By Sara Kraft <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: May 2006
Summary: In this sequel to the author's "Wherever You Will Go," alt Clark returns home to find that his taste of what could have been has only made things worse. Not even love is enough to pull him from darkness and despair. How can he be a hero when he can't even save himself? Falling in love is only half the journey, and it's not as easy as it seems.
I'll do my best to keep this shorter than the story itself, but I will warn you it's going to be long. <g>
I guess I'll start with the basics… This is the sequel to Wherever You Will Go. It's not strictly necessary to read that first, as this takes place back in the alternate universe, but it'll make a bit more sense and, in my opinion, increase the emotional impact. For those of you who've already read WYWG, thanks for coming back. You're probably dying to know what happens next… but my muse hopped universes for a bit, so you'll have to wait for the third story. Sorry. But I *do* promise it will be written! Eventually. ;)
Any and all recognizable lines and characters from the show are not mine, but the rest is. The title was taken from a song of the same name by 3 Doors Down — a song I listened to hundreds of times during the time I was writing this.
Now, here is where this is going to get lengthy. <g> I have numerous people to thank. So many, in fact, that I'm really hoping I don't leave anyone out. If you're not one of them, this might bore you… so skip on ahead if you like.
Rachel aka Psychofurball — My on the fly beta reader extraordinaire! You never once complained when I came online and said, "Rach!! I wrote a paragraph! Wanna see??" You don't know how much that helped to hear the encouragement that I was still going in the right direction. Not to mention, you and Mel seem to get along great. The spring is for you. The noodles, too. ;)
Erica Dias — Thank you for always nagging and showing me that at least someone was dying for the sequel.
David (who would prefer to be referred to as "The Luckiest Reader Alive") — Well, well… I don't know how many parts you and Sam managed to pry out of me before they were even beta-read, but thanks for the instant feedback and the occasional challenge of what I'd written. As I got further and further into the story, you became just that much more valuable, especially when you'd stay up all hours with me (though I suppose it was midday for you <g>) writing and plotting. I'm finding it hard to regret converting you into a Let's Torture Clark fiend. Thanks for all the "I *love* thats" and the "That's… that's the kinda pain I'm after! Yay, Sara!!!" You know you're stuck with me now, right?
Sorcha "ILikeToSeeMyselfStarringAsTheBadBadGirl" Sara — My partner in crim… in… Well, never mind that part. <g> Thank you so much for your encouragement and comments even though you never officially agreed to beta. Your comments were always helpful as well as hilarious! I'm not sure how you managed to turn your cameo into a full-fledged secondary character, but I'm so glad you did. Sorry about Philomena's dressing room; I swear you'll get the larger one next time. ;)
Diane — My ever faithful beta reader! Always there with the right amount of "Awwwwwww!!! Can I *please* hug Clark??" and "Um… you sure about that? I don't think that works." Thanks for pushing me to "show" more.
Paul — Even when you weren't feeling so well yourself, and are a self-admitted not-too-huge fan of angst, you still agreed to help me out. And even when you had to bow out, you still managed to help out with the stickiest of plot points and research. Thank you!!
Julie — Thanks for letting me attack and bombard you with plot snags and "Does this sound okay?" pastes. Not to mention the "should there be a comma in this sentence?!" moments. What a trooper considering you hadn't even read the first one yet! You were really a lifesaver! The necklace is for you. ;)
Wendy — Thanks for the continual encouragement and the writing tips! I decided to plunder and adulterate after all <g>, so thank you so much for the bit of introspection and inspiration. I think I even managed to master use of the semi-colons! <g>
Kaethel — Thanks for reassuring me that I'm not horrible at writing the smoochies. <g> And thanks for always being there to cheer when I changed my nick to SaraWriting in IRC. Your little point of view tip actually did me a world of good and proved to get me un-stuck more than once. So, thank you!!!
CC — My idol!!! I was flummoxed the day I half-joked that I ought to just bribe you into beta reading for me instead of giving you spoilers. I never dreamed you'd say, "Sure, I'd love to!" Thanks for the five minutes of shock that induced, and thanks for the endless entertainment and *invaluable* help!!!! Even though real life wouldn't let you finish, you were a *huge* help. And thank you, thank you, thank you for the line of brilliance that inspired some great stuff at the end!
Sas — My super-beta-plot-unsticker! I know you've been busy throughout the time I've been writing this, but you've proved to be a huge asset when I've been truly stuck on my least favorite part of writing — the dreaded a-plot. I may not have used any of your evil ideas… yet ;) … but I appreciate them all the same.
TJ Gruffs — We kind of lost touch a bit, but thank you for all your encouragement. :)
A special thanks to Rachel and David, who demanded… *ahem*… sorry, encouraged that I trust the characters when they wanted to go in a direction I hadn't planned on. You were right, and it only proved to make the story more… more. Thank you guys.
And another special thanks to Em aka eminMN on the MBs for letting me use and rework a comment she made in her wonderful feedback!
And, of course, thank you to all of those who stuck with me through the arduous posting process on the boards. Your feedback was inspiring, touching, and just… brilliantly wonderful!!
Last, but not least, I'd like to thank Jeanne Pare for being a wonderful GE. Couldn't have been easy to get through this monster with so many pages. ;)
*Whew* I think I'm done now. <g>
http://www.lcficmbs.com/cgi-bin/boards/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_to A trailer for this story can be found pic;f=13;t=000320
"[Paradigm shifts] take place unevenly, and, therefore, different utopias in any time and place may reflect different stages in the paradigm shift, including reactions against it."
~Claeys and Sargent — The Utopia Reader~
Clark Kent closed the door to his apartment with a heavy sigh. The weight of the old suitcase Jonathan had given him on his arm — filled with a handful of extra suits from Martha — did nothing to lighten his mood. It only reminded him that he was probably never going to see any of them again. Not Martha. Not Jonathan. And certainly not Lois.
He looked around his apartment, shrouded in darkness. Just like his heart. He didn't turn the lights on. The dimly lit room suited his mood, and besides, he didn't want anyone to know he was home. Not the reporters who had all but given up on him. Not the public. No one.
He was back. He wished he could say it was good to be home.
As he made his way to his bedroom, he couldn't help but notice everything that was eerily the same as Clark's apartment. So many similarities, but the absence of Lois's presence was keenly felt. He tossed the suitcase onto his bed and opened it slowly. The bright red and blue material staring him in the face was in direct contrast to his mood. It almost seemed to be mocking him, reminding him that he was supposed to be a strong, confident superhero.
He felt anything but.
He reached underneath the suit and felt the cool glass of the item he'd carefully stowed away and pulled it out.
He knew he shouldn't have taken it. It wasn't his. *She* wasn't his. But he hadn't wanted to leave *everything* behind. It was too final, and he'd wanted to have something to remember her by. Not that he'd forget her.
Clark sat down on the floor and rested against the bed, propping his arms up on his knees, the picture in front of him. He was foolish for taking it. He was only torturing himself with the image, but it was all he had. Lois stared back at him — smiling, happy, vibrant, and reminding him of everything he'd never have.
Damn H.G. Wells.
Clark thought he understood the man's obsession with Utopia, but to Clark, the idea was idealistic, *unrealistic*. Yes, maybe everything worked out wonderfully for the *other* Lois and Clark, but what about him? Didn't *his* future matter? Why was Wells so obsessed with *them*? Why didn't Wells strive to ensure Utopia here?
Clark knew there wasn't one. That was why.
Lois had told him that her Utopia was founded by Lois and Clark's descendants, and there *was* no Lois here. He didn't have a future. He'd never have children. He'd never have a legacy.
He stared back at Lois in the picture and wondered. Had his Lois had the same life, the same joy in her eyes?
<Maybe… you have new information… maybe you'll find her.>
But it would be a long time — if ever — before he'd have the motivation to try looking again. It was a lost cause. She'd died in the Congo. Somehow, he knew it was true. Lois Lane was supposed to be cosmically bound with Clark Kent. In any universe. Right? If his Lois was still alive, he should *feel* it. He'd know. No, his Lois was dead and gone. He wondered what might have happened if he'd known her, or at least known *of* her before she'd died. Would he have been able to save her?
He was better off not knowing. It was useless to play the "what if" game. What if he'd been fast enough, strong enough, could he have saved his parents? He didn't know the answer to that one, and his parents were still dead. Lois was still dead. And there wasn't a damned thing he could do about either of those facts.
Clark reached up to set the picture frame on his nightstand. Face down.
He wished he'd never known about Lois or the other universe. Maybe he'd be happy. Or at least not the miserable, useless wreck he was now. Ignorance was bliss, but thanks to H.G. Wells, he no longer had that. He'd never have that. He'd never have a lot of things.
He might have been able to tolerate living if he hadn't known.
Damn H.G. Wells. Who did he think he was? Who did Wells think *Clark* was? Just some throwaway stand-in to use whenever he pleased? A borrowed action figure to use when he couldn't find his own?
He wasn't a toy, dammit! He was a person. Someone with real emotions. Feelings. Feelings that could be hurt. Badly. Irreparably. Didn't Wells understand that? Hadn't Wells stopped to think how any of this would affect *him*?
To hell with Wells.
And to hell with this life he was stuck in now. A barren, useless existence.
Clark stood hastily and jerked the covers back on his bed. The anger drained from him quickly as he crawled into bed, and it was replaced with a more familiar emotion.
He pulled the covers around him tightly as he curled into the fetal position. He couldn't kill himself, but he could go to sleep and pray futilely that he wouldn't wake up.
Clark awoke the next morning with the sun screaming in his face. He pulled the blanket over his head to avoid the blaring light. The intense emotions of last night had settled deep within, and now he only felt numb. But the feeling was comforting in a way. Familiar. His body and limbs felt leaden, like the effort to move them would be too much. So he didn't.
He probably should get up and face the world — literally. He was sure they were anxiously awaiting Superman's return, but he didn't feel so super. Not even close. He hadn't said how long he'd be gone anyway — he hadn't known — so Metropolis, the world, could live without him for a while longer. Maybe forever. Maybe he could find a remote little island and just live there by himself. The world had gotten along just fine before he'd shown up — well, mostly — and they could handle things on their own.
He dreaded returning to his normal life.
Normal. Hah! Clark Kent was normal. The *other* Clark Kent. In this world, he was as far from normal as he could get. He was an oddity. His ordinary life was irrevocably gone. Clark Kent was a farce, nothing more than a character that the famed Superman played. People *did* regard him as an ordinary man when he played that part, but that was just an act, too. They all *knew* he was different, that he was a freak of nature, an alien. Some people even looked at him with disgust. Those stares weren't the ones that bothered him, though. It was the ones that held more than a hint of ridicule. As if they were thinking, "Who are you kidding, trying to pretend to be something that you're not? Pretending to be normal?"
And really, who *was* he kidding? He was nothing more than a novelty, a side show act. That was who Clark Kent had become.
He'd lost his identity. He'd lost who he was. Superman was a chore, and Clark Kent was a joke.
He bit his lower lip to keep it from trembling. He stared at the ceiling for a minute, asking it to care, wanting *someone* to care. Clark Kent hadn't always been a joke.
Sure, he hadn't been the happiest of people when he'd been just Clark, but at least he'd been content. Or close to it. Since he'd become Superman, since people had found out about him, Clark Kent had vanished, almost without a trace. The only one to have noticed was him. He was the only one who missed Clark Kent.
That was why he'd done it. That was why he'd agreed to go with Wells to the other universe. Well, most of the reason. He thought he'd be happier if he got to be just Clark again. He thought maybe he'd be able to find himself, find a tiny bit of solace that might help him survive.
But he hadn't.
H.G. Wells had shown him exactly what kind of life he *could* have had, had his Lois lived.
He'd still be known as just Superman to the world, but it might have been nice to have someone to endure it with. All the same, it was beyond cruel. He should be furious with the time traveler, but he wasn't. He didn't have the energy to be anything other than miserable.
Even that was draining, so he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
Clark had slept the whole day, though he'd managed to get out of bed. At least. He felt lazy, but he didn't really care. He didn't care about anything anymore. The dull numbness still enveloped him. It was a comforting feeling. The one thing he was familiar with.
Coming home had at least been reassuring in that way. He'd immediately slipped back into the darkness. The grief for everything he'd lost was the only thing he knew now. Even the joy he used to get from flying was gone. He'd realized that on his flight over here. To Smallville. It was almost surprising that the weight of his despair didn't drag him down to the earth like gravity pulling on a drowning man.
He hung in the sky above what used to be his parents' farm. His childhood home. Now, it was nothing more than a few derelict buildings and a long dead crop field. The scene below him fit his mood quite aptly.
He sighed heavily and floated down to the ground near the dilapidated porch. He still owned the property, the farm, the house. Maybe it was selfish, but he didn't want anyone else to have it. It was all he had left of his parents. That and his memories, precious few that they were, and his memories were all here. At the same time, he hadn't the heart to visit it often enough to keep it up.
He ran his hand over the old, splintered wood. He and his dad used to come out here and talk — when it was important or just guy stuff. They'd usually come out at night, and Clark remembered the peaceful sounds of the Kansas countryside — the crickets chirping, the animals settling in the barn, and the sound of the corn stalks rustling in the breeze. He'd always marveled at those sounds when he was younger, especially when he'd discovered that he could hear them far more keenly than his father could. The stars, too, he'd been able to see those better as well. That had been one of his favorite things about his burgeoning powers when he'd been younger. He loved looking up at the massive expanse of sky on a clear night, when it seemed there were so many stars you'd die before you could count them all.
There were fourteen thousand, three hundred and sixty-four.
At least that was the number he'd gotten earlier this year when he'd tried. Eight months ago, shortly after Lois had left, he'd come out here. The moon had been in its last stages then, and the sky had been clear. It'd seemed there were more stars than he'd ever seen before.
He'd been depressed then like he was now, only tonight he felt far worse than he ever had.
The sky had lost its wonder a long time ago. He used to stare up with the wide eyes of a child — often with his dad by his side — and just be in awe at the beauty of it all, how bright the stars twinkled down at him. Later, after his parents had died, he'd often escape whichever foster home he was in and lie down in an open field to look at the sky, wondering if perhaps his parents were up there looking down on him. He'd used to hope so, but now, he didn't want them to. He didn't want them to see him like this. Broken down and beaten by life.
Back when he'd found the globe, he had come out here and laid in the front yard for hours, wondering where he'd come from. How he fit in. If he'd *ever* fit in.
Now, looking up at the immense expanse of sky, he felt inexorably small. Insignificant.
He'd give anything to be normal. *Be* human. Like his mom and dad. Live… work… meet someone… have a family. But he knew it wasn't possible.
Ironically, he'd always wondered if he could have kids. Were Kryptonians and humans compatible? Now he knew the answer, but the knowledge was far from comforting. The opposite, really.
He deeply regretted his trip to the other universe now. He should have known better. He should have known that seeing her again would be painful. That coming back to a world without her would be far worse. He should have known that it would only depress him more.
Though… he hadn't known she'd be pregnant. He hadn't known he'd learn *exactly* how much he could never have.
And pretending to be her fiancée… he hadn't known how hard that would be. How much he'd long for her… for someone like her… to complete him. He hadn't realized just how much the whole experience would damage him.
It wasn't just his heart that was broken.
His soul ached.
He hadn't realized how painfully evident the void in his heart would be once he came back. Once he came home to face his world alone.
He couldn't stay here anymore. He was thinking too much. Thinking was not good.
Clark shot into the sky and sped home, not slowing down until he was inside and closing the window behind him.
The lethargy hit him then, as if he'd flown too fast, and it had needed a moment to catch up with him. He managed to make it to his bed and under the covers before the tears hit him, too.
When Clark woke up again, he faintly remembered the few dozen times he'd woken only to go right back to sleep. This time wasn't any different, except for the fact that he had to go to the bathroom. He laid in bed a while longer, *trying* to go back to sleep, but the feeling soon became uncomfortable. Irritated, Clark threw back the covers and made his way to the bathroom.
He hadn't planned on looking at his reflection on his way back out, but it'd snuck up on him. The man glancing out of the corner of his eye at him had startled him. Clark didn't recognize him. His eyes were drawn and weary. A full assault of hair covered his face. This man was a stranger.
Those eyes haunted him. Stared at him. Like they were judging him, reproaching him for what he'd become.
Clark brushed his hand against the rough hair covering his face, and suddenly he was disgusted with himself. He shaved quickly and stared at the man again. He looked less untoward, but the eyes were still haunted.
Nothing, he knew, would make that disappear.
Clark sighed heavily and returned to his bedroom. The rumpled sheets and disarray of the bed, the entire room agitated him. He turned from the mess and headed for the living room, towards the couch. The couch was as good a place as any to sleep. And here, he wouldn't have to look at the clutter that only served to remind him how indifferent he'd become.
If only his Lois had lived. Then maybe his life wouldn't be so hopeless.
She was dying. She. Was. Going. To die.
She cowered, her knees hugged tightly to her chest. The tree bark at her back bit at her, but she pressed closer against it still. Safer. It was safer to guard your back.
Huge roots jutted out from the tree. Gnarled. Frightening. Larger on her right than on her left.
But it was shelter. Precious little shelter.
She heard the trumpeting of an elephant somewhere close by. A sound that used to delight her when her father would take her to the zoo as a child. It was eerie now. The sound echoed off the trees. Elephants. She'd seen a few, but… elephants. In a forest. Nothing was right here. Nothing.
Her eyelids were heavy. So heavy. Can't sleep. She couldn't sleep.
The gorilla barked again. Or maybe there was more than one. Three short grunts. Like he was looking for something. For her. A twisted version of Marco Polo, hide and seek, and she prayed feverishly that she'd picked a good hiding spot.
Her stomach roared. She jerked, then stilled, begging not to have been heard, that her stomach hadn't mocked a return call to the gorilla. Don't find me. Don't find me.
Oh, God. She was going to die. All alone. Out here. Jungle. Rainforest. Whatever the hell this was.
A shiver ran down her spine and she shuddered.
Can't sleep. Can't sleep at night. Too dangerous. Only during the day. Can't sleep.
Her eyelids drooped, and she snapped them back open.
She was looking out a window.
A… an… airplane window.
Right. Breathe. Okay.
Safe. Going home. Safe.
She shivered. Cold. She was so cold.
She looked up, and the stream of cold air from the air valve hit her eyes.
She reached up to turn it off.
She looked to her right, away from the window.
The man next to her was sleeping.
Fine. She was fine. Going home. She was going home.
She let out a long breath. She was okay. She was in an airplane, not the jungle. Headed towards home.
More slow breaths. Slowly, her heart rate returned to normal.
Her name was Lois Lane. She was in a Metropolis-bound plane. She was safe. After three long years, she was safe.
She breathed a heavy sigh of relief and rested her head against the scratchy airline pillow. She swallowed, wishing she could feel more relieved, but the only thing she could feel was the tight ball of anxiety in her stomach.
She inhaled again. Deeply. The air of freedom. Even in the enclosed steel of the airplane, the air tasted of freedom.
A quiet thud called her attention to the small leg space in front of her. The paper had fallen off her lap.
Lois reached down to pick it up and stared at the loud banner of comfort across the top that read "The Daily Planet".
She remembered almost squealing with delight when she'd found the week-old edition in the small reception area of the International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation. She'd squirreled it away in her ratty backpack when the workers hadn't been watching. The paper had been her comfort blanket in the three long weeks it'd taken the ICRC to finally get her back to Metropolis.
The Daily Planet.
Or, in one word — home.
She was going home…
Where no one knew she was alive and the only family she had was buried in the Metropolis Cemetery.
The dread clenched at her gut once again, but she did her best to quell it.
Perry. He was like family.
Perry White, no longer the editor, but instead, mayor of Metropolis. She hadn't ever imagined that Perry had had any political aspirations…
But it was comforting to know that he was still in Metropolis, at least.
Her passport — all she had left to prove she was Lois Lane — listed Metropolis as her home, but she couldn't be sure of that anymore. Her parents and Lucy had been dead for ten years. Nothing was there for her anymore, save for Perry. And he thought she was dead.
She shook her head, trying to clear the maudlin thoughts, the lingering anxiety, and focused on the front page article that had taken her completely by surprise.
"Superman Takes a Break."
She'd read the article over at least a hundred times, searching for something that seemed to be eluding her grasp. The first time she'd read the story, it'd seemed more fit for the National Whisper. A man who flies? Super strength? An alien here on planet Earth, just so kind enough to call himself a superhero?
Why was it front page news that he was taking a vacation?
The accompanying picture had changed her mind regarding the seemingly ludicrous nature of the article. Mayor White shaking hands with the "illustrious hero", who was scheduled to take a short leave of absence from his duties. She *supposed* that made sense; everyone needed a vacation…
To her, the whole idea of a superhero was absurd, but she knew Perry wouldn't have stood for that, not if it had been a lie.
She stared at Superman's picture in her lap for the thousandth time.
There was something about his eyes…
They were haunted, somehow.
Just like every other time she'd stared at his face, a pang of sympathy hit her.
He looked so… tortured, not by any outward appearances — and certainly not in that garish costume — but there was something in his eyes that said his life was more painful than what he presented to the public.
Lois knew that only too well. The first mirror she'd looked into in years at the Red Cross had shown her those same eyes. She'd spent a lifetime with those eyes, trying to hide all her pain and hurt inside. Maybe that was why, against her better judgment, she empathized with the man in the ostentatious costume.
The latter paragraphs in the article told of his powers and his true identity. He went by the name of Clark Kent, and he actually worked as a reporter for the Planet.
That had shocked her a bit. If he was so extraordinary, what was he doing as a reporter, collecting his paycheck at the end of the week like all the other poor schmucks? Why the pretense? Why not rule the world? Why not throw President Heston out of the White House?
His reasons for attempted normalcy eluded her, but she did know one thing for sure. He was the only one who could help her. She read the date of the article again — August 17, 1996. It was early September now. Surely he'd be back by now from his little vacation. Or he would be soon. Clark Kent was the only one with the powers and the resources she would need to finally put an end to this nightmare.
If he'd help her.
From what she'd read, he seemed to think helping people was his job. She only hoped he'd even speak to someone like her.
After eight long months of tediously boring watch duty, she'd seen her. She should have been excited about it, but she wasn't. Elle Daly sure didn't envy her associate at the Daily Planet; by the looks of her, Lois Lane wouldn't be going into the newsroom anytime soon.
Elle pulled out her cell phone and pressed the speed dial for her boss. She was supposed to report any sightings or possible sightings immediately, then tail her and not let her out of her sight.
The call was answered on the first ring. "Have you seen her?"
She wasn't sure what possessed her to do so, but she answered, "No."
"Then why are you wasting my time?"
Elle didn't flinch at the irate reply. She was done caring. "I think I should abandon post, sir. If this operation had any less momentum, it'd be going backwards. It's been almost a year now. Don't you think she'd have shown up by now? And how many people can survive the Congolese jungle with just the shirt on their back?"
"You will not abandon post."
"Do you hear me, Daly? You're to stay where you are. The Lane woman knows too much, and that makes her a liability. A big one. Stay put!"
The line went dead.
Elle frowned at the phone in her hand, and then shoved it back into her jeans pocket. She wasn't sure why she'd just done that; she may well have put her job, possibly her life, in jeopardy. She'd let Lane walk away. The woman didn't look dangerous, but it was always the placid cow who ended up grinding your toes into nothingness.
Sure, Elle knew that Lois Lane had been one of the top reporters in the country, but the woman she'd seen walk out of the airport fifteen minutes ago looked nothing but pathetic. Beaten. Worn. With a face as long as a wet week. And certainly not like a liability to their operation.
Well, one thing was for sure, unlike the imposter they'd discovered last year, this had to be the real Lois Lane. As the associate in charge of watching the Planet back then, she had kept careful watch over that one, but she'd overheard the fraudulent Lois's story of a faulty memory and a coma. There'd been nothing to watch for, especially since she hadn't blurted out everything she'd witnessed in the Congo the second she'd gotten there. Then, only two days later, she'd vanished.
It'd been peculiar, but nothing had come of the situation. But this Lois, the one she'd just seen, had the markings of someone who'd been through a lot. Too much.
Elle sighed, dropping back into her seat in the airport lobby and cursing her sudden attack of sympathy. Maybe it was because it'd been such a long, hard trial for Ms. Lane. Just over three years now. She looked downright disheartened. Elle tried to shake the pity from her thoughts. She was getting soft, and she really couldn't afford to do that.
Lois lay on a lumpy mattress. She'd gotten a room for the night with the meager funds she had, and now she lay fingering the neckline of her shirt where her gold necklace normally rested.
It was gone now. All the years in the Congo — clinging to its presence for comfort, for the only reminder of home she had — she'd held fast to it. Her grandmother had given it to her on her sixteenth birthday. A family heirloom. It hadn't meant that much to her before. She'd hardly ever seen Grandma Lane, but back then when her family had been in such tatters, she'd liked the idea that *something* could last.
She'd pawned it an hour ago.
Stupid Lane pride… and weariness from traveling… The idea of staying in a homeless shelter, even after all the years on the run, was still unsettling to her. Though, she *would* have… if she hadn't been so tired, mentally and physically, from the trip. She hadn't had the energy to walk all over to find the nearest shelter, and when she'd seen the tacky neon lights of the pawn shop sign, she'd gone in on impulse. She'd gotten just enough money for a few nights at a cheap motel of some sort and a little food as well.
Her appetite, though, had disappeared along with her exhilaration of being home. Her apartment was gone. All her belongings. Her bank accounts. Her job. Everything she'd worked so hard for. Gone. Everything she owned now was tucked away inside her ragged blue backpack.
She had nothing.
Well… she had a roof over her head. That had to count for something. Even when she'd finally made it to the International Red Cross Delegation in Brazzaville, she'd had to stay in a large tent adjacent to the main building with at least a dozen other people. Maybe that was what made her so disconcerted with spending the night in a homeless shelter.
She was home now — even if the current definition of home hung by a precarious thread. This was her first official night back in the States. In Metropolis. She was officially free now. And she'd be damned if she felt uncomfortable her first night back.
She shifted away from the small spring that was poking at her, and looked around the room, really seeing it for the first time. It was small, only a little bigger than the one she'd been kept in for so long. She stared at the walls for good long moments… they weren't moving, weren't closing in. She just had to breathe and she'd be fine. If only she could open the window or something… but it was painted shut, locking her…
Stop it, Lane!
The small kitchenette to the right of the door exuded the feeling of freedom. That was good, though ironic considering she didn't remember how to cook — or know how to cook in the first place.
The pay phone on the wall was a bit odd, but its presence would remind her that she wasn't in the Congo anymore. Not on the run anymore. Safe. Home.
Impulsively, she scrambled out of the bed and picked up the phone, bringing the receiver to her ear. The dial tone rang hollow in her ears. Who would she call? There *was* no one. She didn't have a clue what Perry's number was now. And there was no one else. She replaced the receiver dejectedly and returned to the flimsy comfort of the motel bed.
Civilization. At least it was something.
She stared up at the ceiling, drab as the rest of the room in its shade of sullied concrete. She'd have preferred white. Or any color, really. Anything to erase the memories of the cold, dark jungle and the room…
Even silence eluded her. The buzzing of the lone light bulb above her head as it flickered on and off reminded her of the countless insects that had pervaded the wilderness. She turned on her side to avoid its incessant blinking.
That was when it hit her, full force.
All the years of running, hiding… getting caught. Fearing for her life. It almost seemed like a horrible nightmare — one which gripped her in its horrors long after she'd woken up.
She wished she was in her room, her bed… all the familiar surroundings that were so comforting after a bad dream. The things that told you were home and safe. That it *had* just been a terrible dream. Instead, the bleak gray walls surrounded her, trapped her, offering no comfort at all.
She sobbed into her pillow, at once feeling a wash of relief and gratitude for her freedom and a shadow of terror engulf her as she looked towards her future.
Her life in Metropolis was dead. Gone. No one knew she was here. No one knew she was alive. She'd spent years establishing her career, making a name for herself. And now the only piece of paper that bore her name was a death certificate, and even that was covered in dust.
She thought she'd be fine once she got back, but she wasn't. She had nothing. No job, no money, no place to live, and nobody to care that Lois Lane was back from the dead.
Perry would care.
But how on Earth did a nobody dressed like a transient get in to see the mayor?
"But you don't understand. It's imperative that I see Mayor White. Tell him it's Lois Lane. You'll see. And you'll be sorry for how you've treated me. Mark my words, you -"
The snippety woman sighed over-loudly and continued looking down her nose at Lois. The woman was peering over a pair of those stupid reading glasses that Lois was sure she wore simply to make her *appear* intelligent.
It wasn't working. Her faux sympathetic tone made Lois's skin crawl. "Miss Lane, the Mayor is an extremely busy man and he doesn't have time to talk to people who haven't made an appointment." The woman gave her another derisive look before she continued, "If he spoke to everybody who came storming in here, demanding to be seen, he'd have no time to run the city. Besides, if you cared to read the paper, you'd know that Mayor White is out of town. If you'd like, I can find you the address of a nice homeless shelter."
Lois deflated. All the optimism and determination she'd had moments ago was gone, but she wouldn't let that nasty woman have the last word. "No," she replied acerbically. "I'll be fine, though I'll be sure to let the Mayor know what fine, caring staff he has when I manage to flag him down *on my own*. Thank you for your time."
She turned to leave and could practically feel the derisive smile aimed at her back. She wished she felt half as assertive as she'd sounded. She left, even more hopeless than she'd been the night before.
Lois pushed through the doors of the building and took off down the street. Fast. Not sure where she was going, just away. The harsh glare of the sun hit her eyes and they teared a bit. Only from the over-bright sun, not because she was crying.
She wasn't. Perry was just out of town. He'd be back soon. And so what if she looked like a homeless woman? If that snotty woman had spent years in the Congo living in the jungle, she'd look a little less than pretty too.
Lois looked down at her clothes. They weren't that bad, were they?
They were. They weren't even her clothes, just some second hand jeans and a shirt that they'd had in the clothing bin at the ICRC. They were a little baggy and worse for wear, but clean. Homeless people didn't have clean clothes. She had a place to stay. She wasn't homeless. She had a home. Metropolis was her home…
At least it had been.
It certainly didn't feel like home anymore.
Lois stopped short. The gates of the Metropolis Cemetery stared her in the face. She hadn't been here in over five years. Mom, Dad, Lucy… they were all in there. After the car accident, she'd used to visit them regularly, telling them about everything in her life… When she'd gotten the job at the Planet. When she'd had her heart broken by Claude. When she'd won her first Kerth. Her second Kerth.
She'd shared everything with them, not just because they were her family, but because she hadn't had anyone else to tell. Perry had truly become like a father to her, taking her under his wing as his protégé. And after her family had died, he'd reassured her that she still had someone who cared about her. But it hadn't always been enough.
Someone had painted the wrought iron since she'd been here last. The grass looked greener, trimmed. She glanced around for a moment at the bustling city, studying what used be her home. Everything was a little cleaner. Less graffiti, less litter. She hadn't been able to see it last night, but Metropolis had undergone a transformation while she'd been gone. It looked… safer. It *felt* safer. Had it been Perry's influence? Superman's?
Whatever the reason was, Metropolis had changed for the better.
In direct contrast to what had happened to her.
The thought saddened her, made her feel even more alienated from the place she'd lived in, grown up in. Now, more than ever, she longed for the comfort of family. She crossed the threshold into the cemetery towards the only family she had left.
Two rows in and four over. She looked for the three headstones that marked the home of her loved ones. Daddy. Mother. Lucy…
And then she gasped in horror.
There was a fourth headstone.
Lois Lane. 1967-1993.
The anguish knifed through her stomach and robbed her of her breath. She was dead. Well and truly dead. They'd buried her. Forever etched in stone was the proof that Lois Lane no longer existed.
She felt hollow. Numb. And weak. She needed to sit. Awkwardly, she sank to the ground and brought her knees up to her chest. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the polished granite.
Dead people didn't have homes. No friends. No job. No family. No life.
Now that she was finally back, what on Earth was she going to do?
Lois awoke to the flickering of the light bulb above her head. It was oddly comforting now, after the blaring reality of the sun and the overwhelming truths it had brought with it. She wasn't sure how she'd gotten back to the motel. Everything from after she'd seen her own headstone was a blur.
Being back in the solitude of her small, rented room now after wandering outside… it killed her that it was comfortable. Four walls keeping her enclosed. Familiar. Safer, somehow. They'd done that to her, made her…
Her stomach growled, interrupting her thoughts and reminding her that it had been more than a full day since she'd eaten anything. She took the money out of her pocket to count it, though she knew very well how much money she had left.
Not enough. She'd been counting on Perry to be here. Not that she wanted charity of any kind, but she was sure she had travel insurance of some kind with the Planet, not to mention her salary. They ought to owe her *something*.
But she couldn't just go waltzing into the Planet now, could she? They'd be looking for her. Not actively after all this time, but the Planet was the first place they'd think of to plant someone to keep an eye out for her. Going to City Hall had been risky enough, foolish, even. Impulsively stupid. She had to be more careful from now on.
Which would make coming back from the dead all that more difficult.
She wasn't looking forward to all the tedium she suspected would be involved in coming back from the dead. She didn't have the energy for it. For a moment, she entertained the idea of staying dead. Or at least keeping Lois Lane dead. She could move somewhere else, start a new life with a new name. There really wasn't anything here for her anyway. Maybe it would be better that way?
No. As much as it appeared to be easier, she really couldn't be anyone but Lois Lane. She was going to have to fight her way back into her old life. It was hers, after all, and she hadn't come this far only to give up now. She'd made it through being held prisoner and the wilds of the Congo. Surviving this would be a piece of cake, right?
But she still dreaded it. Once she was back from the dead, she'd most likely have to prove herself all over again as an investigative journalist. And that was something she wasn't sure she could do. Three years was a long time to spend away from civilization. Countless things must have changed by now. Heck, Perry was Mayor! Just think what else must have changed.
She'd read the same issue of the Planet numerous times. Clark Kent. He seemed to be the new top reporter around. People were probably falling all over him, wanting him to interview them, tell their story. And investigating probably wasn't too hard for someone with superpowers, whatever they were. Even still, aside from the lack of effort it took to *get* stories, the few she read by him showed his skill as a writer.
Yet another reason why she needed his help. She wouldn't be able to finish trailing the gun-running back to its source, not with her rusty skills and now non-existent contacts. Plus, the whole flying thing would come in handy. He'd be able to fly over the area where she'd been held, look around for more clues.
But it was a little more than that, wasn't it? How was she supposed to research or investigate when they were out there? Watching for her? Waiting for her to trip up and do something foolish like what she'd done today? What if they'd seen her already?
Now more than ever she needed Clark Kent's abilities, super and otherwise. But how was she going to get someone like him to help her? She was a nobody, not even technically alive. *Why* would someone of his celebrity and prestige talk to her, let alone help her? But she *had* to try. He was really her only hope. She'd simply write him a letter and drop it off in his mailbox and wait for him to return from his vacation and respond.
Somehow, she thought it would be anything but. But if Clark "Superman" Kent was her only chance at righting the wrongs that had been done to her, bringing the gunrunners to justice, then she had to try.
Lois pulled her battered notepad out of her knapsack. She leafed through it, looking for an empty page and swallowed hard when she reached the spot where more than a few pages were missing…
She couldn't think about that now. She needed to focus on one thing at a time. Besides, those pages were imprinted in her memory; she'd made sure of it. Returning her mind to the task at hand, she managed to find an empty page. Digging for a pen took a second longer, and then she was writing.
She had just finished signing her name and reading fretfully over it for errors or idiocy when her stomach growled again.
She frowned. It'd been over three years since she'd bought food in Metropolis, perhaps even longer since she'd gone grocery shopping. She'd usually grabbed some fast food on her way home from work or ordered take out. She couldn't afford to do that now, not if she wasn't sure how long she'd need to stay in the motel. Lois eyed the kitchenette warily. Something from the supermarket would certainly be cheaper. If she bought something simple, surely she could cook it.
Lois shoved her money back in her pocket and then grabbed the hotel key on her way out the door.
After she'd picked up some instant noodles at the store, she wandered around the streets for a while, reminiscing. Metropolis had felt so alive, so exciting. A potential story around every corner. Now… Well, now it felt different. She wasn't the same person she'd been three years ago.
She wasn't Lois Lane.
But, dammit, she *was*.
She *had* to be. She had to do something. Something to make her feel like her old self again. Going back to the motel and attempting to cook wasn't going to cut it. She needed something to investigate.
Clark Kent's address!
She needed it to send… no… drop off the letter. Lois frowned. Why hadn't she thought of that before? The whole time she'd been writing the letter, it'd never occurred to her that she'd obviously need to know where he lived.
Though… she supposed that she could just send it to the Planet. He worked there. He'd receive it for sure. But… she could just imagine how much mail he got at work. Loads of it. And there would be her letter, sitting at the bottom of his inbox for who knew how long.
No, she needed his home address. She needed to drop it off personally so that she knew he'd see it.
She felt… dumb. Mad Dog Lane would have thought of all of this before. Heck, Mad Dog Lane would have found his apartment first, gone straight there and knocked on the door.
She'd written a letter instead. Letters were cowardly.
Lois shook her head. No time for waffling. Regardless of how she asked for his help, she needed his address. Mad Dog Lane was on the case, if a little worse for wear.
"Sir, the subject has arrived in Metropolis. She came in demanding to see the Mayor, just as you thought she would, sir."
"I trust you followed her?"
"Of course, sir. She's staying at the Apollo Motel. Shall I make the acquisition?"
"No, not just yet, let her get comfortable. Watch her. We'll see what she does. Her family's dead and the only person she knows is Mayor White. It won't be a necessity until he's back in town. Let her think she's safe for now."
"Good work, Johnson."
Clark woke to darkness. The VCR clock told him it was well after two in the morning. He'd slept all day, but he couldn't bring himself to care. What did it matter? He was that much closer to the day he'd die. Whenever that was. Too far away. Too many miserable days to spend alone. Too much to handle. He didn't want to handle it anymore.
He remembered, dejectedly, his desperate attempt to end it all. He'd gotten all the way to the sun. Or at least close enough so that even *he* had felt the heat. He'd stared at it for minutes. Long minutes. Daring himself to just do it. But in the end, he'd chickened out, run out of air in his lungs, and had shot back to Earth like a coward, gasping for breath when he'd hit the stratosphere.
He'd been foolish. Stupid to think that he could actually hurl himself into the sun. But there hadn't been another way. Nothing else could hurt him. In fact, he wasn't even sure the sun would have killed him. Lack of air might have… but that hadn't worked out either.
Then he remembered… the agonizing, debilitating pain that fateful day when Tempus had introduced him to…
Clark sat up abruptly.
He sat motionless like he had been for days, but this time his heart was racing.
A glowing, painful, green chunk of home. Ironic that a little piece of home could be his undoing, that a tiny meteorite was a force more powerful than the Man of Steel.
The invulnerable man who'd been shattered beyond repair.
The man who was an alien in every sense of the word. He didn't belong.
Not as Clark. And not as Superman.
Though he hadn't been Clark in a long time.
The world only knew Superman now. Strange, how world-wide acceptance had made him feel more alienated. There was no Clark anymore… He'd been dead for a year now.
Superman didn't think anymore; he stood and spun into the Suit, reveling in the detachment he felt.
Clark was dead. Only Superman was left.
He opened the window and shot into the sky.
Clark flew aimlessly around the city, trying to think where the Kryptonite may have gone. Perhaps in the police department. Surely they would have picked it up after the press conference and locked it in the evidence room. Looking back, he should have followed up on that. Disposed of it so that criminals wouldn't think to steal it and use it against him. But the thought hadn't occurred to him, and he was quite glad of it now. The Kryptonite was there. It had to be.
Clark changed his course and flew in the direction of the downtown precinct. Number fourteen. The one at which he knew all the foreign and dangerous substances were kept.
He landed on the ledge of Metropolis Tower. One of the tallest buildings in the city. High enough up so that no one could see him. Clark stared down at the building across the street. The downtown station. He sat completely still for a few long minutes before he got the courage to scan the building. There it was. Tucked away in a far corner of the evidence lock up, there was a small lead box. That had to be it. Odd how they'd inadvertently protected him from it. Or had Wells told them? It didn't really matter. It was still there, just waiting for him.
The last time… he'd been passive. Too passive. Like swallowing a bottle of pills, hoping it'd be enough.
Kryptonite. Kryptonite was active. There was pain. There was certainty.
He didn't move.
He wanted to do it. He wanted to die. He *couldn't* keep living like this. It wasn't even living. Just existing. There wasn't any point to it. The world didn't need him. He was useless. He didn't have anyone. No friends. No family.
No one would miss him.
Well, the citizens of Metropolis might miss their "superhero", but they wouldn't miss him.
Maybe, foolishly, he could ask to be buried beside Lois. Not that her body was there, but maybe in death, he'd at least find a small comfort in knowing he could be near her in some way.
He eyed the lead box again. It was slightly blurry this time.
Clark swiped at the tears angrily. There was no reason to cry. Not anymore. Not after he… There would be no more tears. Just nothing. He wouldn't have to deal with anything anymore. Sweet oblivion.
Clark sank down to the ledge and started sobbing, shaking. The tight pain in his chest was awful. He didn't want to die. But he desperately didn't want to live. There was nothing in between. Nothing he could do. And nothing would make the pain go away. He pulled his cape tight around him and wept.
Lois stood nervously outside Clark "Superman" Kent's apartment.
Earlier, she'd been surprised — and just a little pleased with herself for thinking to ask — that people seemed to know where Superman lived. Or at least in the general direction. Collecting clues from several different people, she'd been able to narrow it down, and now she was standing outside his door.
The peephole stared back at her like an all-knowing eye. A critical eye. She frowned. The peephole kept staring, and she got the odd sensation that someone was watching her.
But that was ridiculous. *If* Clark Kent was home, he'd be sleeping at this ungodly hour. He *wasn't* home, that much she was sure of. The papers at the supermarket held no mention of Superman and every person she'd talked to had been sure to let her know — sometimes with a patronizing or ridiculing stare — that the resident superhero was still out of town.
So why was she nervous? She was just leaving the note under his door. That was it. Just a simple note saying, "Hi, I'm Lois Lane. You don't know me but I'd like your help." Or something to that effect. A stupid plea from a nobody, has-been reporter. Something he probably wouldn't even pay attention to. He must receive a thousand requests like this a day; he'd just laugh at hers and then throw it out. She wouldn't even have to be witness to his ridicule. She'd never hear from him and that would be that. This Kent guy was a superhero, a celebrity, for crying out loud. Why would he even give her the time of day?
She stared at the door again. Come on, Lane, he's not even home. Just slip it under the door and get it over with. What was stopping her?
She knew what it was. It was the feeling she'd gotten when she'd looked at his picture, read what little there was about his life in that article, and read the articles he'd written. There was just something about him that spoke to her… something that told her there was more to his life than what was visible to the naked eye. Something she felt keenly. Hurt. It hit close to home for reasons she couldn't even fathom. But maybe she was just tired. Having nonsensical feelings because she'd been without human contact for so long, and she was desperate to feel any sort of connection.
She thought back to the picture… It wasn't pity exactly — that wasn't the feeling — but she'd gotten this silly idea, a tingling, that somehow he was someone important to her. That maybe she was reading him far more accurately than anyone else had. Kindred spirits.
Which was nonsense. Ridiculous. As human as he appeared, Clark Kent was still an alien with powers beyond that of any mortal man. How could she relate to someone like that? And how could he relate to her for that matter?
She was just lonely. There was no one in her life. Everyone thought she was dead. She was alone and probably would be alone for the rest of her life. She was just deluding herself. She needed someone to save her and Clark Kent was Superman, hero to the world.
She remembered when she was a teenager, looking at pictures of the latest movie heartthrob and feeling certain that they were meant to be together. An immature, unrealistic crush. That was what this weird feeling about Clark was. She felt stupid for even succumbing to the idea, but she had. Maybe it was because of just how alone she felt, how long she'd been away. His picture had been the first she'd seen at the beginning of her journey back to the "real" world.
A hero. A handsome hero at that. She'd just conjured up the image of being saved by him, and had gotten the childish notion that he might just care about her, too.
Foolish as that may have been, that was what was making her hesitate outside his door. What if he *did* just ignore her letter? Or worse yet, what if he didn't, and just regarded her as another citizen in need? Another victim in his long line of people to save? Someone he'd help and then wash his hands of? What if all he felt for her was pity? What if after it was all said and done, she never saw him again?
She wasn't sure she could handle that, regardless of the fantasies milling about in her head.
And then there was that foolish Lane pride. She'd survived three long years in the Congo. Made her way to the top of a male-dominated profession. Bounced back with determination after her family had died. All of this by herself. She'd never needed anyone before, really *needed* them, but now she *did* need Clark Kent.
She eyed his door cautiously once more. A rather small apartment on Clinton Street. Not a great neighborhood, but not the worst. Back when she'd last been in Metropolis, this had been one of the worst areas of town, rampant with crime. It had since cleaned up a little, but it certainly was not a neighborhood in which one would expect to find an individual of Superman's celebrity.
Suddenly, she wondered, why *did* Superman live here of all places? Surely he could afford better.
Lois got a small tingling sensation at the back of her neck. Curiosity. The thing that had killed the cat and the occasional intrepid reporter. Something she hadn't felt in a long time.
Lois glanced up and down the corridor and then at her watch. Three a.m. No one was around. *He* wasn't around. What would be the harm in taking a little peek? She felt an inexplicable need to know a little more about Clark Kent. She wished she'd had the idea to do some research, find out a little more about him before she'd even written the letter. The article had told her precious little about the man in the cape.
Was it really so wise to offer up her vulnerability on a silver platter to someone she knew virtually nothing about? She was used to having the upper hand.
She really had lost her edge. Researching first would have been more intelligent. Not that he was here, or that she *really* needed more background before she asked for his help. She simply felt she *had* to know more. Just in case she never did get to talk to him.
She checked the hallway hastily one more time and tried the doorknob.
Well, what were you expecting, Lane?
She sighed and stuffed the letter in the front pouch of her bag and dug out the pocket knife that had proved quite a useful tool in the jungle, and then dug a little further. She knew she had a bobby pin in there somewhere — no clue as to *why* she had a bobby pin, but she *knew* she had one.
Ah hah! There it was. Now, she hoped she wasn't too out of practice.
Armed with her makeshift lock-picking kit, Lois made quick work of getting the lock undone, and hurried inside. Closing and locking the door behind her, she sighed with relief and rested for a moment against the solid wood.
The adrenaline high felt good. It reminded her of the past; back when she was Lois Lane, star reporter at the Daily Planet. Back when she *was* somebody. She shook herself mentally, stopping that train of thought in its tracks. She didn't have time to waste on silly memories, she was here to snoo — investigate. She was here to investigate.
Lois let her bag slide off her shoulder to the floor and surveyed the apartment curiously.
Who exactly was Clark Kent?
The apartment was nothing like she had expected. Well, she wasn't sure *what* she had expected, but it wasn't the sight before her.
Sparse furniture. Simple decorations. The place had a sort of homey feel, but at the same time it felt empty. Lois wandered over to the mantle and sized up the solidified memories that decorated it. An old football in a trophy-type stand. She ran her hand over the engraved plaque at the base of it, gaining a layer of dust on her fingers in the process. Smallville High 1984 Champions. She brushed her hand off on her pants. He'd played. That was somewhat odd. From what she'd read about him, he had superior speed and strength. Wasn't that a bit unfair? He didn't seem like the type that would cheat, especially considering his current occupation. Then again, she didn't *really* know him, and her judgment of men wasn't the best… so anything was possible.
She moved on to the next item. An old photograph — a middle-aged couple. His parents? Maybe. The picture was older and the frame a bit weathered and covered in dust like the rest of the mantle. The picture she'd seen of Clark Kent didn't show any of the same characteristics. The older couple didn't look like him in any sense. Though… Superman *was* an alien. Maybe these weren't his parents at all. Maybe he didn't even have parents.
The picture on the other side of the football gave her pause.
Clark and a woman.
A blonde. Pretty, if you liked that type. Not drop-dead gorgeous by any means, but…
She was wearing a ring.
An engagement ring.
Clark Kent was engaged. Or really, he could be married by now. Maybe he was on his honeymoon. Though… she supposed the paper would have said something about that… Or even something about his fiancée. Lois looked around the apartment again. There wasn't anything here that suggested a woman lived here. Not that that meant anything necessarily. Maybe Clark spent most of his time at her place. That was probably true, if the layer of dust covering the mantle and its inhabitants was any indication.
He was engaged. Taken. Of course he was taken. Who wouldn't want an attractive — extremely attractive — man who could fly? Every woman on the planet no doubt had some fantasy or another about him. And this woman in the photograph… she'd won the prize.
Lois tried to tell herself that it didn't bother her. By all rights, it shouldn't. And it didn't. Nope. She couldn't care less. And by no means did the dull ache in her chest mean that she felt she'd missed out on the best thing that might have ever happened to her. That was just heartburn.
Lois let out a sigh and headed towards the bedroom, well more of just the same room, really, though there was a half wall that separated it somewhat. The bed was messy, like someone had slept in it recently. Or like the man hadn't cared to make his bed before he'd left on vacation.
Another picture frame on the nightstand caught her eye. This one clearly had no dust on it, but it was laying face down. Curious now to see who it could be, she reached for it and grabbed it carefully. She turned the frame over and looked at the picture within.
She gasped and nearly dropped the frame. It was *her*! But no picture she ever remembered taking. She started to wrack her memory for that moment, when she heard a noise behind her.
The sound was kind of a strangled gasp, like someone had tried to say something, but the words hadn't come out. Lois forced herself to turn around slowly.
It was him.
Clark stared at the woman in his bedroom.
It was a dream.
It had to be a dream.
She wasn't real.
He tried to say her name, but it came out more of a mangled gasp than anything resembling the English language. She turned around then, and he could hear her heart racing, the sound filling his senses.
It wasn't a dream.
She wasn't a ghost. Ghosts didn't have heartbeats.
But the other Lois Lane did…
Could it be her?
No, the other Lois wouldn't be staring at him, terrified, her heart racing wildly.
"Hi." Her voice was trembling slightly, and she looked as if she'd thought she'd seen a ghost herself.
Clark couldn't say anything. He just stared. It couldn't be true. It just couldn't.
Lois was dead. He'd just spent an hour trying to convince himself that he *could* survive without her. There was no way for her to be standing in his bedroom, looking like… Well, like a living, breathing Lois Lane.
For a long set of moments, the air seemed to be charged. He stood there, frozen as she stared at him, his heart scattering about in his chest like an insect caught in a jar. He tried desperately to read her emotions, searching the deep brown color of her eyes and trying not to get lost. He thought he saw a flash of something there… longing? No. That had to be his imagination. Wishful thinking. Far too many dreams. Her eyes only held fright and more than a touch of wariness.
That was when it hit him. The picture she was holding. He glanced at the frame and back up at her eyes. The spell they both seemed to be under broke and he let out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding.
"Hi," he finally replied, his voice shaky at best.
Awkward was an understatement at this point. All the relief he'd felt from seeing her — realizing that she *was* alive and well and standing in his bedroom — left him then, and was replaced with a sudden sense of dread.
"You must be Lois Lane," he tried cautiously, his voice a little stronger, but still far from normal. Surely she heard his heart pounding.
There was a long moment of silence before she spoke. "How… where… where did you get this?" She offered up the framed picture to him.
"It's a long story, Lo — Ms. Lane. Maybe if you sit down, I can try to explain."
"Wait a minute." The fear he'd seen in her disappeared and was replaced with indignation. "Just who the heck are you, Clark "Superman" Kent? And what game are you trying to play here? How do you know my name? I'll have you know, everyone thinks I'm dead, so how do you even know I'm alive? Where did you get this picture? And… *why* are you looking at me like that?!"
Don't smile, Clark. Smiling would not be good right now. As her last words processed through his mind, he realized that he *was* smiling. He couldn't help it.
She was alive. She was fiery and determined. She was *babbling* in his bedroom. She was glaring at him; actually, giving him the look of death was more accurate. Clark quickly wiped the smile off his face.
"I'm sorry. Why don't I make some coffee? We can sit down and I'll explain everything to you."
She seemed to visibly relax some, though he could tell she was still on edge. He couldn't blame her, considering the circumstances. He was still on edge himself, teetering precariously on the edge of a cliff was more like it.
Why was she here in the first place? He discounted unbelievable luck on his part; that just didn't happen. Clark had half a mind to ask, but he wasn't going to. He didn't want to take the chance of scaring her off, not when she was finally here.
"Here." He gestured in the direction of the living room. "Go ahead and have a seat, and I'll get coffee started." He looked down at himself, suddenly self-conscious in the suit. "And I'll change into something more comfo… something else."
Lois just nodded mutely and made her way to the couch. She took a seat on the far side, the picture frame still gripped firmly in her hands.
"I… uh… I'll just go start the coffee," he stammered.
Great first impression, Clark, he told himself on his way to the kitchen. She was watching him; he could feel her eyes on his back. He must look a sight, measuring coffee grounds wearing loud blue spandex and a flashy red cape. Ostentatious.
He finished quickly and hit the button to start the coffee brewing. He chanced a quick look at Lois — who was suddenly fascinated with the upholstery on the sofa — as he made his way to his bedroom. For the first time since he'd moved here, he wished there was a door to his room to give him a better sense of privacy.
As soon as he was within the semi-privacy of his room, his mind began to spin, as if reality had waited until that moment to hit. Lois was alive.
Lois was here. Alive. And sitting in his living room, negating the sole reason he'd been depressed, suicidal.
Shouldn't he be happier? Shouldn't the feeling of gloom have simply disappeared the moment he'd seen her?
It *should* have.
But it hadn't.
He still felt as though his future was anything but bright and hopeful. Maybe it was because Lois had looked at him with only trepidation bordering on fear. She hadn't fallen into his arms and declared her undying love for him. He…
He *hadn't* fallen in love with her at first sight.
There'd been no fluttering of butterflies, no magic, no fireworks… just the cold, blunt shock of seeing her there in his room. Alive. A little excitement if he admitted it to himself, yes, but nothing like it was supposed to be. The undeniable and shocking reality of it all was too much to handle.
This was all wrong. This wasn't how it was supposed to work.
But then again… Lois Lane wasn't supposed to be alive.
Clark took a shuddering breath and turned to his closet, ignoring the confused and defeated man who was hovering on the periphery of his vision in the full-length mirror.
Was it possible to be depressed and deliriously happy at the same time?
He didn't know whether to sit down and cry with relief or run and hide. Unfortunately, neither of those was an option right now. His frequent dreams *might* have prepared him for this completely unheard-of meeting, but when it came right down to it, he had absolutely no idea how to deal with the situation as it stood now.
He'd have to tell her about the other Lois. But how did you tell someone you had a picture of them because the dead writer H.G. Wells took you to a parallel universe to pretend to be an exact replica of yourself, and while there, you developed feelings for your counterpart's fiancée, who just happens to look exactly like the person you're trying to tell? At least, how could he tell her without having her think that he was an insane psychopath?
Clark closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefingers. He thought he had a headache.
He shook his head. Focus, Clark!
Okay, something to wear. He stared at his closet and his mind drew a blank. *What* did he change into? He eyed a suit for a split second, then shook his head. No, that was stupid. He wanted to impress her, but now was *not* the time for that.
Jeans and a t-shirt. Sure, it was plain and sort of Kansas farm boyish, but it was better than the supersuit.
He changed clothes and then took a deep breath, trying not to think about the fact that this conversation would most likely determine whether or not this Lois would even talk to him again.
Clark entered the living room slowly. She looked up when he neared and stared at him, her mouth hanging open. She shut it quickly, though, and her face went back to the cautious look he'd seen earlier.
He was suddenly very self-conscious. Maybe he shouldn't have changed. For a moment there, he'd thought she might have been looking at him like other women often did when he was in the Suit.
But he'd imagined it. He had to get a grip on his emotions, try and separate his dreams from this all too real nightmare of a reality.
"So…" Clark started as he sat down in the armchair, which was hopefully situated near enough, but not too close to make Lois nervous.
She just stared at him.
"I guess you already know my name is Clark Kent, also known as Superman." His voice came out defeated. He realized something else then… even if everything somehow worked out the way it was *supposed* to, he'd never be "just Clark" with her. He'd never have that.
She only nodded in response, clearly waiting for him to continue.
He sighed heavily and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. The babbling Lois of minutes ago had disappeared, leaving a mute Lois in her place. She wasn't saying anything. In fact, if it weren't for the sound of her racing heart, he might have thought she was an apparition after all. No, she wasn't going to participate in the conversation just yet, so it was up to him. Hopefully, he wouldn't appear a complete lunatic in her eyes.
"Look, Ms. Lane, this story is rather far-fetched and fantastical. I know you probably won't believe me, but it's the truth, and it would probably help if you just let me tell you the entire thing first. Then, if you have any questions, or if you just want to run screaming, you can do that afterwards. Okay?"
She nodded. "Okay, but one thing… Ms. Lane sounds too much like… well, I'd just rather you call me Lois."
Foolishly, his heart jumped a little at that. He used the small morsel of delight to bolster his confidence and tried to convince himself that maybe this wouldn't be so bad.
"Lois… I guess I should start at the beginning and tell you why I became Superman."
Clark sighed again. He hadn't had to think about those two days for a long time, and he wasn't sure what her reaction would be. Would she feel like he'd felt when the other Lois had pulled him into the conference room and laid his life out on the table? No, she didn't have a secret to protect, just the innocence of thinking she was alone in the universe… and that there was only *one* universe.
He saw Lois raise an eyebrow at him, silent askance for him to go on.
"Just over a year ago, I met this woman named Lois Lane." Clark held up a hand to halt her question, but it didn't stop her from narrowing her eyes skeptically at him. "Obviously, she wasn't you. She wasn't an imposter either. She was…"
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "This is where it gets more than a little hard to believe. You see, this Lois Lane was from a parallel universe…"
He watched her face. Yeah, she thought he was a lunatic. Certifiable.
Clark rushed on, knowing if he didn't finish, he'd never be able to, "She's from a universe that's somewhat like ours, but different too. In her world, the Clark Kent is an alien like me, but he came up with the idea of Superman — to use his powers for good. Lois was sent here by a deplorable man who wanted to take over the world."
Looneytunes. That was what he read from the expression on her face. He was, in one word, looneytunes.
He plowed on. "She told me all about her world and encouraged me to become Superman. She ended up going home to her universe a few days later." He paused, and just watched Lois. He so badly wanted her to believe him. If she didn't, he wasn't sure how he'd deal with it.
"Right. So… How did she get here and back?"
Damn. It would be too much to hope that he could leave that part out. "hgwells," he mumbled.
"H.G. Wells," he said, a bit louder this time.
The look of pure cynicism on her face was disheartening.
"Yeah, the dead science fiction writer, H.G. Wells. Turns out there was a slightly larger emphasis on 'science' than 'fiction' in his writing."
"Okay… *If* this is all true, how does it explain you having my picture? Did this other Lois just happen to bring one with her and accidentally leave it here?"
He winced at her sarcasm, though there had been a note of… something in her voice that said she might believe what she'd suggested, given everything else he'd told her. He wondered if she'd buy it. He really didn't want to have to tell her *everything*. That would certainly send her running for the proverbial hills. But on the other hand, did he really want to lie to her, even if only by omission and a little misdirection? *Could* he lie to her?
As she sat and waited for his answer, Lois didn't know what to think or what to believe. When she'd seen the picture, she'd been shocked, scared. Just who was this Clark Kent anyway? And *how* did he have a picture of her that she couldn't, for the life of her, remember having been taken? Before she'd been able to contemplate that further, he'd shown up, startling her. She was an intruder in his house, and she'd been sure she was on her way to jail. But at the same time, she'd been struck by the sight of him. The man she'd foolishly fantasized having a future with. And he'd just stood there, looking for all the world like he'd seen a ghost — which, considering her current status, wasn't too far from the truth.
Then he'd said her name. He'd known her name. Which, given the picture she'd been holding — the one she was still holding — shouldn't have been that much of a shock. But the way he'd been looking at her, the gaze she'd caught a glimpse of a few times since, there was something about that she couldn't quite discern. She'd been scared, and the first thing that had come out of her mouth had been a shaky question about the picture, which he'd avoided answering. The question to which she was still awaiting the answer.
Though, how could she be sure she could believe what he was telling her? Not just this answer, but all of it. H.G. Wells? Parallel universes? An exact double of herself? And of him? She studied him carefully. He was avoiding eye contact for the most part, as if he didn't want to tell her. Sure, she'd been a little harsh, having resorted to sarcasm, but what else was she supposed to think?
His eyes finally met hers.
"This other Lois… changed my life…"
She waited for him to go on. For some reason, this was difficult for him to say.
"I just… I guess I needed something to remember her by."
The silence hung in the air uncomfortably when he finished. A pang of jealousy hit her. An irrational one.
She stared down at the picture in her hands. She wasn't sure what to believe. It *did* explain why she didn't remember having the picture taken, and as she looked closely at this other Lois, she could see subtle differences. Nothing big, but she could tell that the eyes of the woman staring back at her told a different story from the life Lois herself had lived. Happier.
Or maybe she was just imagining things. She *wanted* to believe Clark. For reasons she couldn't understand. Maybe it was the way he looked at her, like there was something special about her. Or maybe it was the emotion in his voice as he'd told her, the slight desperation, longing, for her to believe him. The idea of parallel universes was hard to fathom, but then again, so was the fact that a man could fly.
She looked up at him, meeting his eyes. What she found there startled her. He was pleading with her, begging her to trust him. Why was it so important to him? Something — she wasn't sure what it was — told her to trust him. "I believe you," she blurted on impulse.
She wasn't sure why, but she *did* believe him. Maybe it was that instinct of hers, fighting its way back slowly…
Or maybe… maybe it was because she needed him not to be crazy. She needed his help.
He sighed and she watched the tension drain from his body. "Thank you, Lois."
Silence stretched between them again, but this time it wasn't nearly as awkward. Lois set the picture down on the coffee table. That was a mistake. She had the sudden urge to fidget now. Not that she was nervous. She wasn't.
She almost jumped at the sound of his deep voice breaking the silence.
"I was really surprised to find you here…"
Shoot. She'd just remembered that she was in his apartment because she had *broken* in. Maybe, with any luck, that wasn't what he'd meant. She watched him carefully, hoping she wasn't giving away anything herself, as she tried to read his mind. The look on his face… maybe he wasn't worried about how she got in. Maybe it was something else… No, that look faded quickly. She swallowed. He was going to ask. Whatever had been on his mind a second ago wasn't anymore.
"Did I leave the door unlocked or something? I can't remember because I actually used the window for the first time in a while…" He trailed off, seemingly embarrassed.
Why was he embarrassed? He flew. There was nothing wrong with using the window as an exit if you flew. She wondered for a moment whether she should lie and say yes, but he'd been nothing but honest with her. "Um… no. I kind of… let myself in."
His brow furrowed. "Oh?"
"I picked your lock," she admitted sheepishly and braced herself for his anger. But he only smiled, and suddenly she was self-conscious. "What?"
"Nothing. It's just… funny, is all."
"Funny? I broke into your apartment, Clark! Aren't you mad?"
He shook his head, the smile still on his face. "No…"
"And furthermore, shouldn't you really have better security? I mean, don't people just break in and snoop to find out more about you. You *are* Superman."
"Yeah, I know. But we've kind of come to an understanding. They've calmed down a bit, the reporters and the gossip mongers. They respect my space and privacy, and I give them some of the exclusives on my rescues." He gave a somewhat defeated sigh. "And, well, I guess they've learned that there just isn't any more that they're going to learn. At least not from digging through my apartment."
That made sense, she supposed. Just because *she* didn't know anything about the man, didn't mean that everyone else was just as clueless. He'd been around for the better part of a year, after all.
She nodded. "Right. Makes sense."
"I… I am a little curious… as to why *you* broke in, though…"
Oh. Right. The reason she'd come in the first place. The letter. The favor she had to ask of him. Unfortunately, it didn't explain why she'd been *inside* his apartment and snooping around. "I… uh… I didn't think you were home. The paper said you'd gone on some sort of vacation and I was just going to leave a note for you because I wanted to ask…" She looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. "I wanted to ask a favor of you."
"Oh? What's that?"
Relieved that he'd momentarily overlooked her not telling him the actual reason she'd broken in, she looked up at him. The look on his face surprised her. He was leaning forward in his seat, a look of genuine concern, like he *wanted* to help. Actually, like all she had to do was say jump and he'd ask how high. Or maybe she was imagining it. "Well…" She hesitated.
"Really, Lois, it's okay. I don't mind. I'd love to help you."
There it was again. That look. But this time it faded quickly.
"It's my job to help people."
Right. She was just another citizen in need, and he was the resident superhero. "But you're on vacation, I'd really hate to be an inconvenience." Why was she waffling? She really did need his help, and here he was offering it to her. She regarded him shyly. He had a strange look on his face, almost… sad… but not. Wistful, maybe?
"Well… my vacation actually might be over now…" He stared out the window for a moment before he turned back to her. "Regardless, I'd like to help you. What's the problem, Lois?"
She ignored the little shiver she'd gotten when he'd said her name, and tucked her hair behind her ear. Just ask him, Lois, he *wants* to help. "I… well… you seem to know who I am. Do you know where I've been?"
A shadow seemed to pass over him. He looked so… anguished.
"No. I don't… or didn't. Still don't…" He ran his hands through his hair and started again. "Last I heard, you'd gone to the Congo to investigate illegal gunrunning."
"Right." She eyed him carefully. She was confused by his reaction, but at the same time, she felt an enormous sense of sadness, almost like she could feel what he was feeling… But that was nonsense. She couldn't experience his emotions any more than he could hers. Besides, why would it matter to him what had happened to her? Why did he look so torn apart? Because he was Superman? Did he torture himself with the knowledge that he couldn't save everyone? That anyone who suffered should blame him for not having been there? From the look on his face right now, though, she could tell he was trying to mask his emotions. It seemed he *did* believe that.
That thought saddened her. It was almost unbelievable that someone so super, with his powers and abilities, would be miserable at all. But it made sense. She could only imagine the horrors that he'd witnessed, all the people he hadn't saved. And how that must eat away at him day after day. She suddenly had the urge to give him a hug, but she refrained, her mind flashing to the picture sitting on his mantle. He had a fiancée, and that bothered her more than she wanted to admit to herself.
Put the fantasy away, Lane.
Where was she? Congo. Gunrunning. She looked over at Clark, hoping he hadn't been irritated by her silence, but was surprised to find him lost in thought. Or, more likely, bad memories. Or maybe she was just projecting her thoughts on to him. She didn't want to think about the Congo again. It was too soon. But she'd brought it up, and he needed to know.
She'd startled him, though he'd tried to hide it.
"Right," he said, bringing his eyes back to hers. "The Congo."
She tried not to see the grief in his stare. He didn't really care that much. He couldn't know what she'd been through. Even if he did, there was no guarantee that he'd care. Pity. He'd probably pity her. She didn't want that. Selfishly, foolishly, she wanted him to understand. She wanted him to care that she'd gone through hell and back. That it hadn't been her fault.
He was still staring at her, waiting for her to go on. She swallowed. "I… Back in 93, I got a gre -" Great. It was far from great. She knew that now. "I got a lead that there was an elaborate gunrunning operation under wraps in the Congo. They said the mastermind behind it all was most likely running things from the States, but all the action was in the Congo. That was where the story was. The clues that would lead me back to the person running it all." The person she'd been so close to finding the day they'd captured her. She closed her eyes and tried not to cry. There was no reason to cry. It was over with.
She knew they'd still be after her. She opened her eyes again and took a deep breath. Clark was still staring, but instead of grief, she saw… compassion. Why did his eyes have to be so caring?
"So, I'm guessing you didn't find him?"
Oh. Right. "No. I thought I'd been close, actually, I must have been close because they caught me." She prayed that super hearing wasn't one of his special abilities. She didn't want him to hear her heart running in erratic circles, her breath growing ragged. It was too soon. Too soon to relive all this.
"You… they held you captive for three years?!"
He looked horrified. Incredulous. And why not? The oh so great Lois Lane, beaten at her own game and made victim for three years and counting.
He was… shocked and edgy. He was uncomfortable, she could tell. It hadn't been her fault! She was *still* Lois Lane. And she'd escaped! She'd made it. It'd taken her over a year to get back after that, but she'd made it.
He stood abruptly. "Coffee should be ready by now," he announced. He barely waited for her nod before he escaped to the kitchen.
Clark's hands shook as he pulled two coffee mugs from the cabinet. She'd been alive. All this time. It hadn't really hit him until now. Three years! Three years she'd been a prisoner in a war-torn country. He didn't even want to imagine the horrors inflicted on her.
The mugs rattled as he set them down on the counter. He couldn't stop shaking.
A whole year he'd let her suffer. Why hadn't he looked harder? Why hadn't he torn apart the damned jungle looking for her? Why hadn't he found her?
Years. He'd wasted years of his life without her. And the last year… after the other Lois had left…
The past few days… or had it been a week?
He'd nearly killed himself, dammit, and she'd been alive all this time.
And now she was sitting in his living room, probably offended at how rude he'd just been. He hadn't been able to help it. Everything had assaulted him at once. He'd needed to get away. Be alone.
He'd needed distance from her. The last thing he'd ever imagined needing from Lois Lane — not that he'd ever thought he'd meet her, let alone have her sitting on his couch. Nor had he imagined he would be sorely tempted to ask her to leave.
This was too much to handle. He needed space. Time to think. He couldn't think with her around.
He closed his eyes and leant his head back, forcing the tears to stay put. He took in a deep, ragged breath, trying to calm himself, and her heartbeat filled his ears. It startled him at first, but it was strangely calming after a moment. Except… it was getting steadily louder.
She was behind him.
He pasted a smile on his face and turned around. "Coffee's ready."
"Clark…" she started nervously.
A knapsack he hadn't noticed before was slung over her shoulder. She wanted to leave. His heart sank. Even though he'd just wished she wasn't there, he was suddenly desperate for her to stay. "Yes, Lois?"
He heard her heart skip a beat. Jumpy. She was jumpy. On edge. Because of him, how he'd just treated her.
"I… I should probably just go. I've taken up too much of your time and I should just really…"
"No!" he blurted. He rushed on, trying not to notice her startled look, "You don't have to go. Really, Lois. I don't mind at all. I really do want to help you… If you'll let me."
"Oh." The sound was more of a shape on her lips than anything audible.
This was wrong. All wrong. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He was supposed to be happy, dammit. Lois was supposed to be hesitant, yet intrigued. She didn't want to be here. He was warring with his emotions, wanting her to go, but stay at the same time. This was supposed to be a dream come true.
It was a nightmare.
One of those bad dreams in which something awful was happening to someone you loved you and you just couldn't move fast enough. Everything was in slow motion and you wished and tried with all your might, but no matter what you did, you still couldn't make it in time.
Never in time.
He'd had that nightmare countless times. Lois. *His* Lois. Dying. A bullet. A cliff. A knife. A wild animal.
He'd never been able to make it.
And she'd always died.
Now she was here… but he still couldn't move.
It was like his heart was stuck in slow motion; and no matter how desperately he wished for it, there was no way it'd ever make it to the right place.
She fidgeted and shifted her weight to her other foot, catching his attention.
A deep pull in his gut made a decision for him.
He didn't want her to go.
What if this *was* only a dream — even if it was a nightmare — and he never saw her again? Or worse yet, what if it *wasn't* a dream and he let her walk out of his life forever? He wasn't sure anymore what was supposed to happen, but he knew one thing for certain. He didn't want her to go.
She looked at him, the uncertainty evident in her eyes.
"Please stay. I know it's probably more than a little… daunting, what with everything I've told you, but I really would like to help you and…"
I can't stand the thought of you not being in my life. I can't stand the thought that I should have saved you years ago, and I'd give anything to be able to save you now.
He tried to swallow the emotion, the uncertainty that was biting at his voice. "And I'd really like to get to know you."
She didn't say anything for a long moment, and he was worried that he might have said too much, but finally she spoke.
He felt some of the tension ease out of his muscles, but the rest remained. He couldn't think of anything to say. And now the awkwardness stretched between them. Clark glanced nervously over to the clock on the wall. Four a.m.
He hadn't realized how late it was. Though, to tell the truth, he wasn't even sure what day it was, he'd spent so long in his misery.
He looked back at Lois.
Misery that had all been for nothing. Or so it seemed.
She was here.
She was alive.
And she was yawning.
He glanced at the clock again. "It's late, Lois. Actually… it's early. Maybe I should take you home and we can discuss everything later."
She smiled weakly at him. "Yeah, I guess I am a little tired."
"I don't have a car, but I could walk you home… or fly you, really, that would probably be better…"
"No. No, that's okay. I'll be fine. I'll just… come by tomorrow?"
He watched her glance around uneasily. She didn't want him to see where she was staying. It was probably better that way. Walking… or flying… with her would have been awkward and he wasn't sure he could handle it. But that didn't mean he wouldn't follow her home from the skies. He'd be damned if he let anything happen to her now that she was finally here. Even if his heart was conflicted.
He nodded. "Anytime you like, Lois. I'll be here. You… You do have a place to stay, right? I mean, I just want to make sure I'm not sending yo-"
"Yeah." She cut him off and nodded. "I have a place to stay. I'll be fine, thanks."
He nodded. He was unusually relieved by that. Having her stay here, in his apartment where the sound of her heartbeat would reassure him that she was real, would have been comforting. But all the same, it would have been more than awkward. They couldn't even hold a conversation, let alone share an apartment. It was better this way.
It was on the tip of his tongue to offer again to take her home, but he didn't. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Right." She smiled that weak smile again and they both stood there awkwardly for a moment before she finally moved towards the door.
It seemed she was moving in slow motion as she reached for and turned the doorknob. Then all of a sudden, the world sped up again and she was gone, her timid "Goodnight, Clark" echoing in his ears.
She was gone.
He was rooted to the spot for what seemed like an eternity, certain that if he moved, he'd wake up and find that she'd never really been here. But when he searched through the walls to find her, she was right outside, descending the steps of his apartment building.
Still intent on his resolve to see her home safely, he spun back into the Suit and took off through the window. He stayed in the clouds high above her and matched her pace as she wandered down the street. His heart sank when he saw her final destination.
The Apollo Motel.
Clark hovered high above the derelict motel. He really should go home. She was safely in her room now and there was no longer an excuse for him to be there. The neighborhood wasn't terribly safe, sure, but it was close enough to his place that he'd hear her if she needed him. No reason for him to stay. No reason for him to watch her as she kicked off her shoes and threw down her backpack. No reason for him to watch her crawl into bed and pull the covers around her tightly as she curled up. No reason for him to listen as she started to cry. Worst of all, there was no reason for him to go down and hold her until all her pain went away.
The sound of her sobs killed him, more so than the other Lois's tears had ever hurt. They reminded him of his tears. His pain. His anguish. And suddenly, he couldn't take it. He couldn't listen and be reminded of everything he'd been trying not to think about ever since he'd flown into his bedroom and found her there. He shot into the stratosphere and headed east towards the sun, stopping only when he could no longer hear her crying. Though the sound wouldn't leave his head. It was etched there, carved into his memory. And there was nothing he could do to erase it.
Lois hugged the pillow tightly as she sobbed. She could only see half of the motel room from her curled up position, but it still depressed her. Everything was blurry through her tears. Muted. The kitchenette that had earlier filled her with a sense of comfort was only discouraging now. The grungy table sat empty and alone, save for one small wooden chair, and the refrigerator, nauseatingly green, wouldn't stop rattling.
Lois turned over hastily, facing the wall and the opaque window, covered in dirt and grime that robbed her of any connection to the outside world. The light bulb flickered and cast alternating shadows on the walls, an all too frightening reminder of firelight throwing ominous shapes against thick trees. The rusty water stains on the wall made it feel like the darkness outside was creeping slowly in.
She couldn't stay here anymore. Not after tonight. It wasn't her. This wasn't Lois Lane.
Lois Lane didn't stay in cheap motels; she stayed at the Lexor. Lois Lane didn't have to worry about how she was going to afford her next meal. Lois Lane didn't need to ask for help, for anything. Lois Lane didn't ever feel lonely or helpless. And most certainly, Lois Lane didn't cry.
All the tears shed in the last few nights, the last few *years*, those were someone else's tears. Someone she'd thought she'd left behind in the Congo, but Lois had been followed. She shuddered at the analogy. The weak and tired woman hadn't been the only one to chase her back from the Congo. She was sure of it. It was only a matter of time before they found her.
Stupid. Why had she come back to Metropolis? They weren't dumb. They'd have planted someone here to keep an eye out for her. But she'd *needed* to come here. Metropolis was the only place she could reestablish her identity, come back from the dead. Not to mention the hope… however foolish it may be… that she could rebuild her life, too.
Yes. Metropolis was the only place she could have come to. This was her home. They'd taken three years of her life, everything from her. She sure as hell wasn't going to let them take anything else. Metropolis was *her* home, dammit, and she was staying. The Planet was here. Perry was here. Her family — though dead and buried — was here. Superman was here. She needed his help to get to the bottom of all this. She just wished she didn't have to spend another night in this wretched room.
But what choice did she have? Perry was out of town for at least another week. Not that she was dependent on him for money, nor did she need him to vouch for her authenticity when going about proving herself alive again… at least on paper.
Oh, who was she kidding? She longed for someone to validate her existence. Someone to say, "Oh, thank God you're alive, Lois!"
She sniffled. Maybe it was selfish of her to want that. She'd been dead and gone for three years. Would anyone now even recognize her name?
Clark had. But only because of some God-awful twist of fate that had brought a different Lois Lane to his door. One who obviously meant a great deal to him, otherwise he wouldn't have been so stunned instead of angry to find a strange woman in his apartment. Maybe those flashes of longing she'd seen in his eyes had been meant for her, the other Lois. Surely it would be confusing to have an exact double of someone dear to you mere feet away, and surely trying to remain stoic about it would be even worse of a trial.
He obviously admired the other Lois. Lois was certain that her counterpart held a special place in Clark's heart. A counterpart she clearly didn't match up to. Any illusion of similarity had been shattered when she'd revealed how weak and foolish she'd been.
Which didn't make any sense, anyway. Why would that upset him unless…
Unless he loved the other Lois.
Maybe that was why he'd been so upset. At first in his bedroom, then later after she'd said… too much. He'd realized it wasn't *her* standing in his bedroom. He'd been distant. Distracted. Thinking of the other Lois? Then later, he'd been horrified. Had he been comparing her to her counterpart? Finding her wanting?
That didn't make sense either.
She wasn't some replacement Lois, nor was it true that just because she was Lois Lane she was meant to be with him.
*That* was a ridiculous notion.
But whatever the reasons for his stunned reaction, he'd changed his mind. Or had done a pretty good job at hiding his dismay and shock. He'd made a heartfelt plea for her to stay, actually convinced her that he *did* care. About *her*.
Oh, she hoped it was true. She hoped he really did feel *something* for her, even if it was just concern for her well being.
Lois Lane hated to admit it, but she needed help. Clark's help. And she was starting to realize she'd need his help for more than just putting an end to the mess in the Congo.
She needed money. Or a place to stay. Or both. But she loathed the thought that he might consider her a charity case. She really needed to get a start on putting her life back together, and soon. She hated feeling so helpless and alone.
Though… she guessed she wasn't alone anymore, not in the grander sense. There was another universe. Another Lois Lane. Actually, there could be hundreds of Lois Lanes. Lois Lane was a dime a dozen. The thought only made her feel more isolated.
She'd known coming home wasn't going to be easy, but she would never have imagined she'd be faced with anything she'd been hit with in the last few hours. Parallel universes. H.G. Wells. Counterparts. An evil man trying to take over the world.
And then there was the niggling feeling somewhere inside that she just might be in love with Clark Kent.
For the first time in days, Clark couldn't sleep.
He walked over to the window and stared out. The window he'd flown through just hours ago, only to have his life turned upside down once again by Lois Lane. The sky was clear tonight, with lots of stars in evidence. Thousands of little orbs twinkling merrily at him, oblivious to how he was feeling.
The stars took on a different meaning tonight than they had just the night before. Instead of making him feel so isolated, they were… more hopeful?
No, not really.
But they didn't make him feel suffocatingly lonely anymore. That was something, wasn't it?
Hundreds, maybe thousands of other planets out there, so the astronomers said. Why had he had to end up on this one, where Lois Lane belonged? Why couldn't he have been sent to… oh, that one over there, the fifth star on the right above the Carver building?
A planet uninhabited by Lois Lanes. Now that would be a comfortable place to be.
But boring. And utterly, completely empty.
What was it that poet had said? Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
But that wasn't the problem. He realized now that as much as it had felt like it, he hadn't really been in love with the first Lois. Lust. Attraction. Some kind of inexplicable echo of a connection between them. But he hadn't been in love with her.
And now that *his* Lois was here… he wasn't in love with her either.
Clark flung the window shut, only holding back enough so it wouldn't shatter. What was wrong with him?!
This wasn't how it was supposed to be!
Hours ago, he'd finally gathered himself together and dragged himself home. A pathetic excuse for a person, let alone a superhero. After an hour of crying and convincing himself that if he did have to live, the least he could to was make a decent attempt at it. He hadn't been sure if he would have the energy for it, but he'd decided he was too much of a coward to… do it. So he'd flown home, intent on doing… *something*. Anything besides being worthless.
Then he'd flown into his bedroom and saw her there. It'd been like a cold bucket of water being thrown in his face, shocking him and robbing him of the air in his lungs. Everything had halted. The world had stopped turning.
There she'd stood, the sole cause of all his misery and anguish.
Or so he'd thought.
Because, if she'd been the reason behind it all, shouldn't he be thrilled? Elated? Shouldn't all of his grief and despair have just vanished?
By all rights, it should have.
But it hadn't.
And now he was feeling something he'd never imagined possible. He resented Lois Lane. Both of them.
The Lois of the other universe had shown him what it could be like. Shown him that true love — a love so deep one could drown if he or she weren't careful — did exist. For some. She'd shown him just how perfect, how meant to be, Lois Lane and Clark Kent were for each other.
But not every Lois Lane and Clark Kent.
He resented his Lois.
He flinched. She wasn't *his*.
He resented the Lois of this universe. Why was she here if she wasn't his to love? Wasn't this Lois and Clark thing supposed to be love at first sight? He wasn't supposed to have a feeling of dread or fear in the pit of his stomach. He wasn't supposed to feel hopeless still.
Though… that wasn't entirely true. There had been moments tonight when he'd felt almost giddy. Or delirious. He wasn't sure which. He didn't know what happy meant anymore, but his heart *had* beat a little faster when she'd said his name. The thud of the door closing as it marked her departure had stung. And when she'd cried…
It'd hurt, and he'd felt an ache far more intense than he had when he'd been in the other universe with the other Lois. That had to mean something, right? Or was it only because she was a Lois and he was a Clark? He'd felt the connection with the other Lois, but he hadn't been in love with her.
If only there was someway he coul -
<<Oh, God, please don't hurt me!>>
A piercing shriek.
Oh, God, not now. Please not now. He wasn't ready. He couldn't -
A muffled whimper, <<Someone please help me.>>
Clark shot out the window and towards the place where he'd heard the cries — the desperate pleas that had since gone silent, but for a faint sobbing.
Oh, God, don't let him be too late.
He spotted a man in a dark alley just blocks from the Apollo Motel.
Oh, God. Oh, God.
The man was hastily unfastening his pants and the brunette below him was whimpering from underneath the hand that covered her mouth.
Clark dove and tore the man away from her, tossing him against the brick wall. He stared at the woman lying prone on the ground, her skirt bunched up around her waist.
It wasn't Lois.
Thank God it wasn't Lois.
He was grounded to the spot, frozen with fear. He watched the woman pull her skirt down, still sobbing softly as she did. She was shivering. Clark shook himself and reached for his cape to offer it to her.
He wasn't wearing it.
He'd forgotten to change.
The woman stood stiffly and brought her gaze to his. "Th-thank you, sir." He watched her glance nervously in the direction of her attacker. "Is he… is he unconscious?"
His limbs were leaden and he turned uneasily towards the man as if this were a horrible nightmare and he could only move in slow motion. The would-be rapist was out cold.
His head snapped back to where the woman was standing; she was staring at him questioningly.
She had her arms wrapped around herself tightly, but she seemed to be more curious than shaken at the moment. He watched her take in his appearance — jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers — and stare at him a bit incredulously. "Superman, is that you?"
He nodded. Or at least he thought he had, but she didn't give any indication that he'd even moved. "Y-yeah." He cleared his throat. "Yes."
The barest of smiles touched her lips and she spoke softly, "Thank you for saving me. A-and… Welcome back, Superman. We've missed you."
He'd managed to escort the young woman home without any questions regarding his appearance or *re*appearance. Maybe the gravity of what had almost happened to her had finally sunk in. Or maybe she'd been taken aback by his unexpected return and shaky attempt at heroism.
Still on auto-pilot, he'd gone back to the alley to collect the rapist and drop him off at the police station with only a hurried explanation to the officers on duty, and the contact number for the victim.
He hadn't been able to stay. He hadn't been sure how to respond to their questions or hearty "Welcome backs." They'd tried not to stare at his outward appearance or his insecure demeanor, but he could tell they'd been regarding him carefully, not sure what to make of their newly returned "super" hero.
It hadn't been the stares or the unarticulated questions that had fueled his hasty departure. It'd been the door. The door to the evidence room. As he flew home slowly, trying not to tremble, he couldn't erase the image of the thick steel door from his mind.
It'd stared at him. Taunted him. Callously reminded him that he was a coward. A failure.
He hadn't been able to go through with… killing himself, but he sure as hell wasn't succeeding at living either.
Clark neared his window and tensed. It was broken. He was just about to scan his apartment for an intruder when it hit him.
He hadn't bothered to open the window before he'd shot out.
He bit his lower lip and floated inside, stepping on the few shards of glass that had managed to find their way inside from the outward shattering of the window.
Clark sank to the couch in defeat. He was officially back now. He had to be. No getting around it. The morning papers were sure to have the story. He wondered how long it would be before the reporters swarmed back, demanding everything. Where'd he been? Why had he left? Why hadn't he been in the Suit when he'd rescued the woman?
He didn't want to answer those questions. He *couldn't* answer those questions. He didn't want to be back. Not yet. He was scared. He wasn't ready. He couldn't be Superman. Not now. Not when he was feeling so… not super.
He hadn't even been able to do it right! He'd barreled out of his window — breaking it in the process — in his *jeans* and t-shirt! And the rescue itself? He'd been a certifiable wreck. Trembling. Petrified. Idiotic. He'd handled it all wrong, and made a fool of himself in the process.
How was he supposed to face the world? There was no turning back now; he had to be back. He had to be Superman again. The hero he'd never really been confident being.
What business did he have helping the world in the state he was in? And what business did he have helping Lois? She clearly wanted help from Superman, not Clark. Not that she'd treated him like that, but she was a journalist already, far more qualified and accomplished than he. She didn't need him for his investigative skills; she needed his powers, his resources. Which didn't bother him, but for the fact he was useless as a superhero.
The woman he'd saved… she might think differently, but she was just one person. He was responsible for the whole of Metropolis, not to mention the world, and he was no longer sure it was something he could handle. The good and well-being of the world was centered squarely on his shoulders.
And it was suffocating him.
Lois had woken up early that morning, surprised that she'd been able to sleep at all. Things still didn't look as clear. It was all a confusing mess. But she felt a bit calmer. Or maybe she was just numb. Too many emotions to deal with, so she just wasn't dealing at all.
She still needed Clark's help, though, and she had said she'd be over. She had the funny feeling that if she didn't go over, he'd come looking for her.
So that was why she was currently walking — probably a bit too slow — over to his apartment. She turned the corner onto Clinton Street and halted.
Reporters. A whole slew of them. Vans, cameras, and hundreds of reporters — all gathered outside 344 Clinton Street. Oh, lord! What had happened? There hadn't been any reporters last night.
<Well… my vacation actually might be over now…>
Right. He was back. Of course the mass media would be all over that. Superman was big news.
He'd said she could come over. Anytime. He'd been so sincere. Why would he have chosen to announce his return today? He should have known that she wouldn't want to walk through a throng of news hungry heathens, unless… he hadn't really meant it. No. He'd meant it, she was sure of it. So he'd obviously just not thought about her when he'd done it.
That was okay. Really. She shouldn't expect to be on his mind his every waking moment. He had a life, other things he needed to get done, including announcing his return.
But why today? Why the day he'd said she could come over?
Lois eyed the vultures warily. They were hungry, anxious. Her brow furrowed. That didn't seem right. If Clark had announced his return, wouldn't he have held a press conference for that? And then afterwards, surely, the reporters would camp outside his apartment looking for follow-up stories, but…
She edged closer to the herd and her breath caught in her throat.
One of the reporters bellowed, startling her. "Open up, Kent! We know you're back!"
"Yeah, you owe us the story!"
She gasped. He *hadn't* announced it. Now, more than ever, she wanted to know what had happened. What had he done between the time she'd left and now to alert them to his presence? And… Why wasn't he answering them?
A sudden pang of concern for him shot through her. She knew as well as anyone that the media were relentless, callous, unforgiving. Something must have happened that he didn't want them to know about. Something he wasn't willing to talk to them about. But what? Surely he must be used to this kind of attention; he'd been Superman for… How long had the article said? Over a year now?
The real question now was — how was she going to get in there? She really didn't want to draw attention to herself, not like this. As much as she'd been dying to be alive again, this was not how she wanted to make her comeback. Besides, she couldn't afford to have her picture in the paper — not when it'd be associated with Superman. All around the world. Everyone would read it. Everyone including the people she was hiding from.
So barreling through was not an option.
Other options? She had none. Not a single one. His apartment was covered at every angle. She didn't have his phone number, and it was certainly no guarantee that he'd answer. He no doubt had his phone unplugged by this point.
She was good on her feet, thinking on her toes. She was good under pressure, thrived on it. Or… at least she had been.
But she was stuck now. Between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Lois turned and headed back to the Apollo. Stupid. She was stupid to have even entertained that small notion of hope she'd had that Clark would be able to help her. He clearly wasn't an option anymore, not unless she could figure out a way to get to him without being spotted by the media hounds.
Maybe it'd been a mistake to come back to Metropolis. Maybe she just should have picked up and started a new life somewhere else. Somewhere where no one had ever heard of the late great Lois Lane. Just forget about the gunrunners. Let them do as they will and hope they never found her.
But no, Mad Dog Lane was still hiding somewhere within, and she was screaming at the injustice of it all. Demanding that the wrongs be put right and the criminals in jail where they belonged. She had to do it. *Would* do it.
She just needed to find Clark Kent first.
Lois dug her room key out of her pocket as she approached her room. She paused and stared at the splintered wood to the left of the lock.
Someone had broken in.
She un-shouldered her backpack and quickly dug out the old pocket knife that had served her well in the Congo, opening up the blade as soon as she had it in her hands. Lois slung the bag back over her shoulder and pocketed the key, leaving her one hand free to wield the knife and the other to open the door. She tensed as she slowly turned the knob and pushed the door inward, expecting an attack, but nothing prepared her for what she actually found. Sitting in the corner against the far wall was… Clark Kent.
"Clark! You scared the hel-"
She stopped mid-rant when she saw the look on his face. Agonized. Helpless. The look pierced right through to her heart. She slammed the door shut behind her and rushed over to his side.
He buried his head in his hands and rested his elbows on his knees. "I… I'm sorry. I shouldn't be here. I… just didn't…"
"Know where else to go. It's okay."
She shrugged out of her backpack and tossed it to the side. Sinking to the floor next to him, she put a hand on his arm, drawing his attention. "Tell me what happened, Clark."
He almost rejoiced in the tingle that coursed through him when she'd touched him. Almost. He shouldn't have come here. It was unfair to her. Just because she was the rightful Lois of this universe didn't mean that he could use her, take advantage of her compassion. He shouldn't need it anyway. He shouldn't have flinched awake this morning when the reporters had started pounding on his door.
He shouldn't have cowered in his bedroom, fearful of the people that were only doing their jobs. The same job he'd used to thrive on.
Before the other Lois Lane had come and everything had gone to hell.
Now, his… the Lois of his universe was here, sitting next to him on the floor of a cheap motel room, looking at him with such concern. Like she actually cared. About him.
He met her eyes, patient and caring. He wanted to tell her. *Longed* to tell her. Everything. But he didn't even know what to say. There was so much… too much.
He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but nothing came out but a strangled whimper. And the next thing he knew, he was in her arms. He wasn't even sure when he'd started crying, but she was there, comforting him.
Hours later… or maybe it'd been minutes — he wasn't sure — he straightened, and swiped at his eyes. "Some Superman, huh?"
"Hey." Her voice was soft. Soothing. "Don't, Clark. Your feelings are just as valid as anyone's — Superman or no — maybe even more so. It's okay to cry. Now, do you want to talk about what happened after I left last night?"
That did it; that broke the dam, and it all poured out. The call for help. The way he'd been so inept. Forgotten to change. The police. The reporters. The long year he'd spent floundering in his misery and trying to be the superhero he was sure he'd never be.
Though… he didn't tell her why. He couldn't bring himself to tell her *she* was the reason he'd been so depressed. He couldn't tell her about the endless and hopeless year he'd spent searching for her. He didn't tell her about the Kryptonite either. He wouldn't. No one else would ever know about that — his failure at life. His failure at death. His failure at everything.
She didn't press for more, though, and he was grateful for that. He couldn't give her more. Especially when it might drive her away from him.
"So why were you so… depressed for so long?"
Fate just didn't like him.
Clark swiped at his eyes and sniffled, hating that he'd cried, been so weak in front of her. He cleared his throat. "I… it's… none of your business," he stammered with no real conviction behind his words. It *was* her business… in a way.
She straightened and her hand dropped from where it'd been resting on his arm this whole time, the distance she'd created between them cut harshly at him. "Oh. Okay. I understand."
She clearly didn't. And why would she? He'd been the one to come to her, seeking… comfort? He'd been the one to cry on her shoulder. He'd just told her some of his most private thoughts and emotions. Why shouldn't he tell her more?
"I'm sorry, Lois. It's… not that I don't trust you… it's that… well, I don't think I'm ready to share. Someday. Just… not now. I hope you can understand."
He was relieved when she relaxed visibly and nodded. "It's okay, Clark. I understand."
She smiled reassuringly at him. He attempted one in return… at least half of his mouth had made the upward journey.
"Do you think… would it be okay if I stayed here? I'll sleep on the floor, obviously. I just don't want to go back to my apartment. I'm not ready to talk to the media."
Her warm smile faltered and she looked away from him, focusing on her ratty old backpack. Mistake. "I'm sorry, Lois. I shouldn't have asked. Never mind. Don't worry about it."
Her head snapped back quickly. "No, Clark. That's not it. It's just…" She ducked her head. Her voice was low and he had to strain a bit to hear it. "I don't have any money left. I actually need to check out soon…"
"Oh, God, Lois! Of course, why didn't I think of that? I'm sorry. I didn't even think about when you'd gotten back, why you were staying here. I'm such an idiot!"
"No, Clark. It's okay, really. I just… well, all my money, everything is gone. I've been dead. It'll take a while, but I'll get everything sorted out."
He could tell by the slight tremor in her voice… she was putting on a false bravado for him. "Lois, I have money. I'll give you some. And…" And what? She could stay at his place? No. Not with all the news-hungry reporters there. Not to mention *he* didn't even want to be there.
"Oh, Clark, I couldn't. I…" She ducked her head shamefully. "I'll pay you back. Every cent. I just… need to figure out how to get myself considered alive again. I was hoping, thinking that Perry would be able to help me, tell me what I need to do. But he's out of town. And I had to pawn my favorite necklace — the one my grandmother gave me — to even have the money to stay here. And -"
"Hey." Clark stroked her cheek with the back of his hand and waited until she looked at him. "Don't worry, Lois, I'll help you. Everything will be okay, I promise."
He wasn't sure what possessed him to do it, but somehow… of its own volition, his body swayed closer to hers and before he knew it, his lips were against hers. Soft and pliant. Welcoming. He threaded his fingers through her hair and moaned softly when her lips parted, allowing him to explore her further. It seemed like hours… touching, tasting, gasping for breath.
He finally pulled away, keeping his hand on her cheek.
He watched Lois flush breathlessly under his gaze, and he *knew* at that moment… she was *his* Lois Lane. No doubts. At least… no doubt about the fact that she was the rightful Lois of this universe.
And something about that kiss… something that he couldn't quite grasp a hold of. Something that was just out of his reach.
Clark let his hand fall to his lap and just stared at Lois. He couldn't do anything else. The heat in her cheeks. The slightly dazed and dreamy look in her eyes. The cadence of her breathing.
It scared him.
That feeling that maybe, just maybe, there could be a happily ever after here. Scared. Him. To. Death.
And then there was the feeling somewhere deep in his gut that something was wrong.
He shouldn't have kissed her.
Not that it hadn't been breathtaking, maybe even a tiny bit magical… but he shouldn't have done it.
"I'm sorry, Lois, I… that was a mistake."
She blinked, and ducked her head. "Yeah, no… You're right… but it's okay, really. We're both pretty emotional. It's not a big deal. Forget it happened. Won't happen again." She brushed it off with a wave of her hand, but inside she was crushed. He'd thought she was *her*. The other Lois.
She swallowed her emotions, everything. She would have to think about all this when he wasn't here. She couldn't allow him to see that it had affected her. Not with the kiss and not with his quick retreat. And if she was smart, she wouldn't *let* any of it affect her. She *hadn't* felt that surge of… something. Electricity? It didn't matter. She hadn't felt it. And it certainly hadn't stung when he'd so hastily apologized for… probably the best kiss she'd ever experienced. Nope. Lois Lane was tough as nails. Nothing bothered her.
"So…" She cleared her throat. *Damn* her voice for sounding wobbly.
She caught his gaze. No, his stare. His *blank* stare. He'd felt nothing after… It didn't matter. "So, I guess we ought to make a plan… or something."
Good, Lane. Or something. *That's* real confident.
He frowned a bit. "A plan? For what?"
Lois blinked. Good question. "A… plan to bring me back from the dead. Though… I suppose you don't need to be concerned with that. It's my problem, really. What we do need is a place to stay since I'm out of money and the vultures are swarming around your place."
The frown increased in intensity. It was the reporters. Not her. Had to be. He hadn't changed his mind. He *couldn't* have changed his mind.
"Oh… right. We need money…"
She felt a little jolt at his "we". But that was stupid. It didn't mean anything. Just a pronoun, necessary to complete the sentence. In fact, he'd probably said it to spare her feelings so she wouldn't feel needy. Pitied.
"… Didn't grab my wallet before I left. I suppose…"
She looked up to find him playing with a loose thread on the knee of his jeans.
"I could shoot over and get it. In and out. They wouldn't even have a chance to snap any pictures before I was gone again."
She nodded, wondering suddenly if she had any stray threads on her jeans, too. Anything to avoid eye contact. No need to be sad, Lane. It's good if he pities you. You need it. You need him… His help, you need his help.
"It's okay, Lois. I really don't mind. Besides, I ought to pay if I'm staying here anyway."
He grinned a little at her. He had a point. Maybe it wasn't so much pity after all. She smiled, a bit uncomfortably, but she smiled.
"Just give me a few minutes… It won't take me long to get my wallet, but I want to stop off in New York to use the ATM."
She gave him a curious look. Why…
"So the reporters don't have a chance to catch up to me. I may be able to move fast, but the machine can't."
She nodded. "Right. Of course."
He stood, and held out his hand to help her up. She accepted it and rose to stand in front of him, proud of herself for not feeling anything at his touch. His hand was just warm from body heat. No, warm from friendship. She could at least hope for that.
"I'll be back in a few. Did you… need anything? Food? Supplies?"
"Um… yeah, food would be good." She smiled wryly, thinking back to the blasted noodles. "I had an… interesting encounter with my last attempt at feeding myself. Instant noodles my a…" Her stomach growled and she grinned, slightly embarrassed. "Yeah, I'm a bit hungry."
He chuckled lightly and gave her an endearing grin. She followed his eyes as they surveyed the small kitchenette. "Okay, I'll go ahead and stop at the store then, too, get some groceries, and I'll make us some lunch."
She kept her jaw from dropping. Superman cooked? A sudden image sprang to mind of the red and blue, spandex-clad hero in front of a pot of sauce and thinking, hmmm, needs more basil. She bit back a grin. "You cook?"
He blushed. "Yeah. A bit… When I was younger, my mom taught me how…"
He trailed off, frowning. Lost in the memory? Thinking he should stay with his parents instead. Because he apparently had a mom, surely a dad would be there to complete the package. Loving parents, she was sure. And the politeness she'd witnessed a few times, the manners, seemed to indicate he'd grown up somewhere other than the big city. Where were they from? Were they superpowered, too? Did they…
"Anyway, I'll be back in a few."
Lois nodded mutely, still a bit lost in her thoughts, and watched the door close after him when he left.
Superpowered… Maybe that was why the kiss had been so intense.
She sighed, noting that her heart rate had almost made it back to normal.
She tried to keep herself from thinking that the kiss had been passionate, but it wasn't any use. Like it or not, she'd felt something with that kiss. Maybe it'd just been the suddenness of his lips against hers. Or the way he'd cradled her cheek in his hand, run his fingers through her hair. Or the tingling sensation as his tongue had touched hers. Or…
She sighed again, a bit breathless.
She'd never before felt like that when she'd been kissed. Never had her whole body just come alive, every nerve ending on alert.
But she was making too much of this. It'd only been a kiss. Kisses didn't determine fate or destiny. They weren't indicators of something meant to be. A kiss was just a kiss. Especially when it hadn't been meant for her.
That was why he'd backed off so quickly. He'd realized that he hadn't been kissing the right Lois.
Well, not to worry. She wouldn't let it happen again. From now on, it was just Clark and Lois, two people helping each other out and fighting the bad guys.
"Has there been a development?"
"Yes and no, sir."
"Don't waste my time being nebulous, Johnson, get to the point."
"Sorry, sir. Lane attempted to acquire Clark Kent's help today, but I think the reporters scared her off. Funny coincidence that they're both back in town within a few days of each other, eh?"
"Not really. Kent thinks she's dead, and I'm sure he's lost interest, especially after that imposter last year." There was a short pause, then, "You say she didn't actually make contact with Kent?"
"That's right, sir, she turned tail when she caught sight of the swarm of reporters. I don't think we'll need to worry about him. Seems she's a little on guard, trying to stay out of sight. So… not a big development, sir, but I thought you should be advised."
"Keep me posted."
The line went dead. Johnson frowned. Would it kill him to at least sign off?
He yawned, wondering how bad it was that he'd fallen asleep on his watch. He shrugged. It wasn't like she'd have gone anywhere in the middle of the night. And she hadn't gotten very far with her little outing this morning. She'd probably be holed up until Mayor White got back to town.
It hadn't taken Clark more than ten minutes to grab his wallet — ignoring the flutter of noise from the reporters as he sped in and out — and stop at the ATM, and then the grocery store. There shouldn't be any reason for him not to be back in the motel room and getting lunch started. No reason other than the nervous ball of energy that tore at his stomach.
The little voice inside his head that warned him of danger. Lois Lane was dangerous. She was an unknown entity. Completely unpredictable.
There was no telling what could happen if he dared to dream that anything could happen between them. It was foolish to even entertain the idea. Just because the other Lois and Clark were living happily ever after. Just because he felt… lighter somehow. Just because he'd felt a little tingle from this Lois's touch. Just because he'd felt a surge of something indescribable when he'd kissed her… didn't mean that he and Lois belonged together.
He was imagining things. Filling his head with fanciful ideas. Rearranging the fantasies he'd had of the other Lois to fit *this* Lois in. He was trying to make her fit like the last piece of the puzzle… only one place it could go… but what if it wasn't the right puzzle?
What if he was just convincing himself that he might be in love with Lois Lane because she was… Lois Lane?
What if everything he was feeling was just a lingering remnant of what he'd felt for the other Lois? The love he'd felt for her… he'd convinced himself that it was for someone else… the person just below him in a shoddy motel room.
They weren't real. His feelings. They couldn't be. It was just his subconscious making things up. Love was what he'd been longing for… dying for… ever since he'd realized what it really was. He was projecting every fantasy and reality he knew to be true on to Lois. This Lois.
All the pieces were falling neatly into place, but… It was *too* neat. Too simple. It couldn't be true after all these years that everything would just right itself.
Lois Lane meets Clark Kent; they fall in love and live happily ever after.
He'd fallen all right, directly off the edge of a cliff. And now he was tumbling down, grasping at strongholds and failing to catch a single one.
And in all this crazy mess… who was to say that she'd even love him in return?
She'd waved the kiss off. Said it didn't matter and that it wouldn't happen again. No big deal.
He wondered if it had even fazed her. He had tried to listen to her heartbeat and been unable to hear it over the thunderous clamoring of his own.
None of it mattered. Really. He was making love out of nothing at all, and instead he should just be grateful that she was willing to be a friend to him.
Now there was a word he hadn't used in a while. Not since… the other Lois.
Before his mind could start drawing futile parallels, he dove down — groceries tucked under his left arm — behind the motel and reemerged from the alley a second later.
He braced himself with a deep breath and knocked softly on the door to… their room. He guessed it was "their" room now. She answered it shyly, giving him a quiet "Welcome back, Clark" as she let him in.
Clark set the bag of groceries on the small table before he turned to her, taking his wallet out of his back pocket. "I hate to ask you to do this, but do you mind paying the front desk? I… don't really think I should be seen more than necessary. You know… if we don't want the reporters to migrate over this way…"
He handed her a few bills and she took them tentatively. Clark returned his wallet to its rightful place, and then shoved his hands in his front pockets, hunching his shoulders up. He wasn't used to needing anyone.
"Oh, don't worry. It's no problem at all. And…" She ducked her head and blushed a little. "Th.. thank you for this. For the motel, the food… everything. I'm not sure what I would have done without you."
She was thanking him. It was all backwards. *He* was supposed to be helping *her*. But she'd been the one to save him. He wasn't sure from what. The reporters, maybe? But something more, too. He was starting to feel it now. The depression was leeching away… slowly, but he was sure Lois *had* to have something to do with that. He only wished it'd been more pronounced… more… just more. He wished that all the implausible notions in his head of everything being okay when Lois was here were true. But his world hadn't righted on its axis as soon as she'd shown up.
He almost frowned, but realized she was still standing there, staring at her feet and waiting for a response.
"You're welcome, Lois. It's no problem at all. I'm happy to help. And… Thank *you* for letting me hide out here."
He still couldn't look her in the eye; having Lois see his weaknesses was downright embarrassing. But, all the same, he was grateful to her.
"Oh, I wouldn't call it hiding out. Just… an extended vacation." She looked around the room with a slight frown. "Though… maybe we should pretend we're in Paris or something. This might be considered almost a three star hotel there."
Her lips twitched with the beginnings of a smile. He couldn't help but smile with her, thankful for her humor. "Thanks."
"No problem," she said with a smile. "Now, I'll go pay the front desk, and then you'll have to show off your cooking skills for me, Flyboy."
Clark watched Lois push away her paper plate after she'd polished off a second round of spaghetti.
"Ouf. I'm full." She leaned back a bit and covered her stomach with her hands, exhaling audibly. "Thank you, Clark. That was the best meal I've had in years! Literally." She frowned a bit, her shoulders sagging, at her own words, but the smile returned quickly. "I really don't know how you do it. I mean, I tried to boil *instant* noodles and I failed. You made spaghetti the real way, and the sauce… homemade? Who does that? But it was good! Really, really good."
Clark chuckled. "Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it."
It was nice like this. He would even go as far as saying he felt lighthearted. That is… if you didn't count the pained looks she'd tried to mask during his seemingly innocent conversation. The weather had gotten old after two minutes, so he'd moved on to what he'd thought was safe territory — the recent changes in Metropolis since she'd been gone. But every so often, she'd flinched at the mention of something, like it hurt for her to think so much had gone on without her. That life had gone on when hers hadn't.
The silence between them now was comfortable… on the surface.
Clark was uneasy, though he wasn't sure why. He'd been able to keep himself from reliving the kiss in his mind; he couldn't afford not to. Something else was keeping him on edge.
He watched her scoot back a bit on the bed. They'd had to pull the table over to the bed to have another seat. "So… where do we go from here?"
She stared at him.
He heard her heart rate increase slightly. He'd broken the atmosphere. But they couldn't realistically sit there forever and stare in happy silence at each other. They had to *do* something.
The thought hit Clark like a locomotive.
Something *had* changed in him. It'd been so long since he'd felt the need to be anything but stagnant. A tiny bit of hope surged in him.
He was on his way back.
Clark watched her start to fidget. He hated that he was making her uncomfortable, but he *had* to know. Not just because she'd asked for his help and it'd be paramount in his ability to do so, but he *needed* to know where she'd been. Why he couldn't find her. Why he'd tracked her all the way to Kayes, miles from where she'd arrived in the Congo in Point Noire. Why the trail had gone dead. Literally.
"Lois, what happened in Kayes?"
He'd have sworn he heard her heart stop for the barest of seconds, and he knew in that instant, he'd screwed up. He'd been too abrupt. His mouth hadn't consulted the common sense part of his brain. He tried to say something else, to take it back, start the conversation again and not be a total jerk about it… but his vocal chords had suddenly gone on strike.
An inarticulate gasp made his head snap up again. Her jaw was slack and she was staring at him incredulously. "I never made it to Kayes."
How had he known? Only the gun runners had known that was where she'd been headed. As Louise Lewis. Not as Lois Lane. *How* had he *known*?
She'd never made it to Kayes. That was where the trail had led to. Kayes.
Kayes. Kayes. Kayes. The name stuck in her head, spinning around and around, making her sick.
She closed her eyes against the nausea. It was okay. She was fine. She was safe. Not in Congo. Metropolis. Home. Safe. With Clark.
She flinched. Lois. Not Louise. Lois.
She waited several moments before she allowed her eyes to open. Clark. It was Clark. Asking. Wondering. His brow furrowed. Posture tense. Worried. Not the bad guy. But he'd known…
"Lois, are you okay?"
Fine. She was fine. Home. Safe. Metropolis.
At the back of her throat, she could taste the bile threatening to burble up onto her tongue.
"Can I get you some water? Something? Anything?" Anxious. He sounded anxious.
She opened her eyes again. When had she closed them? The room swam a bit before it came back into focus. Clark's face was lined with worry. He was sitting next to her. The table had moved. When had that happened?
His voice was soft. Soothing. Filled with worry. "Lois, please say something."
He was one of the good guys. He'd known… He'd looked for her? Because of Perry?
"S-sorry. I… I…"
"It's okay, Lois. I'm right here." His arms came around her. Strong. Comforting, somehow. "You're safe."
Safe. She was safe. In his arms. Alive.
She let him hold her for an eternity. Whispering to her. Stroking her hair. Reassuring her. Calming her. He'd looked for her. He'd… cared.
There was a strong, gentle hand on her back. Up and down. Up and down. She worked on matching her breathing to the rhythm, lulling her back to comfort.
Slow. Calm. Inhale… exhale…
Finally, her heart stopped racing and the tears subsided. She felt Clark pull back slowly and bring his hand to her chin so she was looking at him squarely. His eyes… still haunted like before, but… they were caring, sensitive, asking her to let him help.
"What happened over there, Lois?"
So much had happened. Too much. Things she wanted to forget. Maybe she could get lost in his eyes instead. She could forget if she just did that. He didn't have to know…
He waited patiently for a response. The refrigerator seemed to hum louder in the silence.
She had to tell him, didn't she? She'd asked him for help. How was he supposed to help her if she didn't say anything? She was calmer now. Safe. She could do this.
Lois tore her gaze from his eyes and stared down at her hands in her lap. They were trembling.
"I-I told you that they'd c-captured me…"
"Take your time, Lois. We've got all the time in the world."
Did they? Really? Weren't they still after her? Wasn't it only a matter of time before they found her? Especially if she was keeping company with one of the most popular men on the planet…
One thing at a time, Lane. One thing at a time. This can be done. They could catch the gunrunners. Details. Clark needed details.
She'd landed in Pointe Noire four months ago. It was taking *forever* to track down any clues, any *hint* of where the gunrunners were operating, what exactly they were up to — certainly more than just smuggling guns, and just who was running the whole operation?
She hadn't exactly fit in there, so poking around for clues proved far more difficult. She'd learned quickly to just go along with the locals' assumption that she was French. It was easier that way. There was a number of French people, not to mention that was the official language here. She was grateful that her college explorations had sent her to Paris during her junior year. And she thanked God for her stubborn memory because she could still speak the language, though she was a tad rusty at it.
Even given that, she still had to be extremely cautious. The country was on the verge of a civil war. Another one. Every one was suspect. Not so much the Europeans, but someone who stuck her nose in where it didn't belong would certainly garner unwanted attention. And not having any contacts here had made the investigative process far more difficult than she'd expected.
Her source had been the one to land her in the port city of Point Noire, and thankfully, he'd been right on that account. Unfortunately, with the city's edge on the South Atlantic Ocean, there were hundreds of ports and boat docks. It'd taken her weeks. Hell, it'd been months, for her to methodically stake out all the boat yards and docking points.
But she'd found it.
Dock number seventy-eight. Smaller than one would expect for such a sizeable operation. In fact, it was the size of the ship contained within, not the docking site, that had caused her to stake this one out in the first place. She only wished it hadn't taken her four months to find it.
Tonight was her third night watching the place. Nothing of any consequence had happened the first two nights, but tonight was the night. She could feel it.
She had an excellent vantage point of the warehouse entrance, which led straight to the docks. Nothing had happened yet by two in the morning, and probably wouldn't for at least another half hour, assuming the results from her previous snooping proved accurate.
They were smuggling guns *in* to the Republic of the Congo to supply the rebel factions with arms against the government, that much she knew. That's why she'd come out here. What she didn't know was what they were trading in return. It wasn't money, she'd learned. Too easy to trace, she suspected, not to mention the exchange rate was almost a crime in and of itself.
She decided that she needed to get a look inside the warehouse again. There hadn't been much of anything there last night when she'd looked, but since tonight was the night things were going to happen, it was a sure bet they'd have the trade goods housed inside.
Lois glanced around stealthily before making a running dash to the warehouse, her backpack thumping against her back far too loudly for her liking.
She was inside. The blood was pounding in her ears and her breath was a little short. No one had seen her. Good.
Now, to have a look around. She praised her good fortune that it was September and the weather was clear. The salty scent of the Atlantic carried in on a faint breeze, and she could hear a small chorus of crickets chirping from hidden corners.
It'd been the rainy season when she'd arrived. Which made it hopeless for night vision and miserable for staking out in the drenching rain. But there was no rain now; the area was well into the dry season, leaving the moonlight free from the obstruction of the clouds. She couldn't risk the use of a flashlight.
So with the aid of the moonlight casting the moon's glow through the open warehouse doors, she surveyed the room. Weathered wooden rafters. Cobwebs shimmering eerily where the silver light shone through a few holes in the ceiling. And far more boxes and crates than there had been the night before.
Lois dug into her pocket for her trusty Swiss Army knife as she headed for the nearest crate. She flipped open the blade and used it to pry the lid off the wooden crate. A few deft attempts and she was in, closing and re-pocketing the knife so she could push aside the brittle hay inside.
There were maybe a dozen black bags. The sort that closed with a drawstring. With a trembling hand, she lifted one out of the crate. It felt like a poorly filled bean bag even though it felt like it carried the same weight of one that was full. She held her breath, and tucked the sides of the bag down to get a look at what was inside.
She gasped. The moonlight seemed do dance off hundreds of tiny facets…
Hundreds of uncut diamonds.
This was big. Huge. Pulitzer material.
Much more so than just gun smuggling alone. They were trading diamonds for guns to encourage civil war.
Lois quickly drew the bag shut and quickly tucked it away in her backpack. Evidence. But she needed more. Concrete evidence that told who the person responsible was.
There was an old desk in the corner. With papers on it.
Lois hurried over to the desk and surveyed the scattered papers. Nothing that looked incriminating. Just scraps of notes scrawled in French. She checked the drawers, hoping to find something a little more damning. They were all locked.
Quickly, Lois dug in the front pouch of her backpack for the bobby pin she knew she had in there. A few tries at picking the lock, and she was in. Dozens of file folders. She thumbed through them in haste. Shipping invoices. What luck!
She pulled one out of the folder nearest to her and read. St. John Enterprises. Based out of Metropolis.
Not surprising considering Metropolis was a Mecca for large business and crime alike. That, and she assumed the origin of the business was how she'd gotten wind of her lead in the first place.
Lois leafed through the other invoices — all St. John Enterprises. All Metropolis bound. Clearly a multi-million dollar operation.
And the exclusive was all hers.
She reached for one of the file folders to hide away in her backpack with the diamonds.
"Si j'etais toi, je ne ferais pas ca."
Crap, crap, crap.
*Why* hadn't she stopped to think that her good fortune had really just been bad timing?
Before she could think of a way to escape, there was an arm around her neck and a hand over her mouth.
It would be futile to scream now, though that didn't mean she couldn't fight. But before she could even raise her leg to kick him, he spoke again.
"Pas tres malin quand on a un couteau contre la gorge."
Knife. Knife. All her knowledge of the French language fled her brain. All but for knife. Couteau. The thing that was now pressed tightly against her throat.
Oh God, how was she going to get out of this?
Clark stared in horror.
"Wh-what did he do to you?" He heard the panic creep into his voice, but he didn't care.
She was still trembling. He realized she hadn't shared this with anyone. No one knew, no one had known the horrors she'd been put through. For three years. He still didn't know, and he waited with bated breath for the answer he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to hear.
"H-he didn't hurt me. Not right away. I remember being gagged and blindfolded. Thrown in a vehicle. And they drove. For hours. Or… at least it seemed like hours. I really have no idea."
He watched her, still horrified at what he was hearing, as she stared at her hands. She hadn't looked him in the eye since she'd begun her tale.
"Then… there was this room. Just like all the dark, dank interrogation rooms you see in the movies. But worse. Th-they questioned me. H-hit me when I wouldn't tell them what I was doing so far from home. They s-searched my backpack. Found my passport. Who I was…"
Clark opened his mouth to offer… something. Some sort of consolation. But she suddenly looked up at him, all the fear of months ago written plainly on her face.
"I-I don't know why they didn't kill me, Clark, but two years. *Two* whole years, they left me locked up in a room only a bit smaller than this one."
Clark tried not to feel the walls closing in on him. Tried to smother the feeling of being trapped in a tiny room at the mercy of ruthless criminals. Tried not to feel the remembered terror coming off her in waves. Tried to shake the horrible feeling that he'd somehow missed something.
"D-did h-he…" Rape you? he added wordlessly. Oh, God. Had they raped her?
She hung her head and a tight fear clenched at him.
"No, Clark." She sniffled. "I wasn't raped. At least." She paused again, swallowing. "Th-they did… b-beat me… at first. When they were looking for information."
A sudden rage flooded through him instead of the relief he'd expected at finding out she hadn't been raped.
They'd hurt her. They'd. Hurt. Her.
He was furious and protective all at once, not sure what to do with himself for fear of doing the wrong thing. And there was nothing he *could* do. He didn't know where *they* were.
And she was crying again.
Her soft sobs did more to tear at him than the thoughts of killing himself ever had.
Lois was what was important here.
He gathered her into his arms once more and held her.
"They're still… still out th-there, Clark." Her voice was quiet, muffled by his shirt, and shaky as she spoke between gasping sobs. "I'm sure… sure of it. It's just… just a mat-matter of time… before — before they realise I'm… that I'm here."
"Shh." He did nothing to curb the conviction in his voice. "I won't let them hurt you again, Lois."
She felt so fragile. Nothing at all like the Lois Lane he'd read about. Nothing like the one he'd met before her. He hated that she'd been reduced to the shaky, vulnerable woman in his arms.
They'd done this to her. Broken her.
He rebelled at the thought instantly. The woman who'd stolen into his apartment last night was anything but vulnerable. *She'd* held *him* while he'd cried only hours ago. It may not have seemed like it at this very moment, but he knew somewhere inside Lois Lane there was a whole lot of fight left.
Maybe it was the same buried determination that had gotten her out of her prison and back to Metropolis? But why had it taken her two years to escape?
She raised her head up slowly from its position on his chest and looked at him.
"How did you finally escape? After two years? Why…"
"Did it take so long?" she finished for him defeatedly.
He nodded. He hadn't wanted to ask that. It sounded… insensitive, as if she'd sat indolent for all that time, unwilling to change the status of her incarceration.
She seemed to know what he was thinking. "It's okay, Clark."
Lois was much calmer as she told him what had happened.
Lois flinched and sat bolt upright at the sound of the heavy steel bar on her prison door as it hit its hilt.
Someone was coming in.
No one ever came in.
If it hadn't been for the meager plate of food and pot of water being slid through the bottom of her door every night, she'd have thought they'd completely forgotten about her.
The scraping of the metal hinges was a horrific sound, like the rasping screech of a car as it tears against a guardrail. Her heart began to pound faster.
They hadn't come in since that night. Three days after they'd caught her. After they'd spent hours, days trying to beat information out of her.
It'd been… Damn it! What day was it? What year was it? And *why*, after all this time…
A man entered, and Lois shuddered as the sound of the thick metal door closing echoed off the concrete walls.
Lois sat up straighter on her bed and held her chin high, fixing him with an aggressive stare, praying that he couldn't tell she was terrified on the inside. She wouldn't let them take her. They could take her freedom and keep her locked up in this tiny room. They could take her dignity that was lying somewhere at the bottom of the hole in the ground that was her toilet. But they'd never get her spirit. Never. That's why she'd spent everyday pacing the room, doing push-ups, crunches, making sure that if the moment ever came, she'd be ready.
She tensed as he moved closer. Dammit. This could be it and she was scared, frozen.
"I know who you are, Ms. Lane."
So what? They'd known the whole time. He was trying to fool her with that calm and smooth tone of his, trying to take her by surprise. Trying to soften her by using her name. She hadn't heard it in…
Lois shook herself mentally. Focus. He spoke in accented English, she noted. He must be local. He had the dark skin of a man who spent his days in the sun, and rough layer of stubble covering his face. The man was tall and bulky, too. At least twice her size. She'd never be able to take him.
"Ha. And this is supposed to be news to me? You knowing who I am?" she challenged, praying her uncertainty didn't leak through in her voice.
"I found your bag."
She noticed, for the first time, the backpack dangling from his right hand. *Her* backpack. Why had he brought it? What was he playing at? She held back a gasp. No surprises. She wouldn't be caught off-guard. Not even if the sight of the blue backpack she hadn't seen in ages had stirred up irrational feelings of comfort within her. Her gaze flitted to the unlocked door behind him.
Lois steeled her jaw. "Congratulations," she said sarcastically.
The young man took a step closer and she resisted the urge to scramble to the corner of the bed against the wall. Damn her for being so gutless.
"You're Lois Lane of the Daily Planet." His voice was still calm, if maybe a bit… awed? His cryptic remarks were starting to make her more anxious. She wouldn't let him get the better of her.
"Look, did you want a medal for figuring all this out?"
Her belligerence did nothing to anger him. And that worried her. Just what was he up to? What was he going to do to her?
"I've come to help you escape."
She couldn't have heard him right. Or… maybe this was a trick. Some psychological game to get her to reveal something, anything.
"I'm getting you out of here, Ms. Lane. I found your bag at the back of an old broom closet two nights ago. Took me a night longer to figure out where they were keeping you. I… I'd heard rumors that they'd had someone locked up down here. But those were flying around over two years ago. I never thought they'd just leave someone down here…"
She didn't much hear the rest of what he was saying. Two years.
*Over* two years.
Oh, God, she'd been down in this dungeon-like cell for two years. She'd known it'd been weeks upon weeks, but… to have someone put an exact count on the time she'd been down here…
Her bravado faltered. She couldn't help it. But she didn't cry. Even if this man was who he seemed to be, she wouldn't let him see her cry.
"It's okay, I promise I'm here to help you."
She held fast to her skepticism, not daring to hope after all this time. "But why? Why would you want to help me?"
He sighed, and moved to set her backpack down on the bed next to her before stepping away again. He seemed to know she wanted her space.
"Because I've grown uncomfortable with the operation. Things are happening that I hadn't thought about…" His look was distant for a moment before he continued, "I'm escaping myself, but I couldn't leave knowing you were still trapped here."
This man was nothing but enigmatic, but it did seem he was truly going to help her. She didn't ask for more.
"Let's get a move on. It'll be hours before anyone wakes up, but I'd rather not take the chance of getting caught."
Lois grabbed her backpack and jerked her arms through the straps, letting it settle squarely on her back. It was heavier than she remembered, but then again, it'd been two years.
She followed closely behind the man as he led her through dark corridors and up concrete stairs and finally to a large metal door, not unlike the one she'd been locked behind for two years.
The man turned to her and whispered, "I've packed a few provisions for you. Should last you a few days. Good luck, Ms. Lane. And good luck putting these people behind bars. I only suggest you stay clear of Kayes, especially if you have a mind to go digging for more clues. You'll only find danger there."
Without another word, he grabbed hold of the handle, pulling slowly to the side. The heavy scrape of metal against metal seemed frighteningly loud, and she was certain it'd wake someone.
What seemed an eternity later, the door was open and the man was shooing her on her way. She didn't even pause to appreciate the assault of humid freedom against her face. She ran.
Clark hovered a few feet off the ground, his head propped up by his arm on the cushion of air he'd made his bed for the night, though he hadn't slept yet. He watched Lois as she slept, worn out from the emotions of the day. She'd talked for a good while longer, telling him all of the horrors of the West African jungle, everything she'd struggled through in her attempt to get to safety and back home.
She looked so peaceful in her sleep, as if none of the horrors she'd experienced could touch her now.
And if he could help it, they never would again.
The strong feeling of protectiveness from earlier hadn't left him. For a moment, he'd thought it might be the superhero within finally showing through, but it was more than that. Even at his best as Superman, he'd never felt quite so… fiercely about wanting to keep someone safe.
Maybe it was because he had the chance to now.
His gaze wandered over her features for the hundredth time since she'd fallen asleep. Her soft brown hair framed her face, and a few stray locks had fallen across her chin. The faint light from the bathroom cast muted shadows upon her high cheekbones and small, rounded nose. Her eyelids danced to some unknown rhythm as she dreamed.
He let the soft drum of her heartbeat fill his ears. Like before, the sound was strangely comforting.
He watched, almost hypnotized, the slow rise and fall of the blanket as she breathed softly beneath it. She was so thin, so delicate. He suspected the lunch he'd made had been the first real meal she'd had in a long while. Maybe years.
Clark seethed, losing a few inches in altitude. Days ago, hell, *months* ago, he'd been cursing his fate, crying at the unfairness of it all. But Lois… Lois had had it far worse.
And she'd survived.
More than survived. She'd *fought* for her life. She'd made sure that no one could break her spirit… though he suspected the gunrunners had taken more than a fair amount of who Lois Lane had been. Despite all that, she'd still made it. Fought hand and tooth to get back home. And she was still determined to get to the bottom of it all and put the bad guys in jail.
He admired her determination, her strength. He almost felt less of a man in light of everything he knew she'd accomplished, but he wouldn't let himself.
He was through with being helpless. Through with being the victim.
Could he handle being a hero again?
The diametric opposite of what he'd been for so long?
The thought terrified him. He wasn't ready. He needed time. Time to figure out who he was. Not Clark Kent. Not Superman. Not… anyone, really.
Truth was, he had no idea who he was.
For so long, the only part of himself he'd known… was the dark part. The depressed, lonely, miserable, pathetic part. The part that made him so much less of a man.
How could he be the superhero everyone thought he was? The superhero Lois had come running to all the way from the Congo for help? He'd already failed to save her once. All his determination and tireless searching, and he'd still failed.
He'd failed her when she'd needed him most.
What kind of Superman was he if he hadn't been able to save her?
That man… in Point Noire… *he'd* saved Lois. Clark was grateful and resentful of him all at once. He was supposed to be Superman. *He* was supposed to be the guy that saved people. He was the one who was supposed to save Lois.
But he hadn't.
He was so full of anger. Full of resentment. Mostly towards himself. It was far from healthy, he knew, but he didn't know how to make it all go away.
One thing to be thankful for, though… he'd searched himself for the resentment he'd felt towards Lois earlier. It was gone. Replaced with… something. Something he didn't have a name for, but he knew for certain it wasn't love. Or at least not the all-consuming love that he should have rightfully been feeling.
This was Lois. *His* Lois. To hell with semantics. This was *his* Lois. He knew it. He could *feel* it. Earlier, when she'd been recounting her horrific tale, he'd felt it. Her. *Her* fear and terror. He hadn't realized it then, but… it'd been the same as the connection he'd felt with the other Lois. Only stronger. Infinitely stronger.
That feeling on its own was more comforting than even the sound of her heartbeat.
But even if the connection was there. Even if he *did* love her. Even if she somehow, miraculously, loved him…
How could he ever be enough for her?
Clark Kent. Superman. Whoever he was… how was he supposed to love someone when he couldn't even love himself?
But that was beside the point, wasn't it? Lois didn't love him. Not even close. The kiss… the kiss had been magical. There was no denying that. He knew she'd felt something too. She had to have. But what woman wouldn't after three years in the Congo, alone and scared, desperate for *some* kind of human contact?
Her seemingly eager participation didn't mean that she loved him. They'd just met. She might have just been attaching herself to the first person who'd been kind. Any port in a storm.
And then there was her reaction afterwards…
<Forget it happened. Won't happen again.>
It really didn't matter whether or not he loved her.
She didn't want him.
But… why would she? Why *should* she? Hadn't the other Lois said -
He started. Not again. He felt every muscle in his body tense.
Not again. Not again. Not again.
He couldn't handle it now. Not now. Please not now.
Why was he hearing cries for help all of a sudden? He hadn't heard anything for days. Nothing since he'd returned. Nothing.
<<Someone, please help me! I'm trapped.>>
Clark spun into the Suit. Put his feet on the ground.
He'd brought it. The red and blue. The cape. Picked it up when he'd gotten his wallet. On a whim. A stupid whim.
He was trembling. Shaking. He… he couldn't go.
<<Unit 53 to dispatch. We're on the scene.>>
Firemen. They were there. They'd find the guy… in time. It would be okay. Fine. He'd live.
He tried not to hear the man's choking, the gasping for breath.
He couldn't move. Wouldn't move. His legs wouldn't move.
<<Help! *cough* I can't see anything!>>
Clark brought his hands up to his ears. Fast.
Block the sound. Block the voice.
Dammit. Damn his super hearing.
A faint heartbeat. Somewhere… muffled among the sirens and screaming.
He focused hard on the soft rhythm of her heartbeat.
And sank to the floor, against the wall in a crumpled heap.
Lois woke to the sound of a soft sobbing. So soft it sounded as if it was far off in the distance. But, instinctively, she knew it was coming from only a few feet away.
Clark was crying.
She looked over to the wall, beneath the payphone. She stifled a gasp. He was wearing the costume.
Superman was crying.
His head was buried in his hands, his knees drawn up near his chest.
Superman was crying. Weeping softly.
The sound cut at her, seized her heart. And the image before her, a fallen superhero, shook her mercilessly.
He looked up at her then, as if he'd sensed her staring at him.
Gently, she asked, "What's wrong, Clark?"
His eyes were soulful, agonized for a moment before the look disappeared altogether and was replaced with a poor attempt at a sunny disposition. Even the smile wavered.
"Good morning, Lois." He glanced at the clock — avoiding her gaze? "Well… afternoon, I guess. Did you sleep well?"
She just stared at him. Why… why on Earth was he attempting to hide his obvious suffering? And *what* had happened?
She didn't intend to let him brush this away like it was nothing. It was clearly *something*. "What happened, Clark?"
A tortured look played across his face for a moment, as if he were fighting some sort of internal battle.
"Did you want me to make lunch? I think I remember picking up something I could use… lunch meats, bread, chips… maybe… And I bought some juice, I thi-"
"Clark Kent!" she blurted out.
He finally looked her in the eye, startled. He almost had that sort of deer-in-headlights expression. Terrified. Or something.
Now that she had his attention, she softened her tone. "Tell me what happened, Clark."
He shook his head, the barest of movements. Wordlessly, she got out of bed and sank down beside him. She put a hand on his knee. A comforting one, she hoped. He seemed tense, on the verge of shaking.
She didn't ask again. He'd speak when he was ready. She hoped.
She looked up at him, confused, pulling her hand from his knee. "What?"
"I said no. I don't want to tell you what happened."
"Oh, okay. I just thought… Well, never mind." She stood and made her way back to the bed. "I'll… just… get a little more sleep, then."
She didn't even wait for a response before she pulled the covers tight around her and closed her eyes. It didn't matter that the day was already half gone. She didn't have anything to do anyway. And Clark could do whatever he liked.
Her lower lip trembled. She'd thought… She'd thought he might *want* her to help. That he'd want to tell her what was wrong. Lois turned on her side, away from Clark so he wouldn't see her chin trembling.
How stupid could she get, thinking he might actually want to share his problems with her? Just because he'd done it once before didn't mean that he'd *wanted* to. Maybe he was just using her, taking advantage of her anonymity to hide from the reporters. But… that didn't make sense. He could fly. He could disappear to any corner of the world if he wanted.
So why was he staying here?
Could it be he felt obligated to help her?
There was a tight clench in her gut. Was he only staying because he'd given her his word?
But what about last night? He'd been so comforting, so concerned. He'd acted as if he really did care for her.
Had it all just been a ruse?
No, it couldn't have been. She wouldn't let herself believe it.
That was it! He was embarrassed. Ashamed.
Lois sat up abruptly and turned back to face Clark.
Or… at least the now empty spot where he'd been sitting.
She hadn't even heard the door snick shut behind him.
He was stupid. A complete and utter moron. A coward. Too scared to rescue someone from a fire, and terrified to face the woman he'd been looking for… all his life.
He couldn't tell her anything.
It was beyond wrong to keep it from her, but he couldn't stand the thought of what she'd do if she did know. She'd leave if she knew her superhero, the person she was counting on, was impotent.
How could he even begin to help her if he couldn't even make it to a simple rescue?
Clark hovered high above what remained of the burnt building, watching the firemen pack away the hoses and pile back onto their trucks. The acrid smell of smoldering wood lingered in the air. Sodden ashes were all that remained of the small house on Hyperion Avenue.
He scanned the ruins slowly, terrified of what he might find.
He let out a huge sigh of relief. No casualties. No one had died because of his failure to act.
At least not today.
There would be others. Other fires. Robberies. Muggings. Earthquakes.
The fear clenched his heart like a vice. He couldn't do it. He couldn't be the superhero that everyone needed. That Lois needed.
Clark rocketed south, heading for the only place that still offered him a scrap of solace. Smallville. The Smallville Cemetery. Final resting place of Martha and Jonathan Kent.
The clouds covered the late afternoon sun in the Kansas sky, lending an almost eerie quality to the cemetery — a place that wasn't supposed to be ominous during the day.
His parents lay in a modest plot; they hadn't had much money when they'd died. Clark landed softly near their headstones and sat on the grass facing them. He stayed motionless for quite some time, just staring at their names. Carved in granite.
He hadn't saved them.
He hadn't saved Lois.
But the difference was Lois had lived. She was still alive. Still needed saving. Needed help. From him.
But that was all she wanted. Maybe friendship at the most — another person to talk to because she had no one else.
That would be enough for him. It had to be. If that was all she wanted, and if she let him be a friend to her even after everything was over… it would be enough.
If she'd even talk to him after he'd left her so abruptly and been so rude to her.
He huffed. He was fed up with it all! Sick and tired of being so pathetic and miserable. Why couldn't he just snap out of it? Why couldn't he be happy? Why couldn't he do what he'd been born to do? Why couldn't he fall in love with Lois Lane?
Clark punched the ground at his side, and his fist sunk six inches into the soft earth.
He withdrew his hand and splayed his fingers, staring at the damp earth covering them. The soil of a planet that had adopted him. Then failed him.
He was an alien. Alienated. Not human.
Did that mean he didn't deserve what most humans had? Friendship? Happiness? Love?
Was that why? Because he wasn't from here, didn't really belong here?
Clark wiped his hand off on the grass, though remnants of the sodden soil remained stubbornly on his skin, making sure to remind him that it was there, but not a part of him.
Fine. Clark had left.
Ashamed, embarrassed, whatever. Let him sulk. She had better things to be doing with her time. If he didn't want to talk to her, fine. He didn't owe her anything. Not even his help. And she didn't owe him…
The money. Her gratitude. But Lois had the sinking feeling that Clark didn't care about that. If he ever came back, he wouldn't care about the money. He didn't really need money, did he? Or a place to live.
He didn't need to help her.
He didn't have to come back. Nothing tied him here to Metropolis. Nothing.
Least of all her.
She sniffled and held her head high. It didn't matter. She could do this on her own. She was Lois Lane. And, like she'd said, she had better things to be doing with her time than wait around and wonder if Clark would care to stop sulking and return.
Like get her life back. Catch the bad guys. And get a…
Front page story?
Her shoulders sagged. Could she even consider herself a reporter anymore?
Lois Lane, top investigative journalist for the Daily Planet, had been dead for three years. She hadn't written anything since she'd left the States. Was she even any good anymore?
She bit her lip and sucked in a breath.
It didn't matter.
She only had to get the bad guys. Put them away for a long time. And by herself if need be. She hadn't depended on anyone for a long time; she shouldn't start now. And certainly not with someone as unstable as Clark Kent.
Lois squared her shoulders and stiffened her resolve. She had the lead still. She had evidence… Nothing concrete yet, but she'd get it.
She wished longingly for the days she could just bellow for a research assistant and have the hard, laborious part of clue-gathering done for her. But those days were long gone. She was on her own now.
The library would be her first destination, she decided. She needed internet access to find out more about St. John Enterprises. Who they were, what they did, who was in charge.
Taking care not to even glance at the spot she'd last seen Clark, she headed out the door, letting it slam shut behind her.
Clark returned to Metropolis when the sun was hanging low in the sky, threatening to sink into the horizon. He found himself hovering above the Apollo Motel with trepidation once again.
He'd left her.
He'd been rude to her and left her.
She'd hate him.
What had he been thinking? He needed her help. Needed *her*. And he'd quite possibly ruined any chance he *might* have had.
But she still needed him.
With a trembling breath, he headed down to the alleyway and changed swiftly. The door to the hotel room mocked him. Taunted him. He noted, ashamedly, the lock was still destroyed from when he'd broken in. He should fix that. It'd be the least he could do.
But he was stalling now. He dreaded what he'd find on the other side of the door. An angry Lois? Hurt? Sad? All of the above?
He had *no* clue what he was in for.
He edged the door open slowly, almost afraid she'd attack as soon as he entered. But no knives came flying at him. Not that they'd hurt, but…
Wait a minute.
She wasn't here. He gave a quick glance to the bathroom.
She *wasn't* here.
But how? She'd left? Stormed out? Or…
Her backpack was still here, lying on the ground where she'd left it. She would have taken it if she'd left permanently.
So maybe she just went for a walk… to cool off or something. Exercise? He'd bet it'd been the former; she'd have been mad. Probably was still mad.
Clark sat down on the bed and glanced at the clock. Three after six. He wished he knew when she'd left so he'd have some idea of when she'd return. Because she *would* return. She had to.
Every minute the clock ticked off grated on his nerves. He got up and looked in the fridge, not really hungry but needing something to do. He shut the door and looked back at the clock. Nine after, now.
Should he look for her? If she was mad, would she resent him for it?
But what if…
What if she'd been taken?
Hadn't she just relayed that very concern to him last night? That they were still after her? That they could find her at any moment?
The lock on the door was already broken. No force necessary. They could have just waltzed right in and grabbed her, taken her by surprise. And left.
Oh, God. What if they'd kidnapped her?
He'd lost her.
This wasn't the same as finding out she was dead before he'd ever met her…
This time he *had* met her. She'd asked for his help.
And he'd failed her.
He'd left her vulnerable because he was too stupid, too ashamed… Because he was a pathetic excuse for a superhero and couldn't face up to his fears.
This had been his chance to redeem himself and he'd screwed it up. Big time. Lois was gone. They'd taken her. And for all he knew, they'd kill her before he could get to her.
Clark spun into the Suit again and rocketed out into the city, the door slamming shut in his wake.
He hovered above the streets, panicking because he had no idea where to even look. St. John Enterprises was the only lead he had, and it was a flimsy one at that. This had been, still probably was, a large-scale operation. The Stateside part of the outfit wouldn't necessarily have anything to do with the security measures. Anyone could have taken her. To anywhere.
Clark tried to calm himself, taking a few deep breaths. Think logically, Kent. Now is not the time to panic.
God, this was *exactly* the time to panic. Lois was gone and in the hands of extremely dangerous men. Men who wanted her dead.
Breathe. He had to breathe. And think.
Clark had no choice but to follow up on the only lead he had. Which meant…
He'd have to go to the Planet to research.
He swallowed hard.
Something else he wasn't ready for. But if Lois's life was in his hands… he *had* to do it. He didn't have a choice.
Lois sighed, mentally exhausted from her search. She'd sat at one of the computer terminals in the back of the library, hoping no one would pay any matter to her, and thankful for the later hour which afforded her a bit more privacy. It'd taken her the better part of an hour to track down only minimal information on St. John Enterprises, but at least now she had an address to hunt down. That'd be her next step.
As soon as she had the energy to get up…
She was worn out from all that had happened in the last few days… Well, the last few years, to be more accurate. But last night had been especially taxing, recounting the horrors she'd endured. She bit her lip and shifted uncomfortably in the desk chair.
Clark had been so caring, so kind, so… protective. She'd felt truly safe for the first time in years. She'd slept deeply for the first time in ages. Safe. Comfortable. Because of Clark.
Then earlier this afternoon, everything had changed in an instant. Something had happened to Clark. Something to do with Superman. Something pretty significant was bothering him. And he wouldn't tell her what it was.
She sighed as a headache began to form. People were supposed to be quiet in libraries. Why did it feel like each whisper was a lance through her skull? She'd been staring at this stupid monitor for far too long, that's what. She leaned back in the rickety chair and forced herself to relax.
She shouldn't be insulted by his reluctance to share everything with her. Just because he'd cried on her shoulder the night before. Just because she'd poured her heart out to him last night. It didn't mean that he owed her anything in return. But she couldn't pretend that she wasn't hurt by what he'd said or by his abrupt departure.
She wondered if he'd even come back. Had he decided not to bother with the nosy Lois Lane? Had she stuck her nose in his business too far?
That inexplicable need to know more about him crept through her again. Maybe if she knew just a little more about him, she could dispel any irrational feelings that remained. If she found out what that something in his eyes had been, she wouldn't have to feel so bereft if she never saw him again.
Lois eyed the computer in front of her. St. John Enterprises wasn't going anywhere. She had time.
She opened a new search page and typed in "Superman biography" with trembling fingers.
At least 100,000 hits.
He'd become quite an icon in the year since he'd started as Superman.
Holding her breath, she clicked on the first of the links.
Clark stood outside the Daily Planet building in his jeans and t-shirt. His heart was thudding loudly in his chest. The sound of rush hour traffic whizzing by behind him made him even more edgy. Somebody honked and he jumped. Not at him. They weren't honking at him.
Nobody had noticed him yet. But they would. And then they'd attack him like a pack of hungry wolves. He was less safe here out on the street. Too exposed. Too many people.
But inside would be worse.
They knew him. Worked with him… Or at least they had. He was the story of the hour, and he'd been hiding from them. They'd think he was there to make his public statement, give the exclusive to his own paper.
He wasn't. He didn't *want* to be back. He still wasn't ready, and after last night, he wasn't sure he'd ever be.
Stepping inside would seal his fate. There would be no turning back after that. The Planet wouldn't let him hide any longer. It was now or never.
And he desperately wished he could pick never.
But he couldn't.
Lois. He needed to find Lois.
And the Planet was the quickest way to hunt down the information he needed.
Taking a trembling breath, Clark made his way into the fire through the revolving doors.
The lobby. He'd made it to the lobby.
He eyed the elevators… No, they took too long. Too long in a confined space, trapped with people surrounding him.
The stairs would be far better.
Clark rushed over to the door to the stairwell, opened it and hurried inside. He took the stairs at superspeed, but when he got to the door to the newsroom floor, he wished he'd gone slower. But maybe quicker was better. Get it over with. At least it was nearing the end of the day, right? Less people?
Quick, Clark. Quit stalling.
He jerked the door open.
And just stood there.
An unnatural silence fell over the newsroom, but for a few surprised gasps, as the whispers about his presence spread like wildfire and everyone turned to look. To stare. At him. A few shrill rings of scattered phones pierced the silence.
The seconds ticked by slower than they had right to, stretching into minutes. He stared, trying not to lose his breath from the shock of seeing *his* newsroom after all this time.
It was the same. Almost. Just like the other universe. Conference rooms along the back wall. Desks arranged in an unknown pattern. His desk was still there. It appeared he still had his job, at least.
He heard the groan of steel against steel and realized he was still holding tightly to the door handle. He loosened his grip.
He jumped at the harsh bark that carried across the newsroom.
"Didn't think you worked here anymore, Kent."
He stared at Mr. Olsen. There was a half-smile on his face, and he couldn't be sure if it was sarcasm or anger he'd heard in the editor's voice.
Clark resented the fact that a man six years his junior could put him on edge. But then again, everything put him on edge lately.
Mr. Olsen's features softened some as he gestured towards his office. "Why don't you come on in, Kent? Tell me about your vacation?"
The fear that weighted him to the spot lifted. Well, at least enough to allow him to move. One foot in front of the other. Slow, careful footsteps — fifty-three of them — and he was safely inside Mr. Olsen's office with the door closed.
He still felt far from safe, though. Mr. Olsen may be acting amicable now, but Clark knew he had a lot to answer for.
Questions he didn't have the answers for.
He couldn't exactly say he'd been hiding out with Lois La…
A whole different panic filled him. She was still out there. The clock was ticking.
Clark shifted his stance uneasily. "Uh… Mr. Olsen?"
"Go ahead, take a seat, Clark."
Clark watched, his whole body tense, as Mr. Olsen strolled around his desk and to his chair, sitting down with an ease about him that only made Clark more edgy. The younger man leaned forward, propping his elbows up on the desk and resting his chin on clasped hands.
"Tell me all about this little vacation of yours."
Clark's eyes darted about the room, searching for an excuse to leave in a hurry. He wasn't any good at lying, let alone coming up with a plausible excuse for rushing back out the door when he'd just gotten there.
"Mr. Olsen, I need to go."
His editor's brow furrowed. "But you just got here…"
"I know. I'm sorry, I… I have to track something down and I needed to use the Internet connection here for research. Faster that way."
"A story, Kent?"
Clark couldn't miss the tone of warning in Mr. Olsen's voice, however slight, and was suddenly glad he didn't normally sweat. "Y-yeah. For a story." Confidence, Clark. Sound confident. Be firm. "Look, I'm really sorry, Mr. Olsen, I promise I'll explain later, but this is rather urgent."
He watched his editor's face move from annoyance to curiosity and a little something else he couldn't discern. "All right, Kent, I'll trust you on this. But just make sure you bring back a front page story for me."
Clark nodded hastily, not wanting to press his luck. "Yes, sir."
"Go ahead and use a computer in one of the conference rooms. That way you won't be bothered."
"Thank you, sir."
Clark turned to leave, his hand finding the doorknob.
Clark did his best to bite back an irritated sigh, and looked back over his shoulder. "Yes, Mr. Olsen?"
"Call me James, will ya?"
A touch of a smile crept over Clark's lips. "Sure thing, James."
Seconds later, Clark was in a conference room sitting in front of the computer. His hands flew over the keyboard, amassing all the information he could find on St. John Enterprises.
Lois fidgeted the entire cab ride over to Jackson Street in the center of Metropolis. What if someone saw her? What if…
Oh, hell. Why on Earth was she going to the very place they worked if she didn't want to get caught?! She opened her mouth to tell the cabbie to stop, turn around and take her to the motel. But no words came out.
Hiding in plain sight didn't *really* work, did it?
She was sure her picture had been faxed to every corner of the globe — at least the corners in which they operated. Well… pretty sure.
They'd known who she was. A reporter for the Daily Planet. The *top* reporter for the Daily Planet. She was a huge liability. Even a whole year after she'd escaped, there was no doubt in her mind they would still be on the lookout for her. She knew too much. They wouldn't care that she didn't have any proof, that she'd never be able to convince the police. She'd be dead the moment they set eyes on her. Or worse, they'd lock her up again.
Lois tried to bite back the anxiety. She couldn't, no, *wouldn't* spend the rest of her life a victim. And if she didn't have Clark's help, she'd have to do this on her own.
Her anger at him had faded, and she'd been left with… a feeling she couldn't describe. A deep pull in her gut. Empathy, maybe? Recognition?
Lois brought her mind back to the present at the cabbie's prompt. She dug three fives out of her pocket and handed it somewhat reluctantly to the driver. Pretty much the last of the money Clark had given her. Fifteen dollars seemed like a fortune to her. Maybe she shouldn't have taken a cab.
She sighed as she opened the door and hopped out of the taxi. Double-checking the address on the scrap of paper in her hand, she headed north. She'd told the cab driver to drop her off a few blocks away, knowing that arriving smack dab in front of the building would have been a bad idea.
Though… this wasn't such a good idea either. What was she going to do? Just walk right in the front door and ask them if they had any good diamonds for sale? Stupid, Lane. Stupid.
She needed a plan… Something she should have come up with before she'd left the library.
Changing her direction swiftly, she headed for the nearest alleyway and hid behind a dumpster.
She hated that she was so out of practice that she'd forgotten such a simple thing. Breaking and entering in the middle of the night was the far more sensible thing to do. She should have waited. She should have -
Out of nowhere, someone grabbed her. A man. Tall, brawny. He'd trapped her arms and was holding her head to his chest so she couldn't scream. Oh, God…
She tried to struggle for a half a second until she realized…
He was talking…
Breathlessly, almost gasping for words.
"Oh, God, Lois." A kiss on her hair. "Oh, Lois, I thought they'd killed you." A kiss on her temple. "Thank God you're alive."
Clark. It was Clark. She was safe.
She tried not to panic at the trapped feeling she had with her arms pinned to her sides.
She tried to get his attention but he was still murmuring somewhere near her ear.
He pulled back a few inches to look at her. "I'm so sorry, Lois. I should have never left you alone. Are you okay?" He stepped back, releasing her, and looked her up and down. "Did they hurt you?"
Lois tried not to focus on the way his eyes seemed to be staring straight through to her soul… She cleared her throat. "Who?"
"The… the gunrunners. The bad guys."
His hands on her shoulders…
His intense stare…
He'd been worried about her, was *still* worried about her.
"I'm okay, Clark. I was just doing a little investigating…"
His hands tightened a bit on her shoulders.
"Lois, are you crazy? Were you just going to waltz right in and ask them?"
Suddenly, the anger at his leaving was back, combined with the unexpected feeling of indignation. She didn't need him to protect her. To tell her what to do. She didn't need him to point out the fact that she *hadn't* had a plan. She was doing that just fine on her own.
She stared, silently seething. She felt his hands fall from her shoulders and they moved to run through his hair, which didn't quite work so well… It was slicked back. Only then did she realize that he was wearing his Suit.
He started to pace a bit. Only a few steps in each direction, but it was clear how agitated he was. Why had he been wearing the Suit? Maybe he hadn't changed from when he'd left this morning. But that didn't matter. Whatever his reasons were didn't matter. She was busy being mad at him.
"And what exactly were *you* going to do, Clark? Swoop right in and stop me?"
He stopped pacing and stared at her incredulously. "No! I thought they'd taken you!"
"Oh." The flood of anger that had just started halted abruptly as if someone had erected a dam in its path. She hadn't expected that. Thought of that. At all. Sure, she was scared that they'd find her, but she hadn't expected Clark to share in that fear, to be so distressed at the thought. That he'd be worried about her. Let alone the fact that she had no idea what had led him to believe she'd been abducted in the first place.
"Clark, I think we should talk."
Some of the lines of worry disappeared from his face, but his posture remained tense. Alert.
She glanced around, suddenly nervous at how near they were to the enemy, not to mention how conspicuous they looked even in a darkened alley. "But not here. We can come back later tonight and break in to find what we need."
For some reason, that produced a huge grin on his face. The largest she'd ever seen from him. And, before she could say another word, he'd scooped her up into his arms and they were airborne.
In the space of a heartbeat, she was several thousand feet off the ground, surrounded by nothing but free air and Clark's arms. Skyscrapers were reduced to the size of Lego models as he lifted her further, and the people on the busy streets shrunk into ants. For a moment, her breath clogged in her throat and she loosed a muffled squeal of surprise, but when she dragged her gaze from the departing ground to his face, the world fell away, and the roar of the wind bled into silence.
It… it felt… it felt wonderful.
She snaked her arms around Clark's neck for a little extra security, though she knew Clark wouldn't drop her.
This was… right. Just right. They were soaring through the clouds, the wind whipping at her face and tossing her hair about. She felt…
She was free.
After all those years of staring longingly out of airplane windows, wishing she could fly of her own free will and watch the city beneath her fall away, and here she was. Soaring above Metropolis, watching the buildings and the streets shrink before her eyes into a strangely beautiful mass of concrete and grids.
A feeling so powerful, so overwhelming, welled up inside of her. She couldn't help it; tears spilled from her eyes.
Nothing was crowding around her. No concrete walls. No dense trees. No fear closing in on her.
She was free.
Clark felt free.
In fact, he'd never felt more liberated in his life. Not even the day he'd learned he could fly had been as wonderful as this. Flying then had been a great escape from everything that was going wrong in his life, but even then he'd been too afraid of exposure. And after he'd become Superman and could fly around at will, the experience had always been tainted somehow. Like it was missing something.
Maybe it was because it separated him that much more from everyone else, reminded him of how different he was. Or maybe it was because he'd never donned the Suit for anything other than rescues, and certainly not in quite a while. Whatever it was that was making him feel so free, right now he didn't care.
He wasn't even sure where he was going. They were already flying over Virginia, so apparently he was headed south. He'd just picked Lois up on impulse and taken to the skies. They needed to talk, yeah, but he couldn't find a care in the world except for the woman in his arms with her arms around his neck.
The woman who'd just started trembling.
He looked down at her face quickly. She was crying. "Lois, are you okay? Are you scared? Do you want to go down?"
She smiled at him through her tears. "No, Clark, I'm fine. Just… great."
The smile reassured him a bit, but he couldn't help but worry…
"Then why are you crying? You know I won't drop you, right? I could never…"
She sniffled a bit. "I know, Clark. I trust you."
His heart welled up at that. She trusted him. He smiled broadly back at her.
"I am curious to know where we're going, though," she said, a hint of humor in her voice.
Oh. "Um… I'm not exactly sure." He blushed. This was all new to him. He'd never really flown for pure pleasure before… Not that this was for pleasure. It wasn't. They had to go somewhere. To talk. About what, he wasn't sure, and suddenly, he was worried. What *did* she want to talk about?
"Well, we need somewhere private… The motel would work, I guess," she suggested, interrupting his thoughts.
He frowned a bit. For some reason, he didn't really want to go back there. At least not now. Not when he was feeling so… good. "How about a secluded island off the Florida Keys?"
Damn. That sounded like he was trying to be romantic, didn't it?
"Sure." Her smile broadened. "That would be a nice change of scenery."
Clark altered his course a bit and headed southeast. He increased his speed just a little. As comfortable as it was holding Lois in his arms, it was getting a bit… uncomfortable. He had no idea what Lois wanted to talk about. The investigation, perhaps? Though… somehow he didn't think that was it.
He spotted a small island below that looked deserted, no signs of civilization as far as he could see, only the tropical vegetation. He took them down and set his feet on the white sand, then adjusted his grasp so Lois's legs could touch the ground.
They stood there for a long moment, her arms still around his neck, his around her waist. She was looking at him like… well, almost like she wanted to kiss him.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice screamed, Danger! Not safe. Not smart. But he couldn't tear his eyes away from the dark pools of emotion that were gazing at him.
To hell with being smart.
In a swift movement, Clark leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. She responded eagerly, running her fingers through his hair. He tested his tongue against her lips, and she accepted him willingly, opening her mouth so he could discover its depths.
Then, her lips moved over his and took his lower lip to suckle on it. He moaned deep in his throat. He felt lightheaded and on fire. The taste of her lips was sweet in his mouth, and it felt as if he'd never get enough. Lois stood, an oasis in his desert.
His hands moved up to cradle the back of her head, pressing her lips even closer. She sighed, and he swallowed it hungrily.
Moments later, she was pulling away, breathless. He panted. She rested her head in the hollow of his neck, and Clark reveled in just how right it felt.
He placed a feather-light kiss against her hair and hugged her tight. "Oh, God, Lois. I love you."
She stilled in his arms.
He felt her pull away and extract herself from his embrace.
Danger. Danger. This was why he couldn't trust himself. He couldn't think straight. Not around her. Not when she'd been looking at him like she had…
Her eyes were incredulous, and he could feel the heat of her stare.
Not exactly angry… but he could feel the panic coming off her in waves. He watched her swallow visibly.
"Excuse me?" Her voice was quiet. Shaky. Slightly high-pitched.
Clark stopped breathing. Not good. Not good. Not good.
Oh, God. What had he done?
The silence between them was almost unbearable. Say something, Clark!
"I… Lois… I think I love you."
Her jaw dropped, and for a minute she didn't speak.
Why? *Why*? He didn't know why. He wasn't even sure of the feeling. And how was even more unclear, but somewhere between the time he'd found her in his bedroom and now, he'd fallen in love with her. Or at least he thought he had.
"I-I don't know."
She let out something between a laugh and a sob.
Oh, God. Think, Clark! Say something.
Lois continued to stare at Clark. His shoulders sagged, and she watched as he scuffed his red boots in the sand, looking for all the world like a little lost child rather than the superhero he was.
All the stuff she'd read about him just hours ago came flooding back to her and hit her squarely in the chest, robbing her of breath.
And she started to wonder if there wasn't something to this closeness she felt towards him after all. The inexplicable feeling she'd had ever since she'd seen his picture in that old issue of the Daily Planet. The feeling she'd gotten when he'd offered so sincerely to help her. The feeling she'd gotten when she'd found him crying in the corner of her motel room. The feeling she'd gotten when he'd kissed her moments later. The feeling she'd gotten when she read about his childhood and found that he'd lost his parents, too. The feeling she'd gotten just now when he'd kissed her again…
And the feeling, deep in her gut, the full assault on her heart when he'd whispered "I love you."
It couldn't be. There was no rational explanation for it. Not one. It didn't make a lick of sense. There was no way that a city girl like her, who'd been declared dead and been living in the Congo for three years, could belong with a man from another planet who hopped universes and flew.
Love didn't just happen, and it certainly didn't happen like that!
Clark was doing his best not to stare at her; actually, to stare anywhere *but* at her. His boots, the palm trees, the ocean. But she caught his furtive glances in her direction. He thought he'd screwed up. He looked… tortured.
But a different kind of tortured than she'd seen before. It was as if…
As if he thought he'd just ruined his life.
Though surely she was imagining that. She couldn't read his mind any more than he could hers. And she didn't love him. How could she? They'd only just met. Not to mention… there was the other Lois to think of. What if all she proved to be was just a poor substitute for her counterpart in another universe?
But what if she wasn't? What if…
His eyes. She had to see his eyes. Then she'd know for sure. She'd be able to tell if he was looking at her or just a shadow of her. Right?
Her voice was thick. "Clark?"
He looked up, startled, worried. Terrified.
He looked completely and utterly lost, but what she found in his eyes stole her breath. Indescribable amounts of pain and uncertainty hung in their depths, dark windows to his soul. And suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to assure him of the very thing she couldn't say for sure existed.
The distance between them disappeared, and she threw herself at him, taking his head in her hands and crushing his lips against hers. He was still for half a second before he threaded his fingers through her hair and returned the kiss with equal fervor.
"Oh, Lois," he sighed against her lips.
She whimpered before he took her mouth again, then changed his course to trail wet kisses across her cheek and all the way to the hollow of her neck.
"Clark…" she whispered, more of a breath than a word.
Clark stilled for a moment, his heart welling up at her utterance.
She'd called him Clark while he was in the Suit. She had earlier in the alley, but somehow… now, in the heat of passion, it was just…
He didn't waste a second longer before he found her lips again, reassuring himself that she was here. That this *wasn't* a dream. That everything he'd ever wanted was right here in his arms.
He moved one hand to the small of her back and pressed her closer to him, wanting to *feel* that she was there. She sighed into his mouth, driving his desire even further. She seemed to melt into him, her body fitting perfectly against his -wholly different than the way the other Lois had felt in his arms. Better.
Oh, so much better.
He felt her lips move to a spot behind his ear, where she caressed it gently with her tongue. All the blood in his body stared to rush downward. It was an intoxicating feeling, having Lois so alive and willing in his arms.
She started tugging at his cape and the spandex that encased his chest, trying to figure out how to take it off. He stepped back hurriedly to remove the top part of his suit and let his cape fall to the sand behind him.
Her hands were on his chest immediately, exploring, caressing. He thought he'd been impervious to temperature, but everywhere her hands roamed there was fire. His head fell back, and he moaned as her lips and tongue did incredible things to his chest, his shoulders, his neck.
Clark brought his head back down to find her lips once again. He kissed her hungrily, desperate to taste her. His hands roamed over her shoulders and down to the waist of her jeans, where he tugged at her shirt until he had access to the soft, warm skin of her stomach.
He ran his fingers across her stomach, his touch feather-light, and he felt her muscles clench in response. Her sigh of pleasure was a warm stream of air on his ear. He moaned deep in his throat. Nothing. Ever. Had felt this… good.
His hands wandered higher underneath her shirt. Daring, testing. They edged higher still to undo the clasp of her bra. Then he resumed his exploration, although still a bit tentative and unsure.
She didn't seem to mind, in fact… Oh, God… she was busy sucking gently at his earlobe, and sighing in response to his movements. The spandex was starting to get uncomfortably tight. He'd never… this was… He withdrew his hands from her shirt to either side of her face, bringing her lips against his. Delving his tongue into her mouth, he tried to convey all the desire, the need she was stirring in him. He drew her shirt upwards, only tearing his lips away from hers long enough to pull her shirt and unfastened bra over her head, and then his mouth was back on hers with a passion he couldn't quite fathom.
He nearly died when he felt her hand snake between their bodies. He felt himself respond, and suddenly his knees were weak. Clumsily, he dropped to a kneel, bringing her with him.
Down. They should lie down. Her fingers were teasing lightly on his stomach where bare skin met spandex. He closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn't think. Blanket. He wished he had a blanket or something. Her fingers dipped below the waistline for a second, running along the material and against his skin. Hot. It was hot out here. Lie down. They still needed to… His cape! He could use that.
Then, in an instant, he was lying above her on the beach, his cape beneath them. He took a moment to drink in her beauty, getting lost in her eyes. Her hands came up to pull him down to her lips and he went willingly, devouring her mouth, tasting her soul.
He pulled away gently, wanting to look at her again, memorize her. Hands and mouths wandered, exploring new territory. The little moans and whimpers from Lois only served to fuel his desire, and he was resolutely ignoring the niggling whisper in the back of his mind. She moaned deeply, and threaded her fingers through his hair, holding to him tightly.
Clark's heart was pounding in his ears, sensations he'd only imagined assaulting him from every angle. He felt Lois's tug and brought his mouth back to hers, pressing his lips fiercely against hers. She whimpered again into his mouth as he ravaged her with his tongue, hands still exploring.
As he felt her hand snake between them once again, the voice got louder and cried in protest.
It was too much. Too soon.
He didn't want to listen. Trying his best to ignore it, he forced a stronger passion into his kiss, bringing both his hands up to hold her face to his.
He wanted this. *Needed* this. He needed to feel like he wasn't alone. Feel loved. Feel alive.
Tearing his lips away from hers, he looked at her, searching her eyes for the connection he so desperately needed to feel right at this moment. Her gaze was dark with desire, and he could feel her panting for breath below him. He felt as if he was being dangled over a precipice, wanting, *needing* to fall.
But he couldn't. *Shouldn't*.
"Clark?" Her eyes held the same hint of questioning as her voice.
He exhaled deeply and rested his forehead against hers, cursing the doubt and the raging desire within him.
"Is something wrong, Clark?"
He lifted his head enough to look her in the eyes. The question in her gaze turned to doubt. Worry. She averted her eyes, and he knew. They should stop. She wasn't ready. *He* wasn't ready, as much as his body was telling him otherwise. He wanted his first time to be… something more. Not that this wasn't special beyond his wildest dreams — he was with Lois, but they shouldn't now. Not like this.
"I… we should stop."
He could smell her. The arousal mingling with the scent of the salty breeze from the ocean. He'd never forget…
And as much as he wanted to finish what they'd started in reckless passion, he knew it wasn't right.
Clark watched the confusion and hurt cloud her darkened eyes. He'd screwed up. Said the wrong thing. Done the wrong thing. Let his raging emotions get the better of him just because he thought she might…
"Did I do something wrong, Clark?" Her voice was hesitant, tinged with hurt.
Oh, God. He shook his head. "No." He kissed her forehead lightly and brushed her cheek lightly with the back of his fingers, then pulled back to look at her again. "No, Lois. It's me, not you. I… can't."
He felt her flinch slightly at his words.
As much as he'd dreamed of this moment, he wasn't ready. And that killed him. Tore him apart to see the hurt in her eyes, and the rejection he knew she was feeling.
He was an idiot, and now he was panicked. What did he say? How could he reassure her that he still wanted her without… actually showing her?
She turned her head away, biting her lower lip.
"I… I just…" Clark struggled for the right words to keep her from shutting him out. "I don't want to mess up the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Her breath caught in her throat, and she whipped her head back to meet his eyes. "Oh," she breathed. Oh. What on Earth did she say to that?
What… how… how did he know? Why did he think that?
Lois Lane was nothing. Dead. On paper at least. How could he… after only three days… how…
"Lois, please believe me when I say there's nothing more I'd want right now than you." He gave a barely audible sigh, and continued, "But it's not right. Not now. I don't think I'm ready, and…"
He trailed off, and ran a hand through his hair. She tried not to pay attention to the way his muscles bunched and settled. And when he shifted away to sit beside her, it was a relief to not to feel his bare chest against hers, but she felt the loss of his closeness all the same.
"And…" he continued, shyly handing her her shirt, which she hugged closely to her chest, covering her breasts. "With the way I seem to screw things up, I… I just don't want to add another failure to the list."
She swallowed hard, not daring to speak or to move. She wasn't sure how to handle that. First he says he loves her, then he's ravaging her all of a sudden… and now… Was he so unsure of himself that he couldn't bring himself to be intimate with her? Or was he unsure of her…
He brought a gentle hand to her chin, turning her head and making her look at him. She wished he hadn't. She didn't want him to see he'd affected her. That she'd let herself believe this was more than it obviously was.
"You're too important to me."
She inhaled sharply. Damn him for continuing to steal her breath. Damn him for making her believe that he really did care. About her.
And damn the tears welling up in her eyes.
It wasn't fair for him to care so much when she was so lost and alone, dying to feel alive again.
She was supposed to be tough now, strong, handle things on her own; she'd survived the Congo. And so much more. She wasn't supposed to be falling in love with a broken superhero. But she couldn't help but see the parallels, how much they had in common. How much they *needed* each other.
Even if making love would have made her feel connected, cherished, it would have only been a temporary feeling. A quick fix. Her hormones protested the thought, but it really was too soon. She wasn't ready either.
She looked up to find Clark staring at her, looking utterly vulnerable and maybe just as scared as she was.
"Say something," he pleaded, his voice rough and feeble all at once.
She sat up, clutching her shirt to her chest, trying not to look at the large, muscular expanse of his. Damn him for being so good looking, too.
"C-can you put your shirt back on?" she blurted, ducking her head, wishing the first thing that'd come out of her mouth hadn't been so idiotic.
He chuckled, and she tensed.
He must have seen her do so, because his hand came to rest on her arm. "Only if you do the same. You know… uh… all the way on." He nodded towards the bare skin of her shoulders that was still showing.
She couldn't help but giggle, somewhat nervously. "Sure."
Clark nodded and moved to get up, blushing a bit when he handed her her bra. She took it from him, and watched as he went to retrieve the top of his suit. Her jaw dropped when all of a sudden, Clark turned into a blur before her eyes. When he stopped, he was fully clothed in his costume — without the cape.
He cleared his throat nervously; apparently she was staring. Wow. She… hadn't known how fast he was. He kept surprising her.
She shook her head. "S-sorry. I… I'll just get dressed now."
Clark smiled a little uneasily, a creeping blush rising in his cheeks again. He turned around to give her a little privacy.
Lois put herself together quickly, putting her bra and t-shirt back on. This was nothing less than awkward, and she was starting to be grateful that he'd stopped them. Just imagine how they might have acted around one another if they'd… made love.
Love? That's what it really was. Wasn't it? Could it be?
"Okay," she said quietly when she was finished dressing and had run her fingers hastily through her hair. What were they supposed to do now?
Clark turned back around, a timid grin on his face, and almost against her will she found it was infectious. She ducked her head and blushed.
There was a slightly uncomfortable silence for a moment. Lois wasn't sure what to say to him about everything that'd just happened. About what she was feeling. She couldn't even get a handle on it herself. She itched to fill the void with something inane.
"I wonder what time it is," she thought aloud.
"About eight thirty, I think…"
"Oh. Way too early to try and break into the headquarters. Some of the workaholics might still be there." She frowned a bit, eager for something to get her mind off what had just happened, but disappointed that there was nothing they could do right now.
She watched Clark smooth out a depression in the sand with the toe of his boot. "Yeah."
Think, Lois. Something to say. This shouldn't be awkward, right? She didn't *want* things to be awkward between them.
Hah. Right. How could it be anything but? Here she was on a deserted island with a man she'd just met days ago, just having shared an intimate, but unnerving moment. After he'd flown out on her hours earlier because he'd been too embarrassed to share what was troubling him.
Nope. Not awkward at all.
Well, they *had* come here to talk. And there was no more avoiding the conversation they needed to have, as much as she'd like to hide her head in the sand. Now would be the time to talk when he couldn't rightly fly off and leave her stranded here.
He looked up from the small hollow he'd made with his nervous foot after just having filled one up. "Yeah?"
"We need to ta…" Oh, that always sounded bad, didn't it? She started again. "I'd really like it if we could talk." There. That was better. Right?
He stood there for a second, staring at her. She was relieved not to find blind panic in his eyes, just a touch of wariness, which was comforting because she was nervous as heck.
Clark moved to readjust his cape on the sand so they could both sit, trying desperately not to think of what they'd done atop it only minutes ago. He needed to be clear-headed here. Not screw up.
Please don't let him mess this up.
He sat down, hoping she'd take the cue to sit down next to him. She settled herself cross-legged facing him and gave him a tentative smile.
He smiled back.
Whatever he'd been wishing for before, he had it now. In spades. Or at least he thought he did.
And that made him more nervous than he'd ever been in his life.
He did his best to tamp it down, though… because of…
The connection. The feeling he'd cursed when he was in the other universe. The feeling that had made him dead certain his Lois wasn't alive. The feeling that had been painfully absent when he'd realized she was alive after all. The feeling that had crept up on him the other night.
The feeling that was almost painfully prominent now as he sat across from Lois Lane, wondering what the hell to say.
"You told me you love me."
Clark's head snapped up. That hadn't been on his top-ten list of topics to expect.
It was almost more of a question than a statement. He had. He'd said it. More than once. And… he was pretty sure he meant it.
He wasn't ready to look her in the eye, scared of what he might find… or not find there. His reply was quiet. "Yeah."
How? He had to look at her now, and found her brow was furrowed a bit. Her eyes were… almost sad, but held a hint of uncertainty in them. The emotions flowing through their connection were jumbled, hard to read. Too strong.
"What do you mean?"
Her voice was quiet, uneven, almost pleading. "I mean, why do you love me? How do you know?"
Why? Why did he love her? He loved her because… he just did? Because, before he'd ever met her, he'd realized how incomplete his life was the minute he knew she existed? Because for the first time in months, he didn't feel like he wanted to die? Because she was here?
Clark looked into her eyes, and said with a certainty he hadn't known he possessed, "Because you make me feel alive."
He heard her breath hitch, and then she swallowed. The seconds stretched between them, and he was positive neither of them breathed. He watched her eyes grow damp with tears that threatened to overflow.
Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet and shaky. "I… I'm not sure why… but I think I love you, too."
He exhaled. Somewhere deep in his chest, Clark felt a part of him begin to heal. And for a moment, he couldn't breathe again. His head started to spin, a thousand different emotions swimming through him that he couldn't quite tell if they were hers or his own.
He leaned forward to catch her lips with his own, bringing his hands up to frame her face. A sweet, tender caress, his mouth slanted against hers. The kiss was over almost as soon as it had begun, but it held no less meaning than the fervent ones they'd shared just a short time ago, if not more.
They both sat back and regarded each other shyly. And after a moment's silence, she spoke.
"Clark, tell me what happened. What made you leave?" she asked, surprising him for the second time in just as many minutes.
No, he wouldn't ruin this moment. He wouldn't. Couldn't they just forget it ever happened? He felt fine now. More than fine. He felt overwhelmed by her admission, but everything he'd ever wanted was right here on this island, right in front of him. He didn't want to move. He didn't want to spoil everything with his insecurities and failures. Why couldn't she have left it alone? Why couldn't they just stay here forever? Their stolen sanctuary.
"I-I… need to know. I… maybe… you don't trust me."
All the air whooshed out of his lungs.
Didn't trust her? How… How could she think that?
"Lois, of course I trust you!"
"Then why wouldn't you talk to me?!"
"Because…" He hated the whimper that'd crept out in his voice.
"Because why?" He hated the uncertainty in her voice more.
"Because… I… didn't want you to be ashamed of me."
"Ashamed? Clark, why?" Some of the hurt and uncertainty had left her eyes now, but her voice was insistent.
He hung his head, not wanting to watch the disappointment surface in those beautiful eyes as he told her. His voice was no more than a whisper. "I didn't make it to a rescue. I… couldn't go."
Her hand came to rest upon his knee, but he still refused to look up at her.
"I changed into the Suit and… I choked. I couldn't move. I couldn't go." His voice was low and defeated, and he hated himself for it.
Clark heard her take a deep breath. She wasn't sure what to say. He knew it. She couldn't figure out how to tell him how upset she was at finding her hero to be… lacking. Her hand left his knee. She was moving away from him. She was… moving to his side…
He felt her arms come around his shoulders to embrace him. He sagged with relief into her arms. He didn't want to talk anymore; he just wanted to be held by her, reassured by the fact that she accepted him.
But Lois pulled back after a moment, and silently urged him on.
He took a shuddering breath. "I can't do it, Lois. I can't be the hero everyone thinks I am." He hung his head, not wanting to look into her eyes. "And I didn't want you to know that. To know who I really am. I'm not like him."
Her voice was quiet, soothing. "Him who?"
"The other Clark. The other Superman."
He was grateful for the lack of reproach in her voice, but didn't she understand? He'd told her about the other rescue… but he'd made it to that one…
"He *is* Superman. I'm… not. I can't be like him."
"I don't understand, Clark. You're Superman, too."
How could he explain? He opened his mouth and closed it again. How could he explain that he didn't have what it took to be a superhero? "I… I'm no good at it. I don't have the same confidence. I don't have…"
"You don't have what?"
Lois. He didn't have Lois, the missing part of his life. His inspiration. His confidence. His courage. But… he *did* have her now.
Was that the difference between him and his counterpart?
Before it had seemed so, but now he wasn't so sure. Was he confident now? If he heard a cry for help right now, could he go? Because he had Lois now?
He… wasn't sure.
There had to be more to it than that. Even though he'd spent last year convincing himself of that very thing. That he couldn't be anything without Lois. He couldn't be the person he was meant to be because he thought she'd been dead.
But she was here. She'd *been* here. And he still hadn't been able to.
There was something wrong with him. Something other than the fact that Lois had been absent from his life until just a few days ago.
Courage. Confidence. Faith in himself.
He didn't have that. He didn't believe he could do it.
"Clark?" She touched his arm, drawing him out of his thoughts.
"I… I don't believe I can do it. I'm not strong enough."
"Oh, Clark. You *are*. Just look at everything you've overcome! I may not know you quite well enough yet, but for some reason, I just *know* that you're stronger than you think you are."
He hung his head and whispered, "No, I'm not."
"I know you are. Because…"
He listened to her take a trembling breath. Her words hung thick in the air, and he looked up to find her eyes watery but determined. He didn't say a word and waited for her to finish.
"I… I know exactly what it feels like to lose your parents…"
His breath hitched. She knew?
"I know how lost and alone you must have felt… like your whole world has been torn apart, and you don't think you'll ever feel complete again. When you find yourself an orphan in a world that doesn't care."
What she was trying to tell him with such anguish her voice finally sank in. He'd known. Of course he'd known. But… he hadn't realized just how much she knew. She knew what it felt like…
Her eyes were so full of pain. Pain he knew. That he recognized with a terrifying clarity. "Lois…"
She looked at him with tears in her eyes. "My mom and dad. And Lucy, too, my sister. It… it was a car crash… just like your parents."
Oh, God. He felt her remembered pain mingling unbearably with his own — buried, but crashing back to the present with a fierce strength. "I'm so sorry, Lois."
She sniffled and swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's okay. It was a long time ago. I just… haven't talked about it in a long time."
He gathered her in his arms and held her tight, not knowing what else to do, what to say.
After a moment, she snuffled and pulled back again. "Sorry, we were talking about you here, not me." She gave him a watery smile. He reached out to wipe a few of her tears away with the pad of his thumb.
"You're strong, Clark, stronger than you know. You just have to have faith in yourself. Dig deep down; you'll find you have a lot more courage than you think."
How did she know? How did she know exactly what he'd needed to hear for so long? And why hadn't he been able to do that before?
It was her. Lois. His beautiful Lois. He might be placing too much stock in her, but he didn't care. From now on, he'd try. He'd try to be the hero she believed he could be.
A small seed of fear still gripped him, but now… because she believed in him, he'd try.
He looked back into her teary eyes and lost himself there. Maybe it was because she'd said she loved him. Maybe it was her unflagging faith in him. Maybe it was because they shared the same tragic past. Maybe… Oh, hell!
Clark cupped her cheek and brought her lips to his, tasting the salt of her tears mingled with his own. He couldn't even describe the emotions that flowed between them. Love. Faith. Hurt. Healing. He found his solace in her kiss. Their tongues tangled; their souls melded. And he drew strength from her as he tore himself away from her lips.
He rested his forehead against hers, breathless. "Thank you, Lois." He closed his eyes as he stroked a thumb over her damp, tear-stained cheeks. "Thank you."
"Will you just hold me for a little while?"
His heart swelled. He didn't think there was anything that could ruin this feeling. "Always, Lois, always."
He laid back slowly against the sand, bringing her with him in his arms. She snuggled against him, burying her head somewhere in the hollow of his neck. He found himself exhausted now after his sleepless night and all the emotions of the day.
Clark moved to kiss her crown of dark, tousled hair and whispered to her before he closed his eyes and drifted to sleep. "I love you, Lois."
<I love you, Lois.>
The soft murmur echoed in her mind.
<I love you, too, Clark.>
He smiled, though he couldn't have read her mind, and tightened his embrace, clearly on his way to dreaming.
She wasn't brave enough to return the sentiment so casually, but she knew now that she did. Lois closed her eyes, and let the sound of the waves lapping the shore lull her to sleep.
"You're keeping an eye on Daly, right?"
"Yes, sir. She hasn't abandoned post yet. Everyone here in airport security is advised. She won't get away."
"Good. Now I…" His attention was averted by the blinking light of the reserved line. "Keep me posted," he said curtly, then hung up and quickly answered the other line.
"I've lost her, sir."
"She took a cab through rush hour traffic. I lost her."
"Well, was she doing anything of consequence before she got into the cab?" Johnson was really testing his patience.
"She was at the library. On the computers. Unfortunately, I couldn't get close enough to see what she was doing."
"You imbecile. Find her! And mark my words, Johnson, no one in my employ lives long enough to screw up twice."
Lois felt a light caress against her cheek. She kept her eyes closed, not wanting to wake up just yet. This was a good dream. She let it play over in her head, hoping it would continue where it left off as dreams sometimes did in that half-awake state. And maybe if she wished hard enough, she could fall into it and not have to endure another humid night in the Congo.
She felt the feather-light touch against her cheek again. It was so much more real than in any of her previous dreams. She shifted a bit from where she was lying, but didn't get very far. There was a large pair of muscular arms embracing her. She froze for half a second until she remembered.
She relaxed and smiled lazily, settling once again in his arms and stretching her legs. She was safe. She was content. She felt free. What more could she ask for?
Lois finally opened her eyes when she felt the slight moisture as Clark placed a kiss on her brow.
"Hello." His voice was deep, but quiet. Soothing.
"Hi." She smiled and ducked her head a bit.
Night had long since fallen before they'd dropped off to sleep after their emotional conversation, but it was darker now. The moon was high in the sky among the stars, and they lent a tender glow to their surroundings.
She finally looked back up at him, into his eyes. The smile that greeted her made her heart flutter. They were both quiet for a time, just comfortable in the moment. She snuggled closer to him.
Lois watched him as he turned his head to look at the sky. His smile broadened, and if she was seeing right, there was a watery glimmer in his eyes.
"Look, Lois." His voice sounded choked with emotion, and he spoke softly as his fingers started tracing lazy circles on the bare skin of her shoulder. "Look how bright the stars are."
She followed his gaze, and looked above her. The thick blanket of stars covering the sky was breathtaking. Thousands of twinkling orbs smiling down on them.
Clark was right; they did seem brighter than she could remember ever seeing them. But maybe it was because this was the first time she had really looked at them without the dense cloud of dread hanging over her.
"Wow. You ever wondered how many there are? How long it would take to count them all?"
His hand stilled. "Yeah… I wonder…"
"Clark, is something wrong?"
He kept staring at the stars, but his face was less peaceful, troubled almost. It must have been the uncertainty in her voice that made Clark turn to her with an almost startled look. The melancholy that had lined his face seconds ago was gone now, and had been replaced with a tender expression. He cupped her cheek and kissed her briefly on the lips. "No, Lois. Nothing's wrong. I was just thinking, that's all."
That reassured her… some. But she still had this niggling feeling tugging at her that something was wrong. Like maybe he hadn't told her everything before they'd fallen asleep in each other's arms.
Lois kept stealing cautious glances at Clark, as she'd done their entire flight back to the alleyway near St. John Enterprises. Clark appeared to be scanning the building for occupants. He'd also told her he'd be able to assess the security system as he looked, and, with luck, find the easiest way to break in without being caught. Turned out it was going to be more helpful than she thought, having Superman as a partner.
She was worried about him, though. He'd talked, but she had a feeling there was still a lot he wasn't telling her, stuff he was still keeping bottled up inside. There was so much darkness and hurt hidden in those deep brown eyes of his, she suspected much more than one night's conversation would be necessary to reveal it all. And perhaps start repairing some of the obvious damage, a small voice added in her head.
But she was encouraged by the fact that he *had* shared something. He'd made her realize that being a superhero wasn't as easy as one would think. Especially when his past was as painful as his had been. Sharing her own past had been difficult, but worth it, because seeing that look in Clark's eyes, that look when he'd realized he wasn't alone anymore, was exactly how she had felt when she'd read all the articles about him.
He'd realized he wasn't alone anymore.
She hadn't told him yet about the thing that was worrying her most right now. The strange suspicion that she could feel everything as he was feeling it — ever since they'd opened up and shared their emotions. She had to be imagining things. She was just being empathetic, which wasn't too hard to fathom considering the tragedies they'd both survived…
But there was something…
He kept looking at her. Like he'd do anything not to have her leave his side. Like he could see right into her soul when he looked into her eyes. That warmed her heart, but at the same time…
It scared her.
What if there *was* something to this awareness she was experiencing? Another one of his powers? And if she could feel his emotions, did that mean he knew everything she was feeling? She was just being crazy, right?
Lois felt a bit guilty trying to avoid his gaze after everything they'd shared in the past few days, especially what they'd shared just in the last few hours, but she was scared of this possible connection she… must be imagining.
He turned to her, apparently having finished his scan, and gave her a thumbs-up and a grin. Then he took her hand and led her further down the alley and to the rear entrance of St. John's a half a block away. She smiled slightly, secure in the knowledge that she didn't have to pretend her stomach hadn't flipped a little at his touch, or that it felt insanely nice to be holding his hand.
She was grateful she didn't have any more time to contemplate the magnitude of emotions assaulting her. The responsibility of encouraging the world's superhero was on her shoulders. And that wasn't even getting into the strange feeling of what she suspected were his emotions overwhelming her.
No, she didn't have time. Right now, she was Mad Dog Lane, investigative reporter — or, at least, she was trying to be.
Lois watched in awe as Clark punched in dozens of security codes and found the right one in a matter of seconds. He opened the door. He let her slip in before he followed her, and then the door snicked shut behind them.
Once inside, Lois realized how ill-equipped they were. They didn't have a flashlight, and the security lighting was a poor substitute. This was going to be harder than she'd thought.
"C'mon, this way," Clark whispered.
He was guiding her gently forward, their hands still linked. "I can't see a thing, Clark," she whispered back.
"That's okay, I can manage well enough."
She'd have sworn she heard him smiling with those words. She shook her head in amazement. She really had to find out what the extent of all his powers was.
Lois followed him blindly through the room and down an even darker hallway, trying not to draw frightening parallels to the last dark corridor she'd walked down. Only the warmth of the strong hand holding hers kept her mind from wandering down that dangerous road.
He stopped them in front of what she suspected was a locked door. "This is it," he said, his voice slightly stronger than a whisper. And to her amazement, he turned the knob and it opened.
"Wasn't it locked?" She gasped.
"Yeah. But that wasn't a problem."
There was that grin again. She could *feel* it. She grinned with him. "You're quite useful, you know."
He chuckled softly, and the sound echoed somewhere deep in her chest.
They entered the room, and Clark turned on the light. He spoke before she could gasp again. "There are no windows in this room. No one can see us."
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the bright light after the pitch black of the night and the only slightly brighter security lighting. She found him grinning, and, again, she found it contagious. She was really there. After all this time, she was finally doing something to get back at the people who'd made her suffer for more than three years.
Clark's voice interrupted the silence. "So, what are we looking for, exactly?"
Proof. They needed concrete evidence that this company was responsible for the contribution to civil war in the Congo. She only hoped that there was still something to find.
"We need to find some kind of documents, invoices maybe, that match the ones I saw in Point Noire."
"Okay, then. File cabinets. That's where we should start."
Clark moved over to the tall metal filing cabinets in the corner of the room, and deftly opened the top drawer even though she was certain it'd been locked. She was sure, one day, she'd get used to his displays of power, but as of right now, she still delighted in the thrill that ran through her at the sight.
"Bingo," Clark said. "Invoices. What year and month do you want?"
"Um… I guess the most recent one. See if they're still at it."
Lois crept up on her toes to try and peer at the files over Clark's shoulder as he pushed the older folders away to make extracting the newer ones easier. She sank back flat-footed again after he'd withdrawn a handful of overstuffed file folders, and then followed him to the desk so they could take a look.
She stood close to Clark's side as he opened the folder and leafed through the invoices, almost hating that it was hard to concentrate being so near to him. Lois shook herself mentally and focused on the documents in front of them. Her heart started to beat a little faster, her breaths more shallow, and she tried to quell the panic that was threatening to rise to the surface.
They were the same. Exact copies of the invoices she'd attempted to take before she'd been captured — only different dates. She shouldn't be surprised. She shouldn't be scared. Of course they would be the same. And there was no reason to be scared. Clark was here.
She felt his hand close over hers. He must have guessed she was frightened, and she was grateful to have him next to her, offering the small comfort of his hand clasping hers.
"Right ones?" he asked quietly.
"Okay, so we should take a few of these for evidence. Even though the police won't be able to use them in court, it'll still be helpful in convincing them to take action."
She nodded again.
Clark shook his head.
Her brow furrowed. "What's wrong?"
"This is too easy. Too simple. Why would they have record of illegal arms export? It just doesn't make sense."
Lois had thought about that. She'd had years to think about it. About why the glimpse of shipping invoices she'd seen had recorded the actual nature of the goods being shipped when she knew in her gut that they had to be illegal.
"This is a subsidiary of a larger business. There's a bigger fish to catch here," she said.
Clark looked at her, a mix of awe and surprise on his face. "Quick thinking. I guess I'm a little rusty."
"No, Clark, I… I didn't have much else to do while I was… l-locked up for so long."
She watched his eyes darken. He seemed about to say something, but she spoke before he could, steeling her resolve to be Mad Dog Lane. "But that doesn't matter. We shouldn't waste any time here speculating or brainstorming. We need to find evidence of the company St. John's reports to. That'll be the key to unlocking all this."
He nodded resolutely. "You're right." He gave her hand a squeeze before releasing it, and took a few of the invoices from random spots in the pile, closed the folder and returned it to the filing cabinet. "Okay, so what are we looking for now? Memos? Licenses?"
"Memos or letters might be a good start. Let's see if the desk is locked."
They both moved around to the rear of the desk, and Clark scooted the chair out a bit. Lois sat down and started trying the handles. All three of the larger drawers on the left-hand side were unlocked, and she opened and closed them in quick succession.
"Why didn't you look in any of those, Lois?"
"Because they won't have the good stuff easily accessible."
"Right. Sorry, it's been a while since I've done this investigating stuff. I've lost my edge."
Lois wished he'd stop saying that. *She* was the one who was rusty and out of practice. But she didn't have time to dwell on that right now. She quickly moved on to test the middle drawer as well as the ones on the right.
Bingo. Bottom right.
She looked up at Clark with a sly grin. "Do you mind?"
He quirked a smile back and yanked the drawer open easily.
"Glad to be of service." His grin stretched a bit, covering more of his face. God, he was cute when he smiled. He ought to do that more often.
She didn't linger on that thought long; out of the corner of her eye, she'd seen the contents of the drawer. Pay dirt. A list of distributors and recipients.
Clark looked over her shoulder at the list she held in her hand. He was trying his damnedest not to revel in the very comforting fact that he could now feel that emotional connection he'd been longing for. The same one the other Clark shared with his Lois. He still found it a bit odd and maybe a tiny bit disconcerting, but on the whole it was a wonderful feeling.
But right now he needed to focus.
Wordlessly, he spread out the invoices on the desk so they could have a closer look at them while Lois examined the paper in her hand.
"I'm dying to know what LLI is," she said. "They're the main distributor. In fact, it looks as though LLI is the main company, and all the others are subsidiaries, including St. John Enterprises."
He watched her frown as she mulled it over in her head.
"I'll bet the last letter stands for incorporated or investments or something," she said.
Clark's mind flashed back to the other universe… The night Lois had told him about…
<Lex Luthor, evil?>
<Yeah. A criminal mastermind.>
"Lex Luthor Investments," Clark breathed.
"Lex Luthor," he repeated.
He still had trouble wrapping his mind around it. The man was nothing short of a saint. Even a bit of a recluse, living in his mansion in North Metropolis. Clark just couldn't imagine him being evil, but Lois had told him of only a few of the atrocities the Lex of her world had committed, and he knew there were countless more. Clark paused to look at Lois. So far with this alternate universe thing a lot ran in parallel. Eerily so.
"The philanthropist Lex Luthor?" she asked sardonically, turning in the chair a bit to raise an eyebrow at him.
He shrugged helplessly.
"Sorry, he just seems like the least likely person to be involved in something like this." She paused for a moment and seemed to consider the notion. "Unless… has he turned to the dark side while I was gone? Has he done something in the past three years to make people suspicious?"
"No… The other Lo… is… told me." He was an idiot. How exactly was that supposed to sound to her ears?
"Oh." She averted her gaze from his, and concentrated on the mess of papers in front of them. "She told you that Lex Luthor was a criminal mastermind or something?"
He gulped. "Yeah… at least in her universe. She said he was responsible for a whole slew of illegal activity, not the least of which was trying to kill the other Superman."
"Kill?" She swiveled around quickly to face him. "I… I thought you were… invulnerable. I read it in the paper…"
Clark ducked his head, trying desperately not to let his mind wander to the evidence vault at precinct fourteen. It was best forgotten. But Lois… "There's a substance — a meteorite — called Kryptonite. It can… kill me."
"Clark!" Her anxious voice shook him a bit.
"It's locked up. The police have it," he hastened to reassure her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"But that's no guarantee. Personally, I don't trust the police as far as I could throw them. Though… I suppose things have changed a lot since I've been gone. Are you sure it's safe there?"
"Yeah. Well, relatively. It's been there well over a year, and I don't suspect any bad guys know where it is."
She sat silent for a moment, and he could feel a whole mix of emotions rolling off her. Worry. Fear. And something else he couldn't make out.
"Are you okay, Lois?"
She jumped almost imperceptibly. And he took his hand from her shoulder. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." She tucked her hair behind her ear. "So back to this Lex Luthor thing… what makes you think this universe's Lex is anything like ours?"
Well, because Lois told him so, and it seemed like a good idea?
"Because it fits, and it's about the only lead we have."
"Okay," she said, her tone careful. "I suppose that's true enough, but how do we look into that? I mean, it's not like we can just knock on his door and ask him."
Clark frowned, thinking hard. "Well, I suppose we could look at these shipping invoices a little more closely…"
Lois turned back to face the desk, and they both stared down at the papers. No matter how he looked at them, the invoices still seemed to be legitimate. Lois had told him she hadn't seen the weapons themselves, just the diamonds that'd been traded in return.
He sighed. "It just doesn't make sense. Why would it be legal to export weapons to a country in the midst of civil war? It doesn't seem right."
"No, it doesn't," Lois replied, frowning.
He stared again, and something caught his eye. "Lois, look." He pointed to the invoice. "Cabinda is listed as the recipient of the munitions, not Point Noire. The Congo is just a dock point along the way. And I'll bet you anything the amount of guns on the ship don't match what's on the invoice."
"You're right! Why didn't I see that before…" She trailed off, and a sad look flitted across her face before she started again. "So now we just need to find the *real* record of shipments."
She glanced sidelong at the computer on the desk across the room. "You any good at hacking?" she grinned.
Lois Lane was a liability. A massive one. And it angered him that the people he'd hired to watch her had failed. He thought he'd taken care to select competent subordinates, but obviously he'd made an error in judgment because they'd slipped up. Daly had somehow missed Lois leaving the airport — an unforgivable offence for which she'd pay later. Now Johnson had let Lane out of his sight, leaving means for her to accomplish just about anything. He was at least safe in the knowledge that she hadn't gone to Perry White, as he was still out of town.
Lois Lane was a loose cannon.
But she was also an asset.
That's why he hadn't ordered her elimination. Not now, and not over three years ago when he'd gotten the phone call that someone had been caught snooping. Back then, Lois Lane had been mildly useful… only as insurance against anything going wrong. The Daily Planet had caught wind of their operation — and sent their top reporter to investigate — a fact that had made him nervous and edgy.
And he was always in control.
But that was why he'd kept her alive and imprisoned. Knowing Perry White, he wouldn't have traded an international exclusive for the life of his favorite reporter. He'd had the situation under complete control; there was no way Perry White would run a story when it would cost him her life. Thus, Lois Lane had become his bargaining chip — had he needed one.
He smiled smugly. He hadn't needed one. And so he'd taken a perverse pleasure in keeping her alive, but forgotten by everyone she'd ever known. Dead to the world, but for his private enjoyment in having defeated such an opponent.
But then she'd proved not so easily conquered. He'd been sent word eight months ago that she'd escaped. He wasn't sure how she'd accomplished it, but he'd doubted highly that anyone could survive the wilds of the Congo. Nonetheless, he'd had men stationed in Metropolis at the three places he'd be sure to catch her: the airport, the Daily Planet, and City Hall — Perry White's base of operations. Better safe than sorry if she somehow miraculously made it back to the States. He'd been certain she wouldn't survive.
Lois Lane had proven him wrong, and he despised her for it. He loathed being played the fool, but he'd risen from this setback as he always did. He had a better plan. White was the Mayor now and held far more influence over Metropolis than he'd had as editor of the Planet.
White had been sending tentative queries in Kayes and Point Noire ever since the impostor Lane had shown up and promptly disappeared. He couldn't have the mayor finding anything he wasn't supposed to. He needed to be silenced, and as he didn't have the poor sense to kill the mayor, he had something else in mind.
No one crossed Lex Luthor and lived to tell about it, not without paying gravely for it.
Lois was too frustrated to marvel as she watched Clark's fingers fly over the keyboard in mild fascination. He'd only been at it for a few minutes, but the waiting wasn't her only source of aggravation.
That niggling feeling she'd had about Clark not having told her everything hadn't gone away. She knew now that it was about the other Lois. It just had to be.
He'd said the other Lois had told him about Lex… He said she'd only spent a few days here…
That sort of subject didn't really come up in just a few days time. Not when they'd been busy creating a superhero and catching that bad guy. What was his name again? Tempus, or something weird like that?
Something wasn't adding up here, and she hated the idea that she couldn't fully trust him yet because of it.
"It's no good, Lois. I must have tried a thousand combinations already," Clark grumbled, interrupting her thoughts.
Lois let out an irritated sigh. She'd been so hopeful, too.
"Here," she said, indicating he should get up. "Let me try."
He stared at her for a second, raising an eyebrow. "But…"
"Just get up, Clark," she insisted impatiently.
He threw up his hands in defeat and let her have the chair.
She sat down and stared at the screen. She hadn't meant to be so rude, but she was tired and annoyed. Here she was with the source of more than three years of torment at her fingertips, ready to be exposed, and she couldn't get at it. And on top of that was the assault of endless theories about who Clark was, what he was feeling, and what it all had to do with her.
Lois shook herself mentally and looked at the screen again. The cursor asking for the password blinked dumbly back at her. She could hear Clark's even breathing close behind her. Think, Lois.
She never remembered *her* password, how was she supposed to even guess at a stranger's? She had to keep hers on a sticky note on the underside of her keyboard.
Wait a minute…
It couldn't be that easy.
But she had to check…
Lois lifted up the keyboard and craned her neck to look for anything resembling hope in the shape of a small, yellow piece of paper.
She put the keyboard back down and grumbled.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for the password," she replied tersely as she started rifling through the thin middle drawer.
"Lois, I really don't think tha -"
"Clark, don't you have your password written down somewhere near your computer?" She didn't even turn to look at him, still intent on the contents of the drawer.
"Uh… no. I have a photographic memory…"
"Good for you. But the rest of us aren't as lucky."
On a whim she ran her hands along the underside of the desk. There! A small piece of paper that came unstuck as she brushed her hand across it. She held her breath, looking down to watch it flutter to the floor.
She bent over to pick it up, almost afraid to touch it for fear it might not really be there.
But it was. And it had writing on it. An alpha-numeric code.
Lois held it up and threw a smirk back in Clark's direction before she turned to the keyboard to type it in, her heart beating wildly in her chest.
She heard a faint, awed whisper behind her. "Brilliant."
She couldn't help but smile.
Lex was ripped from his dour brooding by the shrill ring of the phone. The line he'd specially secured for any and all news regarding Lois Lane. The cord let loose a protesting thwap as he ripped the receiver from the hook, which then clanged and fell to the floor.
"This had better be good news," he growled as he tilted his Rolex-encased wrist toward his view. "It's three a.m."
"Sir? We have a problem. A big one."
He closed his eyes and sighed inwardly. He definitely didn't have the patience for this. "What is it, Johnson? Don't tell me you haven't found her. Need I remind you of the terms of your contract?"
Lex grinned smugly at the audible gulp on the other end of the line. He opened the humidor on his desk and extracted one of the Cuban cigars, letting the lid fall shut with a clap when he was done.
"No, sir. And, yes, I lost her… But it wasn't my fault. I managed to catch up with Ms. Lane in an alleyway not far from the St. John offices, but…"
"But what? I don't have time for your incompetence."
"Superman showed up and flew off with her. I have no idea where they went."
"What?!" he raged, slamming his fist down on the desk.
"She… Superman… I…"
"Get back to your post immediately!"
Lex slammed the receiver down on its base, pausing for a moment to rein in his fury, before he jerked it back towards his ear and dialed again.
He wasn't sure how Lane had garnered Superman's attention, nor *why*, for that matter. The tights-wearing do-gooder didn't personally help *everyone*. Perhaps he had a soft spot for the little, meddlesome reporter, which actually made her more of an asset than he'd thought. Another advantage to exploit, a fun twist to the game.
But, no, this problem had been going on far too long. It needed to be dealt with. Now.
The competent and alert response he was greeted with after only one ring calmed him greatly. "Nigel, elimination. Post two."
"Yes, sir. Anything else?"
"Yes, I'll need you to secure something from the evidence room at precinct fourteen."
Lex smiled at the grin he could almost hear in the Englishman's response. "Of course, sir."
Clark watched the woman in front of him with awe as she negotiated her way through a maze of files and data. The look of pure determination on her face was fascinatingly… sexy. And he tried like hell not to let his mind wander back to what'd happened hours earlier, but failed.
He was confused about his actions. Why had he suddenly been overcome with such a powerful need for her? It'd been raw, elemental. But where had it come from? He'd never been so… impulsive. Almost as if he hadn't been in control of his own actions. And Lois being so responsive, not to mention having initiated things, had only spurred him on.
He was grudgingly grateful for the insistent voice in the back of his mind that had stopped him. The time, the situation… it hadn't been right. Too soon. If he wasn't confident enough to rescue someone as Superman, how could he expect to be a competent lover *or* boyfriend? He didn't have any business leading her to believe he could give something more than he was able.
Yes, it had been the best choice for them to stop, but he couldn't help but worry that Lois was more upset than she was letting on. Or maybe it wasn't actually bothering her. Or worse… maybe she'd only been so responsive because she needed physical contact. Reassurance that she was alive. And what if she'd said she loved him too, only to spare his feelings? Or because she was alone in the world. In need of protection. An anchor. Who better for that than a supposed superhero?
He wouldn't believe that was true. She'd asked him to hold her after their emotional conversation. And no one had forced her to hold his hand earlier. Besides, there was just too much they shared for this not to be right somehow. Maybe they were meant to be after all.
He only wished he knew for sure that she wouldn't break his heart.
He'd give anything to be able to read her emotions better, especially now. Something was wrong. Something more than her fear and frustration in their investigation. The connection he'd been so relieved to feel wasn't working. Or not working properly, anyway. Static? Was she mad at him for some reason? Shutting him out? Did it even work that way?
"Clark, pay attention," Lois snapped. Then, less angrily, she told him, "Look at this."
She was grinning like a cat that'd gotten the canary as she pointed to the document open on the computer screen.
He gathered himself and brought his attention to the spreadsheet in front of them.
"Pages and pages. Distribution and production records. We've got them!"
A huge smile stretched across his face. "You're incredible, you know that, Lois?"
She grinned and blushed, ducking her head and tucking her hair behind her ear. "No, just determined."
"And what's not incredible about that?" he asked softly, still in awe of her.
She looked up at him, seemingly startled, and he'd have sworn her breath caught. How could she not know how brilliant and beautiful she was? Had they really taken that much from her?
Clark cupped her cheek and looked deep into her eyes, trying to convey his sincerity. "You are an amazing woman, and don't ever let anyone else make you think differently."
He watched her avert her eyes and bite at her bottom lip. He was worried for a second until her hand came up to cover his, and she looked back up at him through her dark lashes.
"Thank you, Clark."
The hint of a smile touched her lips, but the overwhelming feeling of love he could sense told him all he needed to know.
He stood there for a long set of moments, entranced by the emotion.
Then Clark cleared his throat, suddenly self-conscious. He stroked her cheek gently with his thumb before dropping his hand and his gaze.
"So… um…" he started lamely. "I guess we should print this or save it or something and get the heck out of here."
She smiled and cleared her throat as well. "Yeah, and then we have to figure out what to do next."
Clark brought his eyes back to hers quickly.
"For the investigation, I mean."
"Right, partner." Clark couldn't stop himself from grinning like an idiot, especially when Lois's face broke into a grin just as big.
Elle Daly sat in the airport lobby, barely paying attention to the open magazine in her hands. Lane had already passed by over forty-eight hours ago; there wasn't too much point in her still being here. But there was always the chance Lane could skip town again, and she hadn't been told to abandon her post yet.
She knew her days were limited. Johnson had spotted Lane, too. The boss knew. He knew she'd failed in her one and only mission. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that he hadn't realized it yet. He was just biding his time, keeping her on edge until he eliminated her.
The magazine started shaking. Elle took a deep, steadying breath and threw the magazine aside. She needed to get a grip. Come up with a plan. Think of somewhere she could hide where he couldn't find her even though he was impossible to escape. Three days. Three days, and she still hadn't come up with a plan. Time was running out. She needed to…
Elle jumped, startled, and turned to find a tall, muscular man behind her. He towered over her, and his gruff, unshaven appearance worried her. And the accent… that had to be a bad sign, didn't it? Sounded Italian. Those guys were mafia, right? Oh, God. This was it. He'd sent a hit man already. She stared at him for a moment, caught like a deer in the headlights. Should she feign ignorance? Pretend she wasn't the woman marked for certain death? Or maybe it'd just be best to be honest. Get it over with.
"Yes," she said cautiously.
"I'm Pete Romero. I need your help."
Elle tried to swallow, but found that her throat was suddenly dry. "Excuse me?" she squeaked.
"I need your help." He gave the lobby a quick survey with the practice of a trained military man.
Who was this guy?
"And we shouldn't stay here any longer. Come with me." He turned in the direction of the doors, indicating she should follow him.
Elle just stared incredulously. Did he really just expect her to follow on command, one that was enigmatic at best? For all she knew, he *was* a hit man hired by the boss. It's not like he could kill her in front of so many witnesses. He'd have to take her somewhere deserted.
He let out an exasperated sigh. And as if he'd read her mind, he told her, "I'm not going to kill you. Now, come on, he's having you watched."
Elle edged further into the chair, hoping he'd get the hint from her body language that she wasn't going with him. But something poked her in her back. She twitched, one of those startled jumps that one hoped nobody else noticed. Her gun. She'd been so frantic she'd forgotten about her gun… Tucked in the back of her jeans. All this time.
Well, that changed everything.
Elle made a show of making a worried gaze around the airport lobby before she turned back to him and said, "Okay… Fine. Let's go. Quickly."
She gave another cautious survey of the room as she stood, then she let him take her by the hand and lead her in the direction of the elevators for the parking garage.
Once inside the elevator, Pete jabbed the button for the lower level, not saying a word the entire ride down. Three floors and not a word. If he was trying to save her, he wasn't doing a very good job; the nerves would kill her soon enough if he kept this up.
Finally, they reached their destination: the poorly-lit lower-level of the Metropolis International Airport parking garage. So… he was going to drive her somewhere and *then* kill her? Or maybe he'd finish her off right here?
That was original. She supposed he was going to just chuck her body in the trunk when he'd done his job and drive off to dump her in Hobbs Bay. He was certainly checking off quite a few items on the movie villain cliche list. Honestly, this guy had a lot to learn. And she was going to give him lesson one right now.
In one swift movement, Elle grabbed the gun from under her shirt and maneuvered so that Pete's arm was now twisted at an odd angle behind his back. The barrel of her gun went to his temple.
"Tell me who sent you," she demanded.
In an instant, Elle found herself flat on her back with her gun in her face, not quite certain how she'd gotten there. Dammit.
…sweet divine mother of pearl. This guy was strong.
"I sent me," he replied calmly, as if he hadn't just knocked the wind out of her and stolen her gun. He tucked the gun behind his back, and then offered her a hand and an impish grin.
She glared at him.
"Suit yourself." He pulled his hand away and shrugged as he took a few steps away from her, apparently secure in the knowledge that she wouldn't try anything else.
That arrogant son of a -
"Ms. Daly, as I said before, my name is Pete Romero. I'm a special agent acting undercover for the ATF — Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — Department of Justice."
Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms? What was he doing talking to her? And why did he need *her* help? She had to stay on the offensive, though. She couldn't afford to lose the upper hand again… not that she'd gotten it back. But she would.
Elle did her best to stand up and brush herself off gracefully while still maintaining her glare. "If you're undercover, why are you telling me? And where's your ID?" Hah. Let him try to get out of that one.
"Because it's obvious I need to give you a reason to trust me if I expect you to help me. And here." He pulled out an official-looking badge and ID card.
Well, they looked real enough, but those could be easily forged. She had to stay on the offensive.
"Help you with what?" she snapped.
"You're full of questions, aren't you?"
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Can you blame me?" she asked sardonically.
"Guess not," he shrugged. "Listen, I know what your assignment was, and I know what you did."
He was bluffing, trying to throw her off balance. Figuratively this time. He couldn't know.
Pete had the gall to roll his eyes at her. "I know all about the operation in Point Noire, Lane's capture and escape, her unexpected return, and how you lied to your superior about having seen her."
Her jaw dropped against her will. Did the ATF teach their agents to read minds?
Amazingly, his self-satisfied grin wasn't as smug as she'd expected. In fact, she even thought she saw a trace of sympathy in his eyes. She didn't say a word.
"Look, I'm on your side, and I could really use your help. Time is running short."
Elle eyed him cautiously and thought for a long moment. She supposed there wasn't any harm in hearing him out. No one said she had to actually do what he wanted her to.
"Okay, what do you need me to do?"
Lois found her mind wandering as she and Clark walked back to the Apollo in the pre-dawn hour. They'd seen no sense in flying back when they could just as easily talk as they walked, though, if she was honest with herself, it was because she'd been a tad uncomfortable with the idea of him holding her. Conversation hadn't really gotten them anywhere but four blocks closer to the motel. She needed some space to think, and being so close to Clark wasn't helping; she wasn't too eager to be back in the close quarters of the motel room after what'd happened. She still wasn't sure what to make of it.
She was more than confused. Bewildered was more like it. Disoriented. Clark kept taking her breath away just when she least expected it. And she was having a hard time reconciling those feelings of love and tenderness with the lingering doubts she had. As much as she'd love to forget it all and simply dive into the emotions assailing her, she couldn't shake the feeling that he was keeping something big from her. Some reason why his emotions seemed so contradictory at times. The reason why he'd come to the point of being damaged, broken. Why he couldn't be the Superman she'd read about. Why he'd cried on her shoulder. Why he hadn't told her more about the woman in the picture she'd found in his bedroom.
She was jealous of her counterpart. When Clark had been telling her what the other Lois had said about Luthor, she'd gotten the impression that he trusted this woman implicitly. How did two days of time spent together warrant that? Was it because she'd created him, in a sense? Introduced him to a part of himself he hadn't realized was in him before? Did he idolize her for that? L… love her?
And if he did, how would she ever compete with that?
What worried her most was that she *wanted* to compete, wanted to win his trust and devotion as she was sure her counterpart had. But why? How on Earth, in just a few day's time, had she managed to come back from the dead, only to find herself falling in love with a man she hardly knew?
Was it really love? She'd been drowning in a flood of emotions since she'd met him. Maybe she wouldn't know real love. Maybe she just wanted this to be love. She'd wished for it all her life — to find someone who completed her like no other, looked at her like he would die for her, sweep her off her feet and tell her profoundly romantic things.
And Clark had done all of that and more.
But dreams come true didn't happen. Maybe she was finding in Clark more than there really was because she wanted so desperately to believe it was true.
He'd said he was in love with her.
Until tonight, she'd never thought she'd hear those words. Ever. And now that she had, she wanted nothing more than to believe they were true.
But what if everything she was feeling was just some false manifestation of love because she wanted so badly for it to be true?
She wished she had someone to talk to. About everything. But the only person she knew aside from Clark… was Perry. And she was reluctant to share anything else with Clark, not before he offered her something in return. Granted, he had opened up some, but that niggling feeling of hers was still there. Clark still hadn't been completely honest with her, and she wasn't going to make herself any more vulnerable than she already had.
She sighed. "I'd give anything to talk to Perry right now. I wish he were back from wherever he's gone."
Lois was a step and a half ahead before she realized Clark had stopped walking. She turned back to face him.
"God, I'm such an idiot," he spat out. He looked horrified.
"Why?" Her brow furrowed in confusion.
He was looking helplessly up at the sky before he brought his head back down and gave her a pained stare. "All this time… He could have helped. Done something. And… you've probably been desperate to talk to someone you know…"
She stared, slack-jawed. She wasn't sure exactly what he was talking about, but somewhere in there, he'd managed to read her mind.
"What are you trying to say, Clark?"
"Lois, Perry is in Florida. I can fly you there."
"Oh. I… you can?"
"Of course. I feel awful that I didn't think of it before now. I'm sorry."
"No, don't be! I hadn't thought of it either. Though… I hadn't realized you knew Perry. Well, I mean, I did… but didn't think you knew him that well. To know where he went on vacation or anything. It is vacation, isn't it? I guess it could be a business trip. Mayors need to travel a lot, I'm sure and…"
Lois trailed off when she realized Clark was staring at her. Adoringly. With an amused grin on his face, all of his early chagrin gone.
"I love it when you babble." He smiled warmly at her.
"I don't babb…" She cut herself off and smiled at him. "I do, don't I?"
Clark nodded, his smile unwavering. He spun into his costume on the spot, and held open his arms like he was ready to scoop her up. "Shall we?"
She kept grinning at him, and then moved towards him.
He lifted her effortlessly into his arms and rose up off the ground.
"Superman Express, non-stop service to Palm Beach, Florida."
Elle eyed Pete from across the table in the all-night diner he'd found.
He hadn't killed her. Yet.
He was shooting holes all through her professional killer theory, though; hit men didn't buy coffee for their victims. They didn't sit and brood in their café au lait, either. But she still felt uneasy.
"So, are you going to tell me why you forcibly removed me from the airport, Pete?" She raised a challenging eyebrow at him.
He didn't look up right away.
Elle lowered her eyebrow. What a waste of a facial expression. She cleared her throat. "Lose something in your coffee there, buddy?"
"Huh?" He looked up, a blank stare on his face for a fraction of a second before it disappeared. "No. I'm sorry, just thinking."
"Care to share? Or is it maybe classified information?" She wondered, for a moment, if she was laying the sarcasm on too thick… but it didn't matter. As long as he didn't think she was on edge, she didn't care what he thought.
He sat up straighter and pushed his coffee away from him. "Yeah, it's classified." His smile was patronizing.
Figured. "Okay… Are you at least going to tell me what I'm doing here? Is the mafia involved?" She grinned at him, all the while praying he didn't say yes.
She glared. He didn't have to look at her as if she were crazy with his mocking smile and insanely white teeth. "Italian… guns… mafi… Never mind."
She picked one of the pink sweetener packets out of the dish on the table, something to focus on so she wouldn't seem fidgety and nervous. Interesting, there really was a cancer warning on there…
"As I said before… I need your help," Pete said, serious all of a sudden.
"Well, that much is obvious." She eyed him. Great. He was going to interrogate her first, and *then* he was going to kill her. At least she wasn't in one of those dark rooms with a floodlight trained on her, being asked for her name, rank and serial number.
"What I mean is, I need information from you." He leveled a stare at her.
"Well, by all means, ask away." She raised her eyebrows, letting him know that she wasn't intimidated by him. Because she wasn't. At all.
"Okay, obviously you know Lois Lane is back in Metropolis, but do you know where she was coming from?"
"Maybe," she said, eyeing him with a careful stare. "But why should I tell you?"
He rolled his eyes at her. "Because *I* already know, and I'm trying to find out if you know."
Heh. The longer she stalled, the longer she'd live, right?
"Well, how do I know you really do know, and that you're not just trying to get me to say it so you can find out?"
He let out an exasperated sigh. "Because I'm the special agent."
"Oh, there's a good answer." She tossed the sweetener packet off to the side… hopefully in a blasé sort of way. *Why* had she gotten involved in this whole mess? Easy money… it'd seemed like a good idea at the time.
She could tell he was gritting his teeth. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to tick him off. But, then again, if he was going to kill her anyway…
He leaned forward, and every trace of fun-loving guy she'd seen disappeared. She gulped.
"Look, you need my help. I'm not the one with a contract on my head. Help me so I can help you."
Damn. He had a point. A good one. She tried not to wonder how he knew about the contract… she wasn't even *positive* herself. Yeah, it was a likely possibi… probability. Okay, a sure thing. But how did he know? And he *really* needed to quit staring at her like that. She cleared her throat. "All right. Point Noire, Congo. But I don't officially know that… if you know what I mean."
He grinned. "That wasn't so hard, now, was it?"
This man was infuriating. Never let the enemy see fear, right? She tried giving him the look of death, narrowing her eyes at him.
He didn't pitch forward and smack his head on the table. She sighed; she'd have to work on the death stare. "So what does me knowing where she was have anything to do with why you kidnapped me?"
"Do you know who your boss is?" he asked, ignoring her. "Or was he just a voice on the phone?"
She had asked her question out loud, hadn't she? "Look, Pete, I have no reason to trust you. I don't know what you're up to, but just because you have a charming Italian accent doesn't mean I'm going to spill my guts to you."
"You're right." He smiled. A slight smile this time. No trace of ridicule…
"What? I mean… of course I'm right." This was not good. Angry and indignant had been working well for her. And if he started being nice… He was just trying to get her to lower her guard. Then it'd be easier to kill her.
"Elle." She watched him hold back a frustrated sigh as she crossed her arms in front of her chest and grinned. She hoped the drumming sound of her pulse wasn't as loud for him as it was for her.
He leaned closer across the table and lowered his voice. "Elle, I need you to tell me anything and everything you know about Lex Luthor or you won't be the only one he kills."
Elle swallowed roughly. She was going to die, wasn't she? No two ways about it. And Pete… Mr. Cocky Secret Agent Man was her only hope… Unless she tried to make a run for it. Hop a bus to Canada or somewhere.
This was Lex Luthor, and she'd already decided he'd find her anywhere she went. He was all benevolent and kind in the face of the public, but no one realized just how far Luthor's influence stretched.
He'd been running a full-scale gunrunning and diamond smuggling operation for at least the past five years, for crying out loud! He probably got the same pleasure out of killing nobodies like herself as her father had with the can of Raid during cockroach season. She shuddered.
She started, and her eyes darted to his. Every trace of ridicule was gone. And for a minute… she could almost imagine that he cared. That he wasn't just after what she knew.
But that was what undercover agents did. They lied. They were trained to lie. Trained to interrogate people. Trained to kill…
"Are you okay? I…" He coughed to clear his throat. "I don't mean to be… well, we're kind of in a time crunch here."
Elle uncrossed her arms and started pressing out the creases in her napkin. It didn't really matter either way, did it? If she took a chance that Pete was on the level… she might live. If she ran, Lex would make sure she didn't get very far. It was one of those no-brainer situations. She took a deep breath, trying to inhale determination from the stale air of the diner. She got the stench of clam chowder. Ugh.
She looked up at him. If she had to work with him, no one said she had to be nice to him. "Fine. What do you want to know?"
"Anything and everything you know about Lex Luthor," he repeated dryly. Impatiently?
She huffed. "Yeah, I heard you the first time. But where do you want me to start? Guns? Diamonds? Unlawful imprisonment of an American citizen? Facilitating and encouraging a civil war?" She smirked at him. "Because if you're as smart as you think you are, you already know all this."
He sat there with his mouth hanging half open, and she cheered inwardly. Score one for Daly.
After a moment, he seemed to regain his voice. And his attitude. "You're right. I do. That's why I want to know *how* you know, and what you've found out about Luthor here. In Metropolis."
Elle held back a growl. "Fine." She glanced around the diner. People had started trickling in for the Early Bird Special. "But not here. Let's go."
"Wherever you're staying. There's no way I'm showing you where I live."
Lois watched the tall arc of the West Palm Beach Marriot building loom into view as she and Clark neared their destination. Clark landed them across the street, and he loosed his hold on her so her feet could find the concrete. Standing on solid ground once again ought to have been reassuring, but her knees felt a little uncertain. Her heart was still racing as well. And she knew it wasn't from the flight, exciting as it may have been.
She stared over at the gaping circular drive leading up to the hotel's lobby. The light from the small crescent of sun on the horizon muddled with the exterior lighting of the hotel's landscaping to make everything look a bit eerie. Unwelcoming.
Her heart was hammering in her chest. Or maybe it was in her throat. She couldn't be sure. She wondered which room was his. Third floor, fifth floor, penthouse? What time was it, anyway? There were hardly any windows lit with the telltale glow of early risers and insomniacs behind the drapes.
She grabbed beside her hip for Clark's hand, her eyes not leaving the building. "Clark, maybe this isn't such a good idea."
"Why not?" He sounded confused, but concerned.
Of course he'd be confused. She'd wanted to see Perry. He'd brought her here. But…
It'd been three years. More than three years. She was a different person now. A lot had to have changed in the time she was gone. Plenty of time to grieve. Forget. Move on.
And what would he say when he found out she'd been alive all this time?
A gentle pressure on her hand reminded her Clark was still waiting for an answer. Patiently, though. He wasn't rushing her, and she was grateful for that. But how did she answer him? Why *wasn't* this a good idea?
Because she was scared. Everything would be different. He'd look at her differently. Or something. She knew *something* had to go wrong.
A comforting hand came to rest on her shoulder. "It's okay, Lois. He'll be thrilled to see you."
She worried at her lower lip, but didn't say anything.
"Do you realize how many search parties, how much manpower he used to try and find you? Super manpower, too? We didn't stop looking for a long time."
Lois felt tears burning at the back of her eyes. "He did? You did?"
Clark nodded solemnly. "Yeah."
"Oh." She wasn't sure what to make of that. It was beyond comforting that someone *had* been looking for her. But…
They hadn't found her. Even with super help… And why would the world's superhero … *Clark*… someone who was supposed to be off saving the world, spend so much time trying to find one lowly reporter? Someone he didn't even know, except…
Clark tugged lightly at her hand, cutting off her train of thought. Almost as if he'd known where her mind was heading and didn't want her to know. *She* wasn't even sure what conclusion she had been trying to grasp at; Clark couldn't have known.
"C'mon. I'm sure all the butterflies will disappear once you see him," Clark urged softly.
Lois nodded absentmindedly and followed him in silence up the circular drive, through the lobby, and into the elevator. She watched as Clark pushed the button for the fifteenth floor, and braced herself for the little lurch as the elevator begun its ascent. Her hand was aching, and she looked down to find it still clasping Clark's with an iron-clad grip. She relaxed her hand a bit, and the pain lessened.
She wished she could know in advance what Perry's reaction would be. Then she'd be prepared. She could brace herself. And if it would have been a bad reaction… she could have just stayed away altogether. Instead, she was jittery, as if someone had injected espresso directly into her bloodstream. The elevator seemed like it was taking forever. Clark could have flown them up faster than this. Much faster. Why hadn't they taken the stairs, then?
The ding announcing their arrival on the fifteenth floor startled her.
"This is it, Lois." He paused to look at her and give her hand a squeeze. "You'll be fine."
There was something calming about the timbre of his voice. And the smile he gave her helped to take the edge off her nerves. She tried to smile back. At least a corner of her mouth made it. She gave up and swallowed roughly as Clark led her down the hall.
It was a little upsetting that Clark knew exactly which room Perry was in. But, then again, Clark had seen Perry more recently than she had. He'd worked for him at the Planet long after she had. There'd been that picture in the paper, too. He was close friends with the Mayor.
She tried to stop it, but the twinge of jealously and hurt found its way through her body anyway. There wasn't anything left that was hers anymore. She bit at her lower lip in an effort to keep her chin from trembling. She wouldn't cry.
Clark stopped them outside room 1542, and they both turned to face the door. This was it. The moment she'd dreamt of every night since she'd been captured. Imagined that he'd take one look at her and gather her into his arms for a huge bear hug and make all the bad things go away. But Lois knew that after three years, all the hugs in the world, even from the man she considered…
Nothing would make it all disappear. She was damaged. And he'd be able to see that in her eyes.
But there was no one else, was there? Clark… and Perry. The only people she had left in the world.
She took a deep, shuddering breath, then another.
An arm came up around her shoulders. Clark's arm.
"You ready?" he asked quietly.
She nodded, and tried to make sure she was standing still, presentable, even though she was sure she was trembling visibly.
She watched as Clark brought his free hand up to knock on the pristine, white door. The sound of his knuckles against the painted wood seemed to echo through the hall.
They waited. The only sound she could hear was Clark's shallow breathing and the thundering of her heart pounding in her chest. She held her breath.
An eternity later. A minute? Thirty seconds? She exhaled sharply. "Clark, he's not here." She hated the desperation that'd slipped into her voice somehow, but she couldn't help it. This was the moment. She was as ready as she'd ever be. And it wasn't happening.
Clark gave her a reassuring squeeze. "He's here, Lois. Trust me."
"But how do you know?" She looked over at him, wanting to believe him.
He simply tapped his finger to the outside edge of his eyes.
Oh. Right. She'd forgotten.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the door opening, and she started a bit. A tired, gruff-looking older man came into view as she faced forward again.
Her breathing quickened. In. Out. In. Short pants. And she felt the tears burning her eyes. She was frozen to the spot. She couldn't move. After all these years. Seeing him again… Was he even real? Or would he disappear just like he had so many times before when she'd woken up to find it'd only been a dream? That she was still in the Congo.
The figure of the man blurred before her.
It squinted, then spoke. "Lois? Honey, is it really you this time?"
This time? This time. The other Lois. The happy woman smiling back at her from behind plated glass.
Perry had spent time with her, too.
The tears spilled over, hot on her cheeks, and she was barely aware of him looking from her to Clark and back.
She heard Clark speak, but it sounded distant. "Yeah, Chief, it's really her."
Something about the tone of his voice… Reverent? Like he was really glad to have her there. Her specifically. Why?
It was all too much. Too many thoughts and mysteries and feelings fighting for control inside of her. But she didn't have time to think about any of it because she was being engulfed in a fierce hug. Out of long-born habit, her arms came up around him to hug him tighter to her.
His gravelly voice rumbling comfortingly by her ear. "Oh, Lois. Thank God you're alive."
And suddenly, in that moment, nothing mattered anymore. She sagged, sobbing in his arms, felt the soothing motion of him rubbing her back. She clung to him, her lifeline. Her father in so many ways.
She was finally home.
Clark watched the reunion with mixed emotions, swallowing back the onslaught of tears he felt building in his throat. He was jealous, but not of Lois's affection for Perry as he would have expected.
He was jealous of Lois.
How long had it been since he'd had someone hug him like that? Have someone so overwhelmingly glad to see him that they couldn't hold back their tears?
Actually, it'd been never. He'd gotten hugs from his parents, sure, but he'd never had quite a homecoming as the one happening before him. He'd never had that. Unless…
Unless he counted the passionate welcome home he'd gotten from the other Lois in the other universe. The one that hadn't been for him.
Clark tore his mind away from the other universe. He didn't belong there. Then or now. He was home. And this was where he was staying. Where he wanted to stay. Even though the assault of emotions running through him right now made him want to turn heel and run.
Lois was vulnerable, elated, relieved… all at once. And that, mixing with the strange feeling of exhaustion that'd come over him as soon as Perry had gathered Lois into his arms… The severe weight of every emotion he was experiencing was becoming all too much to bear.
He had to hold it together, though. For Lois's sake. Perry's sake. He couldn't crumble like he always did. He wouldn't. He had to be strong, even though every muscle in his body was claiming fatigue, especially his mind.
Clark followed as Perry led Lois to the sofa in the sitting area of the suite. He chose an armchair, letting them have their space on the couch, and trying not to feel like he was intruding on a private moment. From what he knew, and what he was watching now, they were family.
A family he wasn't really a part of.
He had a niggling feeling in the back of his mind that maybe Lois wouldn't need him now that she had Perry. Maybe she didn't *really* love him; she'd just needed someone, and he was all she'd had. That wasn't the case anymore.
And he didn't know how he'd be able to live without her.
"I'm just going to go make some coffee…" Clark mumbled, gesturing weakly in the direction of the small kitchenette on the other side of the room. They didn't acknowledge him as he stood and walked away, but he hadn't really expected them to.
Lois was quietly recounting her tragic ordeal to Perry. Clark did his best to tune them out, but the alcove afforded little barrier from sound, especially if one had super hearing. He tried focusing on making coffee instead. Unfortunately, the hotel had been thoughtful enough to supply those simple filter packs.
Load filter. Pour water. Press start.
Now he had nothing to keep him occupied and nothing to prevent him from hearing the tears threatening in Lois's voice.
Clark leaned back against the counter and shut his eyes, bringing a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. He didn't want to hear her story again. The first time had been painful enough. For both of them.
His chest tightened, and he tried to ignore it. This wasn't the time nor the place to cry. And he hated that he wanted to. He was supposed to be better. Things had been improving steadily, hadn't they?
Or maybe things were just different. Maybe it was only because he hadn't been spending all day in bed that everything had seemed a bit brighter, a fraction more hopeful. Maybe he was merely distracting himself from how he really felt. Still felt. Would always feel.
Clark couldn't understand why it had to be so hard. He ought to be grateful to be there for Lois, to support her as she fought against her living nightmare. It should be second nature to him to offer his comfort to her unconditionally and without feeling like it took all his mental effort just to hold her hand and tell her everything would be all right.
He felt guilty for the relief that'd come over him when Lois had let go of his hand and gone to Perry. If he tried hard enough, he could convince himself that he'd only been feeling Lois's relief as she'd reconnected with her old friend… but he struggled to hold on to that conviction.
He hated the idea that being supportive for Lois had drained him. Why couldn't he accomplish at least that? He was the strongest man in the world, for crying out loud.
But emotional strength couldn't be recharged by the sun as the rest of his powers were. And being happy wasn't as easy as it'd been in his dreams.
His only shred of hope was that it *wasn't* like before. His heart didn't feel as heavy as it had just three days ago. That had to be a good sign, didn't it?
"Clark?" The sound of Lois's soft voice found its way to his ears.
He turned to find Lois leaning against the wall of the alcove. She looked weary and vulnerable with her arms wrapped around herself loosely, one hand grasping a shoulder as if she was trying to keep herself warm. Her head was tilted, resting against the wall, and she was wearing a faint whisper of a smile.
"For what?" he asked quietly.
"For bringing me here. For giving me time alone with Perry. And… for still being here." There was a touch of apprehension in her voice that he couldn't quite figure out.
She needed him, *wanted* him there, so he was. Leaving hadn't crossed his mind.
Was it really that simple? No questions, just an inexplicable desire to protect her? His brow furrowed. "Why wouldn't I be?"
She looked away briefly and shrugged. Her chin started to tremble, and he could feel, more than see fresh tears forming in her eyes. "Because now that Perry knows I'm alive, you don't have to take care of me anymore."
"I thought you were taking care of me," he whispered.
She looked back up at him then, hugging herself tighter. She didn't say anything, but he could hear her heart racing faster. He watched as the tears welling up in her eyes started to spill over and make their indiscriminate way down her cheeks.
For a moment, he couldn't move. Was that him daring to hope that this was all real? Or was it her?
Then, suddenly, he felt a rush of warmth spread through him, an almost overwhelming… emotion for the woman standing in front of him. He crossed the room in one swift movement to draw her into his arms. She fell readily into his embrace and wrapped her arms around him. "Oh, Lois," he whispered against her hair. "I'll always be here. As long as you'll have me."
They stood that way for a long set of moments, clinging to each other, and Clark was afraid to let her go. He wanted to hold on to the moment. *This* moment. When he understood that she needed him as much as he needed her.
He pulled back to look at her, bringing his hands up to frame her face. She was watching him intently, her eyes still holding a touch of uncertainty… unspoken questions. She was asking him to care, to love her… Or at least he hoped to God that was what she was asking. He took a chance and lowered his lips to hers, gently at first. And when she responded, he pressed slightly deeper, trying to express just how much he wanted her to stay. With him. That he needed her to help him feel alive, and that if she needed him, that was okay, too.
Clark broke off the kiss and rested his forehead against hers, letting his hands slip down to her shoulders. "Let me be there for you, Lois," he pleaded softly. He wasn't so confident he could, but he sure as hell wanted to try.
Her soft reply sent a slight tremor through him. "Okay."
He felt her shiver slightly, and she pulled back to look at him. He took half a step back and found her eyes searching his, looking for… something. A slight smile touched her lips, and she ducked her head, blushing.
She looked back at him from under her lashes and said hesitantly, "I'm probably going to embarrass myself by saying this… but… I can't help but feel there's this connection between us. It's as if… well, it's as if I can feel what you're feeling…" She ducked her head again. "But that's ridiculous, isn't it? In fact, forget I sai-"
"You can," he said softly.
Her eyes darted back to his to stare at him in wonder laced with fear.
He shouldn't have… She hadn't… she hadn't meant it. No, she hadn't expected it to be real. Hadn't expected *him* to know. He stumbled backwards a few steps and opened his mouth to say something…
"Good to have you back, Clark!" Perry's deep voice startled Clark, and when he looked back at Lois, her expression was closed, devoid of emotion.
Clark cleared his throat and took another half step back from Lois. "Thanks, Perry."
Perry gave him a solemn look. "Did, uh, everything turn out okay… over there?"
Clark was trying to calm the racing of his heart. Trying to tell himself that he hadn't just screwed up. What had Perry asked? Oh… the other universe. Right. "Yeah… it should, anyway."
He could sense Lois attempting to close herself off from him, not to feel. He tried to catch her eye, make her understand somehow, but she turned away from him. Distanced herself. He averted his eyes. He couldn't watch.
Perry's voice seemed muted, far away. "He made it back?"
No reason to be nervous, unsettled. Numbly, as if the words were coming from someone else's mouth, he answered Perry, "Not before I'd left, no, but they were pretty certain he was on his way."
"Ah, good. Hope everything works out for them." Perry smiled wanly at him.
He might have smiled back, but he was sure the muscles in his face weren't working quite properly. "Yeah. Me too."
"Did you get to see your… the Kents again? That must've been rough, son."
Clark tried to suppress the dull ache in his chest at the mention. He swallowed roughly. "Yeah. But it was good to see them again, even if they were his parents, not mine."
They were both quiet for a minute after that, almost as if holding a moment of remembrance, even though Perry had never known them.
The unmistakable crack of china shattering pierced the silence. Clark whipped around to find Lois with her mouth hanging open and the pot of scalding hot coffee threatening to slip from her slackened grasp. He was there in a beat to catch it before he realized why she'd dropped the mug in the first place…
Twice. He'd screwed up twice. He should have told her…
He watched as Perry hurried to Lois's side, asking if she was all right.
She wasn't. Her eyes were still wide, her mouth still… she was staring at his hand. He furrowed his brow and opened his mouth to ask her…
But she beat him to it. "Clark! Isn't that burning you?"
He followed her eyes to the coffee pot in his palm. "No…" Suddenly self-conscious, Clark set the pot down on the counter, though he wasn't quite sure what to do with his hands afterwards.
"Oh, right. Invulnerable," she mumbled.
He looked back to Lois to find her concerned expression had been replaced with one that was indecipherable. And that was obviously the way she wanted to keep it. The connection was all but gone… unless the cold feeling in the pit of his stomach was any indication…
Lois broke some of the tension in the room, turning to Perry. "Is there a broom and dustpan here? I ought to get this cleaned up."
Perry just stared for a moment before answering. "Lois, darlin', are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Perry. Why wouldn't I be?" She crouched down to start picking up the larger shards of broken ceramic.
Clark knelt down to help her. "Lois, let me. You'll cut yourself."
She dropped the pieces she'd collected and stood abruptly. "Fine."
He tried not to flinch at her abrasiveness, instead, focusing on cleaning up the broken mug and tossing the shards into the small waste basket Perry had wordlessly set beside him. He just wasn't meant to do anything right. Ever. His miraculous chance at happiness, and he'd screwed up.
His stomach lurched at her harsh tone, and he looked up hesitantly, letting the last piece fall with a soft clink onto the rest of the demolished mug. Broken. He didn't appreciate the irony.
"I think you should take me back to Metropolis. I'm tired. We can come back later and work out a game plan."
He stood slowly, watching her for some indication of how he was supposed to react. What he was supposed to do. Her glare fell, and she averted her eyes. He watched her focus on the floor first, and then her gaze wandered to stare at Perry, an almost defeated expression on her face. Finally, her eyes met his again. Betrayal and hurt. Lots of hurt. The connection was definitely still working. Only he wasn't so grateful for it now.
Clark looked to Perry for guidance, hoping for some sort of clue as to what to do.
The older man cleared his throat. "That sounds like a good idea. When was the last time you two slept, anyway?"
Clark opened his mouth, but realized the last time they had slept was… He looked over to Lois.
She crossed her arms in front of her and turned to Perry. "We had a short nap earlier, but it wasn't that restful."
He winced and bit at his lower lip, trying not to let show that her cutting remark had hit its target squarely.
"All right, you kids ought to get some sleep, then. You can come back later tonight, okay?"
Clark nodded, thankful that Perry was so prudent about the situation. He was not looking forward to the flight home.
"Nigel, I think I might attend the meeting myself tonight. I'm in the mood for a little sport, and watching Daly beg for her life might be amusing." Lex smiled at himself in the mirror as he finished knotting his bow tie. He straightened it. There. Perfect.
"She's disappeared, sir. She may not even show up."
He gave himself one last glance, just to appreciate the fine cut of the tuxedo, before he turned to face Nigel. "Have some of our associates convince Ms. Daly to make an appearance at tonight's meeting." Lex spared a glance down to adjust each of his cufflinks in turn. "Make sure they understand what will happen if she isn't in attendance."
"Very good, sir. Anything else?"
"No, Nigel, that will be all. Thank you."
Lex turned back to face the mirror as his most trusted associate withdrew from his study. The Metropolis Charity Gala today would be tedious as it was every year, but afterward would prove to be quite entertaining. A little light relief before the real fun began.
He walked over to his desk and looked down on the stock photograph of the boy wonder above the article announcing his pathetic attempt at a rescue. A regrettably poor comeback for the hero. "Yes, Superman, in action how like an angel. In apprehension how like a god. Someone ought to tell Mr. Shakespeare that gods… are never anxious."
Lex admired the alluring green glow of his latest acquisition for another moment longer before he let the lid of the lead box fall shut with a snap.
Pete sighed as he unlocked the door to the meager hotel room the agency had secured for him. He waited until Elle had followed him in, and then shut the door after her.
He was having trouble believing just how… stubborn Elle was. Not to mention brave, but he wasn't going to let her know he thought that; she seemed to get most of her courage from verbally assaulting him. And he certainly wasn't going to tell her that he was *letting* her.
She was being difficult, though. A bundle of nerves hidden behind a tough exterior. It would be almost endearing, if it weren't so aggravating.
The room was freezing… and no wonder; he'd left the air conditioning on full blast. In September. Because… It'd been nice after the humidity of the Congolese jungle? He rolled his eyes inwardly and crossed the room to the unit underneath the window. He turned the dial to off and then shut the curtains all the way.
A whole minute and not a peep from Little Miss Feisty. Not to mention she'd been silent the entire drive over to the hotel. Somehow, he had a feeling his luck in that area was about to change.
"Cold enough in here, Romero?"
Pete was tempted to look around for someone who must have given her a cue. Instead, he turned around and gave her a patronizing smile. "It's off now."
"You'd think you were trying to raise penguins in here or something."
He rolled his eyes. Honestly. He ignored her and made his way over to the small table and its two chairs. Mismatched chairs. The agency had really gone all out, though it could have been worse. He made a production of pulling out a chair and presenting it to her with a flourish and a wicked grin.
"I hope the accommodations are acceptable for her Highness, despite the unfortunate chill in the air, of course." He paused and continued under his breath, "But I can't be entirely certain it was from the air conditioning."
Elle sat down in a huff, crossing her arms in front of her chest, and apparently stuck searching for a witty comeback.
He grinned as he sat across from her. "So, Ms. Daly… oh, I'm sorry, *Elle*. Ready to share all your dirty little secrets?" He waggled his eyebrows just to unsettle her more.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I suppose I don't have a choice, do I?"
"Nope." Liar. If she'd wanted to leave, she could have; she'd had a number of opportunities to get away. He was glad she hadn't, though. He hadn't had this much fun in a while. He grinned again and prompted her to continue with a suggestive lift of his eyebrows.
Pete was pretty sure he heard her grumble under her breath, but he couldn't make out what she'd said. He leaned back, hitched one leg up to rest atop the other, threaded his hands behind his head, and waited. "I'm all ears, babe."
He got a perverse pleasure out of watching her jaw drop in astonishment. A small twinge of guilt hit him, but he reminded himself he was doing this for her benefit. To make her forget she ought to be scared out of her wits. His amusement was just one of the perks, was all.
She finally managed to gain control of the lower half of her mouth, but before she started talking, she fired off another look of death to rival the one she'd given him in the diner. He was almost surprised when she leaned forward, arms folded neatly on the table, and said, "Listen, sweetheart, call me 'babe' one more time, I will rip your tongue out of your mouth, wrap it around your throat and strangle you with it."
"Fair enough," he conceded with a smile, flinching inwardly at her threat. "I'm still waiting, though."
"Fine, then." Elle rolled her eyes and blew out an exasperated breath. Her tone softened, though, and it threw him a bit off guard. "It was about eight months ago when Joe, my… boss at the time, let me know about a 'business opportunity'. Good pay, and off the books. I was a little…" She grimaced. "A lot behind on rent, so I jumped at the chance." She paused and seemed to be watching the past on an imaginary screen somewhere to her right.
Pete relaxed his position, letting his arms fall to his sides and leaning forward again. He stayed quiet, waiting for her to continue.
"Little girl from a small town… very very small town… two pubs and a newsagent selling sweets from the 1950's kind of small town… trying to make it in the big city." She gave a self-depreciating chuckle.
She didn't seem to be talking to him directly anymore… Lost in her memories, he guessed. All the sarcasm and bravado disappeared before his eyes… as if he'd turned them off rather than the frigid gust of air from the cooling unit.
"I think I also fancied the idea of being a rebel and breaking the rules. But… I didn't know…"
He was just about to ask what it was she didn't know when she blurted out her next words.
"I never thought they'd kill Joe."
Oh boy. This woman had more layers than an onion. He half suspected her of melodramatic tendencies, but he knew that wasn't the case. He knew the tone in her voice all too well…
Pete shook his head to clear his thoughts. He looked again at Elle. Dammit. There were tears in her eyes. He *hated* it when women cried. Biting back a growl, Pete did his best to be sympathetic without seeming like a total pushover.
He resisted reaching to cover her hand with his and asked gently, "Why did they kill him?"
She looked startled for a fraction of a second, as if she'd forgotten where she was… and who she was talking to. Pete watched as her shields crept back into place, disappointed that he'd witnessed a crack in her defenses and a bit of the real Elle showing through only to have it disappear in a flash. But at the same time… he was looking forward to resuming their verbal jousting match. Game on.
She took a deep breath and rushed through the rest of her explanation without a hint of emotion… if he didn't count the supreme indignation.
"About a month into the operation, I realized what was really going on. I wasn't supposed to know, but I found out that the woman I was instructed to be on the lookout for had been imprisoned… and then I found out why… what she'd been investigating."
She paused for a moment, as if she were trying to detach herself emotionally from what she was relating to him. Pete said nothing.
"I wanted out. Only I hadn't realized that this wasn't the sort of job you could just quit. Especially if the Boss found out you knew more than you were supposed to know. Joe had an accident a few days after I'd threatened to quit. Only it wasn't an accident. It was a warning for me. I was given two choices: stay or die."
Pete swallowed thickly. He'd known Luthor was ruthless, but…
"I… I'm just glad I was the one assigned to the airport the day Lois Lane got back. If they're going to kill me, at least I was able to give her a head start. One of us should live."
He was about to sympathize with her until she cleared her throat loudly.
"Anyway, if they weren't having me monitored at the airport, my absence from tonight's meeting will put a nail in my coffin for sure." She exhaled and shrugged, as if she hadn't just told him she was marked for certain death by one of the most evil criminal masterminds in the country.
Maybe the gal had a little more gumption than he'd given her credit for. But he couldn't dwell on that; she'd said something about a meeting. This was new information. Quite possibly useful.
"So, Petey, now that you've heard my fascinating tale…" Her eyes narrowed, he assumed to try and belie the slight tremor she still held in her voice. "What's the plan?"
She wanted a plan, eh? And she wanted to pretend she was fine and had the upper hand? Well, she was in for a big surprise. He gave her a sly grin. Elle Daly was his ticket to the evidence he needed against Luthor.
Pete leveled a challenging stare at her. "Take off your shirt."
Lois resisted the urge to pace the short length of the room back at the Apollo as she waited for Clark to return with something to eat. Food was the furthest thing from her mind right now. And sleep wasn't high up on her list either, despite what she'd told Perry. She was so angry. So hurt. So… disappointed in herself for letting her guard down.
She'd *known* he still hadn't told her everything, yet still she'd let herself fall. Though she wasn't sure she'd even had a choice in the matter. Underneath the heavy ache that had settled in her chest, and somewhere behind the bruised trust… something just felt *right*.
She'd have to fight, though, to keep the anger and hurt on top. She couldn't afford to be vulnerable right now. And especially not around Clark Kent.
Where the heck did he go for the croissants, anyway? Fra-
He probably did go to France. She kept forgetting.
And it didn't make sense. All those powers, the special abilities…
He could probably carry the world on his shoulders… if his own burdens weren't weighing him down.
Clark Kent was a mystery to her. Especially because he'd professed to love her. To trust her. But the doubt remained, creeping along the edge of her senses. How could he have been telling the truth when he hadn't told her…
He'd known all along about the connection, the feelings she'd been having. He'd known. And he hadn't told her. She didn't understand. She'd been so excited at the idea. Had he not been? And there had been a flash of blind panic on his face when he'd realized what he'd said. He'd been keeping it from her, and she couldn't for the life of her figure out why. All she knew was that it hurt.
And she'd be damn sure it didn't happen again.
The door opened to reveal a tired looking Clark carrying a brown paper sack. He appeared to be just as worn as she was… She set her jaw, determined not to let him get to her.
Clark Kent had a lot to learn about Lois Lane.
She didn't say anything for a moment, not sure where to begin. She watched in silence as he set the bag down on the table and shut the door behind him. He turned to look at her, vulnerability and regret painfully evident in his eyes.
Lois took a breath to brace herself, trying her best to keep her voice even. "I want you to tell me what's going on."
"What do you mean?" No trace of deceit, just curiosity in his anxious voice…
"I mean, how exactly did you visit your parents on vacation if they're dead?"
He stood in shocked silence for a moment before he spoke. "I… t-they aren't my parents… They're his."
So it was true, then. His… *his* parents… doubles… counterparts…
Everything started to fall into place. Clark had been in the other universe. He'd seen his counterpart's parents. He'd seen her. Again.
She wondered how much time he'd spent there. Long enough to learn about Lex Luthor. Long enough to learn more about being Superman. And obviously long enough to have needed to take her picture home with him.
Lois swallowed. Hard. Fought back the tears that threatened. "What were you doing over in the other universe? Leisure trip?"
She saw him wince at her sharp tone. "No." His eyes fell to the floor for a moment, and she watched him bite at his lower lip.
The emotions were becoming too much to bear. Her pain. His guilt. Her dread. His panic. All churning inside, making her sick to her stomach. She swallowed again.
He looked back up at her with resignation in his eyes. "I was over there… filling in for him while… he was out of town."
That… wasn't so bad… "Sort of like a superhero temp agency?" She attempted a smile, but didn't get very far.
"No," he said quietly. "Superman was out of town. I was filling in for Clark Kent."
"But… they're still the same person, aren't they?" The intensity of their emotions had tamped down a fraction… but his apprehension, his hesitancy worried her. There was something else…
He looked confused for a second, then seemed to understand what she was asking. "Yeah. They are. Uh… he is. One person."
"I don't understand."
Clark took a step towards her, and she tensed.
"Lois, could we sit down… maybe?
Her eyes wandered to the single chair in the room, and then over to the bed. Clark made the decision for her, taking the chair, probably assuming she'd be more comfortable on the bed.
She wouldn't be comfortable anywhere right now… but she made her way over to the bed, climbing on and sitting on the pillows, her back against the wall. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The room fell into near silence again after the creaking of the mattress stopped when she'd gotten settled. The dull drone from the refrigerator seemed to get a fraction louder with every passing second. Finally, she looked back over at Clark and stared at him expectantly.
He sighed and raked a hand through his hair. "The other Clark has a secret identity… well, Superman does… what I mean is… no one in that universe knows that Clark Kent is Superman."
"Oh." That was… she didn't really understand…
"Actually, no one was supposed to know here, either." He sounded so defeated, resigned about it.
"Does it matter?"
"Yeah. No… I don't know. It doesn't anymore, I guess, since everyone knows." He stared down at his hands in his lap. "It might have been nice to have a little privacy, though."
The sadness in his voice tugged at her heart. But she couldn't give into the urge to go over and hug him. Not when he hadn't told her everything…
"So you got to be just Clark Kent over there? No Superman? No strings attached?" she asked softly. Maybe that was why he had such a hard time being a superhero — out of practice?
His brow furrowed slightly. "Yeah…"
"For how long?"
"Just about four weeks."
Her brow furrowed. For someone who'd just wished for anonymity, he didn't sound too happy about having had exactly that for an entire month. She watched him study his fingers intently, as if he were contemplating something, deciding something.
"What exactly did you do while you were there?"
He brought his eyes back level with hers. Still full of anguish. "I acted as if I were the Clark Kent of that universe… reporter for the Daily Planet… son to living, loving parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent… and…"
Lois held her breath, not sure of what was coming, but she didn't think she really wanted to hear it.
"And fiance to Lois Lane."
She bit back a gasp. Swallowed roughly. "Oh." It was worse than she thought. She'd been right to be jealous. The back of her eyes started burning, and she could feel her eyes tearing. There was no reason to be upset. This was a whole universe away.
"N-nothing h-happened between us or anything."
She might have nodded in response, but she couldn't be sure. She wondered just how well he'd played his role. How much he looked like his counterpart… if… Lois shook her head. Of course nothing happened…
<This other Lois… changed my life… I needed something to remember her by.>
The woman was engaged to another man… who, if looking at her counterpart's picture was any indication, looked exactly like Clark…
She tried to focus on taking regular breaths. Him and her. Lois Lane and Clark Kent.
"Lois?" His worried voice barely registered.
Lois Lane and Clark Kent. It was almost melodic. Lois Lane and Clark Kent. He thought…
He thought that… He'd spent four weeks learning how to be in love with Lois Lane, and he… He'd brought her picture home. She was supposed to be…
The hurt and anger surged back with a vengeance, and she scrambled off the bed, trying to fill some inexplicable need to have something between them. Something other than this connection, though she did hope that he could feel *her* emotions. She hoped her anger burned right through to him.
She crossed her arms in front of her. He thought he could just… swap. One for the other. And not tell her. But he hadn't planned on Perry slipping up.
"Why didn't you tell me, Clark?" She didn't curb the edge to her voice. "Why didn't you tell me the real reason you have *her* picture?"
"I was trying to forget," he pleaded.
"Exactly, Clark! You had to try. You're still trying. But why? Am I supposed to take her place? Am I just a cheap substitute? How convenient that I even came right to your doorstep. Your bedroom, even. You barely had to flex a muscle before I fell into your arms, ready and willing because I was dying for some sort of connection. To feel alive." She huffed, ignoring his attempts to deny any of it. "Well, I'm. Not. Her. I am not…" She took a shuddering breath, damning the anger that was slowly bleeding away. "I'm not…" She needed that anger… she didn't want to feel what was underneath. "I'm not… anyone, least of all Lois Lane."
Clark couldn't breathe. The emotions were too strong. From her anger to his guilt to her anguish to his pain… all of it was just too much. There was a vice tightening around his heart, and he was suffocating.
Finally, he exhaled sharply. His voice was weak and wobbly, but it didn't matter. "No, Lois… No, please don't think that. Any of it."
She didn't answer him, and turned her back to him instead. He wasn't going to cry. Even if the feeling of her trying to do the same was unbearable. He'd had enough of crying.
He shut his eyes and let his head fall back in frustration.
Why hadn't he thought that Perry might say something? He should have told her. Why hadn't he just told her?
Everything was just… too hard.
Three days. It'd only been three days. Everything was moving too fast. Couldn't he… couldn't he have just had one day to enjoy things before they'd turned into a disaster? Just one. He didn't know how to do this. How to handle any of it. Every fiber of his being was telling him that he needed to hold her and make the pain go away. But how did he do that when she hated him? And how did he do that when her pain and his were bound as one?
Clark dropped his gaze to the concrete floor, trying to pretend it wasn't starting to get blurry. Somehow, he had to get her to understand that she was the only one he'd ever really wanted. Even before he'd known it himself. She had to know that he'd never really felt alive until she'd shown up. That he didn't feel so alone anymore.
If she'd even listen to a word he said.
The early morning sun was doing its best to force light into the room through the grimy window. All it managed was a faint, bleak shaft of light that crept along the floor, coming to a halt just before it touched Lois's heels. He let his eyes wander up to look at her.
Her back was still toward him, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She was trembling. Crying. He didn't know what he was supposed to do.
"Lois?" he tried softly.
She only shook her head, almost imperceptibly, and hugged herself tighter.
How did he tell her… he *had* loved the other Lois… Or at least he'd wanted to. But only because of a faint echo of the connection he'd felt. The same connection that was now painfully evident, like an electric current in a lightning storm.
He reached an arm out towards her, futilely. He let it drop back to his side. The ache in his chest hadn't lessened. Her figure blurred before him, but he wasn't going to cry. One of them had to be strong. They couldn't both fall apart, could they? Just keep breathing.
It wasn't meant to be this hard. He wasn't supposed to be terrified that this might not all work out. He wasn't meant to question whether or not this was destined to be. He wasn't supposed to be questioning his love for Lois because a meddling time traveler had used him as a standby replacement to ensure someone *else's* happiness.
He wasn't supposed to be wondering which emotions were real and for which Lois. Or if this was all supposed to end in a happily ever after. Did he get to have his Utopia, too? Was he meant to come back from the other universe? He only seemed to be ruining things and hurting people here. He wondered…
Clark swallowed. He wondered if he was even needed in this universe.
<All I can really tell you is that Clark is needed back in his universe…>
Wells had said… he was needed. But…
That couldn't really be it, could it? Only a few days had passed between his return and Lois showing up in his bedroom…
Could it… had it been Lois who'd needed him to come home?
Clark took a deep breath and took the first step towards Lois. Then another. And another until he was standing behind her, his hand poised above her shoulder… longing, but terrified to touch her.
Hesitantly, he laid a hand on her shoulder. He felt her tense up. After a second, she relaxed, but not entirely.
"Lois?" He tried again, softer this time. He needed her to look at him. He needed to see her face, for her to see his eyes… then maybe, somehow, he could get her to see that it was her, not anyone else that he needed. *She* was the one he loved. And, to him, she wasn't nobody… she was everything.
"…to go," she whispered.
He couldn't have heard her right… His super hearing had kicked in too late. She hadn't said…
"I need to go," she repeated, a fraction louder this time, as she turned to look at him.
As quiet as her words were, they shouldn't have hurt so much. He shouldn't be feeling a stabbing pain in his gut. No. She couldn't leave. No. No. No. He shook his head, trying to think straight, but the dull throbbing wasn't helping. He'd ruined it. There had to be… He tried to swallow back the queasy feeling in his throat. There had to be some way he could convince her to stay.
He glanced back at her, his vision swimming a bit. She looked so… anguished. He'd hurt her that badly, hadn't he? His one chance to be happy… to be as close to normal as he could get…
Clark forced himself to focus. "Lois, I… you can't…" He shook his head and tried again. "I didn't mean for it to be like this. I just wanted…"
"What, Clark?" Her voice was still quiet. No hint of accusation this time… "What did you want?"
"I wanted…" He wished the pain in his chest would go away; she hadn't left yet. There was still hope. He searched her eyes for some sort of sign, something to tell him that even if she wanted to walk out the door, she wouldn't walk out of his life.
She was waiting… patiently waiting for him to say the right thing… or maybe she was waiting for him to say the wrong thing. So she wouldn't feel guilty for leaving.
"I…" He let out frustrated sigh. "Dammit." He ran agitated hand through his hair. "I can't…"
Why couldn't he speak? He was a writer. He'd spoken at press conferences. *Why*, when it was so important, couldn't he find the right words? And why was his head still swimming? He just had to *think*.
"I don't want you to go."
Her eyes wandered a bit before settling back to stare at him. Her brow furrowed. "Clark, I just have to… go. Away. I need some-"
Clark didn't let her finish. He grabbed her and kissed her soundly. He didn't want to hear it. He didn't want the words etched in his memory forever. Pulling back, he looked into her eyes. Surprise. No, it was shock. His fingers threaded through her hair, and he kissed her again, concentrating all his effort on making her *feel*. She had to know just how much he needed her. A small seed of hope planted itself in his chest when he felt her respond, when she started kissing him back with equal fervor. The connection… soared… or it seemed like it but for the biting pain still in his chest.
He pulled back again, searching her eyes once more for any hint of a chance. It was getting increasingly harder to breathe.
She opened her mouth to answer…
…and the door burst open. There was a sharp whack, wood splintering as it hit the wall.
Clark barely got a glimpse of the man standing in the doorway before the pain exploded, ripping through him. Shooting pains. Knives through his stomach.
He gasped for breath. His head throbbed violently. Oh, God, the pain. He clutched at his sides helplessly. Kryptonite. The floor came up to meet him in a rush, and his head crashed into the hard concrete.
Muffled voices. Far away. Threats.
And an echoing scream. "Clark!"
Lois watched Clark hit the floor. Watched the sickening thud. Flesh against concrete. Pain. She could almost feel it. A vague sense of throbbing in her head. A ghost of a knife ripping through her stomach.
"Clark!" she cried out.
There were voices. A few of them. Telling her not to move. But Clark was on the floor. Suffering. Hurting.
They were killing him.
He was clutching at his stomach… he'd been shot? But… he… he was invulnerable, right? And she hadn't heard a shot. Or… she was pretty sure she hadn't.
She glanced at the doorway. Three men blocking her escape. Her eyes darted back and forth. Clark. Bad guys. Clark. Guns. Clark. And… an unnatural green glow…
The man in a business suit holding the glowing box moved closer. She took a step back. Clark cried out, and she felt a wave of nausea course through her.
Lois's head snapped up. The man with the box was speaking to her. Knew her name.
"Or shall I say Miss Lewis?"
Her stomach lurched. She couldn't breathe. They'd found her. The walls started closing in. They'd found her. She couldn't breathe. Everything started swimming. She choked out a breath. They'd found her.
"Lo…isss." A strangled moan from the floor. A rasping cough.
They'd found her, and they were killing Clark.
She had to think. She couldn't panic. Not again. No more panicking. She forced herself to think.
Clark. Needed. Her.
Somehow, she managed a deep breath. It didn't help.
The two big guys were still blocking the door. The man with the box was watching her. Amused. A sickly smile crept along his face. He set the box on the table and let the hinged lid fall open with a creak. The glow was coming from a rock. A green rock. Like a crystal. And it glowed.
Rocks weren't supposed to glow.
Another cry of pain from Clark.
Her eyes darted back to him. He was clutching his stomach. Curling in on himself. And his eyes were shut so tightly.
The rock was killing him. The… the… kri… crypt… what had Clark called it…
"Kryptonite, Miss Lane. It's quite entertaining, actually."
Lois swallowed roughly.
"A mere rock, brought in close proximity, leaves the strongest man on the planet in a crumpled, pathetic heap on the floor."
His smile was sickening, and she did her best to hold back the bile rising in her throat.
Clark had stopped writhing. All the fight had bled out of him. He almost looked as if he were sleeping. But he couldn't be. He might be d… she squinted… thank God, he was still breathing.
Her gaze darted back to the table. The man had moved his arm. He was reaching for the lid of the box and… closing it?
The lid fell shut with a harsh clack. She flinched.
The man started speaking again. "Mustn't kill him right away. All in good time, I say."
She didn't… that didn't make sense. But… she almost felt a sigh of relief from Clark.
Closing the box had helped.
But now what was she supposed to do? There were guns. Three of them. All but one trained on her. The third on Clark. Clark was on the floor… possibly unconscious… she couldn't move him. She couldn't fight back without a weapon.
She was stuck. Panicking. No. Trying not to panic. She wasn't going to panic.
Her eyes darted to the box. Then to the man in the black suit. Then to Clark.
There had to be something she could do. There had to be. She wasn't going to be helpless again. She wasn't going to let them take her again. Because it *was* them. She knew it was. And they couldn't have her. They couldn't…
"Well, Ms. Lane, as much as I've enjoyed our little conversation, I'm afraid it's time to go." He turned to the towering man on his left. "You, take the body. And, you," he ordered, turning to the man on his right. "Escort Miss Lane to the van. You might want to give her something to drink; she looks a bit parched."
Lois tensed as the man approached her, his gun still trained on her, finger ready at the trigger. His other hand was… She didn't want to know what was in the vial he'd just pulled from his pocket. It couldn't be good. She just hoped it wasn't… poison.
She tried to breathe, reminding herself that they'd need to question her first. Interrogate her. Beat the information out of her.
Shaking. She was shaking. And the man was getting closer. There was nothing she could do. It was kidnapped or be shot. Her eyes burned, tears she hadn't realized were there running hot on her cheeks. She felt the barrel of the gun against her temple. Cold steel. She stopped breathing.
And in a sudden move, the man had somehow seized her and forced her mouth open. Her stomach roiled as she tried not to gag on the warm liquid filling her mouth. She shut her eyes tight, ready to spit the bitter fluid out, but then there was a hot breath in her ear. "You can swallow that, princess, or take a bullet in that pretty little head of yours."
Lois opened her eyes, and her vision swam. She could barely make out the shape of Clark being dragged through the door before everything went black.
In the small bathroom inside a cheap hotel room, Elle tugged her shirt back down over the surveillance wire and mumbled mockingly, "Take off your shirt."
He thought he was clever, didn't he? Charming, even. She scoffed. Hardly. She gathered her hair out from under the collar of her shirt and looked at herself in the mirror, frowning. She smoothed out her hair hastily. She'd spent all day with him, too. Told him everything.
She hadn't left out one sodding detail. And now he wanted her to walk straight into the fire with dynamite strapped to her chest… Well, a piece of high-tech spy stuff, anyway.
What was she doing? Not just tonight with the undercover madness, but what was she doing with her life? How had it gotten this far? She was just a simple girl from a small town… very small town… laneway with three houses on it… who'd been trying to have a bit of an adventure. Something more exciting than milking Philomena every morning for the past twenty years.
Now she'd been blacklisted by Lex Luthor. And, somehow, she'd been talked into being a double agent. Of sorts. Playing spies. Ooh, how fun! Especially the quite possibly getting killed part.
What the hell had she been thinking?
A sharp rap on the door made her jump, and it was accompanied by a "You about done in there?"
"Are you about done in there?" she mouthed snarkily into the mirror. She looked one last time at herself in the mirror and took a deep breath. There was no way she was letting Pete know that she was scared out of her wits. He'd seen enough vulnerability from her already.
Elle yanked open the bathroom door and glared at Pete. Then she stormed right past him, brushing roughly against his side because he hadn't had the good sense to move out of the way. She sat down on the bed with a huff and crossed her arms in what she hoped was a haughty manner. By the time she looked over to where he was standing, he'd turned around to face her. She narrowed her glare. Why wasn't he shocked or taken aback or *something* by her behavior? This man was infuriating.
He was grinning. "Scared, Ellie?"
"No. And don't call me Ellie." He had a lot of nerve. Elle Daly didn't do scared. Certainly not petrified, either. She did do indignant, however. Belligerent, too. That, he'd be getting plenty of. "So, James Bond, when do we leave for the super secret undercover operation?"
Oh. Now? She held back a whimper and hoped her glare hadn't faltered long enough for him to have noticed. She wasn't sure how far the hotel was from the warehouse…
Getting to her feet once again, she cocked her head, put a hand on her hip, and gave him a pretentious smirk to hide the anxiety. "All right, then. We'd better go."
"I'm kidding. We're not leaving for twenty minutes." He was holding back a laugh, and then he had the gall to look her up and down. "Don't be so uptight. People might think you've got something to hide." Then he winked. Winked of all things!
She fumed. "What are you talking about? What have I possibly got to hide? Especially when I've already told you everything!" Crap. Show no weakness. Cover it up. "In… in a moment of weakness that really makes me think you slipped some truth serum in my coffee."
Hah. That was a good point. For all she knew, he *had* slipped something in her drink while she wasn't looking. She wondered if she could mark that down as a point scored for Daly…
"What have you got to hide?" He raised a smug eyebrow at her. "How about that surveillance wire you're wearing in your bra?"
Oh. She swore under her breath and mumbled, "Damn, score one for Romero."
"Excuse me?" he asked, obviously amused with her.
Damn him and his self-satisfied grin. She raised her voice. "I said you're a pig, Romero."
His grin only got bigger.
Insufferable. That's what this man was. Insufferable.
Elle advanced on him. She'd had enough. "You…" She pointed an angry finger at him. "Pete Romero, have got a hellva lotta nerve kidnappi-"
"I didn't kidn-"
She glared. "*Kidnapping* me in the middle of the night, then interroga-"
"It wasn't an int-"
"*Interrogating* me." She closed in, poking him in the chest for emphasis. "Then," she shouted. "Then you take me back to your hotel room just to antagonize me. And the *entire* time, you've made lewd, suggestive, and downright boorish comments. *You* are nothing but a rude, arrogant plonker who deserves to have his head shoved somewhere *very*-"
Before she could blink, Pete grabbed her, and his lips collided with her mouth, slanted against hers and… He… she… he was… kissing her. And… it was actually kind of… No!
She shoved him away, ignoring her increased heart rate. It was anything but nice! "What the hell was that for?"
"You wouldn't shut up!"
She let loose a squeak… an indignant heave of breath. How… how could… the nerve of… She shoved him again, grateful that she'd at least managed to unbalance him for a second. She gave him one last glare before she yanked the door open and slammed it shut behind her.
She'd made it halfway down the hall — her breath ragged, heart racing — before she heard him.
He must have left his sarcasm in the room. She kept walking.
"Elle, you don't understand… We've been followed. You can't go out there."
She froze mid-stride. Followed. Of course. She should have *known* that, thought about it. Thought about where she was headed, for that matter. Thought about the fact that she didn't even have her gun any longer; Pete still had it. She was vulnerable. Exposed. And now one hundred percent certain she had a price on her head.
Elle didn't say a word, though. She just turned on her heel and marched right past him and through the gaping doorway, back into the room.
She tried to ignore the pounding of her heart and the feeling that all her nerves were like bees underneath her skin trying to escape. Finally, after a long two seconds, she heard the door click shut and listened as Pete secured the deadbolt.
Turning around to face him, she found no traces of his earlier sarcasm in his features. He opened his mouth to say something, but she cut him off. "Just stick to the plan, Pete." Her voice was quieter now, but she knew the tremor in it had only worsened. "And keep your penguins to yourself."
Her head was pounding. She swallowed, her tongue dragging roughly against the top of her mouth. She could taste the sour, stale remnants of the sedative she'd been given. Her eyelids were like lead, and they were an effort to drag open. Slowly, her surroundings came into focus. Well, mostly focused. If things would just stop moving, they wouldn't be so blurry.
She was sprawled face down on the floor; that much she knew. And she tried not to shudder at the feel of the cold concrete against her cheek. This was different. She wasn't in the Congo. She was in Metropolis…
She hoped she was still in Metropolis.
Lois held back the tears. She wasn't going to cry.
Resolutely, she pushed herself up from the floor, trying to keep her balance when her head started to swim. Moving more slowly, she brought her legs up underneath her, sitting on the floor and trying to get a handle on her surroundings…
Trying not to notice that this room… she swallowed… that this room looked like… She took a deep breath and held it, struggling to hold back the tears.
Lois's eyes swept in a slow arc around the room. The cell. Concrete walls. Concrete ceiling. No windows. A hole in the ground on the far side. A bed… a mattress on a steel slab attached to the wall. She whipped around to look at the door.
Her stomach clenched, and she gasped. The tears were making it hard to see, but…
It was the same door. Same thick, discolored steel. Same two inch gap at the bottom. The hole they'd…
The air whooshed out of her lungs, and she started breathing hard and quick.
They couldn't… they couldn't have. She hadn't been out for that long. She'd have known… She wasn't…
Lois shut her eyes and shook her head violently. Nightmare. It was just a nightmare. She wasn't really here. Not again.
She tried not to think that she had no idea how much time had passed. Where they'd taken her. What they'd given her. What had happened while she was unconscious…
And what they were going to do to her now. It was the same thing. All over again. Only it was worse. This time they'd be mad, furious that she'd escaped. They'd tor-
A raspy cough.
Someone else was in the room. No. Not now. Please not now. How could she have not seen them? She'd looked. Seen the whole room. She'd… not looked directly behind her…
Oh, God! She'd forgotten about Clark.
She whipped around and saw him. Lying there on the floor. Bare inches from the wall. His chest rising and falling unevenly. His head was lolling off to the side, his eyelids twitching with what must have been an uneasy dream. A nightmare.
Like what she was living right now.
But… she wasn't alone. At least this time she wasn't alone.
Lois crawled the short distance to his side and checked him over. He didn't… look hurt. No scrapes or bruises or blood. But the slight rasp to his breathing didn't sound good. He looked pale, too.
"Nooo…" he moaned, twitching slightly. His brow furrowed, and he shook his head.
She wondered if she should wake him. Or was it best to let him rest?
If only she knew how that damned Kryptonite worked. He might need some kind of antidote or something. Something she didn't have.
He'd looked visibly relieved when the box had shut, blocking out the unearthly green glow. So maybe he just needed to be away from it. As long as the rock wasn't anywhere near him, he'd be okay. That made sense… in a weird sort of way. But that meant he should be fine. He'd make it.
The rock was nowhere around, and while he didn't look to be in immediate pain, he still looked sick and weak. Maybe the man had left the rock behind? She looked around frantically. Nothing was glowing. And a glance at his form-fitting jeans told her there was no room for it to be in his pocket. So… it wasn't here. Unless they'd hidden it somewhere…
But he wasn't writhing with pain like he had before. She just had to trust that it was gone.
Lois reached out to feel his forehead. It was warm. Hot, actually. But he was different. His body didn't work the same as everyone else. Maybe hot was normal. Or maybe warm was normal and hot was bad. She couldn't know, and she felt helpless.
She let her hand slide down the side of his face, cupping his cheek. "Oh, Clark," she breathed.
He had stopped moving restlessly and settled a bit. He looked better but the difference was marginal. She just wished there was something she could do. He was sitting here on this cold, concrete floor, not even a blanket or a pillow. She glanced sidelong at the bed along the wall to her left, then back at Clark. There was no way she'd be able to lift him, even if she could manage to move him four feet across the room.
Well, her lap would work well as a pillow, wouldn't it? Lois shifted to sit against the wall above where his head rested, and then, as gently as she could, she lifted his head and shoulders so she could scoot underneath. He was even heavier than she'd expected, but after a few moments and a bit of extra effort, she'd managed to move him.
She sat with her legs straight out, and his head rested on her thigh. He hadn't woken, only stirred a bit, but he seemed to be more relaxed, a little more comfortable. She hoped that meant he was going to make it. But she was still worried; something told her his color wasn't quite right.
She didn't know what temperature he was supposed to be, but she had a feeling he was far too hot. As if he had a fever of some sort. His breathing was labored, too. It didn't seem like he was struggling to breathe, it was just… it didn't sound right. A wheeze almost, and she'd found herself listening a little too closely, having unconsciously matched her breathing to his. She shook her head and took a deep breath, trying to clear her head and breathe right again.
Lois rested her head back against the wall and sighed, and all of the stress and terror from minutes ago seemed to catch up with her. She felt weak all of a sudden. Fatigued.
She took a moment to look around the room again. Slower this time. It was still frightening. She still wondered…
Lois turned her head to look at the bit of wall just above the bed and sighed with relief. No sign of the concrete having been chipped away slowly. It was smooth, unblemished. This wasn't the same wall she'd picked at every day for over two years.
This was a different room. She sagged with relief. She wasn't back there, and now that she looked more closely, she could see that. Everything looked a bit… newer. Cleaner, almost. She took another deep breath. The rancid smell of… things she'd rather forget was absent.
Clark hadn't been there, but he was now. And now, more than ever, she needed him. Especially to keep her sane and remind her she wasn't in the last place she ever wanted to see again.
Even with Clark there, she still shuddered at the thought that someone had gone to so much trouble to recreate an exact replica of the cell she'd been kept in for years in the Congo. Whoever had done this was evil and sadistic in ways she couldn't even fathom.
And… it took time to build such things. Time and money. Money wasn't an issue, considering what she'd seen over there, but time. They'd been watching her. Ever since she'd returned. They had to have been. She'd only suspected before, but when she'd gotten down to it, she hadn't thought that anyone would really think she was still alive. Especially the men who'd witnessed the harsh reality of the Congolese jungle. Most people didn't survive that; it was a miracle she'd made it back.
And found Clark. She wouldn't have made it alone. Maybe it'd been fate that had let her find the old issue of the Daily Planet, giving her a morsel of hope to hold on to. A destination when she'd known home wasn't really home anymore.
Clark stirred faintly, and she looked down at him. His eyelids were fluttering softly, and his lips were parted slightly. He looked so… vulnerable. He seemed peaceful, though. For all the pain he'd suffered in his life, it was almost a contradiction for him to look so untouched and innocent in his sleep. She reached out to touch him, fingers stopping poised mere millimeters away from his lips. Not to check if he was breathing, but the slow breath of warm air against her fingertips was comforting all the same. She ran her fingers lightly over his lips, feeling the smoothness and remembering what they'd felt like pressed against hers. A shiver ran through her at the thought, and she drew her hand away, startled.
Maybe fate had more of a hand in her life than she'd realized. There had to be a reason for this connection she felt with him. Maybe that was how it worked when you were in love, truly in love. The stuff of fairy tales after all. But Prince Charming wasn't supposed to hide things, important things. Things that he ought to have been eager to share with her if he really loved her as he said he did.
But he hadn't shared, not until she'd mentioned it. And with two little words, he'd made her doubt what little trust she'd had. If he hadn't told her, there'd been a reason. Like maybe he couldn't be sure which Lois he loved. Like maybe he'd loved *her* more and was just settling for what he could get back in his own universe.
She struggled with that idea, though. Not just because she didn't want it to be true, but because something inside her told her it wasn't. Even so, she still couldn't trust him. Or herself. She didn't know how love was supposed to work. Every time she'd asked in the past, people had told her she'd "just know".
Well, she didn't just know. Or maybe she did, and she couldn't trust it to be real. Her days of jumping in without checking the water level were gone. She couldn't afford the risk… especially not with her heart. Not when she was so unsteady and damaged. She couldn't be sure that he'd be there for her if she fell apart again, not when he was just as fragile… and mortal.
Clark could die. She hadn't been prepared for the cold, gripping fear that had clenched in her gut when Clark had been dying right in front of her. Equal, if not more, to the terror of knowing that she was going to be caged. Again.
And the only reason she was still sane was him. Without Clark's presence in the cell… and in her heart… the walls would have caved in already. She just wished he'd wake up; the fear was seeping back slowly from the edge of her senses, and she wasn't sure how long she could hold it back. There was no telling when they'd come back for them. For her.
All she could do was wait.
Pete kept sneaking glances at Elle from the corner of his eye as he drove them across the city to the warehouse district. He couldn't believe he'd kissed her. What the hell had he been thinking? He didn't get involved with his assignments. He was a professional. No personal interest at all. He was just doing his job.
Which was a load of crap.
He'd gotten involved the moment he'd found Lois Lane's backpack in a storage closet eight months ago. That decision had jeopardized the entire operation. Not only had he lost his position as a valuable insider, but he was now considered AWOL. Absent without leave. A wildcard. Loose cannon. The ATF would suspend him if they could find him.
And now with Elle. He'd marched right into the airport in full sight of the very men he was trying to put away, letting them see him. Exposing himself to the possibility that someone would recognize him from the bunker in Point Noire. All for someone he didn't even know. A feisty, rude someone, at that.
He hadn't even had a plan, either. And what he had now hardly constituted an intelligent course of action, nothing compared to the exhaustive assignment details he was used to following. But he was never really one to follow convention anyway. He was never content in doing things the "right" way, and he'd never been able to stand by and watch innocent people die. Not when he could do something about it.
Pete glanced back at Elle again. She was restless in her seat, trying to be surreptitious about scratching under her shirt where the wire was taped to her side.
"You need to stop fidgeting," he warned, hoping the exasperation hadn't leaked through in his voice.
She stopped, but glared at him. "Well, it itches!" She crossed her arms over her chest and slouched down in her seat.
"Then you'll have to ignore it."
She made a face at him. "I'll try," she replied testily.
"No," he snapped. "You'll ignore it. Period." He felt the skin on his hands pinching as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "If you don't, they'll notice. And if they notice, you'll die." His voice hadn't risen a pitch on that last word, had it? Hastily, he added, "And if you die, I won't get my information."
Pete kept his eyes straight ahead. He could hear her muffled whimper just fine without needing to watch the hurt and scared look in her eyes. C'mon, Elle… where was the rivalry now? The quick rejoinder? He needed her to get that back, especially if Luthor was going to be there as Pete anticipated he would be.
He heard her take a deep breath, but he still didn't look over when she started speaking. "Would it kill you to be nice to me, Romero?"
He winced at the hurt in her voice she hadn't bothered to mask. The fear was really getting to her, wasn't it? No more sharp, cruel façade to hide behind. It'd gotten too real.
Pete sighed, his brow creasing, and he slowed the car to pull in a nearly deserted parking lot. He cut the engine and threw the car into park.
He shifted so he was facing the passenger side and found her staring through the window into the near-darkness. The weak light from a nearby lamppost cast her reflection on the glass. A faint, distorted picture, but the glint of tears in her eyes was unmistakable. "Elle?"
Her arms tightened around her sides, and she spoke without turning to look at him. "Why are we stopped? We wouldn't want to be late for the meeting. You wouldn't get your precious evidence, and wouldn't that leave you in a merry state altogether?"
Pete cringed. He'd gone one too far. But he wasn't sure how to fix it. He hardly knew her. "I didn't mean it, Elle. It's…" He sighed. "Luthor is dangerous. Very dangerous. And h-"
"Luthor doesn't come to these meetings," she cut him off tersely.
He opened his mouth and shut it. How exactly should he tell her… "Actually…"
She whipped around, wide-eyed and just stared at him.
"I have a feeling he might be coming to this one." Pete waited for her reaction with bated breath.
"H-how would you know?" He could tell she was trying to keep the edge to her voice, but it wasn't working so well.
It was better if she knew… He just hoped it didn't frighten her more. "The phone call I got earlier was one of my sources, and he told me that…"
"That what, Pete?" She didn't even try to disguise the tremor in her voice this time.
He didn't want to say. He couldn't just blurt out her death sentence.
"Tell me!!" she urged, the worry lines on her forehead becoming prominent.
"Don't make me repeat it, please, Elle."
"In a pig's ear! You'd better bloody well repeat it! Especially if it's what I think it was." Her voice had grown a little stronger, more insistent.
He couldn't look her in the eye as he repeated himself in a low voice. "Luthor wants you dead. And he wants to do it himself. Tonight. He's betting you'll show up."
Her jaw dropped. Too blunt. He should have been more delicate about it. No one should have to learn that they were-
"So you were just going to serve me up to him on a platter?!"
"No! I-I… I didn't th-"
"You didn't what, Pete? What? You didn't think that it would be a concern? You just thought that I could get your evidence for you, and then you could collect the recording later from my dead body? The no-risk plan to get Pete Romero his promotion for bringing down Lex Luthor?"
He… he'd thought he could improvise. Like always. It had always worked before…
But, dammit, this was Luthor… Had he really expected her to come out of that meeting alive? "We're not going," he said blankly, still shaken that he'd overlooked something so vital.
"No, no. I'm all for being a sacrificial victim. Let's go." She was bordering on hysterical, and he about choked when she reached over to turn the keys in the ignition, the engine roaring to life.
"No," he insisted, trying to keep his voice firm.
"I said no!" He jerked his hand up to the ignition and cut the engine again.
"Well, I said yes! I'm dead either way you look at it, so I might as well be of some use to someone, even if it *is* as a human dartboard."
She reached for the keys again, but he snatched her hand back, keeping it in his. She struggled against him for a moment, and he released his grip. "Look at me, Elle!" He grabbed her by the shoulders and stared until she met his eyes.
He could feel her trembling beneath his hands. "What, Pete?" Her voice shook, too.
Pete closed his eyes and shook his head. He was crazy. Damned crazy. He opened his eyes again and looked straight at her. "You can't because I… I don't think the penguins would handle it well at all."
She let out a sobbing laugh, and he felt the tension bleed out of her shoulders. "I told you to keep your penguins away from me, Romero."
Clark was having the best dream. It'd started out a nightmare, one of those horrific ones in which he'd found Lois, but in mortal danger. She usually died in those dreams. But this time… this time he'd caught the bullet. In time. He'd been in time to save her. Fast enough.
And now… they were lying on a sandy beach watching the stars twinkle in the large expanse of midnight blue sky. He could hear the waves lapping at the shore. His head was in her lap, and she was running her fingers idly through his hair. She was holding his hand, too. With her other hand. And she was talking softly to him about… about… something. He couldn't hear her clearly, but he still loved the sound of her voice. He tried to get up so he could look at her again… He'd never tire of looking at her, so alive, so vibrant… but his limbs were heavy, so he stayed where he was. He'd never felt more relaxed. That must be why he just couldn't bring himself to move. Anyway, it was a dream, one he didn't feel much like waking up from.
The stars started to fade into the backdrop of sky, turning it into a mottled, brownish mess. He'd jinxed it. The moment he'd realized it was a dream, he'd doomed himself to waking up. He kept his eyes shut, though. Maybe he could hang on to the images for just a minute longer. The happy dreams always ended too soon.
Clark tried valiantly, but the more he tried to hold on, the faster it slipped away. With a heavy sigh, he dragged his eyelids open.
She was there.
Smiling. She was right there. Talking to him, too. Well, moving her lips, but he couldn't hear any sound.
But she was there.
He closed his eyes again. A flash of green burst across his vision and left just as quickly as it'd come. What the…
He brought his hand up to rub at his eyes… or he would have if his brain had sent the message. Or maybe it was his arm that wasn't responding. Opening his eyes again gained him another vision of a smiling Lois. Yeah, it was definitely his brain that wasn't working.
It was probably related to the pounding in his head. And now that his mind was waking a little more, he realized he felt like he'd had a run in with an asteroid. Like the one earlier this year. That had not been a good day.
So maybe instead of amnesia this time, he was just hallucinating. That was a nice change, he supposed. He wondered if hallucinations talked. "Happy anniversary, darling," he tried with a goofy smile.
"Clark, snap out of it. You're dreaming."
No he wasn't. He'd woken up, and he was happily hallucinating now, but she wasn't following the rules. He frowned.
The imaginary Lois touched his cheek and looked into his eyes. She was so serious looking.
He tried to clear the thick cotton from his mind. He could *feel* her hand on his cheek.
Hallucinations didn't do that.
Clark shut his eyes tightly and opened them again. She was still there. The smile had turned into a confused look of concern, but she was still there. And… his brow furrowed as well; from what he could see, they were in some sort of small concrete room. "Lois?"
"Are you feeling all right?"
"Yeah… I'm fine. I think." His head hurt, though. That wasn't normal. And he felt weak…
He looked back at her. She was still talking. "I… I wasn't sure what to do. I don't really know how the Kryptonite stuff works… and I was kind of worried. You were burning up earlier and… well, I just hope you're okay."
Kryptonite?! But… it was…
Oh, God. The Kryptonite. The men with guns. Pain. Unbearable pain.
They were trapped now, weren't they? They'd been kidnapped. And Lois had been… she'd been hurting, too. Hadn't she?
Well, she was all right now. He could see that. But anything could have happened while he was out of it. She could have been…
He didn't want to think about it. Not ever.
He looked up at her again, reassuring himself that she was still there and didn't appear to be hurt. There were lines of worry crossing her brow, though. What had she said?
Right. She didn't know what to do, how the Kryptonite worked. "I should be okay, Lois." Her features relaxed slightly. "It's not anywhere near me right now. Should give me time to recuperate." He attempted a smile for her.
Clark felt her legs shift and then settle beneath him… He hadn't realized he was still in her lap. Or rather… he hadn't exactly noticed in the first place, and now he felt a little embarrassed. He could feel the heat of a blush rising in his cheeks, and he wondered if he should move. Though, to be honest, he was insanely comfortable… and she didn't seem to mind so much…
She was worrying at her lip a bit, as if she wasn't sure about saying something. But she did anyway. "How… what exactly do you mean by recuperate?"
That was a change… If he recalled correctly, *no* one really knew what Kryptonite did. Perry, yeah, but no one else that was still in this universe knew. He'd never had to explain it to anyone before…
"I mean… wait for my powers to come back."
Her eyes widened. "T-they're gone?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Gone."
"But… how are you going to… what does that mean, exactly?"
"What do you mean?" He wasn't trying to be obtuse, but he still wasn't thinking straight.
"I mean…" The look of worry increased. "You're not paralyzed or anything, right? You just… can't fly?"
"Oh, oh no. I'm… it's more like…" He wasn't sure exactly how to explain it. "It's like I'm just an ordinary guy."
Her relief coursed through him as he watched the tension bleed out of her shoulders. "Oh, thank God. I was… I… Um… I was worried for a minute there that you… that I'd have to… Well, I don't think I could have carried you out when we escape."
He couldn't help but grin at her.
"What?" She glanced away for a second, tucking her hair behind her ear.
"We're escaping." His grin widened.
Her cheeks flushed slightly, a small smile touching her lips. "Well… we have to. Don't we?"
He nodded, amazed at her confidence. She was just… He had no idea how the hell they were going to get out of here, but if Lois thought they could… Well, he'd do anything for that smile.
"Yeah. We do."
She smiled back, and he felt a little spark of warmth in his chest. He didn't know how she was doing it, how she could be so hopeful, especially after what she'd been through and being imprisoned yet again. He'd been right; they hadn't taken her, hadn't broken her spirit. And that… gave him hope.
He was watching her with that look of awe again. The one that filled her with the most incredible emotions.
But at the same time she couldn't forget everything that had happened, as much as she would have liked to. And as much as she wanted to hold on to the sense of security the feeling brought with it, she had to keep her guard up. She had to keep that tough exterior, and not just to guard her heart. They both needed their wits about them if they wanted any chance of getting out of this alive.
"Lois?" His voice was quiet. But she couldn't quite tell if it was because of his weakened state or the raw emotional vulnerability she felt coming from him.
Or maybe the rawness of emotion was her own, not his. Too much to handle at once? Her heart was still balanced precariously atop the issue of trust, but there was something else to take into consideration now. She'd never before been so terrified as when she thought she might lose Clark. And that left her feeling horribly anxious.
"Lois, I want you to know… I love you. I… I think that…"
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Not now, Clark. Not now. She needed to… she had to… "How can you love me?" She kept her voice soft, unthreatening, but she didn't want to leave any doubt… "How can you say you love me when you don't even know who I am? It's… well… how can you be sure, Clark?"
He looked wounded, and she hated that she'd added yet another injury when he'd already had more than his share today. But she needed to know.
She silenced the voice in her head that said *she* loved *him* without knowing who he was. It was different. She didn't have anyone to compare him to… especially not someone so eerily similar.
It was another moment before he spoke. She could feel he was trying to gather himself together, not fall apart. She'd done that to him…
With great effort, he sat himself up, leaning against the wall for support, but turning his head to face her. She could see his eyes now. His face. The sorrow written plainly on it, mingled with the lingering pain from the Kryptonite.
Finally, he spoke. "I… if you could listen… I mean, I'm not very good with…" He trailed off, dropping his gaze for a moment before looking back up at her. "I have a hard time telling people how I feel, so if you could hear me out. You know… wait til I'm finished before you say anything?"
She nodded, feeling even more unbalanced; this gave them yet another thing in common…
Lois watched him in silence as he seemed to be organizing his thoughts, his brow creasing slightly.
"A-after my parents died, I was alone. I mean, there were foster homes… and I had a few friends… but…" She watched a heavy cloud of sadness move in and settle over him. "My parents were the only ones who knew about me… that I'm… different. Alien. I had one friend…Lana… I'd thought we were close, and I told her."
He'd stopped looking at her, lost in the memory, she assumed… or trying not to drown in it.
"I thought she'd understand, but… she didn't. Not exactly, anyway. I mean, she did eventually because she and I…" The last words tumbled out in a rush. "I asked her to marry me because I thought she was the only one who'd ever love me, especially because of what I am."
Lois held her breath, trying to process the information without… married… and he thought he was… She just… had to let him finish. That was the only thing he'd asked of her. She took a calming breath. And maybe after… well, after she'd know if she still had to worry about Lana, and she could tell him he wasn't an abomination.
He must have seen the look on her face and realized what he'd said; there was a touch of panic in his eyes when he looked up at her. "She… we're not married. Or engaged. Or… anything. I… it's not…"
Silently relieved, she put a hand on his knee. "It's okay, Clark."
That seemed to calm him some, and after a moment's silence he spoke again. "I've never really been able to be myself. Me. I… It's not that…" He took a deep breath before starting again. "I'm more than Clark Kent. And Superman. I'm… me… I just wish, for once, that someone would look…" He gave a frustrated sigh. His voice trembled slightly when he continued. "I don't want to be the hero all the time anymore. I want someone to look at me for me. To realize that I have feelings just like everyone else, and that if I can open a locked door with my bare hand, it doesn't make me a freak."
She felt a sharp pang of… something… in her chest. Sympathy… pain… wonder… she couldn't be sure which. But the look in his eyes… the raw vulnerability in his tentative smile… asking her to…
Accept him for who he was, and know that he was…
Clark continued, conviction behind his words this time. "That's how I know, Lois. Because…" His momentum wavered, and he tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes before he brought his gaze back to her, intense. Determined. "Because you see *me*. Like no one else ever has. And for the first time in my life… I *want* to be me."
Her breath caught in her throat, and she opened her mouth to respond… but she couldn't speak.
"Because of you," he said softly. "And I can't explain it. I don't know how to… it's…
She didn't let him finish; she just leaned over and pressed her lips against his, bringing her hands up to cradle the back of his head and run her fingers through his hair. The connection exploded. Blinding light. Intense emotions she couldn't discern. But she didn't care. She knew. She knew he was hers, and she was his. And there wasn't anything else that needed to be said.
At least not while he was kissing her, responding with everything he'd just… It was… he… Somewhere, on an elemental level… She just knew. Even if she was scared to death of what came next.
"We're going, and you're not changing my mind," Elle challenged as she reached over to turn the keys and start the ignition again.
"No buts. Except yours, driving mine to the warehouse." She was proud that she'd managed to keep the tremor from her voice. She was scared, but this had to be done.
He didn't turn the car off this time. Which was probably a relief for the poor engine; they'd been arguing for at least ten minutes.
"Elle, listen," he started.
She crossed her arms over her chest and waited. The little lines of concern across his forehead were almost endearing. Despite all her tensed up nerves, she had to bite back a smile.
"You can't go. We'll have to find another way." He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I wasn't thinking… I didn't even realize there was no possible way you could get out of there alive. Well, I did, sort of… but the fact really hadn't sunken in. I can usually… handle situations like this."
He was looking at her, visibly shaken for some reason. She waited for him to finish.
"Luthor wants to kill you. *Is* going to kill you. And I think you've seen just how merciless he is…"
A horrid image of Joe falling to the ground flashed through her mind. Elle took a deep breath and exhaled unsteadily. Pete was right.
But if she didn't go… A lot of people would die, not just Lois Lane and her. The people in the Congo… Civil war… Incomprehensible evil…
And she had the power to do something about it. Oh, she didn't delude herself with fantasies of bringing down a crime lord and exposing mass corruption. But even if her part was a small one, she had to do what she could. Didn't she?
She looked back at Pete to find him still staring at her as if he was waiting for some kind of answer to a question he hadn't asked.
"We have to, Pete," she told him softly. "I have to. For Joe. If I run away now, he'll have been killed for nothing. I just… I feel if I stay, do *something* to put a stop to all this, then I won't feel as if it were me who murdered him."
"But you didn't kill him!"
"I might as well have." She almost whispered it, some part of her deep down wishing that it were anything but true. She may not have pulled the trigger, but she was the reason Joe was dead. And she'd never forgive herself for that.
That was why she had to do this. She would die herself before she felt the guilt of another death settle heavily on her shoulders.
There was a long moment of uneasy silence before she heard Pete release a heavy sigh. "I'm not going to change your mind, am I?"
"No, you're not," she said, and found she felt just a bit pleased with herself for winning one at last. "And if you'd been listening two minutes ago, you'd have heard me say just that. Now shut up and drive."
To her amazement, he did do just that, throwing the car into drive and stepping on the gas. She tried to bite back the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. She'd rather been hoping they could continue their argument… because as much as she felt compelled to help, watching Pete squirm had been keeping her mind off the enormity of what she'd insisted on doing.
The worry lines creased into his forehead had only deepened, and that was unsettling. As was his silence.
Elle glanced around the car uneasily. She needed something to keep her mind occupied. Her eyes focused on the radio, but she dismissed that idea right away, visions of her singing ardently along with the music dancing in her head. As much as she secretly enjoyed the sparring with Pete, she didn't relish the thought of relentless teasing. Not that she sang poorly, but…
She cleared her throat and tried for a different method of distraction. "So did you really have a brilliant plan there, Pete? Or were you just going to escort me to the door and bolt?"
His eye twitched the smallest fraction. She watched as he seemed to think, and then… success. The muscles in his jaw clenched ever so slightly.
"I was going to drop you off at the curb, actually. And I was thinking about being nice and slowing the car down first." He raised a challenging eyebrow at her.
"Gee, thanks. You must be a real hit with the ladies. Tell me, Petey, had many girlfriends? Or have they all turned heel and run?"
Elle tensed for a moment; that had been a bit harsh. But, really, she couldn't imagine any woman wanting to put up with him.
She saw the muscle in his jaw tic again, and there was an uncomfortable silence for at least a good twenty seconds. She'd counted. Twenty two. Twenty thr-
"Nope. I killed them." He had an evil grin on his face, and she tried to ignore the grief she saw hovering just below the surface. "Every single one of them."
"You really are full of it, you know."
"I don't have time for a relationship." He sobered. His words were clipped, but she sensed regret behind them. "Not with this job."
Well, damn. Now she felt kind of bad. This was completely unfair of him, getting under her skin all day, pushing her to the limits of her temper, and now… now he wanted to change the rules on her. Well, if that was what he thought, he had another think coming. She was going to show him who was really in charge… as soon as she apologized.
She sighed. Why she had ever thought a life of crime would work was beyond her. "Pete, look, I'm sor-"
"We're here." He cut her off.
Actually, it was more like he hadn't even heard her. His eyes were focused on the warehouse 200 yards in front of them. The warehouse that, suddenly, looked really ominous. More so than before. So much that she could almost hear the creepy horror-movie violins screeching.
She gulped. This was it. Do or die. And she was terrified it would be the latter.
Clark watched Lois pace back and forth in front of him. He hadn't been sure what was wrong at first, but after asking and getting a hasty reply he knew now that this was her way of thinking, plotting. Trying to come up with their escape plan, no doubt.
He was useless. All he was doing was just sitting back and leaning against the wall. What help was that? Yet what could he do? What could he say? Especially when every muscle in his body ached, and his head was still pounding. It was as if he'd died and was now slowly, painfully coming back to life. So watching Lois was better than any attempt at helping he might make.
Unfortunately, her pacing and the nervous ball of energy he could feel she had in her stomach were starting to make him just a bit nauseous. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall. He just had to keep in mind they were escaping. They had to. And he had to stay focused.
He couldn't let himself think about anything else. Not the look on her face when he'd bared his soul before her, or the tears that had formed in her eyes at his words, or the way she'd launched herself at him, the feel of her lips against his, the surge of something indescribable inside him. He couldn't think about any of that because then he'd have to remember the way she'd pulled away slowly, searched his eyes for something she must not have found, and hastily moved away, stood up.
It wasn't him. He had to tell himself that. It was the situation. And… she'd said as much. Sort of.
She'd mumbled something about needing to figure a way out of here. And that was when the pacing had started. Maybe if there'd been ranting or babbling it would have been okay. But this was just pacing, and he had no idea what was really going through her mind.
Maybe he'd been too forward, said too much. But she'd *wanted* to know about him. She'd wanted for him not to hide anything. To be honest.
Or so she'd said. But then, people didn't always mean what they said.
If only he'd found that out before he'd bared his soul and left himself even more vulnerable.
Lois wanted to scream as she paced the length of the cell. No matter how many times she looked around the room, there just wasn't a way out. Nothing even remotely resembled a successful escape route. The slot at the bottom of the door wasn't wide enough for her to stick her arm through, not to mention her arm was a few feet short of being able to reach the latch, anyway.
She was still pacing; it helped her think. Or at least she was trying to convince herself of that. She knew it was only making Clark more antsy, but she couldn't help it. Clark was still not feeling great, and she realized she'd forgotten to ask how long he thought it might be. But she had to assume that if he hadn't improved more than being able to stand up on shaky limbs in the time they'd been here, he wasn't going to be much help in their escape plan… when she figured out what that was.
The grating sound of the steel bar sliding open startled her. She stopped dead in her tracks, whipping around to face the door. Her mind flashed back like a pulse to the last time she'd heard that sound. Her heart jumped and started racing. Thunder in her ears. Whatever the plan had been… this was. Not. Part. Of. It.
She flinched at the deafening clang of the steel bar coming to a halt, and held her breath, dreading what might be on the other side of the door. Because there was no way in hell it would be the same as the time before. No mysterious rescuer this time. They were here for her. For what she knew. And then… they'd take her life too.
The heavy steel creaked on its hinges, swinging inward. Oh so slowly. Like the sick bastard knew each second increased her feeling of dread. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Clark struggling to get to his feet. She could feel his fear, and it wasn't helping.
Focus on the door. The guard. There had to be an opportunity. Like last time. She'd been ready before, honing her strength. She could… do something.
A towering, burly man appeared in the doorway. The same guy who'd dragged Clark like a rag doll. But…
He didn't have his gun this time.
Clark was sneaking into her peripheral vision. Edging his way towards the door. She couldn't let him. At the moment, she was stronger than he was; it had to be her, but there would only be one shot. She willed Clark to understand that. The connection had to be good for something. Hopefully. Maybe…
The man was speaking. Lois focused on what he was saying, hoping Clark would get the message somehow.
"… Boss'll be by later."
She inched closer. If she could just…
"Told me to check 'n make sure the sack of muscle over there wasn' dead."
The man turned his head to look at Clark, and she went for it. A firm kick to the solar plexus. He'd seen her move, though, and made a grab for her foot, but it fell out of his reach before he could grasp it. She'd knocked him off balance. And she had about a second before he gained it back.
Lois seized his shoulders for balance and kneed him in the crotch. He pitched forward, yelping on his way to the floor. She took her elbow to the back of his neck as he fell, hoping to knock him unconscious, or at least stun him long enough for Clark and her to get out. She held her breath for a second, praying that he wouldn't move, then she pushed the steel door open wide.
Clark was a few feet behind her, walking, but not fast enough. She hurried over to him, putting her arm around his waist and his arm around her shoulders. It took agonizing seconds reach the door, keeping her eye trained on the guard, tensing at each twitch and moan.
But then they were through. Outside. Still enclosed by concrete, but the hallway was a path to freedom.
She edged away from Clark, careful to ensure he was still standing, and moved to shut the door. With a quick yank and a satisfying echo of steel against steel, the cell was sealed, and she threw slide bar over to lock it, like a final nail in a coffin.
She turned to find Clark, weary and weak, but grinning at her as he did his best to hold himself upright.
In a flash, she was back beside him and leading him down the hall, though she spared a second to grin back at him. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Elle stared at the doors to the warehouse. She needed to stop trembling and pretend this was just like any other meeting. But that was exactly the problem. It *wasn't* just like any other meeting. Luthor would be there. With his intent to kill her. And her job…
… was to weasel information out of the most evil, dangerous man she could ever imagine.
Yup. No pressure there.
Elle looked one more time over her shoulder to catch Pete's eye. He gave her a thumbs-up from his hiding spot behind a pile of crates. Heh.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a second, then she reached out to open the door. "Here goes nothing," she muttered under her breath. The hinges on the old, rusted door creaked, as usual, announcing her presence to the world. Or at least to anyone who happened to be near the warehouse.
Her first step inside was tentative, but then more confident, with what she sure as hell hoped was an air of nonchalance… or at least *not* sheer terror. She hoped.
Though, if she'd managed a pretense, it had sure as hell just faltered.
Lex Luthor was standing in front of her — clear as day even though it was the damned middle of the night. Nigel was there too, as usual, though he looked prepared to do anything but assign new posts and hand out paychecks. And no one else was there, either. Not Johnson, not Miller. Better to not have any witnesses to her murder.
Before she had time to compose herself into the Blissfully-Ignorant-of-Who-Lex-Luthor-Was-Elle, Lex called her bluff. Wholly unfair considering she hadn't even spoken a word yet. And on top of it all, the damn wire was itching again.
"Good evening, Miss Daly. Doing well, I presume?" Lex gave her a patronizing smile. "I trust you recognize my voice. And I'm sure I need not introduce myself…" Lex paused to take a step toward her and narrowed his eyes. "Not to a nosy little meddlesome waste of clean air such as yourself."
Heh. She didn't have a reply for that. In fact, the entire plan she and Pete had come up with in the last ten minutes had run away. Probably straight out the door, holding hands with her courage.
Maybe she should go find them. It really wasn't too wise to be here without the plan, was it? Elle turned back to look at the door and had to keep herself from jumping. Nigel was there, and the door was closed.
Bugger. Time for a new plan.
Why was it so hard to think with a gun pointing in one's direction?
Moving so Nigel wasn't out of her line of sight would be a good idea. She turned and backed herself closer to the side of the warehouse, then focused in on what Lex was saying.
"… you have anything to report for this week regarding the whereabouts of Miss Lane?"
He was toying with her. He knew bloody well that she'd left the airport hours ago *and* that she'd let Lane go. Did he want her to lie? Fess up? Her hand had made its way up to the hem of her shirt to scratch at the wire before she realized. She watched Lex's eyes follow her movements. Crap. She was screwed.
Wait! That was it!
She grabbed the wire and yanked it free, keeping her thumb over the miniature microphone, and addressed him in a sickly sweet voice. "Now, Lex, you wouldn't hit a woman, would you?" She narrowed her eyes and changed her tone. "Or, rather, you wouldn't shoot a woman with a bomb. Would you?"
Her heart would have leapt at the brief flash of fear in his eyes… if it hadn't been busy doing a pretty good impression of the timpani section of an orchestra.
What on earth was she doing?
"What do you think you're doing, Daly?" Lex sneered. The gun was still leveled at her.
Great. She cleared her throat. Maybe he didn't believe her. "I knew you were going to kill me, so I thought, what the hell? Might as well take you down with me. If my thumb leaves the trigger here, all three of us are fish food." She hoped her voice wasn't shaking too much.
"She's faking. She hasn't the gall."
Ohhhh. Nigel needed to shut up. Elle looked back to Lex.
He was silent. Contemplating, maybe? But he lowered the gun, and that bolstered her confidence… even though his finger had clearly remained on the trigger. He hadn't paid too much mind to Nigel, thankfully.
"Tell me, Luthor, I'm just dying to know *why* you are so concerned with Lois Lane. Everyone thinks she's dead. How could she possibly be of any use to you?"
She prayed Pete could still hear what she was saying even though she had her thumb over the microphone. Brilliant back up plan. Get Luthor to confess, but no evidence because she was obstructing the recording device.
He still wasn't talking. Just staring at her. He didn't believe her. But why wasn't he calling her bluff? Maybe this was some sort of sick mind game he was playing. Like a cat staring down the mouse who was frozen solid with fear.
Elle wasn't frozen, though. She could move. She had to keep talking, keep the upper hand… or convince Luthor that she *did* have the upper hand. "What are you doing with all the diamonds?"
The gun came back up. Oops. She might have gone a wee bit too far with that one. She did her best not to gulp.
"Who told you about the diamonds?"
Stall. She just had to stall for time. Pete said he would barge in if things started sounding too dangerous. He'd be here any second… She glanced down at her thumb on the "trigger". If he could hear what was going on.
"Really not a wise idea. The bomb will go off if you shoot me." She forced a bit of bravado back into her voice. "Now, tell me what you're doing with the diamonds."
"Ah, it's always the innocent ones who are foolishly brave in the last ten minutes of their lives. Isn't it, Nigel?"
Ten minutes. Did that mean ten minutes from now? Or from when she'd first walked in the door? And how long ago had that been? And who was to say Luthor had really meant ten minutes.
Where the hell was Romero?
"I don't care what your supervisor told you!" Pete swiped at the air in frustration. Every second that went by was one more second in which Elle could die. And he wasn't going to go barreling in without backup. Not again. Not this time.
"You guys can suspend me later for all I care, but I told you, I need back up. ASAP. Give me S.W.A.T., local police, anyone. I've got Luthor cornered, but civilian lives are in danger."
Hold. The mindless twit had put him on hold! For the love of-
He froze at the sound of the voice coming through his headset.
<<What happened to your little boyfriend, Daly? The one from the airport.>>
Crap. Lex was getting impatient; Pete could hear it in his tone. He jumped up and started toward the warehouse, torturous hold music in one ear, and Luthor taunting and threatening Elle in the other. He hovered a few yards from the door, his gun already out of its holster.
"C'mon, c'mon," he muttered into the phone. "You should've jumped the second I said the name Lutho- Hello… Finally… Well, I told you! The old warehouse. Fifth and Warren. I need you here ten minutes ago!" He slammed the phone shut and shoved it in his pocket.
<<You know, one would think you'd have learned your lesson with your little friend. What was his name again?>>
Luthor was getting volatile now. There was a rough undercurrent of rage in his voice.
Elle's voice was nothing more than a whisper in his ear. He couldn't wait for backup; he'd have to take his chances.
She'd had a plan. She and Pete had come up with a plan. A good one. Why, why, *why* was she staring at the wrong end of a gun attached to the arm of an extremely pissed off villain? A villain who was not following the typical bad guy script of confessing all his sins before he tried to kill the heroine. But Lex Luthor was far from typical, and she was certainly no heroine.
Lex had just advanced on her. Any second now he was going to pull the trigger, and Elle found herself wishing she really did have a bomb.
"In all your snooping you didn't learn the most important fact about me, did you?"
No… no. What had she missed? She shook her head, frightened. Why had she decided it'd be a *bad* idea to stash her gun somewhere on her?
"Lex Luthor never loses a b-"
"Freeze, Luthor! Elle, run!!"
She blinked and snapped her gaze towards the door. Pete. With a gun pointing at Luthor. And something about his voic-
"Now, Elle! Go!"
She hesitated. She couldn't just leave him. But… he was the trained professional here, and Luthor was suddenly looking again in her direction.
She bolted. Straight across the room and through the first door she saw. She flinched, but didn't look back when she heard the gunshot. Pretended she hadn't heard steel ripping through flesh. She couldn't have. She ignored the grunt of pain she heard, the rustling and commotion, and slammed the door shut behind her.
Now she had to… run? Call for help? Had Pete called for backup? She should find a phone just in case.
Elle stared ahead at the dark hallway, then spared a look behind her at the door. Pete was in there by himself. Someone had been shot. She could hear shouting… chaos on the other side of the door. She needed to help. But… if she opened the door again, she didn't have any means of fighting back, let alone protecting herself or Pete. Damn it!
Best thing to do was to make sure help was on the way. Which meant finding a phone. There had to be an office somewhere in this warehouse. The dull, flickering bulb overhead provided enough light so she could just barely make out that there were doors scattered along the corridor. Two, maybe three on the right and at least four on the left.
She dashed over to the first one, the closest one on the right. Locked. The next one was locked, too. And the next. But now that she was further down the hallway, she could see… one of the doors was open. Or at least it appeared so. There was a dark, black abyss instead of the faint glint of light cast on the steel of the doors.
Elle sprinted toward it, but right before she reached it, a shot rang out. Her head whipped around to stare back at the door. It was still closed. But someone could be d-
How the hell had she ended up on the floor? Why did she feel as if she'd run straight into a steel wall? She tried opening her eyes. The dark shadows were swimming above her, weaving back and forth. And…
Crap. Crapcrapcrap. She'd run into someone. Someone who probably worked for Luthor. She tensed and waited to hear the clicking of a gun being cocked. Or maybe a knife straight through the heart. Maybe if she didn't move…
"Are you okay?" A worried, masculine voice was whispering.
Another voice hissed through the semi-darkness. "Clark, you don't know who she is! For all we know, she's one of them."
Why did that name sound familiar? Clark…
"Running in the dark without a flashlight? I doubt it. Miss? Can you hear me?"
The man leaned closer and his face came into focus. She gasped. "Superma… mister Kent. Wha…" He didn't look well. At all. But she didn't have time to ponder that; the other face hovered into view. "Lois!"
Whoops. She ought not to have said that. Lois was tugging at Clark's arm, an alarmed look on her face.
"See?" There was a note of panic in Lois's voice as she tried pulling Clark away. "She knows. No one knows but them. And sh-"
"Ms. Lane, don't. It's okay." Elle stood up finally and brushed herself off. "I'm Elle Daly, ATF special agent."
"Let me see your badge," Lois demanded. Her panic seemed to have disappeared.
"And if you're with the government, where's your gun? Or how about a flashlight? And why were you running?" Lois had missed her calling; she should have been working for the FBI. No, better yet, the FBINWWMPBN — Federal Bureau of Intensely Nosy Women Who Make People Bloody Nervous. Yup. Americans had organizations for everything; surely they had that one.
"Okay, fine. I'm not a special agent… not officially, anyway… but I *am* here to help." Elle tried to not punctuate her claim with a sigh. And she just bet Lois would believe her about as far as she could throw her… though, if the look on Lois's face was any indication, the odds of believability might be quite good…
"Why should I believe you?"
Lois's voice was curt, accusing. More so with her arms crossed and a perfectly uncalled for glare on her face. Clark, for his part, was being far too quiet for her liking, just standing there and watching while Lois attacked.
There was a loud crash from behind the door. Damn it. Pete still needed help. There wasn't any time to waste. "Look, Ms. Lane, believe me or don't, but I've got to find a way out of here and get help before the *real* ATF agent gets killed." She swallowed back her heart thudding in her throat and brushed her way past Lois. "Excuse me."
"You can't get out that way." Lois's snappy voice behind her halted Elle in her tracks.
"She's right." Oh, *now* Clark spoke up, though his voice was sounding as feeble as he looked. "We've tried. This is the only way out… or at least we're hoping it is."
Elle turned around. Damn. She'd *known* he was going to be pointing at the door she'd just slammed shut. "Well, maybe you've missed something. I'm sure there's one here somewh…" Lois and Clark were both shaking their heads.
She bit at her lower lip, her heart still thundering in her chest. "Look, you probably won't believe me when I say this, but Lex Luthor is behind it all. He's the reason you were locked up for years, Lois, the reason why there are guns going into the Congo and diamonds coming out. And right now…" Elle sucked in a shuddering breath. She didn't have time to cry, dammit. And not over Pete. "He's busy k-killing a government agent, and he'll be after me as soon as he's done." They were both staring a bit slack-jawed at her. Elle rushed on before they could regain their wits and stop her. "I don't have a weapon. I don't have a plan. And unless either of you are Su…"
Oh, gads. She was a first class idiot! All this time she'd had the solution literally staring her in the face. "Clar… Superma… uh, Mr. Kent. You've got to stop him! You're the only one who can."
Clark reached up to loosen his tie before he realized what he was doing. He didn't have any powers, and he wasn't even wearing a tie. Not to mention… it was surprising to realize just how ingrained the habit was. He wouldn't have guessed that.
But no amount of prior knowledge would have helped him now, anyway.
His eyes darted from Elle to Lois. Lois, who was suddenly looking as if she wanted nothing more than for him to save the day right then. Save her. Maybe he was making more of her anxious expression than was really there, but he'd never felt more impotent. His time had come. Do or die, Superman. Make the rescue. Save the day. Only…
He had to do it as Clark.
And he had no clue how that would happen. But it had to.
"Don't just stand there!" Elle's urging startled him.
All right. He just had to pretend he had his powers. That would work. He would just convince Luthor and whoever else was behind that door that he was Superman, a superpowered one. Because no one would be the wiser, right? He could do this. He felt Lois give his hand a squeeze. He could definitely do this.
"Miss… Daly, was it?" Clark cleared his throat.
"I need you to go find a phone and call the police." That had sounded authoritative, mostly. Digging a little deeper for his superhero-in-charge tone, he said, "I'll handle Luthor."
He received a shaky nod from the young woman, who looked relieved to be headed in the opposite direction of the door. She didn't move more than a few feet before she stopped to check one of the doors. Apparently finding it locked, she moved on to the next.
Clark shook himself mentally. He needed to focus here. With the woman out of the way, he turned to Lois, raising their joined hands a fraction before letting them fall again. His heart was doing funny things in his chest, possibly forgetting to beat at times. Breathing was proving to be a bit difficult, too.
After a long moment, he drew his gaze away from the sight of her hand, so seemingly small in his own. He met her eyes, finally. Was the fear he saw there hers, or only a mirror of his own?
"I want you to stay here, Lois." It wasn't a command, but a request. A plea, dammit, because he was that weak. He needed her not to get killed. It would be safer if she stayed away, but she was already shaking her head, and her grip on his hand tightened.
She responded in a whisper, but it was a forceful one. "I'm not leaving you."
Clark watched the Daly woman from over Lois's shoulder; she was slipping into the darkness — into safety and out of earshot, but he still kept his voice low. "It's safer if you stay. You won't get hurt, and I'm-"
"Too weak. Your powers… they aren't back yet, are they?" she asked, dropping his hand hotly so she could point a finger at him.
He shook his head and looked away, not wanting to meet her eyes. He had to stand firm on this one, and he couldn't do that while she was fixing him with a grave, unyielding stare. He couldn't take the chance. He wanted nothing more than to have her by his side as he attempted… the impossible… but, as vulnerable as he was now, it would kill him not to have her there after, when everything was said and done. Win or lose. Good or bad. But the one thing he was *not* going to lose was her. If she wasn't there to tell him he'd done good, been a hero, not crumbled in the face of danger… to tell him… if she told him she was proud of him, maybe that would make everything right again. She had to live.
"Look at me, Clark," she demanded. Her tone was harsh, but there was no mistaking the sob threatening just below the surface. He couldn't look. "I'm. Not. Leaving. You."
Something surged in him, not quite anger, but he still whipped his gaze back to her and shouted, "I'm not losing you!"
"And I'm not losing you! So shut up, and let's go!"
Stunned silence followed. From both of them. It almost echoed through the corridor. Then a shot rang out from behind the door, and they both flinched.
There was a second shot, and he spun around and jerked the door open without a word, striding into the room. He didn't need to turn around to know that Lois had followed him.
He had only a second to survey the room before Luthor noticed. A sadistic, satisfied grin spread across the man's face, almost as if this was what he'd wanted all along. Clark couldn't for the life of him figure out why. His heart was thundering in his ears and making it difficult to think.
But he had to think. Fast.
Think. Process. Plan. Act. That was how it worked. But everything seemed to be in slow motion.
Plan… he already had the plan, though, and that meant taking stock of the situation. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man he didn't know lying prone on the ground with what could only be blood pooling slowly beneath him. He tried not to cringe.
His eyes darted back to Luthor, who was still staring, still grinning madly and… he had lowered the gun. Clark heaved a sigh of relief; that gave him a few more precious seconds to think.
"Well, well. If it isn't the one and only. Look, Nigel, it's Superman."
Clark glanced at the man Lex had addressed, and he froze. It was the man who'd had the box. The Kryptonite. He still might have it. An unnatural silence fell over the room. If Nigel still had the Kryptonite, he wouldn't make it. His powers were already gon-
That was the plan! Right. Powers or not, he had to *be* Superman. He crammed all the force he could muster into his voice and crossed his arms over his chest. "Drop the gun, Luthor."
Luthor tilted his head in Clark's direction and raised an eyebrow. "That's mighty brave of you, considering. Nigel's told me you're feeling a bit under the weather."
The gun came back up, aimed directly at his chest.
Confidence. He needed to be confident. He edged his shoulders back a little more and stood a bit straighter. "It's amazing what a little rest will do."
He swallowed. All the resting in the world did nothing when coupled with an extended lack of sunlight. But Luthor couldn't know that. He watched Luthor closely, and he followed the man's eyes as they glanced to the side of the warehouse where there'd been movement just a few feet away.
He felt his heart in his throat. He had to keep the attention on himself, anywhere but on Lois. "Give it up, Lex. We have enough evidence to put you away for a long time. Guns. Diamonds. Smuggling. No jury in the wor-"
"You know, I don't believe you."
But he wasn't lying about that. They *did* have that proof he just didn't-
"I don't believe you've got any of your powers."
Oh. He tried to keep his face expressionless.
Luthor gestured casually with the gun, almost a shrug. "But you obviously believe you do, so let's test, shall we?"
Dammit. He prayed he could duck fast enough. Or maybe Luthor was just bluffing. Or maybe… oh God.
Ohgod. Ohgod. Ohgod.
Luthor's arm was making a slow arc… and pointing the gun at Lois.
Clark ran at her, Luthor's mocking words getting lost in the rush. He fought every muscle in his body, gritting his teeth against the pain. He heard the shot and lunged at Lois, shutting his eyes and praying he'd made it.
A searing pain ripped through him as he tumbled to the floor on top of Lois. His shoulder. He couldn't breathe, couldn't move. Not until Lois's cry flooded through to him. Oh God. Had it gone through? Had she been hit? Oh God.
Clark scrambled to get up, pushing off against the floor. But he fell again, his weight too much to support. He crashed back to the floor and hot daggers shot through him, embedding themselves in his shoulder. He rolled onto his back and tried to tear his eyes open. Lois. He had to know if Lois was all right.
His vision was blurred, but she was there, hovering over him. And, oh, thank God, not hurt.
But there was another face now. Luthor, leaning over him and wearing an evil smile. "Well, now. Seems you have a bit of superspeed after all." Luthor clapped him on the shoulder and Clark cried out. "But clearly you're far from invulnerable."
Clark watched, squinting through the pain, as Luthor straightened and held the gun out, aiming it again at Lois. His gut clenched. He couldn't move. Oh God. Luthor was going to shoot her. Right in front of him. She was going to die. His worst nightmares would be played out in front of him, only now they were far too real.
He gritted his teeth and summoned every fiber of strength he'd ever had. He *would* get up. He *would* stop Luthor. He *would* stop the bul-
The gun went off. Lois shrieked. He felt his heart tear, as if the bullet had pierced it.
"NOOOOOO!!!" he screamed.
He had to open his eyes. He had to look. Had to face it. Had to…
Lois. Lois was still there. Still hovering over him. Sobbing. But alive. Very much alive. But…
"Where's Luthor?" he managed to choke out.
Another voice with a faint accent answered, "In Hell, hopefully." It was the woman, holding a gun with a determined, yet satisfied scowl on her face.
But then she started trembling and let her grip fall slack, the gun clattering to the floor. "I killed him," she whispered. "I killed him."
Lois couldn't quite breathe. She just stared, and she still hadn't gotten up off the floor. None of it seemed real. Oh, it'd seemed all too real while it was happening, but once the last gun had clattered to the floor, she'd gone numb. Been in shock.
It should be raucous right now. Chaotic and noisy. The ambulances. Paramedics. The S.W.A.T. team trooping in and out. Doors opening and slamming shut. A man being led away in handcuffs. People were crying, too. She was probably one of them, but she wasn't sure. Across the room, a man was being loaded onto a stretcher. Something tugged at her memory at the sight of him, but she couldn't grasp at it.
There was another body, too. It was him. The guy… Luthor. Dead and surrounded by a puddle of blood. She felt…
She wasn't sure what she felt. Angry? Relieved? Numb. Everything was so muted, surreal, and she was frozen to the spot as she watched two paramedics heft Clark onto a stretcher. His shoulder had been bandaged; she didn't know when. He'd been shot.
No. *She* had been shot… shot at. And Clark had taken the bullet for her.
The paramedics started wheeling him away, and suddenly everything snapped back into place. The sounds, the smells, the pain all flooded back, rushing in on her senses. They were taking Clark away.
She tried to yell for them to wait, but her throat was hoarse and it didn't come out as more than a squeak. She scrambled to her feet and started to rush after them, but something stopped her. A hand on her shoulder. Not forceful, but it was startling and she stopped.
"Ma'am?" a male voice from behind her asked.
She turned to find a tall, lanky man wearing a brown suit. His hand had fallen from her shoulder, but he still looked as if he would stop her if she tried to leave. From the corner of her eye, she watched Clark being wheeled through the doors, getting further away…
"Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms." The man flashed a badge at her and then tucked it back in his coat pocket. "Special Agent, Henderson. I'm afraid I'm going to need you to answer a few questions."
Everything was moving too quickly around her. Or at least it seemed that way. Clark was outside already, and Henderson had appeared in front of her from… somewhere. Any second, the sirens would start wailing and Clark would be gone. She didn't know what hospital they were taking him to. What if she couldn't find him? What if he wasn't all right and needed… something? Anything.
She looked back to Henderson, the agent was staring impatiently at her. She could feel the wet heat of the tears rolling down her cheeks and her heart thundering in her chest. "Please, you don't understand. I can't leave him."
He shook his head. "You're the only witness at the scene, and I need to know exactly what happened."
Only witness? "What about that woman?" Lois whipped around in the direction she'd seen her last. "The one who shot Luth-" She was gone. "Where did she go?"
Before he could answer, the wail of an ambulance cut through the air as the vehicle sped off.
"She *shot* someone, and you let her go with the other guy?" Her voice was trembling with a mix of incredulity and fear, beyond caring what the man thought of her.
Henderson shrugged. "Not my decision. Some rookie cop let her go."
A shout came from the doorway. "Detective! Superman's asking for the woman. He won't let us leave without her."
Henderson grumbled something under his breath and nodded at the paramedic.
She breathed a sigh of relief and turned to hurry over to the ambulance, but Henderson's harsh voice stopped her again.
"Ma'am! I can question you just as well at the hospital, but I need your name now before you leave."
She hesitated a moment, then took a chance. "Lois Lane." And before he could say anything, she rushed over to the ambulance. One of the medics helped her inside in a hurry and pointed to where she should sit. She flinched when the door clanged shut, and her anxiety slammed back into her chest.
She turned from the door to look at Clark. Two paramedics were hovering over him, one with quick, fluid movements and the other was pressing tightly on Clark's shoulder. There was blood, too. It'd soaked through the bandages. Clark had his eyes squeezed shut, and he was biting his lip.
She stared for what must have been several minutes before the paramedics stilled. They even sat, though the one keeping pressure on Clark's shoulder was still doing so. That had to be good news, right? They wouldn't stop working if there was still danger of him bleeding to death or going into shock or something.
A gentle touch against her hand brought her attention back to Clark. He was looking at her now through heavy-lidded eyes, though his forehead was creased with pain. She took a deep breath, then another and wrapped both her hands around his. He was still conscious, though he looked far worse than he had back in the cell. He grimaced, and she watched him struggle to take a deep breath.
"I'm sorry, Lois." His voice was feeble, but his eyes were imploring… for forgiveness, maybe. But there wasn't anything that needed forgiving. Not any more.
The squawking of the radio and the paramedics talking faded to the background as she focused on Clark, shaking her head at him. She bit her lip, not saying anything for a moment.
She could feel his regret bleeding through as he spoke again. "I should have d-"
"Done exactly what you did, Clark. There's nothing to apologize for." She gave his hand a squeeze to reassure him.
He smiled at her, though he didn't look to have believed her entirely. But he didn't contradict her, either.
The ambulance made a hard turn, and he winced. "You know, this hurts. A lot more than I imagined it would."
Her heart hurt, and there was a faint echo of a throb in her shoulder. She had to be imagining that, though. "Is there anything I can do?"
In the barest of movements, he smiled and shook his head. "You're already doing it."
Lois bit at her lower lip. She wanted to ask what, just to be sure… but she didn't.
She also wanted to know what happened now. Where did they go from here? How were they supposed to wrap up the case with Luthor dead and no proof that linked him to the invoices they had? Who was the woman? The man who'd been shot? Had they been the ones to call the S.W.A.T. team? What did they know? Who did they work for?
But Clark wouldn't know the answers any better than she would.
And then there were the harder questions. When would Clark recover? Would he have permanent damage? Would his powers still come back?
And the most burning question of them all…
Why had he thrown himself in front of the bullet meant for her?
Lois closed her eyes against the fresh tears, but the sight of Clark bleeding to death in front of her had burned itself in her mind. In a flash, she opened them again and sought out Clark's face. She watched his chest rise and fall. Even though he looked as if he was still in a great deal of pain, seeing him alive was far better than watching the replaying image of blood pouring from his unconscious body.
"Lois?" His voice still sounded weak.
His eyes held a whisper of doubt… and of hurt.
"Why…" He glanced away for a moment, but then looked her in the eye again, as if he was trying to find the courage to say what he wanted to say. He took another shaky breath before continuing. "Why were you going to leave?"
Leave? She furrowed her brow in confusion and opened her mouth to ask why, but he rushed on before she could.
"Back at the hotel room. Before all this mess. If I… did I do something wrong?"
The uncertainty in his voice tugged at her heart strings, and then it registered. He'd thought — still thought — she'd wanted to leave. "No! Oh, Clark." She reached her free hand up to cup his cheek tenderly and shook her head. "It wasn't that at all. I… It hurt too much. I needed some space. It felt like I was suffocating."
His face contorted and he started to look away. "Okay." He didn't understand.
She threw a glance to the paramedics, who were trying to look disinterested while going about their business. It didn't really matter if they heard, but she lowered her voice to a whisper nonetheless. "The connection, Clark." She brought his gaze back to hers. He had to understand. "You, me… we were both too upset and only fueling what the other was feeling. I just… I couldn't think about… everything when I could feel how much it was hurting you."
"So, you weren't…"
"Walking out on you? No." She felt more than watched the tension flood out of him. "I just needed space… to thi-"
Lois whipped her head around to the door as it was thrown open. When had they stopped?
One of the paramedics was offering her a hand to get down. Reluctantly, she let go of Clark's hand and let the man help her down, then she followed at a brisk pace as they wheeled Clark inside.
Clark's right shoulder was throbbing from all the jostling around. They were trying to be gentle, he could tell, but any movement was too much. Hopefully they'd stop soon. And then maybe he'd be able to think clearly. It was hard to focus on anything but the pain at the moment. That, and the feeling of his empty hand since Lois had let go.
She hadn't been walking out on him earlier, though. He'd heard that, and now he held on to it, tried to concentrate on it instead of the stabbing fire in his shoulder. She still cared and she was still by his side.
They were inside and there were more people now. Doctors and nurses. Everyone was talking over his head, talking as they pushed him along.
"Got a name or is this a John Doe?"
"Whoa. Superman? But he looks like sh-"
"His name is Clark Kent." Lois sounded tense, distraught.
"Same thing, lady."
"No, it's not. His name is Clark Kent." The anger in her voice was evident, but why was she insisting? It didn't matter, really. Clark Kent. Superman. SuperClark. Mr. Kent. People always called him what they wanted.
"All right. Clark Kent. Gunshot wound. Right shoulder. He's lost a lot of blo…"
The rest faded away into the background, and he attempted a smile. It was a little thing — her insistence on his name. Maybe it was the sense of a small triumph that he was picking up from Lois, but he felt like he'd won something too.
Now if only he could win the battle against the pain, because it was killing him.
Lois hated waiting. Hated the not knowing. Hated the what ifs. And she hated the damn clock in the hospital waiting room for ticking far too loudly and grating on her nerves. The air was stuffy and hot, too. But maybe it just felt that way because she was pacing. She should stop and sit. Or something.
She picked a chair against the far wall of the room so she could keep her eye on the door. The chair wasn't comfortable, but that wasn't a surprise. There was a stack of tattered magazines to her left on the next chair. She grabbed one and flipped through it, but she didn't see more than flashes of colors. She tried to focus on an article. A silly one about decorating living rooms. Reading would keep her mind off… all the stuff she didn't want to think about.
Only, the words were swimming. Or maybe they were blurred. Or both. Lois blinked, trying to focus. She just had to concentrate.
Lois slung the magazine back to the chair and buried her face in her hands. There was a violent flash of red. She shut her eyes tighter, but it wouldn't go away. Red. Blood red. Clark's blood. Luthor's blood.
She threw her hands down and opened her eyes again. She didn't want to see it anymore.
She felt so… *helpless*. Damned helpless. There was nothing she could do. She had to sit. And wait. And try not to remember the last time she'd been trapped and helpless in a small, humid room. Nothing had changed, had it? Nothing. She was still trapped. Still helpless.
But it hurt more this time. Because Clark was hurting and there was nothing she could do. What if the doctors couldn't do anything, either? What would she do then? What on earth would she do then?
Lois shook head. Violently. She couldn't think like that. Clark was going to be fine. She didn't have to worry. At all. He'd be fine. And as soon as he was fine, they could finish their investigation, wrap things up and make sure that everything was set right again. Then she wouldn't feel helpless or trapped or scared.
And Luthor. He'd be… He was dead. He couldn't get to her anymore. No more concrete cells. No more running. No more hiding. He was just… gone. And she was free.
Somehow, she still didn't feel liberated.
It wasn't at all fair. Years of torment and pain and horror and fear and more than anyone should have to bear in a lifetime. Luthor had given her all of that and more. There was finally a face and a name to put on the monster who had stolen three years of her life. Her pride. Her confidence. Her identity.
Everything. He'd been the man who had taken everything from her. And as soon as she'd known who he was, he'd been gone again. Dead, mercifully, but…
If only she could have… punched him or something. Spit in his face. Made him suffer for everything he'd done to her. If she could have stood face-to-face and told him that he hadn't won. That she'd survived.
There was no chance of that now, though, and the disgusting irony of it all was that she was going to be the one to clean up his mess for him. There was still work to do. Lots of it. Research. Evidence. Investigating.
That would keep her busy. She wouldn't have to think about the Congo, the cell, the jungle, Luthor. It was what she'd always done before, thrown herself into her work. She could still do that. She was still Lois Lane. And Lois Lane never gave up a fight.
She straightened in her seat, wiping at her eyes and snuffling. Yes, Lois Lane was a fighter. She would make sure everything stopped, that order would be restored and… whatever else that needed to be done.
Lois started at the interruption, her eyes darting to the door. It was the woman, scuffing her shoe against the tile and clearing her throat nervously.
"I didn't mean to… interrupt, Loi- I mean, Ms. Lane. I just… well, they told me to wait in here so they could keep an ey.. I… yeah. They told me to wait in here. Sorry."
Lois scooted back further in her chair, trying to look a little more unaffected. She cleared her throat. "You're not interrupting anything. Sit anywhere you like. I don't own the place," she said with a shrug of her shoulders.
She watched as the woman chose a seat a dozen chairs away from her. She'd killed someone. That was… she couldn't even imagine how that must feel, to have pulled the trigger and just… shot someone.
The woman turned towards her and caught her staring. Lois dropped her gaze to her own hands. She was fidgeting, and now she was the one being stared at. Where had this woman come from, anyway? Out of the blue, she'd come running and barreled into Clark. She'd known Lois's name. She'd run away. Yet she'd obviously come back. She'd shot Luthor.
Lois was surprised to find she didn't envy the woman that. As much as she would have loved to exact her own revenge, killing someone just…
Lois shook her head. She couldn't think about it. But she could find out just who this woman was and how she knew her name. "Hey."
The woman looked up, though she didn't say anything. She still looked a bit shaken. Lois felt a twinge of sympathy, but she quashed it. She couldn't afford to get emotional when she needed answers.
"Just who are you, anyway? Who do you work for? And how exactly do you know my name?" Lois narrowed her eyes at the woman to let her know she was serious.
Lois watched as the woman sank down a bit in her seat, examined her fingernails for a good long moment, and finally looked back up. "My name is Elle Daly. I work for… worked for…" Elle shifted nervously in her seat again. "Look, Ms. Lane, please don't take this the wrong way. I never meant any harm. I just… There's no real good way to say this…"
"Just say it, already." All the hemming and hawing was making Lois more edgy than she already was.
"I worked for Lex Luthor. My job was to watc…"
Lois couldn't breathe. All the air escaped from her lungs, and the rest of what the woman was saying died away. Luthor. She'd worked for Luthor. She'd… what if she was here to finish the job? Wrap up Lex's loose ends? What if…
They didn't allow guns in hospitals, right? Security or someone would have taken it from her. She hoped. She really hoped.
But she had to stay calm. Collected. She had to show this Elle woman that… show her something. Show her… that Lois Lane wouldn't be a victim anymore. And Lois Lane most certainly wasn't going to die.
"Ms. Lane?" A hand touched her arm and Lois jumped out of her seat.
"You." Lois rounded on Elle, pointing an angry finger at her. "Stay the hell away from me, you hear?"
Elle flinched at the finger aimed in her direction and took a good five steps back, away from Lois. She could have bloody lied to her. Why hadn't she lied? Bloody brilliant plan, Elle. Telling her she worked for the man who had just tried to kill her not three hours ago.
"Ms. Lane, I promise. I-"
"Stay away!" There was a mix of fire and fear in the woman's eyes. She… she didn't have the right!
Elle seethed. Any trace of fear she'd had a second ago was gone. "Stay away?! You want me to stay away? Do you even realize that I saved your bloody life? Twice!"
Hah. Lois was stuck for words. Good. That would give Elle some time to think of what the heck to say next. Elle could almost hear the gears turning in Lois's mind, trying to find a way to apo-
"Twice?" Lois's voice was shaky, frightened, but there was still an undertone of anger.
Good going, Elle. Her and her big mouth. "Uhm… Well, you'd probably rather not know. I think." She hoped.
Elle watched Lois's face change. Oh boy. Lois's anger must have won some internal battle against her fear because the woman was irate now — trembling, but definitely more angry than worried. Elle swallowed and stumbled back a few steps as Lois advanced on her.
"Tell me," Lois demanded.
"No." Well, that had sounded… not very assertive. Elle cleared her throat. "No, I won't tell you!"
Lois narrowed her eyes and took another step towards Elle.
Elle shuffled back another few steps… and felt something hard at the back of her legs. How on earth had she retreated all the way to the chairs against the wall already? She didn't have to wonder any longer what a mouse felt when cornered by a cat. She tried to edge back further and ended up sitting, with a very intimidating Lois looming over her.
She didn't wait for Lois to ask again and blurted everything in a rush. "I've been on stakeout for the last eight months… waiting for youtogetbackfromtheCongo and IdidnttellLexIsawyouattheairport."
"W-what?" Lois's face contorted, as if she was trying like hell to hold on to her anger.
Elle swallowed again, waiting for the proverb fairy to fly by and drop the other shoe on her head.
"You… h-he…I… I…"
Now would probably be the wrong time to congratulate Lois on her pronoun knowledge, wouldn't it? Maybe she could slink away unnoticed…
"The whole time… h-he was… he… he knew I would come back." Lois staggered backwards, horror written plainly on her face.
Elle said nothing.
"He knew… of course he knew. He'd had the cell and the… oh, God. And he…"
Elle felt her sympathy creep to the surface. Lois wasn't making a lick of sense, but… Elle could tell how upset Lois was. "Ms. Lane?"
Lois's eyes flashed back to hers. "Y-you… you're not here to…" She backed further away. "Why are you here?"
"I'm waiting for… uh… someone. The guy. The ATF agent." Elle shifted uneasily in her chair and waited for comprehension to make an appearance. "The other guy who was shot."
Ah, there it was… still mixed with confusion, though, as if she were trying to remember something. But apparently she hadn't been able to, and she focused her attention back on Elle.
"You shot Luthor."
Elle swallowed. "I did." And it wasn't something she cared to remember. Ever. The sickening thud of the bullet hitting his chest, the echo of the shot reverberating through the warehouse, the dead silence the second after. She hadn't been able to scour the images from her head, either, no matter how much soap and water she'd used to scrub her hands clean.
"And the guy… who is he?" It sounded as if Lois was on autopilot, gathering clues, facts… and she was going to glue them all together and discover… something.
"The ATF agent?" She'd already said…
Lois nodded curtly.
"Pete Romero," Elle tried cautiously, not sure where Lois was headed.
"Romero… Romero… that's Spani- no, Italian, right?"
Elle had no idea why she was on edge. Lois wasn't threatening her anymore…
"ATF… Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms…"
Elle nodded even though Lois was no longer looking at her. This was like waiting for the jack to pop out of the box. That bleeding music setting nerves on end with every note. Elle hated that; the damn thing surprised her every time, and listening to Lois on the edge of some kind of epiphany reminded her exactly of that.
"They knew. They knew about everything. They were there. In the Congo, and…"
Lois's eyes were focused somewhere in the distance, and Elle had a funny feeling that distance ran all the way to Africa as opposed to the section of wall over her left shoulder.
And then all of a sudden she jolted and stared straight at Elle. "It was him!"
"Uh… who was him?" Elle was feeling mighty left out of the epiphany and still on edge.
"Him! The ATF guy. Pete. It's him. He's the one who helped me escape!"
Pete did? Wow, that was n-
"Oh my God. Is he going to be okay?"
Her confusion fled and the lead weight in her gut settled back in. "I… I don't know. T-they told me to wait in here."
"Is he your… partner or something? Boyfriend?"
"No. He's… well, I don't know, really." Elle stared down at her hands. Hands that had grabbed Pete's gun from his slackened grasp, covered in blood. And… Blood. There'd been so much blood. And she'd caused more. She'd…
The panic came flooding back and clogged in her throat. Lois. Clark. Tangled on the floor. Crying. Bleeding. And Lex. Laughing. Taunting. Raising the gun. Aiming at Lois.
She hadn't thought, hadn't… anything. Her hands… her finger had pulled the trigger, and she could still feel the ghost of the gun's recoil against her palms. The sound echoed in her head. And the sight…
Luthor's stunned face, changing to pained, to… blank. And he'd collapsed. Dead. He was dead. A man was dead because of her. And there was…
How the hell had she done it in one shot? Just… And he was dead.
She jumped. Oh… Lois. Lois was here. Here was in the waiting room. The hospital. And they were waiting.
"Elle, are you going to be okay here alone? I… well, the doctor…"
She looked up to find Lois motioning to the doorway, apology written on her face — for what, exactly, she wasn't sure.
"They said I can go in and see Clark now… Will you be okay?"
For all the vehemence she'd spouted earlier, Lois was apologetic now. Elle could see the warring in her eyes.
"Yea-" Elle squeaked, then cleared her throat and tried to convince her heart to stop racing. "Yeah. I-I'll be fine. Go."
Lois gave her one more glance, a sympathetic one, and hurried out the door of the waiting room.
Clark dragged his eyes open and looked around blearily. Pain. Shoulder. Hospital. Pain. He couldn't remember much else.
No… he could. His mind was just foggy, as if his thoughts were wading through wet cement. He remembered the ambulance, Lois, the hospital, and…
Doctors asking questions. Surgery. Asking questions about surgery. And how they should do it. They had asked if drugs would work. Pain killers, anesthetics… anything. Because they'd been worried about adverse effects, not knowing what a Kryptonian might react to, might develop complications from, might die from. Well, he hadn't known either.
He'd told them to try. Strong drugs. Something. Anything to stop the pain.
But he knew now. Oh, yes. They didn't work. Hadn't worked. He could still feel the scalpels, forceps, needles… all of which may as well have been more bullets. He could still feel a phantom knife digging for the bullet. Pushing and ripping. Muscle and flesh. He'd screamed, yelled, managed to crush the metal side rail they'd let him hang on to with his left hand before he'd passed out from the pain. The echoes of his cries and the vague images of doctors with painfully sympathetic faces still stirred in his head. The pinching heat in his shoulder throbbed, almost violently whenever he tried moving. He squeezed his eyes shut against the biting pain. And suddenly he was seven years old again. Mom was holding him, rocking him, shushing away the hurt feelings and bruised ego. Mom protected him. Told him he was special. Told him it wouldn't always hurt so bad. Told him he was brave.
"All great men were different, extraordinary," she'd said.
He opened his eyes, blinked, and the image was gone. Extraordinary was far from great right now. A normal, human man would have called for the nurse by now — more vicodin, percoset, anything. But not Clark. Not even when he was lying there just as vulnerable as the next guy. An ordinary guy… but so far from being human.
Damn the irony.
So, no medication. He'd have to settle for not moving. It hurt the least when he lay stone-still. He just needed time to rest. Rest and… sun! He needed sun. Then he'd heal faster. Theoretically, anyway.
He'd never been exposed to Kryptonite for so long before. Not for the hours it must have been. Lois had mentioned vague memories of a long ride in what must have been the back of a van, but neither of them really knew how much time had passed from the Apollo to the cell, nor when the Kryptonite had been removed. Knowing how long wouldn't help anyway, not when it'd been almost a full day since he'd last seen the sun.
Added to the surgery. The bullet. All the physical exertion. The pain.
What if it'd just been too much? What if there was a limit to how much he could handle before his powers just didn't come back at all? What if…
He closed his eyes and shook his head mentally. That wasn't something to think about now. Someone should come by soon, and they could open the blinds, get him some sunlight. Then, he would be able to see. He'd be able to guess more accurately.
In the meantime, he should just lie still, breathe slowly, and… His breath caught.
Lois was here. He could feel her, a faint fluttering and a warm tingle in his chest fighting against the pain.
It had to be Lois.
He heard the sound of rubber soles quietly making their way toward him. The warm feeling spread a little further through his chest. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. If he could just concentrate on the feeling… maybe the throbbing would subside.
The shoes had stopped moving. There was a gentle scrape of wood against linoleum. And then it was silent again, though if he concentrated, he could almost make out the sound of her breathing.
"Hey," he murmured, then gave her a weak smile.
"Oh. You're awake." She sounded a bit startled.
He opened his eyes slowly and shifted his head a bit so he could see her more clearly, wincing at the movement. She was staring across the bed at his shoulder and the bandages that peeked out from under his hospital gown.
Then, after a long moment, her worried eyes met his. "Does it hurt still?"
"Nah." He grimaced. "Not so much anymore."
He watched her brow furrow as she bit her bottom lip, as if she was scared to know the truth even though he knew she could see it in his eyes.
The soft fluttering in his chest mingled with a growing anxiety; his or Lois's, he wasn't sure. He'd be fine. He had to be.
"I'll be okay, Lois. Just give it a little time."
She looked doubtful.
"Promise. I'll be good as new. I bet there won't even be a scar." He smiled again for her benefit.
The sadness and worry still hadn't left her eyes, but she didn't argue with him.
It would help if he could know for certain. Reassure her. He started to reach for her, but the muscles only tensed before the stabbing pain shot straight to its mark. His face tightened, eyes closed, and he held his breath. Don't move. Don't move. Why had he moved?
He released a slow, cautious breath. The throbbing lessened some, but now it was playing in tandem to the pounding in his head. Just breathe. In and out. Slow breaths.
His eyes edged open to find a horrified Lois. A horrified Lois, whose eyebrows quickly sank and furrowed, her mouth closing into a frown. "How much is a little time, Clark?" her voice was soft, worried.
He dropped his gaze. "I don't know."
She reached for him this time, laying a gentle hand over his, somehow knowing what he'd wanted just a moment ago. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"S-sun," he stammered instead of nodding. "I need sunlight."
Lois looked slightly puzzled for a moment, but then stood and headed towards the window anyway. "I guess I sorta miss the sun, too," she commented as she drew the blinds open to let in the early morning sun. She continued, her voice quiet, almost distant. "You don't even realize you miss it until you've been away from it too long."
The rays began to soak in. An inner warmth rushed through him, a slight tingling that left him lightheaded, as if he'd stood too quickly. She was right; he hadn't realized how much he'd needed the sun until he'd been deprived of it.
He watched Lois as she stared silently out the window. She'd guessed wrong, but he could tell her about the sunlight later. Right now he needed to rest.
Elle shivered again. It'd been *hours* since Lois had gone to go see Clark and left her alone. She glared at the clock. Well, at least the 53 minutes had *felt* like hours instead of just one. Time ought to be flying, slipping out of her grasp, considering she was expecting the detectives, ATF, police, the doctor — *someone* — to come barging in any second. But, no, time was torturing her slowly. Every noise she heard from beyond the thick wood of the waiting room door made her tense. Her horrid bad luck would probably win her a visit from the detective before the doctor even showed his face to let her know how Pete was doing.
The officer who'd escorted her to the waiting room had told her someone would be back to question her soon. Agent Hendricksen… Hydrason… something like that. He'd said the agent would just need to ask her a few things. Interrogate her. Arrest her?
They wouldn't arrest her, right? Yeah, she'd killed someone, but… he'd been about to kill someone else. And he'd been a bad guy. That had to count for something, right?
They had let her stay here, though. That had to be a good sign. Sure, there were cops at every exit, or so the officer had told her there would be, but they were letting her sit and wait for Pete on her own.
And that was a good thing, only… why was she waiting, anyway? It wasn't like she and Pete were best mates or anything. She couldn't care less if he died.
Something lurched in her chest, and she cursed it. What the hell did her heart know? Everyone knew that relationships built on time spent together in dangerous situations never worked. That was the classic movie cliché. It just didn't fly in real life.
Not that she'd been entertaining the idea. She hadn't. Elle cleared her throat. Nope, she was merely waiting for Pete because…
Because it was a better alternative than sitting in a police station, getting asked a million questions she didn't even know the answers to. Like who Pete Romero was. Agent in the ATF. Well, that could be a line of crap. For all she knew, he could be with the FBI, NIA, DEA. Any combination of letters, really.
Or maybe he'd been a double operative, working on Luthor's side the entire time. Or Nigel's side. Maybe Nigel's whole plan had been to get Lex out of the way and take things over for himself.
He'd been arrested, though, hadn't he? He'd been safely led away in handcuffs. He was most likely in a jail cell now. There was no way he'd be able to hunt her down and finish the job. He couldn't have even known what hospital they'd gone to.
She flinched at a sudden commotion outside. But the door didn't open.
She just had to calm down. Breathe. Hospitals were busy places. She took a deep breath, and edged back in her seat, her side brushing against the armrest and raising the edge of her shirt. Sighing, she moved to pull her shirt back down, and she felt it then. The wire. The bloody wire.
She still had the recording device! She had shoved the microphone end of the wire in her pocket after she'd run into Clark Kent, and she'd forgotten about it.
With any luck, the device would have still picked up what was said even though she'd been obstructing the microphone. This was good. Very good. She didn't have a clue how to get the thing playing, but this had to be a good thing. She had evidence against Luthor, and if for some reason she did get into deep trouble for shooting him, she could use this. Leverage. Bargaining. What did they call it here in the States?
Immunity! That was it. She could bargain for that.
Not that she'd done anything wrong… But cops weren't trustworthy. Not always. And it was true that she *had* been working for Luthor, which could only stir up trouble. She should hold on to it for now. Just in case.
In fact, she should hi-
Elle startled and made sure the wire was still hidden. She cleared her throat and looked up. Brown coat — trench coat. Not a white one. Her heart picked up the pace, thrumming a bit faster. It wasn't the doctor.
"Ma'am?" There was a hint of impatience in the man's voice.
"Yeah? I mean, that's me."
She held her breath while he reached in his breast pocket. A badge appeared in his hand, a shiny one not unlike Pete's had been. She swallowed roughly.
He held out the badge in her direction for a second. "Special Agent, Henderson, with the ATF." He tucked the badge away and produced a notebook in its place.
She let out a lungful of air slowly, quietly so Secret Agent Man wouldn't hear and think she was nervous. There was nothing to be nervous about. The notebook was peculiar, though; he ought to have known what he was going to say to her when he walked in. Maybe it was a scare tactic or something, one of the things that cops did to make suspects nervous enough to spill the beans.
Finally, he made a faint grunting noise that almost sounded like a scoff, and he stuffed the notebook back from where he'd gotten it. "Agent Romero is still in surgery, but the doctors think he should be fine." He paused, presumably waiting for a response from her.
She only nodded.
"Meanwhile, Ms. Daly, I'm afraid you'll have to come with me," Henderson said gruffly, then motioned for her to get up.
She swallowed her heart back down since it'd decided to climb into her throat. Nothing to be nervous about. She hadn't done anything wrong. Not really. If you didn't count the killing thing, which she didn't.
She stood slowly, hoping the trembling didn't show. Only guilty people were nervous, right? Sighing with relief at the distinct lack of handcuffs in the area and followed Henderson out of the waiting room.
Lois watched him from her seat by the window, her head resting against the sun-warmed wall. He'd been sleeping for well over an hour now, but that was good. He needed it. Rest would help. And sun, he'd said. He'd murmured something about powers and sunlight as he'd drifted off to sleep.
There was a faint smile on his face now, his pain seemingly forgotten. At least for now. She could tell it wasn't gone, though. There was still a faint ache in her shoulder. She'd tried to dismiss it earlier, but…
She had to accept it for what it was. A connection from out of nowhere. She could feel his pain. The emotional connection had been startling enough, but this was more. Weaker, but more… frightening? She wasn't sure how she felt about it. Unbalanced, maybe. Like getting used to a new pair of shoes or something. It just took time to adjust to. Hopefully.
She wondered if Clark could feel her pain. Or if he could feel what she was feeling while he was sleeping, her emotions being tossed about on a stormy sea of confusion. He was lying there, a mass of contradictions and mystery. The strongest man in the world, the media had said. But they couldn't know how deep that strength really went. All they saw were the muscles and strength; she'd gathered that much from the hungry throng of reporters she'd seen outside his apartment.
She'd seen him differently, though.
He'd been weak and hardly standing, yet he'd managed to cross half a warehouse to dive in front of her…
She'd had her doubts until that moment. Now there was no more fear, no more worrying that he hadn't meant what he'd said. That *she* was the one he wanted. The one he needed.
Like she needed him.
And instead of feeling suffocating, the thought was liberating.
She smiled, still watching him. His hair was mussed and his cheeks a little flushed. Life would be so complicated when they got out of here, but they could handle it if they stuck together. They would be okay. They had to be.
Her gaze turned to the window and the brilliant rays of sunlight being cast through it. A handful of trees were visible from where she was sitting. There must have been a light breeze out because the leaves were swaying to a delicate rhythm. Funny, that everything seemed so… cheery. So right. The bad guy was dead. There was a finality to that she could almost feel. Someone was supposed to cue the orchestra for the denouement.
But it wasn't over with.
Clark was still hurt, and there were still people in the Congo dealing arms and diamonds, killing who knew how many people in their path. Just because Luthor was dead didn't mean that everything else was over and done with. There was still work to do. They had to put a stop to all of it.
She wouldn't be able to sleep soundly until it was all over with. This whole nightmare. More than three years of her life, it'd been. Well, she was through being a victim now. It would only be a little while longer before she could close the book on this chapter of her life and start a new one…
Hopefully with Clark at her side.
His stomach hurt. A lot. That was all he knew. Until he tried to shift to a more comfortable position. Someone had stabbed a lead poker through his thigh. It burned. And his stomach burned too. He was in Hell. He'd been sent to Hell, and he was burning alive. Except for his left foot, which was freezing.
He dared to open his eyes, expecting to see the flames licking at him.
No flames. White walls.
That meant something… if only he could remember what.
White walls. And beeping?
And pain. Lots of it.
Oh. He groaned. That added up to hospital.
And a gunshot, no, *two* gunshot wounds, that were burning like hell.
Who… what assignment had he been on? He just had to think. Had to concentrate and ignore the burning and throbbing. There was something important about this one. Something missing. There was something that hadn't gotten…
He started to sit upright, but stopped, sucking air in through his teeth. God, that had… hurt didn't even begin to describe it. Drugs. He needed drugs. Painkillers. Something.
And Elle. He needed to know if Elle had made it.
It was dark. Eerie, too. Why did everything have to seem so frightening tonight of all nights? She'd always felt safe in her apartment before, but tonight was different. The bedsprings creaked when she shifted and brought her knees to her chest. The dead silence was creepy, and she couldn't decide whether or not she was grateful for random chirping of the crickets that cut through the night air and sent her heart racing all over again.
Being interrogated was definitely something she didn't plan on doing again. Killing, though, that was first on her list of things to avoid. Guns, too. And government agents. Police, ATF, FBI… she was through with the lot of them.
She only hoped they were through with her. Henderson had believed her. Or, really, he'd believed Superman, but the point was they'd let her go. But for how long?
It didn't matter that she'd done right in the end; her initial involvement in this was all but innocent. She shivered and wrapped her arms tighter around her knees.
And way to go, Elle. She'd given them the tape — proof of her connections with Luthor. Or that she'd had some sort of arrangement with him, anyway. Right after she'd done such a good job of convincing the authorities to check Luthor out, to see how dirty he really wa-
Had been. How dirty a crook he *had* been. Because he was dead. Gone. She'd shot him. Killed him.
And now it was only a matter of time before they started thinking — realizing — that she had been involved. Dirty. Guilty. Evil.
She bit at her lower lip. She wasn't going to cry.
What had she been thinking? She gave a trembling sigh as she leaned back into the corner of the cold bedroom wall. She was brilliant.
Why hadn't she thought…
Just because she was on the good side, killed the bad guy, helped save the day… none of that meant she hadn't been on the bad side, too. She had, to begin with. And now, even if they cleared her for Luthor's death, that wouldn't save her from the crimes she *had* committed… Not that she knew exactly what they were…
She'd been getting paid for a job she certainly hadn't filled out tax forms for. But what else? Sitting in the airport and City Hall and keeping watch on the Daily Planet wasn't a crime. And it wasn't like she'd had anything to do with the whole Congo operation. Diamonds, guns, smuggling and all.
Her brow creased with worry. They would find out, wouldn't they? They'd realize just how involved she'd been. How much she knew of all the things she was supposed to be ignorant of.
What if, because of what she knew — and had known, they considered her an accomplice? That happened all the time. Not reporting a crime was just as good as committing it yourself. Wasn't that what they always said?
And this was huge. Monstrous. International smuggling and arms dealing. How long a trip to prison did that win? Years? Decades? Better yet, they might just revoke her citizenship. Deport her back to Ireland. Mam and Dad would be so proud. She wouldn't have to worry about the New Troy death penalty; her parents would murder her for sure.
She deserved it, though, didn't she? Elle Daly, the eternal good girl, never in trouble, never done a thing wrong in her life. How on earth had she ended up in a situation like this? She could very well be facing a whole slew of felonies. She was only twenty-four. People her age didn't go to jail. Or at least she didn't. Things like this weren't supposed to happen. Not to her.
She shuddered and grabbed the thin, knitted blanket to wrap around herself. The fabric was futile, though, wasn't it? It couldn't ward off the sort of cold that had settled inside her.
They wanted her to go back tomorrow.
Clark moaned lightly and shifted on the bed. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was Lois, and his heart did a little jump. She'd stayed.
Or… come with him, rather. Because, apparently, he wasn't in the hospital anymore. She was sitting on the window seat in his apartment. The last of the late afternoon sun was streaming in, bathing her in a golden light as she stared out of the large window. The one that, oddly, wasn't broken anymore. When had that gotten fixed? And how had he gotten back here?
He let his eyes wander, taking in the room slowly. Something was different. It felt different. And it wasn't just the woman sitting quietly across the room and staring out the window.
The same window.
He could almost pick out the very spot he'd landed days ago… Or… he wasn't even sure how long it'd been. How much time had passed since he'd been rooted to his bedroom floor, staring at the one person he never thought he'd meet?
That was something he should know. He ought to remember the day his life changed forever, right? He could remember her. How she'd looked, her face, her hair, her…
Her eyes round with horror because she'd been holding Lois's picture in her hands.
He glanced at the nightstand where she had to have found the frame. It… it was there. Still. Now.
She must have put it back there. Face down. Just as she'd found it. But why?
Lois turned, then, as if she'd sensed he was awake. She smiled at him and spoke softly. "Hey, you."
He unfurrowed his brow and smiled back. His questions could wait for later. "Hey."
Her face softened as she leaned forward a bit. "How are you feeling? The sun's mostly gone down now, but… Well, you've been sleeping most of the day and all of yesterday and… Perry helped me get you back here. The reporters are still outside, but Perry gave them a warning to stay back. He said he'd be back tomorrow morning. I, uh… it was kind of dirty in here. Dusty. I hope you don't mind… I kinda cleaned a bit and…" She trailed off, seemingly flustered. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm… good, actually." He did feel better. Not super… but better, and the pain in his shoulder had mostly subsided. He chanced moving it an inch. Just a little soreness, but no shooting pains. That was a good sign. He sighed in relief and smiled again at Lois. "Or better, anyway."
"Good." She nodded. "I'm glad. I was… I was a worried there for a bit."
"Me too," he confessed.
Silence crept in around them. It was comfortable, though. Mostly. She was still feeling uneasy. He could feel it.
Because she was worried about him recovering? Or was there more? Like the picture…
The pain wasn't clouding his thinking anymore. And… maybe this was too much for her to handle. The picture might have made her doubt him. Why hadn't he put it away the moment she'd left that night? Why had he stayed up to stare longingly at it and leave it so carelessly behind on the coffee table?
He bit at his bottom lip. Had he ruined everything? Maybe in her silence she was trying to find a way to leave without hurting his feelings. Or she was just waiting until she knew he could fend for himself.
It was done. All over with. No more bad guy. No more danger. No longer a reason for them to work together, be together. She'd said she cared about him… loved him, even. But people said things under stress. Things they didn't mean. The threat of dying hanging overhead… what if that had been the only reason? What if all the heightened emotions and danger and excitement…
Or maybe she'd just been plain scared, needed someone — something — to hold on to. Love was safe. Love meant hope. Love meant you'd survive another day.
And now they'd survived.
She wouldn't need him anymore. Not like he'd come to need her.
She would leave, and all he'd be left with was a picture of the wrong woman.
She was smiling at him when he looked back over. Nervously, though, as if she didn't know what to say. As if she was reading his mind.
"What's the matter, Clark?"
His eyes darted to hers. It was stupid. He shouldn't even be thinking this way. She would have left already if she had wanted to. He should be talking, telling her… something. Everything. "I… n-nothing's wrong."
She saw right through him. "Something's bothering you. I can feel it."
Right. The connection. The small surge of warmth that had taken up residence in his chest. He didn't want to lose that. He didn't want to lose *her*. "I don't want you to go," he whispered.
He heard a whisper of a gasp, and then she was there, next to him. Sitting by his side and holding his hand. "I'm not going anywhere. What makes you think…"
Her eyes were watching him, searching his. He looked down to their joined hands. The truth. She deserved the truth. No more hedging. Hedging wasted time, and that was something he couldn't afford. Not after everything that'd happened.
He took a breath to steady himself. "It's… this is…" He found her eyes again. "I'm afraid… All of this seems too good to be true, and I'm afraid it will all just vanish if I reach for it. And the picture…" He glanced over at it, and her eyes followed his. He heard her breath catch. He faced her again, looked her in the eyes. "I don't want it anymore. I don't need it. I have you… or, at least I hope I have you."
She was quiet, but she didn't let go of his hand. Her heartbeat was thrumming loudly in his ears. Her eyes started glistening, fresh tears forming, threatening, but not falling. "I'm not going anywhere, Clark."
He didn't need to hear her confirmation; he could feel her sense of conviction — commitment — deep in his chest. The threat of tears welled up in his throat, but he swallowed it back down. She was staying.
He shouldn't have worried. He hadn't worried. Much. Hadn't doubted. This was his dream come true, right? Literally. Minus the gunshot wound, but Lois… she was here. She was staying. And that's what mattered.
There were so many things he wanted to say, to tell her, to show her… but he couldn't find the words. He searched her eyes, felt his heart pounding in his chest. "Kiss me?"
The edges of her mouth quirked up. She didn't hesitate.
Her lips pressed urgently against his, tasting, exploring. Seconds. Minutes. Hours passed. All he could feel was his heart soaring and her insistent mouth against his own. Her heartbeat resumed its staccato rhythm in his head, flowing through his senses. Her… heartbeat.
He tore his lips away and gave her a breathless smile. "I'm back."
She trailed her fingertips along the side of his face. "But you haven't gone anywhere."
His smile only grew, and he pulled her to him once more. "Exactly," he murmured against her lips. "Exactly.
"Pog mo thon." Elle crossed her arms and mumbled under her breath. This man was nothing if not tedious.
"Excuse me, ma'am?" Henderson almost glared at her. She did her best not to slouch down in her chair and look abashed. He couldn't have known what she'd said…
"Nothing." She sighed. "It's just that we've been at this all bloody day. Didn't you get it written down the first time?" The fewer times she had to go over her connections to the bad guys, the better.
"Ms. Daly, I'm just trying to understand how it is you got involved with my agent in the first place."
"We're not involved!" Damn her cheeks for flushing.
He had the gall to roll his eyes at her. "I mean, what made him think it was okay to bring a civilian into a government operation, risking your life in the process?"
She'd known that. "Why don't you ask him? I had trouble getting that answer out of him myself."
"He's still groggy and incoherent from the surgery and painkillers." He gave her a wry smile. "Now, why don't you tell me again how you two met? There seem to be a few details missing."
She shifted nervously in her seat. He was testing her, wasn't he? She just couldn't figure out for what.
"I'm curious to know how you, Elle Daly, seemingly innocent gal with no apparent connections to anyone, got mixed up with Lex Luthor. And I'm also curious how this all adds up to you playing sidekick for one of my agents. One, I might add, who has been AWOL for eight months ever since jeopardizing a case we've been working on for years."
That must have been when he'd helped Lois escape. "The one in the Congo?" she asked, sitting up straighter in her chair.
Wait… AWOL? Pete had been AWOL? *Was* AWOL? That couldn't be good…
Henderson straightened abruptly and gave her a slight nod. In fact, the nod was so slight she couldn't be sure if she'd imagined it or not. "Did he *tell* you all this?"
"Uh… no." She cleared her throat.
"Then how did you find out?" He took a step closer.
"I… um… I plead the fifth?" That was what people said in America, right? To get out of incriminating themselves.
He gave an airy chuckle. *Laughed* at her. "You're not on trial here, and you haven't even been placed under arrest. Superman's a good guy to have vouched for you." He gave her a subtle wink.
So… she wasn't in trouble. What was he getting at, then?
She watched him carefully as he pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down. "Look, Ms. Daly…" He paused and bridged his hands together. "You saved a lot of lives yesterday. And thanks to you we have the keys to start unraveling one of the largest criminal operation I've ever been witness to. There are, however, a lot of holes in this elaborate mess. I think you're the one that can fill them."
"There's something I haven't told you, Pete." Elle felt her cheeks flush, and she looked down at her feet. She was insane. Certifiably insane. She hated this man. "I think I love you."
She looked back up at him, expecting him to be laughing at her. He wasn't. He was looking at her as if he… well, he was giving her a heated stare and his eyes were twinkling…
"Daly, wake up!"
"Wake up. You can go in now."
She moaned and shut her eyes tight. Something hard and angular was cutting into her back. The chair. She'd fallen asleep in the hospital waiting room… in a horridly awkward position. Her neck was killing her.
Someone cleared his throat behind her. She opened her eyes slowly and groaned at the light that attacked her.
"Daly, get up."
Well, someone was grouchy this evening. Morning? What time was it, anyway? "I'm up. I'm up."
She sat up, still groggy, and stared at the last man she wanted to see. Henderson. She groaned again. "What do you want?"
"You can go in now. Agent Scardino is finally awake and lucid. Or, at least, he was fifteen minutes ago."
She stared blankly. Who the hell?
"He still hasn't managed to tell us exactly what went on with your involvement in this whole case, but he'll come to his senses soon enough."
"We've decided to give the poor guy a break. It's not every day you get *two* bullet holes punched in you."
"What in the bloody hell are you talking about?"
He grinned at her. "Your friend, Agent Scardino. He asked to see you, though he might have already passed out again."
"Pete *Scardino*? I thought it was Romero."
Henderson paused for a moment, and he cleared his throat. Apparently he was finding something amusing about all this. "Dan, actually, Agent Daniel Scardino. Don't call him Dan, though. He hates it." He grinned.
"But… h-he…" She shut her mouth. She wasn't going to let Henderson enjoy this anymore than he already was. As for Pete or Daniel or Dead Meat… she'd figure that out on her own when she got there.
She sat up straighter and looked Henderson in the eye with her best poker face. Not that she played poker… "What room is he in?"
Lying next to Clark like this was… perfect. Her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat and the soft sound of his breathing. She'd never felt more calm, and with his arm holding her close, she'd never felt more safe. Her fingers wandered, tracing lazy circles on the thin material of his t-shirt.
"So, other than the hearing… and the flying." She grinned. "And the strength… are there any more super powers I should know about?"
"There's also heat vision, freezing breath, and super speed. I think that's it… unless you count the cooking."
She shifted her head to look at him. "Oh, we'll definitely count the cooking. I'm a disaster in the kitchen."
His eyes twinkled when he smiled at her. "Well, then. I'll just have to cook for us all the time, won't I?"
She nodded against his chest, and it grew quiet again. Peaceful, but there was a hint of hesitancy in the air. Nervousness.
Us, he'd said. The word had a nice ring to it. Unfamiliar, though. And a bit scary as it hung between them in the silence and the promise of more tomorrows. She'd done the relationship thing before, and it had never worked out. And this…
This was different. Way different.
Their connection warmed her heart with an intensity she'd never felt before. It was stronger now, with him so close, and that was daunting. Terrifying, really. Physical and emotional distance seemed to factor into the force of the feelings. Would it always be like this?
And what if it wasn't? What if…
"Hmm?" he answered lazily.
She lifted her head so she could see his face. "I… I don't know how to do this. I don't know how this is supposed to work."
He looked puzzled for a second, then: "The cooking thing?" He grinned down at her. "I cook. You eat. It's very simple actua-"
"I meant us," she interrupted softly.
"Oh. I…" He trailed off, and she felt their shared energy dip for a brief moment. "I'm not sure, either. I mean… this… the way I feel when I'm with you is new to me."
"For me too," she whispered, more to herself than to him.
She felt his breath hitch, and then he shifted a little so he was facing her. The look on his face was so full of emotion… intense emotion. She could feel the nervous mix of love and uncertainty filtering through to her.
"I do know one thing, though…"
She waited silently for him to find the right words.
"I know that there's something incredibly right about the way you feel in my arms."
Her heart flip-flopped.
"And your smile… When I see it…" He breathed out slowly. "I know I don't need superpowers to fly."
Her breath caught in her throat, and she choked on a sob. No one had ever…
"And when you laugh… God, it's… we've both been through so much… it's so great to hear…" He was blinking back the tears now; she'd given up trying. He lifted his hand a fraction, then put it down again. She frowned, confused until she brought her eyes back to his face. He didn't want to wipe the errant tear away, as if he was trying to be strong. Confident. He couldn't see that he already was.
She did it for him, reaching up to brush the few stray tears that had escaped. That seemed to sober him a touch. He met her eyes again, and it felt as if she were standing on a precipice, waiting for someone to say: Take a chance. Make a leap. I'll catch you.
"Lois, ever since my parents died, I never felt I belonged anywhere. Smallville. Metropolis. London. Beijing… Earth. Nowhere." He paused and closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them it was almost as if he was staring straight into her soul. "But when you're with me, when you smile at me… it feels like home."
She felt it… the moment when her heart plunged, rushing headlong into his. It was… indescribable.
And… all she knew was it didn't matter if she was damaged or he was broken or that they'd probably make an enormous mess of things… something about this just made sense to her.
"I lo-" She swallowed back the emotion clogged in her throat. "I love you, Clark Kent."
His heart soared and took hers with it. She could feel it. His answering smile seemed to light up the room, mixing with the golden remnants of the sunset.
"And I love you, Lois Lane."
An almost sob escaped her, and she reached to wipe the tears from her cheek. "Kiss me?"
He leaned forward to close the distance between them, then his lips were on hers, gentle but insistent. Euphoric. She felt free. Truly free. The taste of their tears mingling together and the feel of their hearts tangling in excitement…
She smiled against his lips. "I love you."
There was a warm puff of air from his chuckle against her mouth. "I love you, too."
An eternity later, he was pulling away. He laid his head down on the pillow and brought his hand up to her cheek, his palm warm against her skin. The way he was looking at her… it took her breath away and started a million butterflies dancing in her stomach.
Her mind flashed back to their night on the island. They hadn't been ready then, but now…
She wanted to be close to him, erase any gap that remained between them. She wanted to know… to see if it was true what they said. That making love was a powerful connection.
Her hand came up to caress the side of his face, coarse from a few days of growth. Would he stop them again?
"Make love to me, Clark."
Someone must have stolen all the air from the room because he couldn't breathe. Or he'd forgotten to.
She was waiting for an answer, her eyes searching his…
His heart was skittering about in his chest, screaming 'yes.' He wanted this. He'd never wanted anything more in his life. He was nervous, but… there wasn't any fear. Not this time.
He only nodded, unable to speak.
He cupped her cheeks in both hands and brought her lips back to his, reveling in the feeling as she moved to settle over his body. He tasted her, gentle at first, then with more hunger. He didn't have to reign it in. No reason to stop this time. No reason not to find out… to finally know how it felt to be fully connected with someone else.
She pressed closer, her soft curves molding against his body. A quiet moan escaped him. This was… more… more than before… more than the other kisses they'd shared. It was electric.
He dragged his lips away so he could stare up at her. Drink in the sight of her. Of this moment. Her flushed cheeks, her slightly accelerated breathing, her heart galloping wildly in his ears and in his chest…
He never wanted to forget.
Slow. He knew he wanted to take this slow. There wasn't any rush. They had all the time in the world. Not this slow, though… He wasn't entirely sure what to do next. Where his boundaries were… if he had any.
Back on the island he hadn't thought at all. It'd been instinct. Or something. He'd been caught up in the passion of the moment, her responses, his hormones…
The way she'd touched him… the way she was touching him now…
He let out a slow, shaky breath as his hands fell from her face.
Her hands had found their way beneath his shirt and were running along his chest, his stomach… threatening to dip below his waistline. His muscles clenched, and he felt his nerves explode and scatter inside him from just her touch. And the look she was giving him… almost a coy smile, but one filled with heated desire.
She straightened above him and straddled herself across his hips, settling firmly atop him. He groaned. The thick denim of her jeans and the thin cotton of his boxers… that was all that was separating them. A small shiver of anticipation ran through him.
She was edging the hem of his shirt upwards, but she hesitated, as if waiting for a sign from him that it was okay. It was more than okay. He raised his arms over his head to make it easier for her, and in a torturously slow movement, it disappeared.
He watched as she stared, ridiculously proud that the sight of his chest seemed to rob her of breath. She exhaled sharply and resumed her exploration. Slower this time, gentler, and…
He let out his own sharp exhalation. Every where she'd touched him tingled, seemed to be on fire. But her hand paused… his shoulder.
Her gaze caught his for a brief moment. "There's no scar," she whispered in wonder.
It tingled more as she ran her light fingers over the spot where his scar should have been. He only shook his head and brought his other arm up to her neck to draw her lips against his.
A flash of warmth surged through him. He was half naked in his bed with the most beautiful woman in the world on top of him. Man, what a heady feeling. He crushed his lips harder against Lois's, rasping for air when he could, then attacking again.
He wanted more… more of her. He wanted to show her…
His lips traveled to taste her, straining up to reach her cheekbone. Her chin. Her neck. And he found a spot just behind her ear that was… so soft, and the little whimper of a sigh she'd made…
He wanted to hear that again.
He settled back to the bed, a bit breathless. There was more of her neck to explore, but he couldn't reach so well from this position. He shifted. Awkwardly. It was hard to move when Lois had found… Hell, it was hard to think with Lois's lips against his collarbone… and running up along his neck and claiming his earlobe.
His eyes rolled back in his head. There was an insistent tug in his stomach and a growing fire.
He needed her.
He pushed at her gently, willing her to stop for a moment, but desperately wanting her to continue what she was doing with her tongue.
She pulled back, wearing a slightly dazed, questioning look.
"I just…" He shifted again, trying to slide out from under her at least somewhat gracefully. Graceful wasn't happening, though. Thankfully, she realized what he was trying to do and moved off him and settled atop the comforter.
She was lying next to him now, watching him, and one of her hands reached over to cup his cheek. "C'mere." She smiled softly at him, and his heart skipped a beat.
Breathing. He knew there was something he'd forgotten to do in the last minute.
His pulse was jumping in his neck as he moved over her. All he could do was stare… in awe and wonder and… How was it this woman could make him feel this way?
Gentle curves, a heart that was thundering through his senses… all wrapped up in a wrinkled gray t-shirt and an over-worn pair of jeans… and she was all his.
*She* wanted *him*.
Him. Ragged and damaged and…
"I… I want you to know, Lois…" He moved to thread his fingers through her hair and cup her cheek. "I trust you."
He felt his heart surge… with relief. Her relief? She smiled and he knew.
"I trust you, too, Clark." Then she was reaching for him, pulling him down on top of her and pressing her lips to his.
Pete was freezing. Why was it so cold? Had he left a window open? He ought to check, but he really didn't feel like getting up. He cracked one eye open a sliver and aimed it in the direction of the window.
There was no window. He opened both eyes just to be sure. Yup. No window.
The sight of the hospital room brought it all flooding back, especially the reminder that he'd been shot in the stomach. And the thigh. He grimaced. Had they even given him painkillers? It sure as hell didn't feel like it.
Call button for the nurse. He needed to find it. He groped around carefully without any luck. Dang it. He turned his head to the side to look for the button, and then he saw her. Slumped down in the chair next to his bed, snoring softly. He had to bite back a laugh.
Elle startled awake, opening her eyes and looking around frantically before she seemed to remember where she was.
He laughed at her panicked expression and subsequent glare… and just as quickly realized his mistake. Pain knifed through his stomach, and he grimaced. "Okay… that was *almost* worth your reaction." He wheezed.
"Serves you right." Her tone was cutting, but she couldn't hide the concern in her eyes. Though it looked as if she was trying like heck to do just that.
"Where's the call button? Do you see it?" Wincing was quickly becoming a bad habit. Oh, this brought back some great memories. He had told himself he wouldn't get shot again. Kevlar would have been a good idea. Why hadn't he worn that?
He heard a muted beep and glanced back at Elle. She was settling back in the chair and crossing her arms in front of her chest.
"Nurse should be on the way now."
She didn't seem bent on saying much else. It was too brazen a move to tease the wounded, perhaps? Just as well. He had a headache, anyway — a great bonus in addition to the burning throb in his abdomen and the stabbing pain in his thigh.
Although… a quiet Elle wasn't a good sign. And, come to think, things were hurting a bit worse now that she was awake and staring at him. The Look of Death didn't really work, did it? He just needed more painkillers. That was it.
Dead silence and burning pain made an awful cocktail. The wait for the nurse seemed interminable, but it finally ended. She shot some kind of fluid into his IV, and the pain ebbed away.
Elle stayed, though. Still staring even as the nurse bustled back out of the room.
"Say something." His voice hadn't cracked, had it?
She glared more.
"Begging doesn't suit you, Dan."
"I'm not beggi-" He stopped himself short. Dan?
"You're not even Italian, are you?"
It was definitely getting hotter in here. She couldn't be *that* mad, could she? It wasn't like he'd lied to her. He'd just been undercover. That was different.
"Third generation Italian-American."
She huffed and looked away.
"I can still make you spaghetti, if that's what you're worried about." He raised a challenging eyebrow at her.
"Hah!" The glare was back.
Had he really been amused by her temper just days ago? He only felt edgy now — far from entertained, but maybe that was just the painkillers. She did still look cute with her brow creased and her cheeks all flushed with anger. He grinned. That would piss her off.
"You're adorable when you're mad, you know that?" He waggled his eyebrows for good measure.
"In. Your. Dreams. *Dan*."
He almost cringed at the name, but it was different somehow when she said it. "Just as well, anyway, since you're still hung up on Joe."
"Hung up on Joe? What the bloody hell are you talking about?"
She was *really* in denial, wasn't she? "Joe… the guy that… well, you know…"
"Joe?" She let out a burst of laughter. "You mean my *brother* Joe? You can't be serious."
Oh. He swallowed roughly. Well, that was a… relief. Mostly. As soon as he took his foot out of his mouth, it would be.
"No, I'm not serious," he challenged, matching her voice in volume. "I investigate for a living. Things like this don't slip by my attention." He huffed a little and would have crossed his arms if it wouldn't have killed him to do so.
Her eyes rolled, and it seemed like she was trying to fight a smile. "You are so full of it."
He knew, even before he opened his eyes, that Lois was there, lying next to him. She looked so peaceful in her sleep. So… perfect.
It wasn't a dream anymore. It was reality. And oh, so much better. Everything wasn't magically fixed; he knew that. He still had a long road ahead of him, but it wasn't so daunting anymore, not with Lois by his side.
He relaxed his hearing to tune into the steady rhythm of her heartbeat. Had it really been just a week ago that he'd been certain he would never hear the sound of it thrumming in his ears?
Nothing had gone according to plan, and he liked it better that way. He liked that he was different from his counterpart. There was more than one way to be Clark Kent and Lois Lane together. He'd been looking for it to be written in the stars, spelled out in black and white for him, but life wasn't perfect; it shouldn't have been a surprise that love hadn't been either. He felt the warmth surge in his heart again. Yeah, this was better than perfect.
Her heartbeat quickened. She was waking up.
He reached a hand to her face and traced his finger gently down her cheek. Her eyes fluttered open, and his heart jumped a little when she smiled at him. She ducked her head slightly, her cheeks flushing as she looked up at him through her lashes.
His breath caught for a moment. "Hey," he murmured.
"Hey, yourself." Her smile grew bigger, and he was sure her eyes had sparkled, too.
He felt her legs brush against his as she stretched underneath the covers. His voice remained soft. "This is better than I ever dreamed it'd be, you know."
"This. Me, you, and…" He felt his cheeks get warm, and he reached to run his fingers over her bare shoulder. "Us."
Her eyes were definitely sparkling now, and he reveled in the feeling of her heart racing in time with his.
"I never really believed that I'd be happy, that I even deserved to be happy." He swallowed roughly. "You make it so much easier to believe."
She didn't say a word, but she reached up, and her lips met his with a passion he could feel deep in his soul as it collided with hers. They weren't alone anymore.
It was an eternity before he was able to pull away. He rested his forehead against hers, breathless for a moment. "So… where do we go from here?"
She brought a hand up to cup his cheek, her thumb running over his skin. "To the kitchen, so you can make me a late dinner." He could almost feel her grin against his lips.
He let out an airy chuckle. "Anything you want." He grinned back, but then sobered again. "Really, though, what happens now?"
She stroked his cheek again. "Whatever we want, Clark. Whatever we want."
The warmth and tingling in his chest hadn't left. He closed his eyes and kissed her lips. "God, I love you."
"I love you, too." She kissed him back, and he could feel the lightness and giddiness in her heart. Or maybe it was in his.
He moved to get up, taking her hand in his. "C'mon, I wanna show you something."
She tugged him back. "I was serious about dinner, you know."
He laughed heartily. "All right. Dinner first."
He held his heart in his throat and Lois in his arms as he flew through the midnight blue sky towards Smallville. He wanted to do this. Needed to do this. He needed to convince himself that the stars had changed, that there was still magic there like there'd been before.
Maybe it was foolish to set his hopes on something so whimsical, but he couldn't help it, even when such hopes had failed so dismally in the past. The very recent past.
But that was what he wanted to test. Things had started to change. For the better. For once in his whole damned life. And the stars were his comfort. Or they had been long ago.
If they could be again… then there would be hope.
Or so he'd like to think.
Which was why this was all just whimsy, wasn't it? The stars didn't change, not day to day and year to year. They took billions of years to change.
The woman cradled in his arms had helped him do it in a week.
But maybe that was something he'd been working towards for a long time now, and Lois had just helped him open his eyes. Helped him focus on something other that his selfish misery.
So, the stars…
She'd help him see the stars again, wouldn't she? Even if it was just to satisfy some foolish notion of Everything's Going to Be All Right.
He saw the farm, then. The dried, cracked roof of the old farmhouse, the barn with only traces of colored paint left clinging to the sides, the run down fences, the fields of dead grass and weeds. It needed fixing. Cleaning. It needed some love.
Someday. He'd do it.
After a slow decent, he felt his sneakers alight gently on the Kansas dirt. Fifty yards or so from his old front porch. He let Lois down gingerly until he was sure her feet were firmly grounded as well.
"Where are we?" She took a few steps away from him, wandering nearer to the barn.
"Smallville, Kansas… It's… this is where I grew up. My parents' farm."
Her "oh" was a quiet one, barely audible, and she turned back to look at him.
The expression on her face stole his breath for the barest of moments. There, in the Kansas moonlight, he'd never seen anything so… heartwarming. He could feel…
Understanding. She understood what he was feeling. Maybe even why he'd brought her here.
He reached an arm out for her. "C'mere," he said softly.
The dirt crunched under the soles of her shoes as she made her way back to his side, and the songs of the crickets carried on the wind around them.
She stood close to him, leaning her head on his shoulder. It almost wasn't fair how comforting it felt. With his opposite arm he reached for the sky, asking her to look with him. "There… this is what I wanted to show you."
He let his arm drop slowly back to his side as he felt her shift her gaze to the heavens. "I know they probably looked better, brighter when we were flying, but…"
But what? The magic was better from down here? It was safer? More beautiful? How could he explain?
"There's just something…" Words failed him again.
But she was nodding, a gentle movement against his shoulder. "Magical. I can feel it."
"Yeah," he said on a sigh. He smiled broadly… and so did his heart. He'd been right.
His eyes fluttered shut for a moment, and he leaned to place a soft kiss on her temple. She'd changed the stars. No… *they* had changed the stars.
But even though his heart was singing, the glittering sky still held bittersweet memories for him. He smiled wistfully as he gazed back up at the midnight sky.
"My dad and I used to come out here all the time. I loved the times when he'd grab his coat and holler for me to follow after him as he opened the front door."
If he listened hard enough, he could almost hear his father now — a gentle bellow followed by the familiar creak of the old screen door. Or maybe it was only the sound of the light wind through the trees.
"He taught me all about the constellations. And when I was old enough, he told me I had come from the stars. We hadn't known then where I'd actually come from, but I've always loved the sound of that. 'From the stars.'" He paused for a moment and frowned a bit. "I guess I'd forgotten that."
He scuffed the toe of his sneaker in the dirt, and he felt Lois reach for his hand.
"My mom would scold him for keeping me up so late, but she always had cookies waiting for us when we got in." He laughed wistfully at the memory. "I think she knew how much it meant for the both of us — me and Dad."
"They sound like they were terrific parents."
"They were." He nodded in the darkness. "They were."
She squeezed his hand and leaned a little closer into him. "I wish I could have met them."
His heart clenched in his chest and his throat grew tight. "Me too."
He felt Lois's arms snake around his waist, embracing him with love and comfort, it seemed.
"You know… I never realized how smart my mom was."
"Oh?" Her voice was soft and soothing as she held him tighter, and he let his arms slip around her waist in return, clinging to her offered comfort.
"She always told me that fear was the greatest challenge worth overcoming." He felt the heat of fresh tears behind his eyes, but they didn't hurt this time. "I was only nine, then. Long months before…" He swallowed. "Before they would die. I couldn't have known… she couldn't have known… how much I'd have to face."
He felt Lois turn in his arms to face him. Without a word, her fingers wandered up to chase away a stray teardrop he hadn't even realized had escaped.
"It took me far too long to remember that… I'd hate to think she was disappointed in me. That either of them were…" He trailed off, a strange mix of sadness, regret and love washing over him.
Lois shook her head and put her hand over his heart. "Feel that, Clark." Her voice was trembling, yet full of strength. "I can feel your heart in mine. It's so strong. Pure."
He closed his eyes against the tears as he brought his forehead to rest against hers. He was almost afraid to breathe.
"You saved my life." Her voice was nearly a whisper now. "Hell, you've probably saved a thousand lives. But I've never seen bravery quite like yours. There's no way they could be anything other than proud of you."
He swallowed past the lump in his throat. What had he done to deserve her?
"Thank you," he whispered, though he didn't need to say it. She knew. Even in her silence, he knew she knew. "This thing between us… I don't understand…" He could feel the warmth of her breath on his lips. The small space between them was charged with something incomprehensible. "It's so…"
He felt her fingertips graze his cheek and trail down to his lips. "I don't think we're supposed to understand… maybe we're just supposed to feel."
He managed to take a breath, and then her lips found his. Tender and searching, both of them trying to chase a deeper meaning. His hands threaded through her hair to pull her closer yet. He didn't need to doubt anymore that there was magic; it was happening right now.
She sat watching Clark wash the dishes after their early dinner. He'd insisted that she couldn't help, and she hadn't argued. Watching a movie, eating a homemade dinner, spending the day making love… such an ordinary day. And she loved it.
Her tour of the Kent farm had been, in a word, bittersweet. It had all seemed a bit magical in the deep of the night, guided by the luminescent moon and the twinkling stars. Even so, there had been a deep-seated sadness permeating the night. It'd hadn't all been Clark's, but the age-worn buildings and untamed fields of weeds daring to grow through the already broken fence held a certain…
It was as if someone had left an air of regret hanging in the relative silence, sorrow and life unfinished waiting for another to return with hope for a promising future.
They'd walked and talked well into the dawn. Clark had shown her all his special places — the pond where his dad had taught him how to fish, the view from his childhood bedroom, the kitchen where his mom had showed him the finer points of cooking… and the spot on the old dirt road leading up to the Kent farm that had changed his life forever.
Someday, she'd show him the same of her life.
She focused again on Clark as he set the last plate back in the rack to dry, and then patted away the remaining dampness from his hands on his jeans. He turned to look at her, a smile lighting up his face. She'd never tire of seeing that smile.
"Hey," he said softly. "Do you want to go flying with me before the sun sets completely?" He nodded toward the open window that'd allowed a cool breeze to whisper through the apartment during their dinner.
She smiled back at him. There wasn't anything she'd rather do. She nodded. "I'd love to."
He reached out a hand for her, and she took it swiftly. He leaned a bit to lift her into his arms, and then started toward the window. A step off the sill, and they were airborne.
He cradled her gently in his arms as they rose high up in the air. Just like the first time she'd flown with him, she watched the bustling city below her shrink into near nothingness. She didn't need to watch it disappear fully; she knew it would be there for her when they returned, just the same as she'd left it. Instead, she turned her gaze to the expanse of impossibly blue horizon in front of her. She felt like she was staring into forever as they flew east, the golden hues of the sunset behind them. She smiled at that. Every uninspired western film ended with the hero and his love riding off into the sunset.
But this was different. They were different. Perhaps by flying away from the sun, they'd find something far more magical. Maybe there, just where the blue seemed to curve and drop off into eternity, they'd find some miraculous solution to all their problems. But for once she wasn't desperate to arrive at a destination. She was content just where she was. In Clark's arms, flying towards forever.