By Shayne Terry <email@example.com>
Submitted: November 2005
Summary: In a world without Lana, Alt-Clark's history is different. He meets the woman of his dreams through a personal ad, never dreaming that he and Lois Lane will soon be partners. Their first case takes him to the last place that he wants to be — a Smallville that holds the secrets to his past, secrets that he has been running from for ten years.
Author's Note: I'd like to thank Wendy Richards for her help as a beta reader and occasional cheerleader. I'd also like to thank Sheila Harper for last minute help in finishing my story, as well as Dave, who also helped. I'd also like to thank the enormously patient readers on the fic boards. Their support helped me start the story again after months of being blocked.
Rights to all recognizable characters in this story belong to DC Comics and Warner Brothers, and no infringement is intended by their use in this story. Other characters are mine.
Single white Kryptonian male, 27 seeks native counterpart for companionship or more. If you're an intelligent, ambitious professional female, I'll sweep you off your feet and take you for long moonlit flights above the clouds. Agoraphobics need not apply. Non-smoker preferred.
"Am I asking too much?"
Clark Kent ignored the voices in the next room. It was something he'd have to get used to now that he was moving into the big city. It was still overwhelming sometimes, the sheer sound of the living, breathing city.
He smiled to himself. Clark was glad that he'd ignored the impulse to lead with "Mating Habits of the Knob Tailed Gecko." He'd put his more exciting stories on the top of the list, and along with his other references, he'd gotten the job. Once he filled out the paperwork required by accounting, he'd be hired.
"There has to be one man in the city of Metropolis who isn't a wimp, a creep, or a loser!"
This caught Clark's attention. Curious, he looked around, then lowered his glasses. Looking through the wall was simple, though what he saw on the other side made him gasp slightly in surprise.
"You grow up thinking there's a perfect someone out there for you, and you look for him. That's when you learn the ugly truth. The men who are intelligent, funny and handsome are dishonest married creeps. The honest and trustworthy guys are dull as dishwater, and all of them are threatened by an intelligent, competent woman."
Two women stood on the other side of the wall, one approximately his age, the other much younger. It was all Clark could do to keep from gaping. The older woman was stunning, and he was surprised to feel himself responding to her on a visceral level.
Clark felt as though he'd been struck between the eyes. He'd known beautiful women before and even dated a few, but none of them had affected him on a physical level before. It had been easy to remain aloof; it had driven the women crazy. Until this moment Clark had thought that he couldn't be affected by a woman; he was different enough from other men that it wouldn't have surprised him that he was different in this as well.
He had yearned desperately to be fully human, to feel the hot surges of desires he heard his classmates talking about. He hadn't had anyone to talk about his feelings with since his parents had died; he'd been lonelier than he knew.
"They aren't all like that, Lois!" The younger woman bore a distinct familial resemblance to her older companion. "There are good guys out there!"
"Maybe…but they get snapped up like blind little baby turtles headed out to sea. The good ones are married, and that leaves ninety percent of women out in the cold."
"Stuck with losers, wimps and creeps?" The younger woman's voice was skeptical. "If you really believe that, why bother placing a personals ad in the paper?"
"To get you off my back! I'm going to convince you once and for all that there are no good men left in Metropolis!" Lois shook her head. "I'm surprised you wanted to do it yourself. You date all the time!"
"Well, I haven't exactly been the best at choosing my dates. This sounded like something a little different."
"I still think it's a little tacky. A personals ad? How's that going to help me find the one person who will make my life complete?" Lois hesitated, then hurriedly continued, "Not that you actually NEED a man to make your life complete. I'm always telling the women in my NOW chapter…"
"It'll be fun, Lois. You haven't met anyone at work, and it's not like you have much of a life outside of work, so…"
"I have a life outside of work!"
Lois's protest sounded a little forced to Clark and his lips quirked in amusement.
"You'll do the posting for me, right? I wouldn't want anyone around here to get wind…I hear enough gossip in the bullpen."
"We could have gone to another paper."
"Any man who reads the other rags in Metropolis instead of the Planet is certainly not my idea of a dream date."
"Maybe he just needs to be educated."
"Haven't you learned yet, Lucy? If you go into a relationship expecting to change a person, you're bound to be disappointed. That's why all the guys you date end up being thugs and losers."
Lucy scowled, and then she spoke again. "I'll tell you what. I'll let you pick the guy from anyone who responds to my ad if you'll make me a promise."
"It depends on what it is…"
"You'll go on a date, and not once will you talk about your job or where you work."
Lois protested. "What a person does for a living tells a lot about them. How are you ever going to evaluate a person if you don't know where they spend a third of their day…or more?"
"Think of it as a challenge."
Lois grumbled under her breath.
Someone bumped Clark from behind, and he looked around. The line behind him was growing longer; he only had time for one more peek through the wall. He quickly memorized the ad the two women were working on, and the section number.
"Are you done yet, buddy?"
Clark shook his head, irritated. The man who had spoken looked like a reject from the teamsters union.
"I'll be done in a second." He looked back through the wall and the women were gone.
Clark sighed and finished filling out his paperwork. He resigned himself to waiting in line for a while.
As he waited, he found himself wondering about the effect the woman had on him. He'd always liked women, in a friendly way, but none of them had ever made him feel what this woman had at first sight. He'd assumed that whatever had endowed him with abilities far beyond those of ordinary men had also cursed him with an inability to be attracted to anyone. He'd been resigned to a lonely life; he wasn't able to confide in anyone, and without the ability to love, he was destined to be ultimately unhappy.
At least that's what he had come to believe. While he had never been struck by cupid's arrow, the whole idea of love fascinated him. He'd read the Kama Sutra, and the love writings of a dozen different nations, all in their original language.
He'd even explored the possibilities involved in sex, though he'd always been disappointed. He hadn't done it often; while he might not need to worry about pregnancy or disease, he'd always been concerned about the emotional well being of his partners. He'd come to believe that he was incapable of love; leading a woman to hope that more was possible was deeply wrong.
He'd wondered if it would have been easier had his parents survived. They'd always seemed to know the answers, and Clark had had many questions since their deaths. If he'd only been a little faster, everything might have been very different. He certainly wouldn't have lived the life he had; on the other hand, he might not have been so driven to succeed.
It would have been so much easier if he'd had someone with whom he could entrust his secret. He'd been utterly without guidance growing up, and it had been terrifying at times. There'd been moments he'd feared being institutionalized for odd behaviors, and only quick thinking and the determination to live a normal life had managed to keep him safe.
He forced himself to focus on the task at hand. He'd asked himself a million times how things might have been different, and it had never done him an ounce of good. As his third foster father had told him, you have to be practical.
As he collected his materials, his thoughts strayed back to the woman again. Her ad would go out in the afternoon edition. It seemed odd that such a beautiful woman would need to place an ad, but her sister's comments had seemed to explain part of it. She was obviously a professional, both by dress and manner of speaking. Her sister seemed to implicate that she was a workaholic, and Clark had heard that it was harder to meet people in the big city. People weren't as trusting, or as open to speaking to strangers.
Luckily, he'd managed to accumulate enough of a nest egg to stay at the Lexor hotel; if he hadn't found a job so quickly, he might have been forced to stay at the Apollo, which was a dump. The Lexor was nice enough to impress without creating a false impression of wealth.
He wasn't quite sure when he decided that he'd try and call the woman. Something about her had caught his attention, and he found himself thinking about her more and more often. As the hours passed, he became increasingly certain that it would be the right thing to do.
Clark had been alone for such a long time; he'd have to be careful about placing too many expectations on the meeting. It was possible that she wouldn't even call him back. Nevertheless, it would be worth it, if only for the excitement he felt low in his stomach. It had been years since he'd felt anything strongly; his parents' deaths and subsequent events had beaten much of the color out of his life.
It was worth any risk to feel alive again.
The afternoon edition of the Daily Planet came out, and Clark found himself flipping rapidly through the paper to find the personals ads. He felt elated when he found the ad he was looking for. He had to chuckle at the ad this Lois had written. Her list of qualifications for an ideal dream date was quite extensive; anyone who applied would be sure to fail in at least one of them.
Can you Keep Up?
Single White Female, slender, brown eyed brunette, seeks financially secure honest, well-educated, athletic Single Professional Male for romantic dinners, walks in the park, movies and trips to the theater. Tall, good-looking, non-smoker a bonus. Must be a man who isn't threatened by a strong woman. Hypochondriacs and narcissists need not apply. Access Code: 12694
There would be many men who would relish the challenge. Clark was one of them, and he found his fingers dialing the number almost before he could think.
The recording was a blank, generic female voice. Clark felt a moment of panic as he realized that he didn't know what to say. Confidence was the key in these cases, and it took him only a moment to regain his composure, just in time for the recording to begin.
"My name is Clark Kent, and I'm calling in reply to your ad in the Daily Planet. I'm new in town, and I'm looking to make a few friends." For a moment, he was at a loss as to what to say next. Perhaps honesty would be the best tactic. "I haven't called one of these before, and I'm not really sure what to expect. Blind dates are so… risky. You have all these expectations, and they almost never pan out. All I can really promise is to be a pleasant dinner companion and possibly a good friend. Anything else would have to be left up to luck."
Clark glanced downward for a moment at the personals ad. "I don't smoke, I'm six feet tall and I haven't noticed my face cracking any mirrors lately. You'll have to be the judge of how well I really fit your qualifications. Give me a call. My number is 555- 6232."
The beep of the recording ending made Clark wince, and he slowly hung up the phone. All he could hope was that she selected him out of all the other phone calls she would undoubtedly be receiving.
In the meantime, he had some apartment hunting to do. He couldn't live out of a hotel forever, even one as nice as the Lexor.
"Hey baby, gimme a call. You need a man, I need a woman, it'll be a match made in heaven!" The recorded voice was oily and smug, secure in the idea that any woman desperate enough to need a personals listing would be easy pickings.
Lois shuddered, staring across the table at Lucy. "That sounded a lot like Ralph, from work."
"Maybe it wasn't him," Lucy said hopefully, looking down at the speakerphone. "That'd be a big coincidence."
"Ralph is exactly the sort of man who answers personal ads like this, which is precisely the reason I never wanted to do this in the first place!" Lois stared challengingly at her sister.
"You've purposefully found something wrong with the last fourteen calls."
"They were all losers, freaks or geeks!" Lois said. "I could tell just by hearing their voices!"
Lucy shook her head. "If I'd known you weren't going to take this seriously, I wouldn't have pushed you into it."
Pushing a button on the speakerphone, Lois shook her head. "There's only one more call. If this one's a loser too, I'm just going to give up on the whole idea."
Lois sat up straighter as the voice on the line began to speak. Absently, she noted the pleasant Midwestern accent and the endearing sense of hesitancy in the voice. She'd have been able to dismiss him out of hand, but there was something about the voice that called to her.
"My name is Clark Kent, and I'm calling in reply to your ad in the Daily Planet…"
Lois felt a chill go down her spine as she realized that this call wasn't remotely like the others. It was reasonable, confident enough to convince her the man on the other end of the line wasn't a wimp, yet hesitant enough to keep from seeming arrogant.
Lucy grinned at her, even as the voice concluded, "I don't smoke, I'm six feet tall and I haven't noticed my face cracking any mirrors lately. You'll have to be the judge of how well I really fit your qualifications. Give me a call. My number is 555-6232."
The recording faded to silence, and Lois stared at her sister for a moment.
"If you don't go out with this one, I will." Lucy said quickly.
"He's probably fat and bald with four children," Lois said grumpily. She hadn't really thought she'd get a single reasonable message.
"Give him a call," Lucy said. "Set something up for tonight."
"Tonight?" Lois said, abruptly flustered. "Isn't that a little soon?"
"The longer you leave it, the more excuses you'll come up with for why you won't be able to go."
Lois could already think of several. She'd need to buy the perfect dress, she'd need time to do her hair and makeup and to pick the perfect spot for the date.
Perhaps Lucy was right. Overanalyzing the situation would be giving it more thought and worry than it was worth. Most likely, the man on the line wasn't what he seemed, and Lois would be best off proving that as soon as possible so that she could go back to her regular life.
Lois sighed. "Fine. I'll call him."
Lois Lane was more overwhelming than he'd expected. Clark sighed as he placed the receiver back in its cradle. He hadn't expected to get a response so quickly, but he was glad she'd given him a chance.
They hadn't talked long; apparently, Lois Lane wasn't much for small talk. She'd called, arranged to meet at a restaurant near the Daily Planet building, and warned him not to try anything funny, all without giving him a chance to get a word in edgewise.
Being with her was going to be a challenge. Clark found an unfamiliar sense of excitement. That he'd had an intense visceral reaction from the moment he'd first seen her had surprised him. He'd only been mildly attracted to women he'd met in the past. That he was already interested in her mind was an unexpected bonus. He'd have hated to be interested in a woman with nothing to offer mentally.
Glancing at the clock, Clark realized that he didn't have much time if he was to reach the restaurant by the time she'd specified. He suspected that she'd purposefully given him less than an hour in order to disconcert him. Already she was attempting to undermine the date.
With anyone else, her prediction would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately, Clark Kent wasn't just anyone. He had abilities beyond those of normal men, and he suspected that he might need all of them to keep up with the mercurial woman he was about to meet.
Within fifteen minutes he chose an outfit, ironed it, took a shower, and gave himself a last sprits of cologne. Fifteen minutes after that, he reached the restaurant.
Dating was an institution created by sadists, Lois thought as she arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes late. Between doing her best to choose the perfect dress, getting her hair and makeup perfect, and listening to Lucy complain about how long she was taking, she'd been suffering as only the perpetually single could suffer.
Of course, being married wasn't any better. Thinking about her parents' lives together still made Lois shudder. Lois had long ago concluded that bringing children into the world was worse than irresponsible; it was nearly criminal. She'd never met a single person who didn't come from some sort of dysfunctional family.
Glancing at Lucy, Lois said, "I really don't need you to watch over me. I've got a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, a bottle of mace in my purse, and I've been dealing with informants in dark alleys for the past three years."
"I don't mind," Lucy said quietly. "I'll just get a seat where I can see you. It's better to be safe than sorry, after all."
Lucy didn't trust her not to renege on the date. Lois grimaced. "If the guy is a pig, I'll give you a signal to page me."
"Fine," Lucy said. "But if I think you are just dumping a good guy…"
Lois shook her head impatiently. "I'll give him a chance, don't worry."
"Just because the guy isn't good looking isn't enough reason to…"
"Do you really think I'm that shallow?" Lois snapped irritably. "If anything, you are the one more likely to go after the pretty boys."
Lucy shrugged. "Just give it a chance."
Nodding, Lois reached for the door of the restaurant. She'd give the man until dessert; she couldn't be expected to go any further than that. She'd already formed a picture of him in her mind. He'd be a plain man; handsome men tended to be arrogant. He'd be a little shorter than the six feet he claimed to be, and likely a little overweight. Most likely, he'd have lived in a small town all his life, and he'd be opinionated in the way small town people who didn't know any better usually were.
Antoine's was a little pricey for the Daily Planet employees. Lois had chosen it specifically for that reason. It wasn't the sort of place she'd be seen with her blind date, and it would give her a chance to see if he was cheap.
She pulled the door open and stepped into the cool dimness of the interior. She was pleased to note that little had changed since the last time she'd been here with Claude. The interior walls were still painted in various hues of olive, taupe and cream and lovely Parisian scenes still adorned the walls. Live greenery hanged from a planter by the door. The tables beckoned with crystal and silver and spotless white tablecloths.
This early, and especially as it was the middle of the week, the small dining area was almost deserted. An older couple sat under the window enjoying their meal, as did a pair of professional looking businesswomen.
Only one figure sat alone, and as she looked, it was already rising. With her eyes trying to adjust to the dimness after emerging from the brightness of the sunlight outside, she couldn't quite make the figure out.
A voice spoke beside her. "Would you like a table for two?"
"Actually, I believe she's with me."
Lois found herself gaping at the figure who'd approached. She'd assumed he was a plain man because of the way he'd answered the ad, but she could see now that he'd been purposefully modest.
He was good-looking; stunningly so. After Claude, Lois would have thought herself immune to the effects of a good-looking man's smile, but apparently she wasn't. Immediately, Lois was suspicious. A man as good looking as Clark Kent should have no need to respond to personal ads. Something had to be seriously wrong with him.
"Mr. Kent, I presume." Lois fought to keep her suspicion out of her voice. Interrogations always worked best when the interrogated person didn't realize they were being questioned.
Nodding slightly with a half smile, Clark Kent gestured toward his table. "Would you like to take a seat?"
Lois stepped forward quickly, carefully not looking back toward her sister. Lucy undoubtedly was gawking at Clark Kent like a schoolgirl, and Lois didn't want to call attention to that fact. She stumbled slightly as she felt him move around behind her. It took her a moment to realize that he was pulling her chair out for her.
"A modern woman is fully capable of pulling her own chair out, Mr. Kent," Lois murmured reprovingly. Undoubtedly he was old fashioned and chauvinistic, the sort of man her father had been. "We've made that much progress in the last hundred years."
Clark Kent nodded as he found his own seat. "The modern woman can do anything she puts her mind to. That doesn't mean the modern man shouldn't be polite."
Grudgingly, Lois reached for her glass of water. He paid lip service to the idea of being a liberated man, but that didn't mean he was one. "So you aren't the sort of man who orders for your dates?"
"I don't know you, Ms Lane, though I'd like to," Clark said quietly. "I don't know your likes, your dislikes, your favorite foods, or anything about you really. That's the whole point of having first dates; getting to explore the life of someone new. I wouldn't dream of ordering for you."
Sipping her water, Lois regarded the man sitting across from her. He was an enigma. Handsome almost to the point of being pretty, he was dressed well. His charcoal gray suit set off his red tie quite nicely.
"You dress like a man who has a woman," Lois said bluntly. "Your shoes match, your clothes are obviously hand tailored, and you dress like a GQ model. Most men don't have the fashion sense to match their shirts with their pants, much less an entire ensemble."
"Now who's being the chauvinist? Like you said, we've come a long way." Clark paused for a moment, then grinned sheepishly at Lois's expression of polite disbelief. "I dated a woman in Italy for a time," Clark finally admitted. "She saw me as a project, a fashion victim in need of a clue. The relationship didn't last, but the wardrobe did. How about you?"
"How about me what?" Lois asked quickly. The man had been to Italy? Lois wouldn't have expected a small town boy to have traveled much. Could he be bragging? Lois wasn't sure.
"You're a very attractive woman. You dress well, you look like a professional. It's hard to believe you aren't dating someone."
"I date sometimes!" Lois protested. "I'm just a very busy person. Work keeps me swamped, and when I do get a minute of free time… well, it's not exactly easy to meet people in a town like this."
Clark nodded, then said, "So what do you do?"
The man had asked the question, and Lois could hardly refuse to answer. As she opened her mouth to speak, she noticed that Lucy had found a seat at the table directly behind Clark. She was gesturing.
Lois had promised not to talk about work. She wasn't sure how she'd be able to duck around it though. Perhaps honesty was the best policy.
"My sister pushed me into posting that personal ad. She thinks I work too hard, and that work is all there is to my life these days. She made me promise not to talk about my work at all."
Clark grinned, and if his face had been handsome before, it was almost overwhelming now. Lois hoped she didn't have a stunned expression on her face.
"That sounds fair. There's a lot more to people than just what they do for a living, and not talking about the one thing will give us more time to explore the other." He paused then said, "Just so you won't be tempted, I won't talk about my work either."
They stared at each other for a long moment. Lois found herself at a loss for what to say. Normally, she'd attempt to fill the awkward silence with some sort of long, rambling stream of consciousness babble, but she didn't really know this man well enough to come up with a topic of conversation.
The arrival of the waiter was almost a blessing. Lois took the proffered menu gratefully, quietly ordering the house wine in French. She was proud of her command of the language, though Claude had always told her she had a thick accent.
To her surprise, Clark Kent ordered a couple of heavy appetizers in flawless French.
"I thought you said you didn't order for your dates, Mr. Kent," Lois said tartly.
Clark glanced up from his menu and said, "I've got a healthy appetite. You can try the appetizers or pick something else if you'd like. I wasn't ordering for you."
Given the prices at Antoine's, that was a generous offer. Clark didn't seem concerned about the expense, and Lois couldn't help but wonder what he did for a living. Either he was simply willing to splurge a great deal, was good at concealing the winces of pain caused to his wallet, or he was fairly wealthy.
"You've done some traveling," Lois said quietly. It was a safe statement, given his story about Italy and his skill at French.
Clark nodded. "I've spent the past four years traveling through Europe and Asia. I've got a natural talent for languages, which comes in handy when it comes time to order breakfast and you are a thousand miles from the nearest American embassy."
"I always wanted to travel," Lois said. "I was an exchange student in Ireland when I was in High School, and I got to go across the channel to France a few times, but there never seemed to be enough time. Then once I got involved in work…"
Again Lucy glared at her from the table behind Clark. Lois sighed. "Let's just say there was never enough time to do the traveling I wanted to do."
Clark hesitated. "I'd like to lie to you and say that traveling is overrated. If all you do is take the tourist packages, it is." His eyes took a far off look. "Still…meeting the Dalai Lama, dancing with a Nigerian Princess, hiking across the Andes Mountains in Chile…there's nothing like the experiences you can find if you look hard enough."
"You traveled in South America too?" Lois asked quietly, her voice carefully neutral.
Clark nodded. "I didn't really spend nearly as much time there as I did in Europe and Asia though. The Indian tribes there have some fascinating herbal remedies…"
"I'm sure," Lois murmured. She wondered if Clark Kent really thought she'd believe his stories of being a world traveler. Bragging about the places he'd been wasn't an attractive quality.
"Still," Clark continued, "While travel has its place, I think there's value in finding a place to call your own. I haven't had that in a very long time."
"Surely there were your parents," Lois said. "It's never the same once you leave, but still…"
Clark coughed. "I lost both my parents when I was ten. I bounced around in the system until I managed to get a football scholarship to Midwestern University. The rest is history."
Lois froze. "You're the Clark Kent who played for Midwestern University?"
Sipping his water, Clark nodded.
"My father had a great deal to say about you. He always thought you'd go pro."
"He followed the game?" Clark asked.
Staring at Clark, Lois said, "My father is Sam Lane, and he said you sent more people to surgery than any other player in collegiate sports."
Clark Kent stared at her for a moment, his face slowly flushing a dull shade of red.
"That was only in my first year," Clark said defensively. It had taken him that long to strike a balance between aggressiveness and the safety of the people he was playing against. "And while I might have caused a few twisted knees, I never really hurt anyone badly."
Given his power, that said a great deal. Although he still wasn't sure about the real limits of his power, he did know that killing someone could have happened in the blink of an eye if he hadn't always been careful. An instant's distraction could have meant a lifetime of guilt. As it was, he'd had trouble balancing his competitive spirit with the safety of his fellow players during the first year.
He'd wondered occasionally whether he'd have had the same drive to win if his parents had survived. While winning the games themselves had been completely hollow, considering that he could have covered every position on both teams without breaking a sweat, he'd enjoyed the approbation and acclaim that came with victory. His lifetime of drifting from home to home without any sense of stability had left a huge gaping hole in his soul, a need for acceptance and love that he still struggled with at times.
Lois's voice was quiet. "My father didn't get called in for sprained knees."
Sighing, Clark said, "I didn't know what I was doing at first, and people got hurt." He was silent for several moments. "I still feel sick every time I think about it."
"My father did say that none of the injuries looked deliberate." Lois looked at him carefully. "He watched the game footage carefully. Still…"
Taking a sip of water, Lois said, "You seem to have solved the problem by your second year. Why didn't you turn pro?"
Shrugging, Clark said, "Football was never my real interest. I always wanted to be a writer, and…"
"You've done some writing?" Lois asked quickly. "I…" She stopped after a quick glance over his shoulder. Undoubtedly she was looking at her sister, who Clark had recognized immediately.
"I wrote a couple of travel books," Clark said. "It doesn't have anything to do with what I'm doing now, so I suppose it's a safe enough topic."
Lois's face brightened, as though the chance to talk about work without breaking her promise to her sister was a real treat. "I've wanted to do some writing. Does it pay well?"
"Nonfiction pays better than fiction," Clark said. "I've toyed with the idea of writing a novel, but I can't ever seem to really get started."
He'd been stalled on the first chapter for the past two years.
"I've been working on a novel too!" Lois said. "It's a romantic thriller, about a female reporter who gets involved with an organized conspiracy to kill a prominent senator."
For a moment, Clark was tempted to talk about his own reporting. Getting the job at the Daily Planet was a dream he'd had for as long as he could remember. The Daily Planet had been the paper his father had read every morning before heading out for yet another backbreaking day on the farm.
Instead, he simply said, "So have you gotten very far with it?"
Lois sighed. "It stalled out after the first three chapters. I keep trying to go back to it, but it really isn't going anywhere fast."
"The truth may be stranger than fiction," Clark said, "But it's a heck of a lot easier to write."
Lois seemed to have something to say, but their waiter arrived with Clark's appetizers. Clark grinned. Lois seemed surprised at the size of his appetizers.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like any?" Clark watched Lois carefully as she shook her head slightly.
"Isn't Vichyssoise usually the main part of a meal?" Lois asked.
"Cold potato soup isn't really my idea of hearty eating," Clark said, grinning. "But I think it goes great with a salad."
Lois looked wistful. "It must be nice to have a man's metabolism."
"I've got an iron stomach," Clark said. "Considering some of the things I've eaten, it's a good thing, too."
If it hadn't been for his alien immune system, Clark had no doubt that he would have had food poisoning at least once during his travels, as well as a host of intestinal parasites. Luckily, he seemed to be able to eat anything without any problems.
"I know a man with an iron stomach," Lois said. "Maybe you and Bobby Bigmouth should get together and…"
She froze again, undoubtedly at another signal from her sister.
After a moment, Lois said, "Excuse me, I need to go wash my hands before dinner."
Clark stood up as Lois rose from the table, and he smiled at her. From the corner of his eye, he could see Lucy heading for the ladies room. Undoubtedly they had a great deal to talk about.
The temptation to listen in was almost irresistible.
"I'm going home." Lucy spoke quietly as Lois stepped into the ladies room.
Lois protested. "I haven't talked about work, not once."
"You've been good," Lucy said. "But I can see I'm not needed here." She nodded in the direction of the mirror.
Lois stepped forward to the mirror over the sink. Examining her reflection, she could see something that she'd only seen in the middle of big stories. Her face was flushed, alive with interest, and she almost glowed.
Clark Kent seemed to fit the qualities she'd asked for in her ad, almost suspiciously well. He was college educated, spoke flawless French, and was undoubtedly athletic, given his earlier football career. He didn't look as though he'd put any weight on since college either, as so many ex-athletes had.
He was tall and good-looking, and so far, he didn't seem intimidated by her. Clark Kent had the appearance of a young professional, and his travel books had to have made him financially secure, given the amount of money he was spending on dinner. Antoine's wasn't cheap.
The only other requirements that she could recall having made were that he be honest and single, and those were the most important. Clark didn't have the pale patch of skin around his ring finger that might show that he was married, but that didn't necessarily mean anything.
She had doubts about his bragging about his travels, but something within her suggested that he might be telling the truth.
"You didn't hire an actor to play this guy, did you?" Lois asked. It would have been just like her sister to hire an actor to play the part of her dream date.
Lucy snorted. "Where would I get that kind of money? I'm the one leaving after getting appetizers, remember?""
Looking at Lois's refection in the mirror, Lucy said, "Besides, I want you to find someone to have a relationship with, not some short term fling."
A relationship wasn't something that Lois was ready for at the moment. She was busy with her career, was at the top of her game, and she didn't really have the time to be Lois Lane, Clark Kent's girlfriend.
The idea of a short-term fling though, that almost seemed to have merit. Lois hadn't been with anyone since Claude; she hadn't been interested in anyone. It shocked her to realize that she was interested in Clark Kent, interested in a deep, visceral way, one that made her toes tingle.
Lucy grinned at the expression on Lois's face. "I won't be coming home tonight. Joe wants to take me to a rave later."
Frowning, Lois turned to Lucy. "I really wish you wouldn't spend so much time with him. He's nothing but trouble."
Although she couldn't be sure, Lois suspected that Joe Johnson was involved in criminal activities. She didn't have any proof yet, but she still hated it every time Lucy left with him.
"Besides, why would you run the risk of getting arrested at a rave?"
"I'm an adult, and I can make my own decisions." Lucy grabbed her purse and said, "Just like you. Why don't you go out there and show Mr. Kent a good time?"
With that, Lucy stepped out of the room.
Glancing one last time at the mirror, Lois sighed and headed out the door. She wouldn't be able to enjoy her meal for worrying about Lucy.
Of course, Clark Kent was already showing a disconcerting habit of proving her wrong.
Stepping back into the dining area, Lois felt surprisingly uneasy. The evening had gone well so far; the fact that her sister had left shouldn't have any bearing on how she felt about the date. Clark Kent had been a perfect gentleman, despite the way he enjoyed bragging about all the places he'd been. Even if he didn't continue to be a gentleman, Lois knew she'd be able to handle herself with him. She was hardly going to allow herself to be alone with a man she'd only met this evening.
Relaxing, Lois stepped forward to the table. She was surprised to see that the waiter had already brought the food; usually the service was slow. Only a certain cultural masochism made the place popular; the food was good, but the prices were high and the service was poor. Lois supposed that subconsciously, she'd been testing Clark Kent. If he'd been a chronic complainer, she'd have been vindicated in thinking him a loser. If he allowed the waiters to intimidate him, he'd have been a wimp.
Instead, he'd spoken to them flawlessly in their own language and somehow won them over. The man had sidestepped that trap just as easily as he'd sidestepped all the others she'd laid for him.
He smiled and rose to his feet as she came around the table. Lois was surprised at the effect he continued to have on her. She'd thought that Claude had burned any last thoughts she'd had about spending time with attractive men completely out of her mind.
She sat slowly, and found herself returning his smile. They ate in companionable silence for quite some time, and Lois was surprised at how comfortable she was with the silence. With anyone else, she'd have felt compelled to fill the void with a stream of thought babble about any subject that came to mind.
With Clark, however, she felt immediately comfortable, as though they'd been old friends who'd only recently fallen back into their old roles.
She couldn't help but be suspicious of it. She wondered if this was what Lucy felt with each new boyfriend. An instant attraction burgeoning into an insane conviction that this person was some kind of soul mate. Lois had seen how Lucy's affairs always ended up- in heartbreak and disappointment.
Clark spoke, finally, saying, "I'm not sure I've ever enjoyed a dinner so much."
"After eating in all the great cities in the world, I'd hardly think that this was the best of them all." Lois frowned. "The food here is good, but it's not THAT good."
She looked at him suspiciously. He'd probably been lying about all the traveling he'd done just to impress her. She felt a moment's disgust. He probably hadn't actually had anything published either. Men would lie about anything to get into a woman's bed.
Clark shook his head. "It's not the food…It's the company."
Lois froze. The compliment was so unexpected, especially in the middle of her mental tirade that she couldn't help but stop. Heat rushed to her face, and she hated the way that her face immediately lit up into a pleased smile.
The best con men were always flattering. Still, Lois couldn't help but feel a small rush of pleasure. She'd been nothing but Mad Dog Lane for the last two years, and she couldn't help but respond to compliments about something other than her skill as a journalist.
Clark Kent really seemed to like her, and there was something almost irresistibly attractive about that.
"I haven't been having a horrible time," Lois admitted slowly. "The food is good, and the company has been…nice."
"Just nice?" Clark grinned. "I don't think my ego can take it."
Grinning, Lois said, "If you are like the other men I know, you'll have your ego reinflated in no time."
Leaning forward, Clark said, "I'm not exactly like the other men that you know."
Of that, Lois could believe. If Clark had been like the other men she knew, Lois wouldn't feel this off balance. She wouldn't be tempted to reach out and touch his hand, to allow that physical contact to lead to other, more intimate things. Clark Kent was a temptation that she didn't need.
"That's what they all say," Lois said, her voice sounding off kilter and nervous.
"How did you get to be such a cynic?" The tone of Clark's voice was nonjudgmental.
If someone who'd known her as Mad Dog Lane had made that comment, she would have taken their heads off. Clark, however, seemed genuinely curious. Lois realized, to her surprise, that she didn't want him to see her as Mad Dog Lane. She wanted to see her simply as Lois, a woman.
"Live in Metropolis for a while and ask me that again," she said quickly. "An idealist is really just someone who hasn't been around long enough to know better."
Clark frowned. "You don't think it's possible to maintain ideals?"
"We live in the real world, with real problems," Lois said. "Ideals are for dreamers."
Shaking his head, Clark said, "I think that's sad. Just because people can't always live up to their dreams doesn't mean the dreams don't have value. We wouldn't live in the world we live in if people hadn't struggled to make their dreams a reality."
"Crime, pollution, war, terrorism," Lois said. "If this is the world that dreams have left for us, then I'm not sure I see…"
"What about freedom?" Clark said. "What about happiness and joy?"
"What about them? You can't think that we've accomplished them." Lois asked. There was something about Clark's face as he spoke, a certain sincerity that was almost overwhelming.
"Ideals set a goal for us to strive for," Clark said. "And even if we don't always reach them, the fact that we try moves us much closer to our dreams."
Lois nodded slowly. "I suppose I can see that. Without something to dream about…"
"Right." Clark touched her hand, and for a moment, Lois felt as though she'd been struck by lightning. "Haven't you ever had a dream?"
Looking away from Clark was almost impossible. Lois felt as though she was hypnotized, her entire consciousness focused on his hand touching hers. There wasn't any way that she'd tell him the truth. The white knight she'd dreamed about when she was thirteen had been the fantasy of a young girl desperate to escape into fantasy.
She'd wanted a man who was as tall and strong as her father, a handsome, intelligent man. Unlike her father, however, this prince would love her. He'd never turn away from her, drowning himself in his work. He'd love her and only her, and they'd have a love that would last forever.
It was the typical romantic nonsense of a young adolescent girl. Lois had given up that dream long ago, as her experiences with men led her into disappointment after disappointment. Claude had laid the final nail into the coffin of her prince, and Lois had given up on the idea of romance altogether.
Even watching soap operas and dreaming impossible dreams had become too painful for her. Lois had learned to sublimate her desire into her work, and she'd been happy.
Clark stared at her with his deep brown eyes, and Lois sighed. She hadn't been happy. She'd been miserable.
It took her a moment to realize that Clark seemed to expect some sort of answer. She fumbled for a moment before saying "I may have had some when I was younger, but I don't remember them now."
The look of mild disappointment in Clark's eyes wasn't nearly as bad as telling the truth would have been.
The prince she'd dreamed about when she was thirteen had been remarkably like Clark Kent.
The woman was a cynic. She didn't believe in dreams, she refused to admit to ever having any, and she was continuously suspicious of him.
Clark thought he was in love.
Lois Lane was impossible, infuriating, and dangerous. She was also beautiful, intelligent, and despite her tough veneer, she was enticingly vulnerable. When she'd talked about dreams, he'd seen a sort of desperate longing in her eyes, as though she wanted to believe but just couldn't.
Now she was staring at him as though he'd grown a second head. She looked down at Clark's hand on hers after a long moment, and said, "I suppose that love is a kind of dream."
Clark found himself nodding. "Love is the only dream worth having. Everything important comes from it. Honor, integrity, altruism…it all comes from love."
"Integrity comes from love?" Lois asked, her expression doubtful.
"Where else? Integrity comes when you love yourself enough to do what's right, even if you have to face consequences."
Clark sighed. "When you see someone else doing something wrong, does it make you think less of them?"
"I suppose…" Lois said.
"So why should it be any different when you see yourself doing something wrong?" It took Clark a moment to realize that his thumb was moving slowly over Lois's hand as he looked her in the eye.
"We can lie to ourselves," Lois said. "Make up excuses."
"It never really works, though," Clark said. "In the end, you know the difference between right and wrong, and eventually you have to face the truth. In the end, integrity is all about love."
Clark saw Lois glancing down at his hand on hers. "And what about romantic love?"
After all his talk of honor and integrity, Lois expected Clark Kent to segue smoothly into talk about romance. In her experience, men who had to talk about honor and integrity were the least likely to have any of their own. Those who had it rarely needed to talk about it.
Instead, Clark simply sat and stared at her for a moment before speaking. "I really wouldn't know about romantic love."
"Surely you've dated," Lois said. "You haven't exactly been in a monastery all these years."
Unaccountably, Clark Kent flushed. "I've dated, sure. I just haven't ever been in love."
"Men seem to confuse lust and love," Lois said. "At least as far as I've seen."
"I don't," Clark said flatly. "I remember what my parents had, and it bothers me to see just how rare that sort of relationship is. Finding the right person isn't easy."
"The next thing you'll be telling me is that you believe that there's only one ideal person out there for each of us." Lois couldn't help the cynical tone in her voice. Who did he think he was fooling? Men weren't great romantics.
Clark seemed to consider the question seriously for a moment. "I'm not sure I'm willing to go that far…but I do believe that the number of people with whom we can find true, lasting love is really limited."
That seemed reasonable to Lois. In a city the size of Metropolis, Lois had yet to meet an available man who wasn't some sort of loser or creep. The thought that she might be sitting across from the one exception was vaguely unsettling.
Clark Kent was too good to be true, and Lois felt an almost moral obligation to prove it.
"You know," she said casually, "I'm a bit worried about my sister. Her boyfriend isn't exactly a good influence on her, and he's taking her to a rave this evening."
"So you want to drop by and check on her?" Clark asked. "That sounds fine with me."
He was too accommodating. Lois wondered what he'd do if she asked him to drop everything right at the moment. After the amount he'd spent on dinner, most men would be irritated to say the least at the prospect of leaving most of it on the table uneaten.
She didn't ask, however. She was still hungry, and the food suddenly tasted really good.
"I managed to get the address. Why don't we drop by after dinner?"
Clark stepped out onto the curb, his hand outstretched to hail a taxi. He was still wincing about the final price of dinner, but luckily, Lois hadn't been looking when he finally saw the bill. It was a good thing that he didn't actually HAVE to eat, because it would be a couple of weeks before he got his first paycheck from the Planet, and much of the money from his travel guide sales would go into making the first and last months rent on an apartment.
He glanced over at the woman beside him. It had been worth it though. He hadn't been sure, at first, but the longer they'd talked the more certain he'd become. She was the one.
The initial reaction of infatuation had only grown the longer he'd talked with her. She was stubborn and opinionated, cynical and yet had flashes of deep vulnerability. She was nothing like the woman he'd imagined himself as eventually falling for, and yet now that he knew her, he couldn't imagine falling for anyone else.
He'd have to be careful. Women didn't like men who were obsessed with them, and at this stage, he suspected that the best he'd do by revealing his feelings would be to frighten her away.
A battered yellow cab stopped in front of them, and Clark quickly ushered Lois inside. He followed her, and listened as she gave the cabbie the address.
In the confines of the cab, he was more intensely aware than ever of the fresh, clean scent of her. She intoxicated his senses, excited him, and aroused feelings that he thought forever dead. He'd thought that there was something about him that was innately uninterested in earth women. He'd feared that he'd always be lukewarm to every woman he met, that he'd always be alone.
The thought that he'd never find a love like his parents had shared had always been a bitter pill to him, but he'd become resigned to it. Lois gave him hope that it wouldn't always be the case.
When he was with her, he could ignore the horrible odor of the cab, the fumes from the street, the cries of countless people across the city shouting and laughing, loving and dying. When he was with Lois Lane, the world seemed to shrink until only he and she existed.
It took him a moment to realize that he was holding her hand. When he realized that she wasn't objecting, he felt a small rush of pleasure. Touching her was a privilege and a gift, and somehow, holding hands with Lois Lane felt more intimate than all the evenings he'd spent in Milan and Paris.
Before he even realized that it had started, the trip was over, and Lois was shoving money into the hands of the cabbie. Before Clark could protest, she'd pulled him from the vehicle to the end of a long, abandoned stretch of road near a warehouse. Other than a few vehicles parked on the street, there weren't many signs of what was going on.
Clark, of course, could hear the pounding beat of the music already, and he grimaced. Listening to loud, painful music wasn't his favorite experience; it was almost infinitely louder for him than it was for anyone else, and it left him feeling off balance.
Of course, he could still hear better than any human, even in the middle of all the noise and confusion, but compared to what he was used to, he was effectively deaf.
Nevertheless, he followed Lois as she quickly made her way down the alley to the single doorway at the end. She pounded on it, and he could tell that even her human ears could make out the music by now.
It took only a moment for them both to be ushered into the cavernous warehouse, which was packed with bodies. The music was a pounding, driving rhythm, fast and furious, sexual. Flashing lights illuminated the scene as a series of stills. Young girls in baby doll dresses, young men in baggy pants and tight shirts, couples in corners doing unspeakable things to one another.
Clark could see Lucy near the impromptu bar that had been set up at the other end of the warehouse. She looked as though she was arguing with a large, bald, tattooed man. Not being able to hear what they were saying was frustrating. Being forced to struggle through the crowds of drunken teenagers was even more so.
Lois had obviously seen Lucy as well. She was forcing her way through the crowds like a linebacker on a mission. Clark hurried to catch up. It wasn't easy; the crowds closed behind Lois almost immediately.
The pungent smell of marijuana wafted through the crowd, and Clark could tell from the glazed looks on the partygoers' faces that at least half the crowd was stoned out of its collective mind. Nearby he saw an older man passing something to a young teenager. Around the room, he could see several teenagers who weren't dancing, but who had a hardened, almost predatory look in their eye. They were watching the crowd carefully.
Feeling distinctly uncomfortable and out of place, Clark quickly pushed his way through the crowd. Someone in the crowd groped him, but after checking to see that his wallet was still in place, Clark didn't look to see who had done so. Being groped by a young girl who was dressed to appear even younger than she was would be bad enough; being groped by one of the young men would be even worse. All in all, Clark preferred not to know.
Pushing his way through the crowd, Clark could see that Lucy's argument with her date had grown more vehement. Lois had seen it as well, and she was moving more quickly.
Clark recognized several of the tattoos on Lucy's date as being prison issue, made by amateur tattooists using needles made from sharpened staples and home brewed ink. Clark hadn't spent any time in prison, but he'd had foster siblings who had, and he knew that the tattoo patterns spelled out nothing but trouble.
He could hear them now, shouting at each other over the din.
"My sister was right about you!" Lucy's face was flushed and her eyes were slightly unfocused. "I can't believe I defended you to her."
"I'm sick of hearing about your sister. This isn't about her…this is about us." The bald man was more in control of himself, though Clark could see that he too wasn't completely sober.
"You knew this was the one thing I wouldn't tolerate, and you did it anyway." Lucy's swaying grew more pronounced, and Clark realized that she was more than just drunk. Her face was sweaty and she seemed as though she was having trouble concentrating.
Before the older man had a chance to reply, Lois reached him. She grabbed his arm and tried to swing him around to face her, but the big man didn't budge. Seeing that he was barely paying attention to her, she stepped between him and her sister.
"What have you done to my sister?"
Lois had obviously seen the same thing Clark had, and come to the same conclusion. Lucy had been drugged.
The big man put a hand on Lois's shoulder. "Get lost. This is between me and your little sister."
The music came to a sudden halt just as Clark clapped a hand on the other man's arm.
"Take your hands off her," Clark said quietly. "Or I'll do it for you."
In the silence, Clark's declaration seemed to ring out. Lois knew it was only an illusion however; most of the people in the room were probably still deaf from the music. She'd been careful to stuff cotton in her ears before entering, and she could still hear her ears ringing.
Lucy's date stared at Clark dumbly, as though he hadn't heard the challenge that Clark had issued. In all probability, he hadn't. The hand on his arm and the look in his eye, however, left little to the imagination.
"You don't want to be involved in this," Joe said, his voice unnaturally loud in the silence.
Clark apparently tightened his grip, because Joe winced, and slowly released Lois's shoulder. He took a step back, and Clark allowed him to pull away.
"Why don't we discuss this in the morning, when everyone is feeling cooler? Miss Lane looks as though she could use a little sleep." Though Clark's tone was mild, the look in his eyes was not. Despite herself, Lois was impressed. He showed no fear at all at the thought of a physical confrontation with a man three inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than he was.
Lois could see people moving quickly out the doors, and for a moment she entertained the fantasy that it was in response to the tableaux before her. A moment later, however, the voice of the DJ blasted from the loudspeaker.
"The party is over, people. The cops are on their way. Let's file out in an orderly fashion."
Giving a collective angry moan, the crowd pushed forward. Lois could understand the irritation. The sun had barely set and the party was almost over. It wouldn't be easy for most of the partygoers to find an alternate venue to dance in.
"Why don't you just pay em off!?!" One teenager yelled angrily. "It's not like we didn't pay you enough at the door!"
The price had seemed reasonable to Lois, but then, she had a decent salary. She doubted that most of the people in the crowd had worked a day in their lives.
Lois glanced back at the two men, noticing that Joe had backed off. Both men had a look of concern on their faces.
"I think it's time to go," Clark said.
The sounds of the crowd were growing angrier, and for the first time Lois realized that they might be trapped in the middle of a riot.
"I'm not leaving without Lucy," she said.
Clark glanced at the doors. "I think the cops just reached the front. Is there a back way out?"
"How the hell should I know? I didn't organize this." Joe Johnson's voice was sullen.
Lois could see people returning through one of the doors, and the crowd surging away from that point. While she had little doubt that she'd be able to use her press pass to escape jail, claiming that she was covering a story, Lucy and Clark didn't have that same assurance.
Lucy's swaying became more pronounced, but before she could sway bonelessly to the floor, Clark had caught her and swept her effortlessly up into his arms.
"Let's go this way," he said, gesturing with his head.
Lois glanced at Joe, who was staring at them uncertainly. After a moment he cursed under his breath and stepped away, vanishing into the crowd of milling teenagers.
Clark moved as though he knew exactly where he was going, pushing his way carefully, but quickly through the crowd until they were behind the DJ's booth.
Lois could see the DJ and promoters hastily packing equipment onto a cart, which was pushed halfway through a door hidden by a set of red curtains.
Shifting his grip on Lucy, Clark grabbed the cart and quickly pulled it back through the doorway. Ignoring the angry shouts of the promoter, he stepped through the door, with Lois following closely behind.
The door led out into a loading dock. From this side, Lois could see that the curtains had covered a large, overhead hanger style door on the other side. Several vehicles sat waiting in the darkness, but none of them were running. Lois wasn't quite ready to add grand theft Larceny to her small list of crimes anyway.
Clark moved quickly through the maze of cars, as though he knew the route well.
Lois could see a heavy gate leading out to the street. She could also see the distinctive red and white flashing light patterns that told her that the police were outside waiting.
"This'd be easier if we had a phone." Clark said. "We'll need a cab when we get out of this."
Asking for a cell phone had been like asking for the moon, at least from the way Accounting acted. Eventually, everyone would have them, but for the moment, she was stuck doing without. She gritted her teeth. She'd have a word with Perry in the morning. It'd be nice if his reporters, while hanging over the jaws of death in pursuit of the story could at least call for help.
Clark found a door into the warehouse next door. He reached for the knob, and Lois thought she heard a metallic sound. The door swung open.
The odds that the door would have been left unlocked were slim, but Lois wasn't willing to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The darkness inside was total. Lois reached into her handbag and pulled out a small flashlight. A quick check showed her that other than the offices on the other end of the building, the warehouse was empty.
"There's no way out, here, "Clark said, looking around. "But I'll bet there's a phone in the back office. I'll go check."
He moved quickly through the darkness, and moments later, she lost sight of him.
Lois would have called out to him, but she heard the sounds of people moving around outside. She closed the door behind them, and switched off her flashlight. Lucy moaned beside her, and Lois quickly shushed her.
Lucy's head was hot and feverish, and Lois wondered what her boyfriend had given her. While Lucy might occasionally drink to excess, she wasn't a drug user. Still, Lois had heard that Raves were dangerous in part because it was easy to slip drugs into someone's drink unexpectedly.
The voices came nearer, and Lois forced herself to be still. After almost a minute, the voices subsided.
She heard the light sound of footsteps coming toward her.
"I've got a cab coming," Clark said. "Let's get your sister out of here."
"There are people outside," Lois said. "It'll take them hours to sort everything out and load everyone up."
For a moment, Clark was silent. Then he said, "I think we can make it. Come on."
Lois felt Lucy being lifted again, and she quickly grabbed on to Clark's sleeve. "Are you sure about this?"
"I've been traveling for quite some time, Ms Lane. I've got an instinct about these sorts of things."
A moment later, they were out the door and moving rapidly. The red and blue lights were still flashing, but the gate was open. Apparently, the police had chosen to take some people out through that exit.
Given the number of minors who were undoubtedly imbibing any number of illegal substances, they apparently weren't taking any chances.
Lois didn't see how they were going to get by the police, unless they simply waited them out. However, she wanted to have Lucy looked at by a doctor to make sure she wasn't seriously ill. Even alcohol poisoning could be deadly, and Lois wasn't sure exactly what else Lucy had been exposed to.
One by one, the bulbs in the street lamps around them began to explode, plunging the area into darkness.
"Is someone shooting?" Lois asked quickly, instinctively ducking.
"Let's move," Clark said, and a moment later they were. It didn't take the police long to shine the headlights of the police cars on the place that they'd been, but by that time they were around the corner.
Lois didn't have any doubt that someone had seen them in the red lights from the cruisers. It wouldn't take the police long to find them, and running from the police was only going to get them into more trouble.
She sighed. She'd promised Perry that he wouldn't have to bail her out again for at least a month.
To her surprise, a cab was already waiting on the street corner.
Clark opened the door and carefully slipped Lucy inside. Lois followed, while Clark walked around the car and got into the other door.
"Hey, you aren't one of my regular customers!" the cabbie said as Clark moved into the back seat.
Clark leaned forward and handed the cabbie a bill. "Let's just pretend, shall we?"
Clark was glad that he'd simplified matters by looking for the closest cab to the scene and requesting it specifically when he'd called the cab company. The other cabs in the area had already taken some of the people from the rave out, and so it was the only one that would have been able to reach them in time.
Everything would have been much simpler if he'd just been able to fly Lois and her sister out of the same skylight that he'd flown out of to find a phone. In a better world, he wouldn't have had to hide his secret. Still, no matter how much he liked Lois Lane, he wasn't stupid. His father had been quite clear about what would happen if he was ever to reveal his secret to the world, and in the years since Jonathan Kent's death, Clark hadn't seen anything to disprove that.
He doubted that anyone would be able to cut him up like a frog, of course. At this point, he had to wonder if there was anything on the planet that could hurt him. Still, once he revealed his secret, he'd never have a life again. He'd be hounded by the government, by the media, by curious on-lookers and gawkers. He'd be a freak in a fishbowl, always looking out at a world that would never accept him.
Still, it would have been nice to have had someone to share his fears and dreams with as a teenager. The desire…the need for comfort and reassurance was something he hadn't been able to eradicate from himself, no matter how hard he tried.
Lois called out an unfamiliar address, and the cabbie quickly pulled away from the street corner.
Glancing over at Lois, he wasn't surprised to see how focused she was on her sister. Lucy was only semi-coherent, but Clark thought she'd be all right. He could smell alcohol on her, and traces of other scents which had been wafting through the air of the warehouse, but he didn't smell any of the sickness that usually preceded serious illness.
"She's going to be ok," Clark said quietly to Lois.
"I just wish I knew what he'd given her," Lois muttered, not bothering to look at him.
Watching Lucy carefully, Clark said, "I think you'd better pull over."
The cabbie glanced into the back seat, then pulled over without making any comment.
Lucy crawled over Lois in her hurry to get out of the cab, and moments later, she began to heave.
Clark grimaced. The smell would have been overwhelming if he hadn't been used to it from when he was younger. Being a foster child wasn't easy; many of his siblings had taken the hard route out, and he'd been forced to hold their heads for them as they vented their sorrow.
Clark was out of the taxi and around the back, helping Lucy wipe her mouth.
"She'd better not puke in the cab!" The cabby's voice was belligerent. From the faint traces in his cab, Clark could understand the man's irritation. He'd had this problem before.
"We'll see that she doesn't," Clark said. It was probably best that Lucy's body reject the alcohol before it really hit her system. Her body wouldn't have as much to process, and she'd be less likely to have her system overwhelmed.
He wiped her mouth gently. "Are you all right?"
Lucy nodded. Her eyes were clearer now, though the misery in them was apparent.
"Did your boyfriend give you anything?"
Lucy shook her head, slowly. "The drinks were stronger than I'd thought they'd be. When I saw Joe…"
"Let's get you someplace safe," Clark said. With Lois's help, he managed to get Lucy back in the car, though this time with him following Lucy into the passenger's side.
"Take us to the emergency room," Lois said to the cabbie. Turning to Lucy, he said, "I'm going to have you looked at."
Lucy shook her head. "I don't have any insurance."
"I'll pay," Lois said. "Don't worry about that."
Lucy looked as though she was going to protest, but Clark placed a hand on hers and said, "Your sister is just worried about you."
Sullenly, Lucy settled down. The ride to the ER was made in silence.
It took Lois three and a half hours to finally calm down. They'd spent three hours in the waiting room, amidst a host of the world's walking wounded. Things had finally quieted down, and Lucy was in with the doctors.
Clark Kent sat in the chair across from her, looking as cool and unflappable as he had from the very beginning. He didn't even have the grace to look bored, or to fidget, or to complain. He'd been nothing but supportive the whole time and he'd shown quick thinking earlier.
"I'm sure this wasn't what you expected out of a first date." Lois said, finally.
"Well, it wasn't exactly how I thought it would go, but as dates go, this isn't so bad." Clark smiled slightly. "At least you made a memorable first impression."
Lois grimaced. "You've been really patient about all of this…"
"I've seen it before," Clark said. "You just do what you can and hope for the best."
Closing her eyes, Lois groaned. "Mother is a reformed alcoholic. I'd have thought Lucy would have learned her lesson."
"Do you drink?" Clark asked quietly.
Lois nodded. "Sometimes. I try not to do it to excess though…I don't want to end up like my mother."
"You don't want the people in your life to have to make excuses for you." Clark stared down at the floor. "You don't want them to watch you self-destructing."
Soberly, Lois looked at him. "I just feel helpless sometimes. It's not just the partying…this is the first time Lucy's done anything like this, and it may not even be her fault. It's the men. Lucy makes bad choices."
Not that her choices had been much better. Lucy's choices were just more obviously bad for her. Lois's relationships had always ended in disaster, and most likely, it was the choices that she'd made in picking her partners that had set her up for failure.
That was part of what made her attraction for Clark Kent so suspect.
She opened her mouth to speak again when she realized that a doctor was approaching.
"Ms Lane?" The doctor asked, looking at his clipboard. At her nod, he said, "I'm Doctor Wilder."
"Is Lucy going to be all right?" Lois watched the doctor closely for any signs that he might be sugar coating the truth.
Dr. Wilder smiled. "She'll be fine. Mixing MDMA and alcohol isn't a good idea, and she had a minor reaction, but she'll be just fine."
"Someone gave her ecstasy?" Clark asked.
"Is that what she told you?" The doctor's smile was patronizing. "We see a dozen cases like hers here every day, and they all try to claim that they weren't taking the drug voluntarily. I wonder sometimes why they even try."
Lois felt her face flush. "My sister doesn't take drugs."
Better than anyone, Lucy knew the damage that drugs could do. She'd lost a close friend to an overdose. Lois had barely known the girl, but Lucy had been affected deeply.
"I'm sure it makes you feel better to think that, but I doubt many drug dealers are slipping free samples into people's drinks." The doctor shook his head. "Now if it were Rohypnol, I could believe it, but…"
Before Lois could lunge at the doctor, Clark said, "When can we take Lucy home?"
"As soon as her mother comes by to collect her. She'll be sleepy tomorrow, but I understand that Ellen Lane was a nurse once, and she should be able to monitor her."
"You called my mother?" Lois asked, her heart sinking.
"She was listed on the insurance forms as the next of kin." The doctor glanced back at his clipboard, then said, "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Lois opened her mouth, prepared to tell him exactly what he could do with himself. Before she could say anything, she felt Clark's hand on her shoulder.
"I think that'll be all." Clark said.
Before Lois could deny that, the doctor turned and headed down the hallway.
Angrily, Lois turned to Clark. "What gives you the right to butt in? You know as well as I do that Lucy wasn't taking ecstasy."
"You weren't going to convince the doctor," Clark said calmly. "And you were about to say something you'd regret."
"Who made you my thought censor?" Lois felt her anger grow. "We barely know each other, and you already think you can made decisions for me? What sort of arrogant-"
The sound of Ellen Lane's voice stopped Lois in the middle of her tirade. Lois closed her eyes for a moment. The evening had turned into every nightmare she'd ever had. It had started out well, but as they always did, it had ended up with her mother."
"Lucy's fine, mother," Lois said, hoping to forestall the inevitable barrage of questions. "The doctor said that she could go home at any time."
Ellen Lane bustled into the room and said, "I know, dear. I know the charge nurse here, and she told me the whole story."
Of course Ellen knew the charge nurse. She'd probably been called as soon as the name on the insurance forms had registered.
"This isn't something you have to worry about, mother. I'll take Lucy home and give her a chance to sleep it off. You didn't have to come all this way."
"Don't be silly," Ellen said. "I'm taking Lucy home. She'll need someone with training to watch over her."
Lois could see the first moment that Ellen noticed Clark standing in the background.
"Lucy lives with me, mother. She'll feel more comfortable in her own room."
Ellen snorted. "Sleeping on your couch? She needs a warm bed and a good breakfast. I've got that. What are you going to offer her? Cold cereal?"
"I doubt she'll want to eat anything in the morning anyway." Lois fumed. Ellen couldn't cook any more than Lois could. Of course, Lois didn't have someone who came to cook for her three days a week either, but still…
"Who's this?" Ellen asked, looking up at Clark. Clark smiled.
"This is Clark. He's a friend. He helped me bring Lucy in."
"That was very generous of you, Mr…?"
"Kent." Clark reached out to shake Ellen's hand, but she ignored it. "I didn't expect to be meeting Lois's family quite this soon, but…"
"As far as Lois is concerned, she has no family. She hasn't called in weeks and getting her to attend family functions is like pulling teeth. What exactly is it that you do, Mr. Kent?"
"Mother!" Lois felt herself flush. She hadn't realized just how embarrassing her mother could sometimes be.
"I don't suppose it matters," Ellen said. "You won't last any longer than any of the others."
Before either Lois or Clark could reply, Ellen began ambling down the hall. A tall orderly stood at the end, with Lucy in a wheelchair. Ellen made clucking noises, then bent down to speak to her daughter.
Lois stared at her mother for a long moment before finally admitting defeat.
Turning to Clark, she said, "Let's go."
"You aren't going to-?"
"She's not going to change her mind, and she'll win in the end. There's no reason to even bother fighting about it. She'll take good care of Lucy."
"If you want to go with them…" Clark began.
"I haven't slept under the same roof as that woman in years, and I'm not about to start."
Lois knew better. Right now, her mother was focused on Lucy, but the moment Lucy fell asleep, she'd turn on Lois. Lois really didn't feel like listening to her mother carp on for hours about her lack of responsibility in reference to her younger sister.
She already felt guilty enough. She should have gotten Lucy away from her drug dealer of a boyfriend the moment she saw him. Instead she'd been indulging in her own pleasure.
Her mother would have hated Lucy's boyfriend. Then again, she really wouldn't like Clark either.
Glancing back at her mother, Lois realized that the idea of doing something her mother wouldn't do had more and more appeal.
"Take me home," she said quietly to Clark.
Staring silently into the darkness of the empty streets, Lois felt her anger begin to ebb, replaced by an inevitable sense of defeat. She'd failed Lucy, and it was only the latest of a long list of personal failures. Claude, her relationships with men, her relationship with her father- she'd been a success at none of them.
Somehow her mother was able to bring all her old feelings of defeat with a single glance. When Lois was around her mother, she was no longer the award winning career woman, the top journalist in a city of eleven million people. She was a little girl again, begging for every scrap of love and attention she could find. Lois knew what her mother would say when they next spoke.
Ellen Lane would claim that Lois should have taken better care of her sister, that Lucy wasn't old enough to make her own decisions. Lois could agree with that in part; she suspected that none of the Lane women were mature enough to make good decisions. Ellen's track record wasn't any better than Lois's or Lucy's. They were all intrinsically flawed somehow, damaged by forces they weren't even aware of.
The interior of the cab was dark, and Clark was carefully allowing Lois her own space. She appreciated that; most men she knew would have felt compelled to fill the silence with talk, no matter how banal the subject matter. She'd been guilty of that herself at times.
He'd been the perfect companion this evening- handsome, intelligent, non-judgmental. Lois suspected that Lucy would be in jail if it hadn't been for Clark's help. While Lois might have used her press pass to keep out of trouble, that wasn't an option available to Lucy.
That all assumed that her boyfriend hadn't had something more sinister in mind when he doped Lucy's drink. Lois shuddered at the thought of what might have happened. Lucy was the only family she had left, or at least she was the only one Lois really cared deeply about.
Lois still loved her mother and father, but she couldn't stand to be around them. With Lucy, however, Lois had been developing a deeper relationship, one that was better than the one they'd had as children. Then Lois had been the bossy older sister, trying to be the mother because her own mother wasn't able to do so.
They'd never gotten along as children. Lucy had hated being told what to do almost as much as Lois did, and she'd rebelled. Lois, in turn, had resented the special treatment Lucy received. Lucy had always been her father's favorite, and her mother's as well. She'd never had to face the pressures Lois had, and Lois had never had the feeling that Sam Lane wished Lucy was a son either. She'd been accepted by her parents for who she was, and that was something Lois had always envied.
Lucy hadn't been unaffected by life in the Lane household; if she had, she'd have made better choices and wouldn't be in the situation she was in today. Still, she'd never really born the full brunt of parental disapproval, and she'd never really had to take responsibility for her own actions.
Envying her sister's free spirit, Lois had consistently chosen the path of work and responsibility. Whereas Lucy lived life on her own terms, Lois had done everything she could to please an uncaring, impossible to please father. She'd done what was expected of her, rebelling only in her choice of professions. She'd struggled her way to the top faster than her peers, being one of the youngest reporters ever to win a Merriweather award, and later, two Kerths.
Success required dedication. If her father had left her with any message, it was that. In her father's eyes, work transcended friends, family and every other part of life. Lois had accepted wholeheartedly the message that Lucy had rejected. She'd dedicated everything to finding success and gaining her father's respect.
Until tonight, Lois hadn't really envied Lucy. Lucy's footloose ways, and her continuous string of fun but hopelessly flawed boyfriends had worried Lois, as did her lack of ambition. Lucy hadn't had any more success with her romantic choices than Lois had, though there had been far more of them. Lucy seemed to center her life around the search for love, which was something Lois rarely had time for.
Glancing at Clark for a moment, Lois had to admit that she might not have been tempted because she hadn't met the right person. Claude had been handsome, but Lois had known the moment that she met him that he was a misogynist. Mitch was hopelessly weak, and Paul had never had any real interest in her other than as a reporter.
Clark Kent wasn't like any of the others, and on a fundamental level, that worried her. He was too good to be true, too attractive in any number of ways. He made her want to throw her inhibitions to the wind and do something wild and uncharacteristic.
Lois was startled when she felt the cab pulling to a stop. She'd been so lost in thought that she couldn't remember most of the trip. She glanced over at Clark and opened her mouth to thank him for a lovely date and to wish him a nice life. That was what the level headed, sensible Lois that her mother and father knew would have done.
Of course, her mother and father had rarely been right when it came to her.
"Would you like to come up for coffee?" Lois found herself asking.
Clark hesitated, and for a horrible moment, Lois thought he was going to reject her offer. She'd thought that he liked her as well as she did him, to learn otherwise would be a colossal blow to her ego.
After a moment, he nodded. "I'd like that."
Before Lois could offer to pay, he handed several bills to the cabbie. Lois slipped out of the cab, and Clark slid across the seat to join her on the sidewalk.
"You live in a nice part of town," Clark said.
"It's close to where I work," Lois said, "And it's safer for Lucy."
She was better off avoiding the poorer parts of the city; she'd made enemies already. At least security was good in her apartment.
Lois fumbled for her keys, uncomfortably aware of Clark's presence behind her. She wondered for a moment what she was doing. Many men interpreted coffee as an invitation for much more, and Lois wasn't sure she was ready for that.
Lois's hands shook, and the keys fell from them. Clark kneeled and picked them up.
"I'll go if you want me to," he said quietly. "And if I do come up, you don't have to worry. Sometimes coffee just means coffee."
Lois stared at him for a moment, wondering how he'd known about her worries. She accepted the keys from him and felt a thrill of excitement as her hand touched his. She felt a long forgotten sensation in the pit of her stomach, one that she only vaguely recognized as anticipation. Sometimes coffee only meant coffee…but it didn't have to be.
Stepping through the Lobby, Lois headed straight for the elevators. At this time of the night, there was no one around, which was a slight relief. Lois didn't want to have to face anyone after the night she'd had; that she actually wanted to be with Clark instead of alone was something of a revelation.
Lois allowed herself to look at Clark's reflection in the mirrored surface of the elevator door. He was tall and strong, dark, mysterious, and handsome. He was everything the romantic heroes of her imagination had always been. Giving up the books, the television shows, the soap operas had been a mistake. While Lois had avoided thinking about romance at all for almost a year, it was all flooding back to her now, the loneliness, the desire, the endless aching need.
She'd been numb for a long time, and the return of feeling was almost painful.
The elevator opened, and Lois quickly made her way down the hall. With her keys ready in unsteady hands, she made her way inside the door.
Clark wasn't certain that following Lois into her apartment was a good idea. He could tell that she was upset, unsteady on her feet, and that she'd been deeply affected by what had almost happened to her sister. He'd seen the look in her eye, and he knew what it meant. He'd been exposed to enough women to know the signs of arousal.
Under ordinary circumstances, it wouldn't have been a problem. He'd never had trouble controlling himself around women. When they'd pursued him, he'd always made a conscious decision about whether to be caught, or not. He'd experienced passion, but never as the overwhelming, uncontrollable thing that other people seemed to sometimes experience. He'd always been in control.
With Lois, it was different. He found himself fighting the desire to touch her, to comfort her, to take away her pain. He wanted to kiss her, and he had to fight to keep his eyes from drifting to her lips. Her scent alone was almost enough to overwhelm him…not the perfume she'd chosen, but the deeper, intoxicating aroma that was uniquely her.
She'd have been mortified to know that he could smell her, that he could have picked her heartbeat, and her delicate scent out in the middle of a crowded smoke filled room. If he never saw her again, he'd always remember everything about her; how she walked, how she smiled, her look, her smell, her taste.
Losing control was dangerous. That was a lesson he'd learned over and over again since his parents had died. Yet Lois spoke to a part of him deep inside that wanted to surrender control, to allow him to throw caution to the wind and simply feel.
She frightened him, and yet he was drawn to her, inexorably.
Lois switched the light on, and he glanced around the apartment. Her touch was in almost everything he saw, from the uncomfortable looking couch to the almost perfectly hidden shelf full of awards. The place spoke of feminine impulses at odds with masculine strength, professionalism with romantic influences, utility and frivolity. The same contradictory impulses he saw in Lois Lane, he saw in the apartment, and it only intrigued him more.
"How do you like your coffee?" Lois asked. She glanced back at him nervously, as though she was afraid of what he would do…or of what she would.
"I like lots of cream and sugar, but I can drink it black if that's what you have."
Lois frowned. "I'll see what I've got." She moved quickly into the kitchen, and Clark found himself alone in the entryway.
He stepped into the living room, and found himself drawn toward the shelf with the hidden awards. He was tempted to peek using his special vision, intrigued at the thought of awards that were hidden rather than being fully displayed. However, that would be an invasion of privacy, and it would be a poor way of beginning what Clark hoped would be a beautiful relationship.
Getting her to tell him about the awards would be more fulfilling in any case. Lois was a guarded person; Clark sensed that she was very particular about who she trusted with her personal secrets. He very much wanted to be part of that inner circle.
He'd never even been tempted to reveal his own secrets until tonight. The thought of having someone to share his own vulnerability with was almost more than he could imagine. He'd been alone for as long as he could remember, even when he was in the midst of a crowded room. Lois seemed like the sort of person who would understand, who wouldn't look at him like the freak of nature that he was.
Clark turned slightly as Lois reentered the room.
"I hope decaf is ok," Lois began. She began clearing off the small coffee table in front of her sofa. "It's getting pretty late, and I'm going to need to get some sleep before work in the morning."
"If this makes you uncomfortable, I can leave," Clark began, his heart sinking. Lois hadn't looked at him since she'd reentered the room.
Lois glanced up at him, seemingly startled. "No, I…I want you to stay. You've been great tonight."
"You don't owe me anything," Clark said soberly. "I told you from the beginning…no expectations."
"That was a bit idealistic, don't you think?" Lois smiled weakly. "No matter how much we try to deny it, we all have expectations. You aren't at all what I expected from a blind date."
"Let me guess," Clark said. "You expected me to be short, overweight and bald, with an ego the size of Manhattan."
"I was thinking Texas, quite frankly," Lois said, smiling weakly.
"I'm not like other men, Lois." This was truer than he was willing to admit at present, but she had no need to know that. She'd had enough shocks for one evening; discovering that her blind date was actually an alien freak was hardly what she'd want to hear.
Lois slowly lowered herself to the couch, as though the mere act of sitting hurt. She grimaced, and Clark found himself quickly reaching for her.
"Are you hurt?"
Lois shook her head, grimacing again. "It's just stress. I get tension headaches whenever I have to deal with my mother."
Hesitating, Clark said, "I learned something about pressure points and therapeutic massage when I was in Asia. It's said to be helpful in treating migraines."
"I'd say that was the oldest line in the book," Lois said, staring at him cynically. "You aren't as different from other men as you'd like to think."
Until tonight, Clark would have disagreed with her. Lois had aroused something within him that he hadn't known existed. His entire life, he'd known that something was missing. Tonight, he had the feeling that he'd found it.
"I really do believe that I can help your headache," Clark said. "You have no reason to trust me, but I'd like to help."
Lois watched him closely for a moment before sighing. "All right. But if this involves scented oils, strange religious rituals, or me getting naked, you're out of here."
Clark grinned. "You seem to be the one with expectations here. Don't worry…it won't hurt much."
"Much?" Lois asked quickly, staring at him dubiously.
"I won't lie to you, Lois. It might hurt a little at first…but you'll feel much better afterward."
Hesitating, Lois glanced at him again, then sighed. "What do I need to do?"
"Just turn around so your back is to me," Clark said. "If anything I do makes you uncomfortable, let me know."
Lois nodded, wincing at the pain in her head. She slowly swiveled in her seat, glancing back at him one final time before facing away.
Clark used his special vision to make sure she didn't have any spinal problems before beginning. He rubbed his fingers together rapidly, warming them, then he placed them on the places where her muscles were most knotted.
The moment he touched her shoulders, he knew it was a mistake. He'd thought he could maintain his composure and simply give her the relief she'd asked for, but he was finding himself reacting far more strongly than he ever would have dreamed. There was something remarkably intimate about touching a woman's shoulder, about touching the gentle arch of her long, graceful neck.
He hesitated for a moment, feeling the blood rushing to his face. He was glad that she was facing away from him, or she would have certainly noticed the way he was reacting to her. When he noticed her beginning to look back at him, he quickly began to use the techniques he'd been taught by an acupuncturist in Shanghai.
Lois moaned, and it was almost all he could do to continue.
Clark's fingers were exquisite agony, pain followed by pleasure as the knots in her muscles released and relaxed, soothed by the warmth of his fingers. For the first time in recent memory, Lois found herself living in the moment, feeling instead of thinking, basking in the enjoyment of physical pleasure.
To her surprise, her headache did seem to be fading away, leaving behind only a sense of languorous warmth. That warmth was replaced in turn by a growing awareness of the feeling of Clark's hands sliding slowly over the bare skin of her neck.
To her horror, Lois found herself moaning. She flushed, glad that he couldn't see her reaction to his touch. It had been a long time since she'd enjoyed the touch of another human being, and she was surprised to discover that she'd missed it. Submerging herself in work had allowed her to forget, but the memory of that basic human need was coming back to her in a torrent.
Lois stiffened, but Clark's ministrations quickly had her relaxing again. This was why many people saw massage as a prelude to seduction. She never should have consented for him to do this. He was attractive, intelligent, exciting…it would be easy to fall for a man like him. Considering his behavior this evening, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
However, Lois knew better than to become physical immediately. Hard experience had shown her that it wasn't healthy for a new relationship, no matter how tempting it might be. She'd resolved after Claude that she would move cautiously, that she would only become physical with someone she could be sure that she trusted. This time around, she was determined to hold out for love.
She'd lost her belief in love, and so she'd thought that the physical side of life was a chapter that would be forever closed.
Her blush was gone. Lois said, "Clark…"
His hands stilled instantly on her shoulders. A moment later, Clark removed them entirely, leaving Lois feeling bereft.
She turned to face him, only to catch him watching her with a curious, intense gaze. In his face, she could see desire that mirrored her own, and she felt a thrill of alarm.
In the heat of passion, it was easy to lose sight of what was right or wrong.
"Maybe I'd better go," he said, clearing his throat.
Lois hesitated, then nodded. It would be the safest thing for both of them; sex this early in the relationship could only damage the feelings they had for each other.
She slowly rose to her feet, surprised to realize that her headache was gone. In truth, the tension that she'd carried in her shoulders for years was gone as well, and Lois felt curiously lethargic. She could have simply leaned back and rested against Clark forever, and she thought that it would have felt cozy.
Lois forced herself to look up at Clark and smile. "Despite everything, I had a good time tonight."
He nodded slowly. "I'd like to see you again."
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Lois said. She looked up at him for a moment, and realized again just how dangerously handsome he was. "Maybe next time we can do without the visit to the hospital."
"Just a calm, quiet evening out," Clark agreed. "I think I'd like that."
Lois nodded, then grabbed his hand. She pulled him toward the door. "I don't know about you, but I have to get to work in the morning."
"It'll be my first day on the job," Clark agreed. "I can't be late."
As they reached the door, Lois said, "I don't usually kiss on the first date, but…"
Before she could complete the sentence, Clark leaned down and kissed her.
It took Lois less than a second to realize that she'd just made a huge mistake. One kiss was more than enough to fan the flames of passion, more than enough to make her lose control.
One kiss seemed to last forever, and before Lois knew it, her back was against the wall, and she felt faint.
Clark pulled away from her, and Lois could see a faint hint of satisfaction in his eyes. He leaned down again, and Lois closed her eyes, thinking he was going to kiss her. Instead, she felt his lips brush by her ear.
"You knock me off my feet," he murmured. "But if I don't leave now, I don't think I ever will. I'll call you tomorrow…maybe we can schedule some more time to spend together."
Lois nodded slowly, her lips feeling swollen. She knew what she had to look like…her lips, her eyes heavy lidded with passion. She had to look like a mess while Clark somehow managed to look perfect.
Before she could say another word, he was out the door. Lois was left staring after him, wondering what she'd gotten herself in to.
Clark Kent certainly wasn't like any man she'd known before.
Between her concern for Lucy and her sudden realization that she didn't have Clark Kent's telephone number, Lois was finding it very difficult to focus on the staff meeting. Staring into the distance, Lois almost missed Perry's shocking statement. It took her a moment to realize that the other staff members had already filed out of the room, leaving her alone with Perry.
"You've got a new partner, Lois." Perry was saying. "He comes highly recommended, and I need someone to…"
Lois blinked. "You want *me* to drag a rookie around for the next few days?" Perry had tried forcing her to work with a partner on several occasions since Claude had left, but he'd never been foolish enough to demand that she work with someone new. He had the idea that having a partner would make her pay more attention to her own safety.
As far as Lois was concerned, a partner would only blunt her effectiveness as a reporter. She was the best reporter in the city primarily because she was willing to take risks that other reporters avoided. Her string of Kerth and Merriweather awards was proof of that.
It took time and effort to frighten a new partner away, time she could ill afford if she was going to have a personal life again after a long hiatus.
"You've just finished the cloning story," Perry began. "After what you went through with that, I'd figure you could use the time off."
"I know I've been working on the cloning story for the past few months," Lois said, her mind racing, "but I've already got a few leads on new stories. I won't have time to be dragging a rookie around by the nose."
"Honey, if you were anyone else, I'd force you to take a couple of weeks off. You were nearly shot twice last week. The boys upstairs are starting to worry that you are an insurance liability."
Lois shook her head. "I wasn't in any danger. The secret service wouldn't have shot me…they'd have just thrown me in jail. As for the rest…I haven't cost the company any more in medical premiums than Eduardo."
"Eduardo has seven children and a wife," Perry said. "And despite that, you've spent more time in the Emergency room in the last four months than his entire family has in the past six."
"It was a tough story," Lois said, shrugging. "And I never had any serious injuries."
Perry stared at her silently for a moment, as though he could make her admit the truth through sheer force of will, but Lois only stared back impassively. Finally, he continued. "As I was saying, if you were anyone else, I'd make you take a week off. You've been focused on this one story for far too long, and it takes time to shift gears." Before she could protest, he continued. "I won't ask you to take time off, but I will ask you to take it easy for a few days. Show the new man the ropes."
"Can't you get Eduardo, or Ralph to do it? Are you really sure I'm the first person you want a new employee to see?" Lois found her voice slipping into uncertainty, which she hated. She'd been Mad Dog Lane for so long that it was hard to remember a time when she'd been anything else.
"You can't keep this up forever," Perry was saying, and Lois realized that she'd missed more of what he was saying. "You'll have to start working with other people sooner or later, or it's going to get you killed."
Shaking her head, Lois said, "I work best alone."
Until last night, she'd thought that was true in all areas of her life. Claude had only been the final nail in the coffin; her experiences with men had been universally dismal. Her experiences with women had been just as poor. Linda King had been only the first in a long line of competitors who had used every means necessary to get ahead.
Perry spoke firmly. "Not this week."
Lois rarely heard that tone of voice from Perry. Usually, she could persuade him to do whatever she needed in pursuit of a story. Unfortunately, this time, she could tell that he would accept no arguments.
She could only hope that she wouldn't frighten the new employee completely out of the company. If she did, Perry would have only himself to blame.
"All right," she sighed. "I'll show him the ropes." Helping a rookie couldn't be any worse than focusing on Lucy and her mother, or trying not to think about how easily last night might have turned out differently. Lois had never been the sort of person to wait anxiously by the telephone, and she wouldn't do it now, even if Clark Kent HAD impressed her.
Lois continued, "But if he slows me down, I'm going to leave him behind."
Perry nodded. "I don't think you'll have any problems with that. By all reports, Mr. Kent is an experienced world traveler with an impressive resume. He should be fast on his feet."
Lois froze. "What did you say his name was?"
"Clark Kent…he's a world traveler. He's a minor celebrity in the travelogue circuit, and he has an impressive portfolio of freelance articles from around the world. Rumor is that he'll be up for a Kerth this year."
Lois spoke slowly, her voice sounding odd in her own ears. "I've heard of him. He used to play football for Midwestern, right?"
"That's right. You won't have any trouble giving him the grand tour, then?" Perry asked.
"I'll do what I need to do," Lois said. She felt oddly numb, curiously betrayed. Objectively, she knew that they'd both agreed not to talk about their work. What Perry had already told her about Clark Kent's background matched what he'd told her himself the night before.
Yet the odds of two people meeting randomly on a blind date and discovering that they'd be co-workers seemed outrageous.
"He's waiting in my office," Perry said. "I didn't want to bring him in until I had your agreement."
Perry had been afraid that she'd make an embarrassing scene. Lois felt a moment of shame, wondering how she'd come to a point where she couldn't be depended on to behave like a normal human being. Perry would have been right; she had little doubt that she would have said something acidic and asinine if she'd been forced to confront Clark Kent with no preparation.
Lois nodded and rose to her feet. "I guess now is as good a time as ever." She smiled, though the expression felt frozen on her face.
Perry watched her cautiously for a moment before turning and heading out of the room.
"Kent!" he said as he stepped into his office. "You'll be partnered up with our number one reporter this week."
Lois stepped out from behind Perry, watching Clark to see what his reaction to her would be.
She saw a moment of surprise flicker across his features before it disappeared. His face lit up with the smile that she'd found so devastating the night before.
"You must be Lois Lane," he said. "I've been catching up with past issues of the Planet this morning, and I've found myself becoming a great fan of your work."
Clark Kent was smooth, smoother than Claude had ever considered being. He hadn't actually lied, but he'd left the impression that they'd never met. Lois wasn't sure whether to be grateful or angry. She'd had a lifetime to learn to dislike dishonest men, but on the other hand, she'd have been embarrassed for Perry to find out that she'd already been involved with him romantically.
"You weren't reading the Planet while you were traveling?" Lois found herself asking archly. She'd reserve judgment for now, but she'd give him enough rope to hang himself if he so chose.
He smiled again, apologetically. "Despite the Planet's reputation, it hasn't been distributed to many of the places that I've been in the last two years. Otherwise, I'd have recognized your name immediately."
Obliquely, he was saying that he hadn't known who she was last night. If Lois could believe that, it would resolve many of her fears. As it was, she wasn't sure that she could believe anything he'd told her.
"We'd better get going," Lois said. "I'm thinking about doing a story on drugs on the underground party circuit."
Clark Kent nodded gravely, as though he wasn't surprised at all; in all likelihood, he wasn't. Given their experiences last night with Lucy, he couldn't have expected anything else.
"Unless you've got a U.S. senator supplying the drugs, I'm going to have to ask you to hold off on the story." Perry said. "I've got another assignment in mind for the two of you."
Although Lois was anxious to do anything she could to help Lucy, her newswoman's instincts told her to keep quiet. Something about Perry's tone of voice told her that he had a big story.
"I've got friends in high places," Perry began, "People who travel in the highest circles of power. They occasionally let me know when something big is going to happen. I trust these people…they've never led me wrong about anything important."
Lois knew that better than anyone. Without hints from insiders that something was wrong with the President, she'd have never been able to piece the puzzle together on the cloning story. Perry's contacts were extensive, and as far as she knew, they'd never led him astray.
"Still, I didn't exactly fall out of the turnip truck yesterday. When I'm told something that seems impossible, I'm a little bit skeptical."
For some reason, Clark Kent shifted uneasily in his chair. Lois glanced at him for a moment, before allowing her attention to return to Perry, who was continuing.
"Three people in the state department have told me the same thing, people that I've never known to lie, and yet I'm still not sure I believe what I've been told."
Lois found herself leaning forward.
"Something has been found in Kansas…something utilizing a level of technology unlike anything that anyone has ever seen. The materials it is made of seem to consist of metals and polymers that don't exist on earth."
Lois blinked. "You're telling me that they've found a UFO."
Perry nodded. "A farmer found it out in his field, and the entire town knew about it before the feds moved in. The government is claiming that it's a hoax, but they have quarantined the immediate area, claiming a toxic waste spill."
Glancing at Clark, Lois was surprised to see that he wasn't looking at either of them. For the first time since she'd met him, he looked pale and shaken.
It was his every nightmare come to life. The government knew, or if they didn't already know, they'd know soon. Jonathan Kent hadn't lived long enough to see the true extent of his son's abilities, but he'd seen enough to warn Clark against ever revealing them to anyone.
"They'll dissect you like a frog." His father had been adamant, and he'd frightened a ten year old Clark with stories of the possible consequences should the people in power ever find out about what he could do, about what he was.
Objectively, Clark knew that there would be little that they could do to him. His skin was impervious to any conventional weapon, and after he'd deflected the Nightfall asteroid from its course, he'd known that he was truly invulnerable.
However, deflecting Nightfall had undoubtedly turned the suspicions of the government toward the presence of an alien presence on earth, no matter what interpretation the world religious community had placed on the event.
The government couldn't hurt him, but they could make his life a living hell. He'd only now found a place that he could envision settling down in, and given the world wide communications network, even wandering as he had been wouldn't be enough to hide.
Clark didn't want to have to live on top of a mountaintop in solitude for the rest of his life. He'd spent too much time alone to contemplate living apart from the rest of humanity. His enforced secrecy was already almost too much to bear.
For the first time he noticed Lois and Perry White staring at him. He struggled to compose himself.
"Are you sure it isn't exactly what they say it is? Perhaps your informants have an ulterior motive for leading you on a wild goose chase."
"I know it's hard to believe, son," Perry said. "I'm not sure I believe it myself. But if I just let this one slide by, I wouldn't be the newsman I think I am. You'll both be on the first flight to Smallville tomorrow."
Clark hesitated, then glanced at Lois. Killing the story wouldn't be easy; it'd be infinitely harder with a reporter like Lois Lane at his side.
"I'll look into it," Clark said. "I know the town and it shouldn't be that hard to find leads." He hesitated. "Sending two reporters might be overkill, though. If Lois feels that the Rave story is important, maybe…"
"The decision has already been made." Perry said. "Lois is the best reporter in Metropolis, and if this story is anything like I think it will be, it'll take someone with her talents to get to the root of the problem."
Although Clark didn't know Perry very well, he could tell that the discussion was closed as far as the other man was concerned.
Clark didn't want to return to Smallville. He certainly didn't want to bring the first woman to whom he'd ever been really attracted to the place of his greatest sorrow and shame.
It'd been ten years since he'd been in Smallville, and if he'd had a choice, he'd have never returned.
Managing to avoid Clark Kent for the rest of the day hadn't been easy, but Lois had made the effort. Speaking to him immediately would have been a mistake; she'd have said things she'd have regretted. Despite the fact that her cozy plans for a relationship would have to be placed on hold, it looked as though she'd have to work with Clark for a long time.
She'd spent the evening reading through his news articles and travel books, and she'd been reluctantly impressed. The man didn't have quite her hard edge when dealing with news stories, but he had an unerring sense for the human side of issues. Unlike many human-interest writers, however, he was good about writing unbiased reports.
According to his bio, he'd been in the Congo at approximately the same time she'd been doing her drug running story. Given the size of the country, it wasn't a surprise that they hadn't run into each other, but Lois couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if they had. He'd been writing freelance at the time, and they could have worked together without actually being co- workers.
She hadn't had a hard and fast rule about dating people she worked with then. Before Claude, it had seemed only reasonable to be interested in someone who shared a similar work schedule and similar interests. She'd been naïve enough not to think about the aftermath of a breakup, about the awkwardness of being ex-lovers and having to work together.
Lois was older and wiser now, though she couldn't help but feel a twinge of regret. Clark Kent had seemed perfect, exactly the sort of man she could envision herself dating. He wouldn't have been threatened by her career, and he wouldn't have been a threat to it either.
Finding that the Lex Air tickets were non-adjacent had been a relief. Lois wasn't looking forward to the inevitable talk. She'd been dumped in enough relationships to cringe at the idea of telling a man that they couldn't see each other anymore for reasons that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her.
Even two seats back, she could hear him engaged in a conversation with an older man.
"Presley won't be re-elected," the man was saying. "After putting so much of an emphasis on the drug war with nothing to show for it, he's a political liability for the Democratic Party."
Lois couldn't hear Clark's reply over the sounds of the engines and the low conversations of the other passengers.
"Even the Democrats don't like him. They think he's a Republican in disguise. The Republicans think he's soft on crime and defense, and the Democrats don't see him as being liberal enough. At least Heston has a clear and simple message."
The repeated scandals that had rocked the presidency wouldn't help. Despite the likelihood that it'd be throwing the vote to the Heston Campaign, Lois, like many Americans, was planning on voting for a third party candidate. Which one, she didn't yet know.
She stiffened as she felt the plane roll in preparation for landing. She'd always hated flying; the feeling of being confined in a coffin made of tin foil had always made her uncomfortable. It wasn't that she was afraid of heights; it was the feeling of a loss of control.
Losing control had never been good for her; Claude had shown her that, as had a seemingly endless string of disastrous relationships. Clark Kent had been dangerous because he made her want to give up a little of the rigid control that she kept over her own life.
Sighing, Lois closed her eyes. She always wanted things that weren't good for her. She'd just have to make do with her life as it was.
Lois still hadn't spoken to him. She'd ignored him the previous day, and had barely arrived at the airport in time to catch the plane. He almost wished she had. While he hated the idea that she might be angry at him, concealing the truth would be easier with her a thousand miles and more away.
Facing the people he'd once known would be hard enough without Lois by his side. His legacy of shame was the last thing he wanted paraded in front of her. Given a choice, it was something that he wouldn't have told her until they were deeply committed to each other.
He wanted her to think the best of him, and that would be impossible in a place like Smallville. In Metropolis, he was the man he presented himself to be, suave, intelligent, successful. His secret life had little bearing on that.
In Smallville, however, he had little doubt that the others would try to force him to become what he once was. He'd left that person behind long ago, and had little interest in revisiting it. Other than a letter twice a year, and a check, he had no interest in ever revisiting his childhood.
The world was everything he'd dreamed it would be, now that he'd found Lois Lane. Returning now, after so long, would only mean trouble in his life that he could ill afford.
Commercial air travel was maddeningly slow. On his own, he could have reached Smallville in a matter of seconds. Being forced to sit in a metal box for two hours would have been intolerable without something to keep his mind occupied.
As the plane taxied in for a landing, Clark returned his attention to the man beside him. The man had introduced himself as Simon Hunt, and he wore the same suit and tie as most of the other businessmen on the flight. In his forties, the man seemed intelligent, but opinionated. Simon Hunt seemed primarily interested in politics, and after two hours, Clark found himself wishing he were anywhere else.
"The Presley administration has made great strides in health care and welfare reform," Clark said quietly, feeling that he had to say something to refute the man's grudge against the current administration. "I haven't seen a great deal from the Heston camp about any of the domestic issues."
"Presidents don't have any power over domestic issues. Congress hamstrings them. Foreign policy is their real job, and you have to admit that the president has had a few too many failures on that front."
As the man had spent much of the past two hours enumerating those failures, Clark didn't feel the need to respond. He was glad that he'd avoided admitting his profession; the man would have been even more likely to attempt to bend his ear. At least Simon hadn't pushed the issue of the scandals that had rocked the White House over the past few years. He'd confined himself to substantive issues.
"You've got business in Wichita?" Clark asked, hoping to change the subject. Smallville wasn't big enough to have its own airport, and so Wichita was the nearest city with an airport.
The man beside him shook his head. "I'm heading for Smallville. It's a small town a couple of hours northwest of Wichita."
"You have family there?" Clark asked. There weren't many business reasons to go to Smallville.
The older man grimaced. "I work for the National Inquisitor. Some farmer claims to have found a UFO on his property, and I'm being sent out to investigate."
Clark fought to keep his features composed. More reporters would mean that he was at more of a risk of discovery.
"I wasn't aware that the National Inquisitor actually sent reporters out," Clark said carefully. "I thought they just made all their stories up."
Simon Hunt shrugged. "You can't believe everything you hear. I expect that I'll get a few pictures and a few quotes and be back on the first plane back to New York in a couple of days."
Nodding, Clark pretended to turn his attention to the landing as the plane made its final descent. A man like Simon Hunt was intelligent enough to see the seeds of a real story if he knew that two reporters from the Daily Planet were sniffing around. Clark would have to be careful.
In this, at least, he could enlist Lois's aid. She wouldn't want anyone else to scoop them on a story. He already knew she was competitive enough to want to avoid that.
As the plane pulled to a stop, Clark turned his focus on Lois. She wouldn't be able to avoid him once they were on the ground. He simply had to find the right words.
"You've been avoiding me," Clark said. "And I'm not entirely sure why."
Lois grimaced. She'd hoped to avoid a confrontation, until doomsday if need be, but apparently Clark was going to push the issue.
She grabbed the ticket from the rental agent and turned to Clark. "We can talk about this in the car."
"I'll drive," Clark said, making as though to take the ticket from her.
"Why? Because I'm the little woman?" Stepping away from the counter, Lois hissed. "I thought I made it clear that I do the driving."
"At work I suppose that's true." Clark's expression turned mild. "However, I'll be able to get us there without asking directions. I grew up around here, remember?"
Lois scowled. "From the way you were talking back in Perry's office, I'd have thought you wouldn't care if we ever reached Smallville."
Clark hesitated for a long moment before saying, "If I had a choice, I wouldn't be going back. But the man I was speaking to on the airplane was Simon Hunt…"
"Simon Hunt?" Lois said stopping. "If he's already on his way, we'd better get moving."
She grabbed the only small bag that Clark had allowed her to carry, and set off moving quickly. She refused to admit that she was impressed by the way he moved while loaded down with enough baggage to drop an elephant.
"He told me that he worked for the National Inquisitor," Clark said, catching up to her. "Do you know him?"
"He won the Merriweather award the year before I did. He was a legitimate journalist until just a few years ago, and he's not stupid. If there is anything to find in Smallville, he'll dig until he finds it. He's not like the other Inquisitor hacks. He actually knows his business."
Lois almost thought that Clark paled, but she dismissed it as being a trick of the light. She walked as quickly as she could without running, and it took her only a few moments to find the attendant waiting with their car. She handed her ticket to the attendant, allowed him to take her bag, and waited for Clark to catch up.
The attendant handed the keys to Clark. Under normal circumstances, Lois would have protested the attendant's chauvinistic assumptions, but at the moment she was preoccupied.
Clark slid into the driver's seat and Lois closed her eyes, silently wondering how she was going to bring up a subject that she'd been wanting desperately to avoid.
Slipping the vehicle into drive, Clark spoke. "You have to talk to me sometime. We're going to be partners."
"That's the problem." Lois said. "We're going to be partners at work."
"I'm not entirely certain how that could be considered a problem. I'm looking forward to working with you." Clark glanced at her, "I'll do my best to hold up my end professionally."
"I'm not worried about the professional end of things." After reading Clark's resume and his articles, Lois had little doubt that he'd be a competent reporter.
"I'm relieved to hear that," Clark said, pulling out into traffic. "From what I hear, you don't exactly like playing with others."
Playing was exactly what she wished she could do. Instead, she had to give him the bad news.
"My concerns are more about the private part of our relationship."
"You didn't enjoy our date?" Clark asked. "I know it ended badly, but I can promise that most of my dates don't end like…"
"I don't date people I work with," Lois said flatly. She stared out the side window out onto the passing road, refusing to look at him.
Clark was silent for a long moment. "That's not exactly what I was expecting to hear. Can I ask why?"
"Experience," Lois said tersely. "Ask around at the Planet, and I'm sure you can get all the juicy details."
"I'm not going to tell anyone anything that you don't want me to tell them." Clark said. "I don't like to lie, but I'm pretty good at keeping a secret if I have to."
"I could see that," Lois said. She hesitated, then forced herself to ask, "You pretended as though we didn't know each other when Perry introduced us. Why?"
"I thought that if you'd wanted him to know, you'd have told him." Clark looked away for a moment. "Sometimes interoffice romances can be sticky."
"Then you understand why I can't…why we can't…" Lois fumbled with the words.
"I said they could be sticky, not that they couldn't work." Clark glanced over his shoulder and pulled out onto the highway. "Sometimes it's worth it."
"That's easy for you to say," Lois said. "Men don't face the same sort of pressures women do."
"I'm not sure that I believe that, Lois, Clark said. "These days a man has as much to…"
Lois interrupted him. "Do you have to work twice as hard as anyone else just so you can receive the same respect? If you did, you wouldn't be so willing to throw that respect away for a few days of pleasure."
"Is that what happened, Lois?" Clark shook his head. "You seem to have the respect of everyone at the Planet."
Lois shook her head. "I have three rules, farm boy. Never get involved with your stories, never let anyone get there first and never sleep with anyone you work with."
"I never said anything about sleeping," Clark said. "I don't think we know each other well enough for that."
Lois felt herself flushing. "I had those rules a long time before I met you."
Her new partner was much too perceptive for her taste. She'd been tempted by him from the moment she met him; letting him know that would be a mistake.
"It's probably a good idea while we're on the job in any case," Clark said. "If this Simon Hunt character sees us sniffing around and finds out who we are, you can bet he'd figure something was up."
Grateful for the respite, Lois said, "Maybe we shouldn't admit to working for the Planet. Nobody back home knows that you work for it, do they?"
Clark shook his head. "I haven't spoken to anyone back home in years."
"Then we can just be passing through. I could pretend to be your fiancé."
The idea had popped into her head with a flash of inspiration. "You could just pretend to be coming home for a visit. Simon doesn't know me by appearance…I could just pretend to be the little woman."
Pleasant possibilities flashed through her mind. The pretense of intimacy could be almost as good as the real thing. She should know; she'd had that with Lex, before he was killed. Discovering after he was dead that he'd been as much a liar as every other man in her life had been hard.
"You wouldn't want to do that," Clark said, turning to watch the road once again. "I didn't exactly have a happy childhood in Smallville."
Lois grinned. "So you were a nerd in high school? It'll do your reputation a world of good to be seen with a woman like me."
Smallville loomed on the horizon. For more than ten years, Clark had done everything he could to leave the past behind him, and he'd believed that he'd never return. Becoming the sort of man his parents would have been proud to know hadn't been easy; he'd had to struggle to change. Leaving Smallville had been the best thing he could have done; leaving being who he was and starting an entire new life for himself.
Yet with every advancing mile, he could feel the old persona settling back into place like an old tattered coat. Returning to Smallville was a mistake; Clark knew it with a sense of uneasy certainty. He was a new man, but the people of his youth wouldn't allow him to be.
Despite himself, he found himself growing more silent the closer he came to home. Lois, fortunately, didn't seem to notice.
"It doesn't look like much," Lois said, looking up from the stack of papers in her hand. She'd been silent for much of the journey, poring over the sketchy information in the files again and again, as though she'd be able to read something hidden between the lines. "Perry hasn't given us anything concrete to work with," Lois continued. "Just rumors of a hoax."
"There's probably nothing to find," Clark said. "Sometimes a hoax really is just a hoax."
"There's something here, or the government wouldn't have such an interest in it. I'm not sure that I buy the idea of little green men in Kansas, but generally, when people try to hide something, it's because they have something * to * hide."
"So you think that the government is really trying to cover something else up? Smallville isn't exactly the place where you'd expect to find spies or weapons' testing."
"Which is why you'd have them in a place like this. It's the last place that anyone would expect."
"You can't hide anything like that in a small town, Lois. Everyone knows everyone else, and people have a tendency to talk."
"Small towns are full of secrets," Lois said. "Sex, crime, deceit. Human nature doesn't change just because you change your street address."
Lois was more right about that than she knew.
Clark forced himself to reply. "A government facility would either have to hire a lot of locals, or it would at the very least involve a lot of strangers moving through town. It's not exactly the sort of thing you can hide in the back of a closet."
"What do you have in the back of your closet, Mr. Kent?" Lois looked at him curiously. "You haven't exactly been thrilled about coming to Smallville."
"I've already told you that I didn't have a happy childhood. My parents died and I was bounced around from foster home to foster home."
"It looks like you'd want to come back and show everyone what a success you've become."
"I haven't exactly made the sort of life that most of the people in Smallville would respect. I've never been married, I have no kids, and I've never lived in one place for more than six weeks since I got out of college."
"You've been to a lot of interesting places," Lois said. "And you are working for the best newspaper in America."
"That's not something I'm going to be able to talk about though," Clark said. "Writing a few travel guides is hardly the sort of resume to impress. If I'd become a doctor, or even a lawyer, maybe."
Given his past, he doubted they'd have accepted him even then, any more than he'd have wanted their acceptance.
The first buildings came into view just as Lois was turning to ask him another question. She reconsidered, then spoke.
"We'll drop our bags off at the hotel, then go directly to the farm of this man Irwin, who says he saw the UFO."
'Irig…the man's name is Wayne Irig.", Clark said absently. He hadn't realized how viscerally the sights and sounds of Smallville would affect him, how much they'd take him back to a time he'd rather have forgotten.
"Whatever," Lois said dismissively, flipping through the papers. "We'll probably get the run-around by the government people, but I'll have Eduardo run background checks on the people we talk to. If they aren't really employed by the agencies they say they are, we'll have them."
"I'd imagine they'd have something like that covered, Lois." Clark said.
"That's what you'd think," Lois said, "But we might get lucky. They haven't had a lot of time to set all this up; according to what Perry was able to discover, the craft was only discovered four days ago."
Clark made a right hand turn and grimaced. The incident would still be fresh in everyone's minds. "They'll have moved the ship, if there really is one. If Wayne Irig was able to carry it around in the back of his truck, it'd be easy to move to some undisclosed location."
Lois scowled as Clark pulled into the cracked driveway of a dilapidated motel. "The Feds are still here; that means they are still looking for something."
As Clark pulled into a parking space near the front entrance, Lois said, "You couldn't find us anything better?"
Shaking his head, Clark said, "There's a bed and breakfast down the road, but the Feds have taken all the rooms."
"If I have to fight off roaches the size of poodles, I'm coming after you Kent."
Clark shrugged as Lois shoved her door open. While he hated making her uncomfortable, having her distracted might be for the best. The sooner she wanted to leave the better.
"We are conducting a routine investigation, Ms Lane, into the possibility of soil contamination." The African American woman facing them appeared to be the epitome of the professional businesswoman, appearing as though she'd be more comfortable in a boardroom than as a government spokesperson.
"This seems to be a large scale investigation," Lois said. "There have been government agents seen all over the county."
"It's in the best interest of the public to discover the true extent of the contamination before it spreads. Most of our searches have turned up negative results, but we couldn't know that until we looked." The woman gave an obviously rehearsed smile.
"So the fact that the owner of this property was seen around town showing off an unknown piece of equipment and claiming that it was a UFO has no bearing on your investigation?"
The woman shook her head. "I can't comment on Mr. Irig's mental stability, or about his sense of humor. Our concern is to keep the public as safe as we possibly can."
"Speculation around town is that an experimental aircraft from the McClellan Air force base crash landed around here, and that the government is trying to cover it up." Clark looked hopeful, as though he actually expected the woman to change her story in midstream. Despite his experiences in foreign countries, Lois suspected that he had a great deal to learn.
"Speculation isn't reality, Mr. Kent. Do you have any other questions?" Glancing conspicuously at the clock on the wall, the woman rose o her feet.
"If this is an EPA Matter, why are there several army units stationed outside?" Lois asked. "Before my father went into sports medicine, he worked as an army doctor, and I know the look."
"Several governmental organizations are working in concert on this operation, in an effort to best serve the public."
Given the usual interdepartmental strife, that was in itself suspicious. Lois allowed herself to smile weakly. "I'm sure the public would be pleased to know that it was being so well served."
"Despite the beliefs of the lunatic fringe, the people ARE being well served, Ms. Lane. We live in an era of unprecedented governmental cooperation." The woman spoke stiffly. "We're here to do what's best for the people of Smallville, and of the United States."
"Who gave you the right to decide what's best for the people?" Lois scowled.
"You did, Ms Lane, along with the millions of other voters who elected people whose job is to make those decisions, and to hire others to implement them. The law is representative of the will of the people."
"Is there anything else you can tell us about what's going on here?" Clark asked smoothly.
"I have no further comment at this time, Mr. Kent. If that changes, I'll have my secretary contact you."
Ready to protest, Lois began to speak again, only to stop when she felt Clark touch her arm. Glancing at him, she saw him shake his head slightly. Turning back to the woman, she sighed. The woman most likely wouldn't budge, and pushing any further would only serve to antagonize her. If they were able to confront her with more evidence, they might be able to get a more honest answer.
"Thank you for your time, Ms. Houston." Lois said. "If we have any more questions, we'll be in touch."
The woman nodded, dismissing them with a look. Lois turned to Clark and followed him out of the makeshift tent that had been set up as the local headquarters of the "EPA".
"She's hiding something," Lois said. "I could see it in her eyes."
Clark had a far away look for a moment. He hesitated, then said, "She was irritated with having to waste time talking to us. I didn't see anything to suggest otherwise."
"That's why you're the rookie and I'm the experienced reporter. Sometimes you have to look beneath the surface." Lois grinned at Clark's expression. "Despite all appearances, you aren't on the farm any more."
The woman spoke only two words into the phone, and all Clark could hear from the other end was the ever-present electronic hum of the telephone and the sound of an indrawn breath. The woman tapped the receiver once, cutting off the connection and immediately began dialing another number.
Lois spoke, and Clark grimaced. Focusing on her words wasn't easy, but Clark managed. "You're looking for aliens, Lois. You can't tell me that makes you feel validated as a reporter."
"What, proof that we aren't alone in the universe? You don't think that would be worth sharing with the world?"
As far as Clark could tell, the next number the woman called was innocuous, simply business as usual.
Lois was still speaking. "What if Woodward and Bernstein had said, 'Conspiracy? Cover up? Naahhh."
Clark deliberately began to head in the direction of the rental car. "The problem with most conspiracy theories is that they make the government seem a lot more competent than it really is, Lois. Given the gaffes and the fiascoes of the last few years, I can't believe that you'd think that…"
"What if I'd just thrown the whole ideas of clones out as ridiculous?" Lois said, interrupting him. "Two years ago the whole idea of people using clones to replace major political figures would have been considered as much a fantasy as the whole idea of aliens."
"The clones were created by men," Clark said stubbornly. "The technology was there all the time, and it would have become mainstream sooner or later. Aliens though…even if they existed, why would they bother to visit our planet? They'd have to be less than fifty light years away to know that we're even here."
"Why fifty light years?"
"Broadcast television. I doubt radio signals would have been strong enough to have been detectable before television entered the picture."
"Maybe the aliens have already been here a long time ago," Lois said. "A whole lot of people seem to have stories about ancient astronauts."
"A whole lot of people seem to have stories about a lot of things. There's an awful lot of Santa sightings around Christmas, and if you believe the tabloids, he's really President Presley 364 days a year. If you keep this up, you'll be writing about Buddy Holly sightings and potatoes in the shape of John Lennon's head."
Clark reached the car door and grabbed irritably for his keys.
Lois tapped on his shoulder and said, "We're reporters, Clark. That means that we take risks. I took the risk of being made a laughingstock with the clone story, and if I hadn't, where would we be now?"
"You have to learn to look before you leap, Lois."
Grabbing his keys, Lois said, "If I looked where I was leaping, I probably wouldn't jump. I'm driving, Clark."
Sighing, Clark stepped back. Lois was in the driver's seat, and it seemed that she intended to stay there. Throwing her off the trail wouldn't be easy.
The police car sat silently, brooding as the car pulled out of the parking lot. Within the confines of its dark interior, Rachel sat, numb. She'd never really expected Clark Kent to return to Smallville, and yet somehow, she'd known she'd see him again.
She'd gotten over him, made peace with the situation. That's what she'd been telling her family for years. Having him return to Smallville shouldn't make a difference. The public humiliation she'd endured was a thing of the past; people had forgotten, or so she'd been telling herself.
They'd elected her sheriff at an age when most women were just entering the field. She'd had to work harder, be more professional just to overcome the stigma of her past with Clark Kent. She wasn't the same person she'd been ten years before.
The truth was, in small towns, people never forgot. Every humiliation, every scandal was like a brush fire. It might die down at times, but al it took was the slightest breath of air to start it smoldering again.
Grimly, Rachel started her engine. Clark Kent was bad news. She'd known it before she'd ever started dating him. He'd made the right decision in leaving all those years ago. Now she had to convince him to make the right decision again and leave, before it was too late.
There were some in Smallville who wouldn't be nearly as polite in asking him to leave. There hadn't been a violent crime committed in Smallville in almost ten years, and Rachel wanted to keep it that way. The thought of what some in the community might do was enough to make her grit her teeth.
That there were federal authorities in town made it even worse. Rachel had her suspicions about what was happening on the old Irig farm. Wayne hadn't been seen in days; the last time he'd been seen, he'd deposited large amounts of money in multiple bank accounts. The checks had been from the federal government.
In a small town, secrecy was almost impossible. Neighbors watched neighbors, bank tellers talked, and Rachel kept her ear to the ground. It helped, knowing that several boys from the plant had stayed home drinking. It helped Rachel head off possible fights.
It wouldn't be long before the news of Clark's return reached the wrong ears. Rachel would have to get him out of town before that happened.
She was the law, and this was what she had to do, even if deep inside she really wanted to shoot him dead.
The bastard really should have stayed away.
"If the original team that had scouted the Smallville crash back in 1969 had done its job, I'd be sitting on that side of the desk." Simon Hunt scowled at the woman sitting across from him.
"This is not a conversation we should be having. I'm head of operations here now, and you…" The African-American woman shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
"I'm persona non-grata with the agency. I know." Simon sighed. He scowled. "It's not as though I didn't lay my life on the line for you on numerous occasions."
"That's ancient history. You've been a civilian for years now, and any security clearance you might once have had has been long expunged. My speaking to you now is a violation of a dozen…"
"So you admit this is a military operation?" Simon said quickly, leaning forward. "I knew the moment I saw your name as the head of the task force that we were onto something big."
"There is no we, and I don't admit to anything." The woman stared at him for a moment. "Whatever was between us in the past is over."
"You were my partner. Don't you think you owe me a little more than this?"
"It's Simon now."
Looking uncomfortable, the woman said, "It wouldn't matter whether you were completely vindicated in your views tomorrow. It wouldn't get you back into the agency."
"I was thrown out for believing in aliens!" Simon grimaced. "You don't think that the fact that I was right might not have some bearing on that?"
"You were court marshaled for disobeying orders. It wouldn't matter if ET dropped onto the front lawn of the White House. None of it would change a thing."
Stiffening, Simon said, "I'd thought we were closer than this, Helen."
"I'm still your friend." Looking down at the desk, Helen said, "And as your friend, I can only urge you to give this up. The FBI has a file on you, and they keep it in the same place they keep the files on all the other crackpots and dangerous lunatics."
"You believe I'm a lunatic?" Simon stared at her for a moment, with a dangerous gleam in his eye."
Helen sighed. "No. But you've made a good life for yourself. You've found success in your field."
"I'm working for a tabloid."
"You had success, and if you'd just give up on this, you could find it again."
Rising slowly to his feet, Simon Hunt said, "If you won't help me, I'll have to find other avenues."
Hesitating, Helen said "Don't do anything illegal."
Simon ignored her as he stepped out of the room.
Glancing in the mirror, Lois saw no signs of the stress she'd been under. A hot shower had made worlds of difference, though a cold one might have been better. She'd managed to ignore her frustration by focusing on work, though it had left tense knots in the back of her neck.
It wouldn't be as easy to ignore Clark Kent as she'd told herself it would be. He wasn't the same man she'd met on the first night, and that should have been a relief. Seeing him as less than perfect should have cooled her desire for him, should have made it easier to not regret the termination of a relationship which had never had a chance to grow.
If she didn't know better, she'd almost believe that Clark was actively trying to stall the investigation. It was hard to believe that he'd had the successes he'd had without having an open mind. Perhaps it was his open anxiety about being in Smallville. Since he'd arrived he'd been less confident and more negative about everything, especially those things involving the investigation.
Yet somehow, Lois was only finding herself more attracted to him as the day went on. She could see a certain vulnerability in him, flashes of pain when he thought she wasn't looking. Whatever had happened, Clark hadn't had a happy past in Smallville.
Lois stiffened as she heard voices. The walls here were paper thin, and the décor was hideous, looking as though it hadn't been changed since the 1950s. If it had been a different wall, Lois would have ignored it, but Clark had the room next to hers.
This wasn't the sort of place to have room service or a concierge, so whoever was there had no reason to be in Clark's room.
The sound was being carried through an ill-placed vent high on the wall. Lois frowned, then carefully stepped onto the toilet and then clambered onto the countertop, where she stood on her knees with her ear near the grill. She'd been excluded from enough conversations as a child to have no compunctions about eavesdropping. She'd made a career out of it. That this was her partner, and a man she'd had the barest beginnings of romantic feelings for didn't matter. Lois hated closed doors.
Straining to hear at least part of the conversation, Lois grimaced. Everything was muffled, though Lois could tell that one of the speakers was a female. Clark hadn't mentioned anyone from his past in Smallville, and this early into the investigation, she could only presume that it was someone from his past.
The counter was more slippery than Lois had realized, and as she shifted position, she found herself slipping backward. With nothing to grab for, Lois slid off the counter with one bare foot splashing squarely into the toilet.
Suppressing a desire to scream, Lois gingerly removed her foot, and toweled off quickly. She'd have time to wash her foot a few hundred times later. She slipped quickly out of her robe and into a pair of dress slacks and a blouse. Her hair was still wet, but she didn't have time to dry it.
She'd simply have to brazen her way in to the conversation. She had enough experience that it shouldn't be any problem to wrangle an introduction from Clark. His lady friend might have valuable information about the story. At the very least, she'd have valuable information about Clark.
Opening her door, Lois realized that the door to Clark's room was ajar. She could hear low-pitched voices from within the room.
"Coming back here was a mistake," the woman's voice was flat and dead. "You should have known better."
"It wasn't my first choice." Clark's voice was equally grim. "I hate the thought of causing you or anyone else any additional pain."
"Maybe you should have thought of that ten years ago." The woman's voice changed, sounded pained. "How many lives did you ruin, Clark? How much pain did you cause the entire town?"
"You seem to have done well for yourself." Clark's voice was quiet, serious.
"I loved you Clark…I'm twenty eight years old, and I haven't been able to trust myself with a man since you left."
Lois could barely keep herself from gasping. What had Clark done all those years ago?
"We never had that sort of relationship," Clark said slowly.
"You never did… You humiliated me, Clark, in front of the entire town. My father lost the job he loved more than anything in the world…and the Coach and his wife…every member of the team…this is a small town, Clark. When you affect one person, it affects everyone else."
"I was wrong," Clark said. "But I wasn't responsible for what happened afterwards." Clark's voice was strained, uncertain.
"If that's true, why have you spent the last ten years running? You don't believe that any more than I do." The woman was relentless. "You were just as responsible as if you'd held the knife yourself."
"What do you want from me?" Lois heard the first hints of anger in Clark's voice. "I can't change what happened. You don't know how many times I've wished I could."
Lois strained to hear, but the silence from inside the room was deafening. It seemed to be an endless moment, one that was broken only after an interminable time.
"You don't know how many times I wished I'd never met you."
Clark didn't reply and the woman continued to speak after only a short pause.
"I want you out of town by tonight."
Clark's voice was equally cold. "I can't do that, and you know it. I've got a job to do, and until it's over, I'm here to stay."
"How long do you think it'll be before Jess's old crew find out you're here?"
"Jess is dead, and I've never been afraid of his people. I never was."
"You always led a charmed life, didn't you? Nobody ever saw you with as much as a scratch, no matter how many of them came after you. It's a pity that the same couldn't be said of your friends…of the people who loved you."
"You've got a partner, though." The woman's voice was biting. "How long until history repeats itself? It may not matter to you; you never cared about the lives of other people…but it's my job to keep order in this town."
Lois peered carefully around the corner, pushing the door slightly open. She could see a red haired woman in a police uniform standing two steps too close to Clark.
Clark saw Lois just as the woman spoke again.
"I guess you aren't anything more than people said you were…white trash from the wrong side of the tracks. The minute that I catch you so much as jaywalking, I'll have your butt in jail."
The woman turned and caught sight of Lois.
"You'd be smart to be more careful about who you work with. Get out of town."
The woman didn't wait for Lois to respond as she pushed past her, and began striding down the hall.
Lois turned to look at Clark. "Who was that woman?"
Grimacing, Clark slowly lowered himself to the bed. "That was Rachel Harris. She's the town sheriff."
"She doesn't seem to like you much." Lois kept her expression carefully neutral.
Clark sighed. "There was a time that she thought we might get married."
Talking about his relationship with Rachel Harris wasn't something that Clark particularly wanted to do. He could see that Lois was aching to ask him a thousand questions, questions that he couldn't begin to have an answer for.
To forestall her questions, he said, "I've gotten us an interview with Wayne Irig."
As he'd hoped, Lois's attention was diverted instantly.
"I thought that Wayne Irig had left town to escape the publicity." Lois's voice held a note of suspicion. She knew a distraction when she saw one, but this was germane to the investigation.
"He did, but he came back when he realized that the people investigating the farm weren't working for the agency they said they were. He's in hiding at the moment." Clark held his breath, hoping the Lois would take the bait.
She stared at him for a moment, before saying, "Just how did you find all of this out in the short time it took me to take a shower?"
"Friends, Lois. I have a few of them left here, and one of them is Irig's son in law."
Lois nodded shortly, then looked down at herself. "I'll get dressed, and then we can go."
Clark sighed in relief, but as Lois turned to go, she paused and said, "This isn't over, you know."
Stepping around the small tricycle on the gravel path leading through overgrown weeds on either side, Clark felt himself flush as he carefully didn't look at Lois. The house was old and faded, with peeling paint and warped wood showing signs of neglect.
Everywhere, there were signs of dilapidation, signs of the depression and despair that came with being poor in a small town where no one would let you forget it. The hallmarks were in the heavy growths of weeks, in the rusted carport that served as a garage, in the carelessly discarded toys left to lie where they'd fallen.
It wasn't the life he'd been born to, but it was the life he'd come to know in Smallville. Apparently, it was a life that Pete had never left.
Clearing his throat uncomfortably, Clark stepped carefully onto the porch. The boards creaked loudly under his foot, and he shifted uncomfortably before knocking on the door.
The wait before the locks began clicking from behind the door was interminable. Clark risked a glance at Lois, and the pity he thought he saw in her eyes burned. Pity was the last thing he wanted from her. It was the last thing he'd wanted from anyone. He'd had enough of it in Smallville to last a lifetime.
When the door finally opened, Clark found himself staring. Pete had changed. When Clark had left town, Pete had been a slender, short, gawky young man, an innocent. He'd been a magnet for every bully in school until Clark had taken an interest in protecting him.
Now he towered over Clark, his long, stringy hair pulled back over his ears, and his protruding Adam's apple bobbing as he stared back at Clark. Though he was two years younger than Clark, he looked as though he was at least ten years older.
Clark could smell traces of marijuana on his clothes, mixed in with the reek of alcohol and other scents that Clark would have rather not noticed. Clark suspected that he might have noticed a few of them even had he been human. A glance at Lois confirmed that.
Turning back to Pete, he said, "Can we come in?"
Pete pushed the screen door open and gestured vaguely. Clark took this to be permission, and he stepped inside. He heard Lois following.
Lois wrinkled her nose at the smell of stale sweat and beer. She was reluctant to sit down; every available surface was covered in dirty clothing, old pizza boxes or toys. There was barely room on the floor to gingerly pick a pathway through to the kitchen.
There, at least, the general clutter seemed to have abated somewhat. Though a box of cereal lay open on the counter, half spilled, there was actually room to move.
Clark's friend seemed unfocused, and it was clear to Lois that he'd been drinking. He swayed slightly, turning and said "Do you want something to drink?"
Given the general hygiene of the house, Lois doubted that she'd be consuming anything here. She'd been in alleys in Suicide slum that were cleaner than the living room, and though the kitchen wasn't quite as bad, Lois wasn't about to gamble with their health.
Clark shook his head curtly and said, "You said that you knew how to contact Wayne."
The man lowered himself slowly into his chair, then looked up at Clark. "It's been a long time…a lot of water under the bridge."
Ignoring the question, Clark lowered his glasses and glanced around the room. Lois wondered if he was far sighted. After a moment, he sighed. "He's not here, is he?"
"You wouldn't have come if I'd told you the truth."
Stepping forward, Lois spoke quickly. "Just what is the truth?"
"My wife left me, and Wayne took her and the kids on a trip with the money that the government gave him."
"The government gave him money?" Lois asked, feeling a rising tide of excitement. She'd have someone in the research department check into the money trail. That might provide the link that they'd need to connect the appropriate agencies to the crash site.
Slowly, the man nodded. "They called it reparations for an accidental spill, but Wayne called it hush money…at least he did before he saw the check. After that…well, I guess he's pretty much retired now."
Clark nodded slowly. "I'm sorry about you and Peggy."
"She was always ashamed of me. Just because the plant closed down, and work was a little hard to find…nobody here lets you forget where you came from. Nobody's going to take a chance on a white trash kid with no education."
Clark kneeled slightly, looking his former friend in the eye. "So why don't you get out then? Reinvent yourself. You don't have to live in a place that doesn't want you."
"You think I'm going to run like you did? You're just as ashamed of where you came from as I am…you just hide it better." Pete slowly pulled himself to his feet and headed for the refrigerator.
Clark winced, and Lois instinctively knew that Pete had hit a nerve.
"It's not cowardice to find a place where you can be successful. What do you have to keep yourself here other than a few bad memories?"
"I had Peggy and the kids." Pete glanced back at them. "I was lucky to get a woman like that, and a built in family. You don't know what it's like to have people who love you, to have roots."
Lois saw Clark wince again, and she changed the subject. "Did you ever actually see the thing Wayne Irig had in the back of his pickup truck?"
Pete nodded. "The spaceship? I think everybody in town saw it. Wayne talked about it for days before the Feds came to the door. He showed it to just about everyone he knew. Of course, after the Feds finished talking to him, he changed his story, said it was all a hoax."
"What did it look like?" Lois asked.
"I've got some pictures." Pete took a sip of his beer and grimaced. "Can't they make this stuff so that it doesn't taste like something that's passed through a kidney a couple of times?"
Pictures. It hadn't occurred to Clark that his friend would have pictures. He'd suspected that Wayne had taken government money from the moment that he'd learned that he'd gone out of town. He'd also thought that if Wayne was staying with his son in law that he'd be encouraged to say that it was all a hoax.
The pictures didn't prove anything. Pictures were faked all the time, for the tabloids and the movies. He'd simply have to make the right kind of arguments and…
"This seems a little elaborate for a hoax, wouldn't you say, Clark?" Lois was glancing through a series of photographs that Pete had pulled from a drawer." From what I'm given to understand, it wasn't like Wayne Irig had a Hollywood special effects crew standing by."
Clark glanced at the pictures and stifled a groan. They'd been taken from all angles, and they'd been taken in bright sunlight.
"It's a little small for a spaceship, wouldn't you say?" Clark said at last. "If I was going to make an interstellar journey, I'd do it in something that couldn't be slipped into the back of a pickup truck. I'd imagine it'd get a little cramped after the first trillion miles."
"The government men think it's part of a bigger ship…an escape pod maybe." Pete looked at them and belched slightly. "I overheard a couple of them talking on the night that they started searching the farm."
"Did they find anything?" Lois asked.
"They seemed to get excited about some of the meteorite fragments that turned up all over Wayne's southern field…you know, the one on the border between old man Schuster and Wayne's property?"
"Meteor fragments?" Lois asked.
"Glowing green ones. Wayne found them scattered all over." Pete shrugged, then walked to a cabinet. "We all kept a few, but Wayne made us keep them locked up, especially after the government got so interested."
"You have some of them?" Lois asked, seemingly excited.
"Sure." Pete belched again, then set his beer against the edge of the counter. It toppled and fell to the floor, its contents spreading rapidly across the tile. Pete didn't bother to stop to clean it up.
Clark glanced behind him, seeing Lois step over the can gingerly and followed the other two men through a door and into a short hallway filled with dirty clothes and the pungent smell of body odor. Clark imagined that she was wishing that she hadn't chosen to wear open toed shoes.
When they'd been young, his friend had been the cleanest of all the foster children that Clark had associated with. He'd been neat, fastidious even, and to see him in the state he was currently in was almost more than Clark could bear.
He'd thought that he'd suffered all the pain that Smallville had to offer, but he was obviously mistaken.
Pete's bedroom was an even worse disaster area than the rest of the house, and Lois stopped at the door, finally refusing to move any further. Clark glanced back at her and shrugged. There wasn't a whole lot that he could do about the situation, and his embarrassment for his friend wasn't going to get her off the trail of the truth.
Clark followed Pete through a maze of clothes, beer cans and rotting food to a closet at the back of the room.
"You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to get a place like this," Pete said. "And after all this time I'm going to lose it. The bank is foreclosing at the end of the month."
"You might look at this as an opportunity to start all over," Clark said quietly.
"I've got five years of equity built up, and given the market, I couldn't even try to sell for three quarters of what I paid for the place. I can't even afford to pay the storage on the things."
Pete shook his head. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
He stepped into a small closet and reached up to the top of it, pulling down a heavy antique box. "This used to belong to Tammy's grandmother. Wayne said that it would probably shield us from most of the radiation…if the damn thing is even radioactive."
Clark noticed Lois taking an involuntary step backward, and he felt a twinge of concern. While he doubted that he had anything to worry about from radioactivity, Lois was much more vulnerable. On the other hand, if the short-term effects had been fatal, he doubted that Pete would be standing there talking to either of them.
Still, in the interest of caution and of keeping Lois from picking up anything that she wouldn't be able to get rid of, he was glad that she was staying outside the room.
Almost casually, Pete said, "Why didn't you call, Clark? I can understand why you didn't want anything to do with the others, but you could have at least tried to keep in touch."
"You know why I didn't want to do that, Pete. At first you were still living with the Ross's, and after that…time just seemed to slip away."
In truth, Clark had done everything he could to close ever piece of his life in Smallville away, the few good things as well as the many bad. His friendship with Pete had been one of the casualties.
Pete turned and opened the small chest, and in that single instant everything changed.
For the first time in twenty years, Clark felt pain.
Pain was an old enemy for Clark. He dealt with it every day, the pain of grief, of loss, of loneliness. In a way, he'd been running from it since the day his parents had left him with a neighbor so that they could spend a night out on the town and never come back.
Physical pain, though, was something that had been lost along with his childhood innocence. His changing body had made it a muted thing, a distant childhood memory almost forgotten.
Blinding pain wasn't something he could ever remember, though that was what Clark was experiencing now. He'd put his hand on a hot stove once, when he was young, and it felt like that now, only over his entire body. It felt as though his flesh was shriveling from his bones, and it was all he could do to draw in each halting breath of air.
In the distance, he could hear Lois's voice with an urgent tone attempting to cover an underlying sense of alarm. "I think he's having a heart attack. Call 911!"
"My phone's been cut off." Pete sounded panic-stricken. "It's been cut off since last Monday."
"Then how did Clark manage to get in touch with you?"
Pete said, "He called my parents. They live a half mile down the road."
He felt Lois touch his neck and his chest. "His heart's still beating. The sooner we get him to the hospital, the better. How long do you think it will take you to get to your parents?"
Clark could hear the sounds of clothing being tossed across the room for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, he heard a distinctive metal clink.
He also heard the sounds of the box being closed.
The release from pain was like nothing he'd ever experienced. From torture one moment to soothing relief the next, it made Clark gasp.
Pete was grabbing for a small box at the top of his closet.
"You don't have time to go to the cleaners. You have to hurry!"
Clark coughed, and before Lois could stop him, he sat up.
"I'm ok, Lois." Clark still felt overwhelmed by the faint aftershock of pain, and it was difficult for him to think. The pain was gone but he felt weak and ill, as though he'd have trouble standing, much less do anything more than human.
"You need to lie down, Clark, and elevate your legs." From the look of uncertainty in Lois's eyes, Clark suspected that she was attempting to appear calm and rational while inside she wanted to shake. His collapse had scared her.
Clark's mind raced for an explanation she'd accept. Pete was still in the room, his face visible over Lois's shoulder, and Clark knew that he had to come up with something quickly, before Lois rushed him to the hospital to face a battery of medical tests that he didn't currently feel strong enough to refuse.
"I'm not in shock, Lois. I'm ok." He hesitated, then inspiration struck. "I've been through this before."
"What is it?"
"Um…" Clark hated lying to her, but he didn't see another choice. "I picked up a case of malaria when I was visiting the Amazon. It comes back every now and again."
"Malaria…" Lois's expression turned suspicious. "You get that from mosquitoes, don't you?"
Clark nodded. He'd seen too many people dealing with the effects of malaria to forget what they were like. The parasites that were transmitted by mosquito bites could lie dormant in the liver for up to four years. "I have some medication back at the hotel. I'll be fine."
He struggled to get to his feet, and Lois stared at him for a long moment before saying, "I still think you should go to a doctor. People don't just collapse…"
"I think this has been coming on for a while, Lois."
That was only the truth. The rock in Pete's box had caused Clark pain, and Clark had little doubt that if he'd left the box open long enough it would have killed him. Even now he was sick and exhausted after only a few moments' exposure. The odds that Clark had collapsed just as the box had been opened were too remote even to be considered.
The rock had been waiting for him after all these years, lying in a field waiting for him to return home. He'd always known that Smallville was bad for him; he just hadn't known how bad.
Pete helped him to his feet.
Casually, Clark glanced at the box and said, "Did Wayne say where he found that, or how much he found?"
Pete shook his head. "This is a smaller piece. Wayne found a whole mess of them when he was out plowing his field."
Clark stepped forward, but found himself becoming dizzy. He sighed and said, "I'd really like to spend a little time talking about the old days, but I think we really should be heading back."
Lois's expression was one of concern, and Clark knew that she wasn't fooled by his act. She knew he was sick and ill, and there wasn't anything he could do about it.
It wasn't until they stumbled out into the daylight that Clark realized the true extent of his predicament.
The entire world had a strange, muted look. His vision was blurred, and the colors of everything didn't look quite right. The world was strangely quiet, as though the birds and insects had chosen to mute themselves. Even the sounds of the wind had faded until they were almost inaudible.
He felt as though he was blind and deaf. He'd spent a good portion of his childhood learning to adapt to senses which could hear what was said in houses three miles away; that could see the slight discoloration on the back of a grasshopper's knee. Now he had what he'd wished for as a teenager. It was all gone.
The shock of that was almost enough to make him stumble. He had a moment of paralyzing fear. What if it was all gone forever? He'd paid a grim price for his abilities, and he'd often regretted not being like everyone else. But to lose them now would feel like losing a limb. They'd become a part of him.
Even without them, he'd never quite be a human being.
So occupied was he with his own sensations of pain and weakness that he barely noticed the sounds of a car pulling up onto the gravel road. He glanced up, then felt Lois stiffen beside him.
Simon Hunt stepped out of his car. He smiled unpleasantly as he approached them both.
"Mr. Kent, Ms. Lane…how nice to meet you again. I didn't expect to see you here." Hunt's smile was cold. "If I didn't know better, I'd think that you were after the same story that I am."
"I'm just visiting an old friend," Clark said. As far as it went, that was true. That Hunt was substantially correct wasn't something that Clark wanted to face.
His plan to keep Lois from realizing that a real story existed was falling apart. With Pete having photographic evidence, as well as a radioactive rock that could actually kill him, Clark was going to have enough trouble keeping Simon Hunt from making his story available to the whole world.
"I suppose that you have friends in the EPA as well." Hunt's eyes looked at Lois steadily for a moment. "I wouldn't think that a reporter for the Daily Planet would be bothering with a tabloid news story, Miss Lane."
Lois shrugged. "It was a slow news day."
Clark was shocked when she placed an arm around his waist. "Mostly it's just a chance to see where my fiancée grew up."
Simon glanced at the toys on the driveway, at the general disrepair and filth. He grimaced slightly. "They say that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree Ms. Lane. Sometimes it's a good idea to know where someone comes from before getting involved with them."
Opening his mouth to speak, Clark couldn't think of anything to say. Hunt's attitude was nothing more than he'd experienced time after time in Smallville. It was nothing more than he'd come to expect from people. He'd learned differently in the years since, had made a few friends who he imagined might have been able to accept him despite how he'd been raised.
But none of them could have accepted him for the inhuman thing he was. His father had told him often enough what would happen to him if his secret were to be made public. He'd had nightmares about it for years.
Lois was the first person that he'd felt the slightest temptation to tell, and he doubted that even she would be able to accept the fullness of who and what he was.
"I think it takes a lot of courage to overcome our pasts," Lois said quietly.
Clark felt as though he'd been struck by lightning. He was unprepared for the rush of simple gratitude that he felt for Lois and her simple act of kindness in standing up for him.
"You never leave the past behind Miss Lane. It haunts you until the day you die."
"That's very sad, Mr. Hunt." Lois refused to look away from Simon.
"Sometimes you have to face the truth." Simon took on a determined, almost obsessed look. "Sometimes the truth is all you have."
"I find that to be a strange comment from someone who writes about Elvis having alien babies." Lois's tone had turned sarcastic.
"And yet you are here investigating a story about aliens. What do you know that I don't?"
Lois stared Simon Hunt in the eye. "I know enough to avoid insulting people."
"This is one Pulitzer you won't be getting, Ms. Lane, no matter what stories you tell." Simon turned toward the front doorstep. "You won't always be a step ahead, either, even if Mr. Kent really is a native."
Lois turned to make one final rejoinder, but Clark caught her eye and shook his head. The longer they spoke with Hunt, the more dangerous the situation was. Hunt had already found out enough to be threatening, and without Lois's natural skepticism, he'd be only more determined to find the truth.
Furthermore, Clark was uneasy about the fanatical gleam in the man's eye. This was more than a story to him, Clark was sure. It was an obsession.
As Hunt headed for Pete's door, Clark found himself staggering and he was forced to lean against Lois on the way to the rental.
Glancing back, he saw a speculative look on Hunt's face. All the fears he'd had about Lois discovering the truth applied threefold with Hunt. At least he knew that Lois had a human side. Hunt had the look of a predator.
Lois sighed as she helped ease her partner onto the bed. "Are you sure you don't want me to look for your medication?"
Clark shook his head. "I'll be fine as soon as I rest a little. Why don't you go on without me?"
Clark Kent looked pale and shaken, and the incident earlier had frightened Lois. Despite the changes she'd seen in him since his arrival in this small town, she'd always seen him as strong and fearless. Seeing him collapse had been difficult.
Lois hesitated, then sighed. If Clark wanted her around, he'd have said so. "If I'm to get to the morgue before nine, I'll have to hurry."
Clark nodded wearily.
"If you need anything, call the front desk. I'll check back in as soon as I get finished."
Gesturing for her to go, Clark rolled over onto his side. Lois stared at him for a moment then turned for the door. He was as stubborn and willful as other men in her life, unwilling to admit even a moment of weakness.
As she reached the threshold of the door, she paused. In her experience, most men tended to revert to little boys when they were sick, looking for the mothering that they couldn't bring themselves to seek while well. Clark was more like a wounded animal, wanting to go off alone to nurse his wounds.
"Are you sure you'll be ok?" she asked.
Without rolling over to look at her, Clark said wearily, "All I need is a little rest, Lois."
For some reason, Lois found that she didn't believe him. Nevertheless, she didn't know him well enough to push the issue, and so she closed the door quietly and slipped off to her room.
Reaching for the phone, she hesitated. Clark Kent was a mystery to her, one that was rapidly growing to become more intriguing than the story she'd been sent to cover. The mystery of who he was and what had happened all those years ago in Smallville was something that was beginning to nag at her, but a moment of conscience forced her to ask the question. Did she have the right to pry into his personal life?
Her hesitation lasted only a moment. She picked up the phone and dialed a number. "This is Lois. I'd like you to find everything you can about Simon Hunt, the reporter for the National Inquisitor. I'd also like you to send me everything you can find about Malaria and Clark Kent, the new guy that Perry just hired."
She listened on the other end for a moment, then said, "I'd like it sooner than later. Do you think you can do that for me?"
Nodding at the response, she dropped the phone back into its cradle.
She'd always hated secrets.
All he could remember of the nightmare was the gleaming scalpel and the soulless eyes above a white mask, flashes of dissection tables and prison bars. It was the same dream that had recurred time and time again since the accident. Being forever locked away, being seen as less than an animal, less than human, of never being loved; this was every childhood fear in a single, terrifying dream.
The world was still muted and dull when Clark finally woke. Remnants of his previous pain remained, living testament that all wasn't well. It was alien to him now, this dull, throbbing ache, the minor pains that are simply part of the human condition, unnoticed and ignored because they are so universal.
Could this condition be permanent? With years of seeking comfort in normality, the irony was that now with it in reach, it wasn't what he wanted. Pushing himself up sluggishly, Clark looked at the clock. It was three A.M. He'd been out for almost six hours. He wondered for a moment where Lois was; leaving her alone wasn't wise. Derailing the investigation was hard enough when he was standing beside her; with her far enough away to think, it would be impossible.
Waves of exhaustion conflicted with unfamiliar body sensations. He moistened his lips and pondered for several long moments before realizing that he was thirsty. He hated this feeling of sluggishness, of weakness, of feeling as though the world was always pulling at him.
He pushed himself up on one shoulder and squinted into the darkness. The hotel staff hadn't left any cups or glasses, though there was an ice bucket, its shape simply a shadowy outline as seen through the feeble light filtering between the two ratty, tattered curtains.
Clark slipped back down again, temporarily exhausted, staring at the ceiling for long moments before his growing thirst forced him to reluctantly sit up. He didn't bother to button his shirt or put shoes on. He simply grabbed the bucket, and staggered out the door.
The world tugged at him, and everything felt sluggish and slow. It was as though he was walking through mud. He staggered slightly before regaining his balance. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. It felt even worse than earlier, in the immediate aftermath of his exposure to green glowing death.
He stepped outside, hearing the door lock behind him with a click. He fumbled for a moment, tensing for a moment before feeling the reassuring outline of the hotel key in his pocket.
The ice machine was across the parking lot. The streetlights were out. Most of the motel windows were silent and dark. Everything was dim; the only light came from above the ice machine across the parking lot. It was unsettling, this darkness, almost a living thing casting shadows that left hints of movement at the edge of his vision.
Clark fumbled in his pocket for change for the vending machine. He froze when he heard an unexpectedly familiar voice.
"Hello, little brother."
Carl was bigger and heavier than Clark remembered. What had been a small paunch had exploded into a protruding beer belly. His hairline was already receding, and his eyes were bloodshot. He leaned heavily against the brick and stared at Clark with an all- too-familiar expression of contempt tinged with regret.
"Carl." Clark sighed. He'd hoped to avoid this; his foster brother was nothing but a constant reminder of the past he'd spent so many years trying to leave behind. "I haven't…"
"You haven't what?" Carl's voice was hostile. "Don't try to lie and say you're sorry."
"It wouldn't be a lie." Clark said quietly. "There hasn't been a day that I didn't regret what happened."
"You regretted that you ever had to live on my side of the tracks." Carl shook his head and swayed slightly. "You always thought you were too good for the rest of us. Hell, maybe you were."
"I never said that," Clark said.
"You didn't have to." Carl's lips tightened. "You left the rest of us behind like a bad rash."
"I just had to get out," Clark closed his eyes for a moment. "I just couldn't be around anymore…not after everything that happened?"
"You think I don't understand that? Hell, I defended you for years. I even talked to the cops. I was sure that you'd come back. If not for me, then for Pete."
"I just wanted to move on." Clark's voice was low.
"You succeeded at that, all right." Carl spit noisily, hawking up phlegm. "The thing you forgot was that there were people here that cared about you. Not many, but people around here don't forget much."
"I couldn't face anyone," Clark said.
"I hear you saying 'I' an awful lot," Carl snorted. "What about the rest of us? I was your brother…Pete was your friend. You had other friends too. You didn't call any of us…not one phone call in ten years, not a postcard, not a letter, nothing."
"I didn't think any of you would want to see me." Clark winced at a pain in his neck. "After everything that happened, after what people were saying…"
With his enhanced hearing, he'd known exactly what everyone in town had been saying, even people who had claimed to be his friends. Carl had been one of the people who'd never doubted him. Of course, Carl had been one of the witnesses, one of those who knew he hadn't been in the right place to have done what everyone said.
Of course, his abilities would have proven that to be a lie, but it was the one secret that he'd never shared with anyone.
"Like I give a rat's butt about what you did ten years ago anyway. Bill's in prison, Jess is dead. It's just me and John rotting away here, the last of the old gang. What the hell do you expect from a bunch of foster kids from the wrong side of the track? Hell, you were one of us, and even you didn't believe we could be anything more than street scum."
Hesitating, Clark scowled, then headed for the ice machine. He felt a moment of irritation. "That was an excuse ten years ago, and it's an excuse today. You don't have to live up to what people expect." It was an old argument, an old pattern. There was no need to fall into old ruts.
"What the hell do you know? Even when you lived with us, you had it all. Brains, looks, the memories of parents who loved you? You always thought you were better than the rest of us, like you were too good to sit at the same table."
Clark filled his bucket with ice. "I don't want to get into this argument with you. It never ends well."
Carl laughed, and it was a short, bitter explosion of sound. "Just like the good old days, eh? I didn't come here to rehash old arguments, anyway."
"Why did you come?" Clark asked, finally turning to face Carl.
"I just think you ought to know. There's a lot of folk that don't think much of you coming back and stirring things up. Leave it alone. In fact, just leave. Forget what I said about friends and family. You don't have a lot of those left here. The rest of them…they don't see things the way you and I do. People have a hard enough time trying to forget without you being here to remind them."
"I'm not staying long."
"If you'd had any sense, you wouldn't have come in the first place. But hell, when did you ever listen to me?" Carl grimaced. "I don't even know why I bothered to come." The man who had once been his foster brother stared at him as he pulled a soda from the machine.
Clark stared at Carl for a moment without speaking. Carl stared back for a moment before shrugging. "Have it your own way. I don't know why I expected anything else. " He pushed away from the wall and stood, swaying slightly. "Like I said, you'd better keep an eye out. There're a lot of hotheads in town."
He turned to leave, and Clark stood watching him. He was tempted to call out; Carl hadn't been the worst of his foster brothers. Of all of them, he'd been the one who'd been the closest to being a real brother.
Of course, he'd also always been irritating and annoying.
Clark sighed as he felt himself swaying. He needed rest. He turned and headed back for his hotel room.
He frowned as he noticed his door slightly ajar. Had he been so out of it that he'd left it open?
As he pushed the door open with his hip, he caught sight of movement from the darkness within. Freezing for a moment, there wasn't time to move as a figure from within lunged at him, pulling him into the darkness.
After that, there was only confusion. In the dimness, he couldn't quite make out his attackers. All he could feel was the blows as they pummeled him. He thought their voices seemed vaguely familiar, but as he fell to the ground and they kicked him repeatedly, all he could feel was regret for the things he hadn't yet done.
As the world faded to darkness around him, he could hear the sounds of distant sirens.
Lois stared, horrorstruck at the fax pages. Article after article taken from several weeks' worth of back issues of the Smallville Gazette. They told a story of scandal, death and of a case that failed to come to trial. She'd come to believe that Clark was a good man. What she saw laid out before her made her question that.
She closed her eyes for a moment. She owed Clark the courtesy of asking him the truth. He'd been reluctant to return to Smallville, and she could see why. Nevertheless, she wouldn't be able to keep working with him if she wasn't convinced that he was safe.
Leaving the manager's office, she frowned for a moment as she noticed that her partner's door was ajar. The room inside was dark, and Lois could hear sounds that took her a moment to identify.
She broke into a run, dropping her briefcase as she turned into the entryway.
Three men stood over the bloodied body of her partner. They wore ski masks and were hulking, massive brutes. They stopped kicking her partner to stare at her, before lunging in her direction.
She pulled the door shut before they could reach her, and when one of the men yanked the door open, she kicked him viciously in a vulnerable spot. He fell back, and the other two attempted to break out as well. She grabbed her briefcase from beside her and hit the second man in the head with it.
She heard the sounds of sirens, and the third man pushed past her and began to run.
She would have chased him, but the first two men were already staggering to their feet. Lois kicked the closest in the kneecap, and heard a sickening pop. The second attempted to limp past, and Lois hit him with her briefcase as well.
One of them shoved, and she found herself flying back into the wall, the wind knocked out of her. She watched as they ran off into the distance, one favoring his right leg heavily.
She was barely catching her breath and staggering to the door to look at Clark's shadowed body on the floor when Rachel Harris pulled up in her police car.
"I think I've been seeing too much of you these days, Ms. Lane."
"Clark's hurt." Lois glanced back into the shadowed room. "I think you'd better call an ambulance."
Hospitals all have the same distinctive smell, of antiseptics and disinfectants, covering an underlying odor of death. Lois was quite familiar with that smell; she'd been injured in the line of duty more often than most policemen and firemen. She'd been shot once in the Congo, had been hit in the head in the Suicide Slum, and she'd twisted her ankle when running after a congressman who'd been on the Luthor payroll. This didn't count the numerous scrapes, bruises and minor wounds that were part and partial to the life she had chosen.
It was more difficult from the other side. As a patient, all you had to worry about was pain. She hadn't thought much of what it was like on the other side, what it was like for Perry or her mother, or even Mohammed, her native guide to have to sit and wait and wonder.
Even though the doctors told her that Clark had suffered nothing more than a mild concussion and three cracked ribs, she dreaded the moment when he finally woke up.
Clark had been a different person in Metropolis. The person she knew there was honest and good and caring. He was someone she could almost admire for what he'd accomplished. The person he was here…this person she didn't know at all. In Metropolis, he was an open book. Here, he was cloaked in mystery, in scandal and deceit.
She'd spent her life ferreting out the truth, unearthing secrets that other people fought to hide. She'd exposed the worst that man had to offer, and she'd never had a qualm.
Yet, for the first time in her career, she didn't want to ask questions. How was she going to ask her partner whether he was guilty of murder and worse?
The past was immutable, unchangeable, and yet in dreams he relived it repeatedly, old pains recurring nightly. With the sounds of the hospital equipment fading in the background, he found himself drifting backward once again.
It had become a ritual on their dates; she pushed the boundaries as far as she could, and he found ways to escape. It was exhausting, and he'd come to dread their time together.
Rachel Harris pulled back, her lips swollen, and her eyes heavy. "It's ok Clark. Nobody has to know."
As though she'd be able to resist telling her friends the moment she got home. Smallville was a small town; the last thing he needed was for the Sheriff to believe that he'd defiled his daughter. He wasn't marrying material; he'd spent too many years on the wrong side of the tracks to think that anyone thought that he was worth anything more than a short term fling.
He wondered if he was ever going to have a relationship that wasn't tainted with shame. Even what he had with Lilah, as special as it was, was something that his parents would have never approved.
Love was complicated. He'd been hurt when Lilah had pushed him into dating. It was the best way to keep the secret, she'd said. No one would suspect them if he was dating girls his own age. But every moment he'd spent away from her felt like a betrayal.
Every moment he spent with her was a betrayal. Every time he looked in the eyes of the man who had in some ways been a mentor to him, something died inside. Lying and deception weren't something that came naturally to him. They were something that he'd had to learn, piece by piece as his abilities had pushed him further and further away from the rest of humanity.
He wasn't sure what he was anymore. Was he even human? He had dreams in which he was cut open, and something slimy and green slithered out. He was changing more and more every day. How long was it before one of the changes showed on the outside, and he was forevermore separated from the rest of humanity?
"I've got a game tomorrow. There's going to be a scout from Notre Dame." He couldn't keep making excuses, but taking that last step would be a true betrayal. At least this way he could lie to himself, tell himself that this was the casual relationship he had meant it to be.
"You've already got a full scholarship to Midwestern. Why do you want to go so far?" Rachel pouted. The real question was, why did he want to go so far from her? If she only knew.
He looked at her for a moment, feeling guiltier by the moment. He never should have let things go as far as they had. He was betraying Rachel too; her feelings for him seemed to be genuine, but his heart had already been given away to another.
Shrugging, he said, "I'll never be good enough without an education. I might as well go for the best I can get."
Widely smiling, she leaned forwards for another kiss. "You'll always be good enough for me."
Clark found himself pulling back, and suddenly the latch of the door behind him gave way, spilling him to the ground.
He stared up for a moment at the faces staring back down at him; he hadn't heard them approaching, which was a sure sign of how distracted he'd been.
"Jess…what are you doing here?" As little as he liked his foster brother, he couldn't help but be grateful for the interruption.
Taller than the others, Jess was the undisputed leader of the group. He already had crude, homemade tattoos on his forearms from his time in juvenile hall in Wichita. He grinned at Clark and reached into his back pocket for a cigarette.
"Me and the boys thought you'd like to come to a little pre-game ritual." He gestured back to the others; Carl, Bill and John stood casually.
"You aren't even on the team," Clark protested.
"Let's just call it a gathering of brothers, then."
Jess lit the cigarette, and Clark's nose twitched. He hated it when people smoked. It overwhelmed his sense of smell, and he didn't like the scent.
Glancing back at Rachel, Clark sighed. Given a choice, he wouldn't have gone with either of them. His foster brothers tended to be wild. Their idea of fun was knocking over mailboxes and drinking down by the creek. Still, it was rescue of a sort from Rachel.
"Fine." He turned back to Rachel. "I'll call you tomorrow?"
"I can't come?"
Carl snorted. "The sheriff's daughter? Hell no."
"She'll be all right," Clark said. It was a feeble attempt, and he knew his foster brothers well enough to know that they would shoot him down. Nevertheless. He had to make it, if only to not hurt Rachel's feelings.
He had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach that he was going to cause enough harm in the future; he couldn't bear to hurt her any more than he had to.
"Nah. It's boys' night out."
Secretly relieved, Clark glanced apologetically at Rachel and shrugged.
She scowled, then pulled the door closed. Clark watched her pulling away for a moment. If she was angry enough to break it off, he'd be relieved. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her; she deserved more than that. But more and more, he couldn't see any choices that weren't going to hurt her.
She had feelings that he couldn't return, and all it left was a sick sense of shame.
Consciousness was a fleeting thing. Clark opened his eyes and stared sightlessly at the ceiling. The pain he'd felt before was gone; instead, all he felt was a strange, drifting feeling. He stiffened for a moment as he glanced at the wires and tubes sticking out of him. Somehow, he knew that was wrong; the sickly smell of hospitals was something that he'd spent a lifetime avoiding. The nights he'd spent waiting for his parents to live or die had forever imprinted that smell on him.
Before he could struggle or protest, he found himself going under again.
"Where'd you get the car?" Clark asked suspiciously.
"Don't worry about it," Jess said. "What are you, the town cop?"
"He might as well be," Carl shoved Clark slightly. "He may as well change his last name to Harris now."
"You're just jealous because you can't get a date." Jess grinned. "Now if I had me a girl like that, I'd be…"
"I don't really care what you'd be doing." Clark said quickly. Jess could be crude, and Clark couldn't stand for him to talk about Rachel. "You're getting off the subject, anyway. Where'd you get the car?"
Carl had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Jess did a little creative borrowing. We'll have it back before morning."
"You don't think whoever it is won't notice? What if you have an accident? Hell, what if we get pulled over? I'm sure sheriff Harris would love to throw the lot of us in jail, and I don't think Ed would bother to pull us out."
Ed was their foster father. He hadn't been the same since his wife left him.
"Ed can't even pull himself out of a bottle. He doesn't give a damn about what we do, as long as the checks keep coming in." Jess pulled out a cigarette. He offered one to Clark, who curtly shook his head. "Hell, Harris couldn't find his butt with a flashlight and a bloodhound."
"Put it back." Clark said. "You can do better than this. I know you all have a little money put together. Why don't you go and buy the old Irig car? I hear Wayne is offering it cheap."
"How do you expect us to pay the insurance?" Jess shook his head. "When are you ever going to learn, Kent? The only way you'll ever get what you want is to take it."
"I've got too much going for me to waste it joyriding." Clark glanced at the others. The only one who seemed uncertain was Carl. "You guys know better."
"Fine. Have it your way." Jess flicked the cigarette into the bushes. "You all coming?"
Carl shook his head. "I'm going to stick around and try to talk some sense into Clark here."
The others laughed. "You're wasting your time. Kent's kissing up to the Sheriff's daughter and bucking for a big fat college scholarship. He thinks he's too good for us. Well, just see what a proud papa old man Harris is going to be when a piece of white trash asks to marry his daughter?"
"You think we didn't know? It's all Rachel can talk about- you wanting to wait until you get married. You're just sucking up to the old man. If you think it's actually going to happen, you're a fool. She'll end up pregnant, or she'll dump you from someone with a good family."
Jess grinned. "And when it happens, I'll be there to say I told you so."
He made an obscene gesture, and it was all Clark could do to stare as he slipped behind the driver's seat and drove off.
Rachel thought they were getting married? His heart sank into his stomach.
The beeping of the machines was steady, and the sounds of his breathing were heavy in his ear when he woke again. This time he was aware of a presence in the room. Lois. She was sitting, watching him, and it was all he could do not to cry out. He'd lost track of her, and there were so many things he wanted to tell her. She deserved to know his mistakes before someone else told her. There was no way he was going to be able to keep it from her.
Her expression was guarded. He'd never seen her with such a blank stare. He frowned and tried to speak.
His memory was a fuzzy thing, and it was hard to think. He blinked, and noticed that Lois had moved closer to him.
"We need to talk." Her voice was flat, and he found himself fading again.
"We need to talk," Clark said.
Lilah glanced at him with an upraised eyebrow.
He hesitated. Love wasn't something he could control; even after all these months what he had with Lilah was still fresh and new. It filled a void he hadn't even known he had, one that had open up on the night he'd learned of his parents' death. It was powerful, in a way that he'd never expected.
He hadn't wanted it; she'd pursued him. But once he'd made the fatal step, sullied himself in a way that was irreversible, he hadn't been able to stop himself. It was heady, being wanted. Being accepted was like water to his parched soul.
Why was the right thing always so hard?
"I don't think I can do this anymore." Clark hated the tentative sound of his voice. He'd meant to be more authoritative, more certain. He cleared his throat. "This isn't right for either of us."
Lilah smiled and finally rose to her feet. She glided toward him, just as she had on the first night they'd been alone. He felt frozen, unable to move.
She touched his face, and he fought not to turn in to that touch. He was weak; if he hadn't been, he never would have been in this situation in the first place.
A situation where every time he touched the woman he cared for, a little piece of his soul died.
"You are a pretty boy, Clark." She kissed him, and he froze. "Don't worry about it."
He cleared his throat. "I mean it. Rachel thinks we're getting married. I shouldn't have…"
Lilah put her finger to his lips. "We've talked about this before. Give them something to talk about, and they won't look at what's under their noses."
"I can't do this." Clark insisted. "We're hurting too many people."
Her hand touched him on the chest, and she said "Nobody has to get hurt. Nobody even has to know."
"I'll know. Every time I look at him, it's all I can think about. How long do you think you can keep fooling him?" Clark stiffened as he heard the sound of keys in the door. "He's here now."
Clark stepped away from her and went back to his books. Rachel stepped away.
The door opened, and he walked in. Clark glanced up at him, smiled weakly and said "Hey coach."
Coach Holder entered the room and moved quickly to kiss his wife. "I hope the tutoring has been going well. You won't get in to Notre Dame if you slack off."
"I expect that I'm learning more than I ever wanted to know, coach." Clark sighed.
He wondered whether he would ever know love that didn't have the bitter taste of betrayal.
Consciousness was a gift. Reliving the past was something Clark had actively avoided; he couldn't change anything he'd done. All he could do was to try to live a better life in the present.
He was warned first by the hiss of the machines; the steady beeping that matched the rhythm of his heart and the same sickly smell that reminded him of hospitals everywhere. Breathing hurt, and the sound of his own respirations drowned everything else out.
He hesitated for a moment. He had no way of knowing just how much the doctors had seen, or how quickly they'd be able to get the information to the military. All he knew was that he wouldn't be able to stay like this much longer.
Opening his eyes, he realized that the lethargy from earlier was gone.
In its place was startlement. Lois sat at the foot of his bed watching him intently.
"How long have I been out?"
"Six hours." Her voice was flat.
She looked exhausted. She had dark circles under her eyes and her face was expressionless.
"I've been doing a little reading," Lois said. She reached down to the floor beside her and picked up a manila folder. "Old issues of the Smallville Post. The writing really isn't as bad as I thought it would be. They really seem to get to the meat of the matter."
She tossed the folder at him, the incriminating headlines spilling across the bed. "When were you going to tell me?"
Clark closed his eyes for a moment. "I didn't do any of it."
"So the whole thing about you and the teacher was a big lie?" Lois stood, and her voice began to rise. "Clark, this is major. Don't you think someone might want to know that they're sitting across from Lizzie Borden's twin brother?"
"What I had with Lilah….that was a mistake. What came after…I didn't have anything to do with. If I knew who'd done it, I'd have been the first to beat my way to the Sheriff's door. I cared for her."
"Why should I believe you? Why should anyone?" Lois leaned over to pick the folder up, gathering the clippings. "From what I've read, you didn't exactly help the investigation any. Why would an innocent man refuse to give a little blood if it would help to bring a murderer to justice?"
"I was across town at the time." Clark said quietly. "At least three other people saw me. I shouldn't have to…"
"You couldn't have made yourself look more guilty, Clark. The people who vouched for you aren't the most creditable witnesses. There are questions about the timeline you gave police; there's no way you'd have been able to get from one place to the other in the time you were allotted."
Without explaining his abilities, which were currently nonexistent, Clark couldn't explain that. He'd lied the first time around and the police hadn't believed him. Lois was undoubtedly just as perceptive.
"You cheated on Rachel Harris? Her father lost the election because he refused to arrest you. People thought he was soft on you because you were dating his daughter."
"Sheriff Harris hated me with a passion," Clark said quietly. "The only reason he didn't arrest me was because there wasn't any evidence that I was guilty, and there was a lot of evidence that I wasn't. Not everything reached the papers, and that's the way he liked it."
"So you're suggesting that here was this massive police conspiracy to discredit you in the eyes of the community?" Cynically, Lois shook her head. "Who do you think you're fooling, Clark?"
Clark shifted uneasily in bed. "Small towns have secrets, Lois. People go to great lengths to keep some of them quiet."
Lois would have said something else, but she visibly composed herself as the door swung open, and a middle aged man walked into the room.
He smiled congenially, though there was something in his expression that made Clark uneasy. "Mr. Kent? I'm doctor Sanderson."
"When do I get out?" Clark was blunt.
"We'd like to hold you for testing. Normally, when someone comes in with cracked ribs, we're able to get them out in a few hours. You've been unconscious without any sign of head trauma, and we still haven't been able to determine the reason. We performed the standard blood count to see if there was any internal bleeding, and there were some severe abnormalities in both your red and white blood cells."
Clark shook his head. "I've got my own physician back in Metropolis. I have an inherited condition that's caused some changes in my blood. It's still being researched." Clark was thankful that he'd come up with this story in college. He'd done enough research to seem to know what he was talking bout.
"What disease?" the doctor asked.
Frowning, Doctor Sanderson said, "I was only aware of alpha and beta types of that disease."
"This is the first case that my doctor has seen either. It's related, but different enough that he felt he could name it." Clark shook his head, "He wanted to name it Kent's anemia. Who wants that to be his claim to fame?"
"Thalassemia can be a serious disease. It can cause damage to your spleen, liver and heart."
Clark frowned and said, "I've heard this all before. I'm fine."
"Do you have any idea why you've been unconscious all this time?"
"I had an allergic reaction to something last night. It was a shock to my system. I've got medications, but they didn't have much time to kick in before I was ambushed." Clark hesitated. "How soon can I leave, doctor?"
"I'd still prefer that you stay. The previous blood sample has already been disposed of, and the x-rays were all partially occluded. We have a technician examining the machine right now, but I'd like to get a good look at your ribs before I let you go."
Clark shook his head. "I feel fine, doctor. I'd really like to put all of this behind me. It's not something that I like to talk about in front of people."
"We can have you out as soon as you finish talking to Sheriff Harris," the doctor said. "I'd suggest though that you see your primary physician as soon as possible. There may be secondary effects from either the beating or this allergic reaction that haven't shown up yet."
"The sheriff?" Clark asked, wincing.
"She's waiting right outside."
Shaking his head, the doctor said, "The nurse will go over the appropriate aftercare. As far as we can tell, you have three cracked ribs, contusions on the left side of your torso and lower back. You could have a damaged kidney; without further testing, we can't be sure. Your blood cell count was relatively normal, though the cells themselves weren't, so I doubt that there is any internal bleeding."
The doctor made a note on his clipboard, then looked up again. "Let's be a little more careful in the future, Mr. Kent." With that, he left the room.
"Thalassemia?" Lois asked. "That's a little different than malaria."
Clark looked away from her. "I don't like to talk about it. It makes me feel like a freak."
"So that's why you didn't want any blood tests?"
Clark nodded slowly. "That, and I didn't want anything that would jeopardize my chances of going to college."
"That's a little cold, Clark."
"I was seventeen," Clark said. "I'd been in a relationship with Lilah since I was sixteen, and by the time I realized just how wrong it was, how badly I was hurting everyone, including myself, it was too late."
"I can't see you any more. I've told you that already." Clark leaned forward on the couch, unable to look at her. He held his hands clenched tightly in his lap so she couldn't see them trembling.
"You do this every time," Lilah said. "You keep trying to leave. One of these days, I'm not going to take you back."
"Part of me doesn't want to leave," Clark admitted. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't wish that everything wasn't different."
"So stay," she said, placing her hand on his arm. "You make me feel again. My husband hasn't done that in a long time."
Turning, Clark said, "I shouldn't be hearing this. If you and the coach have problems, they should be between you and him." He shifted uncomfortably as she stroked his arm.
"Who's going to care for you if we aren't together? Rachel? Do you really think that she really loves you?"
"I think that the longer we keep doing this, the more people are going to get hurt." Pulling away from her, Clark said, "It's not fair. It's not fair to Rachel, it's not fair to the coach…it's not fair to you or to me either. This isn't good for either one of us."
"It's been good enough for you for the last several months." Lilah ran a finger down the side of his arm. "This has been good enough for you."
Clark closed his eyes. Despite his initial lack of attraction, it had felt good to have someone care about him. He'd been numb when he first met her, the ever-present loneliness unnoticeable against a background of emotional pain. Being with her had fed a need he hadn't even known he'd had. Now that he knew what it was like to feel again, it was going to be a hundred times harder to forget. She'd pulled his walls down brick by brick, and he wasn't sure that he'd ever find a way to put them back up again. Slipping into the physical side of the relationship hadn't been something that he wanted, but she'd insisted. Their relationship had never been the same since. "I'm sorry. I knew better."
Despite his feelings for Lilah, feelings that were overwhelming and new, he'd never lost that part of himself that was part of the Kents. He'd been ashamed of himself for a long time. He wasn't even sure exactly when the line had been crossed. It had simply seemed to happen the first time."
Lilah said, "What do you think would happen if I told the coach that you'd made a pass at me?"
Clark felt an instant of pure panic. "You wouldn't!"
"What do you think would happen to that scholarship of yours if people found out what's been going on."
"It'd hurt you more than it hurt me," Clark said quickly. "You know how people talk…"
Lilah shrugged. "People will believe anything of football players. All I have to do is tell them that you came in, pushed me up against a wall…"
For a moment, it felt as though the entire world was closing in on him. Clark gaped at Lilah. Accusations like this were so foreign that he wasn't entirely sure what to say.
She continued. "What do you think your little Rachel would do if she found out what you did to me? Do you think she'd still want to marry you? What about her father? How long do you think it would take for him to find an excuse to send you to prison?"
There was an ugly note in Lilah's voice that Clark had never heard before. "People don't expect anything more from a kid like you. They figure that you'll either go on welfare while your girlfriend pops out little brats to abuse the system, or you'll end up in jail or dead."
Clark felt frozen in place, unable to move. It took him a moment to speak, and when he did, it felt as though his throat had closed up. He swallowed. "Why would you go to all this trouble for a relationship that shouldn't have started in the first place?"
Lilah sighed, closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't know what made me say that…. It just makes me a little crazy to hear you talking like this."
"What we have is special, Clark." Lilah sighed, then smiled tremulously, and Clark thought for a moment that she was going to cry."
"What we have is a lie." Clark forced himself to straighten. "This has always been wrong. It was wrong the first time, and it's no less wrong now. We've talked about this before. I have to leave, while there's still a shred of decency left. I've told you no, and that should be the end of it."
"You told me no the first time, too. It didn't last long." Lilah touched his knee and began to make slow, sensuous circles. She leaned forward, and Clark had to look away quickly to avoid a glimpse down her shirt. "What we have together is too powerful. You can tell me no all you want, but there's always part of you that's going to want to say yes."
"I've known what I have to do for a long time, and I haven't followed through with it. Who I've been, what this has made me…I'm ashamed of myself. This lessens the both of us, and this isn't who my parents would have wanted me to be. I can't change what I've done. All I can do is try to be a better man." Clark felt nauseous, and he stood up. "This time is different. You'll see."
He walked blindly out of the room and through the hall to the door outside. He walked quickly, hoping to get far enough out of sight that he could take off. Flight was the one joy that was still pure in his world.
He was so upset that the sound from behind the oak tree at the edge of the coach's property caught him by surprise.
"So you're this year's favorite." Jess stepped out from behind a tree. Clark could smell the odor of tobacco on his clothes, though he couldn't see any cigarettes.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You're Mrs. Holder's flavor of the moment." Jess's grin didn't reach his eyes. "I didn't think you had it in you, Clark. Porking Rachel and Mrs. Sanderson at the same time? You dog…"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Clark said stiffly. "Lilah's just helping me with my scholarship applications."
"She's been doing that every few nights for a good long while. You think I don't know what goes on in this town?"
"You're way off base," Clark said. "I don't know where you get these crazy ideas, but…"
"You think you're the first, don't you? Lilah likes her meat young, Veal, sweet and tender. You get a little too old for her and…hell; all you have to do is look around town. There's a half a dozen guys who've been in your shoes."
Clark gaped. Too many revelations, too fast. He'd believed Lilah when she'd said they had something special. He'd wanted to believe it.
Disillusionment was a bitter pill. He fought to keep his expression neutral. Jess was undoubtedly looking for signs of pain so he could revel in it.
"So she's doing all this and everybody knows about it. Nobody talks?"
He knew nobody talked. With his hearing, he knew every rumor in town.
"The adults don't know, and neither do most of the kids. She threatens everybody that she'll scream rape. She'd do it too."
Clark felt nauseous all over again. It had never occurred to him to wonder just how he'd fell into the relationship with Lilah. Looking back, it occurred to him that there had been incidences that seemed almost orchestrated.
"Even if I believed you, how would you know unless someone talked?"
Jess spread his hands. "Meet last year's model."
His smile was ugly.
His horror, his feeling of being used had been indescribable. For all that he'd known the relationship was wrong, he'd clung to the fantasy that there was love involved. As long as he believed that, he could look himself in the mirror.
Learning that it had been cheap and tawdry; that was the thing that had made his soul go numb.
He looked up at Lois. "There wasn't anything sexual about it in the beginning. I was fifteen and she was just a teacher who took an interest in me. I was on the fast track to college, and she helped me get my classes in early, and helped me with extra work." For a long moment he was silent, reflecting. "I'd just spent six years being bounced from foster home to foster home, and it felt good having someone spend time with me."
"From what I hear, Rachel was spending plenty of time with you."
Clark winced. "That wasn't until later. The sexual side of things didn't start until I was sixteen. Before that…it was good. It was a little like having a mother again…and growing up the way I did, that's no small thing. You tend to cling to anyone who accepts you."
"So conveniently, you had an Oedipal complex."
"It wasn't like that!" Clark couldn't help the note of irritation that crept into his voice. It was hard enough to talk about without facing hostility from the woman he'd hoped would support him. "People don't touch you much in foster care. It's understandable, considering how many kids have been abused. After six years without being touched…it's the little things that matter. A hand on the shoulder, a reassuring pat on the back. You come to crave it, and when you don't get it, something inside you starts to die."
"And when it turned into more than that?" Lois's tone wasn't as hostile.
"It wasn't what I wanted, really. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know what else to do. She'd been the only person who treated me decently since my parents died. I felt like I owed her. Whatever she wanted, it was better than being alone again."
"What about Rachel?" Lois asked quietly. "What happened there?"
"Lilah pushed me into dating. She said it would keep people from suspecting. I started dating several different girls casually, but none of them stuck around except Rachel. I guess they must have sensed that something was off with me."
Clark coughed and reached for the cup of water on the roller table by the bed. His hands shook slightly.
"Rachel was in her rebellious stage. I think she was dating me as much to make her father angry as to be with me." Clark sighed. "Or at least that's what I thought at the time. By the time I found out different, it was too late."
He sipped his water, then replaced the cup on the table beside the bed.
"So you had an affair with a married woman and humiliated the girl who really did like you, and you ended up as a suspect in a murder investigation."
"That's pretty much it," Clark said.
Lois didn't say anything, and Clark found himself staring at the blanket covering him. It was institutional white, a color he'd hated since the long days leading up to his parent's dead.
The silence was palpable. It stretched out for almost a minute before Clark spoke again.
"When we first met, we talked about doing the right thing, and how doing the wrong thing hurts you as much as it does anyone else…"
He didn't get a chance to finish his statement; he was distracted by the sound of the door opening.
"I might dispute that." Rachel Harris's voice was caustic. Clark noticed her standing at the door, and he sighed.
He winced. "Rachel…" Had she been listening at the door? What had she heard?
"I'm here on official business." Rachel glanced at the bandages around Clark's torso. "I hate to say I told you so, but…"
"He didn't deserve to get attacked," Lois said, her voice tinged with irritation. "Whatever you people think around here…"
"This really isn't any of your business, Ms. Lane." Rachel's voice was curt. "I need to take a witness statement. Why don't you step outside?"
Lois glanced in his direction, and Clark nodded. He owed Rachel more than he'd ever be able to repay. A few minutes alone wasn't much to ask.
She stepped out, and the interrogation began.
Lois sat in the hallway, tense. She believed Clark when he said he didn't kill the woman. Knowing that he'd had the affair, that was harder.
Infidelity had destroyed her parents' marriage. It had caused more fights and arguments than Lois could care to remember, and it had made her childhood the hell it was. Given that, there was no way that she could approve of what Clark had done.
He'd been sixteen and seventeen during the affair. He should have known better.
Of course, he said things had started when he was fifteen; Lois had done a story on a fifteen year old girl who'd had a sexual relationship with a teacher. She'd been enormously satisfied when the teacher went to prison. He'd victimized the girl, even if she hadn't realized it at the time.
Why this felt different, Lois wasn't sure. Perhaps she was having trouble seeing the self assured, attractive man she'd first met in the position of being a victim. Maybe it was because he was a male. Society treated males differently; they were expected to welcome sex.
She'd seen "Summer of 42" just like everyone else.
Still…it nagged her. This felt wrong. It was more than she wanted to think about. All she wanted to do was get out of this town and get back to Metropolis, where things were much more black and white.
Who'd ever think of a small town as a center of moral ambiguity?
She glanced down the hall, and noticed a balding, heavyset man walking down the hall. He was sweating and he looked anxious.
"Is this Clark Kent's room?" he asked.
Lois frowned. "Why do you want to know?"
The man scowled. "I'm his brother. I've got a right to see him."
"He's in with Sheriff Harris." Lois frowned. "I didn't know that Clark had any brothers."
"I was his foster brother, back in the day."
Without asking, the man sat down heavily beside her. "You're the good looking babe he's been hanging around with, right?"
Although Lois resented being referred to as a babe, she nodded curtly. She could smell alcohol on his breath.
"Does he ever talk about the old gang?"
Lois shook her head. "I really haven't known him all that long."
"I didn't think so. He always thought he was better than the rest of us, at least until everything exploded in his face."
"So you were around for that?" Lois asked.
"Front row seat. You never saw so many people talking about it."
"I'm surprised it didn't make the national news," Lois said. "They really love stories with illicit sex and murder."
"Oh, it was all covered up. People up top didn't want anybody to know what the coach's wife was doing. They couldn't hide that she'd been with Clark, so they made it out like he was the only one."
Lois frowned. "The only one what?'
"The only boy she did it with. Clark was really a little on the old side for her. She mostly liked them a couple of years younger." The man snickered. "It was an open secret with the boys. You could always tell the ones that she'd dumped. They all ended up in jail, on drugs or dead."
"I hardly think that locker room talk is going to be accepted as proof of anything." Lois said. "Unless you've got proof…"
The other man coughed. "I knew some guys…lived with a few of them. They weren't the same afterward. Say…you don't happen to have a light do you?"
"You probably don't want to do that around all these oxygen bottles," Lois said. "Besides…haven't you heard that smoking will kill you?"
Carl grimaced. "I should have given these things up a long time ago. Jess got me hooked on them."
"Jess?" Lois asked.
Carl paled slightly. "Just another one of the guys. He's been dead for years." He glanced toward the hospital room door. "Do you think the sheriff is going to be much longer? I've got to get to work at the plant in a few minutes."
"I'll tell him that you came by," Lois said. She smiled at him, an expression that she knew didn't reach her eyes.
Carl stiffened. "Listen sister, right now I'm the best friend Clark's got in these parts. I told him last night; people are talking. The coach and his wife were popular, and people have long memories. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that that's a bad mix."
"You seem awfully well informed for just a guy." Lois watched the man carefully. If he'd known enough to warn Clark, then he might be part of it.
Carl reddened. "We were brothers for two years- the only kind of brothers any of us had. He dumped all of us like a hot potato as soon as he could get out of town. He's lucky that any of us are willing to give him the time of day. I don't have to get involved. Hell, I'd be smart not to."
"If you know something about a crime, it makes you an accessory-"
"I've got to live here. I don't get to just pack up and leave when everything gets tough." He stood up and scowled down at her. "Tell Clark to let sleeping dogs lie."
With that he walked quickly down the hall without looking back. Lois frowned after him pensively.
With every word that anyone said about Clark Kent, she learned that his life was even more complex than she'd thought. His life was full of secrets.
Lois hated secrets; it was part of the reason she'd become a journalist. Logic suggested that she should avoid Clark Kent like the Plague. He'd been a suspect in a double homicide, he'd cheated on a girl who wanted to marry him, and he'd slept with a married woman.
By all rights, Lois should be calling Perry right now and demand that Clark be reassigned. She knew Perry well enough to know that he'd argue, but he'd do it. If she didn't feel safe with the person she was working with, she wouldn't be able to do her job.
Yet, somehow, she didn't feel unsafe. Although she wasn't the best judge of character in matters of the heart, Lois had a gut feeling that the Clark Kent she knew wasn't the person who'd lived in Smallville ten years ago.
This Clark had made mistakes- major ones. But everything Lois had seen convinced her that he'd done everything he could to change himself into a different person, to redeem himself. He'd done what many people never even bothered to try to do.
He'd tried to become a better man.
That had to be worth something. At least now the man didn't have any secrets left to reveal.
Clark was pale as the nurse wheeled him out into the sunlight. The nurse had mentioned that Clark would likely be in pain for several days and had given him the doctor's prescription for pain medications.
Lois suspected that the paleness had more to do with his conversation with Rachel Harris than it did with pain. He'd been quiet since speaking to her, with a defeated air about him.
She noticed him stiffening, and she looked up. Simon Hunt was walking quickly across the parking lot. There was something familiar about his walk, which was precise and with a rigid posture. If she didn't know better, she'd have thought he was in the military.
Hunt stepped between Lois and Clark, putting his hand on the car door as the nurse was preparing to open it.
"It was you," he said. "After all these years. I should have known."
"What are you talking about?" Clark asked irritably. He winced as he made to rise from the wheelchair.
Hunt pulled something from the pocket of his trench coat. Hunt was turned away from Lois, and she couldn't see what it was.
"Where did you get that?" Clark asked in a strangled voice.
"It's amazing what family will do when times get a little desperate." Hunt grinned. "It worked for me the first time. I'll bet you can make it work again."
"That belonged to my parents," Clark struggled to rise to his feet, then he froze. "It worked for you?"
"I know what you are, Mr. Kent. When I'm done, so will the rest of the world." Hunt grinned. "How long do you think it will be before the government takes care of things in the name of national security?"
Lois pushed forward. "I don't know what you are talking about, Mr. Hunt. But Clark's had a rough night and needs to get some rest."
It wasn't a weapon that Hunt had in his hand. Although he slipped it in a pocket quickly, Lois thought she caught a glimpse of something metallic and round.
"Good luck on your way back to Metropolis. I don't imagine that Mr. Kent will be having many restful nights." Hunt grinned again, and there was something malicious in his expression.
"We aren't going anywhere," Lois said. "There's still work to do."
"Haven't you heard?" Hunt asked smugly. "The military pulled out this morning. So did the EPA."
Lois grimaced. Perry wouldn't be pleased that they'd missed the scoop. Being assaulted wouldn't be that much of an excuse, considering how many times she'd been through it and still gotten the story.
"Then what are you still doing here?" Lois asked. "Shouldn't you be at the bottom of a river somewhere looking for something to throw at people?"
"Oh, my story hasn't changed," Hunt said, looking directly at Clark. "Just the source of my investigation."
Clark looked as though he might pass out again, so Lois helped him quickly into the car.
Pale, Clark winced as he sank gingerly into his seat. His ribs had to be paining him, but Lois suspected that he was more shocked by the confrontation between himself and Simon Hunt.
"What was that, Clark?" Lois asked. "What was that thing he had?"
"It was the only memento I had left from my biological parents," Clark said quietly. He was withdrawn and pensive. "It was stolen when I was sixteen."
Lois slid into the driver's seat moments later and turned to him. "So Simon Hunt has something that was stolen at about the same time as you were accused of murder."
"It happened months before any of that." Clark stared at the dashboard. "I don't remember ever seeing him around here either."
"So why is this thing so important then?" Lois asked. "He wouldn't be waving it around like that if he didn't think it would get a reaction out of you."
"I don't know why he thinks it's important, but I don't see that it has anything to do with what happened to Lilah and the coach." Clark seemed to believe what he was saying, but it was obvious that there was a great deal he wasn't saying. Lois could see from the tension in his shoulders that he was waiting for her to ask questions that he didn't want to answer.
"I thought we were through with keeping secrets." She pulled the door closed and slipped her key into the ignition.
"I don't know much about my parents," Clark said. "They left a message for me, recorded in that. It was stolen before I got to hear more than part of the message."
"Why is Simon Hunt so upset about a fancy tape recorder?" Lois asked.
"Maybe he thinks there's something newsworthy about who my parents were." Clark looked away, and Lois was again struck by how much he wasn't saying.
"And this has nothing to do with the murders when you were eighteen?" Lois was skeptical. "Doesn't it seem like a big coincidence that this is all happening now?"
"This is the first time I've been back in ten years. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen now."
She squinted at him for a moment. "Maybe you're John Lennon and Yoko Ono's illegitimate love child."
Clark snickered. "Sure. If you're playing the odds, it'd be more likely to be Mick Jagger or Wilt Chamberlain."
"Well, it would explain why a tabloid reporter was after you. Maybe it's President Presley. That'd make a great story!"
Clark looked uneasy, though his paleness had begun to fade a little.
"You aren't going to let this go, are you?"
"Not on your life," Lois said cheerily.
She wasn't going to stop until she found out the truth. She'd had enough of the mystery that was Clark Kent, and she was going to get to the bottom of it.
Lois's voice on the phone was aggrieved. "But Perry, there's still a story here. The government may be gone, but the people are still here."
She was silent for a moment, and Clark was grateful that for once he couldn't hear the conversation on the other end of the line. He was miserable enough as it was.
Simon Hunt had the one link that he had to his native planet, and he knew more than he should. Everything that Clark had managed to accomplish was in jeopardy, and without his powers, Clark was frighteningly vulnerable. It was every nightmare he'd had about Lois, but ten times worse. At least with Lois, there was a chance that she'd have understood and made allowances. Hunt sounded like a fanatic who wasn't going to stop until everything in his path was destroyed.
"What?" Lois turned slightly and frowned. She listened for several long moments.
Lois began scribbling rapidly on a scrap of paper near the phone. "So if he's nosing around, there may be more to this than we thought. Thanks, Perry."
Turning to Clark, Lois said, "Ten years ago, Simon Hunt didn't exist. The paper trail dries up nine years ago in April. Before that, there's nothing. Perry and the staffers couldn't find out anything more. But when they tried, an agent from the NSA came to talk to them, asking why they were looking into his background."
"Witness protection program?" Clark asked.
"They usually do a better job of faking records." Lois shook her head. "Hunt has some influence in government, or at least he once did. Maybe he used to be in government. But for some reason he changed his identity nine year ago and hasn't gone back."
Worse and worse, Clark thought. Hunt had ties in the government, and he really was a fanatic.
"He's spent most of his time since then chasing aliens. That might explain why he's not still in the government; chasing little green men tend to make them look bad."
"So this guy is a real life Mulder. How does that affect the story?" Clark fought to keep his voice calm and dispassionate.
"It explains his interest in the case. Perry's going to fax me everything they've got on the guy. He says that the military aspect is tabled for the moment, but he wants us to concentrate on Hunt and his cronies.
"So you think the men in my room were working for Hunt?" Clark shook his head. "I really don't think there's any connection. There are plenty of reasons for a group of rednecks to get together to beat up on the town pariah. You don't have to add in wild alien theories."
"I think this guy may be dangerous. If he thinks you're wrapped up in this whole alien thing, there's no telling what he might do."
"So we'll be investigating him while he's investigating us? That seems a little weird."
"This is Smallville," Lois said. "Which I'm increasingly coming to think is a synonym for weird."
There'd been a time when he'd kept a gun on him at all times, when he'd always been on the alert, looking over his shoulder, alert for any danger. Unfortunately, years as a reporter had dulled those instincts, leaving him in this predicament.
Simon grunted as his face was pressed into the brick wall. This was the casual cruelty that he remembered, the thing that had first convinced him that he had a tool he could use. He'd needed someone dangerous, someone willing to do anything. He'd gotten more than he'd bargained for. Sometimes tools turned to bite the hand that used them.
"Don't you think it's unwise to stick around?" he said, trying to keep his voice calm. He hadn't gotten a look at what weapons the other man might have. "Seems a little stupid, given that people know you here."
"I'll worry about that." The voice hadn't changed; after all these years, it still gave him the chills. "I'm beginning to regret telling you about Clark. I didn't think you'd be stupid enough to confront him in front of his partner. What did you think you had to gain?"
"He's sick," Simon snarled. "That means something can hurt him."
The pressure on the back of his neck eased. "Yeah. Imagine my surprise when the boys were actually able to break a couple of ribs."
"Maybe it'll be something fatal," Simon said. "Maybe he's picked up something nasty from that Lane woman." He hesitated. "I think that something he came in to contact with made him sick. He was coming out of the Ross house when I saw him.
"Me and Pete, we go way back. He'll be more than happy to tell me what he knows. Don't worry about the Lane woman either. I'll take care of her." There was anticipation in his voice, and Simon had little doubt as to what "taking care" of her entailed.
"Just like you did the last three?" Simon grunted. "I made a mistake getting you out of prison."
The blow to his kidneys was as sharp as it was unexpected.
"You choose to deal with the devil, you pay the price."
"I sat right next to him for two hours on the plane," Simon said, horrified. "Who knows what sort of alien pathogens he may have exposed me to? You should have told me earlier."
"And have you go off half cocked like you are now?" The pressure was gone suddenly. "I'll be in touch. Don't do anything that I'll regret. You wouldn't like it."
Simon didn't bother to look back as he heard the sounds of footsteps retreating. Their association had cost him his career, and there wasn't a day that he didn't regret it. Yet, without him, he'd have been clueless until it was too late.
What were a few dead women when weighed against the safety of the world?
Sitting across from Rachel Harris, Lois never would have thought the professional sitting across from her was the teenager who had intended to marry Clark. She was glad that the police station was less than a block away from the pharmacy; it was one of the few benefits of a small town.
As slow as the pharmacy was, it sounded as though she'd have plenty of time to talk with Rachel before Clark returned with his prescriptions for painkillers and antibiotics.
"So have you found anything out about who the men who assaulted Clark last night might be?" Lois began.
"That's an open investigation, Ms. Lane." Rachel's voice was irritable. "We've just started looking into the people who might want to harm Clark. It's a pretty long list."
"I kicked one last night and he limped on his way out." Lois said. "You might look into it."
"You told me that three times last night," Rachel said tiredly. "There's a couple of thousand men in Smallville who might fit what little description either of you were able to give me. It's not something that gets solved in a couple of hours."
Lois nodded, slowly. "So you think Clark killed those people ten years ago?"
Rachel shook her head. "I know he didn't. He's a bastard for what he did to me, but I know him well enough to know that he just isn't capable of something like that."
"The papers said that his alibi was flimsy, that the witnesses who say he was with them weren't reliable."
Grimacing, Rachel said, "You can't always believe what you read in the paper, Ms. Lane. There were some discrepancies in the timeline, but I believe the witnesses."
"Why is that?" Lois asked.
"I was one of them. While Coach Holder and his wife were being murdered, Clark was breaking up with me in front of Pete Ross and Carl Perkins."
"You weren't considered a good witness?"
"It was ten o'clock when he ran out of the house, and the police dispatcher records him as calling for an ambulance at one minute after ten. It's at least a twenty minute drive from my house to theirs."
"So somebody had their clocks wrong."
Rachel shook her head. "We were at my father's house and he was always a fanatic about keeping the correct time. They checked the dispatcher's clock afterwards. There weren't any problems with that either."
"So people looked at that and decided that you had to be lying to cover it up?"
"His girlfriend, his best friend and his foster brother are the only alibi that he has. What do you think?"
"I think people should have kept looking for the real killer." Lois shook her head. "Somebody made a mistake, that's all."
"There wasn't any mistake," Rachel said. "After all this time, I just can't understand it. Unless Clark Kent can somehow fly, I don't see how he was able to get from one spot to another that fast."
The pain from his ribs was fading, and Clark imagined that the world was finally taking on a brighter hue. He felt heartened. For all that he'd spent years hating his abilities, being without them had frightened him. He leaned against the wall for a moment, taking in the sun.
His hearing was fading in and out. For a moment he thought he could hear Lois's voice.
"So there's nothing else that you can tell me about the murders?"
"The evidence was processed in Wichita." It was Rachel's voice speaking, and Clark stiffened.
"So there was no evidence that Clark committed the murders other than his relationship with Mrs. Holder and his proximity at the time of the murders?" Lois's voice was brisk and efficient.
"My father saw Clark leaving the house," Rachel said quietly. "He refused to arrest him without any real evidence, and that's what lost him the election."
The voices faded out, and Clark grimaced. Although it was flattering that Lois would want to defend him, all it did was stir up things up even more than they already were.
He stepped in to the police station just as Lois was leaving Rachel Harris's office.
"So did you get the medicine?" Lois asked brightly.
"The alien story is a bust. Why are we still here?" Clark asked in a low voice.
Lois looked startled. "There's a story here, and it doesn't have a thing to do with aliens. Simon has something that you lost at the time of the murders; ergo, he has some connection. The only way to figure it out is to take a closer look at what happened."
"Leave it alone, Lois." Clark stared at the floor. "You could bring a signed confession and nobody would believe you."
"This isn't just about clearing your name. If that's all it was, we'd be on a plane back to Metropolis right now." Lois stepped towards him, and said quietly, "This is about justice, about getting a killer off the streets. And it's about getting some closure."
Lois took his arm, and Clark was startled by the contact. She hadn't touched him since the day of the date, except when he was sick. He was startled to realize how much he'd missed it.
He hadn't been entirely without human contact in the intervening years; he'd craved it too much, that sense of connection with someone else. But it had never been right, and he'd always been careful to set the boundaries of his relationships very early, for fear of repeating his errors of previous years.
He hadn't done that with Lois, and it was a surprise. Despite the completely business nature of their current relationship, he was enjoying it more than some romances of previous years.
"So where are we going next?" he asked, as Lois lead him out the door.
She smiled up at him, and he felt himself responding in spite of himself. "Wichita."
The knocking at the door caused Pete to cough in the middle of a deep inhalation. Franticly, he snuffed it out and hid the butt in a plastic bag in the tank of the toilet.
The banging at the door was even louder now. Pete staggered to his feet, pushing his way through the garbage strewn across the floor to reach for the door.
Before he could open it, he was shocked to see a tattooed forearm wrapping itself around his throat.
He gasped, or tried to.
"Pete, we need to have a little talk."
Lois drove, and the trip passed in silence for almost half an hour before she spoke. It was a companionable silence, born of a growing and unexpected comfort with each other. It wasn't something Lois was used to, this strange feeling of trust.
As the city lights of Wichita came into view on the horizon, Clark seemed to shrink into himself again. He turned away from her and sighed.
"You aren't having second thoughts, are you?" She glanced at Clark, who was staring outside the window at the passing sameness of the open fields.
"You were right. I should have been back before this," he said, still not looking at her. "I've been running from it from so long that I didn't remember how to do anything BUT run."
"It can't have been easy, having your life exposed like that." Lois's voice was quiet.
Clark laughed, and it was a short, ugly sound. "My life was always an open book…or at least that's what people thought. Everybody thinks they know everybody else in small towns." He sighed. "I think sometimes they resent me being able to keep the secret as long as I did as much as anything."
"Keeping the secret like the other boys did?"
Clark's head snapped around and he stiffened. "Where'd you hear about that?"
"I've been talking to people." Lois said.
Again, Clark laughed mirthlessly. "Not in Smallville. That's the one thing people don't talk about. They don't want to believe it, so they don't talk about it."
"How would you know what people talk about behind closed doors, Clark?" The thought that people would be cruel enough to say things where he could hear was repugnant.
Clark glanced at her withy a guarded expression. "Trust me. I had my ear to the ground for the couple of months I was in Smallville after the murders. I know exactly what people were saying about me. It's part of what encouraged me to leave when I did."
Lois frowned. "You were the first one on the scene that night. What made you leave Rachel's house and go rushing over to the coach's house?"
"I can't explain that," Clark said. He shifted in his seat and grimaced. "If you had any idea how many times I was asked that question…I just had this feeling that something was wrong."
He was lying. When he'd told her he didn't kill Delilah or the coach, he'd looked her straight in the face. He was looking away now.
Lois had hoped that they were past that part of their relationship. Everything worked so much better when he was honest with her.
"Do you know who did it?" Lois asked casually.
Sharply, Clark said, "You don't think I'd be the first one to tell the police what I knew if I could?"
"Not if you were protecting someone," Lois said. "You were pretty smooth that first time in Perry's office. Acted like we'd never met…"
"You didn't strike me as the sort of person who'd want to let the whole office know about your personal business." Clark stared out the window again. "I thought you'd like the time to process the whole thing without having your dirty laundry shown to the world."
"So our date was dirty laundry?" Lois asked archly.
Clark glanced at her, and his lip twitched. "Well, things might have gotten a little scandalous if we'd had a few more dates."
"You think highly of yourself, don't you?" Lois couldn't help but smirk a little. "I can't imagine what it'd take to scandalize Perry, but I think we'd have had to really work at it."
"Well, I've been around the world a few times. You wouldn't believe what you can learn in little out of the way villages." He smirked. "You should see me dance."
Lois remembered a neck massage that night, and her skin tingled.
"You are an international man of mystery." Lois said. "An enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a question."
"I didn't kill anyone," Clark said, his lighter mood evaporating. "And I don't know how to prove any different."
"I believe you." Lois hesitated. "But there are a lot of questions that you just don't have good answers for. That's going to make a lot of people think you are lying. Doing it to protect someone…it fits who you are."
"That's what Sheriff Harris thought too." Clark shook his head slightly, and looked out the window again. "It's part of the reason that he leaked information to the papers; he thought he could pressure me into revealing who the real murderer was."
"It didn't work, I take it."
"I'm not protecting anyone," Clark said. "There's no good excuse for murder."
"Self defense," Lois argued.
"What happened that night wasn't self defense." Clark stared at the floorboards. "I've gone over everything time after time. If I'd only gotten there faster. If I'd only…I never should have gotten involved with her in the first place."
"I'm a hypocrite. I preached about doing the right thing the first night we met, and the first time I was tempted…"
"You said that it makes you less of a person." Lois said. "Whether anyone else knows about it or not."
Silent for long moments, Clark finally sighed. "I felt dirty. People called me white trash from the time I first went to live in a foster home, but I never felt that way until I started with Lilah."
"I imagine that your time with Rachel didn't make anything easier. You had a woman who loved you…"
"Rachel never loved me. She loved the idea of being with me. I was the star player on the football team, a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and someone attractive to make a pass at. That's all she saw. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing more to see." Clark shook his head. "She never saw me at all."
Clark glanced up at Lois. "I tried to push her away, but the more I pushed, the harder she pushed back. I had no idea she was telling people we were getting married until the end." Clark grimaced. "I never would have let things get as far as they did if I'd realized."
"So she never loved you."
"I think she thought she did. Whether her feelings for me were real or not, that was never the issue. I shouldn't have allowed things to get as far as they did."
The city lights were visible in the distance, and they returned to that companionable silence. Clark still had secrets, but Lois was certain that he'd tell her when the time was right. Assuming, of course, that she hadn't already found the answers for herself.
The shadows were thick and heavy in the alley around them. It was late evening, the only time Perry's source had been willing to meet with them. Lois stumbled slightly on the doorstep.
"He could have let us take a look at the evidence," Lois grumbled. "He didn't have to be so touchy. So you're a suspect in the case. We could have looked at it while he watched us!"
Clark didn't say anything. He simply leaned back against the wall, his features still and fixed.
"It wasn't a total loss," Lois continued. "He promised to have a detective reopen the case and run some DNA tests. They didn't have them back when the crime was committed." Glancing at her partner, she noticed that he hadn't moved. "Clark, are you all right?"
His face was pale and his eyes were as expressionless as she'd ever seen them.
"They kept a lot about the case out of the press." His voice was flat. "I hadn't realized how bad it was."
"What are you talking about, Clark?" Lois scowled at him. "You were in the same room I was, and we didn't get within ten feet of anything."
"He left one of the files open. I got a look at it when you were arguing with him."
"No you didn't! If there was something like that, I'd have noticed it right away."
Clark chuckled. "When you get in an argument, you don't notice much of anything."
Lois scowled at him, and said, "We didn't come here to argue about this. Let's just go back to the car, and we can discuss it on the way home."
Silently, Clark followed her. He didn't speak a word as Lois unlocked the car; he simply slipped into the passenger's seat. Lois noticed that he was moving easily now, with no sign of his recent pain.
She started the engine and pulled out into the intersection.
"Clark-" Lois began. "I…"
She didn't have a chance to finish. The sound of her window shattering made her scream and swerve wildly.
She didn't hear the shot until it was too late.
The bullet stung slightly as Clark snatched it out of the air a fraction of a second before it would have landed between Lois's eyes. A momentary glimpse of a silhouette on a rooftop nearby had been his only warning. He still wasn't up to his full speed. He attempted to turn his head and get a better look at the shooter, but his movements felt sluggish.
The world snapped back into real time, and Clark was thrown forward in his seat belt as Lois crashed the vehicle into a light pole.
Another shot rang out, and although Clark attempted to speed time yet again, it wasn't working.
He reached out and snapped Lois's seat belt, grabbing her and pulling her down into the seat. His head stung, and it took him a moment to realize that he'd been hit. The ping of the bullet ricocheting and hitting the window beside him was a reminder that he needed to get Lois somewhere safe.
Lois still hadn't moved, and for a moment Clark was afraid that she'd been hit. A quick look showed that she was simply frozen in shock, staring at him and gaping in amazement.
He ducked himself, looking carefully over the dash to get a good look at the shooter.
The squeal of tires was his only warning, as a battered green Chevrolet sedan pulled up beside him. Clark had only a moment to see a grinning dark skinned face before the shotgun poking through the back window registered.
He barely had time to throw himself on top of Lois before the blast hit him in the back. It stung slightly, and Clark was thankful that his abilities had returned to the extent that they had. Both he and Lois would otherwise be dead.
He heard the sound of two car doors opening, and he realized that the men inside the car were coming to make sure they finished the job.
He glanced back, and noted the familiar prison tattoos on the forearms of the two men stepping up to the car. He kicked out, still uncertain of his strength, and the car door flew off its hinges, hitting both men, and leaving them lying bloody on the ground.
Three other men were pulling themselves out of the vehicle. Clark glanced back at Lois, who'd been watching the whole thing. He was surprised to feel the jerk as she pulled the car into reverse at full speed.
The tires squealed as the rental car sped backwards. Lois drove backwards for almost a block as the men piled back in to the green Chevrolet and attempted to turn the car around. They were hampered by having to grab their injured members.
At the intersection, Lois shifted gear and turned, accelerating as quickly as the car would go. She'd had some training in combat driving; he'd seen bodyguards driving like this when he was helping guarding a Nigerian princess.
"What the hell was that?" Lois asked as Clark held tightly to the car to keep from being thrown out. His own seat belt was in shreds, and he'd snapped Lois's in his desperation to get her out of the like of fire.
The Chevrolet was visible in the distance. Lois had a head start, though, and Clark doubted that they'd be able to catch up.
"A random drive-by shooting?" Clark said quickly. Gang violence had been a problem in Wichita for the past ten years and longer. Several of his foster brothers had been in gangs; it was what had gotten Jess killed in prison.
"You've been shot!" Lois said, and there was a note of hysteria in her voice. "More than once!"
Clark shook his head. "Do I look like I was shot?" There hadn't been time to conceal what he was doing from her; hopefully, the human tendency to dismiss what it couldn't understand would help explain things away.
"I saw it!" She insisted. "You-"
She didn't have time to continue. The smell of smoke was becoming obvious now. Something was wrong with the engine, and a quick look with his special vision showed Clark that the shooter had missed several times and had left several holes in the radiator and in several hoses.
Fluid was dripping from several different places, and the smoke slowly rising was only increasing. A quick glance back showed that the Chevrolet, which had been dropping back, was now closing on them. The car was losing power, and quickly.
"Turn!" Clark said, pointing.
Lois didn't ask questions. She pulled the wheel sharply to the right, and the vehicle protested loudly. Clark could hear the popping sound of shots from the vehicle behind them, but they were too far away to be accurate.
The alley they turned in to was a dead end. Lois turned to stare at Clark, and before she could speak, he grabbed her and pulled her out of the car, through the opening left by his absent door.
A moment later, they were airborne. Clark had time to see the Chevrolet pulling into the mouth of the alley, and then he was moving away as quickly as he could. This felt agonizingly slow compared to what he could normally manage, but Lois didn't know the difference.
She was stiff in his arms, the shock having rendered her speechless for the first time since he'd met her.
Lois still hadn't spoken as Clark gently floated to a stop. She stared at him for a long moment, her eyes luminous in the light of the rising moon.
"It explains a lot," she said, her eyes never leaving his face.
Clark frowned slightly, unsure.
"This has all been just a little too outlandish even for me. I've got three Kerths, and I've been investigating aliens." She seemed to be speaking to herself as much as to him.
"Okay…" Clark said.
"I'm in a little white room somewhere, and a doctor is giving me an injection. All the pressure got to me, and I started having the delusions about aliens and flying men and evil rednecks."
"Lois…" Clark said.
"It's too bad, too. I really liked the way it all started out. The date, this out of this world guy…I should have known that something was wrong then. You don't meet people that perfect." Lois laughed, and there was a slightly hysterical note to it.
Clark's heart sank.
"I'm not perfect." Clark coughed slightly. "And Lois, you aren't dreaming. If you were, I doubt you'd be dreaming about Smallville. Fiji, maybe, but Kansas?"
"Well, if it isn't a dream, what is it? You can fly, you're really strong and fast, and you've been trying to derail the whole alien story since Perry gave it to us." Lois paused. "And people are shooting at us. This sounds like a bad episode of the X-files."
"You're getting pretty close," Clark admitted slowly. "I'm not exactly like other people."
"The next thing you are going to tell me is that the ship Wayne Irig was lugging around was yours."
Clark didn't say anything.
"Oh." Lois said, looking him straight in the eye at last. "Oh!"
Clark turned away, staring out over the horizon. This was the moment of truth, the moment that decided whether he had to abandon everything he'd accomplished and start again in a new life, or whether he could enter a new chapter in his life, one where he had someone to confide in, where he was no longer alone.
If she rejected him, it would be a nightmare come true.
"The ship was really small," Lois started. "Unless you can change your shape…?"
Clark shook his head dismissively.
"That means that you came here as a small child. That means that someone had to raise you. That was the Kents?"
He nodded, refusing to look at her, or give any credence to the rising hope in his chest. She hadn't rejected him yet; that was far more than he'd ever expected from anyone.
"Did they know?"
"They found me in the spaceship. I was born normal, but I'd already started changing by the time they died. They knew."
He'd heard the arguments; they hadn't realized just how powerful his hearing was even then. His father had worried that he'd be taken away; his mother had been more concerned with what he would become. They'd loved him in spite of it all.
"It must be lonely."
Clark finally looked at her. "I wasn't lying, the first time I met you. There were just things I wasn't ready to tell you yet."
"So this is why you've been dragging your feet. You didn't want the world to know your secret?"
Clark felt a moment of panic. "You can't tell anyone! Nobody…I barely have any power left, and if the government caught me…my father always said they'd dissect me like a frog."
Lois frowned. "You don't think that people would…?"
"If I'm not human, then I've got no rights. Technically, I'm not even a US citizen. A lawyer might make a case to the contrary, but they'd have already killed me, so it'd be considered a moot point." Clark hated feeling this vulnerable.
He didn't get a chance to complete that thought. The thin plume of smoke from their car was joined by a black, ugly trail of smoke, with flames licking up the sides of the building from which they'd come.
"There are still people in there."
There had been a night watchman, a janitor and their contact, a lab technician. Clark didn't know whether there were more people inside or not.
Clark moved as quickly as he could, stepping toward the trap door leading to the roof. He reached down and pulled the handle, tearing through the door jam and heaving the door open.
"If I don't come back, you need to get out of town as quickly as possible. I don't know who's after us, but I'd feel a lot better knowing that you were out of danger."
"What are you going to do?"
"There are people inside that building. I've got to get them out." Clark spoke with a conviction that had become foreign to him over recent years. This was the one thing that he'd remained sure of. He'd been given his gifts to help others.
"Are you going to be ok?"
Normally, Clark wouldn't have any question. But weakened as he was, there were no assurances.
"I don't know."
Before Lois could say another word, he levitated unsteadily into the sky and began to make his way back in the direction from which they'd come. His head was already hurting. He hoped that the people would have already gotten out, but he knew better.
Whoever had burned the building didn't want the evidence to get out. It was all tied together- the murders ten years ago and what was happening today.
With that, Clark headed into the burning building. Whatever happened, he wasn't going to let another person die when he could stop it.
Aliens were real.
Though Lois had kept an upbeat attitude throughout the investigation, especially with Clark being so negative, she'd never really believed. Aliens were science fiction, bug eyed monsters come to take women back to mars, creatures out to take control of the world.
Little wizened creatures with gentle eyes wanting to go home.
Clark had been raised here. This was likely the only home he'd ever known. Lois felt a stab of pity. As dysfunctional as her family was, at least she had one. Clark had lost everything he knew in the world not once, but twice. What had happened all those years ago in Smallville must have seemed like even more of a betrayal.
The fire on the horizon was growing, and Lois felt a stab of anxiety. She'd seen Clark take a bullet, but she'd also seen him bleeding. He wasn't totally invulnerable, and he was going back into an inferno.
Lois glanced back at the trap door behind her. He'd asked that she find safety, but she wasn't sure that any one place was safer than another. The green sedan that had been chasing them was undoubtedly still out there prowling the streets looking for both of them.
Keeping a low profile was her best option. Even if she was able to find another rental car, Lois wasn't sure that the people looking for them wouldn't be waiting for her. She could call a cab, but going back to Smallville wasn't safe, not if these people were connected to the ones who'd beaten Clark. Besides, finding a pay phone in the city at night might be a chore. This place wasn't designed for pedestrians in the same way that some of the cities back east were.
She hated situations like this. She'd been through it in the Congo, but she hadn't had anyone else to worry about there except for herself. Not being able to trust anyone, always feeling that someone was watching, waiting for the bullet to the brain that would mean the end of it all. It was a hellish life, and not one she'd wish on anyone.
Worrying about Clark wasn't going to get her anywhere, and though she knew that her best option was to stay where she was, it wasn't in her nature. She'd made her career by always being on the front lines.
Lois sighed and peered over the edge of the building. It was only three stories down, and she had no idea what sort of building she was in. It was a typical downtown neighborhood; brick buildings taller than those in the surrounding city, narrow streets, abandoned government buildings.
She stiffened as she heard the sound of a car engine. She ducked quickly as she saw the silhouette of a car running without street lights turning the corner at the end of the block.
As the car approached, Lois realized that it was the same sedan that had been following her before.
The sedan moved slowly down the block, with its windows open. Clark hadn't flown them all that far from the place they'd left the rental car. Lois was wishing that he had.
She ducked down as the car began to slow in front of the building. She cursed under her breath as the car stopped, and the door opened.
Five men left the car, and Lois could tell that they were carrying rifles. They were staring upward, checking the roof line, and it was all Lois could do to keep herself from ducking down. The sudden movement would be more visible to trained eyes than her silhouette, which was already low.
They spoke to each other in low voices and began to spread out, moving up and down the street. They moved quickly but cautiously up and down the street, pulling at doorways and looking for doors that were open.
There was something odd about the pistols they were carrying. It took Lois a moment to realize that the profiles were wrong; it was something she'd seen in the Congo. Silencers. They wouldn't suppress the sound entirely, but from a block or more away, the sound wouldn't be noticeable.
The arms runners had sold tens of thousands before Lois had shut them down. They were highly illegal, at least in Metropolis, and they weren't cheap.
One man stood by the car, almost directly below. He reached into the open window of the car and pulled out a walkie talkie.
For the first time Lois noticed that although the car doors were open, the interior light was not on.
The man spoke in a low voice into the walkie talkie, then turned to the others. He whistled loudly and turned to head for the driver's side.
Lois stiffened as she realized that he was limping. She'd kicked one of Clark's attackers hard enough to injure him, and here one of these people was limping.
She leaned forward, attempting to get a look at the license plate. If she could get the boys back at the Planet to do a check, she'd be able to discover who owned the car, and she'd be one step closer to finding out who ordered the attack on Clark.
The sound of the bullet hitting the brick beside her was the only warning that something had gone wrong. She ducked down quickly, and heard the men shouting at each other.
She heard the sound of breaking glass, and she realized that they were coming through the front entrance.
She turned for a moment and stared at the trap door that Clark had so casually broken open. Without it being locked, she was a sitting duck up here. It was only a matter of time before they surrounded the place and found her.
Her only choice was to go down, where she could find a room to hide.
She opened the door, wincing at the metallic shriek as it clanked open. The others knew that she was up here.
She climbed quickly down the ladder leading into a small closet. It was a supply closet, with walls covered with shelves covered with cleaning supplies. Lois looked around quickly, then grabbed a bottle before opening the door to the hallway outside carefully.
There was no one in the hall, just large windows leading to offices with cubicles on both sides. Lois tried the doors; both were locked. She didn't have time to pick the locks; she could already hear the heavy sounds of footsteps on the stairwell from below at the end of the hallway behind her.
She ran quickly down the hall and turned the corner. The lights to the elevator were lit and rising. She was on the third floor, and the elevator was already to the second floor. A second set of stairs was beside the elevator. She didn't hear any footsteps from this one; the doors were heavy and they were of the sort that locked from the outside. Once she entered the stairwell, she wouldn't be able to get into any of the other floors until she reached the bottom. She had no doubt they had someone waiting for her there.
The ding of the elevator decided her. She slipped into the stairwell, and closed the door, shuddering at the sound of the click behind her.
She heard the sounds of footsteps; she heard one man make a low voiced comment to the other. The second man gave a low voiced chuckle.
Lois slipped quietly down the stairs. They'd search the top floor first, then work their way down, trusting that the emergency stairwell locks would keep her trapped.
As she reached the second floor, she set the cleaning solution down and reached into her pocket. She'd expected to use this in the government offices while Clark distracted the attendant; she hadn't needed it then, but she was glad she had it now.
She'd have to give Bobbie Bigmouth a kiss for buying her the lock pick set for Christmas; or maybe just a dinner for two at Jean Paul's. The professional kit was much better than trying to use a hairpin; it took her less than a minute to pick the lock.
She winced as the door clicked, then she silently entered the darkened hallway on the other side of the door.
The elevator was here too, but the same person who was waiting for her to come out of the stairs was undoubtedly waiting for her to use the elevator. They'd have someone else waiting at the bottom of the other set of stairs.
That left the two on the floor above, and the one person who'd somehow gotten into the stairwell on the other side. They'd have someone waiting outside as well.
She moved down the hall until she saw a large glass window showing a cafeteria.
Picking this lock was easier than picking the other had been. Lois jerked, however, when she heard the sound of the metal doorway to the stairs being kicked.
She slipped inside just as she heard the sound of the elevator dinging.
Moving quickly, but low to the ground, she made her way to the back of the cafeteria, where a small cubbyhole was almost invisible in the darkness.
There was a trash barrel and a metal cage that lowered down, where people were supposed to put their trays. There was also a wooden door, undoubtedly to go back into the kitchen. Lois could see into the kitchen through the slats.
She reached to try the door. Sometimes people forgot to lock up for the night. If not, she'd try picking it; though doing it in the dark wouldn't be fun.
A flashlight beam swept the area over her head.
She froze. The men were outside, peering into the cafeteria. She prayed that she'd remembered to lock the door behind her; if she hadn't they'd have a good idea where she was.
The beam moved around the hulking shapes of long institutional style tables and benches.
One of the men murmured to the other. The flashlight beam disappeared, but Lois remained frozen. The men knew they had her trapped, and all it would take was one of them being a little brighter than the others, and they'd have her.
She remained frozen for almost a minute; she finally leaned around the corner to look at the picture window.
She was blinded by the beam of the flashlight, which shone directly in her eyes. She ducked back just in time, as the shattering sound and ping of a bullet told her that they'd already found her.
She lunged for the door, and mercifully, luck was with her for once. The door opened smoothly and soundlessly, even as she heard the sound of the glass door at the front of the kitchen shattering.
Sliding inside just as a bullet impacted the door, she shoved it shut and turned the lock. She doubted that it would hold them long, and once they knew they had her trapped, they'd be able to bring all the others.
Keeping low, Lois entered the kitchen, carefully keeping out of view of the slatted partition in the tray slot. She moved quickly, and she stayed low.
The door banged loudly. It was cheap and flimsy, and had never been meant to withstand much abuse.
And with that, both men were inside the kitchen.
"Come on out chica. We ain't here to hurt you." The first man's voice was low, and Lois could hear the underlying menace in it. "We just want to talk."
The other man was quiet…too quiet. They wanted her to focus on his voice, while the other man came around and caught her from the side.
Lois looked around frantically. That was when she heard the movement from behind her. She reached slowly into her pocket to pull out the small tube Perry had given her for her birthday. She'd have to give him a kiss as well.
The man leaned over the counter and grinned at her, the tattoos on his forearms a stark contrast to his pale, milky white skin.
She sprayed the pepper spray directly into his eyes, and he screamed.
Lois only had a moment before the other one was there with a bullet. She lunged for the familiar outline in the wall and quickly pulled it open.
She dived inside, wincing as she felt the sting of concrete ricocheting from the bullet beside her head.
As she slid down the garbage chute, her last thought was to wonder why all her stories seemed to end up this way.
Lois banged her head sharply as she fell into the dumpster. The smell of rotting vegetables and the empty, soiled boxes of food mixed with the remains of meals gone sour after two days in the heat. The smell was overwhelming.
For a moment she lay stunned. She heard the sharp retort of metal hitting metal above her. The man was shooting down the shaft of the garbage chute!
Struggling to right herself, Lois felt a moment of frustration. It didn't seem fair.
She pulled herself out of the dumpster, trash and grime sticking to her clothing. It was more of a struggle than she thought it would be, and when she slid out of the dumpster, she fell to the alley floor.
The sound of a vehicle nearby made Lois stiffen in fear. She scrambled to her feet as a car turned the corner into the barely lit alley. Though she tried to dodge behind the dumpster, the beams of its headlights shone on her.
The car surged forward. Lois was preparing to run when she realized that it wasn't the familiar green sedan. Instead, it was a battered gray pickup. A gun rack hung on the back windshield, and all she could see was the silhouette of the driver.
Lois froze for an instant, and then it was too late.
The pickup slid beside her, and the driver leaned out. Lois fumbled for her mace, only to realize that she must have dropped it upstairs.
"Get in the back, Missy." The sweating face in the driver's window was a familiar one; Clark's foster brother Carl. His voice was low and urgent. "There isn't much time. They'll be here any second. Get in the back and get under the tarp."
Lois hesitated for only an instant. She didn't have much of a choice. The people trying to kill her were only seconds away. If Carl was working with them, he'd pull out a gun soon enough. If he wasn't, then it might be her chance.
She pulled herself heavily into the back of the pickup, and she was thrown backward heavily as Carl gunned the motor. She struggled to pull the tarp over herself and find a place to lie comfortably in the middle of all the grease spots, dirt encrusted tools and fast food bags.
She'd just settled down comfortably when the truck began to slow. Lois's heart sank. Had Carl betrayed her to the people who were after her?
Shadows surrounded the pickup, and Lois fought the urge to peek out to see just what was happening.
"What are you doing here?" The voice was harsh and startlingly close, and slightly accented.
"The boss sent me to tell you guys to get the hell out of here. The cops are on their way. Did you get the girl?"
"No. Diego and Billy Ray screwed up." The voice was sullen and angry. "She's around here somewhere."
"You don't have time." Carl's voice was clipped. "The boss wouldn't have had to send me out if you'd remember to charge your phone every once in a while."
"It's the battery, man…"
"They'll be here in about two minutes. You'd better clear out." With that, Carl gunned the engine and a moment later, Lois hit her head again as he made a curve sharply.
He made several sharp turns at high rates of speed before finally slowing to a normal rate. Carl drove for several minutes before finally slowing to a stop.
Lois reluctantly pulled the tarp away and began to sit up. She was in another dark alley, and Carl had cut his lights.
He sat still in the driver's seat. Lois looked carefully around, then climbed out the back of the pickup. She walked around to the driver's side, and slid through the narrow gap between the truck and the wall of the building.
"There's a gap in the fence up ahead." Carl refused to look at her. "If you turn left, and go three blocks, you'll find a police station."
"If you tell anyone about this, I'm dead." Carl stared straight ahead. He was silent for a long moment, then his eyes flicked in her direction. "Now get out."
Lois hesitated, then turned. She slipped under the driver's side mirror and moved forward to the chain link fence covering the alleyway and leading to a parking lot on the other side.
The short walk to the police station seemed to last forever.
Lois was pale; seeing her through the one way mirror was a shock. The fluorescent lights made her look sallow, and Clark could see that she was swaying slightly with fatigue.
If anything had happened to her tonight, he never would have forgiven himself.
"You both seem to have your stories in order." The detective standing beside him shook his head, "I still think it would be better to put you both in protective custody. From the descriptions of the tattoos, it sounds like it's the Sangrias. We've been trying to get something on them for years."
"I thought the Sangrias were minor league." The Sangrias had started out as a minor prison gang that had liked to use minors to do most of their dirty work. Clark had known several people who'd been members, including at least two of his foster brothers.
Jess had tried to talk him into joining; he'd been furious when Clark had refused. He'd taunted Clark about it for months before finally giving up. He'd talked about community, a sense of family and belonging. In the end, it had gotten him killed in prison.
"That's how they used to be. We thought we'd broken their backs for a while there, but it seems like they got their second wind. New leadership, maybe."
"Are we cleared to leave, then?" Clark glanced again at Lois, her slumped shoulders and dejected expression clearing showing her exhaustion.
He wouldn't blame her if she was in shock. He should have made sure she was safe before he'd done anything else.
The time in Smallville was rattling him, making him sloppy. Normally, he'd have been much more careful.
He opened the door, and was stunned to see the transformation on Lois's face as she turned to face him. She straightened up and truly smiled, and it was as though the entire room lit up.
She was even more beautiful than the first time he'd met her. Clark felt a sharp pang of regret; for the first time in years of sorrow, he'd discovered a new source of pain about his parents' deaths.
Jonathan and Martha Kent would have loved to meet Lois Lane. They'd have seen instantly what had taken him days to allow himself to believe. He'd never get to tell them about his first date, or about the feelings which, despite his years of experience in dating were only now being to awaken within him.
"Clark! I was so worried you weren't going to make it!" Lois stood up, then stiffened when she saw the detective standing behind him. "I told them all about how we got separated when…"
"I already gave my statement. The detective says we're free to go." He stepped forward and took her hand, squeezing it reassuringly.
Lois gaped. "So I get the bad cop and you get the good cop? My cop acted like he was one step from throwing me in the brig and throwing away the key! Then he disappeared for thirty minutes and left me here with the worst cup of coffee I ever tasted in my life. I think I've found out where Metropolis ships its industrial waste."
The detective behind Clark cleared his throat. "I'm sorry about that Ms. Lane. Detective Hood transferred in from Metropolis six months ago, and he's made no secret that he's not happy about some of your articles about the police. Once we realized that he had a personal grudge, we pulled him out of there."
"So I'm not going to be stuck in a safe house for the next month?"
"That probably wouldn't be a bad idea. You are the only witness who's actually testified against the Sangrias in eight years. We'd really like to have something more than rumors and innuendo when everything comes to trial, and that would be a lot easier if you were alive to testify."
Clark shook his head slightly when he saw Lois glancing at him. Under ordinary circumstances, the detective would have been correct. But he was finally feeling himself again, and he could keep her safer than anyone on the planet.
"We're conducting our own investigation," Lois said. "And we can't do that if we're locked away somewhere."
With that, she took his arm, and Clark led her out of the police station happy that here at last he had a second chance.
As they turned the corner into the alley, Lois began to speak. She didn't get a chance; in the space of a moment they were in the air, and the city was falling away below them.
He was faster this time, more self assured. She glanced at him, and could only see that his face was expressionless in the dimness.
The world below was beautiful, a glowing sea of lights spread out in all directions, surrounded by a sea of darkness. It was beautiful, and the air was warmer than she would have thought. She felt protected, not at all what she would have thought she'd have felt suspended in the sky with nothing to support her but a man's arms.
It was magical, flying, and for a moment Lois had to wonder why he did anything else.
The lights of the city fell away behind them, and another passed below. That one was followed by another and yet another still. In the darkness, Lois didn't have any real sense of speed. It was as though there was no wind, only an endless stillness. The only indication she had that they were moving faster than anything she would have imagined was the strings of lights that were flashing by like lines on a highway, almost blurring together.
Yet as they rose above the clouds, the endless sea of stars remained still. Vaguely, Lois thought that she shouldn't have been able to breathe at this altitude. She should have been freezing, with wind blasting and buffeting her.
Instead, she felt only the warmth and stillness, and she wondered if this was what he felt every night.
They began to slow, and the clouds parted below them. In the moonlight, Lois could see the dimly lit form of an island.
It grew larger below them, and Lois clutched at Clark more tightly. He tightened his grip reassuringly.
They sank gently towards a moonlit beach, with nothing but a sea of stars above them, the darkness of the surf beside them, and the palm trees disappearing into the darkness.
Landing so softly that it took Lois a moment to realize that she was once more on the ground, Clark continued to hold her for several moments longer than necessary.
"Where are we?" Lois asked, finally finding her voice.
"Safe," Clark said.
They couldn't go back to the hotel rooms; the odds that someone would be waiting for them were too great.
"I don't suppose this place has a shower?" Lois said, smiling a little to show that she wasn't expecting much.
Clark grinned. "It's only been a few days, but I already knew you were going to ask that."
He took her hand and gestured toward the forest. "Come on."
Lois wondered when she'd forgotten just how sensual simple hand holding could be.
The sounds of the surf were soothing after the uncanny silence of Smallville. At least she might have a chance to fall asleep without the usual sounds of traffic, random screams and passing loud music that were part and parcel of living in the big city.
They walked only a few steps to the ridge separating the beach from the forest. Lois stumbled slightly when her feet left the ground, and she realized that he was levitating her.
Lois gasped. Before her was a small, perfectly appointed cabana, in good repair.
"Who owns this?" Lois asked.
"Spenser Spenser," Clark said. "But I don't think he'll be using it for a while."
Clark shoved slightly, and the door opened with a slight cracking sound. He pushed the door open, and Lois crinkled her nose at the slight smell of mustiness inside. It was apparent that no one had been inside in ages.
Putting one hand on Lois's arm, Clark said, "Wait here for a moment."
He plunged into the darkness, and a moment later there was a great gust of wind coming from the doorway. Lois coughed slightly, but noticed that in the space of an instant darkness became light as a fire erupted, seemingly on its own in the fireplace.
Lois coughed again, and Clark smiled at her sheepishly. Lois stepped in the room, noting that the smell of must was gone, replaced by a faint scent of lemon and salty sea air.
The cabin was all in one room, with the exception of a small doorway leading to a separate bath. Half the room was raised, and in the corner was a large bed that seemed to dominate that space. Lois blinked when she realized that the gauzy lace covering the canopy bed was some sort of insect netting. That didn't bode well.
The fireplace was in the center of the room, sunken in a pit and surrounded by brass. The back of the room was covered by a heavy mahogany bar, with glasses and bottles stacked against the back of the wall. Low couches surrounded the fireplace. The carpet was a garish green, and the couches were a vivid shade of red. The velvet paintings covering the walls were black and red and gold, pictures of dogs, gambling, and dogs gambling. Even the forgiving, soft light of the fireplace didn't diffuse the garish clash of colors and styles.
Lois blinked. "Did we just time travel back to the sixties?"
Clark flushed again. "I think Spenser Spenser was trying to channel Hugh Hefner."
Lois noticed that Clark was standing carefully in front of one table. She noticed that other tables around the room were oddly bare, as though decorative pieces had been hastily removed.
"What do you have back there?" Lois asked, craning her head.
"Nothing to worry about." Clark said hastily. "I forgot about Spenser's tastes or I would have tried somewhere else."
He turned to gather something up. Lois caught a glimpse of a collection of statuettes, some of which were…
Lois found herself blushing.
Clark gathered them up hastily. There was another gust of wind, and the fire flicked and dimmed. Clark disappeared, but was back a moment later.
"So why'd you pick this place?" If this was Clark's idea of style, maybe he was more of an alien than she'd thought.
"It's about as far away from people as you can get and still be warm and in the same time zone." Clark grinned slightly. "And it's got a really great shower. This is Spenser's VIP cabin. I stayed here when I was doing a story on him."
"I could use a shower," Lois admitted. "And a bite to eat. I don't have anything clean to wear, but…"
Clark grinned and disappeared. Before Lois could take a second breath, he was back with one of her suitcases. Smoke rose from the edges, and Clark grinned again.
"The service is pretty good here, too, if I say so myself." Lois frowned at him. "I notice you didn't get anything for yourself."
Waving vaguely in the direction of the door, Clark said, "Oh, my luggage is outside. I had to make two trips."
"That's…impressive," Lois said.
"I'm showing off a little," Clark admitted. "I haven't really been my best back in Smallville."
The food was delicious. Kondoru was nothing if dependable, even if his food stand was just barely opening. Tandoori Chicken, Prawn Curry, Chicken, Dahi Bara…he'd gotten a wide selection hoping to find something Lois liked.
"It must have been lonely growing up like that." Lois sat on the floor in front of one of the couches, the food spread on the small, low table Clark had found in the main compound. Her back was to the fire, which left her face in shadow, her whole figure a partial silhouette.
Telling her the truth about his past hadn't been as difficult as he'd expected. Not looking at her made it easier; seeing pity in her eyes was the last thing Clark wanted to see.
"You forget sometimes what it's like not to be lonely." Clark picked at his food. "You feel numb, until something or someone reminds you that it wasn't always like that."
"That's what Lilah was for you."
Clark hesitated. "I couldn't trust anyone for a long time after I left Smallville. It wasn't just what happened to her. It was before that. She used me, and I couldn't see it at all for a long time. I couldn't trust my own judgment."
"You've dated since then," Lois said. "How long did it take you to trust people after that?"
Clark didn't respond, staring gloomily at the remains of dinner.
"You never told any of them what you were?" Lois's voice was incredulous. "Not even the Nigerian Princess?"
"I thought about it a few times…there were one or two who I thought about telling."
"Why didn't you?"
"I kept imagining the look in their eyes when they found out what I was…the revulsion. I couldn't even tell them about what happened in Smallville, much less that I was a tentacled alien from outer space."
"You have tentacles?" Lois asked. "Wouldn't some of your girlfriends have noticed a little detail like that?"
Clark chuckled. "I'm fully human, from the outside at least. When I was a kid, I kept having this dream where I'd wake up with tentacles, or green skin or scales. Things were changing for me so fast, and I never knew what was going to happen."
"You had trouble with your abilities?"
"It's part of the reason I was bounced around so often, at least at first. I'd start setting fires with my eyes, and then I wouldn't have any good explanation. Or I'd hear things I wasn't supposed to, and they'd assume I was eavesdropping. There were a few times that other kids got hurt, when I was first learning my own strength."
Lois reached across the table and touched his hand. "I'm sorry you had to go through all that."
"It was a valuable lesson. There's not a lot of point in trusting anyone, because it won't be long before they leave." Clark glanced at Lois's silhouette. "I don't know why it's different with you."
"I'm not going anywhere," Lois said. "I know who you are, and what you are, and I'm here for you."
That wasn't true, of course. Clark had come all too close to losing her this evening already. Yet he wasn't pulling away as he always had. Maybe his time to run had already passed.
Clark cleared his throat, then said, "I'll clear the table."
He allowed the world to slip into motionlessness once again. He was showing off, but it also gave him time; time to think about what he was doing.
Trusting this woman was foolish. He had no reason not to believe that she wouldn't use everything he said against him. Even if she was trustworthy, she was fragile. Opening his heart to someone who was as reckless and prone to leap in the face of danger as she was just asking to let himself get hurt.
Yet she finally knew more about him than anyone else in the world- and she hadn't pulled away.
The dishes were easy to clean; most of the cardboard packages burned up in his hands as he made his way back to the main compound. He left the other dishes in the sink and returned before Lois could blink. To her, it would look as though the dishes had simply disappeared.
He had to get a little distance before it was too late. This was dangerous, scary, against everything he'd learned throughout his life.
She believed in him. She knew the worst of what he'd done, and she still looked at him like he was a man, and not a monster.
He sat down and allowed time to resume its normal flow. He said "Lois, I think-"
She smiled, delighted at his simple trick. In that moment, time seemed to stop again, this time of its own volition. Clark felt as though his world tilted on its axis. He felt his breath catch in his chest even as the sound of his own pulse thundered in his ears.
It wasn't just her beauty, or her quick wit, or her mind. It wasn't even the acceptance that radiated from her, even though she knew about the worst that he was. It was all of this and more. It felt natural and easy and somehow preordained.
It was too late. There was no way he'd ever be able to make her go away now.
He felt overwhelmed, overshadowed, awed. He'd thought what he'd had with Lilah was love, but it was a pale shadow of what he was feeling now.
This was the real thing, and it scared the hell out of him.
Clark was staring at her, and Lois wondered if she had some leftover sauce on her lip. She fought the urge to grab for the mirror in her purse; it was inside her luggage. She had no doubt that she looked like a mess. Between crawling through garbage, running in an outfit that wasn't a jogging suit, and dropping a little Tandoori Chicken on her lap while Clark wasn't looking, she was sure she looked like a mess.
"You said something about this place having a great shower?" Lois asked quietly.
Clark grinned, but there was something to his smile that hadn't been there before, a kind of sadness almost. He rose gracefully to his feet and held a hand out to her.
She took it, and she ignored the slight tingle that she'd come to associate with him. Just because she reacted to him on a visceral level, that didn't mean she couldn't treat him like any other person.
It must be the second bottle of wine that was causing her to flush and sway slightly. Clark smiled again, and he pulled her slightly towards the dim recesses of the back of the cabin.
He glanced inside the dark portal leading into the bathroom, and there was an explosion of light.
The bathroom inside was small, with a toilet, a small shower, and a mirror completely lining one wall. Candles were set on the back of the single washstand rising on a pillar from the floor. There was also a door in the back wall.
"You must be really popular at kids' birthday parties." Lois murmured. There was only so many special things that he could do before she became numb to it all.
She frowned. "I thought you said this place had a really great shower." She was disappointed. She'd hoped for something large enough for two…not that she had any intention of sharing. She glanced at Clark, and he was grinning now.
He gestured toward the back door, then stepped forward and opened it.
The moon had finally come out from behind the clouds, and in the moonlight, Lois could see a deck stretching out behind the cabin. Directly before her, there was a large, steaming pond. The pond sat at the base of a large outcropping of dark rock, from which a wide pool of water fell.
"The whole island is built on a volcano" Clark said. "This started out as a natural hot spring, but Spenser made a few improvements."
Clark grabbed a plastic rod from a metal table to the right of the entrance. He shook it, and when it began to glow gently with green light, he tossed it into the pool.
"What would you say to a swim?"
"I don't have a swimming suit." Lois was surprised to find that she was stammering a little. How long had it been since she'd been affected this way by a man? Suddenly she couldn't remember.
"Do you really need one?" Clark asked. "The weather is great, the water is warm. I promise not to look." He grinned slightly.
Lois had a thought. "You said you could see through things. Do you see bones, or actual…"
"I see as much as I need to see." Clark said. "I wouldn't violate your privacy without permission. That's a lesson I learned a long time ago."
"Oh?" Lois asked quietly. "So you had to learn not to look through girls' clothes?"
"When I was thirteen, there was a three week period where I couldn't actually see anyone's clothes. " Clark's grin shrank and he shuddered slightly.
"I'd have thought that was a pubescent boy's dream come true."
"I didn't have a single teacher under the age of fifty," Clark said. "And my foster parents' ninety year old grandparents were visiting."
"That must have been troublesome." Lois found herself grinning, and relaxing a little.
"I spent the next couple of years looking at the ground a lot," Clark admitted. "If you aren't sure, I can always…"
Lois shook her head. "I'll just wear a T-shirt."
He smiled again, briefly, before turning back into the cabana.
The water was warm; it enveloped her as she stepped off the hidden ledge, and Lois caught her breath. She hadn't expected to feel immediately relaxed, but it felt as though some of the tension that she'd been carrying with her since the first moment she came to Smallville was finally beginning to dissipate.
She'd had a hard time reconciling the two sides of Clark Kent. The smooth, suave, seemingly perfect man she'd met in Metropolis, and the beaten man she'd seen since he'd returned to his hometown.
Now she was seeing a third side to him, but instead of further muddying the waters, it was making everything clear. He was the outsider, the loner, the one honest man who was forced to live a lie on an everyday basis. He was a good man haunted by a past where he hadn't been perfect.
He wasn't the perfect man of her dreams; Lois doubted that she could have stayed interested in someone who had no flaws; they wouldn't be remotely human. However, he was far beyond anything she could have ever imagined. He could fly; of all the men in the world, only he could truly show her the stars.
She stiffened for a moment, settling onto the ledge carved into the rock and leaning back. She heard the tinny sound of music; she looked up to see Clark carrying a small, battery powered radio. It was classic rock, soft, tinny music singing of lost loves and beautiful dreams. He was wrapped in a towel, and for a moment she wondered what he had found to wear.
He set the radio on the small stand beside the door, then pulled off his towel to reveal a perfectly normal pair of swimming trunks, in red and blue.
He grinned again, sliding into the water beside her, and said, "I hope you don't mind the music. This is the only station I could find this far sound that wasn't in Spanish or Portuguese."
Lois smiled. He'd done more to make the evening perfect than she could have ever imagined.
He took her hand and said, "You've got to try the waterfall."
"I'm just finally relaxing" Lois protested.
"Trust me," he said.
Lois nodded slightly, and allowed her to slip down until her toes touched the bottom of the pool. The pool floor was a sort of gentle sand that caressed her feet. The water here came up to her chest.
Pushing against the side of the pool, Lois swam into the center. The light stick Clark had thrown into the center of the pool was still lighting everything with a green glow. She could see Clark swimming effortlessly beside her, his body slicing through the water as though he were born to it, and for a moment she felt clumsy, slow, a mere mortal in the presence of a god.
Then he grinned at her, and she was herself again, Lois Lane, the woman who was good enough for any man in the world. The woman who was good enough for this man.
The water here was deep, but as they reached the edge of the waterfall, it began to become shallower. Beneath the waterfall was another ledge, this one also carved by human hands.
Clark was at her side and he lifted her onto the ledge. The water from the waterfall was warmer than the waters in the pool, and Lois gasped for a moment before allowing herself to relax yet again.
She leaned back slightly, and her head passed behind the wall of pounding water. Clark was there too, and he grinned at her once again.
The impulse was overwhelming. Before Lois could allow herself to consider cutting it off, she kissed him, and the world exploded.
In every life there are milestones, events that mark the transition from one chapter in a life to another. The death of his parents was one such time; finding the body of Lilah and her husband had been another. Clark couldn't remember a single happy milestone. That made this the first.
For the first time that Clark could ever remember, he felt complete. He'd searched the world for this, unknowing. His entire life before this point had been defined by hunger: hunger for acceptance, hunger for truth, hunger for love.
He didn't feel lonely anymore. Being with her was like being enveloped in warmth after a lifetime of being numb.
The kiss seemed to last forever, and Clark realized that he'd allowed time to slow, fearful that when the kiss ended, so too would the feeling of completion.
He allowed time to shift back into normal and he opened his eyes, pulling away after yet another endless moment.
Lois looked dazed. When she finally opened her eyes, she said, "Wow."
"Lois," he began, hesitant, "I…"
She put a finger to his lips and drew him into the water.
"This was really nice, Clark." Lois said as she lay floating in the water with her head leaning back against his chest. "But we can't stay here forever."
She suspected that he was cheating, levitating them both slightly in the water. It made for the most perfect bed she could have ever asked for. She was grateful. She felt as though she was never going to be able to move again.
She heard Clark sigh slightly. "Do we really have to go back? We could just tell Perry that the story was a bust."
"Those people tried to kill us, Clark. It won't be hard to find out where we live, and it won't be long before they follow us home. I've got Lucy to think of, and my parents. I can't just fly away when everything gets tough."
She felt him stiffen. "I don't always run away…just most of the time."
"What Lilah did to you…it was abuse."
"Where did that come from?" Clark asked after a moment of silence.
"I've been thinking about it for a while," Lois admitted. "I have to admit that when I first heard about it, I blamed you a little. Infidelity…it broke up my family. It changed everything, drove my mother to drinking and kept us from being the happy family I always dreamed we'd be."
"If I could change anything, I would," Clark began, but Lois interrupted him.
"But then I started to think about it a little. If the roles had been reversed, and you'd been the girl whose teacher had been after her since she was fifteen, I'd be outraged. I'd be first in line to want to crucify the person who took advantage."
"I was seventeen, Lois." Clark said. "Well, sixteen when it started I guess."
"At the end. Didn't you say that she'd been your teacher when you were fifteen?"
Clark didn't say anything.
"How long was she after you before you gave in?"
"It was a while," Clark admitted. "I knew it was wrong, and I guess it was several months before I finally couldn't hold back."
"And she'd been cultivating the relationship for more than a year before that." Lois snorted. "Do you really think she didn't know exactly what she wanted the moment that she saw you?"
"I like to think that it just developed." Clark was quiet for a long moment. "But given what I learned later about the other boys she was with, I can't deny that it's crossed my mind."
"She was with boys, Clark. Everything comes back to that. She was the adult and she should have known better. It doesn't matter how handsome you might have been, or how available you might have made yourself. She should have known better."
"Her marriage wasn't happy," he began.
To Lois, it had the sound of a well worn excuse, one he had told himself over and over throughout the years.
Lois turned in the water, and now she was sure that he was levitating them. She looked up at Clark, his face barely visible in the moonlight, the light from the chemical stick below long gone. "You've been making excuses for her for years Clark. Sometimes you just have to stop."
She pushed away from him and immediately sank into the black water below. She shook her head, and found her bearing, with her feet back on the soft sand. She headed back for shore. She felt a tinge of irritation at him for not seeing something that had finally become so clear.
Clark was beside her in the space of a moment. "I'm sorry. I just can't see this thing as being her fault. I was old enough to know what I was doing."
"How long did the guilt last, Clark?" Lois pushed herself up on the ledge leading back to the house. The water here felt almost cool compared to the water toward the waterfall.
He didn't speak. He simply pushed himself onto the ledge beside her. When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet. "Did you ever see 'Summer of 42'?
"The first time I saw the movie, I felt sick. It was after I'd started with Lilah and I went to see it with my brothers at someone's house. They thought it was great. A fifteen year old guy and a lonely widow? What wasn't to like?"
"You didn't take it that way."
"Boys aren't supposed to say no. If they don't want it, there's something wrong with them. There was already enough wrong with me that I couldn't…" Clark sighed.
"It wasn't your fault, Clark. I know that men hate to feel like victims; the truth is that nobody likes it. The truth is that you were taken advantage of. She found you at your most vulnerable, and she betrayed you."
"I made the choice to be with her," Clark said. "She didn't force me. I did it, and I did it *knowing* just how disappointed my parents would have been in me."
He turned slightly and stared out in the darkness. "I found out that I wasn't perfect."
"You're only human, Clark." Lois said quietly.
"No. I'm not." Clark stared off into the distance. "I can't afford to be."
"There are people you can talk to…" Lois began.
Clark sighed. "I appreciate what you are trying to do, but this is something that I've lived with for a long time. I'll think about it, but…let's just enjoy the rest of the evening. We've got a long day tomorrow."
Lois leaned over and kissed him. "So what else do you have planned?"
"I think we need to go to the prison tomorrow, find out what my brother knows. He ran with the Sangrias before Jess was killed. There's a few other…"
"I meant for tonight." Lois said. She smiled brightly at his expression as he finally turned to face her.
His kiss was a milestone.
Bill wasn't what Lois would have expected from one of Clark's foster brothers. From what she'd seen of Carl and to a lesser extent Clark's friend Pete, Lois would have expected him to be run down and beaten, especially after years in the prison system.
Instead, although he was short, he was hugely muscled and massively tattooed. The tattoos on his forearms were familiar; they were the same as the others Lois had seen when she was being chased. The other tattoos she saw covering his neck and his bald head weren't familiar. The orange prison issue coveralls didn't do anything to make him seem less threatening.
"I hear you're a big shot reporter now," Bill said. "Working at the New York Post."
"The Daily Planet," Clark said. "Is there anything you can tell me about the Sangrias?"
Bill shifted uneasily in his chair. "I don't run with those guys anymore. I haven't since Jess got killed."
"Were you here for that?" Clark asked. "What happened?"
"Somebody made him drink Drano in the bathroom after lights out." Bill shook his head. "He threw up all over himself. I saw the body when they carted him off."
"So you haven't worked with the Sangrias since then?"
"They dropped me like a hot potato a few months after that. It's too bad too; Jess doing real good. He would have helped me out." Bill leaned close. "I had to join the Aryans, and they're real messed up. Don't tell anybody I said so, though."
Lois had the feeling that Bill wasn't the brightest of Clark's foster brothers. She leaned forward. "Did they say why they were dropping you?"
"Upper management thought I couldn't keep my gob shut. Shows what they know. I haven't said nothing in all this time."
"Upper management?" Clark asked. He had a strange expression on his face, and he wasn't looking at Bill at all. Instead he was staring out at the crowd of people separated only by long tables.
"I don't understand it either," Bill said. "I never told anybody any of Jess's secrets, even after he died and couldn't get me."
"His secrets?" Lois asked quietly.
Bill glanced at Clark, then leaned forward slightly. "He said he had an angle that was gonna get him out. He never did tell me what it was, but I guess being all smart and everything didn't help him that much."
"Do you know anyone we might ask about the Sangrias?" Clark asked.
"There aren't hardly any left here in the pen. I guess they just don't get arrested. The ones that were here got dropped."
The conversation didn't get better after that, a seemingly endless sequence of inanities about what had happened to people in town that Lois had never met. This was the small town version of code talk, Lois supposed. Innuendo in the form of gossip.
Clark didn't seem to be in the spirit of things. He stiffened at one point, and afterwards seemed increasingly restless and anxious.
"I just remembered an appointment," Clark said, cutting Bill off in mid-conversation. "I promise that I'll come visit you again soon."
The happy expression on Bill's face was untainted by doubt or guilt.
Clark rose to leave, and Lois followed closely behind. Clark's expression was strained.
"Why are we leaving?" she asked. Despite Bill's lack of intelligence, there was still a chance they might have gotten something useful out of him, once they got passed the usual gossip.
"I overheard someone talking about trouble at Pete's place."
Lois nodded shortly. It was still early; visiting hours at the prison were at 8:30 in the morning. "You didn't hear anything more about it?"
Clark shook his head tersely.
Lois was glad that they'd gone back to the airport and rented from a different car rental place. She wasn't looking forward to the conversation she was going to have with her original rental agency about the condition they'd left the car in. She was glad Clark had insisted they get the optional insurance, but she was sure the paperwork was going to be unpleasant and take a good long while.
Clark took the wheel, and for the first time since she'd known him, he was reckless. Jamming his foot on the accelerator, he caused the car to jerk as it shifted into gear. They'd parked on the road outside the prison, and the gravel spun beneath them.
"Are you sure you don't want me to meet you there?" Lois asked as they whipped around the first curve.
Clark shook his head. "It's not safe to leave you."
The wheels skidded under them, and Lois winced as they made another curve, this time ignoring a stop sign and poor visibility caused by old, decrepit shacks on both sides of the road.
She was used to being the speed demon in the relationship, but this was a little scary.
"What did they say happened?" she asked, when they'd finally found a relatively straight stretch of road.
"They said the police were at Pete's place, along with a couple of ambulances." Clark didn't have to say anything else.
"You think somebody found out he was talking to you?"
The car spun again, and Lois found her fingers gripping the seats.
The ride to Pete's seemed to last forever.
Clark slowed as he approached the dirt road leading to Pete's place. The last thing he needed was to be arrested right now. He could sense Lois's anxiety beside him, but the thought that something had happened to Pete because of him was almost more than he could bear.
The ambulances were gone, though Pete's yard was still filled with three police cars as well as a number of other unmarked vehicles. Men stood around, staring at the decayed, scraggly grass and auto parts left scattered around. It looked even more pathetic now, under the accusing, judging eyes of strangers, and Clark once again felt the sharp tinge of guilt. He should have been more involved, should have been there for Pete.
Pete's life had spun out of control, and Clark had been on the other side of the world. Of all the people in Smallville, Pete had been the one person who was the closest thing Clark had had to a best friend.
One of the officers, a younger man that Clark didn't recognize approached them as they left the car.
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave," he began.
Lois stepped forward, pushing her press pass at him. "What happened here?"
Of course, being a member of the press didn't give either of them the right to violate a crime scene. Lois was doubtlessly hoping that this was a rookie officer, unsure of himself and willing to bend rules that he didn't know.
"We've been working with Sheriff Harris on a case related to this."
"If you don't know what happened here, how do you know it's related to whatever it was that you were working on?"
Lois opened her mouth, searching for a reply when Rachel appeared at the door to the house. She looked tired, an unfamiliar expression of exhaustion on her face.
She stepped onto the porch and gestured to the officer. "Let them through Jack. I need to talk to them anyway."
Pushing his way forward, Clark said, "Is Pete ok?"
The expression on Rachel's face was enough. He didn't need the small shake of her head to know the truth.
Clark felt the blood drain from his face. "He's dead?"
"I've got some witnesses who say that you two might be the last people to see Pete alive."
Taking a step in the direction of the house, Clark was surprised when Rachel stepped in front of him, an apologetic expression on her face. "I can't let you inside. I don't think you need to see it, and I can't risk any contamination of the crime scene."
Clark couldn't help himself. He looked through the wall and immediately wished he hadn't. The splashes of blood on the wall and the chalk outline on the floor were all that was left; the body had been taken away. But the vandalism, and the graffiti on the wall, the hateful, hurtful messages…that he didn't need to see.
He paled even further.
"When was the last time you saw Pete?"
It was Lois who spoke, and it was good that she did, because the entire world seemed to be shrinking around Clark, constricting, and he almost felt as though he couldn't catch his breath. He'd felt this way before, of course, when he'd seen the bodies of Lilah and the coach, and the similarities here were chilling.
He felt dazed, stunned. It wasn't the sickness of the rock; he'd have felt that immediately. This was something different. This was grief, the protective numbness that had enveloped him after the deaths of his parents and yet again with Lilah.
It took him a moment to realize that Rachel was saying his name.
"What?" he asked. His head felt muzzy, and the world felt unreal, as though he was in a dream.
"There are going to be some questions asked. The FBI has been asking questions about the murder of the coach and his wife…they think this may be part of a pattern."
"A pattern?" Clark asked.
"Of murders, mostly of women. Thirty seven murders over the last ten years, all in a corridor that stretches from Smallville to Metropolis. They say that the patterns are the same, and since you were the first person under suspicion, they'll be looking for you."
"Why are you telling us this?" Lois asked.
"Whatever else has gone on between us, you don't deserve this." Rachel jerked her head back toward the house. "Hell, I don't deserve this. Pete was my friend too. I'd hate to think they were using you as a scapegoat and the real killer is still out there."
She hesitated. "It's not pretty. What was done to Pete…to the other girls…nobody should have to go through that."
"Aren't you compromising a witness by telling us this?" Lois asked.
"I already did some checking. There were at least ten murders while Clark was in college. In eight of them, he was at least a thousand miles away playing football. This thing with Pete happened while you were in the hospital. The coroner is pretty clear about the time of death."
"You don't think the FBI will take all that into consideration?"
Rachel shook her head. "Watch your back, Clark. From what I hear, you've already got a target on it. By rights, I should take you into protective custody right now."
"You don't think you could protect us," Clark said. It was a startling thought.
"The Smallville police department doesn't have much of a budget for safe houses and the like." Rachel leaned forward and spoke almost inaudibly. "Also, I don't trust everyone that works for me. There have been too many things going on, and too few people getting arrested for them."
Clark nodded slowly, as though he understood what she was saying. All he could feel was the encroaching, familiar numbness. He'd been through this too many times before, the guilt, the grief. That his wounds had only recently begun to heal only made it more painful.
"I think the feds will be back soon," Rachel said. "They were accompanying the body."
Clark nodded. When Lois took the keys from him, he didn't protest. He simply walked to the passenger's side of the car and waited.
He slid bonelessly into his seat. When Lois turned to speak to him, he interrupted.
"The box with the rock…the one that hurt me. It's gone."
Given everything that had happened, Clark had to be hurting right now. Lois risked a glance at him; he was pale and withdrawn, shaken. He'd been that way since they'd left Pete Ross's place.
"We're going to have to go by the sheriff's office," Lois said. "Rachel offered to lend us the fax machine there, since it isn't safe to go back by the hotel."
Clark nodded curtly, and he turned slightly and stared out the window.
"I should have saved them." He said, in a low voice.
"Pete?" Lois asked. "You were in the hospital when it happened. You couldn't…"
"I should have saved all of them," Clark said. "Lilah, Coach Holder, Pete…there's a list of dead people a mile long that I could have saved if I wasn't worried about having a normal life. There's not a day that goes by that I don't…" Clark shook his head. "It doesn't matter."
"You saved me," Lois said. "And Lucy, and the people working at evidence storage. You save people. If there's more that you can do…maybe we can work together to find out a better way."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"Don't quit on me now," Lois said. "We owe it to Pete and the coach and all those girls to find out who did all of this."
He nodded, but continued to stare.
It was several minutes before they reached the police station. Lois got out of the car and waited for Clark. When he emerged, it was like he was an older man, as though the weight of years had suddenly settled on him.
"The boys in research have promised to get everything they could find on the Sangrias, and on your brothers and any connection they may have with Simon Hunt."
They stepped inside the police station. The mood inside was more somber than it had been the previous times Lois had been there.
Rachel wasn't in, although the young officer than had stopped them.
"Agent Jack?" Lois said. "The sheriff was going to let us use your fax machine…"
He smiled and said, "It's already here."
Turning, he grabbed a stack of papers from the inbox.
Lois flipped through them as rapidly as she was able. "Hey! Some of Perry's contacts finally came through. It looks like Simon Hunt isn't who he seems to be. He used to be a federal agent with another name…they wouldn't say who, but it seems that he wasn't just thrown out of the bureau for being a kook. He did something illegal involving prisoners ten years ago."
Clark looked over her shoulder, finally showing renewed signs of life. "I never knew that Jess was busted for drug dealing. I always thought he got caught joyriding along with the rest of them…"
"He served forty five days in jail before he died…" Lois said. "He had several visits from an FBI agent Trask, who said that he was interrogating him as a witness in interstate drug trafficking."
"I'd have expected the DEA to handle something like that." Clark murmured.
"It looks like Bill was wrong about when he died. He died in the hospital of poisoning. The body was removed from the hospital by a federal official. The name looks like it was expunged."
"What do you bet it was Trask," Clark says.
"So he brags that someone is going to get him out, he talks to someone named Trask, and he's dead a few weeks later. Maybe he trusted the wrong guy."
"Well, turning state's evidence isn't popular in prison," Clark said. "But it's a little suspicious that Hunt has the…" he turned slightly and looked at Officer Jack behind them, "heirloom, and was once a federal agent, and my brother was talking to a federal agent."
"You think the heirloom stopped working at an inopportune time?" Lois asked.
"Well, it would make him look like a nut. But I'd have thought they'd have sent him in for a psychological evaluation instead of just dumping him, unless there were other problems."
"Like faking the death of a prisoner in return for a gadget that didn't keep working?"
The officer behind them said, "This is all very interesting, but some people are trying to work here." He hesitated. "Oh…and Mr. Kent, I'm currently dating the local tax assessor, and I hear she's looking for you."
"What?" Clark looked befuddled.
"Something about unpaid taxes?" He shrugged. "She's upstairs if you want to talk to her. She doesn't go to lunch until noon."
"I don't have any property," Clark said. "Not in Smallville, not anywhere really…"
They were upstairs shortly, with Clark muttering to himself. Lois continued to look through the paperwork from the Daily Planet.
The girl behind the desk was young, possibly Lucy's age.
"My name is Clark Kent. I understand that you are looking for me?"
The girl turned to the filing cabinet behind her and pulled out a folder. She flipped through it for a moment, then said, "The assessed value of your property went up in the last appraisal period. While I know that you've been sending your taxes in regularly, you'll need to make up the difference with cash, check or credit card."
"What property?" Clark asked.
"The farmhouse formerly owned by Jonathan and Martha Kent."
"I lost that when my parents died," Clark protested.
The woman shook her head. "Social security payments were made by your foster father Edward Handleman until you were eighteen. You've been sending money orders in every year since then."
"No, I haven't." Clark said. "There has to be some sort of mistake."
The woman pulled out a photocopy of a money order. "Is this your name?"
"That's not my signature," Clark said.
"Well, the property is still in your name, so if you pay the rest of the taxes, the farmhouse is yours."
Clark squinted at the tax bill, then sighed. "I'll send you a check."
Lois turned to Clark and said, "Somebody's been paying for your parents' place for the last ten years, knowing that you weren't coming back."
Clark said, "I think it's time I go home."
The girl watched them go calmly. When the door to the stairwell slammed, she waited several minutes, filing paperwork and going back to her daily routine. Finally, she picked up the telephone receiver and punched in a number.
The house seemed smaller than it had when Clark was a child, more weather beaten and faded. It didn't look like it had been cared for in years, despite the mysterious people who'd made sure that it was being paid for. Weeds and grass rose to knee level, and trash was strewn about the yard.
Clark sat in the car for a long moment, then glanced over at Lois. She put her hand on his, and he resolved to do better.
He scanned the place, and it seemed to be deserted, though for some reason he couldn't see beneath the floor of the barn.
"The barn," he said quietly.
Lois nodded, and they both stepped out of the vehicle at the same time. They walked carefully toward the barn, wary of unseen potholes or objects in the tall grass. The place looked long deserted. Clark couldn't see any signs of recent habitation or any signs of life at all, other than the occasional movements of small rodents and insects.
He scanned the place again. Other than the dead spot at the floor of the barn, he didn't see anything except…
Hidden in the eaves of the barn, Clark could see a small black sphere disguised as a wasps' nest. It was a camera, where no camera should be.
He listened, and for a moment he thought he could hear some sort of movement from below, but it vanished before he could get a bead on it.
Stepping toward Lois, he leaned toward her and said, "There are cameras here."
Now that he knew what to look for, he saw two more high in the eaves of the barn. They were well camouflaged, but the cords leading from them seemed crude and jury-rigged. They were connected to the lighting system of the barn and led into the ground. Unless someone was looking very carefully, they'd miss them. The placement of the cameras gave almost a three hundred and sixty degree unobstructed view.
Clark felt uneasy. The cameras were a sign that everything wasn't as it seemed.
"We can come back another day," Clark said quickly. Bringing Lois here was a risk, and Clark felt that something was deeply wrong here.
Lois shook her head. "We'll never get to the bottom of this if we don't look."
Clark hesitated. Short of grabbing her and flying off, which he couldn't do with all the cameras, he wasn't going to be able to stop Lois if she decided to continue on. After a moment, he nodded. He jerked his head in the direction of the barn, and they both began to make their way across the weed-strewn expanse separating the gravel road from the barn.
His memories of this place were bittersweet. Clark could almost smell his mother's cooking coming from the kitchen, could almost imagine that he could hear the sounds of his parents coming up the road, ready to rejoin him.
It took him a moment to realize that he really smelled something sickly sweet coming from the barn. It was faint, and likely wouldn't have been caught even by a drug-sniffing dog. It was mixed with fainter, more pungent chemical smells.
The door to the barn was padlocked, but Clark snapped it off with a twist. The door creaked as it opened, and the smell of dust almost overpowered the stronger smells.
The interior of the barn looked just like it had when he'd last seen it, when he was ten years old, except that the entrance to the cellar was nowhere in sight. It had been covered with dirt, and a quick glance through the ground showed Clark that a new trapdoor made of something he couldn't see through lay below three inches of topsoil.
He punched through the dirt and grabbed the handle, pulling up and simultaneously snapping the lock off. He pulled, and the door opened in a shower of dirt and dust. Lois coughed behind him, but Clark didn't spare her a look. The smells from below were almost overpowering now, a combination of noxious chemicals and drug smells that he'd caught the occasional whiff of in his travels around the world.
The tunnel into the cellar was unlighted, but Clark could see well enough to realize that other changes had been made. The cellar had been cemented in inexpertly, and a tunnel led from it off into the darkness.
There were lights, but no light switch. Clark turned to Lois, but she was already grabbing an old kerosene lantern and was unsuccessfully trying to light it. Clark took it from her, and with a glance lit it.
The ladder leading downward was rickety and wooden. Clark floated down, set the lantern down and then floated back up for Lois.
They then both made their way down the narrow tunnel that lead out of the remnants of his parents' storm cellar and off into the darkness.
The tunnel stretched off in the direction of the house.
Clark moved ahead cautiously, listening ahead as well as he could. Though he could probably have seen through the walls of the tunnel, the complete and total darkness wouldn't let him see anything.
Finally they reached a wider chamber, little more than a man made cave. The smells here were strong enough to be almost unbearable, and Clark could hear Lois beside him choking slightly. He glanced at her, and her eyes were watery and red.
The smells of ammonia, urine, acetone, paints and antifreeze all mixed together. Long tables covered with beakers and hot plates, tubing and metal coils stretched out into the darkness. Discarded bottles of antifreeze lay scattered in the corner, along with open bottles of paint thinner and unused bags of rock salt.
Fans were scattered around the room, and gas masks lay at every table. He grabbed one and handed it to Lois. There wasn't any question that the air here was toxic.
They moved forward cautiously and eventually they came to another tunnel in the wall on the other side. They moved into it. It was wider than the last one, wide enough for both Lois and Clark to walk side by side. They moved almost a hundred yards, with the overpowering smells from behind them becoming fainter and fainter until finally they found piles of boxes and bags scattered on either side of the tunnel. These grew more frequent, and when Clark glanced inside them with his special vision, he gasped.
There were thousands of pounds of marijuana, and cocaine here. The farther they moved, the more boxes and crates they found. Most were disguised as other things, with clothing, toys, books and other items covering smaller compartments holding the drugs.
The tunnel finally ended in a large, open cave. Clark was about to speak when blinding light flooded the cavern. A fleet of trucks, almost twenty of them sat waiting beneath the huge, seemingly natural cavern.
"We've been waiting for you, alien." Simon Hunt stood before them in all his glory. He'd traded his shabby tabloid reporter outfit and replaced it with army fatigues.
Surrounding them in a line in front of the nearest truck were ten men, all in gang colors, and all carrying semiautomatic rifles pointed in their direction.
Clark allowed the world to slow down and he turned to grab Lois. He couldn't worry about his secret coming out; he had to save Lois. Then he'd make Hunt pay.
He didn't get more than two steps before the world wrenched itself back into normal speed, and his world was filled with searing pain.
"Don't try to leave so soon," Hunt chided. "We've just gotten started."
The crystal in his hand was damning. Pete had died for it, and Clark gritted his teeth. "You're going to pay for what you did to Pete."
"I don't think you are in any position to make threats," Hunt said. "I don't think I've introduced myself properly. My name is Jason Trask, and I'm finally going to get my chance to prove the truth."
Pulling a pistol from the holster at his hip, he shot Clark in the thigh. As Clark fell, he replaced the gun, then gestured. One of the men handed him a video camera. "I don't know how you got the orb to stop working all those years ago, but you're going to make it work now. We'll see what my bosses have to say when I've got a real alien autopsy to show them."
The sound of the second shot thundered, echoing in the silence. Clark closed his eyes, turning away as well as he could, the sight of Trask's falling body, of blood and viscera flying burned into his mind.
It was a moment before he could open his eyes again. Seeing Jess walking out from behind the truck, rifle in hand followed by a pale and agitated Carl was the final straw. Clark pitched forward and fell unconscious.
Clark woke slowly, painfully, his leg throbbing. It was wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage, and he was in a large tent. He could see Lois to his side, tied up to a large tent pole.
Jess was sitting on a chair, watching him.
"Hey, Buddy." It was the same old smirk Jess had always had, as though he knew more than anyone else.
"Jess…" Clark said, the words coming with difficulty to his dry, parched throat. Unlike Lois, he wasn't tied down. He was simply lying in a cot. "How?"
"That piece of dirt out there faked my death in return for your orb." Jess shrugged. "Had me puking for a week, but it was worth it."
"You stole it…?" Clark still felt groggy, doubtlessly from the residual effects of the rock's radiation. It was hard to believe that it'd been Jess who'd stole the orb; Jess would have used it for blackmail, held it over his head with a sort of casual cruelty.
"Well, I wasn't exactly a choir boy back then, Clark. Hell, we were brothers…what was yours was mine, and….well, I guess that was about it."
Clark could hear the sounds of trucks driving away in the background. The ground beneath them rumbled with the vibrations, and the whole place smelled of truck exhaust. He hoped the ventilation was sufficient. From the look of the rest of the place, the Sangrias hadn't always worried much about safety.
"You're still with the Sangrias?"
Jess shook his head. "You're a world class reporter, Clark. You just aren't living up to expectations. I'd have thought you would have worked it out by now."
Lois spoke for the first time, her face pale and her eyes finally leaving Clark. "You're the leader, aren't you?"
"If I want to hear from you I'll tell you!" Jess's voice was sharp and angry. There was a note of something there that made Clark uneasy- a note of more than just the casual cruelty he'd come to expect, but of hatred. Jess turned to Carl. "I guess she'll never shut up. Gag her."
Carl hesitated for a moment with an apologetic expression, but turned and did what he was told.
"She's right though. I've now got control of the tenth largest drug distribution network in the country, and in the northeast we're closing in on number three." Jess chuckled. "I remember how you always used to tell me that hard work and ambition would get you what you wanted in life, and I guess you were right."
Jess stood and poured a glass of water from a tall, transparent pitcher on a small stand beside Lois's head. Lois's eyes kept flicking back and forth between Clark and Jess. Carl had already left the room.
"I'm sorry you got shot, Clark. That piece of dirt back there was a nut. He was useful sometimes, but he got off the reality train a long time ago."
"Why are we here?" Clark asked finally.
"You made the choice to be here. All I did was provide the welcoming committee." Jess offered the glass of water to Clark, who hesitated, then weakly took the glass. Jess wouldn't need to poison the water to hurt him right now, and he was aware of an increasing feeling of thirst. He'd need all his strength if he was going to help Lois get out of this alive.
He gulped the water gratefully and tried not to look at Lois. He could tell by the rhythmic motion of her body that she was trying something, probably trying to get out of whatever restraints that kept her hands trapped behind her back. He would have to keep Jess distracted.
"So the thing with Pete…the beating in my hotel room, trying to shoot me while I was in my car, that was all Trask."
Jess smiled slightly. His eyes were strangely devoid of emotion. "No, that was me." He turned to Lois, who was once again still. He crouched down beside her for a moment and caressed her face lightly. "Pete was weak…he was no better than a woman. He deserved what he got."
He stood up and turned. "As for the beating…I had to see what you were made of. And the shooting…well, my men weren't really after you."
"You were after Lois?" Clark asked.
Lois became still as Jess glanced back at her.
"She's got a reputation with the boys in Metropolis. Besides, she's just a woman. She's not like us. None of them are."
"Who?" Clark asked, feeling uneasy.
"The bitches, the whores…all of them. They're all dirty, weak, deceitful. They'll stab you in the back the first minute that they can." Jess's expression was sincere; the revulsion in his voice was difficult to fake.
Clark said, "They'll desert you." Jess's mother had been an addict and a prostitute. Clark didn't doubt that he'd seen things that Clark couldn't even imagine, been through things that Clark didn't want to.
He'd done things that Clark couldn't keep out of his mind's eye. Clark had a sudden vision of the photographs he'd seen of what had been done to Lilah, of the repeated torture, the vicious rape. He felt nauseous.
Jess nodded. "They deserve whatever they get, whatever we give them…"
"You've been doing it for a long time."
A trail of thirty bodies and more, stretching across the northeast, Jess's seat of power. He'd been picking them off one by one, repeating some sick inner vision.
Lois must have come to the same conclusion, because she began moving even more rapidly. Clark had to keep Jess's attention at all costs.
"You did it to Lilah, didn't you?" It was all he could do to keep his voice level. The outrage that he felt inside was growing; years of horror, of suppressed anger, of disbelief and betrayal.
"Why do you act so surprised? You've known it all these years."
Clark shook his head.
"You see me standing outside the coach's house just hours before he dies and you never made the connection? And you got into reporting?" Jess chuckled and pulled a flask out of his pocket and took a deep drink.
"Why would you do it?" The smart thing would be to agree with him, do anything he could to get himself and Lois out alive. But Clark couldn't keep the horror out of his voice. He'd spent too many years focusing on what had happened and on its consequences.
"The coach was going to rat on me. He found my first little chem lab. I couldn't let him talk." Jess grinned. "I did his wife right in front of him. I told him what you 'd done too."
"How could you?" Clark asked. "You and she…"
"Oh that? I lied. It was really Pete that she was into. I was just pulling your chain." Jess chuckled and glanced back at Lois again. This time there was something in his expression that Clark couldn't discern, but that made him deeply uneasy. "I was too much of a man for her. She was into boys."
"So what do you want from me?" Clark asked, when Jess turned slightly at a sound Lois made. Her arms moved with a jerk, then quickly went back behind her back.
She was partially free, though there were still her feet to deal with.
"Well see, I've got big plans. It seems to me that you are a bit of a hero type…the kind of a guy who would like to rid the world of something nasty like drugs being sold to little kids on street corners."
Keeping his water glass in his hand, Clark slowly tried to sit up. He grunted at the wave of agony from his leg.
"A man like you, being able to shoot fire from his eyes, could do some pretty big damage to coca fields and marijuana fields."
Clark had a moment to wonder when Jess had found out about his ability to set fires. He hadn't set that many when he was living with Jess; his powers had been mostly under control by then.
"I thought you sold drugs." Clark said. "Why would you want me to- oh."
"Not my fields. I'd like you to burn up everybody else's. It's all about supply and demand. If I'm the only one with the supply, then everyone will come crawling to me."
"More likely, they'll come and try to take it away from you."
"What are bulletproof brothers for?" Jess said. "If not to lend a hand out now and then. I wouldn't even care if you gave them all up to the DEA."
Clark gripped the glass in his hand tightly. "What makes you think I'd ever help you? Assuming I ever get my abilities back?"
"I've got your girl," Jess said. "And I have this."
He pulled a small box from his pocket. When he opened it, Clark fell back with a gasp. He'd set part of the kryptonite into a ring. The waves of green pain washed over him for the third time, again dwarfing the pain of the bullet in his leg.
Jess leaned over him and said, "You don't want to be in Coach Holder's shoes, do you? Don't push me."
"I'm no good to you dead," Clark gasped. He could see Lois sneaking up behind Jess, and he didn't have any idea of what she was trying to do. Whatever happened, he had to get the ring back in the box, or it would all be over?
"So you'll help?" Jess grinned. He pulled the little lead box out of his shirt and clipped it shut. "Hell, you're even easier than Carl was. I had to give him a few lessons before he gave in. Of course, he didn't have anything as sweet as-"
Lois smashed Jess in the face with the glass pitcher of water as he was turning back to look at her. He staggered backward a little, and Clark saw his chance.
He tripped Jess. Jess fell back onto him, and the cot collapsed beneath them both, sending shards of agony through his leg as they landed on the hard floor of the cavern.
He held on as tightly as he could, despite the renewed wetness on his leg as the wound tore open again. Lois grappled desperately for the gun at Jess's side, and even while on the ground, Jess managed to backhand her.
"You're no better than the rest of them, he shouted, twisting and gouging three fingers into the wound on Clark's leg.
Clark grunted in agony, but he had his arm around Jess's neck now and he refused to let go. Jess dug deeper, and Clark found himself blacking out.
His arms loosened a little, and that was all Jess needed.
He punched Clark and rose to his feet, kicking Lois's legs out from under her. He pulled the ring from his pocket.
"You're going to watch while I-"
The sound of the shot was unexpected. The look of surprise on Jess's face as a splotch of red blossomed on the front of his shirt quickly vanished as he collapsed.
Carl stood at the entrance to the tent, Trask's gun smoking in his trembling hands.
"Carl Williamson is turning State's evidence against the Sangrias. When he's done, he'll get a new life in the witness protection program."
Lois stared out into the bullpen. There had been a time when this had felt more like home than her apartment. Now, after two weeks in Smallville filing story after story by phone about the drug busts, the arrest of half the Smallville police department, the career of Jess as a serial killer and the rise and fall of his drug empire, everything felt alien.
Everyone moved a little quicker, stayed a little busier, was a little less friendly, at least on the outside. The pace was different than it was when you were isolated from the rest of the world.
Lois reached into her briefcase and handed Perry an article. "This is the article on Raves I was talking about a while back. It turns out that the creep who drugged my sister was one of the Sangrias distributors."
Perry took the article and read through it silently. Finally he spoke. "This is good work. Not your usually style, though."
"Kent's rubbing off on me a little," Lois admitted. She took a deep breath and reached into her briefcase again.
"I want your permission to sell a piece freelance. It's not the sort of piece that our reader's would be that interested in, but there are some people who need to see it."
She handed him the article. She knew the headline by heart. "DNA evidence clears local man of 10 year old double homicide." The evidence clearing Clark and indicting Jesse had been expedited by Star Labs, who'd developed a faster method of DNA matching.
Although she was asking permission, the article was running in tomorrow's issue of the Smallville Post. She was as proud of it as she was of any of her Kerth winning articles. This one wouldn't win her awards, but it would help Clark reach a little closure, and that was more than she could ever hope for."
"So this Kent kid is going to work out?"
"Well, he did get beaten and shot in our first story together," Lois said, grinning. "That beats my record by a good two months. But he's got good instincts and I can work with him, which is more than you can say about any of the other yahoos you paired me up with."
"So…a week off." Perry coughed. "You know this is your first week off since you came to work here."
"The boys upstairs have been pressuring me to take time off for a while now," Lois admitted. "With Clark out for a couple of weeks because of his leg, it seems like a good time to get a little rest and relaxation without worrying that he's going to upstage me."
"He's that good?" Perry asked.
"He will be." Lois was as certain as she'd ever been in her life.
"I've been listening to all of you for the last few days," Clark said slowly, carefully not looking at the circle of faces surrounding him. "And at first I didn't think I belonged here. I felt like I had problems that nobody else in the world would understand. I've been involved in things…things I've been working for a long time not to remember."
He hesitated. It wasn't any easier to talk about than it had been to tell. "I ran from it for a long time, and I was able to put up a pretty good front. I could be charming and fun and look like I didn't have a care in the world. It was easy- as long as nothing ever got serious, I didn't have to care. I was numb, and nothing really felt like it mattered."
He heard one of the men murmur to the other under his breath. No one else would have heard it, but Clark did, and he had to agree. Compared to what some of the others were dealing with, his guilt was comparatively minor. But the effects were largely the same.
"I turned my back on people who really cared about me…my best friend Pete, my foster brother Carl…even my foster father Ed took better care of me than I would have ever realized. I was so wrapped up in my own pain that I was incapable of seeing anyone else's…and that, ultimately, made me less than a man."
Of all his nightmares about having tentacles and turning green, what had ultimately made him an outsider was something all too human.
"And part of that was anger. I've spent the last ten years making excuses, but when I look back on how much pain I've had…how much pain the people around me had that could have been avoided…"
Several of the men nodded. They'd all talked about how hard it was to admit to feeling like a victim. Many had talked about feeling broken, and they'd all struggled to admit the truth to themselves.
"I trusted her, and she took advantage of that."
Clark took a deep, shuddering breath. He'd opened Pandora's Box, releasing a lifetime of pent up emotions, and despite the pain, he didn't want to close it again.
"The only thing is…I've finally met someone who makes me want to be a man, who makes me want to stop running and finally restart my life. And I'm not sure how to start."
The therapist, a tall, bearded man said, "I think you just did."
"I can hear them, you know," Clark said. "Everything they are saying about me. I should feel more vindicated."
Even now, almost two weeks after the funeral, it still felt like Pete was just around a corner, waiting to say hello. That's how he'd seen him for all these years; despite never intending to return to Smallville, the knowledge that Pete was just a phone call away had been a comfort to him during his dark times.
He wished now that he'd made those calls.
Lois's article had come out this morning, and the sounds coming from household after household should have made him feel better. But it was bittersweet. He was leaving again, and except for Rachel, there was no one left in Smallville that he cared about. Pete was dead, and Carl was leaving. All that was left was specters of the past.
He placed the lilies on the grave and sighed. Pete had been his only friend at a time when he'd desperately needed one.
He stood up and watched the sun set and consoled himself with the knowledge that this time he wasn't running away from Smallville. He was running to something instead.
Running to someone.
The cough from behind him was unexpected. He'd been so absorbed in his thoughts that he hadn't heard anyone drive up.
"Pete talked about you a lot," Rachel's voice was quiet and subdued. "He was the only person in town that talked about you to my face, and somehow I couldn't be angry at him."
"I wasn't the friend I should have been to him." Clark said, not looking up. "Or to you either."
Rachel ignored him for a moment, choosing instead to step forward and crouch, dropping carnations beside Clark's offering.
"He was always proud of you." Rachel said, rising slowly to her feet. "He watched every football game you played, collected news clippings…and when you became a reporter, he collected those too. As much as you moved around, it was a wonder that anyone could keep track, but Pete did, more often than not."
"I should have come back for him."
"Pete told me once that meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to him. Whenever he came to a point in his life where he had to make a tough choice, he tried to think about what you'd do. He didn't always make the right choices, but the ones he did make made him feel like he was a man. He wouldn't have had that without your example. I think Carl would say the same thing."
Clark shook his head. "I'm not a role model. I've made plenty of mistakes."
"At least you don't go around making the same mistake over and over. That's more than you can say of me. I get caught up in something, and I just can't let it go. I've been holding a grudge for a long time, and it's not good for me."
"You've had reason," Clark said quietly.
Rachel held up one hand and said, "I'm going to make a new start of this, and you should too. Lois has promised to call me a few times a year, and I think I'm really going to like her."
"Why do I get the feeling that everything's already been decided?"
Chuckling, Rachel said, "You haven't had women in your family for a while now, have you? You've got a lot to learn."
Clark felt his guilt ease a little. All his bridges weren't burned. Some people still considered him family, no matter what he'd done in the past. He'd just have to make sure that he lived up to their trust.
"As I recall," Clark said. "We never got to finish our date."
"So you think I want a second date? I told you about my rule about sleeping with people I work with," Lois said, smiling slightly.
"Who said we'd be sleeping?" Clark grinned. He kissed Lois on the back of the neck as they stood on the roof of her apartment building.
"It's good to see you back," Lois said. "It was only a couple of days, and I was starting to miss you."
"I think the men's group Dr. Friskin recommended is going to work out." Clark kissed Lois behind the ear. "I'm glad you told me to do it."
Lois leaned back against him. "As long as you know who really has the power here, we'll be fine." She grinned and looked back at him. "There's got to be a top banana, and well, that would be me."
"On top, right," Clark said. He kissed her again. "Rachel told me that you two had my future all planned out."
"She's going to get thrown out of the sisterhood if she gives away all our secrets." Lois grinned and twisted in his grasp, looking at him. "Besides, we haven't had time to plan more than five years ahead."
Clark chuckled, "I'm not getting away from this one, am I?"
"Would you want to?" Lois asked quietly.
Clark kissed her, said "I'm done running."
"Good. I'd hate to have to wait until you put out a personal ad in Borneo to find you again."
"What…'Single white Kryptonian male, 27 seeks native counterpart for companionship or more. If you're an intelligent, ambitious professional female, I'll sweep you off your feet and take you for long moonlit flights above the clouds. Agoraphobics need not apply. Non-smoker preferred?'" Clark grinned. "I'm not sure that'd go over very well. They'd probably think a Kryptonian was somebody with a new kind of fetish."
Lois said, "I don't see any more ads in our future."
"Speaking of moonlit flights," Clark said, wrapping his arms around her, "I've got something to show you."
Lois barely had time to gasp as a moment later, they were floating into the sky. Lois expected them to turn and begin to move somewhere, but instead they simply floated higher and higher, until at last they were among the clouds, the glittering jewel that was Metropolis fading from sight below.
That jewel was replaced by a sea of stars as they parted the clouds, and a moon that was larger than anything that Lois had ever seen.
"Would you do me the honor?" Clark asked, holding out the hand that wasn't wrapped around her back. Lois took his hand in hers, and they began to dance.
Dancing wasn't what they were doing. Lois was simply resting in his arms, staring into his eyes as he guided her slowly in a circle. Yet somehow, this felt more like dancing than anything she could remember. She felt safe and protected and loved.
When he finally spoke, his voice was husky. "You saved me, you know."
"Which time?" she asked, smiling slightly. She was pleased to see the twinkle in his eyes.
"The first time I saw you." Clark said. "You were talking to your sister, and all I could think was…"
"When was this?" Lois asked, frowning.
"Well, I was looking through a wall at the time. You were writing your ad and…uh oh."
Scowling, Lois said, "You mean to tell me that our blind date wasn't blind at all? What did you do, spy on me?"
"I never knew a thing about you except which ad you'd posted. I was so blinded by my first look at you; I didn't have time to do any other digging."
"So you want me for my looks and not my brains."
"I loved your looks, but I wasn't in love with you…not until I got to know you."
Lois allowed this to sink in for a moment, a shock that caused her toes to tingle.
"So when was the first moment that you knew?" she asked softly.
"When you finally knew who I was…what I was, and you didn't turn away." Clark held her tighter.
"It took me a little longer," Lois admitted. "It wasn't something I wanted to feel, not with everything that was going on. It was insane."
"So when did you know?" Clark asked.
"You'll think I'm weird." Lois said.
Clark arched an eyebrow at her.
"It was in the police station. I was covered in garbage, I smelled like rotten tofu and mustard, and you still looked at me like I was the most beautiful woman in the world. The flying after that…that was just icing on the cake."
This wasn't the man she'd met in the restaurant on her blind date. That man had seemed perfect. He'd been handsome, articulate, confident and utterly self assured. The Clark she'd come to know was much more humble, but Lois was glad of it. A perfect man wouldn't have any need for someone like her. He'd be above humanity, and given the power that Clark had, it'd be all too easy to believe that.
But in truth, she loved Clark because of his flaws, not in spite of them. Clark cared about people. He was sometimes a little shy. He felt pain when other people hurt, and yet he did everything he could day after day to make the world a better place.
He might not be a perfect man, but he was hers. He filled a void that she didn't even know she'd had, and she suspected that he felt the same way. Clark kissed her, and Lois felt her toes begin to curl. When he finally began to descend, she asked him the question she'd been waiting to ask him all day.
"I've had some ideas about how we can help more people." She grinned up at him. "How do you feel about spandex?"