"
"No, I really will do it this time -"
"You said that the *last* time!"
He fell silent. Yes, he'd said it the last time, and the time before that… somehow he always found himself backing out at the last minute. That blade, near his skin…
"Besides, I can't stand looking at that thing for another second." Her tone had skipped from stern to facetious without losing a beat. "It has to come off, Clark, really."
He nodded. "Okay, okay," and, needing no further encouragement, she came at him brandishing a pair of scissors.
He closed his eyes slightly as she snipped at his upper lip. "Why, exactly, do you have to *cut* it before you shave it off?"
He could feel her leaning back slightly, some foolish part of him cried for the loss of her closeness. "You've really never done this before, have you?" she said, her voice wondering. He shook his head.
She cleared her throat and recommenced. "You have to get rid of the longer hairs first. You don't want to gum up the razor."
"Why *did* you keep it for so long, Clark?" She was so close to him, he could reach out and touch her if he wanted to.
He shrugged. "At first, out of negligence. Like I said, I didn't really know *how* to. By the time I noticed it, I didn't want to look like Clark Kent anymore, so it was… handy."
"You didn't want to look like Clark Kent?"
He didn't want to look like the man she'd rejected, like the man who'd left her behind. He didn't want to *be* Clark Kent.
He couldn't possibly explain. He let his shoulders rise and fall again, an easy movement. "I didn't want anybody to recognise me."
She paused slightly, took a breath.
"Do you want to look like Clark Kent now?"
Did he want to do that? Did he want to go back, to be that person again, the ordinary man who loved her so desperately?
"That's why I'm letting you do this, isn't it?" His voice was very gruff. He cleared his throat.
Her swallow was audible. "I guess."
He looked at her for a second, let his eyes warm on her face.
"Close your mouth, buster."
He shut it obediently, enjoying the sensation of the cool foam against his skin.
"How do *you* know how to do this, anyway?" he asked idly, eyes shut, trying to distract himself. He felt her stiffen next to him — his eyes shot open in one sharp movement. "Lois?"
She said nothing, but her face was like stone. He touched her hand very gently with one finger, watching her relax slightly in relief. He saw her swallow, then she turned away and picked up the razor.
"He didn't have a steady hand after he'd been drinking," she said calmly, and he didn't pursue it any further.
Then she turned, and the light flashed against the blade of the razor in her hand. He swallowed slightly, his eyes stuck to that one spot, the gleam, the sharpness, the…
She'd noticed his involuntary shudder. "You ready?" she asked with a frown, and he nodded. He couldn't help it. He did trust her — after everything, he trusted her.
He kept his eyes open while she worked, watching her face, a half- grin sitting there on his mouth. Her eyes were focused, and he allowed himself to scan her face closely, basking in the glow of her cheek. She looked so much healthier now; this was surely a good sign. A corner of her tongue poked out of her mouth in concentration. He thought it was adorable.
A little later, she leant back. "Now. That's a whole lot better. You almost look normal."
"Praise indeed." She was teasing him, she was standing there, actually teasing him!
Her hand caught his chin, and he allowed her to turn his head from side to side, inspecting her handiwork.
Finally, she smiled, tapped him lightly on his cheek, then turned around and set about washing her hands at the small sink.
He watched her sneakily, his eyes stuck to her hair, glued to it. He hadn't allowed himself to dwell on it before. How sleek it was, how shiny, how much more it suited her like that, just about stretching to the base of her neck. How familiar she now looked. He felt the falling sensation again.
No! No, stop that, that was dangerous, that was *everything* he didn't need! Stop it, Kent, stop it…
He stood up, the towel falling off his shoulders, and moved out of the room, electricity crackling off him. He could feel her staring after him. He could only pray she wouldn't ask…
"Where are you going?"
He mumbled something about having to do work on the farm, his brain screaming at him. Bad situation, get out, abort, evacuate!
Through the hurried confusion in his ears he heard her bark something, and somehow she'd scuttled around him and then she was standing in front of the open door, her arms folded, an expression of sheer outrage on her face.
He took a breath, looked into her eyes, and nearly screamed in terror. There, shining back at him, alive and kicking… Mad Dog Lane.
"Don't do that," she said tightly, a vein pulsing in her forehead. "Don't walk away from me and pretend I'm unimportant, or that you can't hear me speaking to you. We're going to talk, whether you like it or not."
He stared at her with what she could only describe as stunned disgust, before snorting, turning around and stalking to the window, where he looked out at the golden fields as a caged bird looks at the sky.
"What do you want to talk *about*?" His voice was calm, but his body gave him away. From her side view of him, his hands were shaking uncontrollably and his face was tinged with pink.
She gestured in the general direction of the bathroom. "What happened back there? We were doing fine, and suddenly you — you changed."
He was quiet, mutinous, like a small furious boy who'd had his toy train confiscated.
"You've been so distant, this past while," she said, unable to keep the quaver out of her voice. "I don't like it. I didn't expect it to be so…"
"You can't expect me to snap back into being your best friend," he interrupted, his voice bitter, his eyes still staring out the window.
"I don't want that -"
"Yes, you do."
She fell silent for a second, contemplating.
"Okay, maybe I do, but I don't see what's so bad about that."
"You don't have any consideration of me, do you? Did you ever? Have you ever stopped to think, 'Gee, I wonder how Clark feels about me doing this' -" His words were furious, but his voice was still calm, quiet — she looked at him, a stranger with her in the room.
"I know I hurt you…"
"Clark, this hasn't exactly been a bed of roses for me either, you know. I've suffered just as much as you have!"
"Yeah, well, I tried to prevent that, both before and after. But no, Lois, it wasn't good enough, was it? You wouldn't listen to me, your best friend… and now you expect me to roll over and drool when you deign me worthy to spend time with…"
"I've said I was sorry, for Pete's sake." She was growing angry now. "I know I was a fool, before the wedding, but after…"
"After you were *worse*!"
"After I *had* to be worse!"
His jaw clenched. "I didn't need protection, Lois. Your husband hadn't taken my powers at that stage. I needed you to *listen*."
"Stop it! Stop trying to make this entirely my fault -"
"Oh, so I was the guilty one, was I?"
She shook her head, confused. "Stop a minute. Wait…"
"Wait. Yeah. I'm used to it, by now."
She closed her eyes, kneading her temples. She had blocked these faces and these events out for so long, the guilt threatening to overwhelm her, and now it was pouring on top of her — all at once.
<Do you know what can happen, Lois? Would you like me to tell you?>
She shook her head, rebelling against Wife inside her. She wasn't anymore, she wasn't!
"You're judging me," she said slowly, "without knowing all the facts."
He was back to staring out the window. "I know the most important ones."
"You have no idea," she said accusingly. "No idea at all, of what he's capable of."
"I can imagine," he said darkly.
"You *can't*. You didn't live with him for a year and a half."
He was silent; the smallest of victories, and it gave her courage.
"You didn't share a bed with him, didn't lie staring at the ceiling as he raped you, waiting for it to be over. You didn't consider suicide when you figured out you were pregnant with his child." The faintest flicker of emotion passed over his face, like leaves waving against an impassive cliff, and she blundered on recklessly. "You didn't absorb his crap about how you were weak, worthless, undesirable, didn't start to believe it. You didn't drive your family and friends away on purpose so that he wouldn't kill them. You didn't… you never felt responsible for the death of someone, the death you aided and abetted. You never…"
"But I *did*!" he exploded, finally saying something real. "It was my fault, all of this was my fault, every single thing we've suffered. If I had acted differently, if I'd investigated him instead of lying around feeling sorry for myself, if I'd refused to let you go, if I'd never left Borneo…"
"For Pete's sake! I thought we'd been over this already, Clark -"
"We haven't. You have," he said dully. "You've decided I shouldn't feel guilty over you. Whoop-de-doo."
She fell silent, watched him very carefully.
"This — this isn't the real reason," she said slowly, weighing her words. "You're hiding something from me. I know it."
A long pause. She looked at him in desperation — this wasn't supposed to be like this, this wasn't supposed to be happening…
It came low and soft, so much so that at first she thought she'd imagined it. She stared baldly at him.
"Of what?" she asked, exasperated.
"What happens if we go back there, Lois? What happens if we go back to being best friends, sharing everything, laughing and joking and being together -"
"We get happy. I think." Then again, what did she know? She also thought it was simple, and by the way he was shaking his head, it obviously wasn't.
"But what happens then, when you have your baby? You can't hide forever, Lois — what happens when somebody figures out you're alive? What happens when Lex finds out?"
She was silent. She hadn't allowed herself to dwell on tomorrow, pouring all her energy on surviving the here and now.
"What if you leave again?" he whispered. And then he turned to face her. Against her will, she felt a tremor of compassion at the waves of emotion rolling off him. She sighed.
"How did we mess it up so much, Clark? Why does it still hurt so badly?"
"What if you leave?" he said again, more insistently. "What would there be left of me, then? I don't think I could survive you leaving again, Lois, not if I let myself… if I let us…"
"This is completely beside the point, Clark — I'm not planning to leave anytime soon, and I really think you're -"
"What if Lex finds you?" His eyes were huge in his head; he was moving closer to her. "What if he finds you and the baby? What would you do then? What would *I* do then?"
She swallowed. "You'd do what you did before."
"What, run off to London and spend my time trying not to think about you?" His voice was incredulous and spiteful, and she swallowed again. Was that what he'd been doing? Hadn't he been happy?
//You know he wasn't… hadn't been… you know…//
The idea that he hadn't been happy without her was too scary to contemplate, and so she let it slide.
"I haven't thought about what I'm going to do after the baby is born," she said helplessly. "I haven't been able to get past that."
"How long do you think you're gonna be able to hide here, Lois? How are you going to support yourself and your baby? There's no way, not when the whole of America thinks you're dead…"
"I don't have a magic solution, Clark. I don't *know* what we're — what *I'm* going to do. I have no idea…"
"Then I can't help you." His face was closed and stony, looking out at her. "I can't be any more welcoming, or friendly, or attentive than I have been. Don't you see, Lois? If I let myself… if I let myself and you left, again…"
"I think there's a slight difference between me leaving you to marry Lex and me leaving if he discovers where I am -"
"But there's not. Not to me. Either way, I still lose you. Again."
Despite herself, she felt tears welling up in her throat.
"I don't… I can't it's only a matter of time, Clark, before he finds me…"
"Maybe you *want* him to." The bite in his voice. Painful. "Is that what this is about, Lois? Moonlight around here for a while, then toddle off back to your husband… maybe the two of you were planning this all along, how am I supposed to know…"
She could feel the blood leaching from her face. Something in her must have alarmed him, because the animosity drained out of his eyes and he took a hurried step forward.
In very slow motion, she turned, but he had other plans. Two more steps and he was directly behind her — she could feel his presence, very solid at her back. A hand caught her shoulder, turned her around, and suddenly she was being encircled by strong arms and then she was sobbing softly into the hollow at the base of his neck.
"I'm sorry," she heard rumbling over her hair, she thrilled at how tormented he sounded — maybe this meant that he cared about her. Maybe this meant that he regretted what he'd just said. "I'm so sorry… god, Lois, please don't cry… that was cruel, I'm so sorry…"
She felt tears rolling down her neck; she didn't know if they were hers or his.
Keeping her arms around him — she couldn't let him go now, it would have been cruel to expect that of her — she drew back slightly and frowned up into his face. He was Clark again, vulnerable, edges raw, able to feel. Not the starched stranger anymore. How strange his life was, that he could be the polar opposite of himself like that.
"Why did you say that?" she asked, in a half-sob-half-hiccup. Her voice, small and very meek — like a shy kid on her first day of school. "When you know what I've been through, how could you say that…"
His eyes were skittering around her face, and she drew a hurried breath. How they seemed to drink her in — bliss.
He half-coughed, she heard the catch in his throat, swallowed words. He shook his head, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly, goldfish-like.
"I'm sorry… I'm so sorry… I never meant for this to happen… I didn't want this to happen…"
"You didn't want what to happen?"
"I was such a coward," he mumbled, looking at her mouth, her hair, her chin — anywhere but into her eyes, it seemed. She shook her head.
"I'm not following, Clark."
"I promised myself that it would be different, that I wouldn't get too close to you, that I wouldn't hurt you — but it hasn't worked, has it? It hasn't helped a bit. I hurt you so badly, all over again…"
"We've both messed up."
"But I was worse. I was — *I* was worse. You are so much stronger than me. You've always been so much stronger than me."
She shrugged. "Doesn't matter -"
"Yes, it does. It does, Lois."
She watched him struggle in agony. It was hell, seeing him drown, unable to throw a lifejacket at him. He had to save himself this time. She thought of a line from a book she loved — 'you save yourself or remain unsaved'.*
Finally he lifted his head, met her gaze, and his eyes cleared.
"I'm sorry. I won't do it anymore," he said, softly.
Now… now she was getting somewhere with him. "Do what?"
"I won't hurt you. I don't want to hurt you -"
"That's not going to work, Clark." The clouds had cleared from her mind and suddenly she could see exactly what he was doing. He was pushing her away, desperately keeping her at arms length, because he was terrified of hurting her. "You can't try to keep from hurting me. By doing that — by pushing me away, by being polite, by being *fake* — that's hurting me in itself. Please, I just want us to be…"
"To be what?" His voice held a tone of… what? Warning? Hope?
She bit her lip, met his gaze. "I want to go back," she said softly. "I want it to be the way it used to be. Don't you see, Clark, how perfect it would be if…"
"I'm not sure if I can do that, Lois."
"Why not?" She was desperately curious. *What* was preventing him from being her friend again?
He wasn't looking down, wasn't bowing his head.
"I don't know… if I forgive… either of us, yet."
She quirked an eyebrow at him.
"You… you *did* marry him, Lois. Even though I asked you not to -"
"I know, Clark, you've no idea how much I -"
"- both as Clark and as Superman," he carried on, his voice riding determinedly over hers. "And that… that hurts. I can't help it, it does."
She closed her eyes, suddenly remembering… so long ago. How he'd begged, how he'd pleaded with her to see sense. How he'd…
Her eyes snapped open.
How he'd told her he loved her — to stop her marrying Lex.
She met his gaze, blinking. "Clark… do you…"
"I don't," he said. "I don't forgive myself either. Not at all." She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again then examined him, standing in front of her. His arms were still around her, his eyes still looking at her.
If he'd loved her… if he'd loved her, all this time, he wouldn't be able to do this. He wouldn't be able to stomach her, her pushiness, her downright gall. He wouldn't be able to stomach her — she who'd stayed with a monster because it was easier than facing up to her mistakes. He wouldn't be able to stomach her, pregnant with Lex Luthor's child and demanding his friendship back — even though it was her fault she'd lost it in the first place. He'd moved on from that.
He didn't love her anymore. She could see it in him, in every tiny way he was reacting to her. She felt a strange sense of sorrow flood through her.
"I don't — can't — forgive myself for doing what I did to you, what I put us through. If I'd just… Lois, if I'd just trusted you the first day, told you I was Superman… if I hadn't rejected you, that night when you told me you loved me…"
She flinched, awash with guilt and shame and horror at her own stupidity, but he either didn't notice or didn't care.
"…if I'd refused to give up, to give in, if I'd stayed in Metropolis… none of this would be happening right now."
"I wouldn't be pregnant."
He nodded. "Right."
She looked at him. "How do you rationalise that, Clark? How do you make it so it would have been better if I'd gotten out of there months before I did?"
He was staring at her, confusion looming in his eyes. "I thought — " he began.
"Sure, it would have been better in some ways. I wouldn't be so scared now. But… Clark, *you* would have rescued me. And I… I would have lived for the rest of my life, thinking I was foolish and weak and not worthy of your…" She paused, aching, "…friendship."
He was shaking his head. "Lois…"
"I needed to do that — for me. I got out of there, all on my own. And Clark…" She lifted her chin defiantly. "If I could change anything — I wouldn't. I wouldn't change being pregnant now. It's strange, to admit it — but it's very possibly the best thing that's ever happened to me."
He looked at her, his eyes very bright.
"You're incredible, Lois Lane," he said hoarsely, and there was something else about him now, something… indefinable. He looked almost… healed.
"Look who's talking," she said lightly, smiling at him.
His hand came up, and she almost-recoiled. An instant later she felt him cup her cheek in an achingly sweet caress. They stayed like that for a long time, her eyes closed, leaning into his hand, their foreheads touching.
Finally, his voice broke the spell. "You know, we still have to do something about… Lex."
She shivered despite herself, then forced herself to nod. "You're right. When he finds me…"
"*If* he finds you…"
"Don't be naïve, Clark, he's *going* to find me sooner or later — ever hear the phrase 'the best form of defence is offence'? If we're prepared…"
"If he touches you, if he lays a finger on you, I'll kill him… I swear I'll kill him… superpowers or no damned superpowers…"
He was shaking, she realised belatedly, crazily grateful for the tense muscles in his neck, for the pulse thrumming furiously in his temple. She took strange comfort in his fury…
But no, it wasn't right, this wasn't healthy. She had to get him to stop doing this… her hands on his chin, forcing his eyes up and into hers…
"Promise me," she said forcibly, making him jump, "that whatever happens… no matter what he says or what he does… you *won't*."
"Won't what?" He looked endearingly afraid.
"Won't touch him." She was very definite. "Won't harm him. It won't do anybody any good…"
"It'll do you good. It'll do me good. Heck, it'll probably even do *him* good."
"'Always remember others may hate you but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself'."
"A tad hypocritical in my opinion, but true enough. Clark, if you hurt him… if you killed him… you'd never get over it. He would haunt you for the rest of your life…"
He shook his head. "I don't know how you can do this — how you can rationalise his death away. He doesn't deserve any more than…"
"Clark, you're scaring me. Stop this. This is completely wrong for you."
He sighed, bowing his head. "I know. I'm sorry. I just… what he did to you… to us…"
She touched her forehead to his. "There are worse things than death," she whispered. "He'll get what he deserves."
"So if I can't forcibly leap on the guy and strangle him with my bare hands -"
"- kidding, kidding — how, exactly, are we going to get rid of him?"
"I haven't really been thinking about this, but… the guy… the guy that was supposedly Superman."
"Well…" she paused. "He… *he* was stabbed. And he died, he definitely died. So did the mugger and the victim. So… do you think…"
"I've been checking around a little online -"
"Ah, so you *have* been thinking about this -"
"- and there are a couple of agencies in Metropolis… I don't know… do you think maybe Lex could have had something to do with it?"
"I *definitely* think Lex had something to do with it! I'll check with a couple of my sources — I think they're still around, and a few owe me favours…"
"Perry," she said, her eyes glowing, she could feel them glowing. "We could get Perry to help."
He nodded, a smile quirking his mouth as he looked down at her.
"We'll be ready," they chorused.
~*One Week Later*~
Strange things started to happen when you got older. Bones and joints that had once carried you without protest started complaining. Skin sagged and lost its vibrancy, hair turned dull and eyes blurred.
As with everything in life, these physical actions had equal and opposite reactions. Martha Kent knew she was lucky in that she could see this. She wasn't panicked at the thought that the years were slipping away — because she could see the benefits of the years gone past. She could see how everything she'd been through — every single wish and thought and dream and mistake and regret — had shaped her into the person she was.
Wisdom fought for, wisdom earned, paid for with laughter and with tears. Wisdom she dearly wished she could bestow upon her son and honorary daughter.
So many stops and starts. So many problems. So many mornings when she'd woken to find Lois firmly seeded in the kitchen, a mug of cold coffee clasped in her hands, brooding. So many nights when she'd rushed into her son's room to shake him awake, when she'd held him and stroked his sweat-soaked hair, when she'd banished his demons.
Stop and starts, unbearably frustrating — but growing less all the time. She could see the shadows diminishing in both of them. They'd been snarled by a deadly plant, but the roots were withering away and dying off. Sometimes — when Lois's baby made its presence known, the look in Clark's eyes as he watched her elaborate delightfully on the tiny fists and feet that kicked at her womb — she thought maybe there was a chance.
Other times — when they teased each other, when they laughed together, when they comforted each other — she *knew* there was a chance.
Gentle trading back and forth. One more flare of nightmare banished. One more seed of hope sown. A little at a time, taking it slowly, taking care not to overwhelm each other — and constantly reaching a little further, knitting together a little more.
Oh, they were nowhere near being fully healed yet. But… with a couple more weeks… and a bit of patience, of course Clark had that in spades…
She smiled and dabbed the last soapsuds off the cup she was drying. Taking two steps out into the direction of the living room, she froze as…
"Remember the day Metropolis had a power cut two hours before deadline?"
A soft, feminine giggle. "I honestly thought Perry would have a seizure. I was poised to dial 911."
"And Jimmy was terrified. I don't think he'd ever seen him like that."
"Hey, he wasn't the only one, buddy. I seem to recall a certain hack from Nowheresville making some oh-so-concerned comment about how Perry should really watch his blood pressure…"
"And he gave me a thirty minute lecture on how Elvis never talked back to the Colonel…"
The air rang with the sound of their laughter.
Martha swallowed and grinned, retreating back into the kitchen. Let them have their haven, their stolen moments.
The odds were increasing all the time.
~*Two Weeks Later*~
"I don't know how you think we're going to get away with this," she said, watching her fingers twist frenetically around a flier she'd found in the glove compartment. "They're still airing that picture. Somebody's gonna recognise me."
"Nobody will be expecting you to suddenly reappear, heavily pregnant, and on the arm of a handsome young man such as myself," he said with patient light heartedness, his eyes fixed on the road. His eyes behind his glasses. Funny that, he hadn't had them on before. When had he replaced them?
She bit her lip. "You're crazy. What if they *do*?"
He shrugged. "Then we run like hell."
He paused. "Then we run like hell, call Perry, fly to Metropolis, gather all the leads we have and have him down at the station giving prints before he can say Hey That's My Wife."
"Better." She grinned, suddenly feeling somewhat optimistic. He was right; they did have a couple of leads. Nothing concrete yet but that would surely come.
Perry had been a huge help. A wide grin stretched itself across her face as she remembered how her editor's deep voice had rumbled across the phone from Graceland. Clark had put him on conference call — he'd been so happy to hear from Clark, he'd admitted how peaceful and stress-free and coma-inducing he was finding retirement, he'd asked Clark worriedly if he'd heard anything about Lois's disappearance in the time he'd been back.
And then the long pause when she'd announced her presence. A pause in which she'd panicked, wondering if it was too late, wondering if Perry would forgive her, would speak at all.
And then the voice of her surrogate father, thick with tears, asking her if it were really true, if she was really alive. His absolute euphoria when he'd heard how she'd seen the light at last. His anger with her husband for what he'd done. His pride, when he'd heard how they were trying to bring Lex down. Most of all, his understanding — for her reasons in pushing him away, for her huge stupidity, for their calling him instead of meeting him in person; sensitive of the need for them to keep a low profile. And how he'd agreed at once to return to Metropolis and dig around for information about Lex. That had been a definite plus.
"So do you think you're going to get much bigger?" Clark's voice snapped her out of her reverie. She looked at him askance for a few seconds before his euphemistic circle-gestures penetrated her brain.
"Oh!" She glanced down at the mound of her stomach. "After eight months? I'm not sure — I think this is it. I *hope* this is it. If I get any bigger I won't be able to get out of bed in the mornings. You'll have to slide a stick under me and press down."
She paused while he laughed helplessly.
"That conjures up some pretty graphic mental images," he choked helplessly, his shoulders heaving.
She grinned, then continued. "My back is constantly aching. I'm eating like a horse. I've never been so uncomfortable in my life. And I look like a beached whale."
He threw a glance at her, all hilarity suddenly forgotten. "You look beautiful."
He said it matter-of-factly and her brief moment of hope flickered out. He was being a brother, a concerned friend, nothing more.
"Do too. Clark, remember I have a younger sister — I can keep this up all day long."
He sighed. "Remind me, Lois — have I *ever* won an argument with you?"
She watched the road. "Nobody *alive* has ever won an argument with me."
//Except for Lex,// she added silently, she didn't need to voice the words. She knew that he knew, and she knew that he knew that it was unnecessary to add it on. He was so sensitive to her feelings — somehow he understood her need to feel like Mad Dog Lane again.
"Here we are."
She was aware of a couple of things — the car coming to an abrupt halt, the clang of the handbrake as it was pulled up, the hiss of his seatbelt as it was sucked back into the holder — but she stayed seated there, watching the sunlight bounce off the Chevy in front of them.
He must have sensed her uneasiness, because the next thing she knew, a blast of air, hot and dry as the heat of an oven, was slapping against her cheek and she was being helped out of the car.
"Ready to go shopping, Mrs. Clarkson?" he asked cheerily as he folded her hand into the crook of his arm. She smiled weakly, suddenly feeling a whole lot better now that she had his shoulder to lean on.
"Ready when you are, *dear*."
They moved towards the front of the shop. "Wedding ring in place?" he murmured under his breath. She fingered the clasp of cool gold. How different Martha's felt to her own. How much less destructive.
She nodded, "Check," and paused to point at a plastic doll, dressed in a babygro patterned with pink-and-white rabbits, in the shop window.
"Oh, look, sweetheart," she gushed in a piercing falsetto that made passers-by stop and stare. "Wouldn't our son look just adorable in that?"
She could sense him trying to keep a straight face. "He'll be the envy of the nation, darling. The playground will never be the same again."
Their charade over, they moved, still linked, towards the double- doors of the department store.
"Darling?" she murmured under her breath. "Darling? Darling has four-wheel drive and freshwater pearls and goes for weekends in the country with the dogs and the horses."
"My apologies. I'll stick to more suitable endearments next time," he whispered back.
Somehow she'd managed to get all the way inside the door, but there her supply of false bravado ran out. She stopped. Ground her heels into the floor and refused to move. Her heart beating a million times a minute.
"Hey," she heard him whisper concernedly, "you okay?"
She swallowed hard. What was she thinking? Was she really venturing into a busy store with her face still circulating through the evening news? Was she really risking her cover being blown, and all for the sake of getting a couple of romper suits?
"Lois." She knew that he'd figured it out; could tell by the gentle determination in his voice. "This is stuff you *need* for the baby. We can't go back without it."
She kept her eyes on the floor. "Not worth it," she mumbled, feeling the walls spin around her.
The grip on her arm tightened.
"Dammit, Lois, he's already taken so much from you," she heard him murmur fiercely. "Don't let him take this. Come *on*, you're stronger than that, I *know* you are!"
Stronger. Stronger than Lex. She wished she could tell him how wrong he was, but she didn't have the energy.
She shook her head, lifted it up, squared her chin.
"Which one's the baby floor?" she asked in a clear voice. She felt him squeeze her arm reassuringly, and they started walking again.
She was still terrified to the point of freezing up and refusing to go *anywhere*, but… there were no alarms sounding, no buzzers buzzing, no iron bars descending.
She was okay. They were okay. In the busy department store, they looked like any other husband and wife, out to pick the baby's things. No odd looks, no unusual gestures, no whispers.
"I don't know," he said with a frown. "Let's just… get on the escalator and eventually…"
"What *is* it with men and asking for directions?"
"I just don't want to draw attention to ourselves." He steered her over to the moving stairs and to her great annoyance manoeuvred her successfully onto it. They took two steps onto the next floor.
"All I need now is for you to say 'I know exactly where we are'. Male code for 'nobody will ever see us alive again'."
Her shoulder bumped against his. She pushed him a little, annoyed at the lack of reaction. "Earth to Clark! What's wrong?"
"I think we've found it," he said faintly.
She looked around — and gasped.
Avenue after avenue of pink and white and blue. Street after street, an arsenal of cuddly toys. Mile after mile of cots, strollers, mobiles and playpens. And the equipment! Bottles and pacifiers and baby thermometers and baby baths and diapers and bibs and booties and cute little shoes…
"Does this place come with a map?" she asked weakly.
"Can I help you?" a voice chirped from behind them. As a unit they turned, and were assaulted by a blouse that was so ugly Lois was sure she felt the baby squirm inside her. Purple and polka-dotted. Somewhere near the neck a bright orange button screamed that the woman's name was Betty and that she was very pleased to meet them.
Clark cleared his throat, looked down at her nervously. "My wife… my wife and I are expecting," he said with not a little hesitance, and she felt an involuntary shiver run through her. "And… we just… needed to get some… things. Like… diapers and maybe a romper suit or two and…"
Lois saw the light of battle in the other woman's eyes and groaned inwardly. She knew this woman was on commission. She just knew it.
"Of course." The assistant nodded and somehow managed to move them in the general direction of the cash register. Lois had a sudden, striking image; she was the sheepdog and they were the sheep. She hated to do it, but…
"Honey-bun, I'm gonna have a look around by myself for a little while." She smiled at Clark, ignoring the glance of terrified desperation he threw her. "I'll just be a second. Why don't you just stay here with Betty and…"
Droplets of rain hurled themselves against the windshield. Ahead in the distance, forked lightning split the sky. They were halfway between Friend and Smallville, and as Clark Kent looked out at the dismal weather, he felt his spirits drop.
//Bad metaphor for mood,// he said dully to himself. //Perry would have a heart attack. 'What, are we inside a Wordsworth poem here? Get to the *point*…'//
He threw a glance at her sitting in the passenger seat. He was worried; she hadn't said a word since they'd left Wichita.
"You okay?" he asked softly. No answer.
A flash of white in the rear-view mirror caught his eye and he grimaced at the sheer amount of *stuff* loading the back seat. All that for one baby.
//When in an interview, ask your subject questions that relate directly back to what's important to them,// he recited mentally. Journalism 101.
"Are you happy with what you got?" No answer.
//Ask questions you think you'll get a satisfactory answer to.//
"You must really be looking forward to the baby coming, huh?"
//Avoid using statements — the subject may not agree with you.//
"I wouldn't worry about labour, though, my mom says the first… one…" He glanced at her mid-sentence. Big mistake. "…is always… ahm…"
"How would your mom know?" she asked quietly and menacingly. "Have you read the pregnancy books I have? Have you *seen* the diagrams? I know that *in theory* it's supposed to work, but…"
He felt his cheeks flame. Then looked over at her, at her thinly- pursed lips, at her defensive posture.
Clark Kent had never been much of a revolutionary figure. Mild- mannered at best, he tended to blend into the background, although he had been known to argue passionately and at length for subjects he held strong opinions about. Lois Lane had sparked off a deep caring in him, and she sparked it off now.
He pulled over onto the grassy verge. Felt her eyes bore into the side of his face. Didn't care. Did. Not. Care.
"What do you think you're doing?" Her voice like pinpricks of panic working their way under his skin. He swallowed nervously. Okay. Maybe he did care.
"I want to talk to you." He forced his voice to be as calm as possible.
She folded her arms and stared defiantly out at the storm. He took her sullenness in his stride and sat back, unwilling to upset the moment. The rain beat rhythmically against the car, and in the strange, bluish half-light the storm had brought, her face shone like a piece of porcelain. He concentrated on her face, concentrated on the curves and contours, the perfect planes, alive with passion and strength and courage.
He felt the giddy sensation again but this time he didn't fight it, didn't dare fight it. He was the luckiest man in the world- to fall for the same woman twice.
For once in his life, he was letting himself plunge freely, no safety net, no magical powers to catch him. And he was learning how blissful it was, those moments when he could think of nothing else but her and the way she made him feel.
He'd hit the ground sooner or later, but what the hell. This was the closest he'd ever come to completion in his life, these days with her, and he wasn't about to ruin it.
"What do you want to talk about?" Her tight voice brought him back to the present, and he tried his hardest to snap out of his daydream. How heartbreakingly sad that daydreams were all they were, and all they could ever be.
"Why you've zoned out. Why you've stopped talking. Do you know how weird that is, you not talking?" He teased her lightly, trying to get a response.
"The woman in the shop, when I was paying, said she hoped we'd be very happy together," she said flatly. A warm spark jumped to life inside his chest, and he fought to remain calm, impartial.
"Yes. And she said it was as plain as the nose on your face that you adored me. Also, she thought you'd make an excellent father, and she thought me lucky to have a husband like you."
He chose his words carefully. "I guess… I guess that's a good thing, then?"
How could she know. How could she know how he'd unlocked that secret part of his heart, decided to let himself love her again.
//No,// a little voice whispered snidely in the back of his head, //not again. You never really stopped.//
She turned to stare at him, her eyes like two coins sitting on a china plate. "A good thing?" Her voice dead and flat.
"I mean, that she believed us," he explained hurriedly. "Makes us… less prone to suspicion."
"Do you?" Her voice totally without emotion. He could see her struggling to remain calm, in control.
"Do I what, Lois?"
He looked at her for a long moment, then bowed his head. The bottom was coming, he could feel it, he could see the ground beneath him now and his parachute wasn't opening.
"I thought you knew," he said, his voice low. "I thought it didn't matter."
She was back to staring out the windshield. "It matters."
A long, long pause.
"But it doesn't have to, Lois."
She turned back to look at him. He watched carefully, and *yes*, there was something in the pit of her eyes now, something struggling to break through.
"I don't know how you can say that."
"It never mattered before. It doesn't have to now. I'll be your friend, the same as I've always been." He felt a pierce of pain go through him at every word, but he didn't care, couldn't care as long as she stayed with him.
"I don't understand how you can do that."
He watched her very carefully, trying to gauge her reaction, what could he say that would take the pain away from her.
He chose the simple approach. "There are a lot of things I never thought I could do. Loving you was just one of them."
A glistening of tears was appearing now, and still that fathomless emotion straining for release.
"You've done so much for me," she said, her voice croaking. "How could I not love you? How could I not? But Clark, I…"
//Here it comes,// a voice murmured drearily inside him. <I love you… like a brother…>
"It doesn't matter," he said bleakly, watching the hammering rain. "Just forget it; forget what that woman said, forget what I said, forget everything I've ever told you. I've wrecked it, I know there's no chance -"
"- please, Lois, don't tell me you think I'm great, don't tell me you love me like a best friend or like a brother, please don't tell me -"
"I don't deserve you."
He froze like a small animal in the glare of a set of headlights.
"What?" he said, his voice tiny.
"I don't deserve you."
His neck snapped around and he looked at her, stared, goggled. How twisted her logic was. It was the other way around — had always been the other way around.
Her head was bent, her dark hair shrouding her face in shadow, and her eyes were downcast too. Suddenly, desperately, he needed to tell her.
"That's nonsense. *I'm* the one who doesn't deserve *you*," he said, his voice despairing. He could hear his own need, how he despised himself at that moment. With one hand he caught her chin gently, turning her face upward.
"I've failed you — us — in so many ways, Lois. I was constantly pushing you away, then grabbing at you. I should never have left, I should never have given in -"
"Clark, you couldn't have known -"
"But I *did* know." He was very definite. She couldn't take this away for him — this was something he had to face up to. "I *did* know that there was something wrong. You were less than convincing, Lois. I just wanted so badly to hurt you -"
"And you're *entitled* to that -"
"- but I never wanted… this. I never wanted this."
She shook her head. "Clark, this is ridiculous. I can't believe you still feel guilty over that -"
"Not only that." He overrode her, determinedly. "If I'd told you I was Superman — and let's face it, there were thousands of opportunities — none of this would have happened either."
She fell silent for a minute. He watched her. He could see the wheels turning, her eyes clouding over and then becoming clear.
"I'm not going to lie to you," she said at last, "that does sting. It stings that you didn't trust me enough to tell me -"
"- trust had nothing to do with it -"
"- and it stings that you let me go ahead and marry Lex, when you *knew* what a monster he was, and when you *knew* if you told me this properly and not like you were trying to score points, I would listen to you… and if I didn't, I would listen to Superman. But I can understand why you did it, Clark -"
"- that's no excuse!"
"- but for goodness sake, you're only human."
He fell silent.
//But I'm not, Lois. I'm not human.//
How could somebody like him ever have a future with her. She was everything he wasn't. He was an alien. A creature.
<Caged like the animal you are…>
"And a huge chunk of this is my fault, remember." Her tone turned bitter. "I don't understand how you can even stand to be around me, never mind -"
"I can stand it because I *love* you, Lois," he interrupted.
She looked at him, her eyes sad.
"And what about my baby?" she asked quietly. "Can you stand that it's Lex Luthor's child I'm carrying?"
"The offspring of your greatest enemy coming into your house. The man who nearly killed you, the man who took away your powers — his child will be in your house in a couple of weeks."
"You're looking at this through rose-coloured glasses, Clark. Can't you see how easily that could destroy you? Your hatred becoming personified — literally."
How *did* he feel about it?
The son of Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor's son. The son of the man who'd nearly taken everything.
Nearly. Taken. Everything.
How did he feel about that…
Well, it was simple, really, wasn't it?
"Lois, this child is a part of you."
"And equally a part of Lex."
He shook his head. "Your biological parents don't determine the person you'll become. My mom and dad aren't my 'real' mom and dad, and yet they've been the ones who've shaped my personality, not Jor-El and Lara…"
"My birth parents. There was this globe… anyway, I'll tell you later." He drew breath, needing to make this matter, needing her to see it as he saw it.
"Your child, Lois, will be the luckiest girl in the world… because she'll have you as her mother."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "How do you know it's a girl?"
He sighed. "I don't. Work with me, okay?"
She said nothing, and he took this as agreement.
"You have this fire, Lois. You don't see it, maybe you don't feel it, but it's there. You have this quality in you that drives people to become better — to become more than they think they are. Look at what you've done for me. Without you, I would never have been Superman."
He knew this must be another revelation to her, but she was quiet.
"Any child of yours won't have a choice but to become special, to overcome all and any obstacles it's faced with. It's the old nature versus nurture argument — trust me, Lois, nurture wins hands down."
"How can you be so sure?" And there was real fear in her hushed voice, real doubt in her eyes as she turned again to face him.
"Because you're the best there is," he said, quietly.
She shook her head. "I am less than nothing."
"Don't ever say that about the woman I love."
She closed her eyes, shook her head infinitesimally.
"I *love* you, Lois Lane, and I'll do whatever it takes to prove it to you. I've tried to stop… how I've tried to stop. I know you don't feel the same way, and that's okay, but I can't lie to you, I can't *exist* another second without telling you. I realise that this is probably the worst time imaginable to admit it, but I can't hide it any more…"
Tears were pouring out of her eyes, each drop tearing another hole in his heart, but she was relaxed in his embrace and she still hadn't said anything. Hardly able to believe his own daring, he leaned slightly forward and kissed the pearls away, her cheek, the bridge of her nose. No matter what the circumstance, he kissed her as a lover and not a friend, hoping his emotions would bleed through the fleeting contact.
Still she didn't move. Still the rain went on and on and on. Little things that didn't happen — the ground didn't crack open, the earth didn't flip upside down, she didn't push him away.
"Lois." He said her name like a prayer; more sacred than any place of worship he'd ever been to. She swayed towards him a little, her eyes closed.
"Clark," she murmured, "I'm afraid."
How his heart broke. Surely the depth of his love for her would split him in two. He gathered her to him, rocked her gently, nuzzled his cheek against her hair.
"You don't ever, ever have to be afraid of me," he whispered.
"The way I feel when you touch me, Clark… it's…"
He stilled, his chest seized up with choking hope.
A sigh. "I haven't ever felt like that before."
Could she mean… could she possibly mean…
"I don't ever want to lose that feeling, Clark… I don't know what it is, but I don't want to lose it… I don't ever want to lose you…"
"You'll *never* lose me," he promised rashly.
"…but," she continued resolutely, "there are complications this time that there weren't before." Ruefully, she glanced down at her stomach and back up at him again. "And… I really, really need a friend right now, Clark, but I don't know if I could handle another relationship, so soon… and especially not with *us*… if it all went sour… I can't lose you again, Clark."
"You'll never lose me," he repeated, even as he knew what an impossibility it was.
"And… I need to feel like I'm *me* again. Like I'm standing on my own two feet. I can't be a part of somebody else, and I definitely can't belong to somebody else — not any more."
He shook his head. "You would never *belong* to me. You never did. You're too -"
"No, Clark," she interrupted, her voice rising. "I don't mean like… like a possession… like I belonged to Lex. I mean… that if we… if I let myself… if I let us… we *would*. Belong to each other. And I can't handle that -"
He nodded, ignoring the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. "I understand, Lois. I knew, when I told you, that it wouldn't mean anything to you…"
"Oh, but it does!" she protested, looking up at him, and he caught his breath. Her eyes were luminous, hypnotising. "It does, Clark… it means so, so much. And… I just don't know. I have feelings for you. Very strong feelings. But I *am* still a married woman… after Lex… I don't know if I can handle it. I'm not saying you're anything like Lex -" she hurried to clarify in response to his violent flinch, " — but I'm just not ready for anything."
He didn't trust himself to speak, so he just nodded.
"What I'm asking you to do is wait, Clark," she told him shyly. "Until the baby is born… until everything is more… concrete. And until we deal with Lex. When we're both sure… when I feel… more secure…
"So," she continued, still looking at him, more than a little fear in her eyes, "can you do that? Can you wait for me?"
He closed his eyes, swayed forward, and tightened his grasp on her. "I'd wait forever for you, Lois." Truer than anything he'd said for months and months.
"Oh, Clark," she choked, her arms going around his neck in a fierce hug, somehow she managed to hug him fiercely, hampered though she was by the seatbelt and by her stomach. "If I could say more… I would. I would. You… you have to know that."
He nodded his head, not trusting himself to speak. She drew back slightly, though her hands still lingered around his neck — a final point of contact.
"Think we could start driving again?" Her eyes, questing, afraid, her voice quavering, and yet he caught the hint of light- heartedness, the effort on her part. How he loved her.
"Yes, Lois," he said, and then he smiled at her. "We can start driving again."
If he'd been living in a fairytale, in a love story, in a fantasy land, the rain would have stopped and the sun would have suddenly cracked through the clouds, illuminating everything with beauty and hope and love. But it didn't, of course; the wind still howled, the rain still splintered and battered against the roof of the car.
It was okay, though. He'd finally accepted that it was okay. Fairytales were well and fine, but he preferred love to be real. He preferred *life* to be real. Perfect dreams belonged in books; they were insubstantial as dandelion fluff.
And above the clouds, the sun was still shining — even though he couldn't see it.
~*One week later*~
She was washing the dishes when she felt it — the tickle in her lower stomach that quickly moved into a squeezing, pulling cramp, like a giant hand clasping tightly at her.
Calmly, she finished wiping the cup, placed it neatly on the draining board, then evaluated her situation. She was alone in the house; Martha had gone to the town centre to do some shopping, and Clark and Jonathan were out working on the farm somewhere.
A couple of fields away. A truck-ride away.
She'd decided to have her baby at home — not like she'd had a choice, and she'd read enough about the benefits of home-birth to put her mind to rest about the potential dangers — so that wasn't a problem. They'd prepared a room, so that wasn't a problem either. What *was* a problem was her fear of being alone.
One word flashed through her mind — premature.
By… by… she bit her lip, concentrating. By nearly a *month*.
She took a very deep breath. She'd get through it. Somehow.
Clark stilled, his hands freezing from where they'd been mending the fence. His father looked up at him, paused.
"Is everything okay, son?"
He didn't answer for a second, concentrating. There was something pulling at him, something tugging at the pit of his stomach, ever more insistently. He concentrated, as hard as he could, and… and…
He swallowed hard, to cover his disappointment, and smiled weakly at his father.
"Yeah, Dad. Sorry, I guess somebody just walked over my grave."
His father shrugged and nodded, turning his concentration back to the task at hand. He tried to focus, tried to bring his mind back to where it had been. Mending the fence. That was right.
The hammer was almost raised when suddenly he *knew*, with a jolt so huge it nearly lifted him off his feet.
It was happening too quickly. Way too quickly.
Wasn't this bad, wasn't something wrong, there *was* something wrong, wasn't there? It wasn't supposed to happen this quickly, her water had already broken and her contractions were gaining in strength and speed, there was something wrong, something was happening to her baby, what if her baby died? What would she do alone in this farmhouse with everybody thinking she was dead, if her baby died and oh, these things were so painful, she'd never imagined…
Was she at the latent phase or the active phase? She barely knew the difference. It had only been about half an hour…
Again that word; premature. And also; danger.
//Oh, Clark. Help me…//
"Clark, I'm trying, the truck won't start -"
"We've got to get home, Dad. She's hurting. She's in pain. We've *got* to get home; Mom won't be back for a couple of hours -"
"- son, I'm doing my best -"
"- and she's all alone in there. It's not like she can call for help. What if she really gets into trouble? She's never done this before. Somebody should be with her. She's been through enough -"
"- there's something really wrong with this thing, just listen to it, it's sputtering like crazy… I think it's the ignition coil —"
"Dad, this is *not* the time to start playing Let's Pretend We Have A Clue About Cars! Lois needs us, we've *got* to get home -"
With a mighty effort, Jonathan wrenched the key one last time, and the engine died out completely. The two men sat shell-shocked in the cab of the truck for a few seconds, breathing heavily. Then his father spoke, hesitatingly.
"You think that's a bad thing?"
He had to get home. To Lois. Lois was in pain. He felt physically *sick* at the thought of Lois being in pain. He just knew it… he knew it, knew she was scared somewhere alone…
She was shaking, sweating, disbelieving that her body was doing this. All the research she'd done and all the articles she'd read, all the stuff Martha had taken home from her midwifery classes, the pamphlets and leaflets and What To Expect In Labour, none of them were worth a *damn* to her now.
She groaned as another wave gripped her — an anchor taking root in her stomach, spreading into a jagged lotus of pain.
Without his knowledge or permission his legs had launched him straight out of the truck and onto the dusty terrain. He looked at his feet, planted there, firmly, and felt another undulation of panic seize him.
He could sense his father behind him; he thought he might even be calling his name. Couldn't pay attention. Couldn't concentrate on that.
He began to run. Slowly at first, testing himself. Then quicker, and quicker and quicker and quicker, till his legs were a blur underneath him.
He looked down at them — moving too rapidly to be human — and even in the midst of his terror, he had a moment of ferocious clarity and joy.
*This* had been what he'd needed — this cause, more important than his fears and doubts and reservations, more important than his life. This had been what he'd needed to kick-start him.
Ironic, really. It hadn't been his body holding him back. It hadn't been the sun which had failed him. It had been his mind, full of inhibitions, full of nightmare, bursting with the insecurity Lex Luthor had planted there.
And now there was something more vital than that, more vital than anything in his world. And he could do it. When it was necessary enough, he could do it. When it carried this much weight, when it was this essential to him. All he needed was the wild lust to make things better — and the courage to do it.
His heart bursting, he gathered his feet under him, bent his calves, and exploded from the earth in a wild, ecstatic spiral of speed and sound.
Forty-five minutes without him. Forty-five minutes of this, this irrational method of getting a baby out of her. Not for the first time, she mused darkly that whoever came up with *that* had had some really, really big issues.
A gust of cool wind against her hot face. She looked up in wild, disbelieving hope, to face…
An empty room.
It wasn't him. Of course it wasn't him. He wasn't aware that any of this was happening. He didn't know, couldn't know; he was out there in the fields somewhere mending a fence and whistling to himself…
Another gale, this time at her back, and suddenly she was being held against something very strong and very solid.
"Hang on, Lois," his voice was saying croakily, somewhere over her head. She leant back and laughed. It had happened. She was delirious.
Evidently he thought so too.
"Ehrm… when your w… friend is in labour…" she heard in a panicked baritone, "distract her. Rub her back, have… have ice chips or water on hand, support her through her contractions and… sing! Wasn't that what it said? Sing to her…"
Definitely delirious. Raving. Raving mad. Loony.
"Lois… 'if ever I should leave you, it wouldn't be in summer'…"
Oh god. Whiny and rasping and like… like… like a million cats being strangled at once. *High* fever… what would her baby think, coming into the world only to be greeted with a hallucinating mother?
"Ahm… 'don't tell me of stars shining above, if you're in love, show me…'"
Only… only *one* guy she'd ever met sounded that bad. Only one guy.
"'There's a bright golden haze on the meadow'… ehrm… 'the corn is as high as an elephant's eye'… and… ehrm… 'oh what a beautiful mornin', oh what a beautiful day' -"
"Clark!" Her voice was *nearly* as bad as his. Hoarse. Disbelieving. She turned around and managed to clutch at him. "Oh god, you're here, you're here, how did you get home, how did you…"
"Shh, Lois, save your strength, you need to save your energy… 'I'm getting married in the mornin''…"
Okay. This was quickly getting old. She wasn't sure which was more painful — the singing, or the sensation that her lower abdomen was being ripped apart.
"Clark," she began, then gritted her teeth as another contraction began. "Ooh… I really don't -"
"Hush, honey, please, you'll need all this later… ahm… 'do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men'…"
Dimly in the corner of her mind she was aware of a car pulling up in the driveway. That could only mean one thing.
"'Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me…'"
~*Nine hours later*~
Many lives had passed in and out through the rustic old farmhouse. It had been built to last for several generations, and it showed no sign of giving up yet. Passed down along a line of Kent ancestors, it had seen countless things — births and deaths, hope and despair, light and darkness, love and hate. In a way, the shriek of a newborn child as the air of a new world hit it was nothing special to the house. In a way, it got more and more special each time it happened.
Lois Lane was twenty-nine years old. She held a degree in Journalism, several Kerth awards and a penchant for danger. She also, at that moment in time, held her child in her arms for the first time ever.
Yes, it had been uncomfortable. Yes, the pain had been intense. Yes, she had become irrationally bad-tempered near the end. Yes, it had been embarrassing and messy.
But nothing — *nothing* — could have prepared her for the overwhelming cloud of love that had swallowed her at the sight of her son's — Her Son! Hers! — her son's tiny, round, fuzzy, perfect, miraculous head. Her son's too-small-to-believe-it starfish hands. Her son's infinitesimal specks of fingernails. Her son's rotund little belly. Her son's deep blue eyes, that seemed strangely philosophical as they observed his new world. He was a dreamer, she thought, marvelling down at him, asleep on her breast.
And the feeling that she would kill anyone who so much as blew against the cottony fluff that adorned his head — his tiny little perfect round head…
For those few, precious minutes, alone in the room — Martha had said she'd give them some privacy and had shepherded Clark out with her — the world narrowed down to her and her child. For the first and possibly last time in either of their lives, they were co-existing in perfect harmony. In that instant, Lois knew that she could move mountains, cross rivers, endure blistering wind and scorching heat for her baby.
"Knock knock," a familiar voice said from the door and she turned her head sharply. Clark. She tensed as he crossed the floor, pulled up a chair and sat down beside her — them. He levelled his gaze not at her, but at her son. Her Son!
Here was the situation she'd been dreading, the stage she'd shrunk from. Would Clark Kent, farmer, writer, ex-superhero and all-round decent guy, be able to handle this? The son of Lex Luthor in his house? Would he hate her baby? Would he hate *her*?
He'd reassured her time and time again about this, but still the seeds of niggling doubt were there in her stomach. She'd let it go. She hadn't addressed it again. She'd shrunk from the issue.
Shrinking. Shrinking from the state of affairs. She had shrunk from it before, tiptoeing around it, afraid to drive him away. No such pleasantries now. If Clark Kent didn't instantly agree that her son was the most perfect child ever to grace the planet, so help her, childbirth or no childbirth, she would rend him limb from limb. Lois Lane was ready to do battle.
She turned again. And looked at him. Followed his gaze, which was angled away from her and directly onto the head of her sleeping baby. And caught her breath.
The sheer *awe* in his eyes… the sense of wonderment as he took her son's — *her son's* — tiny hand and inspected it from all angles… the incredible astonishment as he finally looked at her…
"I never thought it would be like that," he whispered. She was struck by the sense of reverence in his tone.
"Like what?" She couldn't help but whisper back. It seemed somehow respectful. In a strange way.
"So… so… incredible."
"Incredible." She raised an eyebrow at him. "You thought *that* was incredible."
He grinned at her, she nearly squealed aloud at the adoration in that grin. "What is it every first-time father is meant to say… 'it's the miracle of new life'."
She froze. He froze. She could see the panic in his eyes.
First-time father. Funny, that was how she saw him too.
Funny. Dangerous. Very, very foolish.
Change the subject. Quickly.
"Well, the next time *I'll* support *your* back and sing *you* songs from every musical I've ever seen and you can push the baby out of you. How's that?"
A blush highlighted his cheeks. "I'm sorry. I know I was really bad."
"There was no need for you to thump me so hard, though."
"Sorry." Her tone was completely without remorse.
"It's just I panicked… when I knew you were here alone, and in labour."
"You still haven't explained that one to me," she said, shifting the weight of her baby — her baby! — so she could brush her hair back from her face.
He was concentrating very hard on her baby — she'd really have to pick a name for him soon — her baby's head.
"Explained what?" His posture betrayed the light casualness of his voice; he was sitting on the edge of his seat and his hands were trembling.
"How you knew. And how you managed to get back so quickly. Your dad arrived much later."
He was still gazing at the floor as if the most spectacular show on Earth was being performed down there.
"Dunno. I kind of felt it," he muttered.
Felt it. Felt… felt it.
"Felt what?" she asked faintly.
"That you were in trouble." His voice was very low. "In danger. Hurting. And… and…"
All the puff went out of her. She could only marvel. He had *felt* that? He had felt her pain, her distress? He had… had…
"Oh," she said weakly. "I… I… oh."
Had anybody ever loved her as much as this man did?
Would she ever love this man as much as he loved her?
Could she dare to try?
"Lois," he murmured, and she looked up at him, startled. "I… when I thought you were… I…"
"Yes?" Very gently now. The weight of her realisations bearing upon her.
She jerked, her eyes opening wide. "You did?"
Uncertainly, he nodded.
"Oh…" she said, about to burst into a rhapsody of glee, and then pausing as she took in his complete lack of excitement. "That's… good?"
He shrugged, his expression suddenly slightly mutinous. "I guess. If they're back for good. They mightn't be, you know." His voice was flat. How was this possible? Wasn't this everything he'd ever wanted?
She ignored the second part of his sentence, the tired cynicism that sat so uneasily on him. "Clark, you were born to be this — to be *you*."
"I'm *afraid* to be me, Lois!"
"The last time I did this I got hurt." Staring at his hands now. "And you got hurt because of me. And then thousands of people suffered… all the people, sixteen months *full* of people I could have saved…"
"Rubbish, Clark," she said. Wanting to repay him in some small way for the gifts he'd given her. "The last time you did this *Lex* hurt you. And he hurt me. And you would have saved all those people if he hadn't. It's not your fault. It's his. And with the stuff we have against him, he won't be a problem for much longer. All we have to do is find the proof."
He looked up at her. "And Superman?"
"Oh, no." She pointed at him, shaking her head. "There's only so much I can do. You'll have to work that one out all on your own."
A smile quirked the corner of his lip. She felt herself smile back, felt the smile grow big beyond control, and mentally took a step back.
"I've been wondering what I should call him," she said idly, yanking her attention back to her child.
He was looking at her askance. "Haven't you been thinking about it all along?"
She shrugged. "I guess I thought it would kind of jinx it. Plus I didn't know if it was a boy or a girl."
"Guess I can understand that."
She looked back at him, raised an eyebrow. "So, tell me, Clark…"
"No!" He held his hands up to her. "To quote you — work that one out yourself. I'm not holding responsibility for your baby's identity."
She rolled her eyes expressively. "Chicken."
"And proud of it!"
She smiled at him, then looked back down. "I was thinking of maybe something beginning with an 'L' to suit 'Lane', but… I don't know. He doesn't look like a Laurence or a Louis or a Lloyd, does he?"
//No… not those initials… never…//
"Definitely not," he agreed. Then, at her look, defensively; "Hey, I never said I wouldn't *help*."
"I kind of want it to mean something — his name, I mean. And it has to sound good. You know," she said, looking at him from under her eyelashes, "I thought about calling him 'Kenneth' for a while."
He looked surprised and… touched? She hoped so. "You did?"
"Yeah. Don't think it would work, though."
Sounding discomfited, he asked, "Why not?"
//Because I'm not saddling my child with a name like 'Kenneth Kent'…//
She closed her eyes and gave herself a mental slap. Thoughts like that were too scary to even contemplate. And they were ridiculous. Totally and utterly ridiculous.
"Oh, I don't know." She laughed nervously. Why was she doing this? "Guess it didn't sound right."
He was watching her. "I guess." His voice, very sad. She wanted to hug him.
She cleared her throat, trying to dispel the strange atmosphere in the room. Then glanced down at her son again. Entranced, she watched as his eyes blinked sleepily open. Startlingly blue. But all babies' eyes were blue at first, she remembered. They usually changed. His probably would. Every person she knew in her family had brown eyes, and Lex… Lex had brown eyes too.
"Heeeeyy," she crooned softly as her baby stirred restlessly. She closed her eyes and kissed the top of his wispy blond head. Hair like feathers, or cotton wool.
"Look at that," she heard Clark breathe next to her, and opened her eyes. One of his strong fingers was clasped in her son's tiny, tiny, tiny fist. His face held an expression of startled, powerful tenderness and not a little adoration. She opened her mouth to tell him babies grasped fingers instinctively, but thought the better of it when faced with the light in his eyes.
Light in his eyes. And… and hope. Concern also — for her and for her child, and a sense of all-round good spirits…
She heard Martha's step in the door. Looked up at the woman who'd helped her in so many ways, who'd loved her like a mother — oh, she'd never understood that phrase until now, with her child in her arms. Looked at Jonathan, coming to stand beside her. More grandparents to her child already than her own parents were.
This was his link to the world, his family. These were the people who would love him and watch him grow. No matter what, that was true. And he should be reminded of that every day — through the bad spells, through the nightmares, through the cruel reports on Lex Luthor's son. He should be able to think of his name and smile because it reminded him of home.
Smiling, she adjusted her son, being careful to support his head, and presented him to his surrogate family.
"Martha, Jonathan, Clark," she said in a strong voice, "meet Jon. Jon Kenneth K…" She nearly swallowed her tongue. "…Lane. Jon Kenneth Lane."
The newly-christened Jon squeaked, and the gathering dissolved into laughter.
And Lois thought they would stay like that forever.
The sun was low set that summer evening, a scorching orange coin against the majestic purple of the distant mountains. Little breaths of wind puffed grains of wheat here and there and buffeted teasingly against his face. His work was nearly over. He was seated high on the tractor, his eyes clear and focused as he rounded up his day.
You would never have guessed that he was anything other than a farmer out doing his job. But if you had looked beneath the surface, you would have seen the hot heady joy bubbling swiftly through each and every one of his veins. The undercurrent of contentment flowing smoothly under that. The channel bringing thick clogging happiness to every cell of his body.
You would have seen his brain sparking, practically short- circuiting at the waves of elation passing through them. And you would have seen his heartbeat increasing slightly — ever so slightly — as he turned a warm and affectionate eye back at the farmhouse.
Where Lois sat playing with Jon, talking to him, cooing at him, playing round-and-round-the-garden on his tiny little palm, feeding him, changing him…
Clark Kent sighed happily. Life was perfect.
Lois Lane hummed as she moved through the small farmhouse to where Jon's bottle was being warmed on that handy-dandy little machine, her son gurgling on her hip. It was nearly time for his last feeding — she smiled to herself, thrilling that she knew that.
She knew that… just like she knew not to wake him up while he was napping… and knew to feed him at the same times every day… and knew not to hold him upright with his stomach full, though she'd learned that one from experience… and she knew not to leave him unattended, not even for a second. She didn't understand where she'd picked it all up, though she assumed some of it was just common sense; she'd never really seen herself as the sort of mother who left her child behind on buses, though the thought *had* crossed her mind a couple of times.
It was as if she had a pile of resources which she'd never realised, and now she truly needed them, they were coming into play. Such a load off her mind.
And oh, how she loved him. In the two weeks since he'd existed, he'd *grown* so much, and he'd gained a tiny little personality, all of his own. Sometimes she wanted to pick him up and squeeze him so tightly she actually feared for his safety, and it was only extreme strength of will that let her leave him sleeping at intervals during the day and at night.
She'd read so much and heard so much about sleepless nights and crying babies, but hers seemed to be an exception. It was as if she was somehow being rewarded for the hell she'd suffered through her pregnancy with the best child on the planet — he was already sleeping through the night, and he was pacified easily.
His eyes gazed up into her face as she fed him, and she smiled widely at him, thrilling in the knowledge that he was actually *focusing* on her — that he could see exactly from her arms to her face.
He cooed as she put the bottle down, and waved one of his fat little arms at her. She took his hand, marvelling at its delicateness, then brought it to her mouth and kissed it. How could she ever have considered not having this baby, this wonderful little child, this boy who would grow tall and strong till eventually he eclipsed her.
A noise behind her startled her and she looked around. Martha was standing in the jam of the doorway, smiling at them both.
"Honey, you look like an oil painting," she said softly, and Lois grinned.
She moved towards them both, her eyes fixed on Jon. Adoringly. Lois wondered how her son could ever be lonely, or scared, or miserable, when so many people loved him already — loved this little bundle of hands and feet and sweet baby smells.
Martha sat down beside them, and Lois settled Jon in her arms — felt a sharp spear of gratitude and affection from the older woman. She engaged in a few minutes of nonsensical baby-chatter. Apparently the cutest guy in the world wasn't, as you would expect, Brad Pitt or Antonio Banderas — nope, he was Jon Lane.
Lane. Jon Lane. She grimaced at the name — flawed in the eyes on the law. She really would have to do something about Lex, but she — they — were too happy and contented to stir that up right then.
She felt a twinge of annoyance at their procrastination. They were forgetting that they were still directly under the guillotine's blade, in the path of a raging bull. It wasn't over yet — not by a long shot.
As well as the selfish reasons she had for not exposing her husband right away, she was fearful of what the media would do to her son — her angelic little baby, already becoming sleepy in Martha's motherly arms. How could he survive, growing up in the limelight like that, Lex Luthor's son? How could he cope with the attention, the hatred? For hatred it *would* be — after Lex's many crimes surfaced, all the people he had killed, all the families he had destroyed…
But he was *her* son, too.
"This is strange." Martha's voice broke through the worried frazzle in her brain, and she tuned back in.
"What?" She was curious, and even a little indignant — there was *nothing* strange about her child!
"He looks just like Clark did when he was a baby." Martha didn't seem to see anything disturbing about that — she was smiling into Jon's eyes.
Lois found it disturbing. She found it very disturbing indeed.
"He does?" she said, then cringed at the croakiness in her voice. "Oh."
"Clark was so tiny when we took him from the spaceship. So vulnerable. It made me wonder what kind of person could have sent their child into space like that."
Lois nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
"Then later… when the globe lit up, when we learned who he was and where he'd come from… we could see how hard it must have been for them. His birth parents, I mean. Sending their kid away, to save his life."
"I guess some parents are the same the world over." She stole a glance at Jon — who was, she noticed in delight, yawning widely. "If *this* planet was dying and the only way I could save Jon was to send him away, I'd do it too."
A long, long silence — the only sound was the distant drone of the tractor.
"He's so good at it," Lois said suddenly. "Clark. So good with kids. I thought he'd be scared, or disgusted by Jon, but…"
Martha shook her head. "Clark isn't like that."
She looked at her — his mother. Possibly the one woman on the planet who knew Clark as she knew him.
"I'm not even sure I know anymore," she said in a whisper. "This is all so new… we've changed so much…"
"Oh, honey." Martha leaned over and gave her a one-armed hug. "I know it's been terribly difficult, and I know you guys still have issues you need to sort out — but no matter what, Clark still loves you."
Her spine stiffened. "You *know*?"
Martha drew back, tenderness and mild amusement in her eyes. "Lois, Jonathan and I have known from the first second he started talking about you."
"He was that bad?"
"You have *no* idea. He would get this look on his face — I swear it would have made you laugh so hard. All soft and moony-eyed."
She wasn't altogether sure it would have made her laugh.
"I've treated him so badly, Martha," she blurted out. "I mean, I really have — maybe more than you know. I just can't see how he can stand to be around me… especially not with Jon here…"
A light touch on her shoulder. "He can 'bear' to have Jon here because he sees Jon as a part of you. He can 'bear' to have *you* here because he loves you, Lois."
The simple truth brought tears to her eyes.
"I… I don't *know*, Martha… I feel so much for him, but everything in my life has been so bad for so long… I don't trust myself to judge people any more. If I messed this up… I think I need to wait till I'm more grounded."
"That's perfectly natural, sweetie."
She looked back at her, decided to take the plunge.
"What if he doesn't wait for me?" Candidly, chokingly.
Martha just looked at her, then laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"He did before, didn't he?"
She stared at her hands, folded on her lap, for a long moment.
"Here," Martha said suddenly, "Jon's nearly asleep in my arms. Best get him settled for the night."
She took her son, who indeed was nearly asleep, and pressed a light kiss to his soft forehead. No matter how crazy her life got, no matter whether Clark was with her or not with her, she had Jon now — and he was all that mattered.
"So when do you and Jonathan leave?" she asked lightly over her shoulder as she moved from the kitchen to the living room.
"Any minute. I still can't believe he did this, you know," Martha called back.
Lois grinned. Jonathan had surprised his wife with tickets to Rome the day before, in celebration of their anniversary, and they were leaving that night.
Leaving. Her and Clark. In the house. Alone. For ten days.
She banished the screaming demons within her.
"You guys deserve a break," she said evenly, smiling as she wrapped a cotton blanket around Jon and placed him in the bassinette. "You've been so good to me, and I've put you under so much pressure."
She heard Martha moving to stand behind her.
"Lois, trust me, it was no trouble whatsoever."
Such a flippant kind of reply — anybody would have said it, a nicety. But there was something in Martha's voice that left Lois with no lingering doubts — she was being completely and absolutely truthful.
She turned around and smiled at the woman she'd come to consider as her adoptive mother.
"We'll be back before you head for Metropolis, though," Martha said anxiously. "We'll be here to help you through it."
She grimaced, her moment of buoyancy forgotten. "That's gonna be ugly."
"Remind me of what you guys have found out?"
"Well, first of all, we have all the stuff he did to me." She kept her eyes trained somewhere to Martha's left. "Domestic violence, blah blah blah. But that's gonna be hard to pull, since *I* left *him*, took his child away from him… it's just… messy.
"Then we have what he did to Clark. There's a whole bunch of stuff we can tie in there — once we get back to Metropolis, we can find out about the 'Superman' who was stabbed. We'll also be looking into the explosion of the Planet — Clark and Perry were looking into that before I…"
//…nearly killed Clark and drove Perry to Graceland for a year and a half…//
"…got married, and the trail is still there — just frozen. All in all a pretty damning array of evidence, and we haven't even started yet." She sighed.
Martha's eyes were very round.
"You're possibly the bravest woman I've ever met."
She opened her mouth to retort -
"I'll second that!"
- and whirled around, to face Clark, framed in the doorway. He grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, couldn't help overhearing."
She laughed along with Martha, but inside, she was sober as a bishop. Did he really think that? How had that happened?
"Mom, Dad's calling you," he continued when their laughter had ebbed. "I think he's about ready to go."
"Miracle of miracles," Martha said wryly. She crossed the room and dropped a kiss on Jon's downy head, then enfolded Lois in a hug.
"Be happy, honey," she heard whispered into her ear.
Dimly in the background, she was aware of Clark embracing his mother, of Jonathan coming in and repeating the motions, and then of the sound of the truck as it rolled out of the driveway. Clark's presence in the kitchen — close to her — was to the forefront of her mind, and she couldn't concentrate on much else.
He looked towards her, his eyes bright.
"Jon down for the night?"
"Yeah. He's such a good baby," she said, grinning at him nervously over the bassinette. "He hardly ever cries. And he's already sleeping through the night. I've never even *heard* of that happening. I got lucky."
"We both got lucky," he said, softly, his eyes warm on her face.
She felt a little jolt and suddenly she was transported back to that day in the park when he'd kissed her.
How her blood had hammered in her veins, thundering like a herd of stampeding elephants. How sweet his lips had tasted against her own. How strong he'd felt, how gently he'd kissed her — gentle passion, surely a contradiction. How she'd melted into him, how they'd seemed to meld as one.
How she'd torn her lips from his and looked over quickly to the dark blue van inside which she knew Nigel was watching their every move. And then how she'd slapped him; though it had felt like the ultimate betrayal to do so.
She hadn't kissed him in so long — not since that day, in fact — and yet she knew it was something she could slip back into effortlessly. They hadn't been in the habit of it, but they'd done it often enough for her to feel completely at ease with him, and for her to realise that kissing Clark Kent came naturally to her. Ploy or no ploy. Her husband's henchman watching them or not.
She let her gaze linger on the firm lines of his mouth for a little while, wondering what would happen if she took two steps, if she allowed herself to…
"Night's falling," she said lightly, and then she was over and looking out the window. The moon was a milky orb in the sky and the stars glimmered in the distance; inconstant, like her heart.
"Is it?" His presence behind her, his gaze on her back like a lover's hand on a soft summer evening.
His voice, gently. "I always loved this time of evening. Dusk. Halfway between day and night. It feels… magical, somehow. Like if you reached a little farther you could fall into it — a middling place, a limbo — and stay there. Neither one nor the other. How peaceful that would be."
"I don't know about that," she whispered back. "Half of nothing is still nothing. And half of everything is fifty percent worse than what you had before."
"But half of everything *added* to nothing is twice as good as before." She felt his arms come around her waist, lightly. Platonically. "Ever the optimist, remember."
"Do we have half of everything, Clark?" she murmured lightly. His cheek against her hair.
"No." He sounded definite. "We have *everything*."
"You sure about that?"
"Lois…" His hands on her shoulders, turning her to face him. "Right now, at this second, I have everything I've ever wanted."
She felt the twilight, the intermediate place between loving him and not loving him inside her, shift a little more in his favour.
She let herself lean forward very slightly and plant a whisper of a kiss against his cheek. Stood there for what seemed like an eternity, savouring that place, before tilting back. His eyes were glistening and very full.
"You think…" His voice came out croaky. She could see him clearing his throat, trying again. "You think Jon would be okay if we left him sleeping for maybe ten minutes or so?"
She cast a glance at her slumbering son, feeling the hand of worry grasp her. Then looked back at Clark, sensed how much this meant to him — whatever it was.
"I think maybe. If we made it quick," she said softly, smiling up at him. "What do you want?"
His fingers grasping hers lightly. "Come with me."
He led her out to the middle of the dewy lawn. "Close your eyes," he said, and she did, trusting him completely.
Then she felt a rush of wind curve against her face and hair, and she couldn't help it — she opened her eyes at the unfamiliar sensation. And gasped as she realised where they were. Hovering fifty feet in the air. Her arms were around his neck, and he was holding her lightly — like he'd used to. Funny, she hadn't even registered him picking her up.
"Is this okay?" he said anxiously, maybe noticing her lack of reaction. She looked back at him, nodded tremulously, then tilted her head back and laughed.
They toured the farm, and she noticed how everything looked so different in the moonlight — touched with a silver lining, a hint of magic. Then they looped twice around the farmhouse — the height and the rushing air making her ears pop. Finally, he brought her up and up and up again, further than they'd ever been, and they drifted for a few minutes.
She noticed that from their current position, the stars didn't seem to be glimmering any more — their beams were steady and continuous.
She smiled to herself.
No words were said. None were needed. She felt a bond grow between them, a deep understanding, and she felt her indecision slide just a tiny bit more.
"Ready to go back?" His voice against her hair. Somehow her head had slipped down onto his shoulder. Funny how perfectly they fit together. Funny how they'd always fitted perfectly together.
She nodded silently, and felt them descend.
"It felt good, doing that again," she said, not bothering to raise her head from his chest. She knew he could hear her.
"Yeah," he rumbled softly. "Flying is what I missed most."
They touched down, and she bent her head back. "Thank you," she said, and she smiled at him. The moonlight slicing across his face like a blade.
"You're welcome," he said, his eyes fathomless. She looked into those eyes, nearly fell into those eyes, and so wanted him to kiss her.
In the same breath she knew it would never happen, could never happen. It would destroy them both. Maybe at a later stage — next week, she thought, smiling secretly to herself, when they headed for Metropolis and compiled an arsenal of paperwork against Lex — but not now. Not now.
She looked at him again, and saw from him that he'd gone through the exact same phase of thought that she had. She pressed her lips together, smiled thoughtfully at him…
Because… something was wrong.
Wrong. Something was wrong. Somewhere.
Her gut was speaking out to her — clearly and strongly and almost painfully — something was terribly, terribly wrong…
"Look at that," he said, his voice coming from somewhere very far away. "The lights in the house have gone out. There must have been a power cut."
Her… her inner sense… her reporter's instinct… her… her intuition…
Intuition. Lights in the house out. Intuition — *mother's* intuition — and the lights in the house had gone out.
She grabbed him with desperate hands, her eyes flying wide open. And he saw her, saw the panic in her, darted a glance back at the house — and it clicked with him. She could see exactly when the pieces fell into place.
Firmly, he shook his head, held his fingers to his lips, then grasped her tightly around her waist and floated them swiftly down the hill and into the farmhouse. Heart in her mouth, she flew out of his arms and into the living room, where the bassinette lay…
Bassinette. Bright white bassinette. Baby colours in the moonlight.
The moon reflecting sharply against the snow-white pillow where her son's head was supposed to be.
What *was* it about the universe? *Why* did it have to fall down around his ears every time he even thought about being happy? Was his life doomed for failure? What debt was he repaying, that he could never be safe or happy or…
She was sobbing, he realised belatedly, and tugged her a little closer to him, trying to soothe her. Desperately, he manoeuvred them both into the kitchen, thinking that maybe, *maybe* Jon had managed to get out of the cot himself… maybe Wayne Irig had dropped by and he'd been concerned when there'd been nobody there with the baby… maybe… maybe…
Her fist landed hard against his shoulder, and he yelped in surprise, letting go of her in a hurry. That had actually *hurt*! He wasn't hurt by those things, how could she hurt him by doing that…?
In fact… that wasn't the only thing that hurt. Somehow he suddenly felt weak, shivery — and, he noticed belatedly, he was covered in a cold sweat.
And a hint of nausea was gripping him… hurting him… his stomach knotting…
Hurt. Him… him getting hurt. Him being vulnerable.
His heart gave an almighty shudder within him and even before he tried to float and couldn't, he knew what was happening.
He grabbed for her with desperate hands, pulled her hard against his chest, and hissed into her ear.
"He's here! Lois…"
Eerie silence. Silence that ripped at him, tore at his throat. His heart pounding like a jackhammer against his ears.
His eyes had become accustomed to the dark, and with a sick feeling in his stomach…
Lois… get Lois safe… quickly… can't… sick feeling… sickness… green sparking against the cool cream of the ceiling… Lois… god, it was starting to hurt… green light… behind the door, they were behind the door… Lois, Lois was surely terrified, help her… Lex Luthor behind the door, he had Kryptonite and *he had Jon*…
A creak, the door cracking open… oh god, the pain… Luthor's face illuminated briefly by the glow of the Kryptonite before his eyes rolled back in his head… splitting burning bones and blazing eyeballs and throbbing lungs and…
//Lois, I'm so sorry…//
~*Twenty-four hours later*~
Sound. Light. Light on her eyelids, a purplish yellow. And the chiming of glass against glass.
She cracked one of her eyes open, groaning softly as her head began to pulse. Disorientated by the pain, she tried to make sense of her surroundings. The last thing she remembered was… was… feeding Jon in the kitchen, and settling him for the night, and then…
Both her eyes flew open, then immediately closed again as a reel of images unspooled in her brain. Coming back from her moonlight rendezvous with Clark to find the bassinette empty and her son gone, and…
A dark shape silhouetted against green and the sound of a baby's terrified squall…
//Lex,// a whispering voice said disbelievingly inside her. She felt her heart accelerate.
Her blood was pounding in her ears.
//Jon. Clark. Lex.//
The chiming of glass on glass…
Somebody in the room with her. Bending over her, in fact. And then a slick wetness in her mouth as a tumbler was held to it.
"Concentrate, Lois," she heard a smooth voice saying somewhere. She refused that voice. Rebelled against it. That voice wasn't an option, wasn't possible, *couldn't* be there *now*…
"Wake up, sweetheart…"
Sweetheart. Casual use of endearments in the mornings after his nighttime ventures. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach — the nicknames branding her as his.
She could feel her tongue moving thickly around in her mouth, scraping off her gums as she tried to formulate a sentence. Her fingers itching to rise so she could pinch herself, and somehow unable to.
She was so tired, she realised. It would be such a sweet relief to just let go, to drift and not have to think about any of this…
"Wake up, Lois…"
//But I'm so tired…//
"Come on, my darling. Try."
She let go and felt numbness overcome her.
His head cracked against the concrete and he moaned. The sound, of a trapped and bleeding animal, earned him another kick to his stomach. His nose was in a bad state — he could feel the blood trickling steadily down onto his lips — and his chest felt as if it were filled with fire.
Dimly in some corner of his mind he was aware of where he was and what was happening… bright light was passing over his head, he could make out blurry indistinct shapes through his eyelids…
Lois! Where was Lois? Was she okay? He had to help her somehow, find her…
He tried to move his arms, move his legs, but everything was weak and insubstantial. His head started to swim again.
With supreme self-control, he managed to clear the fog from his brain, and tried to make sense of his surroundings.
He was being dragged along something, a long corridor, maybe… two men, one on either side… and now he was being thrown down a set of concrete stairs…
He had the strangest feeling that he was floating, free above their heads, watching what these strangers were doing to him.
More stairs. Would there ever be an end to these endless flights… rolling headfirst down to come crashing to a sudden halt at the end…
Realisation hit him like a thunderbolt. A long corridor. Stairs. More stairs. Then an open door, and crates of wine, a dark nest lit by the glow of Kryptonite. Eerily, eerily familiar.
He was going back to the nightmare.
And it was entirely his fault. Entirely. His. Fault. He'd *thought* he was keeping an ear out, he'd *thought* there was nobody in the house, he'd *thought* they were safe, he'd *assumed* everything would be okay, he'd been lulled into a false sense of security, and…
When had he ever been able to focus on anything other than Lois when she was in his arms?
When had he last used his superhearing?
He should have tested it out. He should have made absolutely certain his powers were completely back. He shouldn't have been so carried away in the moment. He shouldn't have wanted Lois to fall for him. He shouldn't have attempted to woo her by taking her flying.
//All my fault…//
No gentle floating in and out of sleep now. Her mind kicked into overdrive almost instantly, and her eyes flew open.
Lex. Clark. Jon.
Her fingers brushed against something soft and pliant. Spooked, she shot straight up and out of bed -
Out of *bed*?
Her heart thudded wildly as she surveyed her surroundings. She was alone in the room, reclining full length on a luxurious four- poster bed, with her hands clasped loosely over her stomach, and she was wearing…
She was wearing…
Her mind screamed at her, and she leapt out from beneath the silky blankets. Choking, she stumbled across the plush carpet and threw open the double-doors of the wardrobe, searching for something, *anything*, to cover that… that lacy, revealing *thing* he'd dressed her in…
Dressed her in. Like a life-sized doll, or a toy. His to play with, his to possess.
She felt a red-hot hand of anger grip her. No. No. Not anymore.
She examined the array of clothes in front of her, growing ever more nauseated. These were the fruits of her marriage, the things she'd worn to corporate balls and dinner parties. Perfectly cut and exquisitely tailored. In all her best colours — muted browns and beiges, burgundy, deep red, rich purple, black.
And laid out like he was expecting her to wear them.
She spied a terrycloth robe she'd never seen before and tugged it loose. She knotted it around her waist, wrapping the belt a couple of times around her. It was huge — she suspected it might even have been too big on Cl -
Clark. And Jon. He had them both, and he was… where was he?
For that matter… where was *she*?
Surely… surely she wasn't… wasn't…
She was back in their bedroom… but with some definite changes.
Like the set of sliding doors. They'd been bricked in. As had each and every one of the windows.
Plus — she looked back at the closet — there was no evidence of Lex's existence here.
She took two steps, wondering, and her eye caught the dressing table. The ornate mirror that had once hung on the wall had vanished, but an array of bottles were now adorning the top of the ridiculously ostentatious counter.
She took another step, fascinated.
All her favourite perfumes and oils and scents and creams. Lipsticks and nail varnishes lined up to greet her, they looked oddly like troops advancing into battle. To the right, there was an enormous boar's-head brush and another selection of hairsprays and mousses and smoothing treatments. She picked up a huge bottle of Chanel No. 5, her mouth dropping open.
What was he *playing* at? Was he trying to… to *woo* her, by laying these cosmetics around, a casual reminder that he knew what she liked?
Forcing herself not to dwell on it, not to give in to the scorching rage that gripped her, she once more stepped back to look around the room.
Everything and anything that could be used as a weapon gone. Nothing plugged in. The television in the far corner was fitted into the wall. She looked, and yes, the en-suite was still there.
A thought gripped her, and her eyes immediately flew to the four corners of the room, cursing as she noticed the cameras. They were large and black and reminded her of spiders, and they scanned every inch of the bedroom. Nowhere to hide.
A second later, she'd verified that she was faced with the same situation in the bathroom.
Nowhere a sign of a baby. Nowhere any facilities that a child could use. No sign that Jon existed at all.
So he was either somewhere else in the house or he was…
He was… was…
//Don't be stupid. Lex always wanted an heir. He would do nothing to endanger his son.//
And Clark? What would become of Clark? Had he escaped from Lex? Had he made it out? Lex didn't know Clark was Superman — of that she was sure.
At least, she was *almost* sure…
At least, he'd never gloated about it or taunted her about it or threatened her with it…
Kryptonite. Lex had had Kryptonite…
//Why? *Why* did he bring Kryptonite with him?//
And Clark had fallen to the ground in a stupor, gibbering with pain…
So if Lex hadn't known before — which, she sighed wearily, was a very unrealistic estimation — he most definitely knew now.
She shook herself.
//Things like this aren't going to get me anywhere,// she thought grimly. //Lex has no idea what he's faced with.//
She paused, and felt her heart break.
//But for the moment, I have to plan on getting out of this… all by myself.//
It was an idyllic day in downtown Metropolis, but the rays of the sun seemed to stop and retreat in terror when they reached the shadow of the dilapidated building. It had once been an integral part of the city, but the scar that stained it was malevolent and struck a strange sense of fear into the hearts of the passers-by.
Hardly anybody took the time to stop and wonder at the edifice that had once housed the world's greatest newspaper, but Perry White was doing it now.
Times like this, he knew why he'd gone away, why he'd stayed away. This building held his heart, and it was broken. An empty skin, blasted to oblivion, for no reason. So much good sucked out of it. So many hopes and dreams and ethics and morals and principles and…
//Stop daydreaming, old man,// he told himself roughly. He hadn't come back to the city to moon around outside the derelict shell of the Daily Planet. He'd come to find questions, to find answers, to get results, and to get his family back.
He frowned. Strange, that. Clark Kent and Lois Lane were family to him, had always been family to him… and he'd let them slip away.
He'd given up too easily. He should have spoken to Lois about the kind of person her fiance was, he should have refused to let Clark leave the city, he should have stayed there himself and kept an eye on things, but the way Alice had been threatened… the way he'd started getting death threats in the mail… the way Lois had begged him to leave, the way she'd looked that last time, humble and fragile and stuttering…
And now they were back together. Or at least, he'd thought they would be. He'd arrived at the Planet — their meeting place — but they weren't here.
They weren't here. And they'd both sounded so reassuring on the phone, so full of hope, so full of conviction. They'd promised they'd bring Jon with them — he grinned at the thought of seeing a miniature male Lois, how happy she must be — and they'd assured that the three of them would immediately go about bringing Luthor down.
Everything would be settled, they'd said. Everybody would be safe, they'd said.
And yet here he was, right time — he checked his watch, actually nearly fifteen minutes late by now — right place… no Lois and Clark.
Something was wrong. His reporter's instinct hadn't been exercised for a while, but it was still there, ready to crank into action.
Something was wrong with his kids, and he was damned if he was going to sit around and do nothing this time.
Pain. Incredible, soul-destroying pain, the likes of which he'd never even conceived of before. He blinked his dust-clogged eyes open. All he could see was green.
He just wanted to let go, to let the helplessness overcome him, to stop struggling, stop fighting the tide…
Was this how it felt to die? Like giving up, like letting go, like failing? Stopping the climb up the cliff face, loosening your grip and falling back? Or was it gentler than this, more peaceful; the whisper of a sight from an old lady's mouth?
Were those final moments euphoric- when you realised nothing you could say or do would make a hell of a difference? A strange kind of Utopia- realising that you weren't in charge, that you'd never been in charge.
His life was flashing before his eyes- wow, it really *did* happen. All of his favourite memories; creeping downstairs in his pyjamas as a young boy to watch his parents waltzing to Frank Sinatra, coming home from school to the warm, buttery smell of fresh-baked pecan pie, seeing Paris for the first time ever as a college freshman, diving off a piece of the Barrier Reef in Australia as a young adult…
Lois sitting on his parents' couch, watching Wheel of Fortune in a pair of pyjama bottoms and a maternity tank top, balancing her carton of Double-Double-Chocolate-Chip on her rounded stomach, yelling the answers to the quiz questions before the contestants and mercilessly slating them when they got it wrong…
A great and powerful emotion welled up inside him. His eyes snapped open and suddenly he could see beyond the green. Beyond the pain.
And to his salvation.
Her biggest problems were the cameras. When she'd been getting dressed- armour to face the enemy with- she'd stepped *inside* the wardrobe to protect her privacy, but that particular trick wouldn't work for everything.
She knew he was coming, of course. A sulky henchman had dropped by with a plate of food earlier- feeding time at the zoo, she thought bitterly- and surely he wouldn't delay to see his wife, to talk to her up close…
//What will I do if he touches me… if he…//
//Grin and bear it.//
She recoiled, her stomach in spasms.
//Do it for Clark. Do it for *Jon*.//
Jon. His sweet baby smell. His chubby little arms. His hair like dark dandelion fluff. His huge, thoughtful eyes. Brown. They were turning brown, as she'd predicted.
Clark. Feeling his warm, appreciative gaze on her as she schlumped around in her pyjamas watching crappy game shows. His acceptance of her need for chocolate. His amazing understanding of her needs. His gentle teasing. His patience. His immense, frightening love.
These were her reasons for living, her hopes for the future. For them, she would get through this- whatever it was.
She heard advancing footsteps and tensed.
He hadn't had far to go to realise what was happening, what *had* happened. As soon as he'd switched on LNN he'd realised what was wrong — Luthor's reporters were practically screaming her story from the rooftops. In a city full of people who'd met her, he was the only one who knew the truth about her life and her death.
No mention of Clark and no mention of Superman.
He had them, then. Somehow he had them — somehow he had trapped them both inside that stinking rat hole of a manor. It loomed over the city like some large bird of prey, ready to strike. He remembered all the magazine features that had come out when he'd built it three months after his wedding to Lois — the word 'sumptuous' featuring at least five times in all of them.
And… Luthor had his son. Perry had seen the photographs.
He needed to get them all out of there before it was too late.
Grimacing, he rubbed his eyes and returned to the computer, desperately trying to establish a link between Lex Luthor and the demolition of the Daily Planet.
Whatever happened, she would not scream. She would not let him see how much he was affecting her.
"You look a lot better," he said benignly, like a favourite uncle would. She froze her jaw, forbade it to move, to give her away. Silence was strong, and it would protect her. Her mouth could incriminate her. It could open and start yelling things, and that wouldn't be good, wouldn't be safe.
"Haven't you eaten?" he said, frowning at the tray of untouched food on the ground.
"Wasn't hungry," she mumbled, unwilling to open her mouth too widely in case something dangerous popped out.
He was looking at her again. She couldn't stand it, wanted to scream. His eyes on her felt lecherous and somehow unclean. She sensed she was being examined, like a farmer would examine a cow at a market, rated for her usefulness.
"Pregnancy suited you," he said in a distinctly denigrating tone. "You're not so pale now. I like to see colour in a woman's cheeks."
It was all she could do not to leap up and strangle him.
"Where is my son?" she asked calmly, looking up and at him and yet distancing herself from him at the same time.
"You mean Alex? Not to worry, my love, he's being taken care of."
"His name is Jon," she said, disbelieving that anybody could be so thoroughly foul.
His hand hovered dangerously near hers. Quickly, she folded her arms.
"I will respect your wishes in all aspects of our son," he said coldly, "but not in this. Jon is a common name and not fitting for a Luthor."
She could have said lots of things, like 'respect my wishes? You bet', or 'he's not your son', or 'he'll never be a Luthor', but she made the fatal mistake of looking him straight in the eye. His gaze was cold and empty, and she felt an involuntary shiver running down her spine. Suddenly he looked like a shark. A very dangerous, very cruel, very *inhuman* shark.
"I want to see him, Lex."
He waved dismissively. "Impossible."
She felt a hand of terror grip her.
"I want to see my son."
Already he was looking up and away from her. "This stage is fundamental. It will be easier afterwards if you don't see him now."
"Afterwards? After what?"
"You should eat. Keep up your strength." His voice ever more distant. "And I brought you this." A beat, and then a heavy newspaper landed on her lap. She glanced down for just long enough to see it was the Star.
"Why would you bring me a newspaper?" she asked to his departing back.
He turned slowly. She nearly screamed as a smile quirked the corners of his mouth.
"Thought you might find it interesting," he said softly, then opened the door, went out and locked it behind him.
~*Three hours later*~
"You said you had information for me concerning Lois Luthor?" The name stuck in his throat.
"Yes." A young voice, barely broken. He watched the ground carefully, afraid to move. "She's not dead."
He inclined his head.
"She was pregnant, and she left him."
He couldn't help it — his head swung upward. He caught a glimpse of red hair before he remembered where he was and dropped his eyes again.
"How do you know that?" he asked sharply.
The guy continued as if he hadn't spoken. "I figure he deserved it. Never thought like that before, but if you'd seen this lady like I saw her…"
"I know all this," he interrupted impatiently. "If that's all you have for me…"
"He came round later, or sent his men, found out where she went — got a tip from a bum, I think, plus some clues from this ATM card she used. His accountant must have been unusually diligent this month. Next thing you hear of she 'died in childbirth' — yeah, like that could happen, with all the money he has. No mention of her previous 'death', either. And Schmidt's Stores suddenly get a few thousand dollars from some guy wanting baby stuff. You following?"
He was astounded. "How do you know all this?"
A pause. "I helped her catch a Greyhound to Kansas. Asked a couple of guys down at the station to keep an eye open."
"I wanted to make sure she was okay, is all."
"What's in it for you?" He couldn't believe it. *Nobody* did anything like this, not anymore.
"A good night's sleep and a sense of pride that I helped put that scum-bucket away."
"What's your name, kid?"
The boy dropped his head briefly.
"Hope I've been able to help, sir."
He turned to go.
This was the biggest break he'd gotten so far, and he was darned if he was going to let it slip through his fingers.
"If you really want to help, you can look this up for me." He produced a card, and the kid stretched out a hand to take it.
"Wait. First you need to be sure you want in on this."
He hesitated a nanosecond, then nodded. Perry handed him the card, his eyes glancing over the boy's bright hair.
"How in Elvis's name did you know to come to *me*?" he asked, puzzled.
The kid looked up.
"Wasn't too hard to figure out. You were her editor, and now you're back in Metropolis. I figure you want her safe."
Perry regarded him considerately, thinking hard.
"I'm going to need a name," he remarked offhandedly, "otherwise I'll just have to call you Red."
The kid grimaced, then stuck out his hand. "It's Charlie. Charlie King."
Perry chuckled as he shook hands with him. //CK. Naturally.//
"What exactly am I looking at?"
He eyed him carefully before answering.
"Jimmy Olsen's last-known address. We're gonna need him."
This was taking so much effort. So much will and strength and grit and determination and *sweat*, and his reserves were running dangerously low.
For a man who'd once been able to lift a rocket into orbit, it had proved surprisingly difficult to manoeuvre his belt out of his jeans with his slippery fingers — and it was proving next to impossible to try and catch the keys from where they'd been resting on the floor, so close but so desperately far.
Little things to be thankful for — the stupidity of the guards who'd brought him there, the fact that he wasn't wearing his Superman suit this time, the fact that the belt he was wearing had once been his father's, the tiny window through which hope shone.
Once more, he shoved his arms straight through the bars of the cage, biting down hard on his tongue to prevent himself from yelling as the Kryptonite seared his skin. Nearly there… nearly…
Lois's face burst into his head, like a flower opening or a sun exploding, and with previously unrivalled perseverance he managed to throw the loop of the belt neatly around the keys. He took a breath and began to pull.
//I'm coming, Lois… hang on.//
'Mr Lex Luthor confirmed yesterday that his wife, Lois Luthor, had died in childbirth… reports of her previously suspected murder were proved to be false… Mr Luthor, who was out of the country at the time of the suspected murder… made a statement earlier today… heartbroken… only consolation his son Alexander Luthor, pictured here…'
So that was it, then. Lex had won. Again. Lex always won, in the end. Surely she should have known that by now.
It was *ingenious*, really, this cover story. Obviously there was no proof she'd survived the birth, apart from Clark and his parents. Obviously he'd had some contact in the police department who'd contaminated the forensic evidence. Obviously he'd been "out of the country"; obviously his pregnant wife had been with him. Obviously she'd had the baby prematurely, and there had been no doctor around to help.
Obviously she'd died. Obviously he was heart-broken but resolved to go on.
Obviously nobody would ever see her alive again…
This was the low point. Right here. She had hit rock bottom. She had no hope, no escape plan, no way out. Everybody thought she was dead.
*Clark* thought she was dead. That was the logical train of thought for him to follow.
If he was capable of following any train of thought…
//That's all, folks,// she thought bitterly. //Show's over. Game, set and match. Won by a landslide. Lex Luthor — one wife and son. Lois Lane — imprisonment. Jon Lane — indoctrination. Clark Kent — death.//
A sob caught in her throat, and she threw the newspaper from her in a frenzy.
She'd done this. She'd done all of this. It was all her fault. Her son was doomed and the man she… the man she…
Clark. Clark had saved her in so many ways, and he was dead now. He was dead, wasn't he? Lex had figured it out, had killed him. All because of her, because of her *complete* stupidity…
And she knew — with those little flashes of inspiration that got her when she was down — she knew at that second that she loved him. She knew at that second how much he'd always meant to her, how much more he'd proved himself to be.
She loved him with a fierce intensity, and she'd been so afraid to admit it, and now… *now it was too late*.
He'd gone through his life waiting for her, never giving up on her, wishing and hoping for her. And he'd died — probably died — without ever knowing how much she loved him.
She swallowed a huge lump in her throat.
She'd thought she was being so clever… so smart… she'd been so *cocky*…
How had he found her? It was torturing her, that question, five words and five syllables, running through her mind like some kind of perverse train. *How had he found her?* What had she done wrong?
She sat up from the couch, rubbing her temples tiredly. Whatever drugs he'd injected into her system were making her brain fuzzy and her vision blurry. She had no way of knowing whether it was day or night, but her body clock was telling her it was definitely time for sleep.
Except she couldn't. Couldn't sleep, couldn't even close her eyes because of the nameless monsters running rings around her.
Her trip to Smallville was almost a total blur. She didn't know whether she'd just blocked it out or whether she'd been so scared, malnourished and psychotic from lack of sleep that her brain hadn't been functioning; whatever the reason, she could barely remember getting out of the house, getting through the city, getting on the bus and getting to Smallville. Her mind was circling around some unknown source of darkness, and try as she might she *couldn't* shed light on it…
Light. The soft buttery sunshine that dredged through the rafters of the barn on lazy summer evenings. The swing from high up in the loft, two hands tight on the rope, Clark's arms around her and then pushing her off, down, down, exhilaration as she landed laughing on a stack of hay. The soon-to-be Jon squirming delightedly inside her.
Back when she'd had them both.
She buried her head in her hands, a single tear escaping to trace a lonely path down her cheek.
Maybe this was what she deserved. Maybe this was what she'd gotten for running away, for thinking she could be happy, for ignoring her problems, for being so utterly blind.
That was what happened with Lex, wasn't it? Once he was in her life, he clogged everything, like some malevolent crow roosting over her happiness. She'd never be free of that wingspan, that awesome control…
And what did she do when she had the chance to figure the mess out? What did she do when faced with her husband? Had she thrown a barrage of interrogation at him? Had she spat in his face? Had she cleverly manoeuvred the conversation to wrangle the truth out of him?
No. She hadn't. She'd just sat there and let him dominate her, let him freeze her, let him take away the very core of her and make it *afraid*…
Something was jabbing at her.
She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, but still the annoying prickling sensation didn't go away. It raced an itchy path across her shoulder blades, and she…
Stilled. Her heart in the quiet room, thrumming in her ears.
Storming down the hallway. Somebody storming down the hallway — dimly she could hear the clack of tormented heels on the marble floors.
In one movement she was up and off the couch, hand fumbling for the light switch, foot wrapped around the leg of the coffee table as she stumbled and fell heavily onto the dark glass, and then the snickering of the key in the lock, mocking her…
Lex stood in the doorway, a black shape as the light spilled out around him and made her eyes ache.
She heard the snap of a switch. The light bulbs blazed, and she recoiled, spooked. He looked almost rabid, teeth bared, eyes flashing…
Moving towards her now. There half-strangled on the floor and him looming over her.
"Get up," he said softly. Softly?! What was he planning?
She looked at him through bleary eyes, watched as he stretched his hand out. Clearly expecting her to take it and use it to hoist herself up, to *touch* him…
The door swinging wide behind him. He was offering to help her up and he *hadn't locked the door*.
She closed her eyes and offering a silent prayer to whatever deity was listening, she caught his hand, gave an almighty tug, pulling him down and at the same time propelling herself up and forward.
Then she was sprinting towards the door on winged feet.
//I'm coming, Jon, I'm coming, Clark… hang on.//
//Get up. Go. Move.//
//Get up. *Right* now.//
Lex had Lois, and had Jon — had them somewhere inside this stinking infested *rat hole* of a house. He had to get going…
Pain in his ribs, in his head, in his nose…
//No, Kent, don't focus on that… you lay here for *hours*, you should be practically healed by now…//
And he was. Slightly. His will and his nerve and his desperate panic seeming to heighten and contain the healing process. This pain — this dull ache — was so much less than what it had been before. He was sure if he tried hard enough he could levitate. Maybe even fly.
//Wishful thinking,// a voice whispered in the back of his brain. He gritted his teeth, another bead of sweat popping out on his forehead. He *could*. He *could* do it. He *had* to do it.
But not while he was locked in this place with the Kryptonite cage ten yards away…
Weakly, he surveyed his surroundings.
His eyes started making out shapes through the muted light, and he gasped. Dragging himself off the ground, he flattened his back against the wall and moved around, gaping.
What… *was* this place? A full figure Mona Lisa… a grisly Van- Gogh-esque portrait… two seemingly disembodied marble arms… a ream of staved paper, dotted with countless miniscule music notes…
And a gun.
Sitting there, polished and shiny… a gun.
Slowly, painfully, he stumbled himself over to it, took a long hard look at it.
An elaborate pistol. From the nineteenth century, by the look of it. And — he turned the handle slightly towards him to read the engraved name — it was a Derringer.
Why would Lex Luthor have a Derringer gun on display?
His mind clicked into action, accessing what Lois called his Useless Mental Trivia folder. A Derringer… from the nineteenth century… in amazing condition… and judging from the other priceless masterpieces around him…
Good *grief*, could it possibly be…
…the same gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in the back of the Ford theatre in 1865?
Hands trembling, he checked the chamber. An extremely large lead ball, and…
Gunpowder… and he was wearing a shirt… and he could make a fuse… put it in the lock, hit it with something hard and it would…
He nearly laughed out loud. His Useless Mental Trivia folder deserved a pat on the back. At the very least, a new name.
He was going to get out of there.
Of course, she hadn't gotten far. She'd barely made it out the door when his arms had come from behind, trapping and enclosing her, pulling her tight against his strong — brutally strong — frame, so tightly her feet left the ground.
They'd advanced down the corridor like that, and then down, flight after endless flight. No words spoken, just the hand she couldn't bite digging into the mouth she couldn't open, and his arm around her waist, cementing her into him.
Her struggles had stopped about halfway, when her whole being had strained towards the panicked squalls of a terrified child.
Crying. And crying. And crying. His tiny little fists curled up next to his face. *Screaming*, for the first time ever.
She'd picked him up and held him tightly against her and rocked him and shushed him, rejoicing at the proof of his existence even as his yells pierced her ears.
He was asleep now — knocked out from his exertions, no doubt. Curled up in the sofa with him, she allowed herself to close her eyes slightly and wish herself away from that place, dream herself to safety.
Lex's voice cut her short. "This is not going to happen again."
She opened her eyes, looked at him warily. Didn't speak. Couldn't.
"I mean it, Lois. This was just a minor inconvenience -"
"- and it won't be a problem once the nanny comes."
"Yes. Professional caregiver. Best in the country."
She was filled with icy anger.
"Not for my son."
"No, for *my* son."
She had a sudden hysterical image of them both grabbing one of Jon's little arms and tugging in opposite directions.
"He's not your son, Lex."
He gave her a peculiar look. "I'm sorry?"
She stared at him. "He's *not* your son."
"You called me Lex." A malicious smile curving around the contours of his face. "You haven't done that in months."
She shook her head. "You're nuts."
She could feel him regarding her. She could have screamed but it would have required that she let him know what he was doing to her.
"You *have* changed," and his voice was velvety. "Good, Lois. I like that in a woman. An independent streak."
"All the more for you to stamp out of us, isn't it?" She smoothed a hand over Jon's tiny head.
It was as if a piece of smoky glass came down in front of his eyes. "I don't know what you mean."
She snorted. "I'll bet."
He took a step towards her, then another one. She watched him, thrilling at the lack of terror she felt at his nearness.
"Don't be pedantic, Lois, it doesn't suit you."
He stopped in front of her.
"I'm past caring what you think suits me."
Another blank look. She looked him straight in his dead eyes, feeling a grip of courage seize her.
"I'll get out of this, you know." Breezy confidence. Confidence. Of a breezy kind. "I did it once and I'll do it again."
He grinned, and she barely bit back a flinch.
"Yes, I'll admit that was… careless of me," he said, watching her lazily. "I should learn not to underestimate you."
"Underestimating me is a part to your personality you'll never be rid of," she said coldly. "Not unlike the arrogance and immorality."
"And idiocy is a part of yours, isn't it, my love?" he asked smoothly, a gleeful light in his eyes. "Using my ATM card. Walking into a bus station full of my employees. Throwing your receipt away -"
Oh god, she hadn't, had she? What had she been *thinking*?
"- and sloppily assuming that I didn't know about the Kents, when I've examined every coil of your mind and every facet of your former life. You felt so safe, didn't you, my sweet?" A careless finger ran down her cheek. "Poor Lois. Poor, poor Lois. Lulled into such a blind sense of security, and so *easily*…"
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Well, I'll know not to make the same mistakes next time, won't I?"
His mouth twisted. "So optimistic. So sure that there'll *be* a next time. It almost makes me want to reconsider…"
A cold hand clutched at her stomach.
"Reconsider what?" she asked, and despite herself, there was a note of desperation in her voice.
"You didn't really think I'd leave you around here indefinitely, did you?"
She swallowed, tried a bit of false bravado. "It won't matter if you kill me. You realise that, don't you?"
He laughed, a sneering little chuckle that went straight to her stomach. "Oh, Lois, believe me, I have no intention of killing you." His eyes watched her almost merrily. "I have a windowless fortress in the Alps that'll do very nicely for the time being. And if you persist in trying to escape, then who knows, you might just get lost in the snow…"
So that was what he was planning to do to her. Take her away from her son and leave her to die in secluded incarceration.
He was watching her intently. "Pity there'll be no magical superhero around to rescue you, isn't it? I could have done with the entertainment…"
Did he know? Did he know did he know did he know?
"Where is Clark?" she asked, desperately. "What have you done to him?"
What was his game plan? What was he doing? How could she stop him?
"Oh, of course. Clark Kent. To think I once considered him a threat. Laughable, really."
//Careful, careful… don't say too much… he's going to give himself away with his own smugness in a minute…//
He sneered slightly. "I would have thought you'd have better tastes in your lovers, Lois. Kent's gone a bit flabby round the edges since I saw him last. I guess it's not so easy having to work out like *normal* people, is it?"
//He knows. He knows he knows he knows.//
"And there wasn't an ounce of fight in him. Good grief, I would have thought modern-day superheroes had better stamina levels — even the ones who cracked and begged for mercy when faced with a little piece of home…"
She stared at him, stunned.
"You know he yelled for you, don't you, Lois? You know he whimpered and begged and pined after you in his delirium… so fortunate I thought to install those cameras down there, the footage was *very* interesting…"
Her heart went cold.
"What?" she whispered, unable to stop herself.
"…of course, you weren't alone… I remember some distinct pleading for Mommy… pathetic, to watch a man cower like that…"
She wanted to throw up, to scream, to hit him.
"Couple of hours, those tapes will be released to LNN… along with a *very* interesting conversation I had with Rick before he was… disposed of…"
"Rick?" she said weakly, her head spinning.
He sighed. "The lookalike I hired to play Superman, my dear. You're really not on top of the game these days, are you?"
She shook her head absently. "I'm not following, Lex."
He shrugged carelessly. "Well, I had to have *some* kind of insurance, Lois. Otherwise I could have been taken to court on false imprisonment charges, not to mention murder. When these people hear Superman telling me about his unsavoury plans for the public — and believe me, they're good, Nigel was particularly inventive there — they'll be lining up to *thank* me for killing their hero."
She shook her head. "This isn't going to work." Her voice, loud and defiant. "Nobody's going to buy that Superman wanted to take over the world. And besides, everybody thinks he died months ago."
He smiled silkily at her. "Do they?"
She swallowed hard, trying to remember.
The old lady. The mugger. Superman's wounds. The knife. The body, washed up in Hobbs Bay. The pictures. The cape.
//*He* told me all this… nobody else… he told me about all of it…//
But pictures! There had been pictures! He'd had *pictures* of the other Superman being pulled from the river, and others, so many others, in that stupid file he'd insisted on reading to her, and if *he'd* had pictures, surely the rest of the media world…
Had she been that shut off and that blind-sided, that she hadn't known, or noticed?
He took her hand in his, brought it to his lips and kissed the back of it. She sat petrified there, her feet rooted to the floor. Frozen solid by the touch of his lips.
"My poor Lois. My poor, poor Lois." Voice washing over her, swift and suave. "Don't you realise, my poor darling? Didn't you ever think during all those news reports, 'hey, isn't it funny nobody mentions that Superman's dead'?"
She shook her head. Dazed. Disgusted.
"Of course, you were so easily… persuaded at that stage. Guess it never filtered through the fog, did it, dearest? You never suspected I'd lie to you. So docile, so trusting…"
Suddenly, she retched, dryly, hiccoughing. Pity there was nothing in her stomach. She would have *loved* to have thrown up over him. Rock the boat a little.
He was gone from her, striding somewhere, striding back and… and he was holding a glass of water to her lips, he was kneeling before her, taking her hands in his, smoothing her hair back from her forehead, he was *touching* her…
Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
She'd wrecked everything. She'd ruined everything. Everything. Everything. She'd doomed everybody. She'd wrecked all the people she loved. She'd killed them all. It was all her fault — because of her submission, of her blind… blind… *blindness*…
She wanted to scream. If only, if only… if only she'd known about all this months ago… months and months ago… she could have saved them all… she could have…
"There, there," he said soothingly. "Take a few deep breaths."
What. Was. He. Planning.
Pictures. He'd said he had pictures, hadn't he? Video footage of Clark's torture.
Clark's torture. He had pictures of it. Pictures of the Kryptonite, and pictures of Clark writhing in agony for no apparent reason.
Something was growing rapidly in her brain, a tumour of fear and terrible knowledge. If he released Clark, and released the tapes of Clark, Clark himself would be hunted down and killed like an animal. Every single petty criminal on the street would know the glowing green chink in Superman's armour. Plus everybody would know his identity.
Or… and this scenario, this was almost worse… Luthor could hold both threats over his head till the end of his days.
All the threats over Clark's head, till the end of his days. His safety. Her safety. Jon's safety.
She looked up, and straight into a pair of concerned hazel eyes. She felt an overwhelming sea of hatred and disgust overwhelm her, and suddenly she couldn't hold herself in check any longer. Not a second longer.
"You're sick. You know that, don't you? You're sick. Clark is worth *twenty* of you."
He stilled, frowning at her. "I won't have you speak to me like that."
"I'll speak to you whatever way I want to speak to you, you sadistic self-righteous son of a -"
He seized her chin, imprisoned it with strong steel pincers. Despite herself she felt a fluttering of panic ignite in the pit of her stomach.
"No matter what happens," he said softly, "remember that you're still in the same position you were six months ago. You're still the same fallible woman who *I* have to try and instruct so she doesn't completely embarrass me in public -"
Her knee came up sharply, and she rejoiced as she watched his face change. He dropped to his knees, holding his crotch, and despite herself, she giggled.
"How the mighty have fallen," she sang. "I wouldn't worry, Lex — if I'm as frail as you say, the effects shouldn't last too long."
He stumbled to his feet, his face purple and livid with rage.
//Hit me,// she thought recklessly. //Please, hit me. Give me an excuse. I'm *asking* you to.//
She could see that he'd gone through the exact same phase of thought, in one of those parallel-universe type moments. He took a step towards her, and…
"Mr Luthor?" From behind the locked door.
The voice startled them both out of the strange, feral battle of wills they'd been engaged in. He rolled his eyes.
"Yes, what is it?" Irritated arrogance. How did he do it? How could *anybody* do it?
"Sir, we've been having a problem in one of the rooms downstairs…"
His head snapped up and around. She watched him, fascinated. What was in this room that was so important?
"A problem? What *kind* of a — oh, for goodness sake!"
She watched him stride over to the door, unlock it, and open it slightly.
"What is it?"
Whispered conversation. He was hissing out the door like the snake he was. She pricked her ears, but could only make out a few words.
"…keys… must have broken out… blew lock open… can't find… need to…"
"…idiots, absolute idiots… didn't I put Jones on the door? Where… Bring him to my study, I want to deal with him later… how could he possibly have…"
"…something missing… the Booth gun…"
"…utter madness. *Find him*!"
Lex slammed the door shut, and relocked it, but she barely noticed.
Broken out? Lock? Booth gun? What was a booth gun?
Her throat seized up with choking hope.
"Sorry." He was saying something, she forced herself to listen. "Minor inconvenience… anyway, my love, as scintillating as your conversation undoubtedly is… I think he's down for the night, don't you?"
She looked down at her baby son, tightened her hold on him. She wasn't going to let him go, ever again.
"Come, come." His voice, gently chiding. "Give him to me, I'll take care of him -"
"And what happens when he wakes up?" she asked scornfully. "You have the bottles all sterilised and warmed? Face it, Lex, you're in way over your head here. You couldn't even handle him crying."
He waved his hands at her. "Minor details."
"Your *son* is a 'minor detail'?"
He froze again, staring at her.
"A baby means *work*, Lex. You can't just put him in a corner with a pacifier and hope everything turns out okay!"
A dismissive shrug.
Another knock at the door. She let out a long sigh of relief. Breathing space.
He stayed glued to the spot, his eyes watching her.
No response. She raised her eyebrows at him.
"Hadn't you better get that?" she asked pointedly.
He shrugged easily, walked back towards the door. "Whatever you say, my darling."
Something inside her noticed the endearment — not the first time he'd called her that, nor the last — and she nearly spat with rage. Managing to contain her temper to something broiling and hot inside her, she looked down at Jon again, rocking him with distinct disinterest as she strained and strained towards the whispered words.
"Some cop at the door, sir… demanding to see you… says he has a search warrant…"
A violent movement from her husband.
"Detain him. Bury him in paperwork. Do what you have to do."
"I'm not sure if it'll work, sir… seems very determined…"
"Sort it out!" Three snapped words, and the door locked again. Back in front of her. Back staring at her, with those hungry eyes, dying to devour her.
"Did I hear the word 'cop' in there somewhere?" she asked, watching in interest as his irises dilated.
He waved his hands. "Minor detail."
"You're getting repetitive, Lex," she tutted. "Surely you can think of a couple more phrases, instead of regurgitating that one?"
"I don't like this," he said idly. "This backchat. It's not very respectful."
She snorted. "I'm giving you exactly as much respect as you deserve."
A flash of light from the corner of her eye. She turned her head, noticing the large set of French doors.
A balcony, and a street below. French doors leading out, and a bassinette right beside them.
French doors. Leading *out*. Balcony down to the street. Street where cars could park. Street where the front door to the house was. Street where some cop was banging at the door.
"You're right on one thing, though," she said, altering her tone ever-so-slightly, hoping. She shifted Jon in her arms, got to her feet slowly, moved around him. Careful to keep her movements steady. "This little guy is down for the night."
He was watching her languidly, through slitted eyes, seemingly disinterested in her change of demeanour. Encouraged, she continued her trek towards the bassinette. Not daring to turn her back to him. Trying to entrance him, snake charmer and snake.
He moved so quickly that she almost screamed.
"Give him to me," he said quietly, holding out his hands. Directly between her and freedom.
She lifted her soft palate up, rejoicing when it raised glassy tears to the surface of her eyes.
"Please, Lex," she said, all softness and vulnerability. "I won't get to see him as often now. Let me put him to sleep, just one last time…"
His hand came up, and she nearly flinched. It made no violent movement, though, just flattened itself against her face.
A battle of wills. Who was better at acting. Who had more to lose.
He stepped aside, his eyes strangely tender, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
She took as long as possible over Jon, tucking in and taking out and tucking back in again, smoothing already-smooth blankets and fussing over his sleeping suit. Shamelessly using her son as a decoy.
"I think you're done."
She turned, looked at him, making her eyes huge. "I always sing to him at night… please…"
She could see his Adam's apple quivering as he swallowed, then inclined his head slightly. She turned so that three-quarters of her body was facing her son, one-quarter poised and ready to leap.
"Sleep o babe, for the red bee hums the silent twilight's call… evil from the Grey Rock comes to wrap the world in thrall…"
No Grey Rock. Evil right behind her.
"…my child, my joy, my love and heart's desire…"
Her voice, floating out the door. Watching him out of the corner of her eye… nearly there… nearly…
"…the crickets sing you lullaby, beside the dying… HELP! WE'RE UP HERE!"
She lunged towards freedom, yelling her head off.
"HERE! WE'RE HERE!"
Then — choking. Red pain. Hot. Red. On the floor. On the floor of the room. Red and purple roses clogging her vision, couldn't breathe, claw at hands, nails, warm in her mouth, his blood…
His voice, hissing words. Names that she wasn't, had never been.
On the floor, with him kneeling above her.
"…did you do that for?" he was asking, furiously. "*What* did you do that for?"
She shook her head defiantly. Clear fuzziness… come on, Lane…
Lane. Not Luthor. Never Luthor. Never had been Luthor.
"You're dead," she choked out. "You're dead. You're a goner. No matter what you do. They're waiting for you, Lex… Clark escaped, didn't he?"
He spat at her, she nearly retched.
Hands on her body. Possessing her. Hands ripping and tearing, pulling and scratching, crushing and…
Her vision going blurry. She fought against it. Not. No. Not.
Her head fell back against the floor. Blare of… blaring. Light. Sound.
Jon. Clark. Loved them. Loved them both.
Wasn't ending like this. Wasn't.
His hands. His animal-strong hands. Hot breath in her ear, and his hands.
Outside the door, more official sounding voices. Something about a warrant for an arrest and proof of arson and other charges too numerous to mention and forced to take action if the door wasn't opened *now*.
Then Clark's voice, his yell. "Give it up, Luthor!" A split-second of a vacuum when Lex froze and Clark's voice filling the empty space. Give it up, Lex. Give it up.
"They're coming for you." Amazing she could still talk, after everything. "In a few minutes, they'll be through this door."
Her body was something detached and apart from her. He couldn't make her beg or plead with his hands anymore. He couldn't break her like a pane of glass, he couldn't shatter her pieces, they were too closely knit.
The whine of a helicopter, outside. Loudspeakers.
He shifted his weight from one side of her body to the other, and that was all she needed.
One desperate push with her legs against the wonderfully firm floor and she was up and she was running and she was out and lunging at the balustrade… there were at least five police vans out there… she drew breath…
Caught against him again, again on the balcony, space terribly near going down and down and -
"You want to go over? Do you, Lois? Do you?"
His hand in her mouth, her stomach crushed against the railing, him forcing her to lean over and over and -
The ornate railing hemming the house in, the spikes sharpened into deadly points…
Her feet left the ground. Her scream, vibrating against his knuckles.
Gagging. Going to be sick. Him over her. This was how it was going to end. Him over her. Dominating her. Her spirit bloodied and bowed. Again.
The blare of a loudspeaker, snapped and crackled words. The door nearly jumping off its hinges, back inside. Somebody there. He twisted them around, to stare into her eyes — freeze-framed.
She managed a smile, managed to smile around his fingers, him forcing as much of his hand as he could into her mouth.
"You're not worth it," he sputtered, "neither of you. Cavorting with that *creature*, that filth, that *alien*… was it good, Lois? Was it as good as me?"
He knew. Did know. Had known. Not. She wasn't.
She bit down hard, and his hand lunged out and away.
"No matter what you do," she managed to squeeze out, "no matter what you do to me now — you're caught. Red-handed. Clark has won. We have won."
"You're still my wife," he hissed. "You'll *always* be my wife. You promised to love, honour and obey me."
Being pulled back and onto solid ground.
"Haven't you learned by now? I always win… you promised to obey me, Lois…"
Balcony. Railing. Small railing. He never used this room.
He let go abruptly; she felt her body twist. The next instant, her head bounced off the ground. She moaned.
Him leaning over her. Her elbows against the ground. Both feet flattened on the floor and him in between them.
Jon. Her son. Watch him grow, watch him… watch him be a Lane. Not a Luthor. Not even a Kent.
Watch him. Protect him. Her son…
His stance. Unsteady. Sure of his power. Again.
She looked up into his eyes. His cold, inhuman eyes.
"You promised." His eyes dead and staring, blood around his mouth from where she'd scratched him.
"Promises are made to be broken," she spat weakly, and with almighty effort, she shoved him up and up and off with her pelvis and lower body.
Scaly wings. Surely they would burst from his shoulder blades. Him flying up, grabbing wildly at the balcony, a flurry of trouser leg and shirt as the momentum carried him over, the wind battling against him as if trying to push him back on solid ground…
And then — nothing. The frame of her vision empty.
She staggered to her feet and lunged, catching the banister with both hands and staring down to the street below with wide and panicked eyes.
The silence fell like the blade of a guillotine.
It was incomprehensible to her that he could be gone, that he could be fragmented in a bloody mess on the street below. It was incomprehensible to her that she had won — and so easily. It was incomprehensible to her that the mouth of hell hadn't opened to receive him wholly.
The dazed hushed atmosphere lifted, and then there were sirens and yelling voices. The door bursting open. She, falling backwards as her adrenaline gave out and abandoned her — being caught in strong arms.
Door. Burst. Open. Somebody behind it.
Above her, his face very white and very red. Red? Blood. From his nose. Blood. Pain. Clark… Clark alive, never thought she'd… never… Clark, loved Clark, never thought…
She tried to lift her hand, tried to touch him. Couldn't.
She was so small. So small and delicate in the hospital bed, swamped in blankets. Her spirit shrunken while asleep.
Her face. Her beautifully alive, passionate face. A band of black and blue rising across her right cheek. Her split lips and her puffed eyes. The marks of her struggle, and its crescendo.
"Clark?" A hand on his shoulder, a deep voice in his ear. Glad to see Perry, really he was, but this was where he was meant to be. Couldn't move. Couldn't go. Couldn't leave her on her own in this dark place, this hospital room, the wires and the machines trailing nightmare.
Somebody lingering in the doorway, two somebodies, but no, he wasn't focusing on that, wasn't concentrating on it. They didn't exist; nothing existed beyond the tiny little hospital bed, with the bars at the side like she had to be restrained and the IV bag oozing fluid into her wrist.
He picked up her hand, held it, stared at it. The whorls of her identity stitched into her fingertips. He brought them to his mouth, kissed them, it wasn't enough but it would do.
"CK?" A young voice. A familiar voice. Jimmy, oh it was good to have Jimmy there, he liked Jimmy, he'd missed Jimmy. Not enough to stand up, or turn around, or speak, though. "She's gonna be okay. Really she is."
He mumbled something, his eyes intent on her face.
"Son, don't you think you should maybe see a doctor?"
He shook his head, fiercely. Wolff had snapped his nose back into place, outside, and that was all he'd permit anybody to do to him. That was all anybody would ever do to him, ever again. That was it, that was all, finished, done, nobody was allowed to touch him ever.
Except for Lois. If she ever woke up.
If she ever got up…
"Uh… Mr Kent?" Another voice. Unfamiliar this time. Nervous and unsure of itself. Unsure of *himself*. Male voice.
Lois's breath puffing against the tiny downy hairs that spun their way across her mouth. Comforting.
Perry's voice, again. "C'mon, kids. Let the man alone."
Grateful. Perry would understand. Had always understood. Understood him, understood Lois.
Lois. His need for her. His aching love.
Sometimes he thought it would overpower him, sometimes he battled against it, trying to slam it into something manageable.
It wouldn't go, though. It wouldn't go.
His love was untamed and stormy. His love was thunder and lightening, whirlpools and tornados, earthquakes and volcanoes — the extremes, nothing grey or uncertain about it.
His love was Lois. Lying there in a hospital bed, placed there by him, by her, by both of them. By the cruel hands of fate which had twisted their lives into distortion.
He would never forget finding her there, hearing her screaming, hearing Luthor's threats behind the locked door, not being able to help her. He would never forget being so utterly helpless — again. Yet again, Clark Kent didn't pull through. Yet again, he failed her. Yet again, the magical superpowers let her down.
She hadn't needed him at all, though, had she? Not in the end. Whatever she'd said, whatever she'd done, however she'd driven Lex Luthor off the highest balcony in Metropolis, she'd done it on her own.
Driven him off the highest balcony in Metropolis… and now she would never be rid of him. Now a tiny piece of her would always belong to him — whether or not the police report came out in her favour. Never mind the fact that it was clearly in self-defence, or that it might even be manslaughter — it didn't take away the fact that a man was dead.
And if he'd been one *second* faster…
She hadn't needed him. She'd *never* needed him. She was so much stronger than he was — with or without Superman.
He wrought his fingers with hers, her creamy skin contrasting with his; scratched and nicked from a thousand little accidents. Contrasting, she was white against his black, she was beauty against his freakishness, she was hope against his despair.
He bent his head over their hands — joined.
It was irritating; like one of those dreams she couldn't seem to wake up from. Her eyelids were impossibly heavy, almost glued to her cheek, and she was…
Staring blurrily at something above her, something dully cream. Beige squares with rectangular lights on them — lights that hurt her eyes.
Her dry lips cracked as she formed a "huh?" with her mouth. Her eyes fell shut again, but she was awake now, she was alert. The smarting smell of antiseptic hit her nostrils, and she recoiled, reminded of all the hospitals she'd ever been in…
Hospitals. Tentatively, she moved her legs, feeling a stiff mattress crack at the shifting weight.
A hospital room, a hospital bed. What had happened?
Her eyes drifted open again, and she saw — tousled black locks and something was gripping her hand, he was, he was bent over their joined hands. In a moment, all the strain gushed out of her muscles. He was here, he was alive, he was holding onto her hand like he'd never let her go, and everything was going to be okay now.
"Clark," she whispered, trying to smile as his head shot up immediately. His eyes were so tired…
Instinctively, she raised a hand to his cheek, stroked her thumb under one of those weary brown eyes. Immediately it closed and a drop of salty water spilt out onto the pad of her finger.
She wanted to lean forward and kiss him, she wanted at that instant to tell him how much she loved him and how she never wanted to let him go, but she was so drowsy…
Her head fell back against the cushions, her hand fell down and was caught by his as once again she tumbled into the darkness of sleep.
On the morning of her departure she was dressed and ready half an hour before Clark turned up. The dull non-colour room seemed smaller without her things in it — her flowers, her candy, her discomfort pulsing against the walls. She traced tiny circles on the fog-misted window with her forefinger as she waited, tasting freedom.
Two days in bed had left her with a dizziness whenever she tried to move — like her mind was trying to pull free from her aching body. When he'd arrived, she'd stood up too quickly and had had to put her head between her legs. The terrible worry in his eyes afterwards made her hate herself.
She felt strangely apart from her surroundings as she heard his pleasantries with the day nurse, noted his dapper suit and patented Clark tie, felt his solid arm around her.
It happened in an instant. One second, they were standing beside her bed, the next the hospital doors were hissing open and they were both expelled from a calm, serene world into a sea of shouting journalists.
She wanted to crumble and cry, or rage and stamp about — she wasn't sure which would be better, easier.
"Mrs Luthor… can you confirm that…"
"Mrs Luthor… can you comment on…"
"Mrs Luthor… what's your response to…"
Bile rushed swiftly around the pit of her stomach. Mrs Luthor, Mrs Luthor, Mrs Luthor, like a pack of hyenas. These people had been her colleagues and competitors for nearly ten years, and now… now she was just another story, Lex Luthor's wife back from the dead *again*.
"Mrs Luthor… where's Alex?"
She turned blind and staring eyes onto the reporter in question. Sandra Ellis, one of her old cohorts at LNN. Of course. "Who?"
Sandra paused, clearly wrong-footed. "Your son. Alexander Luthor."
She took one step forward and then Clark's steady hand caught hers, Clark's steady voice saying no comment, Clark's steady shoulder anchoring her shaky body as he led her to the car.
A beat, and then they were moving. They were in the car, and it was pulling away from the hospital. How was this possible when Clark was sitting right beside her, his hand in hers, his fingers stroking rhythmically?
"You okay back there?" She heard the gruff voice in a dream, in a state of bemused bewilderment.
"Fine, Perry," Clark answered. "We had a couple of rough moments, but we're okay now."
Perry. Perry was here. Her old friends were rallying around her, even though she didn't deserve it, even though she deserved less than nothing because of what she'd done to them.
She found her voice. "Perry, I…"
"I know, honey. To see you, well… it's… I'm happier than a preacher in a month of Sundays."
She closed her eyes, not wanting him to see her tears.
"Me too, Perry. Me too."
"Plus, you're giving me hope here."
"Hope?" she asked weakly.
Even from where she was sitting, she could see his eyes crinkling up at the corners.
"Well, if you can come back from the dead *twice*, I reckon there's hope for Elvis."
It took a minute, and then she giggled.
Perry and his Elvis anecdotes. Clark and his wacky ties. They'd both slipped back into their old familiar roles so quickly… without a hint of trouble.
Could it be the same for her? Could she make this try, this leap, this decision? Could she slip back into being Lois Lane, Star Reporter and All-Round Grouch?
She closed her eyes, tilted her head back against the headrest, and went on holding tightly to Clark's hand.
He opened his eyes, startled and strangely uneasy.
He chose his words carefully. "I don't know. What do you want to happen next?"
They'd snatched this, these ten minutes alone together, to sit in Perry's den and do absolutely nothing for a while. Soon all hell would break loose, and they'd wanted to have a few moments of peace before the madness ensued. Alice was out with Jon. Jimmy and Charlie had gone AWOL. Perry had said something vague about calling Detective Wolff to let him know they were safe.
He half-smiled as he surveyed her, cuddled into the crook of his arm. He should have known; Lois Lane thrived on craziness. It was her natural habitat, and she could usually be found right in the middle of it.
"I just want all of this to be over." Her quiet voice tugged at his heart, and against his better judgement he dropped a downy kiss on the crown of her head.
"I know. It's gonna be hard."
They sat in contemplative silence for a few minutes more.
"I guess we're going to have to confirm those statements we gave Wolff," she offered. "And go along with whatever further investigations the police want to do."
He nodded cautiously, watching her. She seemed so in control…
"And we're — I'd better decide what to do with all Lex's *stuff*."
He almost-chuckled at the disgusted way she mentioned billions of dollars and at least a thousand other assets.
"What are you going to do with the money?"
She sighed softly. "I guess I should do the noble thing, right? Forget about all the things we need and pour it into a couple of charities. Wouldn't he just hate that?"
He smiled against her hair.
"But I keep thinking of the life I could give Jon if I held onto it. I wouldn't ever have to worry about money or security. I could be right here with him all the time, he wouldn't end up hating me because he never saw me when he was growing up."
"This is probably blood money, Lois… and besides, you'd hate that kind of life. Still living with Lex, constant reminders of his hold over you."
She stuck out her chin obstinately. "I could learn to like it."
"But wouldn't it be so much sweeter to do it on your own terms?"
"I just want a *break*, Clark." She dropped her head against his shoulder. "I know, I know I'm being crazy and really I would never take his money. But I just want to stop fighting the tide for a little while…"
"I know," he murmured comfortingly.
"I thought once we had Lex out of the way, it'd be like — snap! Everything fixed. Job, baby, home. But it's not. From here on, it's just going to get harder and harder and harder."
"You'll get a job no problem -"
She looked at him sadly. "No, really, Clark, I'm being serious. What have I got to offer any prospective employer?"
He stared at her. "You've got to be kidding me!"
At her enquiring look, he elaborated. "What about loyalty, hard work, sheer brilliance, nearly ten years of experience at the best paper in the country and three Kerth awards?"
"What about hassle, flightiness, dim excuses? 'Oh, I'm sorry, I couldn't go on that stakeout last night because my babysitter was booked up'. 'Oh, I'm sorry I didn't make that deadline, my son had his first Little League game'. 'Oh, I'm sorry I wasn't there to collect my Pulitzer, my kid had chicken pox'. Really, Clark…"
"Are you forgetting about what a great support team you've got going here? You think we'd bail on you when it comes to taking care of Jon for a few hours? Not a chance, Lane!"
She turned to him, her eyes anxious and yet deeply excited at the same time.
"We're not talking about a couple of hours, Clark," she said seriously. "If I'm going to do this, I need an employer who's… well… more than a little understanding."
"Somebody like Perry."
"Exactly." She nodded enthusiastically. "Someone like Perry…"
She was staring at him as if she expected him to chime in with a brilliant solution.
"Lois, I'm not following you here…"
She sighed. "Do I have to spell it out for you? I need *Perry* as my boss. And Perry… is a newspaper editor."
"But he'd never work for a rival paper…" He trailed off at her fierce nod. "Ah."
"We need the Planet back, Clark," she said simply.
The Planet. Security, stability, life, work, passion, Lois.
"You could do that?" he whispered.
"Why not? It is possibly the one thing I could do that Lex would hate the most."
He had to smile at that.
"It would get us all our jobs again."
He looked at her, her beautifully alive face.
"It would get us being partners again," he said uncertainly.
She nodded. "Definitely."
"Do you think you could stand it?" He tried to say it lightly, but it came out too full of hope.
"I think I could try." Her eyes dark and very, very serious.
He allowed his hand to slide along her check and slip into the dark silk of her hair. She closed her eyes briefly and when they opened, they were focused on his lips. She shuffled nearer… he swallowed as her perfume invaded his senses…
"Knock kn — oh god!" said a voice from the doorway, and the second was shattered. Clark looked up, his lips almost posed to kiss her, to see Jimmy framed in an agony of embarrassment.
"I'll be in the… I'll be… I'll be outside," he fumbled, his cheeks flaming. "Good to… ahm, good to see you again, Lois." And he was gone.
What was he *doing*?!
He jumped up and off the couch in one fluid movement. He had to get away from there before he did something really, really stupid, before he wrecked everything irrevocably…
//She's just gotten rid of her *husband*, Kent, and here you are trying to kiss her.// He recriminated himself in a nightmare of self-disgust.
"I'll… I'd better check on everybody. I'll be in the kitchen," he muttered, and beat a hasty retreat backwards.
~*One Week Later*~
"You're sure you've got everything under control?"
The four of them immediately assumed wounded, aggrieved expressions.
"You think we're anything less than competent?" Perry asked pointedly, arching an eyebrow at her. She grinned.
"I wouldn't dare assume otherwise… So you're clear on what you all have to do?"
"They're clear, Lois," came Clark's voice from beside her. He rested a hand on her shoulder lightly. Platonically. She swallowed.
"You all have the Kents' number, right?" she asked anxiously, ignoring him.
"Lois. I know that this is a big deal, but honestly, we won't let the plans fall apart while you're gone," Jimmy pointed out, his tone teasing. She smiled at him, wondering at how much he'd matured since she'd seen him last. The old Jimmy Olsen would never have dared to rib her gently like that.
Alice stepped forward and hugged her tightly. "Don't worry, Lois," she heard whispered in her ear. "Everything will be taken care of — everything."
She smiled and hugged the older woman back, full of appreciation at her discretion. "Thank you," she whispered back.
Discretion. Because what better way to spend Lex Luthor's money than in a safe haven for wives just as herself, wives with nowhere to go and nobody to understand. Wives who walked into lampposts and fell down stairs. Wives who tiptoed and spoke in whispers. Wives who stole money and dyed their hair blonde.
Not a Lois Lane Foundation, not a Lex Luthor Foundation. No huge charity extravaganza, no hype, no gloss, no publicity. Just a place somewhere in the city where women could get the help they needed, where they would never be looked down upon, where they could start living again. The first step along the path.
And who better to help them along the way than Alice White, former social worker, wife of one of the most influential people in the city, someone who cared deeply and someone who Lois trusted implicitly?
She stepped back, and then hugged Perry and Jimmy in turn. When she got to the last person, she kissed him on the cheek, grinning as he abruptly turned an interesting shade of magenta.
"Thank you for all your help, Charlie," she said, smiling. "I'll be seeing you soon. Keep up the song-writing."
"Count on it," he promised, grinning bashfully.
Stepping back, she picked Jon's carrier up by the handle, smiled at them one last time, and walked with Clark through the departure gates. On the way, as his hand squeezed her fingers reassuringly, she snuck a glance back at them, half-wishing that…
…she could stay and…
She closed her eyes and bit her lip. No, no, that was… that was selfish and… and… this was what Clark wanted…
Couldn't she do this, this one little thing, without complaining or feeling…
As Clark's fingers squeezed her own once more and then withdrew, she had the sudden, painfully acute sensation that the walls were closing in around her.
~*Twenty-Four Hours Later*~
"Okay, out with it."
She looked up from her seat and stared at Martha with no small degree of surprise.
"Out with what?" she asked.
"With whatever that's making you pick holes in my sofa cover."
Lois looked down at her fingers, which had been worrying at a loose thread, and jumped up as if scalded.
"Oh god. I'm sorry, I didn't even -"
"That's okay," Martha said calmly, smoothing an iron over a checked shirt. "Slow down, *sit* down, and tell me all about it."
She sat, tucking one ankle behind the other and brushing an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
"It's nothing, really," she began, brightly.
"Oh, Lois, honey." A sigh, and Martha's cornflower eyes looking impossibly sad. "Please don't insult my intelligence. It's Clark, isn't it?"
The even motion of hissing iron over creased cotton soothed her somewhat. "What makes you say that?"
//Careful, Lois. She's his mother. Think of how you'd react if somebody badmouthed Jon.//
She felt a surge of anger grip her at the suggestion, then flicked a glance over to the bassinette.
Maybe she should check on him. Just to make sure he wasn't… wasn't…
"Let's see. You don't address him directly. You avoid eye contact. You jump like a frightened kitten at the mere thought of being alone with him. You watch him through the window when he's outside working and sigh mournfully. You're not eating. And you're now staring at me like I have a direct line to your soul."
Her mouth was gaping wide open. She shut it with an audible click.
Okay. Out with it.
"I… I resent him, Martha," she blurted out, shakily. "I resent him *so* much… and I love him at the same time. I really do."
Martha's obvious shock was quickly schooled into an expression of pure concern. As if the surprise had never been there in the first place. As if it didn't gore her to the heart to think that somebody hated her only child.
She was just there to listen, not to pass judgement. How did she do it? *How*?
//I could make a fortune out of this stuff,// she thought hysterically, //if only I could siphon it out of her, bottle it, and sell it under the brand name 'Sheer Mothering Instinct'.//
"What makes you think that, dear?"
No animosity in Martha's voice. None at all.
"I… I'm not sure."
Silence. As if she were waiting for Lois to draw her own conclusions, figure it out on her own. No magic solution handed up on a silver platter — she had to work for it.
Why *did* she feel this about Clark? Why did she feel so resentful towards him?
Could it be tied up with Jon? These reasons?
But that made no sense either. Clark had been nothing but gentle and kind and fatherly to Jon from the second he'd started existing independently — and ever before that, if she was absolutely truthful. She knew that he would be there for her son, in whatever guise — as a friend, as a confidant, as an uncle, as a… a…
And Jon would need that — would need a male presence in his life. Surely. Surely he would.
How would he react to hearing Mommy pushed Daddy off a balcony…? Did she tell him? Did she wait until he found out for himself? How did she explain about his father without making him fear or hate her?
Not even a mother a month and already she'd screwed up…
She swallowed and dragged her mind away from the stray thought. Jon wasn't it… what was left? What made up Clark Kent?
Decency… a lust to make things better… unbending ethics, moral standards, and…
His love for her.
That had been a huge part to his personality from the very first moment she'd met him. The light in his eyes when she spoke to him, the complete comprehension of her craziness, the quiet acceptance of her flaws, the admiration of her good points.
And it was *gone*, wasn't it? These past few days. Gone completely. His eyes now flickered with warm camaraderie, deep appreciation for her friendship, and… and…
…absolutely nothing else.
She supposed she couldn't really blame him. To stop loving her after what she'd done. All the pain and agony and heartbreak she'd caused him, the man she'd just killed — all of it.
What was a man's love, anyway? Complete and unconditional? Phooey!
She'd made them unequal forever — she'd made sure she was the lesser party, hadn't she? A part of her would always be shrouded in darkness, shrouded in Lex, bursting with insecurities and self- recriminations — and he didn't deserve that.
She didn't deserve him, and he didn't deserve her. Whatever way you looked at it, Clark Kent, former champion of all that was good, either got landed with a victim or a murderess — and the jury in her mind was still out on which one was worse.
Love would never work between them now — he'd made that *very* clear.
A gentle, discreet cough.
Martha. Seemingly concentrating on the task at hand, but keeping a surreptitious eye on her — waiting for her. They all waited for her, even though she deserved less than nothing.
Oh, how she loved this woman, and loved Clark for allowing her to share his mother.
"I hate that I can't love him as much as he deserves to be loved," she whispered.
"So how have *you* been, son?"
He looked up from where he was stacking the tools back in their places, surprised by the serious connotation he heard in his father's voice. "I'm fine, Dad."
"Are you?" Jonathan's eyes clear and intent.
"Oh!" That metaphorical light bulb above his head sparked itself out. "You know that Luthor had Kryptonite with him, don't you?"
His father nodded, looked at him strangely. He fidgeted self- consciously.
"What's wrong?" he asked with faux casualness.
Jonathan shook his head. "Nothing. It's just you sound so… chipper."
What was the best way to approach this?
Don't show fear. Be blase. Don't care too much.
"So… yeah, Luthor had Kryptonite, and my powers aren't back…"
"…yet. They aren't back *yet*."
He shrugged uneasily. "I guess."
"Clark." His father's hand on his shoulder. "You've got to keep thinking positive, son."
"I am… I am." He swallowed, sighed. "But…"
"But?" Jonathan's voice was sharp, and despite himself he jumped a little.
"I don't know, Dad. I just… I'm not letting myself really… think about it."
"How can you not think about it?!"
"It just… won't be the worst thing if they don't come back, that's all."
"Clark, you *can't* give up -"
"No, Dad, I didn't mean I'm giving up. I'm not. And of course I'll be thrilled if they do come back, and pretty devastated if they don't… but it's not going to kill me. I'm not banking my entire life on it." He straightened up. "I have to prioritise. I have Lois and Jon now, and we're…"
"You're not his father, son."
He sighed. "I know."
"What exactly do you see happening? You and Lois and the baby in a little cottage with roses around the door?"
He half-smiled, then grimaced. "No!"
"But it *is*, isn't it? Have you even spoken to her about this?"
He fell silent, taking a deep breath and gazing out to where the sun pierced the purple hills.
"How does she see you here? As a father figure for Jon, or as a friend?
He resented his father for making him think about this. Resented him for making him doubt forever.
"I don't know, Dad."
"And… how do you see her?"
He laughed sadly, a small sound. "You have to ask?"
"So you want… what?"
He swallowed. "I want what I've always wanted. To settle down, raise a family."
"And you're banking on Lois making you part of hers?"
"What makes you think Clark deserves to be loved, Lois?"
Her heart nearly stopped beating. Of all the answers Martha could possibly have given her, she had *never* expected that one!
She stared at her, Clark's mother, so calm, challenging her son's right to love.
"No, really. I'm interested to know. Why do you think Clark deserves to be loved?"
"Because he's… nice?" she said uncertainly, laughing a little, hoping it was a joke.
Martha shrugged. "So are you."
Lex. Dead on the pavement. And the thud to her stomach, the nauseating consciousness that she'd killed another human being…
A frown creased her forehead. "He's good. And kind. And giving. And generous. And really, really loving."
Martha raised an eyebrow at her.
"For Pete's sake, Martha, he's *Superman*!" she burst, finally.
A tiny giggle burst from Martha's lips.
"Forgive me, dear," she said by way of apology, "you just sound so much like someone who's trying to convince herself."
She shook her head, shook her body, trying to snap herself out of it.
"Well, why does anybody deserve love?" she said briskly.
"Exactly, Lois. Why does anybody deserve love? What makes you think Clark deserves love any more than you do?"
She swallowed. Tightened her lips. Hardened her heart.
"Clark wants a happy-ever-after, Martha. He wants a big wedding, and a family, and a house with roses round the door and a white picket fence, and… and… goodness knows, he deserves that, after everything, but I'll never be able to give that to him."
Martha's voice, sharply, making her jump. "And Clark has told you all this, has he?"
Space. She needed space.
She drew a deep, steadying breath, wrapped her arms tightly around herself then stood up and walked over to Jon's bassinette. She picked him out of it, smiling as he gurgled and grabbed at her hair.
"He doesn't want to hurt me." Lightly. Bouncing her baby boy on her hip, supporting his head with the palm of her hand.
"That's not what I asked, honey."
She kissed the top of Jon's head, inhaling the sweet special smell of him. He smelled of talcum powder and baby oil; he smelled of purity and freshness. His creamy skin, his round innocent eyes — heartbreakingly new. A tiny bundle of dreams waiting to be formed.
"You know, Jonathan's been an awful long time out there," came Martha's voice, casually. Lois's head flicked around in surprise as she noticed the change in gear. "I need him to do some lifting for me, and I'm sure Clark can finish up on his own. Would you run out to the barn and ask him to come in for me?"
She narrowed her eyes at Martha suspicious. Heavy lifting? Just about the phoniest excuse since the Cheese of the Month club…
Noting the guileless innocence in Martha's eyes, she sighed and gave in, handing her baby over.
"I'll be back in a minute," she said grudgingly, and headed out the door towards the barn.
"I don't know how Lois sees me," he said, frowning. "I'm willing to wait until she puts me into a category. I'll be there for her, no matter what."
"But what happens if Lois decides you're 'just a friend'? What will you do then?"
He shrugged, stuck his hands in his pockets. "Well, I'll be 'just a friend'. And I'll wait."
Jonathan sighed. "You're always waiting for her, Clark."
Hating his father now. Hating him for making him think like this.
"There's nobody else, Dad," he said simply. "There will never be anybody else."
His father's hand on his shoulder. "I just don't want to see you hurt, son."
He swallowed. "I know."
"From what I've seen, you're already acting like you two have a definite future."
His head snapped up and around. "What do you mean?"
Jonathan's eyes on him, watching him quietly. "You're always… there, Clark. You're always around her. Being with her. Watching her. Rushing to Jon when he cries. And at the same time, you're pulling away from her."
"So what?" Belligerently. How dare his father do this? How dare he?
Jonathan sighed again. "Don't be angry, son. I'm just saying — be careful not to confuse her, and at the same time be careful not to crowd her. Things aren't going to fall perfectly into line for her — for either of you. You two still have one heck of a lot of issues to work out. Be careful not to scare her away in the process."
Tightness in his chest, in his throat.
"I'm just so *sick* of it!" he half-yelled. "I'm so *sick* of hiding everything, I'm so sick of Luthor hanging over my entire life, making me afraid to tell Lois I love her, I'm so *sick* of pretending it doesn't kill me to see her so downtrodden… I just want to make it *better*! I just want it to be better…"
His knees buckled and he sat down with a thump, surprised.
And then his head snapped up and around as a dark shadow caught the corner of his eye. His innards jumped unpleasantly.
She moved her feet very slowly, towards him. Her mouth opened, telling Jonathan his wife wanted him, and some nether region of her mind watched him scurry from the scene. Everything else was fixated on Clark.
Clark, who was white as a sheet. Clark, whose eyes were wide and torn with anguish. Clark, whose chest was heaving agitatedly.
Clark, who she'd just heard screaming… screaming that… that…
"What was that?" she asked abruptly.
His dark eyes were watching her fearfully, and she wanted to scream. He was *afraid* of her reaction, afraid that she'd… she'd what? Shun him?
"I… I don't know," he answered shakily.
"Oh, don't give me that," she snapped. "You do know. You know very well."
Watching her warily. Like she was a snake, or something.
"Why didn't you tell me you felt like that?" she barked.
"Felt like… what?"
She barely paused to roll her eyes. "If you felt bad about me being… what was the word you used? Downtrodden, wasn't it? If you felt bad about me being downtrodden, why the heck didn't you *tell* me?"
Still he hadn't moved. Still he was watching her. Still.
"Dammit, get up," she said suddenly. Surprised, he heaved himself off the ground and stood before her.
She examined him there, the sunlight streaming through the door. His eyes blinked rapidly behind their glasses, his bruises vivid, his hands clenching and unclenching, his arms bare and less tanned than she'd ever seen them in his sleeveless top.
And she came to realise — she'd been wrong.
She'd thought he'd snapped right back into himself — as if the past few months had never happened. She'd though he'd bounced and reappeared as Clark Kent — good as new.
And she'd been wrong. This fidgeting man before her barely resembled the Clark she'd known.
All her reservations came crashing down around her. She'd thought he had no scars from the fiasco with Lex. She'd thought it had barely affected him — thought him so perfect, so Man-of-Steel-ish, that it hadn't even fazed him.
She'd thought him so perfect and so strong — that he could survive on his own, without her. She'd thought him so free from Lex — so free that wasting his time with her would hang around his neck like a stone. So faultless that to saddle him with a murderess and her child would be outright brutality.
She'd thought he was indifferent to her. She'd thought he'd completely changed his opinion of her.
And she'd been *wrong*.
Now she could see the carefully constructed mask he'd built around his true features. Now she could see exactly what Lex had done to him. Now she could see how much he was hurting. Now she could see how much he needed help, needed her — how much they needed each other.
The air whooshed out of her lungs, and she put her arms around his neck and hugged him to her tightly.
"I'm here, Clark," she whispered, her eyes shut tightly. "I'm here."
His hands came up to her shoulders, holding her against him, and his forehead drooped to touch the crown of her head. He sighed.
"I had a dream last night," he whispered. She froze. "Lex was back, and he was taking you away, and I tried so hard to rescue you… but at the last minute you turned around and said to leave you alone — that you wanted to go."
"Never," she murmured despite herself.
"You'll never want to go?"
She drew back and searched his face.
"I don't know, Clark," she said simply, watching as his forehead twitched. Hating herself for making him doubt her. "I don't know what I'm going to feel in the next year… five years… ten years. I don't know if I'll never want to go. Maybe I will. Maybe I will want to leave you."
She could see him swallowing — the sight bringing fresh waves of pain to her heart, and also a strange sort of elation. This man didn't want her to leave, this man's feelings ran way, way beyond friendship.
"I wanted to leave you," she said, wincing as a spasm passed his face. "Just now. I wanted to leave you. I wanted to leave this; I didn't think it would work. I still don't think it'll work…"
"What won't work?" His voice, quiet. He let her go — took a step back — but kept his hold over her hands.
Staring at his temple. The rich deep pools of his eyes threatening to draw her in.
"This. Us. Together. We're both so damaged — both so broken — how are we supposed to have any kind of relationship?"
His fingers squeezed involuntarily. Inwardly, she smiled. He wasn't shrinking back — she'd used the r-word, and he wasn't shrinking back.
"Oh." His voice, faintly. "I didn't know you… I didn't know…"
"I wanted to leave," she repeated.
He dropped her hands. "Well, if that's how you feel…"
"Clark, you're not listening." She placed a hand under his chin, forced him to look up. "I said I wanted to leave you… but I don't any more. And you know what else?"
"What?" His eyes uncertain.
"I can't be certain I'll never want to leave you, ever again," she told him honestly. "What I *can* guarantee… is that I'll want you to stop me."
A flame of hope engulfing his iris. "Stop you?"
"Always," she said quietly, and she knew it was true.
She was going to trust him. Trust him to like her, to love her, to forgive her and never to forget her.
She was going to go through this with him — go through the banishing of their ghosts, go through the police investigations, go through the fiasco of Lex's will, go through the dividing of his property, go through the rebuilding of the Daily Planet, go through whatever else life threw at them.
Because she loved him. She knew that.
"I want us to do this together," she said, sliding her hand down to find his — squeezing his fingers. "I want to work through the next stages with you. I want to help you — and I want you to help me."
He sucked in his breath. "That's what I want too, Lois — that's all I've ever wanted. For us to be together. As friends."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Not as friends. The one constant in my life, Clark? The one thing that will never change?"
She watched him standing there with his heart in his eyes — wanting to imprint the memory into her brain, wanting to remember the last time he was ever doubtful about her love for him.
"That I love you," she said quietly. "That will never change."
~*Epilogue — one week later*~
The moon came through the branches of the oak tree like shards of glass, jagged and beautiful around her. She sat leaning against the solid trunk, fragile in her simple white robe. A breeze played with her hair, her arms wrapped around herself in the moonlight, her pale skin contrasting sharply with the black of the night.
He'd caught his breath when he'd seen her, a glowing apparition at the top of the hill, and he caught his breath now, standing there in front of her. Incredible that this woman could be so perfect and so unaware of perfection, so innocent and yet so knowing, so oblivious to her flawlessness in the ink of the darkness and the lustre of the moon.
"Lois," he breathed finally, a whisper, the beat of gossamer wings in the silky night.
Slowly she opened her eyes, and he knew that she'd known he was standing there. She surveyed him for a long time before opening her mouth.
"Hey." It was both an acknowledgement and an invitation. He slid down beside her, wrapped his arm around her, aching with tenderness for the glimmer of barely-suppressed tears in her eyes.
"A bad dream?"
She nodded, as if ashamed to admit it, and his heart nearly burst with the depth of his feeling.
"It'll stop eventually," he murmured into the silk of her hair, watching stray strands ripple and sway at his breath. "You do know that. It'll go away."
She nodded slowly, her hands clasped around her knees. "I know. It's just…"
"The waiting." He knew. He completely understood. "I have it too. Flashbacks of… of…"
Her hand on his. Squeezing gently, kneading his knuckles with her thumb. He fell quiet, let his cheek slip down onto the top of her head.
He didn't say any more for a long, long moment. He knew that his presence there was worth whatever explanation he could have given her.
Finally, he curved his hands gently around her shoulders and shifted her onto his lap. She settled like she was made to fit there, and he closed his eyes and hoped…
"We're floating," she said, after a minute.
He murmured a proud assent. His first step, all over again.
He could hear the smile in her voice. "They're coming back?"
"Slowly but surely."
He brought them once around the circumference of the tree and then back to settle on the ground.
She withdrew her head, looked at him. Her dark eyes a question.
"Is this a good thing?"
He fell silent for a moment, thinking hard. Was it a good thing? Was he ready to be a hero again?
"I think so."
He felt, more than saw, her smiling her approval.
"I have motivation this time, you see," he continued, and abruptly the question was there again. "Same as before, really. I need to be able to protect you and Jon."
A flash of indignation in her eyes. He laughed gently.
"I know you don't need protecting. Good grief, if you've proved anything you've proved that. Doesn't mean I can't pretend I'm the hero in this relationship."
Her eyes were filling.
"You're my driving force, Lois Lane. Without you, there's nothing super about me."
A tear spilt out onto her cheek and he wiped it away with the pad of his thumb as he would a drop of condensation on a priceless work of art. She caught his hand and held it to her face, closed her eyes.
"I don't think I've ever met anybody as 'super' as you," she said quietly, finally. "With or without me."
He shook his head. "Without you, I'm nothing."
"Yes, true. There would never have been a Superman without you."
"Is there going to be a Superman again?" she asked, quietly.
He looked at her for a long time, wanting to sear her in his memory, wanting to brand the moment into his heart forever.
"I don't know," he said softly. "I don't know if I'll be… if I'll be able to go back and do the job properly, with everything that's happened. I think I can safely say I won't be able to live in the city without helping out — but I don't know if I'll be donning the boots again."
"It's who you are, Clark," she reminded him softly.
"I know. But… if I do go back — go back in the superhero business — I'll always have to be somewhere else when I could be with you and Jon."
"It's *who you are*," she repeated, "and I accept that — it's part of the deal."
"But I'm not sure if *I* accept that, Lois. To have to leave you two unprotected…"
"Hey, mister, remember who you're talking to," she flared indignantly.
He smiled, drooped his head a little.
"I guess I should stop doing that, huh? Stop pretending I know how to protect you both."
"No," she said. "You need to stop thinking we're going to *need* protection."
"I love you, Lois," he whispered into her hair.
And then her mouth was on his and all his promises to himself about waiting took a flying leap into the lake at the taste of her. Oh, the feelings, the feelings uncoiling in the pit of his stomach, he loved her so much.
He ran his hands through her hair, over her face, welcoming her taste like a man in a desert would welcome a drop of water, as lost in her as she was in him. The silk of her hair, the softness of her neck, the touch of her hand on his chest…
A baby's cry broke out plaintively over the scene. As one they drew back, looked at each other and groaned.
"I love you, Clark," she whispered, looking straight into his face.
"I know you do," he said, a lump the size of a boulder forming in his throat as he looked at her — his love, his life, his future.
He heaved her up off the ground, and together they walked back to the farmhouse, to the place of fire and shadows where her son cried.
Behind them, the moon shone on and on, illuminating the branches of the big oak tree, intertwined forever and startling in their beauty.
(c) Sara, July 2005.
*'You save yourself or you remain unsaved', direct quote from one of *my* favourite books; "Lucky", by Alice Sebold.
One further note; One thing that came up while I was posting this story on the message boards was a question about the incarnate of Lex featured here. This was a problem I faced in this story, and eventually I had to just decide and say; I agree with the consensus that this Lex is much less in control and much, much eviller than the Lex we saw on the show. For one thing, I always did believe that the Lex on the show genuinely loved Lois — and try as I might I couldn't fit that into this Lex's personality. So we're dealing… have dealt… with a much darker Luthor here :)