Submitted: May 2006
Summary: The SHARP organization's leader is up for early parole. Superman is making bizarre rescues. The police are baffled by a series of strange kidnappings. It makes for a busy newsroom at the Planet. Will Lois and Clark find time to plan another baby? And the bigger question, will they be able to have one? A story set shortly after the events in the acclaimed "Season 6" aka "S6."
All familiar characters and settings are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., and whoever else can legally lay claim to them. No copyright infringement is intended. This story was written purely for fun, not for profit.
I want to say a big thank you to Nancy Lemieux, Adrienne Vukovic, and the rest of the seasons 5 & 6 writing team for allowing me to borrow some of their characters and ideas.
Also, a huge thank you to my beta readers: Sue and Diane. What would I have done without you guys? And to Paul, my GE for this story. Thanks for all the help!
Aaron Henderson was not a leader. Nor did he want to be one. He supposed if he really had to do it he could, but, if given the choice, he would rather not be in the spotlight. He preferred to work behind the scenes and let someone else be the motivator and leader.
As he walked towards the glass door in front of him, he glanced at his boyish reflection. He didn't *look* the part of a leader, either. He would be thirty soon, but appeared barely old enough to legally drink.
He slid the gloves off his long, bony fingers and shoved them in the pockets of his black leather jacket. After unbuttoning the bulky jacket, he took it off, too. It dwarfed the lean arm he hung it across.
Aaron pushed the glass door open and was greeted by the smell of food. One of the other visitors had brought food to share. Inmates didn't get a chance to eat food from the outside much. His stomach growled impatiently at him. He had eaten a large breakfast just before he had come, but he was already hungry again. How could he eat like he did and not gain weight? It worked to his advantage, though. He was stronger than he looked, and people usually misjudged him.
He took off his dark sunglasses, squinting his brown eyes against the harsh florescent lighting. He set the glasses on top of his head and ran his fingers though his dark, curly hair, smoothing it and pulling the tips out from behind his collar. He didn't really care what the guards thought of him, but there was no sense looking like a slob. He liked to look a little unkempt; like he had stayed up working too late the night before, which he usually had. It helped him to blend in, to disappear in a crowd.
No, he was definitely not a leader. He was a man of action. But the man he was on his way to see, he was a leader. In fact, that was the actual name Aaron knew him by, Great Leader. Aaron had been one of his followers since the beginning. He had sat by on the sidelines, helplessly, while the Leader had been incarcerated like a common criminal, and for what? For his thankless efforts to rid the world of an alien threat. A being that the rightful inhabitants of this world knew very little about, one who hid behind a guise of supposedly good and helpful intentions. Aaron sneered. A man who was about to get a rude awakening… Superman.
Aaron refused to make eye contact with the guard as the man opened the door for him to enter the visiting room at the prison. It had been over a year ago that their Leader had been imprisoned. It had been a tough time, but the members of SHARP — the Society for the Hindrance of Aliens Residing on the Planet — had pressed forward, finding a new place to meet and continuing the work that the Great Leader had started. Yes, they had kept up the Leader's work, in secret, just as he had instructed. Aaron was the contact man between the Leader and the rest of their group.
After the arrest, their Leader's name had been splashed across newspapers all across the city. Especially thanks to that nosy reporting team, Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Stupid alien lovers. However, Aaron had disregarded the newspapers, choosing instead to continue referring to him as their Leader. It was a title of honor, one well deserved by the man he had come to visit.
His thoughts again drifted to Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Oh, they would pay for what they had done to the Leader. And they would pay for being friends of Superman. Of that fact he had no doubt.
He brought his mind back in focus when the Great Leader walked into the room and approached the table. The man walking towards him looked wise beyond his years. Aaron wasn't really sure how old he was; maybe he wasn't even that much older than Aaron. Though the gray in his hair and the knowledge in his eyes said otherwise.
"Aaron, my friend, so good to see you again," the Great Leader said, giving him a warm handshake. What anyone looking on would fail to see was that, in that handshake, he had slipped Aaron a few small folded up pieces of paper. They couldn't communicate openly at these meetings for fear of someone overhearing their conversations. So, the Great Leader would write down all the instructions he had for Aaron and slip them to him at their visits. Aaron discreetly slid the papers into his jacket pocket.
"And you, Sir." Aaron hated having to address him in that manner, but, in case anyone was listening in, he couldn't risk calling him Great Leader. "I came as quickly as I could after hearing the news of your parole hearing set for tomorrow," Aaron said, acting out his role in this little play. Of course, Aaron had already known about the parole hearing. He had been the one to help orchestrate it. No one but he and the Great Leader knew how many people had been bribed and coerced to bring about this early parole. The parole was pretty much cinched up and guaranteed to happen tomorrow, but few others knew that.
"Yes, I have great hopes that they will see the changes that have come over me and my repentance for what I have done. We shall see, won't we?" the Leader said, risking a sly smile.
"I'll be waiting in anticipation of the news tomorrow regarding the hearing. I just wanted to come by and let you know that you have my support and the support of many others. Thank you for seeing me, and I hope we'll see each other under better circumstances tomorrow."
"Thank you, my friend. Tomorrow then." The Great Leader smiled and walked back to the door, where he was escorted back to his cell.
Aaron slid his hand into his pocket feeling for the papers that had been given to him. The information they contained was priceless. In his hands he held the final information needed to initiate the fall of Superman.
Clark flew in the open bedroom window of his brownstone. He was immediately a little concerned when he didn't see Lois in bed. He hadn't even been able to finish dinner with his family before Superman had been called off to help with a break-in at the laboratory of the Fort Truman military base. Someone had stolen some top-secret equipment from the base. That same culprit, or perhaps an accomplice, had also tapped into the computer banks and downloaded some highly classified files. The commanding officer had been reluctant to divulge just exactly what items and/or information had been stolen, stating firmly, but simply, that the information was classified.
The thieves were good. They hadn't left any clues or evidence that would help either Superman or the authorities, and they'd been long gone by the time he had arrived on the scene. It had been a long night. He had spent hours searching the area for the thieves, and trying to extract information from anyone he could at the base.
He glanced over at the alarm clock. It was after midnight. As he started to head off in search of Lois, his super hearing picked up her soft voice humming a lullaby from Laura's room. He quickly spun out of his suit and into his black silk pajama pants; he then headed off to check on his two beautiful girls. He floated up to the doorway so as not to make a sound. He loved looking in on Lois when she sang Laura to sleep. Peeking just slightly into the room, he watched his wife softly rocking an agitated Laura. Lois looked exhausted.
"Hi, honey. I'm back. Sorry it's so late," he whispered as he walked into the room towards her. "Why don't you let me take her for a while?"
Lois looked up at him, yawning, dark circles under her eyes, and smiled half-heartedly. "Thanks honey," she said, "but I don't think it will do any good. She's just mad at me, that's all. Did everything go okay at Fort Truman?"
"Yeah, long story, too long for tonight. I'll fill you in on the details in the morning. I'm going to talk to Perry about it tomorrow, too, see if he can put us in touch with that retired Admiral friend of his. Now, what was that about Laura being mad at you? Why would she be mad at you?" Clark asked, picking the fussy baby up, kissing her tear-stained cheek.
"Because I wouldn't let her have her nightcap," Lois said, looking at him like she was trying to gauge his reaction to what she had said. He was sure she could see the look of surprise on his face, even in the dark.
This was new… "Are you trying to wean her?" Clark asked as he stood there, swaying back and forth, gently rocking Laura. He glanced down at her. She yawned sleepily.
"Well, yes actually, I am. It's been an ongoing project for the past week now. I've gotten her weaned off of some of her daytime nursing and decided I would try her nighttime nursing tonight. I kept trying to find time to talk to you about it, but Superman's been a very busy boy this week."
Clark grimaced. Yes, he had been. He hated it when his *other* job took him away from his family so much. "Are you sure she's ready for this? I mean, do you think it's time?"
Lois nodded her head at him. "Yeah, I've talked with your mom and my mom and read a few things that say you can begin weaning them as early as nine months and get them on solid food. Laura's almost fifteen months, and she's been eating some solid food for a while now. I hadn't wanted to start sooner because I really enjoy the time we spend together when she's nursing. I wasn't ready to give that up just yet. But, at the same time, her nursing has continued to become tougher physically. Those little teeth of hers are really sharp. She seems to want to sink them into something a little more substantial," Lois said, grinning at him. "And, initially, there were some other reasons why I thought about trying to wean her."
"Well, Superdad," Lois said, pointing at a sleeping Laura, "why don't you put your little angel in bed and we can go to *our* bed and talk about it some more."
Clark liked the sound of that. After laying Laura in her crib and kissing her forehead lightly, he turned and scooped his wife up into his arms. He flew them both at super speed down the hallway into their bedroom. Laying her gently on the bed, he began to apply soft kisses up and down her neck.
"So, what other reasons were there?"
"Hmm, this was one of them," she murmured as she relaxed into his arms. "As much as I enjoy the time with Laura when she's nursing, it does take a while to complete the process and get her to bed. Sometimes, it takes so much time that I don't have the time I want with you."
"Oh, I think we can always make time for this," he said, unbuttoning her nightshirt and continuing his light kisses down her abdomen to her navel.
"Ooooh, that feels so good," she whispered and then continued hesitantly, "but I actually do have something I want to talk to you about."
Clark reluctantly stopped searching for new places to kiss and looked into her concerned brown eyes. "What is it, honey?"
"Well, it all began with a conversation I had with Alice a couple of weeks ago at lunch. She asked me if we had given any thought to having more kids. It kind of caught me off guard because Laura had just turned one, and I hadn't really given any thought to when I wanted to have another baby. But Alice brought up some interesting points. She asked me how many years we would want between children. You know, it's nice for siblings to be close in age. I've always wished that Lucy and I had been closer in age. If we'd only been a year or two apart instead of five, it would have made a difference, I think. If you let too many years pass between having kids, sometimes they don't get close until they are older, and by then it can feel like you've lost years…"
Clark stroked her cheek before reaching up to give her a light kiss on the lips. "Honey, you're babbling."
"I know. It's just that I want Laura to have the childhood I never did. And I don't want her to feel lonely, either. You and I do our best to spend as much time with her as we can, but we are both so busy sometimes. It might be nice for her to have a little sister or a little brother." That thought brought a smile to Lois' face. "To share things with as she grows up."
"You've been thinking a lot about this, haven't you?"
"Yes, ever since that talk with Alice. See, she also reminded me that, while Laura may only be one now, she'd already be two by the time we had another baby, if we did decide to try again right away." She smiled provocatively at him.
"I'm always ready for the *trying* part," he teased her. She giggled softly.
"But, getting back to the weaning issue. At first, the reason I started trying to wean Laura is that Alice told me that nursing can make it difficult for you to get pregnant."
"Really? I hadn't heard that before."
"I hadn't either, but she said there are a lot of hormones involved when you're nursing, and it can make it more difficult. I thought that, since we have our own little unique challenge in that department, it was better not to add another problem into the mix. So, that's initially why I started weaning Laura. But, after talking with my mom on the phone yesterday, I found out that what Alice said was just an old wives' tale. Mom said you wouldn't believe some of the stories and 'tried and true' methods she would hear from people when she worked as a nurse. She said there've been plenty of women who have gotten pregnant again before they meant to because they thought they were safe while breastfeeding. But since I had already started to wean Laura, and since she seemed to be taking to solid food so well, I figured I might as well just continue."
"Tonight was the first *nightly* feeding that I had tried to replace with some juice and a lullaby, though," she said, continuing. "She was really fussy before you came back just now. I actually caved in and started to let her nurse, but then she bit me, hard," Lois said, grimacing as she rubbed the sore area on her chest. "Let me tell you, it didn't feel good. It's still sore. I decided then that it was definitely time."
Clark leaned down, kissing her shoulder. He continued applying light kisses down her body before stopping at her abdomen. "Well, I think you know how I feel about having more babies, hon. I haven't said much about it because I didn't want to push you. I wanted you to feel comfortable about being a mom and come to that decision when you were ready." He paused in his thoughts to begin moving his kisses back up her body to the region of her neck. "I've enjoyed Laura so much that I can't think of anything I'd want more than to make another baby with you." He began applying kisses more urgently to her mouth and neck.
Lois groaned and began kissing him back. "I think it's time to try one of those practice sessions now," she whispered as things began to heat up.
"Ol' Sailin' Whalen?" Perry started riffling though the items on his desk. "Well, yeah, last I heard he bought himself a little retirement cabin out on the lake that he stays in a few months out of the year. I'll give him a call and see if he's there, Clark," he said, uncovering his Rolodex from a pile of items. "In the meantime, though, I need you and Lois to cover the possible early parole of the nutcake who headed up that anti-Superman movement," Perry told them as he thumbed through the Rolodex looking for Whalen's number.
"What?" Lois and Clark exclaimed at the same time.
"Chief, are you talking about the Leader of SHARP?" Lois asked, concerned. The thought of him being paroled made Lois' blood pressure rise. When Clark had been having tests run at the fertility clinic, the leader of SHARP had been tampering with the results. Imagine, trying to make Clark think he couldn't have children! The gall of that man. He could stay locked up forever as far as she was concerned.
"Yeah," Perry said with a nod. "He's been bumped up on the list and is up for early parole."
"When?" Clark asked.
"Well, today, as a matter of fact," Perry exclaimed, grumpily. "I tell you, I don't see how someone as demented as this guy is came up for parole so soon."
"Why didn't you tell us about this sooner?" Lois asked, feeling angry at being out of the loop. Yesterday had been her day off to stay home with Laura. She and Clark worked a split week in order to spend as much time with Laura as possible. At times like these, though, it irked Lois to feel like she was behind on things. But Clark didn't seem to know any more about it than she did.
"Because I didn't find out until just this morning. It seems it all happened pretty fast. I smell a rat. See what information you can dig up on his early parole hearing, and, if he does get paroled, I want you all over this like stink on a June bug."
"You got it, Chief," Clark responded as Lois nodded her head.
"I'll let you know when I get a hold of Admiral Whalen," Perry assured them, holding up the card he had pulled from his rolodex. Lois and Clark turned to leave Perry's office, but ran into Jimmy as he came through the door. He looked anxious.
"You gotta see this, guys. Chief, turn on the TV to LNN."
Perry obliged, and a young, obviously distraught woman appeared on the screen, being interviewed by an anchorwoman.
"And you say this note is the only thing the kidnapper left behind?" the newswoman asked her, stepping out of the way of several police officers who were walking around.
"Yes, he hasn't contacted us or made any demands. All we have is this note that he left in her bed," the crying mother managed between sobs. The reporter moved on to ask the father some questions.
"I recognize that couple," Clark whispered to Lois. "They're the ones that Superman saved from that burning apartment building earlier this week."
"Really? Talk about your run of bad luck. Those poor people. I can't even imagine if someone took Laura like that, right out of her bed."
"Well, I don't think that could happen," he said, giving her a reassuring squeeze. "I'd *hear* them," he continued, pointing to his ear.
Lois smiled. Yes, she guessed he'd probably hear them coming a mile away, as long as he was actually *there*. That thought sent a chill up her spine. Clark was frequently gone for parts of the night. What if someone like this came calling when he wasn't around? She didn't even want to think about it.
The mother on TV had produced the note and was reading from it. Lois directed her attention back to the screen.
"And it goes on to say, Superman may have saved your lives, but it will be your daughter who pays," she concluded, another wave of tears hitting her.
Lois looked at Clark in shock. He was looking back at her, equally shocked. What was that supposed to mean? Was someone going to make these people pay for accepting help from Superman?
"Judas Priest!" Perry exclaimed. "What kind of a person would do something like this? Lois, Clark, see if you can get an interview with these parents before you head off to cover that parole hearing later today."
"We're on it, Chief," Clark said, catching Lois' eye. He made a motion for his tie. "Lois, why don't you make a call to Inspector Henderson and see what he makes of this. I'll head on out to talk with these parents. You can meet me there when you're done."
"I'm already ahead of you," Lois said as she raced back to her desk. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Clark disappeared into the storage closet, tugging on his tie as he went.
Clark arrived on the scene, still dressed as Superman, just as the last of the news vans were leaving. He waited out of sight until the last one was gone. He didn't really feel like having to be interviewed by the media right now. He walked up to the front door, passing several police cars, and knocked. He glanced around, but didn't see any officers. They were probably inside dusting for prints. The door opened, revealing a teary-eyed face of the woman he had saved just a few days ago.
"Superman?! Oh, I'm so glad you're here. I take it you heard about the kidnapping?" she asked him, running her hands through her tousled brown hair and massaging her neck and shoulders.
"Yes, I did, Mrs…?"
"Harrell. Stephanie Harrell."
"Mrs. Harrell, I only caught part of what the note said in your interview on TV. Mind if I read the whole thing?"
She shook her head, looking around. "I gave it to the Inspector. Let me see if I can find him," she said, walking off. Clark wasn't surprised to see Inspector Henderson come walking back to the door with her. He handed the note to Clark.
"None of this makes any sense, Superman. This was the only note left. No ransom demanded, and no instructions on what needs to be done except for refusing further help from you. We're dusting for prints, but I'm not hopeful. Nothing seems to have been disturbed in the child's room." Clark nodded his head, looking down at the note. He began reading from it out loud.
"Mr. and Mrs. Harrell, you have not been careful enough with your daughter. She was almost killed in a fire, and now, it seems you've allowed her to be kidnapped right under your noses. I'm sure you'd like some insight right about now, so I'll give you some. Do not rely on Superman. Accept no further help from him. He is a threat to this country and this planet, and he is going to be dealt with. Soon, everyone will see him for what he truly is and rightfully despise him and the *so-called* help he offers. Anyone attempting to help him or to be helped by him will be considered an accomplice and will have to pay the consequences as well. You may consider yourselves to be friends of Superman, but this is no guarantee of your daughter's safety. It is unacceptable for the next generation to grow up with the image of Superman the "savior" and "hero" against the stark reality of his yet unknown, real intentions. Superman may have saved your lives previously, but it will be your daughter who pays."
Clark felt his heart sink. The note sounded grim, indeed. He quickly scanned the note for fingerprints. They were hard to make out, but there appeared to be several sets of fingerprints. He assumed that some of them belonged to Mr. & Mrs. Harrell, but what about the others? He handed the note back to Henderson.
"Have that note dusted for prints. I x-rayed it and there are several different sets of prints. Maybe one of them belongs to the kidnapper." Henderson took the note and walked out of the room, passing a man who was walking in. Clark recognized him; it was Mr. Harrell. The man pulled his robe tighter and strode purposefully towards Clark.
"What's he doing here?" he asked his wife, his voice laced with bitterness.
"I only came to see what I could do to help," Clark explained.
"Haven't you done enough?" the man replied, sounding heartbroken.
"Steven, it wasn't his fault. He saved us. He's only trying to help." Steven's only response was to lower his head and walk back the way he had come.
"Superman, I know this isn't your fault. We're just having a hard time dealing with this. Not knowing or understanding what is really meant by that note. Are they going to kill our little girl?"
"Not if I can help it. I promise you I will do whatever I can to track these people down and find your daughter. Do you have a recent picture of her?"
"Her name is Lydia. Yes, I made copies so I could post some pictures around town. I gave copies to the media also. The police said by contacting the media there would be a chance that someone might see her and report the sighting. Here, let me get you one."
She ran into the next room and came back carrying a picture of a smiling brown-haired, brown-eyed little girl. She looked about four or five years old. The picture tugged at Clark's heart.
"Thank you. I'll do whatever I can to help." Clark didn't know what else he could say. He reached out and took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Then he turned and left, taking to the air to locate Lois.
It didn't take long. She had been on her way to the Harrell's house and was almost there. He flew down along side her Jeep, and she pulled over. He motioned over to a side alleyway and took off towards it to make his quick change. After checking to make sure no one was watching, he spun out of his suit and came walking back out of the alley. Lois was waiting in the Jeep for him, so he joined her.
"So, what did you find out?" she asked him as he pulled himself inside the Jeep.
Clark looked behind him at his beautiful daughter who was sleeping peacefully in her car seat. If she hadn't been asleep, he would have picked her up and held her. He wanted to hold her so badly. He pulled his gaze away from her and looked back at Lois. The concern was evident on her face.
"Clark, what's wrong?"
"I'm okay. I just… you should have seen the looks on their faces. They're heartbroken. And I'm partially to blame."
"No, you're not. It's not your fault. You saved their lives and you can't be blamed for the actions of this, this, maniac."
"Yes, but he *is* blaming me. You should have seen the note he left them. He didn't come right out and say it, but he implied that something was going to happen to this little girl," Clark said, pulling the picture out to show it to Lois.
Lois took the picture and looked at it sadly. "What did the note say?"
"Oh, your basic stuff," Clark started bitterly. "Superman is evil. He's a threat to this country and doesn't belong here. Then, it pretty much stated that anyone connected with Superman, practically anyone who interacted with Superman, would also be considered a threat and would have to be dealt with."
Clark pulled his glasses down a little bit, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Lois reached out and caressed his hair, moving her hand down to his cheek. He tried to feign a smile for her.
"We will get through this, you know," she said encouragingly.
"Yeah, I know. We'll find a way. I just feel frustrated when people use me as an excuse to hurt others."
Clark wanted to say more. He wanted to tell Lois how worried he was for Laura. If this person decided everyone who was close to Superman had to suffer, would he include Clark Kent and Lois Lane in that? And Laura along with them? But he kept silent. He didn't want to worry Lois about it just yet. So far, this was an isolated event. Clark put his seatbelt on as Lois put the Jeep in drive and pulled back out onto the main road.
"I wasn't able to get a hold of Inspector Henderson when I called," she told him.
"Yeah, that's because he was at their house. I talked to him while I was there, and he let me examine the kidnappers' note. I x-rayed it, and there were several sets of prints on it, so he's going to have it examined. Some of them are going to belong to the parents, of course, but maybe we'll get lucky."
"Well, I talked to one of the officers assigned to the case. Apparently, the girl's father went in to check on her this morning when he got up, and discovered that she was gone. There was no sign of a struggle, and all that was left was the note. Since it was dark out, none of the neighbors saw anything. While I was on the phone with the police, I did manage to get some useful information about the other story we're working on, the parole hearing. According to the officer I spoke to, the leader of SHARP wasn't due up for parole for at least another eight months and that was only with good behavior. He's going to look into who might have been involved in the request for early parole. I left Jimmy's number with him, so if he finds anything out, he'll pass the information on to Jimmy for us."
"Okay. Let's get back to the Planet, then, and see if Jimmy's heard anything," Clark instructed her. "We can put him to work gathering up the articles we wrote on the SHARP group. It would probably be good to review them and also our old notes."
Aaron approached the playground carefully. Kids of various ages and sizes were playing on jungle gyms, swinging in swings, spinning on the merry-go-round, and climbing in and out of the wooden forts that had been constructed for the older kids. He had been watching and listening to the children and their parents closely, researching them to see who would be a good test subject. The test with the Harrells' daughter had gone completely as planned. But now it was time to see if he could stage an accident worthy of Superman's attention.
He had chosen his next subject. A little boy, probably no older than five, named Matthew Scott. For the procedure to work, he had to have the child's name, and he couldn't really choose anyone over the age of five. It just didn't seem to be as effective with older children. They were less susceptible.
He positioned himself out of sight behind a building and pulled a small device out from his coat. The device looked sort of like a satellite dish mounted to a small box. He held it in his hand, turning various knobs on it and pressing buttons. It was no bigger than the palm of his hand. There was a small microphone attached to the side it. Aaron lifted the mike to his lips.
"Matthew Scott, can you hear me?" Aaron was rewarded with a disinterested nod from the boy.
"Good. Matthew, you are a very special boy, you know that? You can fly, Matthew, just like Superman. Do you see the tall wooden fort across from you? I want you to climb all the way to the top of the fort, okay?"
Matthew did just as he was instructed. He walked over to the fort, climbed up the rope ladder, and crawled inside the fort.
"Very good, Matthew. I want you to grab the ladder and pull it up inside the fort with you." He watched as Matthew obeyed.
"Now, I want you to very carefully climb out the window of the fort and climb up on top. You have to be high up at the very top in order to be able to fly." He watched, his palms a little sweaty, as the boy made his way to the top of the fort. His intentions were not, of course, to hurt the boy, but merely to use him as a tool to get Superman to come. The boy was young, and he hoped that he wouldn't have any trouble getting up on top of the fort. Aaron glanced over at the boy's parents. They were still busily engaged in a conversation with another set of parents. Oblivious to what their child was up to. He looked back and was relieved to see Matthew perched on top of the fort awaiting further instructions.
"Okay, now, Matthew, we want your parents to see you fly, so stay right where you are for now. I want you to yell as loud as you can at them. Tell them that you are going to fly like Superman."
Matthew nodded his head, opening his mouth, "Mommy! Daddy! Watch me, watch me!"
"We're watching you, honey," his mother replied absent-mindedly.
"No, look! Over here! Watch me! I can fly like Superman!"
His mother finally looked up towards the sound of his voice and promptly screamed. "Matthew! What are you doing? Don't move, honey, we'll get you down from there." Matthew's parents ran over to the base of the fort, trying to figure out a way up.
"How did he get up there?" his mother asked his father. "Where is the ladder?"
Aaron again raised the mike to his lips. "Okay, Matthew, I want you to walk to the edge of the fort and stop. Don't do anything. Just repeat that you are going to fly like Superman." Matthew complied with the command.
"Watch me, watch me! I'm going to fly like Superman!"
"No! No, honey, don't move. Help! Someone help us!" Matthew's mother screamed.
Lois and Clark had just dropped Laura back at the daycare center of the Daily Planet and were headed towards the elevator when Clark heard the cry.
"I've gotta go. Someone's in trouble," Clark said, turning towards the stairwell.
"Go, Clark. I'll go up and check in with Jimmy. See you back here later," Lois told him, giving him a quick peck on the cheek.
Clark ran up the stairwell, changing into his *suit* once he was inside, out of sight, and then ran back down and out of the building at super speed, taking to the air once he was outside. He could hear the continued screams and soon located the problem. A small boy was perched at the top of a playground fort, flapping his arms, yelling, "I can fly!" Superman floated down and landed gently next to him.
"No, you can't, but I can. Here, let's get you down from here and back to your parents," Superman said as he lifted the boy up and floated him down into the waiting arms of his mother.
"Oh, Superman, thank God!" she said.
"How can we ever thank you, Superman?" the boy's father asked, holding out his hand.
Superman shook the outstretched hand. "You're welcome. Glad I was in the area and could help, Mr…?"
"Scott. Dale Scott. This is my wife, Trisha, and our son, Matthew."
"What exactly happened?" Superman asked, curious.
"I don't know. One minute he was playing out by the swing sets, and the next minute he was on top the fort yelling that he could fly," Trisha explained. Superman looked down at the boy. He had a puzzled look on his face.
"Well, Matthew, next time you feel the urge to fly, maybe you'd better get your dad to take you for a ride in an airplane instead," Superman said, smiling at the boy. The boy smiled back at him shyly.
"Mama, I'm sorry. A voice *told* me I could fly," Matthew said, confused.
"A voice?" Superman asked. Not a person?
"Uh huh. A voice in my head."
"I'm sorry, Superman," Trisha whispered to Superman where Matthew couldn't hear. "Matthew has imaginary playmates. He probably *imagined* they told him he could fly. I really am sorry."
"It's okay. I'm just glad he's all right. It looks like you should keep a close eye on him from now on. He seems to be quite the climber." Superman smiled at the family and took to flight, never seeing the figure watching him from the shadows.
"I still can't believe that SHARP's leader was paroled!" Clark exclaimed as he stabbed a meatball angrily with his fork. He had hardly touched his dinner.
"I know; me either. You know, I was thinking. Don't you think it's highly suspicious that this kidnapping and renewed hostility towards Superman is happening now? With him getting paroled?" Lois asked him, taking another bite of salad.
"Yeah, the thought had crossed my mind. The problem is that the kidnapping happened before he was actually paroled. He couldn't have been the one to do it."
Lois took Laura's tiny baby spoon and scooped up a little applesauce, flying it temptingly towards her baby's open mouth. "Yeah. But he could have had help."
"That's true, but we just don't have any proof. Maybe we can go by the prison tomorrow and talk to some of the guards. See who's visited him while he was in prison. Even better, maybe we could arrange to visit his prior accomplice, Clarice, at the Metropolis women's prison. I think she's still incarcerated there. Maybe, since he got his ticket out of prison and left her holding the bag, she'll be willing to talk."
"Sounds like a plan," Lois agreed, getting up and walking to the sink. Laura had accidentally hit the spoon and sloshed applesauce on Lois' hands and arms. Clark walked up behind her and put his arms around her, giving her a gentle squeeze. Inhaling between clinched teeth, she made a slight hissing sound.
"What's the matter, honey? Did I squeeze too hard?"
"No, no. I think my breast is still just sore from where Laura bit me last night."
Clark couldn't help but smile a little. "She must not have known her own strength," he joked.
Lois smiled lopsidedly at him. "Already becoming more like her dad."
Clark helped her put the leftovers in the fridge and clean the dishes, and then they both took Laura up to bed. It was time to try skipping the nightly feeding again. So, Clark held Laura and rocked her gently as Lois read a bedtime story to her. It worked. She fell asleep in her daddy's arms. Clark lay her down gently in her crib, kissing her forehead lightly.
"Daddy loves you, Laura," he whispered to her and crept out of the room behind Lois towards their bedroom. Then he stopped suddenly, hearing a sound that made his heart flutter so fast that he felt giddy.
"Did she just say what I thought she said?" Clark asked Lois as he moved back towards Laura's room. They both peeked into the room together to find their daughter had pulled herself up and was standing in her crib, holding on to the bars and staring at the doorway. She had become quite ambitious since she had learned to walk. She seemed to really enjoy the freedom walking afforded her. He just hoped she didn't start trying to climb yet.
"Da. Da, da, da," she repeated, in a loud voice. Clark's heart melted. Laura had been making noises and sounds for a while now, and even sounded like she was trying to talk from time to time with made up, unintelligible words. Or babbling, as Clark liked to tease Lois.
At first, they had been a little concerned that she hadn't started talking yet, but everyone had assured them that all children are different and do some things sooner than others. This was the first time, though, that she had said something they could really understand; and it was for him. She was calling him. Clark felt wetness under his eyes. He couldn't have ever imagined how wonderful this would feel.
"That's right, sweetie. I'm your Daddy. D-a-d-d-y," Clark said to her, picking her up and holding her out in front of him, smiling at her.
"Da," she said again and grinned her mostly toothless grin. Clark clutched her to his body and hugged her. He finally remembered Lois when she came up behind him and put her arms around them both.
"You know, I figured that would be her first word, as much as I've caught you in here repeating *Daddy* to her over and over," Lois told him playfully. He turned in her arms, adjusting Laura to one side, and hugged his wife. He was so glad to have her, to have them both. They could both heal him when he really needed it. He hugged her again, more fiercely.
"Ouch," Lois exclaimed in surprise.
"What's the matter?"
"I don't know. I just had kind of a sharp pain in my left breast. You know, the one Laura bit last night."
"Honey, that can't be from the little bite she gave you," Clark reasoned. "Come on, let's go to our bedroom. I want to take a look at you."
Under different circumstances, what he said could have been viewed as flirtatious, but he wasn't flirting this time. He was genuinely concerned.
He looked down at his baby girl, and she yawned sleepily at him. She'd be out in no time. He lay her back down in her crib and followed Lois to their bedroom.
"Here, lie down and let me take a look." She lay back on the bed, and Clark unbuttoned her nightshirt. Using his fingertips, he felt her breast using circular motions like Lois did when she performed a breast exam on herself.
His breath caught in his throat as his fingertips felt a firm mass, about the size of the end of his thumb, on the outer edge of her left breast. He pressed on it lightly and Lois yelped. She reached up putting her fingers where his were.
"There's," she paused, "there's a lump there," she continued, starting to sit up.
"Lie still. I want to take a look at it." Clark took his glasses off and laid them on the nightstand. He kept them on most of the time, even at home. Now that Laura was getting older, they didn't think it would be good for Clark to go without them in front of her. They thought it was best to make him look and act as different from Superman as he could.
He focused his x-ray vision on her and could see the lump in her breast, the fibrous tissue and fluid that it was composed of. Of course, he didn't really know what he was looking for. For some reason, he had just wanted to look and confirm what he already knew was there. He grimaced.
"Honey, don't worry. Lot's of women get lumps in their breasts," Lois said, squeezing his hand. "They aren't always bad. I've read that sometimes it can just be an inflamed lymph gland or something as simple as that."
He could tell she was trying to be brave for him, to reassure him. But he knew she was probably just as worried as he was.
"Promise me you'll get in to see the doctor as soon as you can. Don't put it off. Tomorrow, if possible."
"Don't worry. I actually already have an appointment two days from now. All that talk about having another baby and the *practicing* we did made me realize it was probably time for me to get a check-up. I figured I should make sure everything was in tiptop shape before we got more serious about having another baby. I'll show this to my doctor at my appointment."
That made Clark feel a little better. He lay down in bed next to her. Draping his arm around her, he pulled her close to him. He lay this way as he drifted off to sleep, holding her in his arms.
Aaron had just finished eating his rather late dinner when he heard the knock on his apartment door. After setting his dirty dishes in the sink, he went to the door and looked out the peephole. *He* was here. Aaron slid the chain over and off the lock, and he opened the door.
"Great Leader," he acknowledged, with a slight nod of his head.
"So good to see you on the outside my friend," the Leader responded, extending his hand. Aaron took his hand, shaking it firmly and stepping aside so his Leader could come in. They spent the next hour sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, discussing the Harrell kidnapping and the incident with Matthew earlier that day at the park.
"Everything seems to be progressing just as we had planned, assuming that your little errand later tonight goes well," the Leader said, seeming pleased.
"I don't anticipate any problems. I followed the Scott family home after they left the park and cased the place out. There's a great spot I can use as cover."
"Good. Then I should get going and leave you to your task at hand. I need to proceed on to the bunker and begin working with our first test subject. I've got a lot to do if I'm going to be done in our three-day time span. I look forward to seeing you later this evening when you bring me our next subject," the Leader said, as he rose and began walking towards the door.
Aaron's thoughts turned briefly to the bunker. The bunker that Lex Luthor had so generously given them access to after Superman had discovered their previous location. Lex had expressed his shared distaste of Superman and his desire to help with their cause. He had taken Aaron down below his corporate headquarters to a private bunker that he'd had built. Lex had shared many interesting revelations with Aaron that day.
Aaron walked with the Leader to his front door and shook the man's hand in parting. He had a question that he needed his Great Leader to answer, and he'd decided this would be a good time to ask him.
"Before you leave, may I ask you one question?"
The Great Leader nodded his head at him, looking like he might know what Aaron was about to ask. Their leader was one of the smartest and most brilliant tacticians that Aaron had ever known. Aaron trusted his judgment. But he didn't always understand it. One thing troubled him.
"Can you explain to me why we don't just simply kill Superman?" Aaron asked him. "When Lex Luthor took me down and showed me his bunker, he also divulged his knowledge of Kryptonite to me. I think that he probably had a piece of it in his possession, or, if not, knew how to get some. With the technology we possess and the network of people we have connections with, couldn't we locate a piece of Kryptonite and just *kill* Superman? We could be done with him once and for all."
The Great Leader smiled at him with a knowing look. "Yes, Aaron, I have no doubt that we could do just that. But, tell me, what do you think would happen if we simply killed Superman? Just ripped him away from his loyal cohorts, fans, and friends? They would build memorials for him, write books in his honor and hold him up as an example, as a god. They would mourn him, miss him. They certainly would not see him for the threat he was to our planet and our way of life. We would effectively turn him into a martyr, and that is exactly what I don't want."
The Leader had a strange fire in his eyes. He continued, "Yes, we could kill Superman and that may be in our plans for the future. But first, I want to destroy his credibility, his ability to help people. I want people to fear him, fear what his presence here on our planet may be doing to the environment or what his true agenda really is. Most people don't give any of that a second thought. But if we can get them to fear him in another way… If we can get them to realize that he can be used to inflict pain on them, just as any other weapon can be used against people when in the wrong hands, then we can begin to bend them to our cause. We will make them see the truth. Our power will lie in being able to change people's opinions through persuasion. If we can destroy people's faith in Superman, their reliance on him, then, and only then, can we successfully remove him from the picture. Because then, they won't miss him when he's gone."
Aaron could do nothing but stand there, looking at the Leader in awe. His original estimation of the man had been grossly understated. The man was a visionary.
After parting ways, Aaron's mind began to drift back to Lex Luthor. Lex had been a lot of things, many of them unpleasant, but at least he was a *man*, which was more than he could say for Superman. The one perfect thing Lex had been was Superman's greatest adversary.
But now, he was dead. The thought made his blood run cold. He couldn't prove it, but he just knew Superman had played a part in Lex's death. Or, if nothing else, he could have at least prevented it if he had wanted to. One of Aaron's associates had informed him that Superman had been present the day Lex Luthor had been murdered, just a few short months ago, but Superman hadn't stopped him from being killed. His death had been a great loss to the organization.
At first, Aaron hadn't believed their luck when Lex had approached him about a possible new meeting location for SHARP. His secret underground bunker. He'd told Aaron that he'd originally had the bunker built as an escape against a nuclear attack. It was five hundred meters below street level and was reinforced with steel and concrete. Lex had later added a coating of lead to the bunker to prevent Superman from seeing into it with his x-ray vision. The bunker had almost been put into use a few years ago when the Nightfall asteroid had come so close to impacting with Earth.
The thought of the asteroid caused Aaron to pause in his reflection. Oh, why couldn't that asteroid have killed Superman? But, no, of course, Superman had been able to stop the asteroid and save the day without any negative consequences to himself. He had become an even bigger hero in the eyes of the world after that.
How could people be so blind? Couldn't they understand? Superman was an alien threat. He didn't belong here! Who knew what kind of damage his presence could be causing to the Earth's ecology? And what about who he really was? No one knew for sure what Superman was really there for, or what he was up to. No one could be as good as Superman pretended to be. Aaron didn't trust him. But his day was coming soon. They were going to bring him down, and then who knew what would happen?
For now though, they were safe to work and plan and to do what needed to be done. Lex's bunker was top secret. Very few people knew of the existence of the bunker. Even when the Nightfall asteroid had threatened the Earth, Lex hadn't wanted to publish the existence of the bunker. He hadn't wanted to create a panic of people trying to find a way into it. Of those who knew of its existence, even fewer knew how to access it.
It was connected to the LexCorp building via a secret passageway. The passageway was a private elevator that only had two other destinations. One was a room he'd never been in, and the other was the penthouse suite at the top of LexCorp. The elevator door doubled as large painting that opened out into the suite.
The bunker also had its own separate, secret opening into the city's aquifer system below ground. That was the entrance he normally used to get in or out of the bunker. Only when he needed to speak with Lex privately had he taken the elevator to the penthouse.
The penthouse and the *other* room, that got Aaron thinking. Maybe now was a good time to go ahead and start researching that little Kryptonite project. Yes, Lex had given him a great deal of knowledge to make a start with. It was always good to be prepared. But, first, he'd better take care of his immediate task for the evening. He grabbed his coat and headed out the door.
Jimmy walked off the elevator towards his desk at the Daily Planet with a bounce in his step. The bounce had been in his step for the past several months, ever since he had finally found the courage to ask Penny to marry him. Him, Jimmy Olsen. He guessed he was still a little amazed that she had said yes. She was so beautiful and had so much to offer. But she had told him that he was the only one for her. He was her one and only hero, which was funny considering the montage devoted to Superman she used to have on her desk. If Jimmy was her hero, it was only because she had made him one. She brought out the best in him.
Jimmy sat down at his desk to start checking his inbox for requests people had left for him. He felt a pair of hands cover his eyes.
"Guess who?" the sweet voice of his fiancee asked him.
"Hmm, I don't know. Could it be the woman I love?" he asked, turning in his chair to look up at her. "What are you doing here this morning? Not that I'm complaining or anything."
"Oh, I put in for one of those personal days I've had stored up for a while. I wanted to do a little wedding preparation and some shopping. In the last few months I've saved up a nice little nest egg," she replied proudly.
"Well, just don't use too many of those days up. We're going to need them for our honeymoon," he told her, grabbing her and pulling her down on his lap.
"Yeah, about that, Jimmy. When are we going to tell everyone?" she asked him, fingering her empty ring finger.
Jimmy grimaced. He hadn't given her an actual engagement ring yet. He had told her it was because he wanted to save up and get her just the right ring. That wasn't entirely true. Yes, it had taken him awhile to save the money for the ring, but he had the money now. He just hadn't been sure what kind of ring to get for her. He knew that, whatever he got for her, he wanted it to be unique and special. Something she would really cherish.
They had initially gone ring-browsing together, but Penny hadn't seemed overly enthused at any of the rings they had looked at. He had tried observing her whenever they had looked at rings. Finally, he had realized something. Penny didn't seem to get too excited about diamonds. The jewelry she normally wore was very different.
One of her favorite pieces of jewelry to wear when they went out for an evening together was a necklace that her grandmother had given her. The necklace was comprised of a delicate white gold chain that came down to a rectangular setting with a large piece of mother of pearl set into it. Dangling down from the necklace were three large, perfectly-formed, and delicately colored pearls. The pearl in the middle was bigger and hung down further from the other two. It was very unique and exquisite. Of course anything looked beautiful on Penny, he thought. She was what made it beautiful.
He had finally decided to have a ring made for her. One that would match the necklace that she loved so much. He had drawn up a design and taken it to Mazik's jewelers to create. The ring would be made out of white gold. It had a wide band with pieces of mother of pearl set into the band. In the middle of the ring there were three pearls, the one in the middle being the biggest.
When he gave the ring to her, he planned to tell her that the three pearls stood for his love for her. His love for her before he even knew her, his love for her now, and his love for her that would grow even *bigger* over time. He couldn't help feeling a little proud of himself for what he'd come up with.
But he didn't have the ring yet; it wasn't finished. He would have it soon, though. Actually, in just a few days. They had both decided they wouldn't tell anyone about the engagement until she had her ring. So he knew why she was feeling anxious.
"Penny, just give me one more week. I promise. I'm almost there. You know I want to tell everyone as much as you do, but it would be nice if you had your ring to be able to show off to everyone. I've been told that means a lot to a girl," he said, flashing her one of his boyish grins.
"Yeah, I guess so. I'm just so excited that it's hard to contain myself. I want to be able to tell everyone."
"You'll get to real soon. It'll be special," he promised her. Just then, Perry stuck his head out of his office and started barking commands.
"Jimmy! Are we a running a world-class newspaper here or a dating service? If you think you can disengage yourself, I need to see you in my office."
At the mention of "disengage," Jimmy and Penny giggled at each other softly and she got up off his lap.
"Yeah, Chief, I'm coming," Jimmy hollered to Perry as he was walking back into his office. "Well, gotta go. Duty calls. Don't have too much fun without me today. Leave me a few things to go shopping for."
"I'll do my best, but no promises," she said teasingly. He gave her a quick kiss goodbye and headed off into Perry's office.
"Sorry, Chief. Penny took the day off today and just came by to say hello."
"Ah, heck, son, that's fine. You know I was just ribbin' ya a little. Have you seen Lois and Clark come in yet?"
"No, I haven't. They're probably just downstairs saying goodbye to Laura at daycare."
"Keep an eye out for them and send them in to my office stat when you see them," Perry said, sitting down and turning his attention to a piece of paper lying in front of him.
"Will do," Jimmy assured him. The Chief had a worried look in his eyes that Jimmy didn't like, but he didn't press him about it further. He would know what it was about sooner or later.
Jimmy was headed back to his desk when the elevator door opened, revealing his two friends' familiar faces. He ran up the ramp to meet them.
"Lois! Clark!" he called to them.
"Morning, Jimmy," they both replied, walking towards him.
"Don't get settled in yet. The Chief needs to see you right away. He didn't say what it was about, but I didn't like the look on his face."
Lois and Clark didn't look like they liked the sound of that much, either. "Thanks, Jimmy," Clark said as they moved off towards Perry's office.
He watched them as they went inside. Perry motioned for them to shut the door. No, something was definitely wrong.
"Lois, Clark, I'm afraid I've got some disturbing news from a source of mine down at police headquarters. He read your article this morning about the Harrell kidnapping and figured we'd be interested to know that there's been another kidnapping," Perry informed them.
"You're kidding! Do they think it's by the same person?" Lois asked.
"They know it's by the same person because it has the same m.o. The kidnapper slipped in and out of the house unnoticed with no signs of a struggle. Nothing was moved or taken, except for the little boy."
"Do we know who the little boy is?" Lois interrupted him.
"Yes, unfortunately, we do, in more than one way. The little boy is Matthew Scott, the one Clark wrote about yesterday who was rescued by Superman at the park." Perry noticed Clark's face visibly pale at the mention of the boy.
"And, once again, in place of the boy he left a note," Perry continued, picking a piece of paper up off his desk and handing it to Clark. "My source faxed a copy of it to me."
Clark's hands shook a little as he took the note from Perry. He began reading it out loud.
"You know, you really should take better care of your son. You don't watch him closely enough. First the park and now at home. You should not rely on Superman to do your parenting for you. Superman is not here to help. He is a threat. Soon everyone will see this, and those who choose to continue supporting him, to befriend this alien, will suffer the consequences. Superman is not your friend. He has his own agenda and does what he does to benefit only himself. He wants to be worshipped and honored. He wants what is not rightfully his as an alien to this planet. Your son will soon know that too. Do not accept further help from him or I cannot guarantee your son's safety."
Clark's eyes looked a little glassy. Perry felt a little emotional himself. He knew what good friends they all were with Superman. It hurt to hear people say things like this about him. Perry looked over at Lois. She, on the other hand, looked mad.
"Who does this monster think he is?" Lois demanded of no one in particular. "Okay. Perry, Clark and I will get on this right away," Lois said tenaciously. That was the Lois Perry knew. The one that just took hold of a situation, grabbed the bull by the horns, so to speak, and charged forward, determined to solve the problem.
Clark spoke up, his voice sounding sort of small. "Wait, Lois." He grabbed her arm as she started to leave. "Chief, we need discuss a couple of things with you before we head off to talk to these parents. We have other stories that we're working on and need to proceed with," he reminded them.
Perry watched as Lois' demeanor softened and she sat back down next to Clark, taking his hand in hers.
"Did you ever hear from Admiral Whalen?" Clark asked Perry.
"Great Shades of Elvis!" Perry exclaimed. "With everything else that's happened this morning, I completely forgot! I told him you'd meet him for lunch today down at Callard's. You're supposed to meet him there at the outside veranda at noon."
Perry's next thought managed to bring a slight smile to his face. "Oh, and, Lois, he says to bring 'Battleship' with you when you come."
Lois smiled half-heartedly at him. "He didn't lose enough to me the last time?" she asked him.
Perry smiled broadly at her, and Clark spoke up again. "I guess that about wraps up our whole day, then, after we take care of another errand I had planned for this afternoon."
"What other errand was that, Clark?" Perry asked.
"I had planned to call the Metropolis women's prison and see if I could arrange a visit to see a lady there named Clarice. She was incarcerated for her criminal activities as part of the SHARP group. I was going to try to see her this afternoon. See if she knows anything about the parole, if we can get her to talk."
"Well, it sounds like you two are going to be busy today," Perry remarked, looking at his watch. "Check in with me and let me know how things are going. Oh, by the way, the television crews have already been by the Scott home this morning. I think the story ran in the morning news and will run again at noon. But, if I know the two of you, you'll have enough information by the end of the day for a new angle on the story. See you back here later, I hope with some page one material."
Lois followed Clark out of Perry's office. She opened her mouth to say something to him, but, without turning around, he started talking first.
"I'll be right back. I'm just going to run to the restroom," he said quietly. And with that he was gone. And Lois was left standing by her desk wondering if he really was going to the restroom. Or was that an excuse for him to *do* something else? She didn't have to wonder long, though. As quickly as he had left, he was back.
"Are you okay?" she asked him.
"Yeah. I'm okay," he told her. She cocked an eyebrow up at him in disbelief, and he broke down under her gaze. "No, I'm not okay. I'm really not okay," he said, sitting down on the corner of her desk and sighing heavily.
"Where did you go just then? Did you?" she asked meaningfully, making the flying gesture with her hand.
"No. I just splashed some cold water on my face. Although, that thought did cross my mind. It might be nice to get some fresh air."
"Why don't we get some fresh air together?" she suggested. Then, at his inquisitive look, she continued, "Let's get out of here and grab a coffee at the corner shop. We don't meet with Admiral Whalen until noon. We have plenty of time to take a breather, get our notes together, and form a plan before we need to head off to the Scott home."
Clark didn't argue with her. Lois stood up and took his head in her hands, kissing him tenderly on the lips. "Come on, partner, we can do this together," she said, encouragingly.
Clark's loving brown eyes thanked her for her strength and support. She grabbed her purse and had started to get up when her phone rang.
"Daily Planet, Lois Lane."
It was her doctor's office calling about her appointment tomorrow morning. Lois grimaced. In light of everything that had happened already and how busy they were going to be today, she really wanted to cancel. But, ironically enough, as she listened to the lady on the other end, they were the ones calling to cancel. Her doctor had to go out of town tomorrow. Lois repeated what the woman had said to make sure she had heard her right.
"So, my appointment for tomorrow is cancelled, but you can get me in today?" she asked. "Well, I have a pretty full day scheduled…" Lois trailed off because Clark was making hand gestures and trying to get her attention. "Can you hang on just a second? Thanks," Lois said, covering the receiver with her hand and looking up at Clark.
"Lois, you need to go. Don't put this off. If they can get you in today, then go."
"But we have so much to take care of today. The appointment would be for this afternoon when we're supposed to meet with Clarice. Are you sure?"
"Yes. I've got enough reasons to not sleep well at night right now; this would be one less reason. You need to get this checked out," Clark told her.
She wasn't looking forward to the appointment, but she had to admit she'd feel better to get it done and behind her. She took her hand away from the receiver. "Yes, I can make an afternoon appointment. One o'clock? I'll see you then. Tell her thank you for squeezing me in today."
One o'clock? That was going to make their lunch appointment with the Admiral a tight one, but she'd manage somehow. Clark was right; it would be good to get this done. Lord knew they had plenty of other things to worry about right now.
"Thanks, honey," Lois said, accepting the cup of coffee from Clark as he got into the Jeep.
They had decided to take their coffee to go and talk in the Jeep on the way to the Scott's home. They couldn't really talk as openly as they needed to in the coffee shop, anyway. Lois set her coffee down in the cupholder, crossed her arms, and looked at him expectantly. He sighed. She wanted him to *talk* about this, and what he was feeling, and she obviously wasn't going to move until he did.
"What do you want me to say? That I'm upset? Frustrated? Hurt?" he paused briefly. "Afraid? Well, then yes. I'm all of those things. I'm having trouble dealing with this particular problem. It's not something I can meet head on. This person, whoever he is, is turning the help I give to people against them."
"That's why *you* aren't going to solve this problem. *We* are going to solve this problem, together. It's what we do best," she told him gently.
She continued on in her take-charge voice, "Here's what I think. I definitely think that the leader of SHARP is playing at least some part in all of this. It's way too coincidental that all of this started happening just when he was about to be paroled."
"Yes. But the kidnappings started before he was released."
"Right. Which means he has an accomplice helping him. Obviously, it can't be Clarice, since she's still locked up, but maybe she knows who it could be. I also think that, whoever the kidnapper is, he must have some way of tracking Superman."
"Tracking Superman? I don't think so. I mean the only time anyone has ever actually tracked me was when Diana Stride tagged me and tried to get her story."
"I had forgotten about that." She paused, remembering. "How was it you and Superman were seen at that press conference together?"
"My mom had this holographic art display equipment. We used it to create a hologram of Superman. Mom and Dad ran it for me while I went as Clark."
Lois nodded her head, smiling. "Okay. But if someone isn't tracking you, then they must be following you."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because they know of each rescue, what happened at the rescue, and where the people live."
"Yeah. But they could have read about that in the paper. We don't supply the address, but it would be easy enough to get."
"Well, I would agree with you if we were only talking about the Harrell kidnapping because that fire happened several days ago. They would have had plenty of time to read the article, do their research, and make the kidnapping. But not with Matthew. Clark, yesterday's rescue piece wasn't in the paper until this morning. The kidnapping happened sometime last night. So, unless we've got the kidnapper working for us at the planet, they couldn't have gotten their information from our story. And the incident at the park happened so fast that there weren't any camera crews. It wasn't even a big enough story to make the evening news. No, I think that whoever this is was actually present for the rescue. Somehow."
Clark thought about what Lois was saying. He just didn't see how anyone would be fast enough to follow him around unless they had tagged him somehow, and that just didn't seem plausible either. But he agreed with her. It did seem like the only way they would have known about Matthew, in time for the kidnapping to take place, was if they had been present at the rescue.
If he made any further rescues… *if*? Now they had him second-guessing himself. *When* he made another rescue, he would have to keep his eyes open.
Lois had already put the Jeep in drive and was headed off to their next appointment. The interview with the Scotts. Clark wasn't looking forward to it.
Lex Luthor's bunker had a lot of different rooms and areas in it. It had been big enough to house two hundred people and had enough space to hold supplies for three years. They had more than enough space to work with. Even so, they had ended up staying pretty much in the one room that Lex had originally turned over to them to use. Now he was gone and practically no one knew about the place; they could spread out. But for now, what they were using was adequate.
These thoughts came to Aaron when he was first waking up, still in a dreamlike state. He sat up, stretching as he tried to clear his head. After he bringing Matthew in to deliver him to the Great Leader, Aaron had managed to catch a few hours of sleep in the bunker. He felt rejuvenated.
He might have slept longer if the sound of a voice hadn't brought him out of his sleep. It was the Leader speaking. Aaron could hear his voice coming from the next room.
"You fear Superman. Superman is bad. He is not human. He will hurt you. Don't go near him. Don't even listen to him. He is evil. You fear Superman. Superman is bad…" the Leader continued repeating on a loop.
While the Leader talked to the girl, Lydia, he would flash pictures of Superman, poses of him in public or flying, so she could relate the image of him with the words that he was telling her. The images weren't really necessary. As long as she *knew* who Superman was, the words took hold. Aaron and the Leader both felt, though, that the pictures might help with the longevity of the memories.
They had been prepared for their experiments before they'd even had possession of the equipment itself. The contact Lex had given them at Fort Truman had been able to leak a lot of valuable information and results to them.
They had learned that the government's research indicated the subliminals didn't have lasting effects. It would wear off the test subject, sometimes in as little as a few hours. It was only a prototype, after all. One thing was certain, though. The younger the test subject was, the better the sublimination seemed to work on them, and the longer it lasted. Which was why the Leader had eventually decided to use children.
Now they had the actual machine — the "Subliminator" was what the reports called it — and had begun doing their own tests. They also had copies of the reports that had been filed on the project. The results on the adult test subjects indicated the effects of the Subliminator were so mild that it reconfirmed their assumption that they needed to stick with children. With children the results were more than adequate. The minds of children were so impressionable and easy to mold.
With Lydia, they had tried a small kitten in their first test on her. They had asked her what her favorite animal was, and she had told them kittens. So, they had used a few phrases and pictures to persuade her to be so afraid of the harmless animal that at just the sight of one, she would faint.
It had worked perfectly. For the three days that she had been held here, she continued to faint each time she was shown a kitten. But each day the response time before fainting was longer. It was clear that, even with children, the effects faded. However, they lasted substantially longer than the effects on the adults. Who knew? With the children, maybe a small bit of the programming would remain permanently. All the better. It certainly wouldn't hurt their cause to have a few children grow up feeling animosity towards Superman.
The thought made Aaron smile. Yes, the more people who grew to distrust Superman, the better; even if some of them were children. After all, it wasn't like they were harming the children. They had tried to make sure the experience wasn't too traumatic for the kids. That was not their goal, after all. They simply needed time to program the children, and then they could be released back to their parents.
They had needed to keep Lydia a little longer since they were doing more extensive testing with her. Her results had shown them what worked the best. The other children wouldn't have to stay so long.
There was only one little kink in their plans so far. From their own test data and the government's reports, one thing was clear; the test subjects had to speak the same language as the person giving them the subliminal messages. They had to hear and comprehend what was being said to them. First of all, you had to have their name so you could address them specifically. But then, they also had to understand what you were telling them to do.
This presented a problem for them because of one test subject in particular, a baby. According to the data in the reports, children under the age of about two didn't seem to respond as well to sublimination. Was it because they had a more limited vocabulary? Or because their memory didn't retain the information as well? That was unknown at this point. All he knew was that the results were very limited on babies.
However, there was one baby they were going to use the sublimination on, regardless of how limited the results were. They were going to try anyway; the Leader had been adamant about that. In fact, later this very evening, while the Leader worked on their second subject, Matthew, he would be making the attempt.
But he was getting ahead of himself. First, he needed to attend to the other items on today's agenda. He was going to be busy. He had a few errands to do during the day, and then, later in the evening, he would be delivering Lydia back to her parents. Then they would get to see some real results. The Leader was pretty certain that Mr. Superhero wouldn't be able to stay away for long. He would want to check on her, and Aaron had to make sure he was there to document what happened. It was risky, but important.
Aaron listened; he didn't hear any more words coming from the room. Maybe it was time for a test run. How would Lydia react when she saw Superman? Aaron looked skeptically at the Superman outfit he had rented from a costume shop. He didn't have what it took to fill the thing out, but that didn't really matter. All that mattered was that the girl thought she was seeing Superman. The room would be dimly lit, so she wouldn't be able to see him too well. It should suit their purposes fine. They had to get this testing finished up and get her back to her parents, but they also had to know it was going to work. It was time for Superman to see himself as someone's nightmare rather than a hero.
Lois led a reluctant Clark up to the front door of the Scott home. She knew this was going to be hard for him. She had told him he could wait in the Jeep and she'd do the interview by herself, but he'd said it was something he needed to do. She reached over and rang the doorbell.
A young woman, close to Lois' own age, opened the door. She wiped tears from her face and smoothed the loose hairs of her auburn-colored ponytail out of her face.
"Mrs. Scott? Lois Lane and Clark Kent with the Daily Planet. I talked to you earlier on the phone," Lois said, introducing them.
Without saying anything, she waved them to come inside. Lois walked inside the house, Clark following behind her, and they sat down on the couch that Mrs. Scott had pointed to.
"I'm sorry my husband isn't here right now. He's out taking care of a few things and talking with our lawyer, just in case we get a ransom note."
Lois wasn't quite sure what to say. So she started with condolences. "Mrs. Scott, first, let me say how sorry I am about Matthew. I'm the one who wrote the story of his rescue by Superman yesterday. The news of his abduction last night came as a shock to us," Lois said, gesturing at herself and Clark.
Mrs. Scott was shaking her head. "Thank you. It came as a shock to us, too, at first. I mean we had seen the news yesterday about the other child who had been kidnapped, and how Superman had been blamed for the action, but didn't really give it a second thought until it happened to us."
"Mrs. Scott," Lois began.
"Please, call me Trisha."
"Okay, Trisha. Did you notice anyone who might have seemed out of place at the park yesterday?"
"You mean other than Superman?" she asked. "No, I'm sorry, I didn't."
"What about on your way back home? Did you happen to notice anyone who seemed to be following you, or anyone in your neighborhood that you didn't recognize?"
"No, I'm afraid after all the excitement at the park we were just happy to get back home. I wasn't paying much attention to anything but my son."
"So, last night, when…" Lois paused, finding her own questions difficult to ask. "When Matthew was taken, you didn't hear anything, or see anything?"
"No, and that was the really scary part. We were both still up when it happened. After we put Matthew to bed, Dale and I stayed up for a while, talking. We heard the floorboards squeak and knew that Matthew had gotten out of bed. He always gets up at least one more time after going to bed to get a drink or go to the bathroom. So we didn't think very much about it until we heard him come back to his room and then immediately go back out into the hallway. Dale got up to check on him and get him back to bed. Matthew told him he just had to do one more thing. When we didn't hear him come back to bed, Dale went looking for him and couldn't find him. We both got up and searched the house from top to bottom, but all we found was the note on his bed from the kidnapper." Trisha broke off, unable to continue. Lois got up to walk over to her, but Trisha held up her hand.
"No, I'm fine," she told Lois, regaining her composure. "The reason I agreed to see you today is that I want to ask a favor of you."
"A favor?" Lois asked, returning to the couch.
"Yes. I'm sure that you and Mr. Kent will write up this story in your continuing coverage of the kidnappings, and I want you to include something in your article, please. I want to you to tell Superman that we can't accept any more help from him with this. He saved our son's life and, for that, we're grateful, but I… *we* don't want his help this time. Tell him for our sake, for Matthew's sake, to please stay away. The note said not to accept any further help from Superman or our son's safety could not be guaranteed. We still don't know what the kidnapper wants. We have hope that somehow we'll get our son back unharmed, but that may not be the case if Superman gets involved."
Lois started to say something, but it was at this point that Clark finally became animated.
"Mrs. Scott, we can sympathize with how you are feeling," he told her. "We have a daughter of our own. But your son's safety can't be guaranteed anyway, even if Superman doesn't get involved. You aren't dealing with a rational individual, and this person isn't to be trusted. Superman can only help matters by assisting the police in their investigation."
"No!" Trisha shouted emphatically. A moment later, she continued in a softer tone. "No, please, we don't want his help. If you see him, please tell him that. I know he only wants to help, but we just can't take that risk. Please, tell him, I'm begging him, just let us handle this ourselves."
On that final plea, Lois stood up and picked up her purse and bag, signaling that the interview was over and they would be on their way.
"Trisha, we will respect your wishes," Lois assured her. "I don't know if what you're asking will actually make it into our article, but if we *see* Superman, we will pass your request on to him."
Lois made her way towards the front door. She didn't think putting that kind of a plea in their article would be a good idea. That would only push people into a mass panic, making them afraid to accept help from Superman. But she didn't need to explain that to Trisha.
Clark got up and quietly followed her to the door. When she heard him stop, though, she turned around in time to see him put his hand on Trisha's shoulder.
"Thank you for your time, Mrs. Scott. We are deeply sorry about what has happened to Matthew, and I know Superman is also. If we find out anything else, we'll let you know," Clark told her, earnestly.
Watching him hurting, Lois felt tears come to her eyes. It wasn't fair, what this fanatic was doing to Clark. Clark was such a special person. He did everything in his power to help wherever he could. That was his gift to the world, and now that gift was being refused, rejected, and returned unwanted. That thought broke her heart. She knew right then that she would find this person and stop him if it took the rest of her life to do it.
Aaron peered over the roof, watching as the woman buckled her son into his seat belt and walked around to the other side of the car to get in. The boy was almost too old to be an effective subject; he'd been held him back from starting kindergarten, but, in this case, it worked to Aaron's advantage. He would be old enough and big enough to follow Aaron's commands.
It was time. He pulled out a cell phone and made a call to the Tiny Tykes Daycare Center. A girl with a cheerful, high-pitched voice answered the phone.
"Tiny Tykes. May I help you?"
"Yes, I have an urgent message for a Melinda Nelson," he said, trying to sound impatient and important. "Is she there?"
"Well, actually, she's just leaving. Let me see if I can get her for you."
Aaron watched from up above as the young woman came running out the door, waving her hands at Melinda. The mother, who had already started her car, turned her car off, got out, and walked up to the younger woman. They both headed back towards the building. It was now or never. He trained the machine on the boy and spoke into the microphone.
"Jeffrey Nelson, can you hear me? If you can hear me, I want you to unbuckle your seat belt and climb into your mommy's seat, okay?" He watched as Jeffrey obeyed his command.
"Jeffrey, are the keys still in the ignition? If they are, wave your hand at the window." Aaron watched and saw the small hand waving.
"Okay, Jeffrey, I want you to find the button on the door that your mommy locks the doors with. Push that button down to lock the doors. Now, try opening the door to make sure it's locked." Aaron watched. No doors opened, so he continued, "Jeffrey grab the key in the ignition and turn it. Just put your hand on it and twist it forward. Good boy. We're going to drive the car. It'll be so much fun. I need you to scoot forward on the seat; now, reach real hard with your foot down to the brake pedal and push it in. There are two pedals on the floor. It is the bigger one closest to the door. Keep your foot on it. Now, grab the stick your mommy drives with, it's the one by the steering wheel. Okay, pull it back and then down until you can't move it any further."
If Jeffrey followed Aaron's instructions, that would put the car into first gear, but it didn't matter. He only needed Jeffrey to go fast enough to frighten his mother.
"Okay, Jeffrey, now take your foot off the brake pedal and put your foot slowly down on the other pedal," Aaron told him, his hands getting sweaty. It worked. The boy had followed his instructions perfectly. The car was creeping forwards.
"I need you to listen closely to what I say, Jeffrey. Don't push the pedal too hard. Just keep your foot where it's at on the pedal. I'm going to tell you when to turn the steering wheel."
At this point, the mother had come back out the door and could see what was happening. He had to act quickly.
"Jeffrey, quickly push down hard on the pedal," Aaron commanded. The boy did so and the car lurched forward. "Okay, now pull your foot back just a little bit. There… keep your foot right there. Turn the wheel just a little bit left, towards the door next to you… there, hold it still. Good, you are doing so well."
Aaron looked around the large, vacant parking lot from his vantage point on the roof. It was an interesting setup. It actually encircled the adjoined buildings it provided access to. The day care shared the lot with a night club (strangely enough), an insurance office, and a lawyer's office, to name a few. There were a few cars parked here and there, but with Aaron guiding him, Jeffrey wouldn't hit any of them. He wouldn't be in any actual danger, but his mother wouldn't know that. Aaron would have him drive around the circlular lot as many times as it took to give a certain superhero time to arrive.
The mother was now frantic, screaming for help. She ran after the car, managing to catch it and get alongside it. Aaron watched as she reached for the door handle. A valiant effort on her part, but it didn't matter. The doors were locked. Once *she* realized that, it would probably just make her scream even harder. He smiled to himself. Superman would be here in no time.
Clark pulled a chair out for Lois, and she sat down. Admiral Whalen was there already, waiting for them. Clark took his seat as Lois began questioning the retired Admiral.
"Were you able to get anyone to talk about what was stolen at the base?" Lois asked, her eyes bright and hopeful.
"Now wait just a minute here. We haven't even broken out the games yet," the Admiral replied to her inquiry. It seemed that he wasn't quite ready to start talking yet. Lois was going to have to earn her interview. Clark couldn't help but smile. The smile earned him a playful smack on the arm from Lois.
"Admiral," Lois began.
"Relax. I'm just messin' with you. I mean, I'd love it if you had time to play a couple with me, but I talked to Perry earlier today and he told me how busy the two of you were going to be. So let's order some food, and we can cut to the chase, so to speak," the Admiral replied, picking up a menu and glancing through it.
Clark decided to do the same thing. He picked up a menu, letting it fall open in his hand. The page it opened to was the breakfast menu. A stray memory sparked into his mind. It was of him going to Lois' apartment all those years ago to tell her that he was Superman. She had asked him where they were going to go for breakfast that morning. He'd told her they should try Callard's. Jacen Mazik had prevented them from making that breakfast.
But, in reality, if things had gone according to plan, he wasn't really sure they would have made it to breakfast anyway. He had planned to tell her about his secret in the privacy of her apartment. What would have happened after that was anyone's guess, and he would never know how it might have turned out.
He looked around at the restaurant. No, they hadn't made it for breakfast that morning, but they'd eaten here several times since then. The food was really good, and the atmosphere was nice, especially out on the patio.
Clark was looking around at the outside decor when his super hearing zeroed in on a call for help. 'Help! Someone help… the car… my little boy!'
He was amazed to discover that he felt hesitant to run off and help. Would this person suffer the same fate as the others had if Superman decided to help? That thought took just a fraction of a second to happen, and then he heard the call again. He shook his head resignedly. He couldn't just ignore it; he couldn't. He grabbed Lois' hand under the table, and, when she looked at him, he pointed to his ear and gave her a look. She got the message.
"Oh, Clark!? Oh, my gosh. I left my… favorite pen out in the car. I just can't concentrate on this interview if I don't have that pen. Could you get it for me, please?"
"Uh… sure, Lois," Clark stammered out, trying his best not to smile in spite of himself. That had to have been one of the funnier excuses he'd heard her come up with lately. But he was glad to have the help. He dashed off at the fastest human speed possible, looking for a place to make a quick change as he went.
"Help! Someone stop that car… my son is inside!" Clark homed in on the frantic mother's voice and spotted the car driving through a parking lot, dodging cars, with a woman running behind it. Clark did a double take. Was the car being driven by a child?
Superman flew behind the car and gently pulled on the bumper until the car came to a stop. He let go of the bumper, cautiously, but the car didn't begin moving again. The mother, who had been chasing alongside the car, rushed to the driver side door and began banging on it. Clark was about to pry the door open for her with a little force when he heard the door locks click. The mother threw the door open, reaching in and pulling out her son.
"Oh, Jeffrey! What did you think you were doing?" she asked him, anxiously. "Oh, my god. You could have crashed and been hurt, or worse!" she continued as she repeatedly planted kisses on both of his cheeks. Superman walked around the car and up to the reunited mother and son.
"What happened, Jeffrey?" he asked the boy.
The mother seemed to notice, for the first time, that Superman was even standing there. She first smiled warmly at him, but then her demeanor changed. It was a subtle change, but it seemed to Clark that her smile started to *drop* and the hand she had extended had also dropped. She looked around nervously.
"Um, thank you, Superman," she managed finally. Her voice sounded very faint, the words weak. She had obviously watched the news today about the other kidnapping. She opened her mouth again, as if to say more, but her son interrupted her.
"I don't know," Jeffrey said simply. "A man told me to drive the car. He told me what to do and when to turn the wheel. He told me it would be fun," he explained, sounding a little confused.
"What man?" the mother asked, turning her attention back to her son. "Did someone get in the car with you?"
Clark was almost afraid to hear his answer.
"No. I just *heard* him. I heard a voice. It told me what to do," the boy replied.
Clark grimaced. Just like Matthew.
"Jeffrey," Superman began, but the mother broke in before he could continue.
"Superman, I don't want you to take this the wrong way. I am grateful that you saved my son but, please, just go. I can handle it from here. I don't need any more help. Please, just let me take care of this myself," she said as she began walking back towards the daycare center.
It seemed to Clark that she was literally trying to distance herself. He had struck out again in the helping out department. This was beginning to get old. He didn't know what to say and didn't think there was anything he *could* say that would change her mind. So, he nodded his head at her sadly and took to flight. He needed to do some looking around.
Clark looked at his watch again as he waited to be admitted to see Clarice. He was ready to get this day over with. The interview with Mrs. Scott that morning had been very difficult. It had broken Clark's heart and almost his spirit to hear her say that she and her husband understood Superman wanted to help, but they didn't want it. He did want to help. Isn't that what he had always said? That he felt he had these powers for a reason, and the one reason he could think of was to help? But now someone was using that against him, making people afraid to accept his help or to ask him for help.
Clark thought back to his rescue earlier that day. The mother had seemed almost afraid to thank him for his help.
That had been another bizarre rescue. The little boy, Jeffrey, had said he had been *told* to drive the car, just like Matthew had been *told* he could fly. But after Lois had told him about her conversation with Whalen, everything had started to make sense.
After leaving the daycare center, scanning the area for anything suspicious, and coming up empty-handed, he had gone back to meet up with Lois. Rather than try to explain his extended absence to the General, he had called Lois on her cell phone and told her he'd meet her at the Jeep. Clark was again reminded of how nice it was for someone else to be in on his secret. Thanks to Lois' quick thinking, the Admiral had just thought Clark had been called away on a story.
Lois had met up with Clark at the Jeep, and, on their way to her doctor's office, they had discussed her lunch interview. Apparently, it had been quite a feat for the Admiral to find out anything useful for them on the break-in at Fort Truman, but after calling in a few favors, he had finally found out what had been taken.
It seemed that, after the incident with 'John Doe' a couple of years back and the subliminal techniques he had used on the country, the government had gotten involved in experimenting with subliminal suggestion. They had actually created a prototype piece of equipment that could plant subliminal messages into a person on a one-on-one basis. Nothing as powerful as the "Subliminator" Tempus had used, since this one basically worked on one person at a time, but definitely a step in that direction. Its signal didn't reach very far either. The subject had to be within fifty feet of the device, and to reach the target, you had to know his name.
Lois had decided someone must be staging these accidents, and he had agreed with her. Someone had told Matthew to climb the fort and that he could fly. And someone had told Jeffrey to start the car and drive it. The kids both said they had heard a voice in their heads tell them to do it. It had to be that someone was choosing these kids and then planting these subliminal thoughts in their head.
At first, he had wondered why? But then he had realized it was possible that the person doing this *was* the kidnapper. He could be creating the accident, watching Superman clean up his handiwork, and then be the one kidnapping the kid later, leaving the note. It made sense, but, if so, who was the kidnapper?
Lois had called Inspector Henderson to report their findings to him, and to see if he could call the Tiny Tykes daycare center to get the phone number for Jeffrey's mother. Someone needed to warn her that Jeffrey might be in danger. Henderson had said he would try to get in contact with the mother.
"Mr. Kent?" a voice cut through his thoughts. He looked up and saw an attractive young woman in uniform standing in the doorway, holding the door open. "Mr. Kent, if you'll follow me, I'll take you to the visiting room now."
Clark followed the officer into the room and took a seat. Another lady officer gruffly pushed an irritated-looking Clarice into the room.
"You've got ten minutes," the second officer sternly informed him, a frown plastered on her face.
"Thank you," he told her.
"What do you want?" Clarice spat at him.
"I want to talk to you about the leader of SHARP."
"I don't have anything to say to you. It's thanks to your investigative reporting that I'm here in the first place. You're a friend of Superman, and so you're no friend of mine. I'm willing to admit I may have gone too far in my crusade against Superman, but my feelings haven't changed. The Constitution gives us both the right to free speech. You can report what you want and I can protest Superman's existence."
The last words stung Clark a little, but they didn't surprise him. He had already known how she felt.
"Clarice, there are children involved this time," he said, trying to gauge her reaction.
He and Lois still hadn't been able to make a real connection between SHARP and the kidnappings, but Lois said her instincts were screaming that they were involved.
"I'm willing to put aside our differences," he explained, "to see if we can help them. Is SHARP involved in kidnapping these kids?"
"Hah. I'd be worried about my own kid if I were you," she said, caustically.
Clark was instantly angry. He rose out of his chair and loomed over her menacingly.
"What do you mean?" he asked her sharply. This change in behavior caught Clarice by surprise and cowed her slightly.
"Look, *I'm* not going to hurt her, if that's what you're thinking. I don't even know for sure what they've got planned. Listen, I love kids as much as the next person, and I don't agree with what the Leader is doing. You have to believe me when I say that I'm not involved. I cut my ties with him after he used me and let me take the fall with him for SHARP's criminal activities," she explained.
Clark looked at her doubtfully, and she continued. "We've kept in touch through a guy that works for him, Aaron, oh what's his last name…? Henderson? But Aaron didn't have much use for me after I told him I didn't want to be any part of kidnapping kids. Which is why the *Great Leader*," she said the title sarcastically, "is out, and I'm still in here. That's all I know and all I would tell you anyway, so don't ask for more."
Clark felt a wash of feelings come over him: relief, anger, fear. So SHARP was involved in the kidnappings, like Lois had suspected. But what was their plan? What were they going to do with the kids, and, more importantly, were they going to try and kidnap Laura?
Lois sat impatiently in one of the chairs at the doctor's office. Her doctor had been called away on an emergency C-section before Lois had arrived. Dr. McGrath was due back any moment, but Lois couldn't help feeling antsy. She had been waiting for forty-five minutes already, and she was ready to get this over with. They had called her back briefly to do the preliminary stuff: blood pressure, weight, temperature, etc. At least that part was taken care of.
She picked up one of the magazines for the tenth time and tried skimming through it. She set it back down almost immediately and looked at her watch again.
"Ms. Lane," a voice behind her said. Lois turned around to look at the woman. She was a young, pretty blonde. Her nametag said Lizbeth.
"Yes?" Lois asked.
"Dr. McGrath is on her way back up from the delivery room and will be with you shortly. Please follow me back to the examination room," Lizbeth instructed her.
They walked back to a room, and the assistant led her inside and handed her a gown. "I'm going to update your chart for Dr. McGrath. Can I ask what the purpose of your visit is today?"
"I basically wanted to get a check-up. My husband and I are thinking about having another baby," Lois replied.
"I see. Have you been having any specific problems or concerns with regards to trying to conceive?" the assistant questioned her.
"Okay, any other concerns I should mention to the doctor?" Lizbeth asked, probing further.
Lois paused, trying to figure out why she felt hesitant to talk to this woman. Lizbeth said she was just updating the chart, but something made Lois uncomfortable about all the detailed questions she was asking. Wasn't this the doctor's job? Lois shook off the feeling. She was being silly.
"Yes, actually, I found a small lump in my left breast that I wanted the doctor to look at."
"Oh, I see. I'll make a note for her about that. Okay, please undress completely and put the gown on. There is also a sheet on the examination bed that you can lay across your lap. The doctor will be in shortly."
Lois waited until Lizbeth had left the room, then got undressed. She donned the unattractive, drafty gown, wishing that she had made one more trip to the restroom. Oh well, it could wait. She climbed up on the examination bed and waited. She didn't have to wait more than a few minutes before there was a soft knock at the door.
"Are we all ready in there?"
"Ready, Dr. McGrath," Lois confirmed.
"Hi, Lois," Dr. McGrath said as she walked in the room, looking at Lois' chart. She frowned slightly. "Your chart says you found a lump?"
"Yes. Actually Clark found it. I had been having some pains in my left breast and, when we examined it, we found a lump. It's probably nothing, but Clark felt I should have it checked out. I had already made an appointment with you because, well, we are thinking about having another baby, and I just felt it would be good to have a check-up first."
"Yes, that's a good idea, and Clark is right, anytime you find a lump like that you need to get it checked out. They usually turn out to be nothing, but better safe than sorry. Why don't you lie back on the bed for me, and I'll start by examining the lump you found." Dr. McGrath waited for Lois to comply with the instruction, then began the examination. "So, you're thinking about having another baby? How old is Laura now? Fourteen months?"
"Yes. Almost fifteen months. We were just thinking that we'd like Laura to have a sibling close to her age."
"Well, I'll take a look at you and make sure everything is a go for pregnancy. But first, I need to talk to you about this lump," the doctor said, pulling Lois' robe closed and making some notes on her chart.
"It's okay, isn't it? Nothing to worry about?" Lois asked, hopeful.
"That would be my preliminary reaction, yes. But because of your age, and because you're thinking about having another child soon, I think it would be best if we have a biopsy done on this lump, just to be sure."
"Don't worry," the doctor continued, off of Lois' concerned look. "The biopsy won't be too terribly invasive — no cutting. The area will be numbed first, and then some fluid will be extracted through a syringe.
"Oh, okay," Lois said, a little uneasy. "If something comes back *unusual*, how would that affect us having another baby?" she continued.
The doctor paused slightly, a concerned look in her eyes. "Lois, I know you like me to be straight with you. So that's what I'm going to do. If you have been trying to get pregnant, I think you should hold off for right now. I really don't think this will turn out to be anything, but we'll do a biopsy and send the test to the lab. Normally, it takes about three or four days to get a call with the results, but, if they aren't backed up right now, we could get the results back in as little as twenty-four hours. No promises, but I'll see what I can do. I'm going to be out of town tomorrow, but I can have our office assistant, Lizbeth, check with the lab tomorrow and call you with the results, if they're ready. I normally don't do this, but I can see how anxious you are about planning another baby. Please, use protection for now until we find out the results for sure."
"I will, Dr. McGrath," Lois promised. She could tell Dr. McGrath had more she wanted to say, but the doctor seemed hesitant. "If there's more, I might as well hear it."
"Again, I'm merely telling you this as a precaution. But you understand that *if* the tests come back positive for cancer," the doctor paused briefly, "there is a possibility that we may have to do radiation, chemotherapy, or even surgery. If we do any of those, it will be a while before you can try to get pregnant. That's why it's so important that you use protection for now. If you were to get pregnant, we would have to suspend treatment so as not to harm the baby. There are other treatment options available, but pregnancy would severely limit your options."
"I understand, and we'll be careful," she assured the doctor. But she didn't feel the strength she heard in her voice. She wanted Clark. She almost wished she'd told him to come when he'd offered earlier.
Lois, you're over-reacting, she told herself. It would have only panicked Clark more if he had been here, and he didn't need that right now. She would find a way to talk to him about it later tonight.
"Okay, let's proceed with the rest of the examination, and then we'll send you down to the lab for the biopsy," the doctor told her, adjusting the sheet on Lois' lap.
Lois lay back on the bed again. Everything will be fine, she told herself, willing it to be true.
Since Aaron had a few hours to kill before his next assignment, he'd decided to embark on that little errand he'd wanted to do since yesterday. He felt certain that Lex had either had Kryptonite in his possession before he'd died or had information on how to obtain some.
He boarded the private elevator and looked at the buttons for the only other two floors the elevator could reach. There was a button marked 'penthouse' and a button marked 'laboratory.'
Lex had been very insistent that Aaron, or any other member of the group, was never to stop at the laboratory for any reason. He had his own surveillance on the bunker and elevator, and if they had ever breached the agreement, he would have banned them from ever setting foot inside the bunker again. They had honored that agreement, never invading his private space. In fact, it had been a rare occasion that they had even made use of the elevator to visit the penthouse. Usually, they only did that if Lex called them and asked them to meet with him.
But things were different now. Lex was dead. No one knew they were down here, and he was betting no one knew about the laboratory either. He had decided that he wanted to take a look around.
Aaron pressed the button labeled 'laboratory' and waited impatiently to get to his destination. It took a while. The elevator was fast, but it was a long way from the bunker to nearly the top of the LexCorp building.
Finally, the elevator slowed to a stop, and the door opened. Aaron peered out cautiously at the room in front of him. It wasn't a large room, but they had made use of every inch available.
There were tables and surfaced that held a wide variety of items: microscopes, beakers, knives, dissection tools, and a lot of equipment that Aaron didn't even recognize. There was a computer and monitor on a table in the center of the room. Aaron was willing to bet that it was not networked to the LexCorp system. There were several wires going out of it to other pieces of machinery and monitoring equipment in the room, but he didn't see any network cables running to it. That might come in handy. If it wasn't connected to a network, no one would know if he turned it on and took a peek.
There were no windows in this room. Aaron noticed, however, that there were two wall-high pieces of metal where the windows could have been. They came together, forming a seam.
He walked up to the metal and examined it more closely. He couldn't be sure without a way to test it, but it appeared that they were doors. They looked like they should be able to slide apart. But to what? A fifteen-hundred-foot fall? Aaron pondered that thought. There must be something on the other side of this wall. He needed to find a way to open these doors, but first, he wanted to continue with his exploration of the room.
On one wall, there was a small door at eye level with a knob in the middle of it. He looked more closely. It was some kind of wall safe. Hmm, he was going to need to find a way into that safe, as well.
A reflection of light in the corner of the room caught his eye. It appeared to be a glass cage. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was not glass. Of course it wasn't. If this really was a cage, glass would be far too easy to break out of. Instead, the walls were made out of amazingly clear, incredibly thick plastic. He figured that the thickness had something to do with wanting to keep the room soundproof.
Peering into the room, he could see it had its own ventilation system. There was a bed, toilet, and a shower. What could this have possibly been used for, he wondered? A prison? But for whom?
Well, first things first. Aaron was willing to bet that, before he could figure anything else out, he was going to need access to the information on that computer.
He proceeded back to the middle of the room, where the computer was set up, and sat down at the station, booting it up. The computer hummed to life as did the large monitor in front of him.
Aaron had to admit that he was slightly surprised that the computer hadn't asked for a login or password. But, then again, no one was supposed to know about this room.
Once the computer finished booting up, he looked around at some of the icons on the screen. There was a file folder labeled 'personal projects' that he thought might be promising. He clicked on it. Ah, herein lay the security measures. The *folder* was password protected. So, Lex had allowed general access to the computer, maybe for keeping logs on whatever experiments they were doing, but he had password protected this particular file. Yes, definitely promising. Now, how was he going to figure this out?
He had a few contacts who could probably break into any file or system he wanted, but, at this point, he really hated to let anyone else in on the existence of this room. He hadn't even told the Leader about it yet. Since the Leader had only recently been paroled and had been spending all his time with his "subjects", he hadn't even seen the elevator yet, much less had a chance to wonder what the laboratory was.
No, best to try and figure this one out himself. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, he sat thinking and trying some of the password combinations he came up with. None of them worked. At least the file didn't have a lock-out on it; he could keep trying various password combinations until he figured it out.
"Okay, Lex," he said out loud to himself. "What password would I have used if I were you?"
He sat there thinking a little longer, and suddenly a smile spread across his face. What was probably the most precious thing Lex could have owned? Lois Lane? Aaron sneered at the thought. Maybe, but he was betting on something else. He put his hands back on the keyboard and began typing: K-R-Y-P-T-O-N-I-T-E. He hit enter and, to his relief and excitement, the file opened. He'd done it!
He spent the next half-hour pouring over some of the more interesting documents and notes that he found in both the 'personal projects' file and the computer's database before looking down at his watch. He grimaced. He didn't have any more time. The Leader would be looking for him any minute now to proceed with the delivery of Lydia.
He reluctantly shut the computer system down and glanced around the room again. I'll be back soon to examine you more thoroughly, he thought. He found himself excited, bordering on ecstatic, at what he had found.
Aaron was on his way back to the private elevator when his cell phone began ringing. Who could that be? Perhaps the Leader looking for him? He looked at the caller ID and recognized the number. It was the women's clinic. Lizbeth?
"Hello?" he answered the phone.
"Hello, Aaron, this is Lizbeth. I have some news that I think you and the Leader will find very interesting."
Jimmy checked his desk one last time before turning his lamp off. He had about a half-hour left before Mazik's jewelry store would be closing up for the night. They had called him earlier in the day to let him know that Penny's ring was done. He still hadn't come up with a plan of exactly when to give it to her, so he didn't actually need to pick it up yet. He was ready to see it, though, and he was too excited to wait until tomorrow.
He was on his way up the ramp to the elevator when his phone rang. Aw, man, he thought, not now. He tried to ignore it, but he couldn't. He ran back down to his desk and grabbed the phone.
"Daily Planet. This is Jimmy," he said.
"Jimmy? Jimmy Olsen? It's Inspector Henderson, down at the precinct."
"Oh, hi. Do you have some information on the kidnappings that Lois and CK have been working on?"
"Yes. A breakthrough, actually. Is one of them there?"
"Uh, no, I'm sorry. Lois had an appointment this afternoon, and CK had an interview. Lois came back briefly to get their daughter, but they've both gone home to work on the case. You could try calling them there."
"No, that's okay. I don't want to bother them at home. Can you take a message for me, Jimmy?"
"Yeah, sure. What is it?" Jimmy asked, glancing at his watch again.
"We've compared the fingerprints found on the kidnapper's notes from both the Harrell and the Scott home, and we've made an interesting discovery. All sets of fingerprints have been accounted for. Several of the sets matched up to the parents. But, get this, on each note a set of fingerprints matched up with the kids."
"The kids? As in the kids who were kidnapped? Why would their prints be on the note?"
"I don't know. Lydia's prints were on file from a safety seminar at the Metropolis mall last year where Mrs. Harrell had her fingerprints taken. We didn't have Matthew's prints on file, but we were able to lift several sets of prints from various items that belonged to him and match them to the note. So, all prints were accounted for. No kidnapper's prints. Would you let Lane and Kent know that for me? Oh, and I wasn't able to get a hold of Jeffrey's mother, either."
"Jeffrey's mother?" Jimmy asked.
"Yeah, she's the mother from the little car incident today. They wanted me to warn her. They think Jeffrey might be the next child to be kidnapped. Unfortunately, she only gave the daycare center her work phone number and work address, and she's not listed in the phone book. Who knows if she even has a home phone? She's a single mother, so there's no one else we can contact. I just wanted them to know I tried."
"Got it," Jimmy told him. "Anything else?"
"Nope, but I'll keep in touch."
"Thanks, Inspector." Jimmy hung up the phone and stuffed the message in his pocket. Should he bother Lois and Clark at home with this? Or wait until the morning? It didn't seem like anything vital. After all, if Henderson couldn't locate the mother, they wouldn't be able to either. Jimmy glanced down at his watch. Yikes, he had to get going. This could at least wait until after he'd been to Mazik's.
Aaron squatted down into his hiding place, adjusting the settings on the Submliminator. Lydia should now be back at her parents' house, safe and sound. Lydia had been given her instructions. She had known she would be dropped at the corner of her street. She had been told to go straight to her apartment building and knock on the door. When her parents asked where she had been, she would reply that she couldn't remember and didn't know.
It would be like she had awakened from a dream. The details would be sketchy to her. There would be no unpleasant memories. All that remained behind would be a healthy fear and hatred for Superman.
He was sure the parents would contact the police right away to alert them of their daughter's safe return. But it would be late enough that the parents wouldn't contact the media, and even if they did, the story wouldn't make it on the news until the next morning. That would give him time to rest and get set up outside their apartment building to watch for Superman the next day.
Aaron was now waiting outside Melinda and Jeffrey's apartment. She was a very concerned mother, even going as far as to sleep with Jeffrey tonight. He was going to have to wait for the mother to fall asleep before he made his move. But how long to wait? That was the question. Finally, after waiting for almost an hour and not really wanting to wait much longer, an idea came to him.
"Jeffrey Nelson. Wake up but don't move. I want you to lie still in bed until you are sure your mother is asleep. Once you're sure that your mother is asleep, I want you to come to the front door of your apartment. I'll meet you there to give you something," Aaron instructed the boy.
This apartment building did not have a locked front entrance, which made it possible for him to meet the boy at his door instead of the boy having to come all the way outside the building to Aaron. Aaron crept quietly up the stairs of the apartment building and to the door of their apartment. Within a few minutes, he was rewarded by the door opening. Jeffrey stood there in front of him, a blank waiting expression on his face.
"Good boy, Jeffrey. Here, I want you to take this note in to your bedroom and leave it next to your mommy on the bed. Be careful not to wake her up," Aaron said, handing the note to him. "Then, I want you to come back here to the front door. We're going to go for a ride." Aaron watched and waited as Jeffrey left the room and returned just moments later.
"Okay, Jeffrey, turn the lock on the door and shut the door behind you." He did what he was told, and then Aaron grabbed him by the hand and led him downstairs and out to his car.
This method of kidnapping was so much easier and less traumatic than he imagined a regular kidnapping to be. The children wouldn't even really remember what had happened. It would just seem like a bad dream, except for their unexplained fear of Superman.
Aaron whistled lightly to himself as he put Jeffrey in the car, fastening his seatbelt. Tonight was going to be a good night. One more quick errand at the Kent home, and then he could get back to the laboratory. His thoughts had been on it all evening. He couldn't wait to get back. Sleep was beckoning to him, but he was sure he could spare at least an hour or two.
"Clark, relax. There's nothing more you can do tonight," Lois said soothingly. She hated to see him like this.
Jimmy had called them to let them know Henderson couldn't get a hold of Jeffrey's mother. They had no way to get in touch with her to warn her, and they didn't know where she lived.
"I have to do something, don't I? You know as well as I do that her child will end up being kidnapped tonight. I would bet my super powers on it," Clark said, pacing back and forth in their bedroom. "There's something wrong with the kids' fingerprints being on those notes. They wouldn't be on them unless the kids had touched them. Why would they have touched them? Why don't the parents hear the intruder? Why doesn't the child make any noise? We're missing a piece of the puzzle," he said, sounding frustrated.
He stopped pacing and turned to look at her. "I'm going to go out and patrol the city for awhile. Maybe I'll see something."
"Clark," Lois tried again, "it's not going to do you any good to fly around for hours looking for a needle in a haystack."
"I *have* to," Clark replied, his voice laced with tension.
Lois understood, but *she* needed him, too. She hadn't found her voice yet to tell him about the doctor's appointment, and he hadn't asked about it because he'd been too preoccupied with the kidnappings. She felt guilty because she knew that if she told him now, he would decide to stay home with her, but he needed to know.
"Okay, but, before you go, I need to talk to you about my doctor's appointment."
That stopped Clark dead in his tracks. He looked at her and blinked as if coming out of a trance.
"I'm sorry, honey. I completely forgot after everything that's happened today. How did it go?" he asked her.
Okay, thought Lois, how do I say this?
"Well, the examination went well. I'll get the results from my pap in a couple of weeks…" she paused, trying to find the right words. Clark picked up on her hesitation.
"What…? It's not good, is it?" he asked her. "Tell me," he said gently, coming back over to the bed and sitting down beside her. He stroked her shoulders lightly with one hand and then began rubbing her back. He placed his other hand on top of hers and waited for her to go on.
Lois looked up into his dark concerned eyes, his handsome loving face, and lost the wall she had tried to build in her heart.
"My doctor is concerned about the lump. I had to have a biopsy done on my breast. She said we need to be sure it is benign before we try to have another baby. If the lab results come back…," Lois broke off. She felt like all the breath had left her lungs.
Clark put his arms around her, holding her tightly. She felt a few tears trickle down her cheeks. This was ridiculous. Hadn't the doctor told her she didn't expect any problems? Her brain tried to make her heart understand that, but, for some reason, sitting there in Clark's loving arms, she just needed to cry.
She sat there for a few minutes with her face pressed against his shoulder, letting the emotion ebb out of her. Okay, Lois, let's try this again, she thought, trying to pull herself together. She pulled away from Clark, wiping her eyes.
"If the results come back positive for cancer, there are several different treatment options to consider, but not if I'm pregnant. They wouldn't be able to do chemo or radiation therapy, or even surgery if I was pregnant. And, if I have to have either one of those therapies done it will be a while before I can try to get pregnant," Lois said, then continued on before Clark could say anything. "But I hadn't told you yet because I didn't want you to worry. The doctor said she didn't expect any problems; she was just doing the biopsy as a precaution. I'm sorry, I don't know why I broke down like that."
"It couldn't be because of all of the stress we've been under the last few days," he said, smiling gently at her. "Honey, you should have told me sooner. Please don't ever feel like you need to shelter me by keeping something from me. I love you, and I want to know everything that's happening to you. That's more important to me than anything else we might have going on in our lives."
Lois felt tears trying to well up again and simply nodded at him. Clark pulled her towards him and kissed her, passionately, deeply. She felt a yearning deep inside her. She needed him. They needed each other tonight. She kissed him back, pushing him back on the bed. She began unbuttoning his shirt but stopped when she felt his body tense and saw the look of fear in his eyes.
"What is it?" she asked, concerned.
"Jeffrey. He's just been kidnapped. I can hear his mother screaming his name. I'm sorry…"
"It's okay, go. Maybe you can catch them in the act."
She watched him wistfully as he spun into his suit and opened the window, taking to flight. "I love you. Be careful," she whispered after him.
Aaron had taken Jeffrey back to the bunker as quickly as he could. He wanted to get to the Kent home as soon after the kidnapping as possible. Melinda was sure to wake up any time now, realize Jeffrey was missing, and no doubt begin her hysterics.
At least, he hoped so. That would help to ensure that Superman wasn't hanging around the Kent home when Aaron came calling. Aaron wasn't sure just how close Superman and the Kents were, but he didn't want to take any chances that he might be in the neighborhood.
As if in answer to his question, he saw a red and blue object streaking by in the moonlit sky. Superman. He'd bet money the alien was on his way to Melinda's house. Aaron smiled to himself and continued on down the street to the Kent home.
Once at their house, he found a good hiding spot and settled in to talk to Laura. He had come by the house several times in the past couple of days, observing and taking note of whose room was where. He was prepared for this; he had to be. It was going to get tricky.
"Laura Kent. Can you hear me? I'm your friend, Laura. I won't hurt you. Laura, I want you to stay in your crib and close your eyes. Keep your eyes closed. I'm going to come to your room. Don't be scared. It's okay. Be quiet," Aaron said to her, trying to use words that she would understand.
The SHARP group had met together the previous evening and had discussed the plans for tonight. He'd been given several suggestions on what to say and how to say it. No one had agreed for sure that this was going to work, but everyone had agreed that it should be done.
Aaron reached into his pockets, pulling out his rubber gloves and putting them on. He walked cautiously up to the front door, pulling out his lock pick. After a few precious seconds, he had the door open. He walked inside, stopping to listen for any signs that he had been heard. Nothing. He was met with silence. He shut the door behind him, relocking it.
He made his way quietly upstairs into to the hallway between the Kents' bedroom and Laura's room. He wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans. None of the other children had been this difficult. He hadn't even had to go inside the house, but with the other children his goal had been to kidnap them. With Laura, it was not; they didn't have the means or desire to take care of an infant back at the bunker.
It hadn't even really been necessary to kidnap the other children to program them. With Lydia it had been because they had needed her to be the guinea pig, to see what had worked and what didn't. But once they'd had those answers, they could have programmed the other kids in their homes.
The kidnappings, though, provided the incentive needed for people to fear Superman's assistance. Lois Lane and Clark Kent would not be so easy to manipulate. But the leader had mainly wanted to program Laura out of revenge for what those reporters had done to him and the organization.
Aaron looked down at the object in his hand. The "Subliminator" was designed primarily to work on one person at a time. However, if the subjects were in close proximity to one another and were being given the same instructions, it was possible to program two people at once.
He stopped several feet back from the Kents' bedroom door and began calibrating the machine. He didn't want to risk getting any closer to their bedroom; no sense taking any chances of being caught if they were awake. Besides, he was within the fifty-foot range of the machine.
"Clark Kent. Lois Lane. If you are not in bed, I want you to lie down in your bed and fall asleep. You will stay asleep until you are told to wake up. If you hear any noises, you will disregard them. Stay in your bed and stay asleep," he told his unseen subjects.
Aaron turned around and walked inside Laura's room, closing the door behind him. The Kents should be sleeping peacefully now, but he didn't want to push his luck. He turned on the light and walked to Laura's crib.
"Laura, it's okay, open your eyes now. I'm here to help you."
Clark had been in the middle of canvassing the area for Jeffrey, or his kidnapper, when he heard it.
"Clark!" A scream shot through the night sky to reach his ears. It was Lois.
All ideas of trying to find Jeffrey left his mind as he raced back home, as fast as he could fly. He flew in their open bedroom window and, not seeing Lois, continued on to Laura's room.
Lois was standing there cradling their child, kissing her face and whispering to her.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"I don't know. It was so weird. I didn't even realize I had gone to sleep, but I woke up suddenly and heard Laura crying. Clark, it was awful. I've never heard her cry like that. It was pitiful and panicky-sounding. I was afraid that…" She trailed off and hugged Laura closer to her.
"You were afraid that someone was trying to take her, so you screamed for me," he finished for her. She nodded her head at him. "Did you see anyone?" he asked her.
"No. I didn't see or hear anyone, and she seems to be fine now. I think maybe I overreacted a little. She probably just had a bad dream, that's all."
Clark relaxed when she told him that. He reached out to stroke his little girl's cheek, and, at that moment, she turned her face to look up at him. To his surprise, she promptly began crying. Clark reached out to her to take her from Lois, but this only caused her to cry even louder, pushing against him and kicking her little legs.
"Why don't you go *change*," Lois said, pointing at his apparel. "She probably had a bad dream and *Superman* doesn't seem to be helping."
Clark left the room and spun into his pajama pants. He re-entered the room and walked up to his two girls. Laura looked up at her daddy, and the crying stopped. After a few more sniffles, she reached out for him.
"Da," she said in a shaky little voice.
Clark scooped her up and hugged her to him tightly. She seemed to be okay now, but he just couldn't seem to shake the nagging feeling in the back of his mind. Why had she reacted that way? She'd seen Superman lots of times and hadn't ever reacted like that. Maybe Lois was right; maybe it had just been a bad dream.
"You didn't find Jeffrey, did you," Lois said. It wasn't a question.
"No, there's no way of telling how long ago he was even taken. It was scary. His mom had slept with him in his room. She had been so shaken up by what had happened earlier today and the kidnappings that she hadn't wanted to leave him alone. And yet, she woke up to find him gone. No sign of a break in, nothing disturbed. He was just gone," Clark said, frustrated. "It was awful. She started yelling at me when I got there, telling me what had happened. Then she pushed the kidnapper's note in my hand, and ordered me to leave and not come back. I flew around trying to locate Jeffrey and looking for anything that might be a clue. Then I heard you scream. I raced straight home, afraid I was too late, that someone had taken Laura, too."
"I know. I've been so afraid that someone might try something while Superman was out making rescues and I was here alone. My heart was in my throat when I heard her crying."
"That isn't going to happen, because Superman is going to be grounded for a while, at least during the night. I couldn't live with myself if Laura was taken while I was out."
They both stood there quietly for a few minutes, just watching Laura. Lois finally broke the silence.
"So Jeffrey's mother just woke up, and he was gone? She didn't hear or see anything?"
"No, nothing. All she saw was this note," he said, pulling it out and handing it to her. "It was lying next to her on the bed."
Lois took the note from him, and, after a moment's hesitation, she began reading it out loud. "You were warned, Ms. Nelson. You saw the news reports and read the articles in the paper. You knew what the consequences would be for anyone accepting help from Superman. But you ignored the warning. Now, your son will suffer the consequences. Make sure Superman sees this note and make sure you tell him you want nothing more to do with him if you ever want to see your son again," Lois finished reading the letter, the anger apparent on her face.
Clark could tell what she was about to do and took the note away from her before she could rip it into a thousand pieces.
"No, let me have it!" she said loudly. "It's trash and needs to be dealt with like trash."
"We can't just rip it up. As much as I would love to see you do that very thing, it's evidence, and I have to give it to the police," he told her, holding the note out of her reach and trying to be rational.
She clenched her fists and threw her hands down in an exasperated gesture. "We've got to figure this out!" she exclaimed as she began to pace in front of him. "Okay, what do we know so far?" she asked him. It was obvious that she had worked herself up, and there would be no sleep for anyone until they had talked this out.
Clark sighed. "Well, we know a subliminal device was stolen from the base," he began.
"Yes, and we suspect the accidents that have been happening are being staged by someone with the subliminal device. The children keep hearing a voice in their head," she continued.
"Right. We also know that the kidnapper is most likely someone connected to the SHARP group, after my conversation with Clarice."
"And let's not forget that you think the person who's staging the accidents is also the kidnapper, which would explain how they knew about the accidents and where to find the children," she added. Lois raised her head up and looked at Clark. She had a glint in her eyes, like she did when an idea came to her. "I think I know how the kidnapper is getting the kids!" she told him excitedly.
"Okay, follow me here. If the person staging the accidents is the one with the Subliminator and he and the kidnapper are one and the same…"
"Then the kidnapper has the Subliminator," he finished for her.
"Yes, and we also know that the police can't figure out how the kidnapper is getting the kids. There is no evidence of a break-in. You said Jeffrey was taken with his mother sleeping in the same room," she paused as if to let everything come together for him. "The kidnapper is using the Subliminator to take them. Think about it, why risk breaking into someone's house to steal the kid when you can just convince the kid to come to you!"
"You're right! He could simply wait for everyone to fall asleep, and then talk to the child, telling him or her to come out to him. In fact, that might explain why the child's fingerprints are on the kidnapper's notes. He could have the child take the note back in and leave it. Lois, honey, you're brilliant."
"I know," she said, smiling at him. "That's one of the many reasons you love me," she teased him.
Clark put his arm around her and hugged her to him, remembering to be careful of her tender spot, which reminded him of something he needed to ask her.
"Speaking of loving you," Clark said, getting serious again. "When will you find out your results…?" he said, trailing off.
"Oh… hopefully tomorrow. Dr. McGrath is going to be out of town tomorrow, but said she'd try to put a rush on it. If the results come in before she gets back, the office assistant is supposed to call me with them."
Clark set Laura down in her crib. She had drifted back off to sleep. He put his arms around Lois, clutching his hands behind her back. He held her, swaying back and forth, just content to feel the warmth of her breath against his body.
"Are we dancing?" came her soft inquiry.
"This isn't dancing," he said to her, repeating the words he had said so long ago. He gently lifted her off the floor just slightly, and they floated there, softly swaying to an unheard music.
Lois began to kiss his chest and moved up to the base of his throat. He dipped her back, just slightly, and leaned in to her, kissing her exposed neck. As he pulled her back up, he moved his kisses up her neck to her mouth. He covered her mouth with his and kissed her deeply. As she began kissing him back, her breathing becoming more urgent, he floated them down the hallway to their bedroom.
The errand at the Kent home had proven to be even more dangerous than he'd originally thought. If Superman hadn't been so preoccupied with checking on Laura, he might have noticed Aaron hiding close by. He had seen Superman come streaking through the sky and into the house right after he'd commanded the Kents to wake up and Laura to cry.
Yes, that had answered his question. Close friends, indeed. He hadn't believed his luck when Superman hadn't immediately come back out of the house to search the area. Aaron had hesitated for just a few seconds, wishing there was someway to have seen what Laura's reaction had been to Superman's presence, but he'd decided he couldn't risk it. Besides, they would be performing a little test on that later tomorrow.
Aaron let out a sigh of relief. He was finally done for the evening. A rational person would have gone to bed and tried to get some rest, but Aaron was just too keyed up. He needed to do some more research on the laboratory room first.
He looked around the room, again marveling at all of the treasures it contained, before going to sit at the computer station. When he'd been up here earlier, he had just started to read through some of the files stored on the computer's hard drive. Then, of course, there had been that one *other* folder. He had found a list of people's names that Lex had used to impersonate him from time to time, reports of experiments that Lex had done with clones, and those were just the tip of the iceberg.
Aaron opened the 'personal projects' folder again. Now that he had more time to explore, a document labeled 'escape' caught his eye. That sounded interesting. He opened it and scanned the document. It contained detailed notes about the construction of the bunker and this laboratory. Hmm, fascinating, he thought, there seemed to be some kind of hidden extendable platform in this room.
He paused in his scanning to read this part in more detail. The notes explained to him how to open the metal doors in the room. Apparently, that was where the platform extended out. That explained what the doors opened to. Not a fifteen-hundred-foot fall, but a platform. A platform for what?
Aaron walked over to a panel on the wall and accessed the controls. He entered the combination to open the doors. As the doors slid open, the platform simultaneously began extending itself out, away from the building.
Aaron stepped down onto the flat platform and walked out to the edge, being careful not to lose his balance. There was plenty of room to walk around on the platform without needing to get too close to the edges. He could see the underside of the penthouse balcony above him. What could Lex have possibly used this for? Could it have been used as an emergency escape? After all, that was the name on the file.
He walked back to the computer and began scanning the 'personal projects' file yet again. The documents were arranged in date order. Towards the bottom of the folder there was a document entitled 'Series K' — the last thing Lex had worked on. Aaron opened the document and scanned it. It appeared to be some sort of diary kept by Lex. There were pages and pages of entries about an experiment called Series K. What was Series K? Aaron was not a patient reader; he skipped to the last entry.
"The time for me to destroy Superman has finally come to fruition. The construction of the Kryptonite cage is finished. After substantial testing with the Kryptonite, it was found that, when harnessed correctly, it was a limitless power source."
Kryptonite was a power source? Oh, yes, he seemed to remember reading something about a cyborg being powered by Kryptonite, also.
"Once a way was found to harness that power, a circuit bridge was created to carry the power through the bars of the steel cage. This effectively created a cage powered by Kryptonite. The cage will prove less powerful than direct exposure to Kryptonite. However, since I plan to finish the job myself, I only need the cage to weaken him, keep him contained."
Interesting. Aaron wondered in what other ways Kryptonite had been altered into new forms.
"If the research holds true, and the cage works correctly, it should prove to be an impenetrable barrier for Superman. However, should the plan fail or some unforeseen problem happen, the backup plan is also ready. The replacement we have imprisoned here in the lab will take my place."
Replacement? Aaron looked over at the enclosed area with the bed. So that's what that room was for.
"In the event that I need to make a quick escape, there is a secondary set of platform controls wired into the desk in the penthouse. Nigel will be waiting here with my replacement should we need him. A fall from the balcony to the platform would be dangerous, if not deadly, and so will be used as a last resort. However, if it does occur, Nigel will be ready to push the replacement out as I land, to maintain the illusion. The body will then need to disappear from the morgue before they can run any tests on it. I will succeed. I have planned thoroughly. After all, if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail."
Aaron sat back in his chair, absorbing what he had just read. It was a brilliant escape plan. Lex had been right about the *dangerous* part, though. This explained how Lex could have lived through a fall from the top of LexCorp… He hadn't. He'd lived through a fall to his platform several feet down. Though, from what Aaron understood, Lex had been in a coma for months after his fall.
A stray thought came to him. A rope or maybe a bungee cord? He walked back out onto the platform and looked up at the balcony. Yes, it might just work. Aaron believed in having a backup plan, too. With a little work, his could be better than Lex's.
Clark slept fitfully that night. There were no emergencies to interrupt his sleep, but he just couldn't get the looks on those parents' faces out of his mind.
SHARP was involved. He and Lois knew that now. Clarice had verified their suspicions. But what could they do to stop them? They had no real proof, and the kidnapper struck in silence, without even having to break in. How were they going to find him?
Clark finally got out of bed. He'd had enough. He was more tired from fighting sleep than from actually not getting any. It was almost time to get up anyway, he thought, looking at the alarm clock by their bed. It read five-thirty. The morning news should be on. Clark figured he should probably watch it. He didn't want to, but there would most likely be a story about Jeffrey.
He crept downstairs quietly, trying not to wake anyone, and turned on the TV. Setting the volume on low, he went into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. As he finished pouring the water in, he heard a voice from the TV that caught his attention. It was the voice of Mrs. Harrell. Clark ran back into the living room to verify it was her. It was and there, standing beside her, was her beautiful daughter, Lydia, apparently unharmed.
"If you are just joining us this morning, we are here live with the parents of Lydia Harrell. Mrs. Harrell, according to police, the girl simply showed up on your doorstep, with no memory of where she had been or what happened to her?" the newsman asked her.
"Yes, that's right. She doesn't remember where she was or who took her. We are just so glad to have her back safe."
Clark couldn't believe what he was seeing. Why? Why would they kidnap her, hold her for almost three days, and return her in the middle of the night? With no demands or instructions or anything?
He decided he should go check on the girl and her family. It shouldn't take him too long, so he decided to just let Lois sleep. He made a quick change and went to the living room window. He needed to find some answers.
Aaron stood up for a moment, stretching his legs a bit, and then hunkered back down into his hiding spot. He looked at his watch; five forty-five. The story should have aired by now on the morning news. The news vans had left a few minutes ago. Hopefully, Superman watched the news.
Aaron was ready to get this over with. He was tired of sitting here, and he was ready to get back to his lab.
He knew that the Leader felt it was important to document Lydia's reaction, but Aaron didn't feel the necessity of their experiments like he once had. After all, now he had experiments of his own. And his experiments and research were in direct contrast with what the Leader was doing.
That was okay, though. He didn't have his Kryptonite yet, anyway. Hadn't the Leader said that it might be in their *future* plans to kill Superman? Maybe Aaron would be able to get the Leader to make that the more immediate future. He smiled at the thought; a world without Superman.
A cramp began working its way through his leg, and he was about to stand up and stretch again when he saw the figure of Superman touch down in front of the Harrells' apartment building. Finally, he could get this over with, he thought, reaching up to put a pair of headphones on. As long as Superman stayed in the main area of the apartment, the bug he'd left outside their apartment door should be able to pick up any conversation. He turned the receiver on as Superman walked inside the building.
After a few moments, he began receiving feedback. There was the sound of a knock on a door.
"Who could that be? More reporters? Tell them we aren't giving any more interviews right now," a male voice said. It must be Mr. Harrell, Aaron thought.
"It's Superman. He's standing out in the hallway. What should I do?" the female voice of Mrs. Harrell asked.
There was a pause and a sigh. "Let him in, I guess," Mr. Harrell said. There was a creak of the door opening.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. and Mrs. Harrell, but I saw the news report this morning and I just wanted to come by and check on Lydia," came the voice of Superman.
Then Aaron heard an ear-piercing scream that almost made him yank the headphones off of his ears. He was going to have a headache later on.
"What's the matter, Lydia!?" Mrs. Harrell said. Lydia screamed again, making Aaron turn the volume down.
"No, make him leave! He's a bad man! … No, don't! Get away!" Lydia screamed.
"Sweetie, let's go to your room. It's okay, he won't hurt you. Come with mommy."
"Maybe I'd better go. I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm upsetting her like this. I just wanted to check on her and see if there was anything I could do to help," Superman told them, apologizing.
"Just go. We don't want your help. She's had enough trauma. We don't need you adding to it," Mr. Harrell said angrily.
Nothing more was said, and Aaron heard the door close shut. He smiled, satisfied. This is exactly what the Leader would want to hear.
Clark glanced up as Lois walked by his desk and gave his shoulder a squeeze. He watched her as she poured herself a cup of coffee; real coffee. This was her second cup of it this afternoon. She hadn't slept well the night before either, and then they'd spent their whole morning running around interviewing the parents of each of the kidnapped children.
No other children had been returned yet. The other parents hadn't heard so much as a word from the kidnappers, and the Harrells were in the dark with everyone else. Lydia had been returned without any note, demand, or explanation.
Clark looked back down at his computer screen, trying to focus his thoughts on the story in front of him. He and Lois were writing up another piece about the kidnappings for their continuing coverage, but he was having a hard time concentrating on his work today. That morning's incident was about the fifth time Superman had been turned away, his help not wanted. It was really getting old.
The phone at Lois' desk began ringing, bringing him out of his thoughts. He looked up; she was still at the coffee pot talking to Jimmy about something. Clark got up and ran to her desk, answering her phone.
"Hello? Oh, I'm sorry, I thought I was dialing Ms. Lane's extension," a female voice said.
"You did. She's just away at the moment. I'm her partner, Clark Kent."
"Oh, Mr. Kent! This is Lizbeth at Dr. McGrath's office. I was calling your wife about her lab results from yesterday's biopsy. I just got off the phone with the lab."
Clark started to flag Lois down to let her know about the call, and then he stopped. What if it was bad news?
"Good. Can you tell me the results?" he asked her.
"Um, I'm really only supposed to give them to the patient. But, let's see here, she did sign the release to give you access to her medical records."
"I understand if you can't. She'll be back to her desk shortly."
"Well, I'm new here, but I think that, since she signed this, I can release the results to you."
There was a long pause. Clark didn't like it. "Hello? Are you still there?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm sorry. It's just that… well… the results came back positive."
"Positive? As in positive for… cancer?"
"Yes, Mr. Kent. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Dr. McGrath will be back in the office tomorrow. I will have her call the two of you to discuss this in more detail when she returns. She will need to explain the treatment options that are available."
Clark just stood there, unable to say anything. He didn't think he'd ever felt so weak before, not even from Kryptonite. He could protect Lois from a lot of things, but not her own body. He was really getting tired of having to face problems that he couldn't fight.
"Okay, we'll be waiting to hear from her. I appreciate you calling us so quickly with the results," he said softly.
"Tell Ms. Lane that I'm sorry for the bad news. Goodbye, Mr. Kent."
"Goodbye." Clark hung up the phone and walked back over to his desk. He eased down into his chair before his legs could betray him, and brought his hands up to his face, hiding his emotions from the rest of the newsroom.
A soft set of fingers gently caressed the back of his hairline. Clark didn't look up. There were tears in his eyes that he didn't want her to see. He knew that breast cancer was treatable and had a good success rate, but he also knew that treatment wasn't pleasant. It was painful and made the patient sick and weak. It also meant they would have to put off having any more children for a while, and he knew how much that would upset Lois.
"Honey, are you okay?" she asked him, placing her hand under his chin, trying to pull his face towards hers.
"Yeah," he whispered, softly. "Let's go to the conference room so we can talk."
He got up, taking Lois by the hand, and led her into the conference room. Once inside, she closed the door behind them.
"What is it? Has there been another kidnapping?" she asked him.
"No," he said, and paused. He looked into her beautiful brown eyes; they were full of concern. He steeled himself for what he had to tell her. "I just took a phone call from your doctor's office," he began.
Lois' face froze with a panicked look. She blinked her eyes a few times as the reality set in, and then those eyes he loved so much began to get glassy. "Oh, no. No, Clark. Please, don't say you brought me in here to tell me that I have…" she trailed off.
He grabbed her and pulled her to him, holding her. She was shaking ever-so-slightly.
"Shhhh," he whispered to her. "It's going to be okay. We'll get through this together, remember? I'll be there with you every step of the way." His heart ached profusely. What more could he say to her? What more could he *do* to make this better?
Lois didn't say anything. She just nodded her head against his chest, and they held each other for a while. Then she pulled away from him, sniffing and wiping under her eyes. She reached up and tucked her hair behind her ears.
"How do I look? Do I look like I've been crying?" she asked him.
"No, you look beautiful, sweetheart. Do you want me to talk to Perry? I'm sure he'd let us off early…"
"No," she said, cutting him off. "I don't want anyone to know about this… at least not yet. They'd all start treating me like something was wrong. It would make everyone uncomfortable. And no, I don't want to go home, Clark. What would I do at home? Sit and wallow in self-pity? No, I want to go back in there and finish our story. And then, I want to go out to dinner with Jimmy and Penny. That's what Jimmy was talking about with me when I went to get coffee," she told him.
Clark smiled fondly at his wife. She'd had her brief moment of emotion, and now she was back in charge. She wasn't about to let a *little* thing like this keep her down. He'd never known anyone like her in his entire life, and didn't figure he ever would again. He pulled her forward again, hugging her and kissing the top of her head.
"Okay. Come on then, partner, let's go finish our story," he told her.
Jimmy was so excited. Tonight was the night. He hoped Penny wouldn't be upset that he had invited Lois and Clark to dinner with them. He knew some girls wanted complete privacy and intimacy when they were being proposed to, but he'd actually already proposed to her. And she had already accepted. This was more of a formality. Formality? No, it was a celebration.
It had already been decided that they wanted Clark to be Jimmy's best man and they had one other request as well. So, what better time for them to ask their friends than after the proposal? Lois had assured Jimmy that she and Clark would love to join them for dinner.
Jimmy reached into his pants pocket, fingering the ring box for about the hundredth time. Dinner couldn't get here fast enough as far as he was concerned.
A phone ringing startled him out of his thoughts. The ring was coming from Perry's office, but Perry wasn't in there. He had gone upstairs to argue with the publishers about a story they wanted to pull. Jimmy ran into his office and answered his phone.
"Daily Planet. Perry White's office."
"Is this Mr. Perry White"? a man's voice asked.
"Um, no, this is Jimmy Olsen. Mr. White is unavailable at the moment. Can I help you"?
"Jimmy Olsen? Yes, Jimmy. Yes, you can help me."
Aaron stood close by the Daily Planet, pretending to read a copy of that morning's edition.
"I'm standing right outside the building. If you come to the window and look down, you'll see me," Aaron said into his cell phone. He looked up and watched the windows above him. If he could get his target to come to the windows, he should be within the fifty-foot radius of the Subliminator. He saw a young man approach the windows and look down. Bingo.
"Jimmy Olsen. I want you to listen to me very carefully. I'm going to give you a set of instructions to carry out on the command 'execute.' On that command you will go to the fire alarm and pull it. Jimmy, you will then begin yelling and screaming that there is a bomb in the building, and that everyone needs to get out now. The bomb will go off any minute. Make sure you create as much of a panic as possible. We need a lot of shouting for help if we're going to get Superman to come. In fact, Jimmy, why don't you give a shout out to Superman while you're at it. Say 'Superman! Help! There's a bomb!' Now Jimmy, execute."
Aaron waited for a few minutes, scanning the page of the paper he was looking at and watching the front of the building out of the corner of his eye. He watched as people began filing out of the building in droves. Then, the person he specifically was waiting to see came out holding a little baby girl in her arms.
Now, if Superman would cooperate, the plan would… his thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the alien. Aaron watched as Superman flew inside the building, presumably looking for the bomb. Aaron smiled to himself. Superman would find a *bomb*.
Pillars of smoke began to billow out the front doors of the building, enveloping everyone standing close by. Aaron could hear police sirens off in the distance, getting closer by the second. So they had taken his anonymous tip seriously. They were no doubt sending in a bomb squad to have a look. Good. Not necessary, of course, but it helped to heighten the emotional experience for the people involved.
He watched as Lois Lane began moving farther away from the building, covering her daughter's face with her jacket, trying to shield her from the smoke.
Superman came out of the building seconds later, holding the remains of the "bomb" Aaron had left behind.
"It's okay. It was just a smoke bomb," Superman told the concerned crowd. He disposed of the remains in the nearest trash receptacle and began walking towards Lois Lane. Aaron was watching avidly in anticipation.
"Are you both okay?" Superman asked her.
"Yeah. We're fine. Is everyone else okay?"
"They seem to be. A few people are coughing and having a little trouble breathing, but I think they'll be fine after some fresh air."
Aaron continued to watch as Laura pulled her mother's jacket back and looked up at Superman. Her face crinkled up, and her mouth opened letting a loud cry escape. Her mother looked down at her in surprise, and Superman had a stunned look of disbelief on his face as well. Laura continued crying, kicking her legs, and squirming, and Superman seemed to take his cue. He backed up, turned around, and flew off.
Perfect, Aaron thought. The Leader would be most pleased to hear about these results, but Aaron himself was even more pleased. The results would further his own plans, as well.
Jimmy sat, nervously shifting back and forth in his seat. He had been looking forward to this dinner all day. After the bomb threat that afternoon, he had been afraid everyone would want to cancel the dinner. But everything had turned out okay, and it had been decided that they would still go to dinner.
Now that it was actually here, though, Jimmy was so nervous that he had managed to drop his napkin on the floor, knock the bread basket over, and almost spill his water on Penny. Okay, calm down, he told himself. After all, she's already said yes.
The restaurant decor was beautiful. The lighting was soft and low, and there was romantic music playing in the background. He looked around the table. Lois and Clark were engaged in a discussion of the finer points of pasta, and Penny was busy dipping a piece of bread into a plate of olive oil. He took a deep breath and reached into his pocket, pulling out the ring box.
"Penny. I have something I want to ask you," he said, taking her hands in his. He got out of his chair and knelt down on one knee beside her. He could see Lois and Clark gawking at him out of the corner of his eye.
"Penny, I've loved you from the first moment I saw you — even before that, before I ever knew you. You are the missing piece of my life. I never knew I could love someone as much as I love you right now. And I know that love will only continue to grow as we spend our lives together. I'm ready to begin sharing that life with you. Penny, will you marry me?" Jimmy asked her, opening the ring box. He watched her face in expectation.
Her eyes grew large, and her mouth opened slightly, a soft breath escaping between her lips. She took the ring box from him, and her eyes began to fill with tears.
"Oh, it's perfect, Jimmy! Thank you so much! Yes! Yes, I will marry you," she said, bending forward and kissing him deeply on the lips. He rose up slightly, putting his arms around her and kissing her back.
After a few moments, he finally remembered Lois and Clark sitting at their table, and looked over at them. They were holding hands and smiling affectionately at Jimmy and Penny.
"Congratulations, you two," Clark told them.
"Yeah, it's about time," Lois said teasingly.
Jimmy blushed. "Well, actually, I asked Penny to marry me the day of the bombing at the Planet, about three months ago, but I didn't have a ring to give her. So, we decided not to tell anyone and do it officially once we had a ring."
Jimmy recalled the day in his mind. It hadn't exactly been a bomb, but some kind of strange weapon that Lex had used to strike at the Daily Planet building. He could have died that day, and he'd realized how fragile life was. He'd known, in that instant, that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Penny.
"Well, I'm glad you were able to do it today," Lois said, smiling. "There's been a bomb both times you've proposed. We wouldn't have wanted you to have to put it off to another day."
Everyone laughed at the joke, and Jimmy looked at Penny, giving her a nod. "Penny and I have already discussed a bunch of our wedding plans. She's actually already done some shopping, and we decided who we want to be in our wedding. CK, I'd like you to be my best man."
"I'd be honored," Clark said.
"And, if it's all right with you, if you think she's old enough, we'd like Laura to be our flower girl. The wedding won't be for at least another six months; she'll be almost two by then," Jimmy told them.
"We'd love for her to be your flower girl!" Lois exclaimed happily. "I don't know how well a two-year-old will cooperate for you, but I'm sure it will be memorable."
The two couples smiled at each other. At this particular moment, Jimmy felt that all was right in the world.
All was right in the world, at least for tonight. Aaron stared inside the open safe in front of him. With help from the information and files on the lab computer, he had been able to open the safe. Everything seemed to be going his way.
The safe was bigger than it had looked. It went back into the wall as far as he could reach. He began pulling stuff out of it to examine. There were various documents; some of them looked like they referenced financial accounts. Maybe a second set of books? There were a few stacks of money in different denominations and from different countries. There were what appeared to be counterfeit passports and travel documents. Lex did like to have backup plans, didn't he?
He kept pulling out more items: jewels, artifacts, and other trinkets. Finally, he got to one last item buried deep in the back of the safe at the bottom. It was a simple wooden box. There was a lock on the box. He didn't see a key for it anywhere, but it should be easy enough to break into.
After a few minutes with a paperclip, he had picked the lock. He started raising the lid, and an eerie green glow began to emanate from the box. Inside, there was a sealed note sitting on top of an object wrapped in a cloth. A tear in the cloth was where the muted green aura was coming from. Aaron read the note.
"Lex — I cannot accept the offering that I'm returning to you inside this box. I look forward to many more profitable years in your employ, but this needs to stay with you. In your line of work, you never know when you might need it. I'm sure you can put it to far better use than I can. — Mrs. Cox."
Aaron licked his lips in anticipation and lifted the cloth off the object. As he beheld Lex's most precious possession, a triumphant smile spread across his face.
He was putting the object and note back into the box when a sound caught his attention. A sound that almost made his heart stop beating. The elevator was moving.
Oh, no, he thought, scrambling to put everything back where it was and moving into a corner of the room, hiding, to watch the elevator door.
The door opened and the Great Leader emerged, looking around curiously.
"Aaron?" he called. "Are you in here?"
No, he thought, I'm so close. He wasn't supposed to find this place, not yet. But he had, and he was his leader, so Aaron stepped out into the room where the Leader could see him.
"Yes, Great Leader, I'm here," he answered him.
"What is this place? And why haven't you shown it to me yet?"
"When Lex first gave me access to the bunker, he made me promise never to come into this room. Only just a few days ago did I finally decide it was time to see what was in here. Lex is dead and virtually no one else knows about the secret bunker or private elevator. So, I figured it was safe to explore it."
The Leader listened to him as he moved around the room, examining objects and nodding his head.
"And did you find what you were looking for?" the Leader asked him expectantly.
"I… I don't know what you mean," Aaron lied.
"Yes, you do. Of course you do, and, by what you just said, I would venture a guess that you've found it."
Aaron squirmed uncomfortably under the Leader's harsh gaze.
"I told you that in time we might include plans to kill Superman. *In time*," the Leader reminded him. "That time is not now. We are not done yet with our main objective — discrediting Superman. I will not have you risk everything we've accomplished thus far by making rash plans to eliminate him. You underestimate both him and his loyal followers."
"But, my Leader, if you would listen to the plan I have come up with…"
"No!" the Leader said sharply. Then, his face seemed to soften. "No, the time is not right. Later, we will discuss this further. Right now, I need you to come with me. It is time to deliver Matthew and Jeffrey back to their parents. Then we can begin phase two of our plan."
Aaron felt his face flush with anger. He deeply respected the Leader but did not appreciate being thrust aside like a subordinate child. The Leader was not even willing to hear him out, was refusing to admit that someone else might possibly have a plan superior to his own. As much as it pained him to realize, he was going to have to do this on his own. This man was his respected Leader, but Aaron was a man of action and could wait no longer to act. It was time; it had to be now, while Laura was still under his influence. He needed to find a way to incapacitate the Leader long enough to put his plan into action. An idea came to his mind.
"Of course, my Leader. I don't know what I was thinking. I was being rash and foolish. We must continue with our plan; you're right. Let me take Matthew and Jeffrey back to their homes. Then, perhaps you will join me for a drink and allow me the opportunity to tell you my idea for our future plans."
"I admire your ambition, Aaron. Yes, I think that would be nice. We can discuss your ideas and also begin our planning to put phase two into effect."
Aaron smiled cordially at the Leader and followed him back onto the elevator, even as he plotted his next step.
Laura yawned sleepily in Clark's arms. It was still a little early for her bedtime, but her Grandma Ellen had worn her out tonight. Clark was glad Ellen had been able to babysit, since his parents were away on one of their trips. He and Lois didn't trust just anyone to watch Laura, especially in light of what was going on with the kidnappings right now.
It had been good for Lois to go out to dinner with Jimmy and Penny. It had been a welcome distraction from the bad news they'd gotten that afternoon. Thoughts of the dinner brought a smile to his face. He looked down into Laura's sleepy eyes.
"You're going to be a flower girl, sweetheart. The prettiest one anyone's ever seen."
Laura cooed at him and smiled at the sound of her daddy's voice.
"Yes, you are. Your uncle Jimmy wants you to be in his wedding, and daddy, too." *Uncle* Jimmy? Well, why not? Laura had a lot of extended family, especially at the Planet.
Clark looked down into his baby's eyes and watched them close one last time as she lost the battle with sleep. He turned his head toward his bedroom and *looked* in on Lois. She was just getting out of the bathtub. He had suggested that she take a hot, relaxing bath and let him take care of putting Laura to bed.
He let his vision linger on his wife's form for a few more seconds before deciding, with a sudden urgency, that it was time to put Laura in her crib.
"Daddy's going to go check on mommy now," he whispered to his sleeping daughter.
After putting Laura down in her crib, Clark quietly moved down the hallway and into their bedroom. Walking up to the bathroom door, he quietly peeked around the corner. He was slightly confused by the sight that met his eyes.
Lois stood in front of the bathroom mirror with one hand spread across her left breast, covering it and smashing it flat against her chest. She was standing there staring at herself in the mirror, turning from side to side with a frown on her face. She seemed oblivious to Clark's presence.
"Honey, what are you doing?" he asked her.
Lois jumped, startled, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. "Oh, nothing," she hastily replied. Clark raised his eyebrows questioningly at her.
A look of what seemed to be embarrassment came over her face. She looked away from him briefly, grabbing her nightshirt and putting it on. "I was just curious, I guess," she said.
"Curious about what?" he asked her, hoping that it wasn't what he thought it was.
There was a long pause. "About what I might look like if I had to have my breast removed," she admitted, her voice barely audible.
It was what he'd feared. Clark felt a pain deep in his chest. He went to her and wrapped her in a warm embrace. He started to squeeze her to him but thought better of it. He didn't want to hurt her. "Sweetheart, you know that even *if* you had to have it removed, they'd do reconstructive surgery. They've perfected it to the point that you can't even tell the difference."
"Yeah, except for nursing. What if things are bad enough that they have to take the whole breast? If that happens, then, when we had another baby, I wouldn't be able to nurse — at least not on that side," she explained, her voice unsteady.
Clark noticed that she had said *when*… they had another baby and not *if*. He closed his eyes, holding her tighter. God, he loved her for her strength. Not knowing what he should say, he simply held her, lightly caressing her back.
"It's not just that, though," she continued. "Even if I looked the same after, I know I'd never forget the part of me that I'd lost. I wouldn't *be* exactly the same, would I?" she asked, and continued, her voice almost a whisper. "I wouldn't be the same to you, either."
Clark felt shaken and a little hurt as the realization of what she was saying hit him. Did she honestly think that mattered to him? He pushed her back from him, looking deep into her concerned brown eyes.
"Honey, how could you even say that?" he asked her, hearing his own voice choke. "I don't want you to ever think like that again."
He reached a hand up to her face, cradling it, his thumb softly caressing her cheek. "Lois, you should know how much I love you, and I'm not talking about your body… I mean *you*. Your heart, your passion, and that fire in your eyes. Yes, I love your body. You have an incredible body. You have no idea how much I enjoy being able to explore it when we make love. But it isn't what embodies you. When we make love, I'm making love to *you*. To the only person I've ever truly loved and will ever love, and nothing will change that."
"Oh, Clark." She buried her head against his chest, crying softly. "I know it was silly of me to think that way, but I noticed the last few times you embraced me that you held back, and I was afraid somehow that if I lost that part of myself that you… that I…"
"Shhh," Clark whispered to her. "It's okay. Honey, nothing will ever change how I feel about you. The only reason I've been hesitant to embrace you is that I was afraid of hurting you."
Clark took her by the hand and led her over to the bed. He sat down and waited for her to join him. "I think we're getting a little ahead of ourselves, anyway," he told her. "We haven't even heard what Dr. McGrath is going to suggest yet."
"And I've also been doing some research…" he began.
"We just found out this afternoon. When have you had time to do research?" she asked him, interrupting.
Clark smiled at her. "Are you forgetting that I speed read?"
Her eyes sparkled as she smiled back at him. Oh, how he loved that smile. He hoped it didn't ever fade.
"Anyway," he continued, "there are a lot of interesting new kinds of treatments out there for cancer besides radiation or surgery. We could look into some of those if you want. But the first thing I would really like you to do is get a second opinion."
"No, now hear me out. I know how much you trust your doctor, but mistakes can happen. Results can turn out wrong. It can't hurt to get a second opinion before you decide how you want to proceed."
Lois nodded her head at him. He could tell by the look on her face that she understood. He needed to be certain, and she did too.
"We could even probably get Dr. Klein to take a look at you," he suggested.
"No, Clark. I'm sure that's not his field of expertise. I'll do some research and find a good doctor."
"Okay," he said, admitting defeat for the moment. It might not be Dr. Klein's field of expertise, but he trusted the man implicitly. He had worked miracles for them before.
Clark stood up from the edge of the bed, picking Lois up into his arms. He floated them both gently to the middle of the bed, laying her down onto a pillow. Still floating there just slightly above her, he began to undo the buttons on her nightshirt. With each button he unfastened, he tenderly caressed the soft flesh that was exposed to him. He was rewarded with a delicate trembling from Lois' body and the occasional arching of her back. As he released the last of the buttons, exposing the full beauty of her body, he brushed a kiss across her stomach.
She reached for him, pulling him closer. He granted her silent request, floating down gently to her. He would prove to her tonight, show her as many times as she needed him to, just how much he loved her.
No! This couldn't be happening. Clark had gotten up in the middle of the night. He hadn't slept well, thinking about Lois, so he'd gone in to check on Laura. But she hadn't been there. She was gone.
He flew through the house, desperately scanning every room, closet, nook and cranny. He knew it was a futile gesture, but part of him wanted to believe that she had just found a way out of her crib and crawled off somewhere.
He flew back into their bedroom towards the open window, pausing momentarily to look at his sleeping wife. He hadn't woken her yet. He hadn't wanted to panic her before he knew for sure. He shot out through the open window, up into the night sky, scanning the area below, looking through houses and cars and into alleyways.
No. No, it just couldn't have happened. All of his powers, all of the abilities he had, and they had failed him. He hadn't awoken in time to save her, and he couldn't find her now.
He pushed his hearing to its limit, and beyond, but was met with silence. No screams or cries from his baby daughter.
But then his hearing picked up another cry.
"Laura…! Clark!" He didn't need his super powers to hear Lois' desperate cry. He flew back through the bedroom window of their brownstone to see Lois standing there in her nightshirt, clutching Laura's baby blanket to her chest.
"Where is she? Did someone take her?" she asked him, desperation in her voice.
Clark's breath caught in his throat. His voice was paralyzed, and in that moment, he could tell she knew the answers. Her eyes filled with tears as she held a hand up over her mouth, and her body began trembling with sobs. He walked over to her to take her in his arms, to tell her he would find Laura. That everything would be all right. To tell her all the things she needed to hear but that he wasn't feeling himself.
He was met by an outstretched arm and a hand held up to stop him.
"No, not this time, Clark," she told him, pushing him away. "You weren't able to help those other children, you couldn't help Laura when she needed you the most, and you can't help me. Not now," she whispered, turning her back to him and walking out of the room.
Clark couldn't believe what he was hearing. She was pushing him away just like everyone else had when he had tried to help. Not Lois. Please, not her, too. He needed her right now more than he ever had. He needed her to tell him that this wasn't his fault, that they would get through this together, like they did with everything.
"Lois, please," he called to her. She paused but didn't look back as she walked out of the room. Clark leaned against a wall for support as the full brunt of what she'd said hit him. She couldn't have meant it. She was just upset. It wasn't true… no, but it was. He had failed. His daughter was gone.
Gone. The thought lingered in his mind as his heart swallowed it whole, digesting it, tasting every aspect of the emotion. Clark couldn't breathe. He slid down the wall, coming to rest on the floor. Tears began streaming down his face. He couldn't live without Laura or without Lois' love and support. She was his strength. He couldn't face the things that were happening without her. He looked back down the hallway after her.
"Lois, please don't do this. Don't shut me out. Please. Let me help," he pleaded, but there was no response.
"Lois!" Clark cried as he jerked upright in bed, breathing heavily. He looked around, his eyes finding the beautiful, sleeping face of his wife lying next to him.
"Clark, what is it?" she mumbled drowsily in her sleep.
He sighed deeply, getting his breathing under control. "Nothing, sweetheart. Go back to sleep. Everything's all right," he said soothingly. He bent over her and brushed her forehead with a light kiss.
It had been a dream, only a dream.
But there was a strange, aching hollowness that filled him, a residual effect of the nightmare. Was Laura really okay? He *looked* in on her and found her sleeping peacefully in her crib. He breathed a sigh of relief and looked down at Lois again, watching the slow rise and fall of her breasts under her nightshirt. He reached out, brushing a few hairs out of her eyes, wishing now that she were awake, so he could take her in his arms and hold her. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her and that he would never let anything happen to her or Laura. But could he promise her that?
Clark sighed, running a hand through his hair. He could tell he wasn't going to be able to go back to sleep, so he decided to get up and go take a peek at his sleeping daughter. He pulled back a sweat-dampened sheet and quietly got out of bed, trying not to disturb Lois further. He floated silently down the hallway and into Laura's bedroom.
He looked down on the face of his sleeping daughter. She was so beautiful, so precious. He couldn't imagine what he would do if… no, he didn't even want to think about it. It wouldn't happen because he wouldn't let it happen.
He walked over to the rocking chair in her room and sat down in it, watching his daughter as she slept. It wouldn't happen because he would stay awake all night watching her if he had to. They would not take Laura from him, not if he had any breath left in his body.
Clark followed Lois off the elevator, yawning. He was a little tired from lack of sleep the night before, but at least he was feeling better. The knot in the pit of his stomach had subsided. It was surprising how the dawn of a new day could give you hope. Problems always seemed worse in the dead of night.
The Daily Planet newsroom appeared to be busier than normal that morning. People were milling about everywhere, barking orders and carrying research, and there was already a line forming outside Perry's office door. Inside his office, Perry looked like he was reveling in the activity.
Clark smiled. This was when the Chief was at the top of his game.
After helping Lois out of her coat, Clark set his stuff down at his desk. He was headed off to get some coffee when Perry's office door opened.
"Lois! Clark! I need you in here pronto!" Perry barked.
They both immediately dropped what they were doing and headed into his office.
"Close the door; we need to talk about this kidnapping story," he told them. Clark closed the door, taking a seat beside Lois.
"I need to know what the two of you've got," Perry told them, coming around his desk to sit on the corner of it. "We've been running bits and pieces of this story as filler for the last three days. I need something more concrete to put in our page one spot today. Especially in light of what's happened this morning."
"What's happened?" Lois asked him.
"My source down at police headquarters just called me. The other two kids, Matthew and Jeffrey, were returned to their parents last night. Same circumstances as the other girl. No note, no ransom demanded, nothing."
The door to Perry's office opened and Jimmy stuck his head in. "Sorry to interrupt guys, but there's a call for Lois on line one. It's the daycare center downstairs."
Lois looked at Clark, her eyes full of concern. He watched her as she got up and went to her desk, picking up the phone.
Perry continued talking to Clark after she left. "Clark, I need you and Lois to go to the homes of these children and get statements from the parents."
Clark was half listening to Perry, but was continuing to watch Lois out of the corner of his eye. He watched as she put down her phone, got up from her desk, and walked to the elevator without ever looking back at him. What was going on, he wondered, flashes of his nightmare coming back to his mind.
"Clark? Hello? Am I talking to myself here?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Chief. I was just distracted," Clark said, pointing towards the elevators. "Lois headed downstairs after that call from daycare. I was just hoping everything's all right with Laura."
"Oh, uh, I'm sure it is, but why don't you go ahead and go check on her. Don't take too long, though, I need you and Lois back up here as soon as possible. I need to know what your theory is about these kidnappings."
"Sure thing. We'll be right back," Clark said, getting up and leaving the office. He ran into Jimmy on the way to the elevator.
"Hey, Jimmy. Did the daycare say what they were calling Lois about?"
"No, not really. Is something wrong, CK?"
"I don't know. I hope not, but I'm going to find out."
Clark moved off to the stairwell, suddenly not wanting to wait on the elevator. He and Lois always told each other everything. Why would she run off like that and not say anything? He didn't like it. Something wasn't right.
He literally flew down the stairs, his feet not even touching the ground. Once he got to the door, he slowed to normal speed, pushing through the door and hurrying towards the daycare center. He walked inside and looked around, trying to spot Lois or Laura. He didn't see either one of them.
"Mr. Kent? Can I help you?" the main receptionist asked him.
"Yes. My wife just got a call from you about Laura and came down here. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay, but I don't see them anywhere."
"No, they left," she told him, as he continued searching the room for them with his eyes.
"Excuse me? Did you just say they *left*?"
"Yes. Ms. Lane came down here and said she had an errand to run and was taking Laura with her. She signed her out, and they left," she said, pointing to the front door.
"Thank you," Clark told her, turning to leave.
"Uh, Mr. Kent, I don't know if this will help you or not, but since that bomb scare yesterday we've been asked to watch for anything out of the ordinary…"
"What did you see?" Clark said, interrupting her.
"A strange-looking man was standing out in the lobby, but I dismissed him since Lois and Laura left with him. I figured she must have known him, but I've never seen him before."
Something definitely was not right. Lois wouldn't leave like that, not without telling him something. And she definitely wouldn't take Laura with her, not with a stranger.
"Do you remember anything else?" he asked her, desperation in his voice.
"No, I don't think… wait a minute. Yes, I do. He was holding a weird-looking gadget in his hand. That's the reason I thought he looked suspicious in the first place. I don't know what it was. It didn't look like anything I've seen before."
"Thank you. If Mr. White calls looking for us, tell him there's been an emergency, and I'll call him later," he told her, rushing out of the daycare as fast as he could without calling undue attention to himself.
He ran out of the building into a side alleyway and reemerged at the roofline, flying into the sky.
"Lois Lane, I want you to give Laura to me." Lois complied with his request, handing her precious bundle over to him.
Aaron took the baby, shifting her to one side so he could hold both her and the Subliminator. He walked out onto the LexCorp balcony and stood in plain sight. He looked back at Lois standing next to the doorway into the penthouse.
"Okay, I want you to scream for Superman. Say 'Help, Superman!'"
Lois obeyed. "Help! Superman!"
"Good. And again."
"Good, Lois," he told her. "Go wait inside the penthouse for further instructions." All he had to do now was wait for Superman to arrive.
"Little Laura, you and I are going to have some fun now, aren't we?" he asked her. She grinned back at him happily, unaware of the reason why she liked him. It was Aaron's turn to smile. What irony. He had programmed her to be afraid of Superman, her parents' *friend*, while at the same time programming her to like Aaron, who was about to become Superman's worst nightmare.
He shifted the Subliminator to his other hand, making sure to keep his arm firmly around Laura, and reached into his pocket. As he pulled his hand back out, a green glow began to pour from his pocket until the Kryptonite could be seen in plain view.
It really was a beautiful stone. Lex had obtained a large piece of Kryptonite back before his wedding to Lois. He'd had a piece of it carved out and turned into a necklace for Mrs. Cox. He had given that necklace to her as a symbol of his appreciation for her loyal service to him. But, unbeknownst to him, Mrs. Cox had put the stone in his laboratory safe, with the note he had found earlier. She hadn't kept it. And now, it was his. As Aaron stood contemplating his treasure, a figure approached unseen from the sky.
"Give Laura to me. This is over," Superman's voice commanded.
"Why don't you come and get her, Superman?" As Superman strode toward him, Aaron hid the Kryptonite out of sight in the lead-lined cloth he'd found it in. Superman seemed to pause slightly in his approach and shook his head, as if trying to clear a haze. He glanced up at Aaron with a knowing look in his eyes and pressed forward towards him, grabbing the child out of his arms.
Laura reacted by crying and pushing away from the alien, reaching back for Aaron. Superman looked down at her, momentarily distracted. In that instant, Aaron pulled out the Kryptonite, shoving it in his face.
Superman faltered, his legs giving way under him. He wrapped his cape around him and the baby he held, and began crawling toward the penthouse, away from Aaron and the piece of Kryptonite he was holding.
"Do you like the programming I've given little Laura?" Aaron asked him.
"Programming? You… used the Subliminator on her?"
Aaron enjoyed seeing the pained look in his eyes.
"Yes, I told her that Superman was a bad man and would hurt her mommy and daddy. Elicits a pretty strong response from her, don't you think?" Aaron smiled smugly. "Not that it will really matter anymore, since you'll be dead shortly."
Aaron watched as Superman continued crawling backwards, away from the effects of the Kryptonite. He had made it inside the penthouse. Aaron needed to get the Kryptonite closer to Superman without putting himself at risk. He knew long-term exposure was deadly to the alien, but he wasn't sure just how weak the rock rendered him at first.
Aaron looked inside at Lois. Superman followed his gaze, and seemed to notice for the first time that Lois was standing there behind him, inside the penthouse. Aaron took advantage of his distracted gaze to move to the side of the door, out of Superman's line of sight. The Kryptonite had definitely weakened him, but it was better to not take any chances.
"Lois?" Aaron could hear Superman calling out to her.
Aaron peeked around the corner. She was still standing in the same spot, waiting for his instructions.
"You have to help me," Superman continued. "He has Kryptonite. Lois?"
Aaron allowed himself an indulgent smile at his desperate plea.
"What have you done to her?" Superman shouted angrily in Aaron's direction.
"She's fine, for now. She, too, is just under a little subliminal suggestion, that's all."
"Lois, listen to me," Superman begged her. "You have to fight this. Remember, you fought against Tempus. You saw through his lies. You can fight through this, too."
Risking another peek into the room, Aaron watched as the expression on Lois' face changed briefly, looking slightly confused. He trained the weapon on her again. She was still under his control, but he didn't want to gamble on that.
"Lois Lane, I want you to come here and take this Kryptonite necklace from me. I want you to take it and put it around Superman's neck."
Clark watched helplessly as Lois walked out on the balcony to take the Kryptonite from Aaron. Even at this distance the Kryptonite was rendering him helpless. If it came any closer, the effect would be much more serious. And neither he nor Lois knew what effect it might have on Laura.
"Lois, you don't have to do this," he pleaded with her as she came back, walking towards him with the Kryptonite in her hand. "Please… please listen… to me."
The closer she came, the more pain slashed through his body. He wrapped his arms tightly around his little girl, trying to shield her from the effects even as she continued struggling against his embrace.
"Remember… Tempus… tried to get people… to follow… John Doe… but we fought," he managed to get out weakly as Lois bent over him with the Kryptonite. Oh, god, it hurt. He had to get her to listen to him. He looked up into her face, his eyes pleading with her.
The look in her eyes was hollow and far away. He wasn't reaching her. He watched helplessly as the woman he loved more than life itself brought the poisonous rock to his face.
He flinched back from the searing pain, his body writhing. She grabbed for his head, placing the necklace around it, and then she stood waiting for further instructions.
"Please," he whispered, one more time. The Kryptonite felt like it was burning a hole through him where it rested against his chest.
"It's no use, Superman. As long as I have this device on her, she'll do what I tell her. Now, Lois, I want you to take the baby away from Superman and join me out on the balcony."
Lois bent down and began pulling Clark's arms away from his daughter.
"No, Lois!" he cried breathlessly, trying in vain to fight her off without hurting her. "Don't… do this. Please… listen to… me," he begged her.
She ignored his pleas and continued to unwrap the crying baby from his arms. Clark's arms fell away from her and came to rest beside him on the floor. He didn't have the strength to fight her and Laura. In one final attempt to reach Lois, he lightly grabbed one of her hands, pulling her down towards him.
"Lois Lane," came Aaron's voice, "you must bring the baby out here, now," he commanded her.
"I love you," Clark whispered urgently. "Please know that… no matter what happens… this wasn't your fault." Her only answer was to take Laura away from him, walking back towards Aaron, who still had the Subliminator pointed at her.
Clark realized that as long as Aaron had that machine on her and kept commanding her, he wouldn't be able to get through to her. His heart ached. If he died, would she ever know that it wasn't her fault; that he didn't blame her?
Lois was moving through the doorway out to the balcony when desperation hit Clark. His body was gradually becoming paralyzed by the effects of the Kryptonite, and he was fighting unconsciousness. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't end this way. Clark looked up at his two beautiful girls moving away from his dying body and towards their own unknown fates.
No! He had to help them. He rallied the strength he had left and pulled himself forward, inch-by-inch, as hot, searing pain coursed through his body. There was no way he could make it there in time, but he would try, with every last breath.
Another wave of pain hit him and his body spasmed. It wouldn't cooperate with him, refusing to move. His eyelids felt heavy, and Clark had the nauseous feeling that he had lost. He wasn't going to make it this time.
But then, Aaron made his mistake. Clark didn't know if Aaron had just thought Superman would be too weak to do anything, or if he'd thought he had already won, but he stepped out into plain view attempting to take Laura from Lois.
Clark thought he might have just enough strength left for one last thing. He might not be able to save himself, but he could save the two people he loved most. He funneled the pain down deep inside him, concentrating his all his remaining strength to his lungs, and let go a freezing burst of cold breath that hit the Subliminator full force.
Aaron, startled by what had happened, dropped the frozen weapon, and it hit the floor of the balcony, breaking into several pieces.
"Lois, wake up!" Clark managed to scream at her, and then the blackness took him.
"Lois, wake up!" she heard Clark scream. What? she thought. Where am I? Lois shook her head. It felt like she was trying to come out of a deep sleep. She looked around wildly, unable to believe what she was seeing.
She wished she were sleeping, dreaming. It appeared that she was on the balcony of Lex Luthor's penthouse suite. A man stood in front of her, staring down at small, broken pieces of equipment, a look of bitter hatred on his face.
She looked down in her own arms and was startled to see Laura there, looking back up at her, crying. She could hear the memory of a man's voice inside her head — give Laura to me — he'd said. She clutched her daughter tighter to her chest. Oh, Laura, what had she been about to do?
Lois looked around, where was Clark? Then, she felt the memory of the voice again — take this Kryptonite necklace…
No! What had she done? Lois ran towards the penthouse door. The sight that met her eyes brought panic to her heart. Clark, clothed as Superman, was slumped on the floor inside the suite. A piece of Kryptonite hung from his neck, and he wasn't moving.
She ran to his side as fast as her legs would carry her and lifted the necklace off of him. She needed to get it as far away from him as possible, and she didn't want that maniac out on the balcony to get his hands on it. With precious little time to spare in contemplating what to do, she took aim and heaved it as hard as she could out the open door and over the edge of the balcony railing. She hoped they would be able to recover it once this was all over. Lois looked back down at her husband. His eyes were closed and his body was limp.
She lay Laura down on the floor beside her daddy. She was still crying, but she would be okay. Lois hoped she could say the same for Clark. Was he breathing? She leaned over him and whispered in a voice only he would hear.
"Clark? Can you hear me? Oh, please, don't do this to me! Please, breathe. Breathe!" she pleaded with him, feeling tears come to her eyes.
She ran her hands down along his suit feeling for a heartbeat. She couldn't find it. She wanted to rip his suit off and feel his chest with her bare hands. She lay her head down on him, listening.
"Oh, honey. I'm so sorry," she whispered against him, tears trickling down her cheeks. "Listen to me. You have to fight, you hear me? You've saved me so many times. You never let me give up, now don't you give up! You have to come back to me. I need you. Please… please hear me."
She began to sob harder and threw her body around him, hugging him fiercely, but he didn't respond. What could she do? How could she bring him back? He couldn't die, he just couldn't.
"No, no, no," she whispered, shaking him gently. She laid her head down against his chest again, listening. How could she bear the pain of losing him and the part she'd unwillingly played in his death? He couldn't leave her, not like this. Laura couldn't grow up not knowing the tender, compassionate, amazing man who had been her father. Lois glanced over at their beautiful daughter lying beside them. She looked so much like Clark. She would be all Lois had left of him.
NO! A burning hatred and passionate desire filled her heart. This would not go unanswered. Lois started to pull away from Clark, to look for the person responsible for murdering the only man she had ever loved, would ever love, but a sound stopped her.
The faint sound of a heartbeat… his heartbeat! Was she hearing things? Lois pressed her ear more firmly to his chest. Her breath caught in her throat. He was alive! The tears filling her eyes were so thick that she couldn't see him, but she could hear him; she could feel him. She placed her hands over his chest, feeling the beat of his heart through his suit growing steadily stronger.
She wanted to grab him, hold him, kiss him… but her joy was short-lived as a hand grabbed ahold of her hair, yanking her to her feet and pulling her backwards toward the balcony. She felt the barrel of a gun in her ribs.
"This is the last time you thwart our plans Ms. Lane," the man told her. It was the voice from her head. Could it be Aaron? The man Clarice had told Clark about?
He paused briefly at Luthor's desk, fiddling with something. She craned her neck to look, but couldn't see what it was, and then he was pulling her back towards the balcony again.
"Aaron, please," Lois pleaded with him, turning to look into his face.
He looked startled. "Don't say my name! You don't *know* me!" he screamed at her.
So it was Aaron. Lois looked back at the form of her husband, starting to stir, and the little miracle lying next to him. Whatever happened, she had to make sure he didn't hurt either of them.
"Aaron, don't do this." Lois heard the voice of her husband coming from inside the suite. "You are not a killer, not yet." Clark's breathing still sounded labored, his voice slow and deliberate. "You may hate me, despise what I am, but I'm begging you not to do this. Lois is *not* alien to this planet. She is a person just like you, and if you kill her you're no better than any other murderer."
As he spoke, Clark was steadily working his way up off the floor and into a standing position. Oh, please, don't try anything yet, Lois thought. He was still too weak.
Clark slowly walked out onto the balcony, continuing to try and reason with Aaron. "It's me you want. Not Lois, or her daughter. Can't you see? You say that you're doing what you do to protect the people of this planet, but yet you're willing to kill one of them?"
"She's a friend of yours, and so is no friend of mine or this planet," Aaron spat at Clark, but his anger didn't carry through in his actions. He withdrew the gun from her ribs, but kept it pointed at her.
"That's not true, but, even if it were, it still doesn't give you the right to take her life."
Lois felt Aaron's grip lighten, slightly. It was now or never. In one fluid motion, she pulled her arm forward, jerked her elbow back into his stomach hard, and swung her fist around, knocking the gun away from his hand. It went spinning away across the balcony floor.
Aaron let go of her, hunching over and clasping his stomach. She brought her fists down, hitting him across the back as hard as she could. She started to raise one leg to kick him, but she had misjudged him. He was stronger and more agile than he looked. He recovered from her first attack and grabbed her foot as it came towards him. This caught her off guard, and she began to stumble.
Aaron grabbed ahold of her by her shoulders and hurled her at the door next to Clark. In his weak state, he was barely able to catch her, keeping her from slamming headfirst into the doorframe.
Lois looked back at Aaron. He had jumped up on the balcony edge and was looking around, his eyes darting about wildly. He peered over the edge, looking down, and then stood up.
"You won't take me alive, Superman. I may not be able to finish you off as I'd hoped to, but I'll take my secrets to the grave. You won't learn anything from me. The work will go on," he told them confidently. "Until we meet again." He sneered at them as he fell backwards off the balcony.
"No! Not again!" Clark cried, making his way slowly to the balcony.
It was like Lex all over again. Superman had been unable to save him because of the effects of the Kryptonite cage, and he would be unable to save Aaron. He was too weak. But Lois watched in horror as Clark began climbing up onto the balcony edge.
"No!" she screamed, running to him and grabbing his arm, holding on tightly. "You're too weak, you can't!"
He looked at her sadly. "I know," he reassured her. He looked down towards the ground and appeared to be focusing. "I can't see him," he told her. His *vision* hadn't returned yet.
Lois ran back into the penthouse, stopping to pick up a crying Laura, and called the police. She told them to send an ambulance, for all the good it would do. She'd probably be better off telling them to send a Hearse.
Lois rocked Laura up and down, patting her back and whispering soothing words in her ear. She turned to see Clark walking up behind them. Laura, also seeing him, began to cry again. It hurt Lois to see the pain in her husband's eyes. His baby girl was frightened of him as Superman, and she bet Aaron had something to do with that too.
Lois moved Laura to one hip and used the other side of her body to wrap Clark in an embrace. She pressed her face against his shoulder, hugging him fiercely.
"Oh, Clark, I thought I'd lost you," she told him, squeezing him again. "I'm so sorry. I know what I…"
Clark silenced her attempted apology with a kiss. "Don't even say it, honey. It wasn't your fault," he told her.
Before Lois could say any more, Laura interrupted them, crying again.
Lois let out a long sigh. This wasn't over, not completely. "Maybe you should go change clothes," she suggested. She shifted Laura around so she wasn't facing Clark. "Superman doesn't really need to be here when the police get here, not in his weakened state."
"In a minute. I'll change before they get here. Right now, I want to hold my daughter," he said, reaching for Laura, who had started to calm down once more.
Lois nodded at him, understanding, and handed her to him. He held her up looking into her teary brown eyes and smiled at her. He brought her towards him blowing on her stomach and kissing it. Then, he brought her in close to his body and hugged her gently, whispering in her ear. Lois couldn't hear what he was saying, but Laura seemed to be calming down.
"I can't shy away from her as Superman. I'd have to hide from her all the time. Superman is seen in our house way too frequently, honey. It may take some time, but the nightmares will eventually fade; she'll begin to trust Superman again. She just needs some positive reinforcement," he said, kissing Laura softly on her cheek. She still had a wary look in her eyes but had at least stopped crying.
Lois smiled at both of them, coming up and putting her arms around the two most precious people in the world to her.
"Thank you for seeing us on such short notice, Dr. Klein," Lois said, handing Laura to him. "I just thought we should have you take a look at Laura and Clark after their exposure to the Kryptonite…"
"Mainly Laura," Clark protested, watching Dr. Klein as he fawned over Laura.
Clark had told Lois that he was fine, but she would just feel better after Dr. Klein had a look at him.
Lois reached up to wipe at her eyes. They were watery, and her cheeks felt flushed. How would she have lived with herself if Clark had died from the very Kryptonite that she had put around his neck? It made her heart ache at the pain he'd had to endure. Of course, he'd reassured her over and over that it hadn't been her fault, but it still didn't make it hurt any less.
Lois looked at Clark, taking him in. He stood next to her in his familiar stance, hands in his pockets, looking as boyishly handsome as the first day they'd met. She reached over for him, slipping her arm through his and giving him a gentle squeeze. It was as much for her benefit as it was for his. She'd come so close to losing him, never being able to touch him, hold him, make love to him again. She squeezed him again reassuringly, and he smiled warmly at her, squeezing back.
She watched as Dr. Klein bounced Laura up and down in the air, making funny faces at her. It made Lois grin. She knew he would take great care to make sure Laura was okay and had no lasting effects.
"Yes, especially Laura," Lois agreed. "She hasn't developed any powers yet, that we've noticed, so we don't know how much Kryptonite affects her, or how. We just wanted to make sure she was okay."
Lois reached down, picking up a box that was sitting on the floor. "We also brought the remains of the Subliminator to you," she said, setting the box on a table next to him. "Thought you might be interested in taking a look at it. Clark doesn't want it to fall into the wrong hands, and he doesn't think it should be returned to Fort Truman, either. Superman is going to try to encourage them to discontinue their efforts in this particular field, not that it will probably do any good. We think the children will eventually deprogram on their own, but maybe you can come up with a way to help that process along."
Dr. Klein's eyes sparkled as he eyed the remains of the device. She was sure he'd spend many happy hours pouring over and dissecting it.
"What about the Kryptonite? Did you bring it for me to put in the vault?" Dr. Klein asked them.
"Actually," Clark began, grimacing, "in her haste to get it away from me, Lois threw it off the balcony. We searched the area thoroughly for it, but couldn't find it. Someone else found it first."
It was Lois' turn to grimace. Clark must have noticed because he put his arm around her and squeezed her.
"It's okay, honey," Clark said soothingly. "If you hadn't done that, if you'd just tossed it away, Aaron probably would have gotten his hands on it and finished the job." He hugged her a little tighter and glanced down at her body briefly.
"Oh, and one last thing, Dr. Klein…" Clark began.
Lois interrupted him. She knew where he was going with this. "No. Honey, really. I don't think we want to bother Dr. Klein with *that*."
"Yes, honey. I think we really do. Dr. Klein is an expert in a lot of fields. If he's going to give Laura and I a physical, he might as well take a look at you too."
"Huh?" Dr. Klein asked, puzzled.
"Lois has a lump in her breast that she had examined by her doctor," Clark explained.
Dr. Klein seemed to squirm a bit, probably in anticipation of the pending exam or tests they would want him to perform. Lois couldn't blame him; she doubted breast exams were his specialty.
Clark continued, "They did a biopsy on it and the results came back from the lab positive for cancer. They want to begin treatment on her immediately, possibly even including surgery. We had been thinking about trying to have another baby, and this would effectively put a stop on those plans for now. I just thought it would be good to get a second opinion from someone we trust before we make any decisions."
"Okay, then, let's take a look at all of you. Lois, if you'll leave me the information, I'll call the lab at your doctor's office and have them send your slides over, and a copy of your lab work to look at, as well."
"Sure. I've got the number in my purse," Lois said, grabbing for her purse. She didn't have it. It was still back at the Planet. She hadn't taken it with her when she had gone down to check on Laura. "It seems I left my purse at work. My doctor is Dr. McGrath, but I'll get her number for you when we get back to work and call you."
"Dr. McGrath? Oh yes, I'm familiar with the lab they use. I've actually stolen away some of their research assistants there," Dr. Klein chuckled. "Okay, well, Miss Laura, let's take a look at you first."
The Great Leader awoke, looking around and squinting his eyes.
The man observing him could see the shock in his eyes when the Leader finally saw him sitting in the shadows. The mild sedative Aaron had slipped into the Leader's bourbon the night before would wear off completely within the next hour or so. Aaron could have probably used the Subliminator on him and accomplished the same thing, but something about messing with this great man's mind hadn't appealed to him.
"Aaron? Is that you?" the Leader asked. It took Aaron a few seconds to find his voice.
"Yes, Great Leader," he paused in shame and then continued, "I failed you and the organization." He stopped and forced himself to look the Leader in the eyes. "I have ruined the work we set out to do. I… I did what you asked me not to. I tried to kill Superman. But he and Lois Lane thwarted my attempt, and he managed to destroy the Subliminator in the process."
The Leader had a tired frown on his face. Aaron had failed him. He lowered his eyes again, unable to meet the Leader's gaze any longer.
"What you have said is true. You have failed in our current attempt against Superman. You've lost this battle… but you haven't lost us the war."
Aaron looked back up at him, the surprise no doubt showing in his face. Would he ever cease in underestimating the man?
The Leader continued, "Your heart is in the right place, Aaron. You are young and impulsive, yes, but you can be taught patience. I'm sure you've already learned a great deal from this experience. If you came here thinking I would cast you off for your mistake, you were wrong. We all make mistakes, but there will be more opportunities for you to prove your worth. Your being here right now, in this bunker, tells me that you were able to keep its location secret from Superman. And that is a huge advantage."
Aaron interrupted the Leader's speech by reaching into his pocket and pulling out an object wrapped in cloth. It was emitting an eerie green glow. He handed his treasure over to the Leader. Aaron was now certain that the Leader would come up with a plan for it that was far superior to anything he might have imagined.
The Leader smiled wickedly at the gift offering. "Yes, huge advantage," he repeated. "No, our work, our war, will definitely continue on," he concluded smugly.
Aaron resolved in his heart that he would make this right. He would do whatever the Leader asked of him; no more hidden agendas. Next time, it would be perfect.
Clark sat at his desk, reviewing the piece he and Lois had written. After learning that Lois and Laura — and Superman — were all right, Perry had been thrilled with the Page One material his star reporting team had brought him.
A conversation in the Chief's office tugged at his super hearing. Knowing who was in there and what was going on, he allowed himself to listen in.
"Jimmy…! Boy, I'm so proud of you that I can't see straight! I wondered how long it'd take you to figure out that this girl here was perfect for you. I thought if it took much longer I was going to have to sit you down and have a long talk with you."
Clark glanced into the office to see Perry grip Jimmy in a hug.
"Oh, no, Chief. Anything but that!" Jimmy replied, turning to look at Penny.
"I would have been in here for hours, listening to Elvis yarns," he told her, chuckling.
"Hey, hey, now, don't be talking down about the King," Perry said smiling.
"Well, you two are both lucky to have each other, in my book. You've got a great guy there, Penny," Perry said, giving her a light hug.
"I know it, Perry," she acknowledged. "Listen, would you do me a favor? Would you mind not telling Alice yet? I'm supposed to have lunch with her and Lois sometime next week, and I'd like to be the one to tell her myself."
"Ah heck, yeah, Alice and I try not to talk about work when I'm home anyway. That's our new rule. So I'll just classify this as a work subject and let you do the telling."
It looked like things were wrapping up in there, Clark thought, as he watched them smiling and shaking hands. He pulled his attention away from the office and back to his computer screen. If he didn't get back to work on the story, Perry would be coming out to see what the hold up was.
Clark scrolled down the page, reading at super speed. He was always amazed at his wife's perspective on things and the beautiful way she told a story. She just needed a little help 'editing her copy'. He smiled at the old joke. Clark focused his attention back to the last line of the article.
'Aaron Henderson is still being sought by police in connection with the three kidnappings. After extraordinarily disappearing without a trace from the scene of the crime, his whereabouts are currently unknown. However, with the destruction of the Subliminator, the police are not concerned that the kidnappings will continue. Anyone with information regarding the case is encouraged to contact Inspector Henderson at the downtown precinct.'
That about wrapped it up, Clark thought. He pressed the submit button and sent it on its way to Perry.
He had started to get up when two slender hands placed themselves on his shoulders, pushing him back down. Lois spun his chair around so he could look at her. She bent over him, kissing him sweetly.
"All done?" she asked him.
"Yep. Glad it's done, too."
"Me too. You know, we could cut out of here early. Perry said we've earned some time off. I'm sure we could find something to do to keep us busy the rest of the day," she said, smiling at him wickedly. As if on cue, the phone on Lois' desk interrupted them. "Ugh," she sighed, walking back over to answer it.
"Daily Planet, Lois Lane." She paused, listening.
Clark watched as a huge smile spread across her face. She had a look of… was it relief?
"Yes… uh-huh… really?… That's wonderful!… Okay… Tomorrow at 2:00? I'll be there. Thank you." Lois hung up her phone and ran back over to his desk. Her eyes glistened with tears.
"That was Dr. McGrath. She was calling to let me know that the results of my lab tests had been tampered with. I had called Lizbeth earlier and asked her to fax copies of my file to Dr. Klein. But apparently, in the meantime, Dr. Klein had stopped by the lab to pick up my slides and had also gotten a copy of my results from the lab technician. Here's where it gets interesting. The lab has its own files. They send the originals to the doctors for the patient files, and they keep a copy of what they've sent in the files at the lab. Dr. Klein discovered that neither the slides nor the report from the lab matched up with the report that Lizbeth had faxed to him. The results in the report from Lizbeth had been altered," she told him excitedly.
"Do they know who did it? Or why?" Clark asked her.
"It was Lizbeth, their office assistant. She's the only one who had accessed my records. Once she tampered with the results in my file at the doctor's office, she had to cover her tracks. The records are sent electronically to several other places, which meant that she needed to change the results in the computer system, as well. They checked the security logs for the computer system and found her entry. Now, as for the why, they don't know. She's admitted to having some help doctoring my file, but that's all she would say. She wouldn't give any names." Lois paused, a frown of concentration on her face.
"Clark, do you think she might be involved with SHARP? You know, she seemed very curious about me when I was at the doctor's office, asking me lots of questions. I mean, I know she said she was just updating my file for Dr. McGrath, but…"
"Lois, honey, what did they say about the results?" Clark interrupted her, anxious to know what they had told her. The results must be good. Lois was a babbling brook. She stopped pacing and looked at him sheepishly.
"Oh, sorry," she told him, smiling. Her smile turned playful as she continued, "Well, they want me to come in tomorrow to do another biopsy just to be sure, but let's just say that I definitely think we should take Perry up on that afternoon off."
She grabbed him by the tie, pulling him towards her, and kissed him passionately, without a care to who in the newsroom might be watching.
"After all," she whispered huskily in his ear, "if we're going to *make* another addition to our family any time soon, we'd better get started."
"Oh, that's disgusting! Get a room, you two!" Ralph exclaimed, walking by their desks.
Clark blushed appropriately and then smiled at Lois. "Maybe we should take Ralph up on his suggestion. Ever been to the Lexor Hotel in the middle of the afternoon?" he whispered suggestively before sharing another kiss with her. She giggled softly against his lips.