Trusting Me, Trusting You

By Female Hawk <hawka@iinet.net.au >

Rated PG — 13

Submitted October 2011

Summary: Clark Kent has been trapped in a cell for seven years. Government agent Lois Lane is tormented by grief and traumatic memories. She is assigned to guard the alien prisoner, and together, Lois and Clark find the strength to travel the long journey to healing, trust, love, and freedom.

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Disclaimer — Recognisable characters from the Lois and Clark universe are not mine.

Warning — The PG 13 rating is for implied violence, adult themes, and occasional mild language. There are WHAMs.

Thanks to my trio of wonderful BRs — IolantheAlias, (who read this entire story for a second time as the GE!!) Deja Vu, and Lynn S.M. — thank you for your time, thoughts, insight, and encouragement. Also many thanks to the readers of the Fanfic Message Boards for their enthusiasm and interest in this story.

A/N — I know nothing about how a secret government agency works. (If I did, I probably shouldn’t have written this fic!) It could be that you will read something in the story and figure it wouldn’t work that way. However, it’s also possible that you could read something that did actually happen in real life and draw the same conclusion! Please realise that I’m not trying to accurately portray any government agency (good thing, that!) — I’m trying to tell a story that I hope will prove enjoyable to other FoLCs.

Trusting Me, Trusting You

Prologue

~~ August 2, 1987 ~~

Jason Trask stepped into his office. Directly ahead of him, the wide one-way viewing-window beckoned him forward, but he paused long enough to lock the door behind him before advancing. He slipped the bunch of keys into his pocket, reflecting on the magnitude of his achievement.

Vindication tasted so very sweet.

His work, his dedication, his belief had led to this triumph, and he intended to savour every second of it.

He moved to his desk — positioned centrally in front of the window — and looked down into the prison below. It was a small rectangular room, bleak and eminently inhospitable. There were no windows to the world outside. There was no furniture. The walls were dirty off-white, and the bare concrete floor was dull grey.

The only aberration was the shoulder-height stub of wall that jutted into the room on the far side of the door. It gave a modicum of privacy to the tiny area jammed into the corner that housed the only ‘amenity’ — a toilet; nothing more than a bowl — it didn’t even have a seat.

Until today, this cell had been empty.

Ready. Prepared. Waiting.

But empty.

Until today …

The capture had been meticulously planned and flawlessly executed.

Two years of dedication and determination — beginning the day Jason Trask had been assigned to investigate the discovery of a small spaceship — had led to this.

Trask had overseen the transportation of the spaceship — under the cover of darkness — to the innocuous-looking and remote farmhouse in Nevada that had become his home during the long months of research. He had examined every inch of the alien craft and catalogued it in exacting detail.

From the start, he had been convinced that the spaceship had brought alien life to Earth. But finding evidence of that life had proved frustratingly difficult. As the days had stretched to futile weeks and the weeks to barren months, Trask had come to the realisation that he was pitted against an evil and insidious enemy. Alien forces had sent an infiltrator — someone to live among humans, to pretend to be human — while they collected information and developed a strategy for the successful invasion of Earth.

The size of the spaceship had indicated a young passenger. In order to establish the approximate age the alien would appear now, Trask had needed to determine when the spaceship had landed on Earth.

His most significant clue had been a wildfire that had devoured miles of land to the north of Smallville back in 1957. Initially, Trask had wondered if the spaceship had started the fire, but that path of investigation had closed down when old newspaper reports had revealed the cause to be a spark from a backfiring tractor.

However, the fire had razed the field where the spaceship had been subsequently found. The lack of burn marks on the craft was inconclusive — it had entered the earth’s atmosphere undamaged — but the fact that he had found no trace of ash anywhere on the craft had led him to believe that its arrival had been within the past thirty years.

Therefore, his most likely target was someone who looked like a man in his twenties. A man in his prime. A man grown and ready to strike.

The successful outcome of his previous mission had given Trask sufficient credibility that when he took his conclusions to the higher-ups they had listened. Over the years, he had perfected the art of helping others to see the truth, and he’d convinced those in authority that alien occupation of Earth was a far more pressing danger than any posed by recalcitrant foreign nations. After some debate, the higher-ups had allowed the assignment to continue.

A year and a half into the operation, Trask had had to accept that the spaceship held no definitive clues to the identity, whereabouts, abilities, or appearance of the alien.

By then, he had been hoping that the superiors had all but forgotten about the existence of his operation. It was the ideal situation for him — he received his pay, and he was free to pursue the most urgent issue facing his planet without being bothered by demands for updates or asked probing questions about the exact nature of his discoveries.

However, Trask hadn’t known how long the status quo would remain, and every day, he had dreaded the call that would summon him to headquarters to be informed that his mission had been discontinued.

In desperation, he had returned to the site where the spaceship had been recovered — a field in the boondocks of Kansas — and had begun a solitary and painstaking search of the area.

And then, he’d found it. Or rather, them. Multiple rocks — green in colour and glowing eerily as if lit from within.

With great excitement, Trask had taken them back to his lab, and by the time the call had finally come, he had proven that the rocks were alien in origin.

The higher-ups had issued stern warnings that his time was limited, but they had allowed him to continue.

The rock had no effect on any human, but over the months, Trask had formulated the hypothesis that it might affect the alien. Fearing that the impatience of the higher-ups would result in him being re-assigned and the spaceship and rock being relegated to a forgotten depot, he had decided on his boldest move.

Despite his inclination to work alone, he’d recruited Neville Moyne — a ruthless and uncompromising man Trask had known from a previous mission — and together they had begun canvassing the area near where the spaceship had landed.

Trask couldn’t predict the effect of the rock but — if the alien had taken on human form — it possibly represented the only way to distinguish the invader from the people of Planet Earth.

And how simple it had been.

At the fifth house, a farmer’s wife had answered their knock and invited them in for coffee. They had previously devised a cover story that they were conducting a survey on opportunities for America’s youth. The friendly woman had called in her husband and the son who was home from college for the summer. The moment the son had stepped into the room, he’d collapsed, writhing and clutching his chest in agony.

The woman had rushed forward, and Moyne had restrained her. Despite his pain, the alien had lurched at Moyne. Trask’s gun was out and fired in less than a second. He knew his aim had been true, but the bullet had been ineffectual.

In that moment, Trask had been sure of his triumph. He had uncovered a beast who was impervious to bullets and who experienced a severe reaction to the alien substance — together, they provided abundant evidence of his identity.

The three of them — the alien and the two traitors who had sheltered him — had been hauled away, leaving the half-full coffee cups on the table.

Trask had cast off the traitors to someone else; he had no interest in them. His business was with the alien.

Now, Trask stared down into the formerly empty cell as the intoxicating rush of victory sluiced through his veins. The alien lay in the middle of the concrete floor — exactly where Moyne had dumped him.

Traditional weapons — Trask carried a variety — had been useless against the alien, but the green substance reduced him to a quivering pile of weakness. As they had travelled to Metropolis in the back of a white van, Moyne had more than justified Trask’s decision to include him in this mission. The assistant had been unrelenting in ensuring the alien had no possible opportunity for escape.

After many long hours of travel, they’d arrived at Bessolo Boulevard in Metropolis. Tucked behind the warehouse was an unused — and mostly forgotten — compound that had been grudgingly provided in response to Trask’s demands.

Moyne had dragged the unconscious alien into his new — and final — abode. Certain that he held every advantage, Trask had ordered that the green substance be removed from the cell. He wanted the alien to recover enough to be aware of his vanquishment.

The evil invader would die — there could be no other outcome if the people of Earth were to be saved. But Trask, having spent two years searching for the savage alien, now intended to make his death long and slow and agonising.

He sat at his desk, opened the brand new logbook he had prepared in anticipation of this moment, and picked up a pen.

The alien still hadn’t moved.

August 2, 1987

I have prevailed against the alien threat to the people of Earth. Today, I found, captured, and conquered the monster who was sent here as a precursor to the invasion of our planet. As I write these words, I observe him through the viewing window. His body glistens with still-damp blood from the wounds that were necessarily inflicted to guarantee our safety during the precarious business of transporting him to his cell.

Of pressing importance is the need to deny him any opportunity to communicate with his co-conspirators in this evil plot. I must find answers to the questions regarding the scope of his powers. I must know my enemy thoroughly.

I will show him no mercy. He is not human. He is an animal — a dangerous, vile, depraved animal — who knows nothing but brutality and violence.

His mission was to conquer. His destiny is defeat.

Junction

Part 1

September 28, 1994

~~ Wednesday ~~

There were fifteen minutes until the agreed meeting time.

Fifteen minutes for Daniel Scardino to gather his thoughts.

Although it wouldn’t be completely unexpected if she arrived early.

He’d never met her, but he knew her by reputation. Even in an organisation so secret that people had died rather than admit to its existence, it was hard for someone so brilliant to remain anonymous.

She wasn’t yet thirty — but her string of accomplishments was long and impressive.

She was bold, intuitive, assertive, single-minded, uncompromising, and fearless.

In short, she was the consummate secret agent.

She had needed all of those qualities just to survive her previous assignment.

She should be dead.

The first indication that something had gone awry was the non-appearance of a communiqué scheduled at the halfway point of the twelve-week operation. They had waited and hoped — hamstrung by distance, the volatility of the situation, and the need to ensure that their enquiries did not increase the danger to their agents.

Then, a month later — when there had seemed no possible outcome other than a double tragedy — they’d received information that one of their agents was alive and had reached a US embassy.

Daniel shook his head in disbelief. She’d escaped. She’d survived. Unaided, she’d gotten herself to safety.

And — thanks to the protocol that families were not to be given any information until either the conclusion date for an operation had passed or a body had been recovered — her viability had been preserved.

She still had her life and she still had her career.

She’d been back in the States for a month now and was insisting that she was ready to return to work — hence their meeting.

It was precisely because of the standing of the woman that Daniel had doubts. The assignment he was going to offer her wasn’t worthy of her abilities. She could do so much more.

But, for reasons she had chosen not to divulge, she had requested a Metropolis assignment. Perhaps she was tired of the constant travelling. Perhaps the recent events had subdued her compulsion to flirt with danger. Perhaps she no longer felt the need to test herself against the most evil and ruthless of people.

Whatever her reasons, she had been firm in her resolve that she wished to remain in Metropolis for an indefinite period.

Currently, there was only one such assignment available.

Daniel wasn’t convinced she would take it. What possible motivation could there be for her to accept? It was nothing more than one of those embarrassing situations that happened in an organisation such as theirs. Jason Trask had — in the uptight and borderline-neurotic world of secret government agencies — detected something he believed represented a significant threat. He had followed through, and now, with the passing of time, they were left with a situation that was impossible to annul but had been all but forgotten by everyone except those directly involved.

This morning, Daniel had spoken to Anstruther — who had been the assistant to the higher-up who had authorised this mission nearly a decade ago. Anstruther hadn’t liked it then, and he wanted nothing to do with it now.

He’d been unusually candid in his condemnation of Trask as a man who took delight in the less savoury — although sometimes unavoidable — aspects of their job.

But none of that mattered now.

Two nights ago, Trask had stepped between two parked cars and onto a busy city street. He’d been hit by an oncoming bus and had died at the scene. There would be an investigation — that was standard procedure following the death of an agent — but from what Daniel had heard, it was a straightforward case of a lack of concentration leading to a disastrous outcome.

Daniel’s intercom buzzed, and his secretary informed him that Lois Lane had arrived.

He stood from his chair and opened his office door to greet her.

She was beautiful.

And strikingly feminine.

He shook her hand, said all the right words, and inwardly concluded that looking so petite and delicate was probably an advantage she had learned to exploit.

She sat in the chair, folded one impeccably shaped leg over the other, and faced him with a polite, aloof expression. Daniel became aware of how long the silence had stretched, and he smiled, hoping to ease into their discussion. She was the sort of woman who captured your attention and didn’t let go easily. His knowledge of her achievements intensified his fascination.

She didn’t return his smile. “Do you have an assignment for me, Mr Scardino?”

“Please,” he said. “Call me ‘Daniel’.”

She nodded, but her face remained impassive. It was easy to see how she could be so effective in what she did. She looked like a soft, gentle, easy-target woman that most men in this business would believe didn’t represent any sort of challenge to them.

Her list of successful missions suggested they were rarely any sort of challenge to her.

“I have an assignment,” Daniel began. “But I have reservations about offering it to you.”

“Do you think it is beyond my abilities?” she asked coolly.

“No,” he quickly assured her. “Far from it. In fact, I believe it would be a waste of your talents. But there is nothing else available that would accommodate your request to be stationed in Metropolis for a lengthy period of time.”

Daniel paused, giving her the opportunity should she choose to reveal the reasons behind her request — a request that she had to know would stall her career.

She said nothing, so he continued.

“Some time ago, one of our agents, Jason Trask, believed that Earth was under threat from an alien invasion.”

Her expression didn’t flicker with even a hint of reaction.

“His investigation was extensive — some would say extreme — and he eventually succeeded in capturing the alien.”

“Is the prisoner an alien?” she asked. “Or merely someone different enough to elicit prejudice?”

“I have never seen the prisoner,” Daniel admitted. “He’s locked away, and no one goes there other than Trask and his assistants.”

The perfect arches of her eyebrows lifted. “It is possible that we have an alien being, but no one is interested?”

“There was interest when Trask first started sprouting his theories, but over time, many in authority have dismissed it as nothing more than his overactive imagination.”

“How did he get authorisation for the capture?”

“Trask’s convictions were unshakeable. He could be a very persuasive person. And fear of the unknown is a great motivator.”

She eyed him steadily, as if she’d discerned that there was more to the story.

“There was an incident early in Trask’s career,” Daniel said. “He was given an assignment that was beyond his capabilities and skills, and the results were … unfortunate. For him.”

“So, because of that, those in authority kowtowed to his whims?”

“That’s probably a reasonably accurate assessment,” Daniel admitted.

“How do we know that the person locked away isn’t a human being who provoked Trask’s bigotry?”

“You don’t believe in alien life?”

“What I believe is irrelevant.”

Daniel gestured to a tattered and bulging folder that lay on his desk. “According to Trask’s notes, the prisoner displayed characteristics that cannot be considered human.”

“Such as?”

“He’s phenomenally strong. He can levitate. He can see through walls. He can move faster than the eye can follow.”

“Did anyone else witness these things? The levitation, for instance?”

“No other witnesses are mentioned. Trask noted the incidents during the early days of the incarceration. They aren’t mentioned in later notes.”

“So either Trask believed they were no longer worth noting, or the phenomena stopped?”

Daniel nodded and then continued. “The prisoner is impervious to bullets. According to an early entry in Trask’s log, the alien attacked Trask, and Trask’s men shot him. The bullets merely ricocheted off him.”

“Was he wearing a vest?”

“No. He was naked at the time.”

Ms Lane gave no evident reaction to this information. “Anything else?” she asked.

“Trask writes of the prisoner as if he’s more beast than human. He’s feral, dirty, animalistic, uncommunicative, and unintelligent.”

“Has he been studied? Have we tried to learn from him?”

“Trask believed there was nothing to learn from such an unevolved barbarian … that he has no aptitude other than a fundamental instinct for destruction.”

“But surely, if he has come from another planet, he must know of, or have access to, technology in advance of ours.”

“Trask was unsuccessful in obtaining anything useful from the alien.”

“We haven’t even tried to study him … to study his physiology?” Ms Lane asked. She’d leant forward a few degrees, as if something had sparked her interest. “To see if he can communicate, albeit in another language? To test his abilities? To discover how he can be bullet-proof? We haven’t tried to work with him?”

“Trask’s only objective was to ensure that the captive didn’t use his frightening strength and extraordinary speed to attack the Earth and its people.”

“So, on the one hand we believe he is smart enough to defeat six billion humans, and on the other, we believe there is nothing we could learn from him?”

Daniel felt the sting of her question — as he was sure was her intention. “Trask believed that he is the infiltrator — the first of many.”

His answer was weak, and they both knew it. “Surely someone was interested enough to bypass Trask and find some answers?”

“Only a handful of people are aware of this operation,” Daniel said. “It was added to my portfolio two years ago when O’Brien retired. From the little I’ve managed to establish, it seems that every research proposal was quashed by Trask’s belief that the alien is an ignorant and dangerous savage.”

“How long since he was captured?”

Scardino swallowed uncomfortably. “Seven years,” he said.

For the first time, the woman’s response was spontaneous and unbridled. “Seven years?” she exclaimed. “He’s been in custody for seven years?”

Scardino took refuge in the notes, not wanting her to detect his annoyance that a predicament of someone else’s making had been dumped onto him, meaning he now had to try to justify it to the very cool — and very beautiful — Ms Lois Lane. “It’s become one of those problems that plague this agency,” he said. “No one knows exactly what to do now. No one really cares. Only Trask was totally convinced that he posed a threat, but he has killed two men, so he can never be released.”

“The prisoner has killed?” she asked evenly.

“Yes, twice. Both were assistants who went into his cell without protection.”

“What sort of protection?”

Daniel picked up a notebook and flitted through it. “There’s a substance that Trask refers to as ‘Achilles’. He believed that it originates from the alien’s home planet.” He looked up from the book. “This is the log that Trask kept since the capture in 1987. The loose papers in the folder are Trask’s speculation and theories post-capture. There are three boxes of research notes from before then — detailing how he concluded that there was an alien on Earth and how he tracked him down. If you’re interested, I can get them to you.”

She nodded tersely. “What are the logistics of his imprisonment?”

“There are three assistants — Moyne, Longford, and Shadbolt. They work nine-hour shifts around the clock, with the overlapping hours used to do anything requiring two people. The remaining time, they guard his cell.”

“Do they actually enter his cell?”

“Yes — to take him food and other necessities. After the first death, Trask made a rule that no one was to enter the cell without the alien substance.”

“Achilles?” Ms Lane questioned, and Daniel thought he detected a hint of possible amusement in her lovely brown eyes. “How does it offer protection?”

“It has a debilitating effect on the alien — it reduces his strength and nullifies his other abilities. The men carry it with them when they enter his cell — and that ensures their safety.”

“What would be my role?”

“You would oversee the operation. Your primary responsibility would be to ensure that the alien remains in captivity. The three assistants would be directly answerable to you. Also, you would be expected to cover a shift should they be unavailable for any reason.” Scardino closed the notebook and returned it to the folder. “You would have complete control over the alien — if you wanted to make an attempt at communication, it would be your call.”

“But, really, all I have to do is keep him in his cell?”

“Yes.” Daniel winced internally at her tone. As he’d thought, this was way below her level of competence. Perhaps now was the time to emphasise the hazards of the mission. “Although I should warn you that the alien is not to be taken lightly. I have seen the photos of the men he mauled to death. They provide conclusive evidence to support Trask’s belief that, without the Achilles substance, the alien reverts to a frenzied killer.”

“But with the Achilles, it’s safe?”

“I wouldn’t advise entering the cell at all — even with the Achilles.”

“Sounds like a cushy job.”

She wasn’t going to take it. She was probably offended that he had even offered it to her. “If he were to escape, the ramifications could be horrific,” Daniel said. “It is imperative that we avoid the scenario of a deranged and powerful killer bent on revenge.”

“Why has Trask left the assignment?”

“He died two days ago.”

She paled, but tried to make it less conspicuous by pushing her hair behind her ear. “Did the prisoner kill him?”

“No. Trask walked onto a road — and was hit by a bus.”

That information brought no reaction. “When do I start?”

“You’re going to accept the assignment?” Daniel asked, trying not to sound dumbfounded.

She nodded. “I need to be in Metropolis for personal reasons for the foreseeable future. If this is the only assignment that allows me to stay here, I’ll take it. Where is the prisoner kept?”

“There’s a disused warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard. Behind the warehouse is a small compound.”

Ms Lane stood and held out her hand for the file. “Thank you, Mr Scardino.”

“I don’t need to tell you that everything in this file is highly confidential — that even the suggestion of alien life on Earth would create a public panic.”

“And the suggestion that we have imprisoned an innocent man without trial for seven years would create a media frenzy,” she noted dryly.

“Unfortunately … yes.”

She took the file and walked from the room.

Daniel sighed. She was far too good to be babysitting a monster.

***

~~ Sunday ~~

Lois lurched, her breath ripping from her lungs in short stabs, and her heart pummelling a tattoo against her sternum.

She stood from the couch and slowly scanned her apartment, needing to assure herself that she was here.

Not there.

Since she had returned to the States, it had been happening a lot.

She would suddenly awaken — not from sleep, but from an almost trance-like state where the horrors lurked on the edges of her consciousness.

Then would come the moment when they would burst through her fragile barriers and swamp her with paralysing fear.

Lois took one pace forward and then another.

She put her hands on her hips and swivelled slowly, stretching her neck and back muscles.

She ran her hands through her hair, knowing she would mess it, but not caring.

Her breathing had almost returned to normal. Her heartbeat would follow. Eventually.

She needed something to occupy her mind.

It was too early for bed. Although time wasn’t the deciding factor in determining when her day ended — exhaustion was.

Without sufficient levels of exhaustion, sleep would turn away like a rejected suitor.

And she would lie awake … vulnerable and unprotected against the ferocious attack of her memories.

She needed something to do.

The offerings on television were too inane.

Books required a level of concentration she no longer possessed.

Friends … she grunted bitterly. Friends were a luxury not afforded to people in her job.

And anyway … she didn’t want to think about friends.

Because that would lead to thoughts of her best friend … and those memories were tightly locked away, chained and bound in the furthest, darkest compartment of her mind.

Lois snatched the tattered folder from her counter and sank into her couch.

She forced herself to open it.

It held many loose sheets of paper — all covered with small intense handwriting. It looked as if someone had hastily scooped up the haphazard contents of a desk drawer and bundled them into the folder.

There was also a thick notebook — labelled ‘Log — August 1987 -> ‘.

Lois put the folder and sheets on the couch, trying to ignore that her paltry dregs of interest were draining away like a dam with broken banks. Clearly, this whole subject had enthralled Trask and driven him to devote his time, energy, and thoughts to the oppression of the captured individual.

Lois had no such interest.

For the first time in her career, this was merely a job — a way to pay the bills while she gave some attention to what her mother had termed ‘her long-neglected family responsibilities’.

She had hoped for a desk job — preferably a position requiring minimal contact with people and little in terms of commitment or emotional involvement.

A position where she could try to recover. Gain some perspective. Decide whether her overwhelming lethargy was a passing phase or whether she really had lost all desire for the challenge of the job.

If she were honest, she’d lost all desire for life.

She was bone-weary.

Drained.

Dry.

Callous.

She opened the cover of the notebook.

The first page contained a list of the significant events since the alien — if indeed he were an alien — had been captured.

Lois ran her finger down the page.

Deller killed — November 2, 1988.

And ten or so lines further down …

Bortolotto killed — February 15, 1992.

Lois flicked through the log to November 1988.

November 2, 1988

He killed today.

Deller and Moyne entered the cell, and the animal attacked Deller. Despite the valiant efforts of Moyne, the kill was swiftly and expertly accomplished.

Deller had become lax in obeying the rules — fatally so. He entered the cell with Moyne, but only Moyne was armed with the Achilles rod.

The monster saw his chance and took it.

A picture formed in Lois’s head — a graphic picture of a victim’s lifeless body being mauled in a fury of manic hatred.

She strangled the image until it finally faded away. She took a calming breath. She flicked further into the notebook and found the entry dated February 15, 1992.

He killed again.

Moyne and Bortolotto entered the cell to take him food. As they placed the food on the floor, he sprang on them from behind, killing Bortolotto instantly. Moyne ran for his life — and watched, horrified and helpless, as the beast mauled the broken body of his prey.

I will take revenge for the deaths of two fellow humans. I will be untiring in pursuing justice. The animal must suffer and die for what he has done.

Revulsion swirled through Lois’s stomach and pushed bitter tendrils into her throat. She swallowed them down. She couldn’t let them win … couldn’t let the evil and destruction and hatred and violence overpower her.

She must be aloof. Distant. Unaffected. Detached.

She wouldn’t let them win.

She opened at a random page near the front of Trask’s log and continued reading.

December 22, 1987

The ceiling, walls and viewing window of the cell were lined with lead today. Now, I can observe him, but he cannot observe me — or anything beyond the four walls of his prison.

He is trapped.

The savage brute continues to be openly hostile and opportunistic when looking for means to harm humans. Our attempts to interact are met with surly and rebellious rejection. I have ordered that no one is to enter his cage alone or without the protection afforded by the Achilles rods.

He continues to fight us and clearly seeks a way to escape and resume his mission to conquer the Earth. Means of control include limiting his food and water and withholding all mental stimulation.

Regular discipline sessions are deemed necessary.

His body might appear to be invulnerable, but I am confident that his spirit can be broken.

Lois turned a few more pages.

March 1, 1988

Today, I strengthened my position over the enemy. We exposed him to the Achilles for a full twelve hours overnight, leaving him weak and defenceless this morning. The surgery was performed by Moyne and Shadbolt.

January 13, 1989

The slow tide of victory continues to turn my way. The beast no longer attempts to attack the assistants when they enter his cage. At the sound of the door opening, he turns towards the far wall and cowers like a frightened kitten.

He hasn’t given up his daily physical exercise, and consequently, his body remains in sound condition despite the ignominy of his life.

I will not rest until his spirit is broken and his body is beaten to a pulp. The safety of the human race depends on the emphatic defeat of this alien invader.

December 6, 1991

The battle to overcome the threat to our planet continues. The brute is a despicable beast — his ability to survive such squalor confirms that he is nothing more than a dirty, contemptible animal. He doesn’t deserve to live.

His body is haggard, and death is slowly advancing. His stamina and will to dominate are frightening, but justice will prevail, and our planet will be saved from this alien aggressor.

Although he hasn’t shown even a spark of resistance in many months, I have ordered the resumption of discipline sessions. This battle against evil has consumed almost ten years of my life, but it is a worthy fight, and victory is both necessary and much-anticipated.

September 19, 1994

Victory draws ever closer.

Through a planned and precise program of mental and physical disintegration, the monster has been reduced to little more than a shell. His heart still beats, but surely that cannot continue for much longer.

His resistance is broken. His death is near.

I am confident I have won.

Lois shut the notebook.

Actually, you didn’t win, she thought. You’re dead, and the one you worked so fervently to overpower is still alive.

Why was that?

How could any individual still be alive after seven years of the sort of treatment documented by Trask?

Had Trask tried to kill him and failed?

Or had Trask relished his position of absolute power so much that he’d deliberately prolonged the assignment?

Lois had heard of Trask before. His name was whispered among agents occasionally — he was considered a loose cannon whose scant achievements had been embellished enough that, when spoken of in high places, they had impressed those who made the decisions. On the ground though, there were few who wanted to work with him.

Flicking through the papers, Lois found one with a floor plan that probably represented the area that was to be her domain until her future became clearer.

It contained three rooms. One half of the floor plan was designated as the ‘cell’. It was rectangular in shape with the only irregularity being a stub of wall that jutted into the room a few feet from the only door. There was no external window — only one into the ‘viewing room’, which was on the mezzanine level and doubled as her office.

Under the office was a small room labelled the ‘staffroom’. The door of the cell opened into this room, and Lois surmised that it was probably where her three assistants passed the time as they guarded the alien.

She tossed the sheet of paper onto the coffee table and moved to her fridge. She took the chocolate fudge ice cream from the freezer and plucked a spoon from the drawer.

Tomorrow, she started her new assignment.

She wasn’t looking forward to it.

She wasn’t dreading it.

It was just something that needed to be done.

She would ensure that the prisoner did not escape — that definitely would not look good on her record — but beyond that, she had no interest in him, or his predicament, or discovering exactly what he’d done to cause such hatred in Trask.

***

~~ Monday ~~

The next morning, Scardino met Lois on Bessolo Boulevard and took her behind the warehouse to the much smaller structure squeezed into the alcove created by the surrounding tall buildings. Scardino unlocked the door, and they proceeded past a small flight of steps and into the room where her three assistants awaited her.

Scardino made the introductions, and Lois nodded, instinctively assessing each man in seconds. Shadbolt was cool and distant. His grip was limp when they shook hands. She figured he objected to having a woman as his boss. The fact she was half his age just made it worse.

Longford was apathetic — he wanted to avoid anything requiring effort, collect his pay cheque, and mark time until his retirement.

Moyne was a small, wiry man in his mid thirties. He smiled. Welcomed her. Offered to help her with information — or anything else she needed in acclimatising to her new position. Offered to take her into the cell now — or any time she wished.

Lois didn’t trust him.

Not for one moment.

He smelled of stale cigarette smoke.

Once the introductions were done with, Scardino gave her a bunch of four keys, and made a hasty departure for another appointment. Lois climbed the stairs and unlocked the room that would be her office. She stepped in, turned on the light, and surveyed her new workplace. The top half of the far wall was one-way glass — giving her an unrestricted view into the cell.

To the right was a padlocked closet that ran the length of the side wall; to the left were three rows of shelves, positioned about head height. Above the shelves was a long, narrow window — the only avenue for enticing natural light into the room.

It was covered by a thick, black curtain.

Lois put her bag on the floor, dragged the chair backwards, and clambered onto it. She pushed back the curtain, and a cloud of dust drifted into the air.

She dropped lightly to the floor and looked around the room. The desk, the shelves — even the trashcan — had the appearance of having been untouched since Trask had walked out for the final time. He hadn’t been a particularly tidy man. Three cups — all with dark coffee stains around the rim — stood like guards amidst the clutter of papers that covered the desk.

Although someone — probably Scardino — had come to get the folder.

The office had the same heavy miasma as a funeral home.

Or perhaps that was just her.

With a long, slowly released breath, Lois lifted her head and looked forward. She could see the far wall of the cell, but not the occupant.

She stepped forward, wishing this didn’t feel so much like gawking at a carnival freak show.

The room was stark and bare.

Nothing.

No bed. No table. No books. No blankets.

Behind the shoulder-height stump of wall was a tiny area that she guessed housed the toilet.

But there was nothing else.

Lois’s hand covered her mouth as her eyes were drawn to the prisoner.

He was striding towards her along the side wall of his enclosure. Was that what he did to fill the empty hours? Walk to nowhere?

Regardless of his state of mind seven years ago, it was entirely possible that by now, his imprisonment had damaged it beyond repair.

And that was without Trask’s other ‘efforts’ to break the spirit of his captive. The ‘discipline sessions’? What did they entail?

The prisoner wore nothing but a pair of ragged, ill-fitting shorts.

His hair was long and reached down his back in a matted mess. His beard was straggly and hung from his face like a dark shag carpet.

His body was gaunt. His bones protruded from under skin that almost seemed translucent.

He reached the corner and turned. Lois gasped at the sight of his back. A large, oval-shaped blotch covered the area from between his shoulder blades to the lower levels of his rib cage.

It was red and angry-looking. Lois wasn’t sure if it were a burn or a graze, but she was sure that he hadn’t done it to himself. If he had been driven to self-harm — and she’d seen that sort of behaviour in people who had endured far less than he had — his wounds would be on his legs, forearms, or perhaps his stomach.

His cell was empty. He had no means to inflict damage on himself.

He reached the back wall and turned again. Lois leant forward. On closer inspection, she could see that his body was covered in welts, gashes, and other signs of physical abuse.

Lois sank heavily into the chair, closed her eyes, and grappled for some perspective.

She had witnessed torture before.

She had seen the results.

But this …

There was something appallingly perverse in what Trask had done here.

She needed to observe dispassionately. Lois rubbed her eyes, hooked her hair behind her ear, and forced herself to look again.

He was very tall. His posture was straight and his shoulders broad. That, and the lack of grey in his hair, gave him an illusory impression of youthfulness. He was probably over fifty, but in different circumstances, he could have appeared to be a decade younger.

His hair hung limply over his forehead, and his beard covered his cheeks and jaw, making it difficult to distinguish individual facial features.

She hadn’t known what to expect. Trask hadn’t included a physical description in his notes. The prisoner looked surprisingly human. Uncivilised and unkempt … but still human.

Once, her natural inclination would have been to leap in — to go down into the cell just to see how he reacted to her presence. Would he identify her as being a new person? Could he differentiate between human faces?

Would he be aggressive? Indifferent? Cautious?

Once, she would have burned with curiosity and been unable to rest until she had ferreted out the answers to a myriad of questions.

Not now, though.

Was that good thing? Was that what her mother would have called ‘common sense’? Or ‘maturity’?

Or had despair and disillusionment and cynicism crept upon her years before their time?

Lois didn’t know.

She probably should care, but she didn’t have the energy.

She probably should have accepted their offer of counselling.

She probably shouldn’t have pulled off such a convincing act of wellness during the compulsory session with the shrink.

Should she go into the cell now? The prisoner was awake.

She decided against it.

That was another change.

The young, carefree version of Lois Lane hadn’t thought too much about risk — not until after the event, anyway. But now — she certainly didn’t want to end her life and her career on the floor of a cell at the hands of an alien. Possible alien.

So, she would observe — from the distance and safe sterility of her office.

Part 2

An hour later, Lois had divided the contents of the shelves and desk drawers into two categories — personal and business. She packed Trask’s belongings into boxes, reflecting how much could be deduced about a person from his possessions.

Trask had kept only one photograph in his office. It was a snapshot of a humble house with a neat, if uninspiring, garden. The camera — she presumed — had been held at an angle. Either that, or the house was in mortal danger of sliding down the slope.

He liked a drink — bourbon whiskey being his preference.

He read books. His collection included fiction of the murder mystery genre and non-fiction books about medieval times.

He enjoyed crossword puzzles. He’d hoarded at least ten books of puzzles. All the puzzles he’d attempted had been completed — except for one — presumably the one he had intended to finish the following day.

There was something unspeakably sad about the solitary unfinished puzzle. Sad — and disconcerting. Death had lurked at arm’s length for years, but nothing had ever rammed home her own mortality as definitively as a crossword puzzle half-completed by a man she’d never met.

Lois shut the book and added it to the box.

She straightened and glanced through the viewing window.

The prisoner was lying on the floor on his stomach. As Lois watched, his arms straightened, and his upper body — ramrod straight — lifted.

He was doing push-ups?

An alien? Doing push-ups?

That suggested a whole lot more ‘humanness’ than anything she’d read in Trask’s notes.

It suggested a fundamental knowledge of the body — that it required exercise. It showed an understanding of cause and effect. Could it be indicative of the ability to plan ahead? Was it possible that, despite all of Trask’s efforts and the length of time that had passed, the prisoner hadn’t given up the hope of freedom?

Or perhaps, by now, it had become his habit to cling desperately to anything that even hinted of normalcy.

He suddenly stopped, lumbered to his feet, and shuffled to the back left corner of the room. He sat down — with his right shoulder propped against the wall. His head turned, and his eyes fixed on the door of his enclosure.

Lois leant forward and looked down and to her right. The door opened, and Shadbolt entered. He carried a thick rod in one hand. It was about four-feet long, and it had a roughly hewn chunk of glowing green rock secured to the top of it. In his other hand, he held a small plastic mug containing a liquid that looked like water.

Lois’s eyes swung to the prisoner.

His shoulders had curled inwards, and his head had dropped into his hands. Lois grabbed the binoculars she had found in Trask’s drawer and put them to her eyes.

The prisoner’s fingers were buried in the entanglement of his hair. His knuckles protruded like snow-capped mountains, and the muscles of his forearms bulged with tension.

Shadbolt placed the cup on the concrete floor and left the cage.

The door shut, but the prisoner didn’t move. Lois waited, her eyes trained on him, her breath stalled. Finally, his shoulders heaved, and his head slowly lifted from his hands.

Lois raised the binoculars again and focussed on his face.

Pain was engraved into his posture, seeded in the tightness of his mouth, etched into the strained muscles of his neck.

His skin was slightly flushed. His eyes were dark as they peered out from their sunken pits, giving an impression of eeriness that seemed almost …

Almost alien.

Lois dropped the binoculars to the table.

Scardino had said that the Achilles rod was necessary to control the prisoner. Trask’s notes had confirmed this. Neither had mentioned that the rod caused him pain.

But having witnessed a single occurrence of the rod entering his cell, Lois had no doubt.

Being exposed to it didn’t just disable him — it hurt him.

Trask had insisted that the Achilles rods were a necessity.

The prisoner had killed twice already.

But this was … Lois pushed the word away before it could form in her mind.

It snuck back.

Inhuman. This was inhuman.

Trask had believed that the prisoner wasn’t human — that he’d come to Earth to destroy and conquer. But did that mean he deserved to be treated with abject cruelty?

The prisoner hauled himself to his feet and stood for a moment with one hand on the wall to assist his balance.

He walked unsteadily towards the mug, picked it up, and drank eagerly. He lowered it to chest level and stared at the liquid.

Lois leant across her desk and looked down at him. He was only a few yards away, and she could see his face clearly. The skin of his cheeks was mottled and scaly. His lower lip — almost hidden by the fringe of facial hair on his upper lip — was cracked and dry.

He raised the cup, but before it reached his mouth, he lowered it again.

He plunged his other hand into the water and ran his dripping fingers across his eyes and cheeks.

He was washing!

He dipped his fingers into the water again and cleaned the rest of his face.

Then, he carefully placed the cup on the ground, swept back the hair from his forehead, and washed under where it normally fell. He continued to his neck and throat.

The cup was almost empty. He poured the remainder of the water into his palm and then quickly splashed it onto his chest.

After rubbing vigorously — though surely with limited effect — he dried his hands on his shorts and then attempted to dry his face with his hands.

Lois picked up Trask’s notebook and searched for one of the entries she had read the previous night. She found it.

December 6, 1991

The battle to overcome the threat to our planet continues. The brute is a despicable beast — his ability to survive such squalor confirms that he is nothing more than a dirty, contemptible animal. He doesn’t deserve to live.

Dirty?

He certainly looked dirty — and Lois didn’t even want to think about what he smelled like — but from what she’d witnessed, his filthy state seemed to be something that had been imposed on him rather than his own choosing.

Had they given him toiletries early in his imprisonment, and he hadn’t used them?

Or had he somehow found a way to turn soap and water into a weapon?

Or was this just another aspect of Trask’s plan to ‘break his spirit’?

Lois frowned. What possible danger could there be in simple grooming items?

Should she order that he be provided with a bowl of water?

That would mean exposing him to another dose of the Achilles rod.

She paused. Undecided.

What would he want?

Was he capable of wanting anything? Anything beyond basic instincts?

Sudden realisation erupted in her mind.

He had wanted to drink the rest of the water!

He was thirsty, but he had chosen to wash himself instead of satisfying his thirst.

He was dehydrated! That explained the sunken eyes and the rough skin.

Lois lurched from her seat and tore out of her office. She stopped, returned to pick up her keys, and locked her door.

She forced herself to walk sedately down the short flight of stairs and into the staffroom. Shadbolt was there, drinking coffee and reading a magazine entitled Astronomy.

He looked up sullenly.

“Why did you take a cup of water into the prisoner?” Lois enquired.

He gestured to a piece of paper pinned to the corkboard. She crossed to it and saw it was a timetable. Today, the prisoner was to be given water at ten in the morning and food at eight o’clock this evening. The next four days were listed — the times changed inexplicably, but most days involved only the provision of food and water. Yesterday’s program had included a discipline session, and another one was scheduled for Wednesday.

Lois turned to Shadbolt. “Who ordered this?”

“Trask.”

She didn’t want to ask, but she had the feeling that a verbal description would be preferable to witnessing it unfold before her. “What’s involved in a ‘discipline session’?”

“Two of us beat the alien with the Achilles rods.”

His tone — so unaffected, so blasé — churned bile through her stomach, but Lois leached all disgust from her tone as she asked, “How often are these discipline sessions deemed necessary?”

“Twice a week. Sometimes more.”

“What dictates their frequency? The behaviour of the prisoner?”

“No,” Shadbolt said. “How quickly his wounds heal from the last one.”

He was deliberately trying to shock her, but Lois had seen too much to be overtly affected by someone like Shadbolt. “When does he get soap and water?” she asked.

“He doesn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s not here for a vacation.”

“I want you to get a bowl of water, some soap, a washcloth, and a towel, and take them into the cell.”

Shadbolt made no effort to hide his contempt. Lois wasn’t sure if it were directed at her or at the prisoner. “Why?”

“Because they are my orders.”

His upper lip curled. “So, you’re either a do-gooder or a megalomaniac who gets a cheap thrill out of exploiting her power?”

“I want it done now,” Lois directed.

“Trask made a strict rule that we are not to enter the cage alone.”

“You were alone when you took him the cup of water.”

“That was my choice,” Shadbolt said. “I cannot be forced to risk my personal safety.”

His experience of the job was clearly very different from hers. “Are you refusing to comply with my instruction?” Lois asked.

“Are you going to stand here and watch me to make sure I do as Madam has ordered?”

Lois pinned her gaze straight into his pale blue eyes. “Will that be necessary?”

He took a long slow swig from his coffee. “I know you can see into the cage from your office.” He stood and walked past her. “But I also know that if I don’t comply, there is very little you can do.” He turned to her and smirked. “Because we both know you will never enter the cage.”

“A bowl of water, soap, a washcloth, and a towel,” Lois said. “I want the water clean, the bowl almost full, and the towel dry.”

Shadbolt’s eyes narrowed to an unpleasant squint, but he said nothing.

“Don’t mess with me,” Lois said in a low voice. “If you do, it won’t be me who loses.”

He didn’t respond verbally, and she watched as he sauntered away.

Twenty minutes passed after she’d returned to her office. The prisoner spent the time sitting on the concrete, his back against the wall, one arm draped across one raised knee. He stared ahead, his face blank. What did he think about?

Escape?

After all this time, could his mind still stretch beyond these walls to the world outside?

Did he remember his life before?

Did he dwell on revenge?

Did he ever think about the men he had killed?

Lois had just about decided that Shadbolt wasn’t going to do as she had directed when the prisoner’s head suddenly jolted towards the door.

He turned away, and his upper body collapsed over the arch of his knees.

Shadbolt walked in, carrying a bowl and a rod. He carefully placed a full plastic bowl — slightly larger than a dinner plate in diameter — on the floor. He straightened and slid his hand into the pocket of his jeans. He withdrew an old, hardened cake of soap and positioned it next to the bowl.

“Hurry up,” Lois muttered urgently as she glanced to the prisoner. “Can’t you see what this does to him?”

Shadbolt withdrew a rag from his shirt pocket and folded it before laying it next to the soap.

Finally, he lifted the towel that was slung across his shoulder. He spread the towel on the concrete and then knelt next to it and ran his hand across it to flatten it.

“Just get out of there,” Lois muttered.

Shadbolt picked up the cup, stood to his feet, saluted insolently in her direction, and took himself and the rod out of the cell.

The extended exposure had compounded the effect on the prisoner. The muscles of his back were twitching, and it was almost five minutes later when he unfolded from his position. He stood shakily, steadied himself, and then looked up.

Even his beard couldn’t hide the depth of his astonishment.

He scanned the room.

Then, with swift jerky steps, he crossed to the bowl.

He sank to his knees.

He cupped his hands together and leant over.

For almost a minute, he drank. His actions were restrained and deliberate. Was that just his way? Or was he being careful not to spill even a drop of the water? Or did he understand the importance of rehydrating slowly?

After he’d finished drinking, he wet the cloth, brushed the soap across it, and washed his face and beard. He hung the rag on the side of the bowl, soaped his hands, and proceeded to wash his hair.

He leant over the bowl and dipped his hair into the water, splashing water through it. He picked up the towel and patted his dripping face. He vigorously dried his hair, leaving it spiked like a woolly hedgehog. Lois felt a smile tug at her mouth. Now he really looked like a Wildman.

He worked down his body — arms, chest, sides — methodically soaping, rinsing, drying.

He was familiar with the items.

And he had the desire to be clean.

Having finished his upper body, he stood and undid the button of his shorts.

Lois turned away.

Human or not, he deserved a scrap of privacy.

Half an hour later, she ventured a peek into the cell — and gasped.

The bowl was empty. The cloth was in the bowl, with the soap resting on top of it. The towel was neatly folded and placed next to the bowl.

The prisoner — dressed in his shorts — had returned to sitting against the back wall.

He was certainly cleaner.

He didn’t look so … tormented.

Lois picked up a marker and hovered above Trask’s December ‘91 entry. She put a thick red line through the word ‘dirty’, slapped the book shut, and reclined in her chair.

For the first time in weeks, she didn’t have to search for something to occupy her mind.

She had made the most fundamental mistake possible.

She had assumed something.

She’d assumed that before the prisoner had been captured, he had lived in the wilds like … an animal.

Lois picked up the notebook and turned to the first entry.

August 2, 1987

I have prevailed against the alien threat to the people of Earth. Today, I found, captured, and conquered the monster who was sent here as a precursor to the invasion of our planet. As I write these words, I observe him through the viewing window. His body glistens with still-damp blood from the wounds that were necessarily inflicted to guarantee our safety during the precarious business of transporting him to his cell.

Of pressing importance is the need to deny him any opportunity to communicate with his co-conspirators in this evil plot. I must find answers to the questions regarding the scope of his powers. I must know my enemy thoroughly.

I will show him no mercy. He is not human. He is an animal — a dangerous, vile, depraved animal — who knows nothing but brutality and violence.

His mission was to conquer. His destiny is defeat.

The phrase ‘dangerous, vile, depraved animal’ had painted a picture of a beast living in the woods, probably terrorising local communities.

But wild beasts did not know how to use a washcloth and towel. Wild beasts did not use soap. Wild beasts did not value cleanliness.

He must have — at some point — lived with humans. Or, at least, observed them.

She needed to know more. She needed to know about his life before Trask had captured him.

Lois picked up her phone and dialled.

“Daniel Scardino.”

“Mr Scardino, it’s Lois Lane.”

“Please,” he said. “Call me -”

“You said you had boxes of Trask’s notes.”

“Yes. I was told that, following the capture, he brought them to headquarters as evidence for alien life on Earth. He insisted that they remain here because he believed there was safety in having the ‘proof’ stored off-site.”

“Could you send them over to me, please?”

There was the slightest hesitation. “You’re not calling to tell me you have reconsidered taking this assignment?”

“No,” Lois said. “But I need some background information.”

“OK,” Scardino agreed. “I’ll have the boxes retrieved from storage and sent to you.”

“Thank you,” Lois said. “Also, there are some personal items here belonging to Mr Trask. Should I send them to headquarters?”

“Ahh … there have been some difficulties in finding Mr Trask’s next of kin. The person he listed on his personnel file passed away five years ago. We haven’t been able to locate any other family members.”

“What do you want me to do with his belongings?”

“Can you stow them in a corner for a day or two?”

“OK.”

“How’s the job going, Ms Lane? Is everything OK?”

“Everything’s fine, Mr Scardino,” Lois said. “Thank you for arranging to send the boxes.”

She hoped he would hear the implied conclusion in her tone. If he didn’t, she was probably going to be rude. “If there is anything else -”

“Thank you, Mr Scardino. Good-bye.”

Lois slammed down the phone as if it had stung her hand. The ability to engage in polite, meaningless conversation was essential out in the field. But she wasn’t on assignment — not really. She wasn’t undercover. She wasn’t pretending to be someone other than Lois Lane.

And in her darkest moments, she doubted she ever would again.

Lois looked through the viewing window. The alien was lying on his side on the concrete, his back towards her. She winced. It was clear why he wasn’t lying on his back. The cold, hard concrete would be almost unbearable on his wounds.

Had anyone ever tried to interact with this individual?

Had anyone ever tried to discover if he would respond to clemency instead of cruelty?

He’d killed two men.

Had anyone ever attempted to meet his basic needs? Soap? Water?

He’d killed two men.

Had anyone ever considered the possibility that, even if he were an alien, he might not be an animal?

He’d killed two men.

Or had they just assumed — right from the first day — that Trask’s postulations were correct? That the prisoner was nothing more than a violent, mindless brute deserving the harshest of treatment?

He’d killed two -

And I would kill, too, Lois screamed in her head. In his circumstances, I would kill, too.

She almost had.

She’d come within a few seconds of killing a man.

Not in self-defence.

But in anger.

In retribution.

In hatred.

Lois’s eyes rested on the disfigured back of the prisoner as her tears carved hot streams down her cheeks.

She hated this job.

She hated what it had done to her.

She hated the creeping cancer of justification that distorted the line between right and wrong.

She hated the violence and the merciless supremacy of the strong over the weak.

She hated the never-ending struggle — the choice to kill or be killed, control or be controlled, dominate or be dominated.

Most of all, she hated herself.

Hated the hardened brittle shell that she had become.

***

At two o’clock that afternoon, Longford arrived for his shift, and for the next hour, the prisoner would be officially ‘guarded’ by both him and Shadbolt.

Lois wondered if they would ignore Trask’s schedule and enter the cell, thereby inflicting more pain on the prisoner. She decided that — after a mere half dozen hours in the job — the time for limiting her involvement to observation was finished. This was her operation now, and it would be best if everyone understood that Trask’s ways were no longer in vogue.

She locked her office door and took the steps two at a time.

Shadbolt and Longford looked up as she entered the staffroom. Longford was sitting at the table, and Shadbolt was at the coffee machine. She’d heard muffled laughter as she’d approached, but it had silenced at her footsteps.

“Good afternoon, Longford,” Lois said. Without waiting for a reply, she strode to the corkboard and ripped the timetable from its pins. “If necessary, there will be a new schedule posted,” she informed them. “However, nothing — I repeat, nothing — is to be done for or to the prisoner without my prior authorisation. Is that clear?”

Longford nodded, but Shadbolt put his hands on his hips and looked towards the ceiling, a supercilious smirk contorting his features.

“Do you have something you wish to say, Shadbolt?” Lois asked in a cold voice.

He slowly lowered his gaze. “Do you really think that a barely-out-of-high-school girl can come in here and tell us how to run this show when we’ve been doing it for seven years?”

“Yes, I do,” she replied coolly. She included Longford in her gaze. “Any further questions?”

“No, Ms Lane,” Longford said, taking care not to look at her.

Lois eyed Shadbolt, and when he didn’t speak, she continued. “And to make it perfectly clear, this includes the discipline sessions.”

“Without the discipline sessions, it won’t be safe for us to enter the cage,” Longford said.

“Your safety comes from carrying a rod with you.” She hated what she was about to say, but the ethos of protection of those who were her responsibility was too deeply ingrained for her to remain silent. “No one is to enter the cell without a rod. Is that clear?”

“If you’re going to stop the discipline sessions, you might as well feed us to him on pretty pink plates,” Shadbolt noted bitterly.

“If you would prefer, I can request that you be transferred out of this operation,” Lois said.

Shadbolt sniggered. “Wouldn’t you just love that? Then there’d be no one to stand up to your prissy ideas of indulging murderous invaders.”

“The offer stands,” Lois said. “One word from you, and I can talk to Scardino about discontinuing your involvement in this operation.”

She turned from the staffroom and climbed the steps. Her words to Shadbolt could be taken as an offer, but she was sure he would discern the threat inherent in them.

Lois pushed the key into the lock of her office door with a grim, humourless laugh. She’d met plenty of Shadbolts in her career.

If only the rest of her life could be as simple as dealing with an insignificant man suffering from Inflated Male Ego Syndrome.

***

At six o’clock, a catering company delivered two meals to the compound behind the warehouse. Lois figured they had no idea they were feeding a never-charged, never-trialled prisoner of the United States government.

She came down the stairs to see Longford accepting the two plastic containers of food — one larger than the other. He firmly shut the door to the outside world and walked with a slightly uneven gait into the staffroom. Once there, he stood, looking uncomfortable. “I think Trask’s meal order was cancelled,” he said.

“That’s fine,” Lois said quickly. “I’ll eat after I leave here.” She gestured to the containers. “Are you going to take one to the prisoner?”

Longford ripped the lid from the larger plastic bowl, releasing a cloud of steam. “No,” he said as he picked out a fork from the cutlery tray on the counter. “He eats at eight o’clock on Mondays.”

“Why?”

Longford glanced longingly at his meal.

“It’s OK,” Lois said quickly. “You eat. But do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

Longford sat down and paddled the fork through the food. It looked like something Chinese. Chow mein, perhaps. It smelled good enough that Lois’s stomach reminded her of how little she had eaten that day. “Go ahead,” he said.

“Why is he fed at eight o’clock on Mondays?”

“Trask kept to a schedule. Most weeks followed the same pattern.”

“For routine?”

Longford put a piece of meat in his mouth and chewed hungrily. “No,” he said after he’d swallowed. “Trask liked to set the routine and then suddenly throw in a Wednesday routine on Saturday. He figured it would mess with the alien’s mind.”

“From everything I read in the log, Trask believed the prisoner to be less than human,” Lois said. “Yet he considered he had the intelligence to keep track of days?”

Longford shrugged and took another mouthful. “I don’t know what Trask thought. I just did what I was told.” He leant back in his seat, reached to open the fridge door, and took out a can of Coke. “He’d also order that water be taken to him at ten in the morning for days on end and then suddenly change it to four in the afternoon.”

Given the level of thirst Lois had witnessed today, making him wait an extra six hours was close to torture. “Has the prisoner ever attacked you?”

Longford popped the can as he shook his head.

“He’s never tried to hurt you?”

“No,” he said. “But I always take in a rod.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Moyne used to boast that in the middle of the night when everything was real quiet, he’d go in there without a rod.”

“Did you believe him?”

“Dunno.”

And he didn’t care. That was obvious. Lois went to the coffee machine and poured herself a cup of the dark liquid. She frowned at it, wondering if it were drinkable. She decided to add milk and went to the fridge. She managed to dawdle long enough over the simple task of making coffee to ensure that Longford’s container was empty when she turned from the counter.

“Now that you’ve finished, would you take the meal to the prisoner, please?” she asked.

“Now?”

She gave him a smile — it was rigid and artificial, but she hoped it would encourage him to defer to her order without engaging in a confrontation. She didn’t have much time. “Yes. Then you won’t need to go in again when you’re here by yourself.”

“Moyne’ll be here in a few hours.”

“The meal?” Lois pressed. “Could you take it to him?”

With an exaggerated sigh, Longford dragged himself from his chair and peeled the lid from the small container. A stale smell invaded the air.

“What is that?” Lois said from behind her hand.

“His food,” Longford replied as if it were obvious.

“Who ordered the food for the prisoner?” Lois asked, although she was sure she knew the answer to the question.

“Trask, I assume.”

She knew the nature of her first task tomorrow morning, but there was little she could do tonight. She peered at the food. It was a cold, congealed mass that resembled dog food. Actually, Lois amended, she wouldn’t even feed it to a dog. “Take it to him,” she said. “I’ll wait here. Go in, and come back quickly.”

A rare flash of humour lit Longford’s face. “Are you scared of him?” he taunted.

Lois reached into the tray, took out a fork, and offered it to Longford.

He shook his head. “Animals don’t need no fork,” he said. “Trask never let him have anything he could use as a weapon.”

Lois replaced the fork and decided that she didn’t need to witness the pain inflicted by the rod, or the prisoner’s efforts to eat the dross that was his supper.

Longford took one of the four rods from the closet. He unlocked the door to the cell, picked up the food, and disappeared.

He was back within seconds. He re-locked the door and replaced the rod.

“All done?” Lois asked.

He nodded. “Anything else? Or can I finish my Coke?”

“Finish your Coke,” Lois said. “I’m leaving now.”

Longford picked up a newspaper and his Coke and grunted in farewell.

Part 3

Lois walked through the hushed, dimmed common area.

In the corner, the television emitted sporadic flashes of light into the gloom, but there was no accompanying sound. All but two of the twenty or so chairs were empty.

Lois kept her eyes forward as she passed them.

The door to the third room on the right was open. As usual.

She brushed a soft knock as she entered.

The light was on. Her father was in the bed, awake, his eyes fixed on nothing.

Lois pulled the chair closer to the bed and looked into his vacant face. “Hi, Dad,” she said in a tone that she hoped sounded as if she expected an answer.

He turned slowly in her direction and stared blankly at her. She smiled — although the spasms in her chin probably ruined her efforts.

Would her dad notice?

Lois took her father’s hand — the good one, the one that wasn’t paralysed — and flattened it between both of hers. She ran her fingertips down the length of his fingers, between his knuckles, and along the back of his hand.

His fingers began to curl, and she positioned their hands in an arm-wrestle hold. She placed her elbow next his on the bed and softly rubbed the back of his hand against her cheek.

“How are you doing, Dad?” she asked.

There was no indication that he’d heard the question … understood it … was answering her on the inside.

And, according to the best medical advice, there was no way to predict how much ground — if any — her father would recover from the overwhelming effects of the stroke.

The silence stretched. And stretched.

Lois Lane used to have the ability to babble her way through wet cement.

But no more.

She desperately searched her barren mind. There had to be something she could talk about. Why hadn’t she planned ahead?

The weather.

“It’s been unseasonably mild for October, Dad.”

It was fall. Leaves. Had they started to turn yet? She hadn’t noticed.

“The fall leaves are beautiful. Can you see them out of your window? The nurses have told me that sometimes they take you into the garden during the afternoons.”

In her mind, she saw her dad — slouched in his wheelchair, his useless arm lying in the trough that was attached to the left armrest, his face suggesting that he wouldn’t have known if he were sitting in a heat wave or a blizzard.

“I started a new job today, Dad,” Lois said. “It means I’ll be in Metropolis for an extended time. I can come and visit you. I have my own office. With a big window.

“Mom sends her best wishes.” Lois never knew whether she should mention her mother or not. Her parents hadn’t been on speaking terms for years, but did her dad remember that? Did he wonder why Ellen didn’t visit him? Did he remember who Ellen was?

“I called Lucy yesterday. She’s going for a job in a diner. She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to come back east to see you, but she’s going to try. Maybe for Christmas.”

Lois feigned the need to cough and turned her head away to glance at the clock on the wall. She’d been here for less than five minutes. She loved her father, but every minute spent in his room in the nursing home felt like an hour.

She couldn’t leave yet.

Her meagre store of ideas had run dry. It wasn’t as if she could talk about her world.

Perhaps she could try his world.

“I hear you’ve been doing physiotherapy, Dad. The nurses told me that it will help with your balance. I know they work your arms and legs — to keep your muscles supple.”

Lois stopped. Did the efforts to rehabilitate him look as hopeless from inside his prison as they did from outside? Was it as hard to find hope that he would regain anything the stroke had callously stolen from him? It had been nearly two months now, and there hadn’t been the slightest sign of improvement.

It had taken his ability to speak.

And it had robbed all feeling and movement from the left side of his body.

How much did he understand?

Was her dad still present inside this ravaged body? Or had he gone, leaving only a crust that was kept alive — not by a heart but by a beating pump?

Lois could feel the rigid lump of grief crawl up her throat.

She stood from the chair and awkwardly put her arms around her father’s shoulders. He felt so thin … so frail. As if he would crumble if she hugged too hard.

She put a trembling hand on each of his shoulders and looked into his eyes, desperate for a hint of connection. Something that would say he knew her. Remembered her. Loved …

There was nothing. Lois used the last of her resolve to mould her mouth to a smile. “I love you, Dad,” she said. “I’ll come and see you again on Wednesday evening.”

Lois kissed his cheek and hurried from the room, shadowed by her own hopeless inadequacy.

She didn’t know what her father needed … didn’t know how to be what he needed … didn’t know if anything she did made any difference at all.

She held her emotions in check long enough to have a short conversation with the nurse. The various therapies — aimed at developing a form of communication, maintaining the movement he had in his right side, and helping to re-establish his sense of balance — were continuing, but little had changed since Lois had visited two days ago.

It was dark, cold, and wet as Lois walked from the nursing home to her car.

As she drove home, the raindrops surged down the windshield, and her tears cascaded down her cheeks.

***

~~ Tuesday ~~

Lois gaped, horror-stricken.

She closed her eyes.

She opened them.

Nothing had changed.

She spun around, charged through the door of her office, and took the steps in one leap.

“What happened?” she demanded loudly before she had even reached the staffroom.

Shadbolt’s head jerked up from the newspaper he was reading. Moyne lifted his eyes with deliberate sluggishness. “What happened when?” he asked politely.

“What happened to the prisoner?” Lois said coldly.

Moyne twisted his face to a show of confusion. “The prisoner?” he echoed.

“Someone bashed him.” Lois speared Moyne with her eyes.

He gave a derisive chuckle. “No, Ms Lane,” he chirped. “No one bashed him. I went in there during the night. Someone had left a bowl and a towel in there.” He gestured to the bowl that was sitting on the drainer with the towel roughly thrown across it.

“How did you know it was in there?” Lois said.

“I was doing a patrol,” Moyne replied. “We can’t see the prisoner from here. I wanted to check on him. I saw the bowl and attempted to remove it. He attacked me.”

“Did you take a rod?”

“Yes.”

“And you used the rod to bash him?”

“It was self-defence,” Moyne said nonchalantly. “Him or me.” He smirked in evident self-satisfaction. “I chose me.”

“You are not to enter the cell without my permission.”

Moyne’s lower jaw dropped. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Lois said. The anger that had boiled at the sight of the prisoner had now cooled to a more controlled — but equally dangerous — level. “You do the night shift, Moyne. There is no need for you to enter the cell.”

He shrugged. “Suits me.”

No one goes in there without my authorisation,” Lois said. Her glare swung to Shadbolt. “Understand?”

Shadbolt nodded dourly.

Lois turned from the staffroom and climbed the stairs.

Once in her office, she locked the door behind her. It seemed important that she did — not so much for her privacy but for his.

She put her hands on her desk and leant forward.

The prisoner hadn’t moved from where he’d been when she’d first looked through the viewing window a few minutes ago. He was crumpled in a heap on the concrete. She could see one shoulder, part of his lower thigh, and about half of his back.

Lois turned away — unable to look a moment longer.

She wanted to cry.

She wanted to cower in the corner of her office and weep with helplessness and anger and frustration. She wanted to scream her protest at the sheer ugliness of the world.

She hung her head, closed her eyes, and inhaled to the full capacity of her lungs.

She released the breath slowly.

She had a job to do.

She would do it.

She had been brought low many times before. It was an occupational hazard of her job. But she knew what to do — when the big picture was simply too horrendous and too overwhelming to grasp, you took refuge in the detail. You found something that was small and doable.

She picked up the phone and dialled her uncle Mike. When he answered, the sound of his cheery voice felt like a cool cloth on a fevered brow.

After the initial greetings, their conversation turned to her dad. Lois knew her uncle had visited his brother every morning since the stroke.

“Have you seen any improvement?” she asked. “Nothing’s changed at all in the month since I’ve been back in Metropolis.”

“It might take some time,” Uncle Mike said gently. “We’ll keep visiting him; they’ll keep doing all the different therapies. They’ve been putting his favourite music through headphones for him. They’ve asked me to record some stories about the things we did when we were kids so he can listen to them.”

“Do you think he knows us?” Lois whispered. “Do you think he knows it’s us?”

Uncle Mike sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But for his sake, we have to keep going as if he does know us. Maybe one day, he’ll be able to tell us how much it meant that we were there for him.”

Lois hoped so — but, much as she wanted to, she couldn’t coax that flimsy hope into solid belief.

In her heart, she believed that her father would never recover. In her heart, she believed he had gone forever.

“Was there another reason for your call?” Uncle Mike asked. “Have you started your new job yet?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s great that they were able to find a desk job for you.”

“Yeah.” Uncle Mike — and everyone else in her family — thought that she worked on a cruise ship as a singer. It explained her long absences from Metropolis, and the difficulties in contacting her when she was ‘away’. She hadn’t known about her father’s stroke until almost three weeks after it had happened. “Uncle Mike,” Lois said. “Would you do something for me, please?”

“Anything for my favourite niece,” he said.

“Do you know Bessolo Boulevard?”

“Yep.”

“There’s an old warehouse on the south side of the street.”

“They used to sell office furniture.”

“My job is to take bookings over the phone and via the Internet. Because many of our passengers are from other countries, I need to work in the evenings to fit in with their time zones.” She hated lying to Uncle Mike, but this was insignificant compared to the whoppers she’d told regarding the missing month of her life.

Uncle Mike chuckled. “And you’d like me to send a meal around for you?”

“Would that be all right?”

“Of course it’s all right,” he replied. “I’ll be glad to do it. How many nights a week? And what time?”

“Every night — if that’s OK. About a quarter past six.”

“Every night?” There was concern in her uncle’s voice. “You’re not going to be working too hard, are you, Lois?”

“No, Uncle Mike,” Lois said. “My shifts are only for a few hours, but I need to be at work every day.”

“Will you come to the front? I’ll get one of my delivery boys to bring it.”

“Tell him to leave it on the doorstep of the warehouse. I might not be able to be there right on 6:15 if I’m on the phone to a client.”

Uncle Mike chuckled. “Are you sure you don’t want those cooking lessons I’ve been offering you for years?”

“I’m sure,” Lois said with a laugh she hoped passed as reasonably genuine. “But I do appreciate you doing this for me, Uncle Mike.”

“Anything for you,” he said. “Hey, Lois?”

“Yes?”

“It’s great that you’re going to be in Metropolis for a while. I’ve missed you.”

“Thanks, Uncle Mike.”

“Come to the cafe for lunch one day.”

“OK. Thanks … Oh, and one more thing. I’ve … ah … I’ve had a bit of a stomach bug the past few days. Could you send really simple foods for a while, please? Nothing too spicy. Nothing too rich. Just chicken or fish and a few vegetables or some salad.”

“Easily done,” he said.

“Thanks, Uncle Mike.”

Lois replaced the phone.

She hadn’t changed the world.

She hadn’t healed the injuries Moyne had inflicted on the prisoner during the night.

She hadn’t struck a blow for good against evil.

But at least the prisoner would no longer have to eat dog food.

He still hadn’t moved.

Trepidation squeezed her heart.

What if Moyne had killed him?

She couldn’t even go to him.

She couldn’t see if he were OK.

She couldn’t check his wounds.

Dress them.

Would that help, anyway?

Did the wounds of aliens get infected?

Did aliens understand compassion?

Was he an alien?

Did it matter?

He was … something. Someone. Someone who felt pain. Someone who could be hurt. Someone who — despite having been forced to live in complete deprivation for seven years — still remembered how good it felt to be clean.

She couldn’t go to him. She couldn’t send someone into the cell. If anyone went in, the prisoner would be exposed to another dose of the Achilles rod, and she couldn’t do that to him.

She was staring at him. She couldn’t look away. She was willing him to move … but he didn’t.

Lois jerked from her chair, turned away, and perched her butt on the edge of her desk.

There was a digital clock on the wall. Under it was a sheet of paper, handwritten by Trask.

Moyne — 10pm to 7 am

Shadbolt — 6am to 3pm

Longford -2pm to 11 pm

The clock showed that it was after seven. Moyne should have gone by now.

He would be back tonight.

Alone.

And with keys to the cell.

Lois had banned Moyne from entering the cell, but she had no faith that — alone and unsupervised — he would comply with her order.

What had Trask done to keep control of Moyne?

Or had he encouraged his vile tendencies?

Had Moyne always behaved like this? Or was he testing the mettle of his new female boss?

Lois doubted Trask would have had any concerns about the treatment the prisoner received in his absence, but it didn’t seem in character for him to simply clock off and walk out.

Surely, he couldn’t have been unaware of Moyne’s appetite for violence.

Lois turned back to the window.

The prisoner still hadn’t moved.

To her right, there was a padlocked closet. Lois reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out the keys Scardino had given her yesterday. There were four keys on the key ring.

One was for the outside door, one for her office, one for the cell. The final one — she hoped — would open the padlock on the closet.

It did.

The door swung open … and revealed the answers to at least two of Lois’s questions.

A camera was mounted above the top shelf, pointing through a hole and into the cell. A VCR was next to it, and below that was a closed circuit television.

Lois turned on the television and the VCR and pressed ‘play’.

A black and white picture came onto the screen. The date and time in the top right corner showed that this footage was from last week — recorded at eight o’clock in the evening. It was the day of Trask’s death. He’d probably programmed the tape to record in his absence and then left the compound, never to return.

On screen, the prisoner jogged along the far wall. Back and forth. Mindlessly.

Lois pressed ‘fast forward’ and watched as he sprinted in jerky strides. He slowed to a walk.

He placed his hands on the wall, angled forward, and appeared to be stretching the muscles along the back of his legs.

Lois’s thumb hit ‘pause’, and she stared at the still image.

His back was relatively unmarked. The injury she’d seen yesterday must have happened sometime between Trask’s departure and her arrival.

She remembered Trask’s timetable — there had been a ‘discipline session’ ordered for Sunday. Perhaps that was when he’d received the injury to his back. However, Shadbolt had said that the discipline sessions involved two guards beating the prisoner. That damage had been less than what had been caused by Moyne last night — presumably working alone.

It explained the prisoner’s state this morning. Two beatings in less than two days had taken their toll.

And all the evidence pointed to Moyne’s assault last night having been particularly vicious.

Did the assistants know about this camera?

Did they know that every interaction with the prisoner could be recorded?

Had Trask and the assistants used it so they would have evidence if the prisoner killed again?

Or had Trask used it to spy on his assistants?

Lois glanced through the window. There was still no sign of life.

She continued with the tape, skimming through it at accelerated speed.

The prisoner had slept … walked … stretched … done sit-ups … push-ups … slept … stared into the nothingness … walked … stretched …

How did someone who existed on so little food manage to keep active?

Was it instinct? Or self-discipline?

Did it indicate a mind that had deteriorated to mechanical ritual? Or a mind so strong that it still fought to exert some control in a world of total suppression?

Lois paused the tape again and studied him.

He was excruciatingly thin. His ribs looked like rough corrugations jutting over the cavern of his stomach.

Lois had thought he was tall, but now that she looked more closely, she realised that the impression of height had probably come more from limbs that seemed disproportionately long due to emaciation.

Had Trask been trying to starve him to death? Or had he purposely supplied just enough food that the captive’s hell continued?

Lois fast-forwarded through the rest of the tape. In the eight hours it covered, no one had entered the cell.

When the tape reached the end, it rewound automatically.

Lois picked up the remote and flicked through the instructions for setting the timer for recording. She set a perpetual daily program to record the first eight hours of Moyne’s shift.

From now on, she would arrive at the compound before six o’clock each morning.

She hoped to prevent Moyne from ever attacking the prisoner again. But if he did, she would have the proof she’d need to have him dismissed from the operation.

Lois ran her eyes down to the lower shelves of the closet in search of other tapes. There were none. The middle shelves were empty — but she did find the answer to another question. A rolled-up camp mattress and a limp pillow had been shoved onto the bottom shelf.

Trask had slept here. In his office.

Did that mean he hadn’t trusted Moyne and had been trying to curb his violent excesses? Or had Trask encouraged — either implicitly or openly — Moyne’s abuse?

Lois pulled the mattress and pillow from the closet and added them to the pile of Trask’s possessions. She shut the closet door, sat down, and picked up a sheet of Trask’s notes from the folder.

The questions were banking up in her brain, demanding answers.

She figured there were two ways to find out what she needed to know.

She could read Trask’s notes.

And she could give the prisoner access to everyday items and see how he responded.

***

By noon, the prisoner had crawled — with agonising slowness — towards the wall, probably in search of a more comfortable position on the hard concrete.

He wasn’t dead.

Lois winced every time she looked at him and couldn’t bring herself to dwell on his suffering … but he wasn’t dead.

She activated the camera, checked that the tape was recording, locked her door, and went down the stairs to the staffroom.

Shadbolt had his feet up on the table, his magazine in one hand and a can of beer in the other. He took a slurp of his drink and eyed her, daring her to make an issue of the beer — or anything else.

What he did to pass the hours of his shift was of little concern to Lois. “Do you have a key to the cell?” she asked, although she knew he did.

“Yes.”

“Could I have it, please?”

He sniggered. “Don’t you trust me?”

“How long have you been on the job?”

The top layer of his animosity peeled away. “This job? Or the job?”

“The job.”

“Thirty-three years.”

Lois gave a low whistle. “That’s a long time. Were you on this job from the time of the capture?”

“I came in one week later.”

“Did you ask for it? Or were you ordered here?”

Shadbolt grunted resentfully. “Both.”

He clearly didn’t want to continue the discussion, so despite the ambiguity of his reply, Lois decided not to probe any further. “If you’ve been on the job that long, you know that trust is a luxury we can’t afford.” She held out her hand. “Can I have your key, please?”

He only hesitated for a short moment before standing and rustling through his pockets. He took out a key ring containing two keys and handed it to her. “Why don’t you want me to go into the cell?”

“Because of the beating Moyne gave the prisoner last night,” Lois replied. “You can’t go in there without a rod, and if you go in there with a rod, it’s going to hurt him more.”

Shadbolt laughed cynically. “There’s no way I’m going in there without a rod. I did Bortolotto’s body recovery.”

“Were you on-site during either of the attacks?”

“No. Trask called me in. He and Moyne were too shaken to go into the cell again.” Shadbolt grimaced. “But we couldn’t just leave Bortolotto’s body in there with that animal.”

Lois took the cell key off the ring and handed the external door key back to Shadbolt. “I’m going out,” she said. “I won’t be long.”

He took the key in a churlish manner. “Take as long as you like,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Lois walked into the weak sunshine. The air smelled fresh — washed clean by last night’s rain. From the damp ground rose a sweet, musty smell.

Did he miss that?

Did he miss the smells of the outside world?

Did he miss the scent of flowers, or the freshly mown grass, or the baked smell of the summer heat on the road, or the alluring waft of brewing coffee?

Lois walked two blocks, seeing things she didn’t usually see, hearing things she didn’t usually hear. The kaleidoscope of colour. The orchestra of sound. Was the cell sound-proof? Even if it wasn’t, she doubted that many outside sounds would permeate the thick walls.

What was it like living for seven years in a place with no colour, no sound, no seasons, no fluctuation, nothing to mark the passing of time?

Lois’s job had taken her to places she never wanted to go again.

It had shown her things she never wanted to see again.

It had forced her to experience things she wished she could eradicate from her memory.

But there was something horrendous about being locked away with nothingness.

She arrived at a small cluster of shops and went into the drug store. She lingered at the shelf of soaps. She smelled every one, and then — being unable to decide — chose a natural one with very little scent. She added a tube of Neosporin, a soft washcloth, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a half-gallon bottle of drinking water to her basket and went to pay.

Then she went into the fruit store and bought two apples and two oranges.

She ate one of the apples as she walked back to Bessolo Boulevard.

For the first time in months, she felt … something. It wasn’t contentment. It certainly wasn’t enjoyment, but it was as if the cloud of hopelessness that had surrounded her for so many weeks had thinned … just a little … just enough for her to glimpse a future that might — possibly — offer something other than pain and despair.

Walking in the cool air and gentle sunshine of fall, eating a sweet apple — it was so simple.

So normal.

So sane.

So unremarkable.

So taken-for-granted.

But not for him.

***

Note — Neosporin is antibacterial ointment.

Part 4

Back at the compound, Lois sprinted up the steps and hurriedly unlocked her office door.

The prisoner was sitting up.

He was crouched forward, facing away, giving her an unrestricted view of the patchwork of abrasions that marred his back. He seemed to be working on his legs — perhaps massaging them to ease away some of the soreness and stiffness.

Lois glanced to the clock and the list of times for the assistants’ shifts. It wasn’t yet one o’clock. Longford would be here at two.

Every entry into the cell would be planned beforehand to minimise the prisoner’s exposure to the Achilles rods — starting today.

She could get Shadbolt to take in the water and the fruit now.

Or wait until Longford arrived and send them both in to shorten the length of time. That would mean two rods. There definitely seemed to be a time factor — the longer the rods were in the cell, the longer the prisoner took to recover. Did a greater number of rods also increase the effect? She didn’t know. For now, she would work on what she did know and minimise the time of his exposure.

She slipped into the gap between the closet and the desk and looked down on the alien.

His head was draped over his knees, and he wasn’t moving. Perhaps he’d reached the limit of his pain tolerance and was resting in preparation for the next effort.

Lois opened the closet, stopped the recording, and rewound the tape.

She played it. The prisoner had moved a little — in robot-like staccato — but Shadbolt hadn’t entered the cell.

When it was over, she went down to the staffroom. Shadbolt was reading Sky and Telescope magazine. His eyes didn’t leave the page, and he made no comment.

Lois made herself a coffee, took it back to her office, and picked up another handful of notes from the folder.

So far, she’d read about a quarter of them. Much of it was endless — and seemingly baseless — speculation about what the alien intended to do. Lois noted grimly that if Trask had ever had the mind to take control of the world, he already had a detailed, well-advanced plan.

But Trask’s ambitions were less lofty than world domination.

It seemed all he craved was absolute power over an individual — an individual who just might be an alien.

Or not.

***

At one o’clock, Lois heard the external door open. Longford had arrived.

She laid Trask’s sheet of notes on the ‘read’ pile and leapt from her seat.

By this time, the prisoner had made it to his feet and was limping around the extremities of his cell.

Lois rustled through her bag for the toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. She peeled away the packaging and replaced the items in her bag. She hesitated over the Neosporin. If he didn’t know what it was — and couldn’t read the label … What if he ate it?

Deciding not to risk it, she left the tube on her desk. After activating the camera, she picked up her bag and left the office.

At the bottom of the stairs, she slipped into the bathroom and removed a clean towel from the closet.

She continued to the staffroom, where Longford and Shadbolt were involved in a game of cards. “You’ll both be going into the cell in a few minutes,” she informed them as she spread the towel on the table.

Longford’s eyes left his cards long enough to nod. Shadbolt didn’t respond.

Lois unpacked the soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, washcloth, orange, apple, and bottle of water from her bag and placed them in the middle of the towel. She added a plastic mug to the pile and then folded the end of the towel over the variously sized bumps and made a secure bundle. She took the bowl to the sink, rinsed it out, and filled it with tepid water.

“Do you have a pink bow to go with that?” Shadbolt scoffed. “Or perhaps a pretty posy of flowers?”

Lois turned on him, pouring pure contempt into her look. He didn’t back down, meeting her with a patronising smile and cold, hard eyes.

“You will get a rod each,” Lois said, not breaking eye contract with Shadbolt. “I will unlock the door to the cell. Shadbolt, you will take in the bowl of water. Longford, you will take in the towel and its contents.” Her attention swung between the two men. “You will complete the task quickly but carefully. There are to be no ‘accidents’, no spilling of the water, no dropping of the towel.”

“Why are you doing this?” Shadbolt said with clear disdain. “He’s not human.”

“But I am,” Lois replied.

Shadbolt snorted. “Someone will pay for this,” he said ominously. “If you loosen the screws … if you allow him to regain his strength, he will kill again.”

“I take responsibility for my decisions,” Lois said.

“Responsibility ain’t worth squat if we’re dead,” Longford noted.

Lois took the keys from her bag. “Get the rods,” she directed.

The chairs scraped loudly across the floor as both men stood. They went to the closet and took out two rods. When they had picked up the bowl and the towel, Lois unlocked the door. “Ready?” she asked.

Longford nodded.

Lois pushed the door away and stood back to allow the men to pass her. Unable to restrain her curiosity, she stepped into the doorway, and her eyes volleyed between the collapsed, turned-away figure of the prisoner in the far corner and her two assistants.

They placed the bowl and towel on the concrete and returned to the door. Lois hustled them forward and closed it quickly. “Everything OK?” she asked.

“No,” Shadbolt said. “He was upset because we couldn’t stay long enough for him to write you a little thank-you note.”

Lois ignored him. She locked the cell door and sprinted up the stairs to her office. Once there, she went straight to the window.

The prisoner had collapsed against the wall. He was in pain — she recognised the hunch of his shoulders and the droop of his head.

And she had caused it.

The rods had been taken into the cell on her orders.

She waited, her eyes riveted to the half-naked, traumatised figure of the prisoner. Finally, he unfurled and clambered to his feet.

Lois grimaced at the agony inherent in his movements. She didn’t know exactly when Moyne had bashed him, but by now, his bruised muscles and broken skin must have seized up.

And another dose of the Achilles rods — albeit short — would have compounded his suffering.

He swayed a little, one hand extended as if trying to overcome dizziness. Slowly, he straightened to his full height and looked towards the door. Recognition lit his face when he saw the bowl and towel.

He limped to them, sank to his knees, and drank from cupped hands.

When he had finished drinking, he dried his hands on his shorts and cautiously unrolled the towel.

When the contents were revealed, he stopped.

Stared.

His hands — nicely shaped with long fingers — shook as they hovered above the towel.

He rocked back, and his hands drifted to his thighs without having touched any of the items.

He didn’t move for a long moment. Lois began to wonder if his hesitancy indicated a lack of familiarity. He’d understood the soap and washcloth yesterday. Could that have been instinct? Instinct that didn’t extend to toothpaste?

Finally, his head lifted slowly and deliberately, and he looked directly at the centre of the viewing window. He raised one hand in an unsteady gesture.

Lois’s throat thickened. She swallowed, and it felt like she was trying to push down a golf ball.

The prisoner lowered his face and again examined the contents of the towel. He took the apple and cradled it in both hands. His thumbs slid over the smooth skin. After a minute of holding it, he carefully placed it on the concrete and reached for the orange. He brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply.

Once he had placed the orange next to the apple, the prisoner picked up the toothbrush and toothpaste. He uncapped the paste, slid a carefully measured amount along the bristles, and replaced the lid.

Then, he brushed his teeth.

Lois watched, deductions flying through her brain like arrows.

Human or not, he had definitely lived as a human.

He was familiar with regular objects.

He knew how to use them.

He wanted to use them.

How had Trask determined that this man was an alien?

How had Trask justified taking his freedom and reducing him to the life of an animal?

He’d killed two men.

Lois backed into the chair and sat down — still watching the prisoner as he began washing his face and neck.

What had come first? Trask’s cruelty? Or the prisoner’s aggressive behaviour towards his captors?

She’d seen no evidence of aggressive behaviour.

She’d seen no evidence of ‘powers’ either. She had seen nothing to suggest that the individual Trask had feared so vehemently could actually take over the world even if that had been his goal. The only noticeable difference between him and other humans was his reaction to the Achilles rods. Could Trask have implanted something that was activated by the rods? Something that caused pain? Electric shock perhaps?

Lois snatched at the notebook and rifled through it, looking for a particular entry.

She found it.

March 1, 1988

Today, I strengthened my position over the enemy. We exposed him to the Achilles for a full twelve hours overnight, leaving him weak and defenceless this morning. The surgery was performed by Moyne and Shadbolt.

Surgery?

Performed by Moyne and Shadbolt?

Lois steered her mind away from the sickening thought of two agents performing surgery as the prisoner had lain on the concrete floor of the cell. If necessary, she would deal with that later.

For now, she needed to consider the effects. The ‘surgery’ had happened seven months after the capture. Lois flicked back a few pages and found earlier reference to the rods adversely affecting the prisoner.

Had they found a way to attach something to him? Before eventually implanting it in him?

Lois dropped her face into her hands.

What if he were human?

What if he were just a man?

An agent who had clashed with Trask?

Or perhaps just a man living a normal life — probably with his wife and a couple of kids — until Trask had sucked him into this vacuum of torment?

Lois’s head shot up.

She needed more information. The boxes hadn’t arrived yet. They promised information about the time prior to the capture, but over half of Trask’s loose notes were still unread. With new purpose, she picked up a sheet and began scrutinising it for anything that would give a clue to the prisoner’s former life.

Every word she read seemed to push Trask’s portrayal and her observations further apart.

Lois glanced through the window.

He’d gone!

She lurched from her seat and rushed to the window. She looked straight down — just in time to see him drag his shorts up his legs and fasten them at his stomach.

It wasn’t the fleeting sight of the uncovered male buttocks that had her mind reeling — it was the fact that he wanted privacy.

Clearly, he knew he could be watched through the window. He had signalled his acknowledgement for the items in the towel.

Yesterday, he had dropped his shorts without thought of being observed. Today, he’d tried to squeeze against the wall. What had changed?

As Lois watched, the prisoner picked up the bowl of water and — struggling a little under its weight — took it behind the wall that screened the toilet.

After he’d tipped out the water, he returned with the empty bowl. He slanted it against the wall and arranged the towel across the top of it — presumably to facilitate drying.

Then he picked up the fruit and the bottle of water, went to his favoured place against the back wall, and sat down.

He slowly eased backwards, and as he touched the wall, he grimaced.

Once settled, he unscrewed the cap and drank from the bottle.

Then, he replaced the lid, put the bottle on the floor, and picked up the fruit — one piece in each hand.

He held them.

Gazed at them.

As if he couldn’t believe. As if he couldn’t decide which one to eat first. As if he wasn’t sure whether to eat them or savour the anticipation.

Lois had intended to watch him. She had wanted to know whether he was familiar with them. Whether he knew not to eat the orange peel and the apple core. Whether he ate them the same way a human would.

But she couldn’t watch anymore.

The depth of his reaction to such simple things as two pieces of fruit had demonstrated the impoverishment of his life more graphically than any of Trask’s notes.

Lois opened the log, picked up her red marker, and began reading.

She started with the day of his capture.

He is not human. He is an animal — a dangerous, vile, depraved animal — who knows nothing but brutality and violence.

She put a line through ‘depraved’, and ‘brutality’, and ‘violence’.

She put three emphatic lines through ‘animal’.

Then she turned the pages, getting rid of ‘openly hostile’ and words such as ‘unintelligent’ and ‘uncomprehending’. ‘Beast’ was scattered liberally through Trask’s log. She struck out every instance she saw.

The page opened at November 2, 1988.

He killed today.

Lois lifted her eyes from the notebook to the prisoner. He had begun peeling the orange.

He was not the dangerous savage that Trask described in his notes.

Not now.

Had he been once?

Was it, as Shadbolt claimed, the regular beatings that kept him manageable?

Perhaps the discipline sessions could control his malevolence, but they couldn’t instil the desire to be clean.

He was familiar with human foods. He knew how to unscrew a top from a bottle. He tidied up after himself.

And …

And he’d shown gratitude … or at least recognition.

Lois was absolutely convinced that the tentative wave had been meant to express his thanks.

That was not the behaviour of a ferocious brute.

It wasn’t even the behaviour of someone who had become twisted and bitter at the gross injustice metered out to him.

Lois thumped both fists onto the desk in anger and frustration.

How the hell had this situation been allowed to continue for seven years?

***

Three boxes of Trask’s research notes arrived later that afternoon.

Lois carried them into her office and stared despondently. It was possible that somewhere in there was the information she needed regarding how the prisoner had lived prior to his capture.

But she suspected that it was going to be like searching for an oasis in the desert — very long, very dry, and very difficult to find what she wanted.

She opened the nearest box. It was filled with notebooks. She lifted them out and counted them as she placed them on a pile on the floor. Ten.

Ten notebooks filled with Trask’s small, cramped ramblings.

None of them had titles on the front.

None of them was numbered.

Trask had dated the entries in his post-capture log but everything else he’d written about this operation was chaotic and disorganised.

With a sigh, Lois picked up the nearest book and sat at her desk.

The prisoner had eaten half of his orange. She watched as he carefully eased away a section and popped it into his mouth. His head went back, his eyes closed, and he chewed slowly as if determined to relish every morsel.

Lois tore her eyes away. She found herself watching him way too much. This was a just a job — a job that kept her in Metropolis so she could regularly visit her father.

The prisoner’s situation was regrettable — but it wasn’t of her making.

She would ensure that he did not escape. She would ensure that he didn’t harm any human. She wouldn’t allow him to be hurt unnecessarily.

But that was the extent of her responsibilities.

Except … she really wanted to know more about him. Not about him specifically, but about how he had come to be trapped in a cell and condemned to live like an animal.

And how Trask had concluded that he was an alien threatening the existence of the human race.

And why, despite everything he had endured, he hadn’t deteriorated to become what Trask had asserted at the start — a wild, feral animal.

Lois lowered her eyes to Trask’s notebook and continued her search for information.

Half an hour later, she’d finished the first book. It was filled with mathematical formulae, scientific terms, and pages of rambling notes where every sentence seemed to contain at least thirty words. If it had anything to do with the capture of an alien, the significance was too obscure for Lois to grasp.

Movement in the cell caused her to look up. A narrow strip of sunlight — from the window above the shelves — had splashed onto the floor of the cell.

The prisoner had positioned himself so that the meagre late afternoon rays fell on his broad and blemished back.

He liked the sun.

Having been locked away with continuous artificial light for so long, that was hardly surprising.

Was that why Trask had kept the black curtain across the window? To prevent even the smallest amount of sunlight from reaching the cell?

Lois pushed her chair backwards and climbed onto it. The curtains were drawn back but still blocked the extremities of the glass. She yanked the material and the rod slid easily from the brackets.

Back on the ground, she tossed the rod and black curtains on to the boxes containing Trask’s possessions.

In the cell, the scrap of sunlight, although still small, had widened.

And her office was brighter, too.

***

At a quarter past six, Lois went to the front of the warehouse and found a bag on the doorstep. She peered at the plastic container inside the bag, unable to subdue the feeling of anticipation it evoked. How long had it been since he’d eaten a meal that looked fit for human consumption? A month? A year? Seven years?

She doused her eagerness with a stern reminder that as soon as her father was well enough, she would be leaving Metropolis, relinquishing this assignment, and resuming her career.

But as she walked behind the warehouse to the compound where the prisoner was kept, she couldn’t resist peeling back the lid of the container and peeking inside. There were three thick slices of roasted chicken breast, a baked potato, peas, and carrots. Simple food.

She inhaled. It smelled great.

And she was pretty sure it was going to taste great.

She entered the staffroom as Longford was finishing his meal.

On the table was the unopened smaller container that Lois knew was meant to be the meal for the prisoner. Inside, she felt a flash of triumph.

It was a tiny victory, but she felt as if she was clawing back an inch of ground from the miles that been snatched by the bad guys.

“Have you finished?” she asked Longford politely.

“Uh huh.”

“Will you take this to the prisoner now, please?”

He said nothing — merely went to the closet and took out a rod.

“There’s no need to go into the room,” Lois said. “We’ll open the door, put the meal on the ground, and use the other end of the rod to push it into the cell.”

Longford nodded, but Lois thought she detected genuine uneasiness in his eyes — as if he really did believe that her efforts to improve the life of the prisoner would lead to tragedy.

Lois reached into her bag and withdrew the tube of Neosporin. His injuries were healing. Did he need the antiseptic cream? Would he know what to do with it?

“You’re not thinking of giving him that, are you?” Longford said. “He’ll probably eat it and poison himself.”

“If it were that easy to poison him, I’m sure it would have been done by now,” Lois said. But she returned the tube to her bag. She unlocked the door; Longford leant through the doorway, deposited the meal on the floor, and then pushed it with the non-Achilles end of the rod.

As soon as he was out of the way, Lois closed the door without looking into the cell. She locked it and removed the key. “Thanks,” she said to Longford.

She picked up the meal from the caterer, dumped it in the trashcan, and then hurried up the stairs.

When she arrived at the window, the prisoner was walking across the cell towards the meal. His body still bore the signs of Moyne’s attack and his steps were slow and measured, but his capacity to heal was extraordinary.

Perhaps, over the years, he had learnt ways to minimise the effects of being regularly bashed. Perhaps he knew that massage helped.

About four yards from the door, he hesitated. Was he worried that this was a trap? Had the change in routine spooked him?

He took the final few steps quickly and dropped low to pick up the container. Lois saw a little jolt that looked like surprise. Was that because it was hot? When was the last time he’d been given hot food?

Carrying the container, he walked to the area under her window and looked up. Lois knew he couldn’t see her because his eyes were focussed on the centre of the window and she was standing to the side. He lifted one hand in a gesture that was clearly meant to convey gratitude.

Lois turned away.

Trask had written about a vicious brutal animal. A killer.

Yet in less than two days, the prisoner’s behaviour had challenged just about every one of Trask’s assertions about the ‘alien’.

Had imprisonment changed him that much? Had it changed him from a ferocious murderer to a quiet, civilised man? Had Trask drugged him? Did the regular exposure to the rods — however they worked — have a long-term effect?

Lois didn’t know.

But she sure intended to find out.

***

It was half an hour before midnight, and Lois was in a quandary.

The prisoner — in the never-changing light of his cell — was asleep on the concrete.

How had he known it was nighttime?

Could he hear movement in the staffroom? Even if he could, it didn’t explain how he would know the time of day. There was someone in the staffroom twenty-four hours a day.

Regardless, he was asleep.

And Lois was exhausted.

She had spent the evening tackling more of Trask’s research. She’d found a book that was devoted to a study of a spaceship — the vehicle Trask believed had brought the alien to Earth. He had painstakingly studied every possible aspect of it, noted his findings, and speculated wildly on possible ramifications. Lois had pored over every page, but had found nothing useful in trying to build a picture of the prisoner’s former life.

Now it was late, and she was tired.

But Moyne was here, and would be for the remainder of the night.

Lois couldn’t sleep here.

The camera would record everything that happened in the cell during her absence, but it wouldn’t prevent Moyne going into the cell.

Lois picked up her bag and took a deep breath.

It just wasn’t feasible for her to be here all the time. She had to visit her father. She had to go to her apartment to sleep.

Lois checked that the camera was recording and secured the padlock on the closet door. Then she locked her office and strode down the stairs and into the staffroom.

Moyne looked up with a smile that putrefied her stomach. He had piggy-shaped eyes and a sharp pointy nose. “You’re here late, Ms Lane,” he said in an oily voice. “Would you like to share a cup of coffee with me? I’ve just made a fresh batch.”

“No,” she said. “Thank you, Moyne.”

Her refusal didn’t dent his smile. “How are you settling in?” he asked as he stirred sugar into his coffee.

“I want you to give me your key to the cell,” Lois said.

He looked taken aback, and his thick eyebrows knitted together above the bridge of his nose. “My key to the cell?” he said. “Weren’t you given one?”

“I was given one,” Lois said. “But I don’t want you to enter the cell when you are here alone.”

“You’re concerned for my safety?” he said. “How sweet of you, Ms Lane.”

“Give me your key.”

Moyne took the bunch of keys from the pocket of his brown pants and held them towards her. Towards her, but not within reach. Lois reached to take them, and Moyne snatched them away.

“Give me your key,” she said.

“Come and get it,” he drawled.

Forcing herself to remain calm, Lois took a controlled step forward and grasped the keys where they dangled from his finger. Moyne didn’t release them. His other hand folded around hers. His face came so close that the stench of stale cigarette smoke assaulted her nostrils.

“It’s a lonely life,” he said. “You have to take a bit of companionship when it’s being offered.”

“It’s not being offered,” Lois said through gritted teeth.

He smiled. “There will be plenty more nights.” His words sent an icy river snaking up Lois’s back.

She jerked the keys from his hand and stepped out of his reach.

He smiled knowingly, and Lois felt an urgent compulsion to slap the expression from his face.

She removed the cell key from the ring and tossed the external key onto the table. “You are not to enter the cell under any circumstances,” she said.

“How can I?” Moyne asked with slimy innocence. “You have my key.”

Lois spun around and left the staffroom.

“See you tomorrow night, Ms Lane,” he called after her. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

***

The nightmare had returned.

It was dark, so very dark.

The darkness amplified every sound. Every gut-wrenching sound drilled through her ears, and invaded her brain, and painted explicit visual detail on the panorama of her memories.

She heard the scream.

And the partially muffled grunts of pain. And effort. And disgust. And horror. And fear.

She heard the sound of clothing being torn.

And the smash of bone into flesh.

She heard the trickle of blood — the drip … drip … drip … drip as it landed on the floor.

Lois screeched.

She awoke as the last gush of breath whistled past her gaping mouth.

She clawed for the lamp and fumbled in her haste to turn it on. She found it, flicked the switch, and blessed light chased away the darkness.

She stared around the room — checking every corner, every cranny — as the stampede of her heart roared through her ears.

She was alone.

Alone.

The nightmare was over.

It was over.

It would never be over.

She would live with that night for the rest of her life.

She would never, ever escape its terror. It was inside her. Stuck in her head. Weaved through her memory. Poisoning her from within. It surrounded her. Closing in on her. Suffocating her. Stalking her.

There could be no escape.

There had been no escape for her friend.

Her partner.

The shaking began slowly as it always did.

It escalated.

Within minutes, uncontrollable convulsions shook her entire body. Her stomach muscles gripped painfully. Her shoulders cinched tight into her neck.

She didn’t fight it.

She couldn’t fight it.

All of her will to fight had been sapped in the effort to survive.

In getting out of the hell.

She had saved herself.

But she hadn’t saved her friend.

Not from death.

Not from what had happened before he had finally released her to the sanctuary of death.

And for that, Lois would never forgive.

Part 5

~~ Wednesday ~~

As she walked to Bessolo Boulevard the next morning, Lois’s entire body felt as if she’d been pummelled by a fully loaded freight train. It was her third day on the job.

Day one, she’d been apathetic. Expecting nothing. Wanting nothing. Caring nothing.

Day two, her piqued interest in the prisoner had transformed into horrified shock when she had discovered his motionless and beaten body on the floor of the cell.

Day three, and she couldn’t muster either interest or solicitude. If Moyne had entered the cell overnight, the video recording would alert her. If he’d disabled the recording, she would know that he’d broken into her locked office. That should be enough — in an organisation primarily concerned with the safekeeping of information — to have him removed from the operation.

It wasn’t yet six o’clock when Lois arrived at the compound behind the warehouse. She pushed the key into the external door and — much to her annoyance — her heart began to race. Moyne didn’t scare her. She doubted their simmering conflict would turn physical. She’d met his sort before. He wouldn’t initiate anything unless he could be sure of the outcome.

However, there was something about him — something she’d discerned in the moment of their meeting. He was sly. Cunning. Her gut feeling was that he was the sort of person you could know for a decade and never come to trust. The sort of person who might just be the mole working for the other side.

But it wasn’t just thoughts of Moyne that crowded into her consciousness.

The door creaked loudly as Lois pushed it open. She locked it behind her and hurried up the stairs. In her office, she scanned quickly for any signs of disturbance. Everything looked exactly how she had left it just a few hours earlier.

Her heart was now thumping crazily in her chest. Was he all right?

She stepped to the window and sighed with relief.

He was OK.

He was sitting against the far wall, one knee bent, one leg stretched out in front of him, his eyes staring forward.

But something was wrong. There were no signs of another attack, but something was wrong.

Lois snatched the binoculars and focussed on his face.

He looked … desolate. Sad.

That was ludicrous. How could he be anything other than sad?

Deranged was a possibility. So was demoralised.

But this looked as if he had lost something that was precious to him.

He had.

He’d lost everything that was precious to him.

But he’d lost it seven years ago.

So what had caused such despondency now?

Lois stepped into the gap between her desk and the closet and looked around the cell.

The bowl, the towel, the plastic mug, and the empty water bottle were neatly arranged against the wall next to the door. The pieces of orange peel and the apple core had been left in the otherwise empty food container.

Everything looked fine.

But it wasn’t.

What had happened?

Her gaze swung back towards the prisoner, but stalled abruptly before reaching him.

The toothpaste tube was lying in the middle of the floor. Flat. Crumpled. And with a dollop of hardening toothpaste blistered around the opening.

The cap was a few feet away — and beyond that was the toothbrush, its bristles buckled and discoloured.

What had happened?

Lois slowly scoured the room. Near the door, toothpaste had been smeared on a large portion of the wall — its whiteness stark against the surrounding grimy pallor.

Why had the prisoner done that?

He knew how to use a toothbrush. She’d seen him brush his teeth.

Had he had some sort of breakdown?

Surely, this couldn’t have been triggered by the changes she had instituted. Surely, he couldn’t survive years of torment, only to be pushed over the edge by a hint of compassion.

Her gaze swung back to the crestfallen figure. What had happened? Lois didn’t understand — but she would. And she would start with Moyne. She turned away from the window, hesitated long enough to lock her door, and descended the stairs.

Moyne was in the staffroom, eating a large meal of greasy bacon and almost-raw eggs.

“How was your shift?” Lois asked casually.

“Fine,” he said with a mouth full of sloppy egg.

“Did you go into the cell?”

He chortled. “You took my key. How could I get into the cell?”

“Did you hear anything from the prisoner?”

Moyne’s eyebrows dived. “There was a lot of movement.” He shrugged. “Dunno what he was doing. It didn’t sound like that running he does sometimes.” He met her eyes, his face slicked to guileless. “Have you been up to the office and looked? Is he OK?”

“Yeah, he’s OK.”

“So? No problems, then?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.” Lois poured herself a cup of strong coffee and returned to her office. She unlocked the closet, turned off the camera, and rewound the tape. Once it reached the beginning, she sipped her coffee as she watched the speeding images slide across the screen.

A minute later, she jumped and snatched the remote control from the shelf. She slowed the tape to normal speed and watched.

Moyne was in the cell. The prisoner was huddled into the corner, suffering and incapacitated from exposure to the rod carried by his tormenter.

Moyne sauntered to where the prisoner had left his scant possessions. The assistant swung his foot through them, and they scattered. He followed up and landed a vicious kick on the water bottle. It skimmed across the concrete and slammed into the side wall.

He picked up the toothpaste, ripped off the cap, and squirted the contents of the tube onto the wall in long white streaks. Then, he retrieved the toothbrush and used it to spread the white paste across the wall.

It took him over a minute to complete the defacement to his satisfaction. He flung the empty tube and the ruined toothbrush across the cell and left.

Lois whirled through the tape until there was movement from the prisoner. She slowed to normal speed and watched as he struggled to his feet. He stood, shoulders low, crouched over with his hands on his knees.

His head rose, and he surveyed the cell, his face so clearly etched with despair that Lois couldn’t help the sob that escaped from her mouth.

He hobbled around the cell, tidying the mess that Moyne had made.

He picked up everything — the orange peel, the apple core, the soap — and arranged them neatly together. Everything except for the toothbrush and toothpaste.

Why?

Did he feel they had been contaminated by Moyne’s vandalism?

Did he think this would be perceived as confirmation that he didn’t deserve even the most basic things?

Was he worried that this would mean a return to how life had been under Trask’s regime?

Had he sensed a change in the person who dictated his life from the other side of the window?

Or was she drawing way, way too many inferences from his reaction to what Moyne had done?

Lois glanced at the clock. Shadbolt should be here any minute. There wasn’t time to talk to Moyne privately. And anyway, she wasn’t sure yet how she was going to deal with him. Should she tell him she knew he had another key? That would alert him to the presence of the camera — if he didn’t know already.

Moyne knowing about the camera could provide the prisoner with some protection.

Moyne not knowing about the camera could give her the opportunity to gain enough evidence to take to Scardino.

Moyne had made no effort to keep outside of the camera’s range. Did that mean he didn’t know he was being recorded? Or did it mean that he was well aware that a ruined toothbrush was not going to be enough to dismiss him from the operation?

Lois heard the external door open and poked her head out of her office. “Shadbolt?”

He looked up, his expression not encouraging at all.

“Could you come up here for a moment, please?” Lois asked.

He lumbered up the steps. Stood at the top and waited.

“How do you feel about swapping shifts with Moyne?”

“I can’t.”

“You can’t? Or you don’t want to?”

“I can’t.”

Lois gave him a moment to elucidate, but he said nothing. “OK,” she said.

He turned, walked down the steps, and disappeared into the staffroom.

***

“Lois Lane is here to see you.”

Daniel Scardino felt a strangely mixed reaction to the news of an unexpected visit from Ms Lane. Pleasure, certainly. Who wouldn’t look forward to the presence of such a beautiful and fascinating woman? But his original uneasiness hadn’t faded. There was a real possibility she’d come to tell him that she wanted out of the Alien Operation.

And that would leave him with three problems — finding an assignment for her, finding someone to take on the debacle that Trask had left behind, and having to explain his inept handling of this operation to the higher-ups.

That was too much trouble and unpleasantness for an operation of such insignificance. If Lois Lane wanted out, he would have to convince her to stay. Her insistence that she remain in Metropolis could prove very helpful. If she wouldn’t see things his way, he would threaten her with a long-term assignment in a faraway place.

“Good morning, Ms Lane,” Daniel said as he opened his door and gestured for her to enter. He waited until she was seated before slipping behind his desk and sitting down. “How are you?” he asked with a smile.

“I need to discuss several aspects of my assignment with you.”

“Of course.”

“What do you know about the prisoner’s life before he was captured?”

Daniel had not been expecting that question. He could only give her the truth. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

He deflected the implied criticism in her question. “This operation has only been in my portfolio for the past two years. When it was assigned to me, I called in Trask, and he assured me that everything was fine. I asked him about the history of the operation, and he directed me to his boxes of research.” Daniel tried another smile. “Did you receive the boxes?”

“Yes, thank you. Did you ever study Trask’s research?”

Again, the truth was all Daniel had. The operation was local, small, and — despite Trask’s vehement assertions — not considered globally threatening. “No.”

“Who did the prisoner live with before he was captured?”

Daniel shot her a questioning look. “Live with?”

“Yes. Live with.”

“I was led to believe that he was living in the wild like an … like an animal.”

“So was I,” she said tightly.

“He wasn’t? You’ve communicated with him?”

“Not with speech,” Ms Lane said. “But mere observation is enough to determine beyond doubt that the prisoner has lived with humans. And — unless you know of a string of unsolved murders — presumably without harming them.”

Her eyes were fixed on him with such intent that it felt as if she were pulling apart his defences and laying him wide open. The truth was that Daniel hadn’t given the slightest attention to this operation. He didn’t care. But — apparently — Lois Lane did. And suddenly, it felt as if she was the superior, and he was the junior being chastised for negligence to duty.

“What have you observed?” he asked.

“He understands cleanliness,” Ms Lane said. “He is familiar with soap and toothpaste. Evidently, he managed to restrain his naturally murderous tendencies long enough to learn personal hygiene.”

Her line was delivered with lashings of sarcasm.

“I read some of Trask’s log,” Daniel said, trying not to sound defensive. “He portrays the alien as being dirty and -”

“If you were put in an empty cell and not given enough water to drink, let alone wash, you’d be dirty, too,” she fired at him.

Daniel waited until the emotion of her broadside had dissipated. “Ms Lane,” he said. “You’re an experienced agent, and normally I wouldn’t say this, but I feel I must caution you against getting personally involved with this situation. The prisoner has killed two agents. He has no possible future outside of that cage.”

Ms Lane regarded him with cool detachment. “Why isn’t this a normal situation?” she asked.

“Because you should still be on leave,” he replied. “After what happened on your previous assignment, you are entitled to three months -”

“Do you believe I am unfit for this assignment?”

“No. No, of course not.” Daniel had begun with a smile, but it collapsed under the chilliness of her gaze.

“I want you to find out what happened to the people he was living with at the time of his capture. It’s possible he had a wife … children, perhaps.”

A wife? Children? Was she suggesting there were other aliens on earth? “Whatever the situation, it won’t be reversible,” Daniel said. “Not after all this time.”

“We both know that anyone who witnessed the capture would have been taken as well,” Ms Lane said. “We also know they would have been silenced — very effectively. This has been going on for seven years, and there hasn’t been even a hint of it reach the outside world.”

“I will try,” Daniel conceded.

She nodded the briefest of acknowledgements. “I also wish to discuss one of the assistants — Moyne.”

Daniel cast his mind back to the notes he’d read. “Moyne — I believe he was a part of the operation from the beginning.”

“Was he at the capture?” she said.

“You haven’t asked him?”

“I don’t trust him.”

Daniel subdued his sigh. He had the definite feeling that this operation was going to be taking more of his time than it warranted. “Are there reasons why you don’t trust him?”

“He disobeyed a directive.”

“This is your third day,” Daniel said, trying to appease. “A satisfactory relationship takes time. The assistants have worked with Trask in a small, tight group for many years. It’s not surprising that they would need a period of adjustment.”

“And if he continues to challenge my authority?”

“Are you suggesting he be dismissed from the operation?”

“Yes.”

This time Daniel’s sigh couldn’t be repressed. “Ms Lane,” he said. “You know the protocol.”

“The protocol shouldn’t be used as an excuse to keep agents in jobs for which they are not suited.”

“Ms Lane … Lois … this operation is particularly delicate. It’s not the sort of assignment that can have a revolving door. We can’t allow people who have been privy to this information to simply leave.”

“I’m not saying he should leave the job,” she said. “I’m saying that it’s time he was given another assignment.”

“The higher-ups won’t like it,” Daniel said. “I doubt they will agree.”

“Did Trask ever request that one of the assistants be released from the assignment?”

“Not in the last two years.”

“Before that?”

“I’m unaware.”

“Would it be recorded?” she asked.

“For security reasons, the specific details of this operation are kept strictly confidential.”

“So, basically Trask was given a free hand to do as he wished — knowing that there would be no one checking on him and that his records would be the only available account of what happened?”

“He didn’t have a ‘free hand’,” Daniel said. “This isn’t the only operation that works like that. You know that some things cannot be acknowledged officially.”

“Do you find it significant that the only two people who have left this operation did so in a coffin?”

An icy chill of trepidation brushed across Daniel’s heart. “You’re not suggesting that you could be in physical danger?” he said. “I’ve already strongly advised you not to enter the cell.”

“I think that when an operation is based on such unrestrained lust for power, the despicable becomes the norm, and anything is possible.”

“You make it sound like a House of Horrors,” Daniel said, trying to lighten the mood.

Ms Lane didn’t smile. “There’s no way you could find another position for Moyne?”

“Even assuming the higher-ups agreed to him moving on — which they won’t — I would have to find an assignment for Moyne, and I’d have to find someone to replace him at the compound.”

Ms Lane shook her head. “I don’t need three assistants,” she said. “Two are sufficient. They do little other than sit next to a locked door.”

“The assistants can’t work twelve hour shifts.”

“I’m not suggesting that. I’m suggesting there is no need for an assistant to be there when I’m in my office.”

“What happens when someone needs time off?”

“We can cover that in the short term.”

“Do you think it’s safe for you to be there alone with the prisoner?” Daniel asked.

“I’d hardly be alone with the prisoner,” she corrected crisply. “There would be a locked door between us, and I would have the rods for protection should I need to enter the cell.”

“I don’t want you to go into the cell when you’re there by yourself,” Daniel said firmly. The memory of Deller’s torn and mangled body flashed through his mind. “I don’t want you to go into the cell at all.”

Ms Lane stood. “Do what you can to get Moyne moved on,” she said.

Daniel hurried to stand, too. “I can’t make any promises.”

“And find out what happened to the prisoner’s family.”

Family? “Ah … we’re not even sure he ever lived with anyone.”

“I am,” she said. She strode to his office door and opened it. “And I want to know where they are now.”

She strode out of his office.

Daniel watched as she walked away.

She had the perfect figure for a woman. Sensational legs. Curvy hips. An exquisitely shaped bottom.

He closed the door and slowly returned to his desk.

She was going to be a problem. He just knew it. She was definitely going to be a problem.

***

Lois walked back to Bessolo Boulevard from Scardino’s office. The sun was reluctant to peep out from behind the clouds, but the slightly leaden hue wasn’t enough to persuade her to hail a cab.

Did he ever think about the outside world?

What had he enjoyed doing? Had he played sports? Had he liked camping? Fishing? Hiking in the woods?

It was easy to imagine him having had an active, outdoorsy lifestyle.

Lois stopped at a cafe and ordered two chicken, lettuce, and tomato wraps, and two bottles of water — one large, one small. At the newsstand, she bought the morning edition of The Daily Planet.

When she arrived at the compound, she ran up the stairs to her office, unlocked it, put her bag on the chair, and went to the window.

The toothpaste tube and toothbrush were still in the middle of the cell.

The prisoner was crouched on the ground — almost like a frog. As Lois watched, his feet lifted from the ground, and he balanced on his spreadeagled hands.

He was strong.

His body looked gaunt and malnourished, but he was startlingly strong.

He held the pose for almost half a minute. Then he began to shake and dropped gently to his feet.

He stretched out his legs and began doing push-ups.

Lois took the binoculars from the desk and zoomed in on him. The muscle tone through his arms and shoulders was surprisingly defined — not bulging, but definitely defined. She slowly drifted from his shoulder and along his flexing, pumping arm. She wandered sideways — past his ribs and to his tightly bound stomach.

She snatched the binoculars from her eyes and dropped them onto the desk with a loud clatter. Without a backward glance, she picked up her bag and exited her office.

Shadbolt was in the staffroom, reading another space magazine. He didn’t look up when she entered.

“You’ll be going into the cell in a few minutes,” Lois said.

He didn’t respond.

Lois searched under the sink and found a plastic bucket. She half filled it with water and added a cleaning cloth, hoping that the prisoner would realise that it was for cleaning the toothpaste off his wall, not for washing his body.

It seemed important to give him the means to erase the reminder of Moyne’s invasion.

She put the bucket near the door and then positioned the wrap, the larger bottle of water, and the copy of The Daily Planet on the table. “Ready?” she asked Shadbolt.

His eyes lifted from the magazine and hesitated on her stash before rising further to meet her face. “You’re playing a deadly game,” he said ominously. “He seems compliant and easily controlled now, but you haven’t seen the other side of him. Trask had good reason for the way he ran this operation.”

“He’s locked in a room,” Lois said. “Whenever he’s exposed to the rods, he suffers crippling pain. Regardless of how strong he is, I can’t see how he could possibly present a danger to anyone with a rod.”

“Deller thought that. So did Bortolotto.”

“You said you brought out Bortolotto’s body,” Lois said.

“I did.”

“Did Bortolotto have a rod with him?”

“Moyne and Bortolotto were in there together.”

“Did they have rods?”

“Moyne did.”

“Don’t you think that the presence or otherwise of the rods is crucial in establishing exactly what happened?”

Shadbolt’s eyebrow rose in query. “What do you mean?”

“Has there been a noticeable change in the effect of the rods over the years?”

Shadbolt shook his head. “No. Nothing’s changed.”

“From what I’ve seen, one rod is enough to completely disable him.” Lois squeezed into the chair at the table. “Let’s assume that one of two men went into the cell without a rod.”

“And the animal saw his chance and killed.”

“OK,” Lois said. “But the question would have to be asked why anyone would go in without a rod. Particularly the second time — when Moyne and Bortolotto already knew what had happened to Deller.”

“Bortolotto replaced Deller. He heard about it, but he didn’t see it with his own eyes.”

“Either way, that’s unforgivably lax for men who have been trained to know that one mistake can be fatal.”

“The worst thing about this job is the boredom,” Shadbolt said. “It’s worse than being out in the field with a guerrilla army on your tail.”

“Boredom doesn’t excuse carelessness,” Lois said. “But that’s not the point. Let’s assume they took in at least one rod. How did the prisoner overcome his pain enough to be able to kill one of them?”

“Hatred is a powerful motivator.”

“Then why hasn’t he done it since? Why did he find the spur to override the effects of the rod twice, but no other time?”

“I just hope that the next time he decides to do it, it’s not me who’s in the cell.”

“You think he’ll kill again?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Then why loiter in there when you took in the bowl of water?”

A micro-smile touched Shadbolt’s mouth. “I was being a jerk,” he said. “I knew you were watching me, and I was trying to rattle your cage.” He shrugged, and the hint of levity dissolved. “And there had been a discipline session on Sunday — that subdues him for a few days.”

“Do you really believe the discipline sessions are needed to minimise the danger?”

Shadbolt stared at her for a long moment. “Yes, I do,” he said.

“Do you believe that if you went in there now without a rod, he would attack you?”

“Without a doubt,” Shadbolt said with disturbing certainty. “I know that if I ever walk in there without a rod, I won’t walk out.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I’ve been here seven years.”

“Other than the two deaths, has he ever acted in a threatening manner?”

“Yes!” Shadbolt cried, looking incredulous that she would ask that question.

“You’ve seen him? You’ve witnessed it directly?”

“I always take in a rod. He directed most of his hostility towards Trask and Moyne.”

“Ever wondered why?”

“No,” Shadbolt said. “Even though I take in a rod, I never forget that he is a scheming evil animal, awaiting his chance.”

Lois shook her head in bewilderment. “I just don’t see that in him.”

“You didn’t see the bodies,” Shadbolt said grimly.

“Have you ever heard him speak?”

“No.”

“Have you seen anything that could be considered an attempt to communicate?”

“You mean like a dog wags its tail?” Shadbolt mocked.

Lois’s need for information was greater than her desire to remonstrate with her assistant. “Anything?” she persisted. “Did he make hand signals? Any noises at all?”

“The only hand signal I ever saw was the one used to pulverize Deller and Bortolotto to pulp.”

Lois stood from her chair. “Get a rod,” she said. She placed the bucket near the door, and picked up the newspaper, wrap, and bottle of water. “Put these just inside the door,” she said. “I’ll hand them to you. Also, there’s a container with trash in it and the empty bowl — bring them back with you.”

“What’s the paper for?” Shadbolt asked. “And the bucket?”

Lois hesitated. “There’s a mess in there.”

Shadbolt grunted in disgust. “That’s what happens when you suddenly change his diet.”

“Not that sort of mess.”

“Whatever sort of mess it is, I’m not staying in there long enough to clean it up.”

“I’m not asking you to.”

Shadbolt’s scorn turned down the corners of his mouth. “You’re expecting him to?”

“I don’t know,” Lois said honestly. “But I’m going to find out.”

“You think he’ll know to use the paper to clean up?”

“Actually, I was wondering if he’d read it.”

“Read it?” Shadbolt spluttered. “Lady, you’ve lost the plot.”

Lois unlocked the door and swung it open. Shadbolt carried the bucket into the cell and then reached back for the other items. A few seconds later, he retreated with the bowl and food container.

Lois locked the door. “Thanks,” she said.

Shadbolt put the rod into the closet while Lois put the bowl on the drainer and dropped the container into the trash. She headed for the stairs.

“Ms Lane?”

She stopped and turned.

“Moyne told me that the alien did speak,” Shadbolt said. “In the first few days.”

“Why did he stop?”

“Because every time he tried to communicate in any way, they belted him with the rod. By the time I came, he’d stopped trying.”

“Thank you,” Lois said in a tight, strained voice. She hurried up the stairs before Shadbolt could see the tears that had flooded her eyes.

***

There was someone new.

The realisation had come slowly as he’d recuperated from the attack two days ago.

He’d heard tiny snatches of her voice.

Her!

A female voice.

He hadn’t heard a female voice since these four walls had become his prison.

He’d thought he was dreaming at first … or hallucinating … it was so faint … no words … just tone … too high-pitched for a man.

He’d thought that perhaps his mind had begun to slide into insanity.

But then he’d heard her again.

What was a woman doing here?

This was no place for a woman.

There was something terribly disconcerting about a woman being here.

A woman.

Had she been here when Moyne had come in and attacked with maniacal ferocity?

He didn’t know.

But when he’d awakened … as he’d been trying to bring some relief to his battered body … she’d been here then.

He’d felt her.

Felt a … difference … in the atmosphere.

Trask had gone.

Things had changed.

She’d given him fruit. Given him a meal of chicken and vegetables. Given him a washcloth and soap. Given him … He scowled at the toothbrush and toothpaste still on the floor where Moyne had thrown them.

He forced his eyes away.

That was nothing.

He’d endured far, far more than the destruction of a toothbrush.

But … somehow, it was symbolic of everything that had been taken from him … its loss felt as if he were being knifed deep inside him.

Deep, deep inside — the place where he went to escape. The place he had shored up so thoroughly he’d thought it was impenetrable.

It was a stupid toothbrush.

Insignificant.

He dropped his head into his hands and fought back his tears.

He wouldn’t let them see how much this hurt him.

He wouldn’t.

He wouldn’t be brought down by a toothbrush.

He heard the click of the lock and tensed, knowing his body was about to be hammered with exposure to the poison.

The door opened. The pain whipped around him. He scrunched his eyes shut as the anguish clawed through his chest and across his heart.

It was mercifully brief.

The pain receded.

The door shut.

The lock clicked into place.

Before the pain had fully faded, he stood and turned towards the door.

He saw a bucket and hurriedly strode across the prison.

There was another bottle of water and something that looked like a rolled-up sandwich.

But …

There was something else.

He fell to his knees and picked up the newspaper.

A link.

A link to the world outside.

The first one since his capture.

His eyes searched for the date.

Wednesday, October 5, 1994

Seven years and two months.

He’d been here seven years, two months, and three days.

He’d tried to count the days as they’d passed, tried to mark the seasons. He’d reached 2559 days and thought it was midsummer. He’d lost a couple of months.

Actually, he’d lost seven years.

He scooped up the food and the bottle and took it away from the door.

He sat down against the back wall, arched his knees, unfolded the paper …

… and began to read.

Absorb.

Devour.

***

And above him, Lois watched through a deluge of silent tears.

Part 6

Lois turned away from the window to snatch a fistful of tissues from the box. She dabbed at the spreading sogginess, but her eyes didn’t move from the figure sitting against the back wall of the cell.

He didn’t look significantly different from any worker who could be seen around the city at lunchtime. He had carefully unrolled his food from the plastic wrap — another indication that he was fully cognisant of the practicalities of Western culture — and was eating while engrossed in the pages of the newspaper.

It looked so normal.

And it was so abhorrently abnormal.

Could she be sure that he was actually reading?

Lois picked up the binoculars and peered through the pelt of his shaggy dark hair, trying to track the movement of his eyes.

He certainly appeared to be reading.

His eyes darted back and forth as if he were skimming rather than reading for detail. However, that was what she would expect. That was what she’d do if she’d been out of touch with the world for seven years.

If he were reading, that changed everything.

Even if — she quickly skipped over the thought — even if the repeated bashings to his head had impaired his ability to speak, the logical conclusion of him reading was that she could communicate with him.

Could he also write? Is so, he could communicate with her.

He could answer her questions — questions about his life before he’d been condemned to this hellhole.

Questions about Trask. And Moyne. And what they’d done when no one else was here.

Lois picked up another of Trask’s books of research. So far, she had skimmed through four of them and found nothing. It was astonishing that a man could write so much and say so little.

This book wasn’t scientific — in fact, as Lois quickly realised, it was the delusional ranting of a too-active imagination. This book was devoted to a treatise on the alien’s ‘powers’. Flicking through, she discovered a catalogue of bizarre claims.

The prisoner could — according to Trask — fly.

He could see through walls — unless they were lined with lead.

He was strong enough to bend steel with his hands.

And could move fast enough to be just a blur when he crossed a room.

He could float — in utter defiance of gravity.

And he intended to use all of these extraordinary powers in his Big Plan To Conquer The World.

Which begged the question — how had mere men managed to keep this super-powered modern-day Goliath under lock and key for seven years?

According to Trask, that was where the Achilles — an alien substance — came in mighty handy. It stripped the invader of his powers and reduced him to a substantially weakened state.

Lois tossed the book onto the desk in disgust.

Trask’s conjecture was neither original nor particularly inspired. Depict the enemy as being less than human, impute him with strange and frightening powers, mix them with the rabid intention of evil, sprinkle liberally with paranoia, and convince yourself — and others — that the sordid concoction excused the most repugnant of atrocities.

But Trask was dead.

And Lois’s mission was to ensure that the prisoner remained locked in his cell.

Regardless of truth.

Or justice.

Or human rights.

Her training had schooled her to believe that her primary responsibility was to follow orders — that the big-picture rights and wrongs were not the concern of the individual operative. In most cases, the agent on the ground knew only one small part of a complex and far-reaching operation.

It was foolish to make decisions based on limited facts.

Foolish … and sometimes fatal. Fatal for you. Fatal for those who worked alongside you.

But this …

This was barbarous.

The prisoner had finished eating. His forearm was draped over his bended knee. The water bottle hung from his hand, and he periodically sipped as he continued reading The Daily Planet.

Who was he?

She knew what she’d witnessed in the past three days.

She also knew that making a judgment based on incomplete information went against every precept of being a good agent.

And a long-lived one.

It was imperative that she find out more.

Because this was not something that she could simply walk away from when the time came to resume her active career.

This was something she would never escape — it would stay with her.

There would come a time when she would have to make a stand.

To fight for his rights. Or to accept that — for the safety of humankind — he had to remain caged like an animal.

But she couldn’t do either without knowing more.

And it wasn’t just knowledge that she needed. It was truth.

Who had the truth?

Who could she trust to give her the truth?

No one.

The precepts of being a agent …

Trust no one.

Gather information systematically.

Assume nothing.

Give nothing away.

This had become far more than an assignment. This went deeper.

This transcended him and became about her.

And about whether, this time, she could get it right.

***

Lois walked into the staffroom and went to the coffee machine without comment to Shadbolt, whose nose was buried deep in the Sky and Telescope magazine.

She added the milk to her coffee, stirred it, and sat down across the table from Shadbolt.

She sipped from the hot strong liquid — and the sound of her swallowing resonated loud in the silence.

After a minute of uncomfortable noiselessness, Shadbolt looked up with a scowl. “Do you want something?”

“Yes. I want information.”

“Ask Moyne. He was tighter with Trask than anyone else.”

“I want to ask you.”

Shadbolt slapped his magazine onto the table — which Lois took to be agreement.

“You’ve been here since one week after the capture?”

He nodded.

“What was Deller like?” she asked. “When did he join the operation?”

“He started a week after me. He was here for just over a year.”

“What was he like?”

Shadbolt shrugged. “He did his job.”

Lois sent him a frown of disbelief tempered with a glint of amusement. “You’re an agent,” she said. “And you’re still alive after thirty-three years. You have to be better at reading people than that.”

He didn’t smile, but the animosity of his scowl diminished a little. “Deller was like an angry dog. He never backed down, he had an opinion on everything, he always knew best, and he thought anyone who disagreed with him was an imbecile.”

“Oh,” Lois said with a wince. “How did that work with Trask?”

“Like gasoline and a naked flame.”

“Would it be fair to say that Trask’s job became easier after Deller’s death?”

Shadbolt’s scowl returned with full force. “No matter what Deller was, he didn’t deserve to die like that.”

“What about Bortolotto?” Lois asked. “Was he like Deller?”

Shadbolt reached forward and straightened the folded-over corner of the magazine page. “He was the exact opposite.”

“How so?”

“Bortolotto was a quiet man — serious, introverted, anxious. I don’t know what possessed him to get into this job. An even greater mystery is how he survived as long as he did.”

“Why?”

“He had a fatal flaw — he believed the best of everyone. Moyne got great entertainment out of setting him up — stupid things like hiding his glasses or putting toy bugs in his sandwiches — but Bortolotto never once believed that Moyne meant him any ill.”

“What did Bortolotto think of the prisoner?”

“He hated the job — you could tell. He hated using the rods because of what he thought they did to the alien. In some ways, he was a bit like you. He wasn’t convinced of the need to keep the alien weak and submissive.” Shadbolt lifted his gaze and met her eyes. “He paid for that oversight with his life.”

Ice-cold foreboding trickled the length of her spine. “Do you think that Bortolotto tried to communicate with the prisoner?”

“If he did, he was more stupid than I realised.”

“Why?”

Shadbolt shuffled in his seat. “I believe that the beast on the other side of that door is an alien,” he said solemnly. “I believe that he came here to kill and destroy.”

“Trask believed all of those things.”

“But the difference between us is that Trask wanted to believe that the alien is fundamentally a dumb brute. I don’t believe that at all. I believe he is cunning … sly … manipulative. You asked me how he could have killed if Moyne had the rod. I’ll tell you how — I’m not convinced that the rods have any effect on him. I think there is a good chance that he fakes the agony to lure us into thinking we have the upper hand. I think he saw Deller’s anger and Bortolotto’s indulgence as weakness and struck where he perceived vulnerability.”

“Did you tell Trask any of this?”

“Yes — but he couldn’t stomach the idea that he’d been outsmarted by an alien. He wouldn’t even consider the possibility of the rods being ineffectual. The alien’s reaction to the rods was crucial in proving he’s not one of us, and nothing was going to convince Trask otherwise.”

“Why would the prisoner allow himself to be beaten if he could stop it?”

“Are you certain that aliens feel pain?”

“Yes,” Lois asserted.

“Or he acts well.”

“That doesn’t explain why he would allow Moyne to attack him if he can stop it.”

“He knows his fellow aliens are coming.”

Lois clamped down on the grunt of ridicule that almost escaped. “You think more of them are coming?” she said, managing — she hoped — to make it sound like a serious question.

“I’m sure of it. And their first port of call will be here.”

“Do you think they will take revenge?” Lois said, deliberately stifling the fear that wanted to fester in her tone. “For how we’ve treated one of them?”

“I don’t think it will matter,” Shadbolt said. “I think they will kill indiscriminately.”

“If you believe that, why are you still here?”

“Because I have no choice.”

“You could go to Scar -”

“What are you doing here?” Shadbolt challenged. “I’ve heard of the great Lois Lane. This operation is so mediocre compared to your usual assignments, I can only conclude that the higher-ups have finally realised the seriousness of this threat.”

“That’s not the reason,” Lois said. “I have to be in Metropolis for personal reasons.”

Shadbolt held her gaze for a long moment. “Then you should understand when I say I have no choice.”

“Personal reasons?”

“Private reasons.”

In other words, don’t ask. Lois changed the subject. “What if he’s just a human being who got caught up in Trask’s web?”

Shadbolt’s face creased with alarm. “I can assure you he is not human,” he said vehemently. “I have seen him levitate. I know he could see through these walls before Trask had them lined with lead. Despite the way he lives, he heals quickly — and none of his wounds ever leave scars.”

“You’ve seen him levitate?”

“Trask called me up to his office one day. The alien was asleep. He’d risen off the floor and was hanging in the air.”

“You saw him hang in mid-air?” Lois said.

Shadbolt was deadly serious. “If you make the mistake of thinking he is human, if you even consider the possibility that he can be trusted, it will be the final blunder of your life.”

Shadbolt believed it.

He believed every word he was saying.

He stood abruptly and faced the door to the cell. “What the alien did to the bodies of Deller and Bortolotto was the work of a depraved animal.” He turned, his face knotted with memories. “I don’t want to have to drag your torn body out of that cell. What he’d do to you would make a horror movie look like Sesame Street.”

Lois shot from the seat, almost spilling her coffee. “Thanks for the warning,” she said as she backed away.

She climbed the stairs and went into her office.

The prisoner was washing the dried smears of toothpaste from the wall. He worked steadily and with purpose. Lois watched until he’d finished. He wrung out the cloth and used it to mop up a couple of little splashes near the base of the bucket.

Then he crossed to the middle of the cell and picked up the discarded toothbrush and tube. He continued to the far wall where he’d eaten his lunch and picked up the plastic wrapping. He put the three items in a neat pile near the door.

He picked up the bucket and took it behind the shoulder-height screen to empty it. Once he’d placed it near the door, he stood for a moment and perused the newly cleaned wall.

Apparently satisfied, he returned to the back wall, picked up The Daily Planet, sat down, and began to read.

***

In her office, Lois re-read Trask’s claims about the extraordinary powers of the alien with new perspective. Could it be possible?

He could fly?

If he did have all of those powers, the plan to take over the world wasn’t so farfetched anymore. Particularly if there were others of his kind — equally powered — either here already or planning an invasion.

As she ate her lunch, Lois watched him. It was no longer just observation, but study. Not just noting what he did, but also formulating possible reasons behind his actions.

The running, the exercise, the push-ups … did they represent a strategy of survival or a strategy of groundwork for future domination?

He was still scouring the newspaper — working through page after page, leaving nothing unread.

Was it merely interest in a world he had been forced to leave? Or something more menacing?

Longford arrived, but Lois waited until she heard Shadbolt leave the compound before going down the stairs to the staffroom. “Hi,” she said.

Longford looked up from the book he was reading. “Hi, Ms Lane.”

He didn’t immediately return his attention to his book, so Lois paused next to the table. “How long have you been with this operation?”

“Two and a half years.”

“You replaced Bortolotto?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you mind me asking why you were given this assignment? Did you ask for it?”

Longford twisted in his seat, straightened his leg towards her, and pulled up the material of his pants.

Lois saw the prosthesis and gasped. “What happened?”

“Tried to stop a bullet with my leg,” he replied easily. “It took a long time to get to a hospital, and by then the wound was too badly infected to save the leg.”

Lois grimaced in sympathy. “Were you happy to get this assignment?”

Longford shrugged. “They figured I was too much of a liability to be given a real assignment, and my elderly mother lives about an hour away. It could be worse; I go and see her a couple of mornings a week.”

“Have you ever had any problems with the prisoner? Has he ever attacked you?”

“No,” Longford replied. “But I never go in there without a rod.”

“Do you think the rods do actually incapacitate him? Or do you think he’s faking his suffering?”

Longford folded his leg under the table again. “You’ve been talking to Shadbolt.”

“Yes. What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Longford said. “Moyne and Shadbolt have told me plenty — enough that he can’t be anything except a savage killer.”

“But?”

“But I’ve never seen any evidence of it.”

“Have you ever seen any evidence of special powers?”

“No.”

“Are you worried about the way I’m running this operation?” Lois said. “Do you think that stopping the discipline sessions will increase the risk to your safety when you go into the cell?”

Longford thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know what to think.”

“Would you go into the cell without a rod?”

“No,” Longford said decisively. “Because I figure that by now, he has to have a lot of hatred built up. One day, it’s going to explode.” He gazed at the cell door for a long moment and then turned back to Lois. “Shadbolt said you took his key.”

“Yes.”

“Do you want mine?”

“Yes, please.”

He reached into his pocket and removed the key ring.

“Do you trust Moyne?” Lois asked.

“No.”

“Shadbolt?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because Shadbolt says what he thinks. You might not like what he says, but he doesn’t play games.”

“And Moyne?”

“Moyne has been here a long time. He’s seen a lot of things.”

“But you don’t trust him?”

“No, I don’t.” Longford slipped the cell key from the ring and offered it to Lois.

“Thanks,” she said as she took it. “How would you feel about swapping shifts with Moyne?”

Longford glanced sideways to the bed that was built into the area under the stairs. “It’s OK with me, but he won’t do it.”

“How do you know?”

“Trask wanted us to swap. Moyne refused.”

“Trask was supposed to run this operation.”

“In theory — yes.”

“Are you saying Moyne ran it?” Lois asked.

“I’m not saying anything other than I’m willing to swap shifts with Moyne — or Shadbolt for that matter. My mother doesn’t care what time of the day I visit her.”

“Thanks.”

Longford picked up his book, and his eyes returned to the page.

“I’m going out for about an hour,” Lois said.

“OK.”

“I’ll be back before his meal is delivered.”

Longford grunted, but his eyes did not leave the book.

Lois left the compound. The camera was recording, but she was confident that Longford posed no threat to the prisoner.

She wished she could be equally confident that the prisoner posed no threat to humanity.

***

“Hello, Ms Lane. You’re here early.”

Lois managed a synthetic smile. “I’ve started a new job. I can get away during the afternoon sometimes.”

The nurse was probably in her fifties, although her steely grey hair made her look older. Her smile, however, had a vibrant youthfulness. “That’ll work well with the winter coming. It’s not pleasant being out on cold dark evenings.”

“How’s Dad?”

“He came back from his physiotherapy about ten minutes ago. I was about to go into his room to bathe him.”

“Oh,” Lois said. “Ah … I can come back later.”

“There’s no need,” the nurse said.

“No. Really. I wouldn’t want to disrupt your routine. I know you’re busy.”

The nurse stepped closer. “Ms Lane,” she said, flashing that warm smile again. “I’ve watched you coming to visit your dad for a month now.”

“I come as often as I can.”

The nurse laid a hand on Lois’s shoulder, and Lois had to control the instinct to flinch. “You’re a wonderful daughter, and Sam is lucky to have you,” the nurse said. She took her hand away. “But I can’t help noticing that you seem so very uncomfortable when you visit.”

“Isn’t that normal?” Lois said with a spark of defensiveness. “This place takes some getting used to. Everyone is old or sick; some of them don’t even know where they are.”

“It’s completely normal,” the nurse said. “But my job is not just about helping the residents but also their families.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“Most people find visits difficult at first,” she said, continuing as if Lois hadn’t spoken. “There’s so much to become accustomed to … the new surroundings, your father’s changed condition, the nurses always hovering around, the lack of privacy. The period of adjustment is hard for everyone.”

All Lois could do was nod. If she’d tried to reply verbally, she would have burst into tears.

“I have a suggestion,” the nurse said. “How about we go into your father’s room together, and we -”

“I couldn’t,” Lois said quickly.

“ — and we give him some pampering? We could wash his hair; give him a shave … a manicure, even.”

“My father has never had a manicure in his life.”

The nurse didn’t seem offended by the sharpness of Lois’s tone. “Would you feel up to doing one of those things?”

“Why?” The question was barked out before Lois could stifle it.

“Because doing something helps break the ice. It makes it this more normal.”

“I don’t normally wash my father’s hair.”

“It’s hard to hold a conversation when the other person isn’t saying anything,” the nurse said. “Achieving something together can fill in all those gaps.”

And there were always so many gaps.

The nurse leant forward with a girlish grin. “I have some lovely shampoo that will leave his hair soft and sweet smelling.”

“He doesn’t have much hair.”

The nurse chuckled. “All the more reason to indulge what he does have.”

Lois’s defences crumbled, and she managed a not-completely-forced smile. “That sounds nice,” she conceded.

“Oh, good,” the nurse said with infectious enthusiasm. “I’m Veronica, by the way — ‘Ronny’ to my friends.”

Lois wasn’t sure if she counted as a friend, but she did know that the nurse’s manner made her feel more relaxed than she had in the longest time.

“You go and see your dad,” Veronica said. “I’ll get the dreamy shampoo.”

Lois went into her father’s room, pulled up the chair, and sat beside his bed. “Hi, Dad,” she said.

His head turned slowly in her direction. She looked into his slightly watery eyes.

“How are you?” she asked as she rubbed her fingers gently along his forearm.

The silence was back.

What to say next?

“Guess what, Dad?” Lois smiled — almost as if she believed he would smile back. “We’re going to give you a makeover. We’re going to wash your hair with some lovely shampoo, and you’re going to feel great.”

There was no response — nothing she could detect anyway.

Until now, Lois had avoided pretending to be cheery. She’d worried that it would seem as if she was minimising the gravity of his situation. It seemed unfeeling to breeze in, say a few happy words, and breeze out again to continue her life when his life had been reduced to so little.

But was a little light-heartedness exactly what he needed? Could it bring some sunshine to his closed-in world?

His eyes were on her face, and Lois smiled. She put her hand on his cheek and looked directly into his eyes. “We’re OK, Dad,” she whispered. “The road ahead looks hellishly hard, but you’re not alone.”

Perhaps there was a response in the blink of his eyes.

Perhaps there wasn’t.

Veronica breezed in like a splash of exuberance. “All set?” she asked. “Good. I’ll get you a bowl of lovely warm water, and we’ll start.” She smiled at Sam. “You’re going to smell so good and look so dashing, you’re going to be dangerous,” she predicted.

Lois looked at her dad.

And gave him a smile that was almost natural.

***

Lois stayed at the nursing home for nearly an hour. Veronica showed her how to wrap a towel around her dad’s neck so the water wouldn’t seep down his back. The nurse did most of the talking — easily blending instructions for Lois into a steady stream of entertaining chatter while she cut and filed Sam’s fingernails. Lois added a few comments, but mostly she concentrated on her task. In a surprisingly short time, her initial reservations had faded, and Lois discovered she was enjoying being able to connect with her dad in such a practical way.

Enjoying it.

Lois thought about it as she drove back to Bessolo Boulevard.

She hadn’t enjoyed anything in so long that she could hardly remember what it felt like.

She’d smiled a little — even chuckled once or twice.

And if she’d had to make a guess, she’d say that her dad had enjoyed it, too.

She arrived back at the warehouse just as Uncle Mike’s delivery guy pulled up with the prisoner’s meal.

Lois accepted it from him with instructions to pass on her thanks to her uncle and then went into the compound.

Longford was in the staffroom, eating his meal.

He looked up as she walked in. “Do you want me to take that to him?” he asked.

“Finish your meal first,” Lois said. “I have a few things to get ready before you go in.”

He nodded and continued eating.

Back at her desk, Lois picked up a pen and paused. She wanted to say something to the prisoner, but what?

Give nothing away.

She didn’t want to give him any information that he could use against her.

She didn’t want him thinking — like so many men in this business — that because she was a woman, she was a soft target.

She had to be careful. She had to ensure that she didn’t even hint at the possibility of dissension between those who were — supposedly — working together on the side of good.

She couldn’t condemn Moyne or his actions.

Lois postponed the writing of the note while she took out the new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste she had bought on her way from the nursing home. She had also bought a tin container with a hinged lid. She opened it and placed the toothbrush and toothpaste inside. She picked up the sample bottle of shampoo she had bought and added that.

She put the Neosporin in, too. Some of his wounds had almost healed, but some — the ones on his back where Moyne had pounded abrasions that hadn’t yet recovered from Sunday’s discipline session — were still looking sore.

She picked up the roll-on deodorant. Should she? How far was too far? Where was the line between supplying his basic needs and indulging him to the point where he began to feel a psychological advantage?

Was he looking for an advantage?

Or was he simply trying to survive a situation that would have crushed most people a long time ago?

Lois sighed deeply.

Every time she looked at the prisoner — he was reading the newspaper again — she was overwhelmed with uncertainty.

Could he possibly be an alien?

An alien committed to the destruction of the human race?

Could he have special powers that made it plausible for him to even contemplate such a plan?

Did he have allies? Allies who were coming? Were they the hope that had sustained him through Trask’s years of abuse?

Lois put the deodorant back in her bag. She picked up the pen and scribbled a note — Will collect after use. She put the sheet of paper in the little box and closed the lid.

On the way to the staffroom, she collected a clean towel and then filled the bowl with hot water.

Longford got the Achilles rod from the closet, and Lois unlocked the cell. He took only one step into the cell, delivered what needed to be delivered, and collected the empty bucket and cleaning cloth from where the prisoner had left them near the door.

Longford was out of the cell, and the door was locked less than twenty seconds after it had been opened.

Lois couldn’t restrain herself from sprinting up the stairs. When she arrived at the window, the prisoner was crossing the cell towards the door.

He picked up the two containers and moved away from the door. He seemed wary of being near the door. Did he fear it would open at any moment to reveal someone wielding a rod?

He opened the lid of the tin container and immediately looked up towards the window. He waved in her direction — more explicit this time, less diffident.

What did that mean?

That he was becoming more confident she was going to treat him humanely?

Or that he was becoming more confident she was no threat to his plans?

She needed to know more about his life before Trask had captured him. If she could discover his identity, she could check for birth records. Human birth records. She could try to locate someone who had known him before Trask had condemned him to life in a cell.

But she had to be careful. She knew so little. She was working in the dark with limited and unreliable information. There was such potential for damage.

If she concluded wrongly that he wasn’t a threat, she would put the assistants’ lives in danger.

Perhaps all the citizens of Earth.

If she concluded wrongly that he was a threat, she was going to perpetuate a terrible injustice.

She had to get it right.

This time, she had to get it right.

Lois picked up another of Trask’s books and began to read.

Later, when she glanced through the window, the prisoner, having finished eating his meal, was leaning over the bowl, washing his hair. Next to the bowl was the uncapped bottle of shampoo.

Lois returned to Trask’s research. Somewhere amongst the manic scrawl, there had to be some information that would actually be helpful.

***

He’d finished washing. He’d brushed his teeth. He’d replaced the soap, the washcloth, the shampoo, the new, undamaged toothbrush, the toothpaste, and the antiseptic ointment in the box.

He closed the lid and placed it in the bowl near the door.

It was such a simple adjustment — to leave his rations just inside the door, thereby curtailing the need to enter his cell and, in consequence, reducing his exposure to the poison.

Simple … yet no one had done it.

Until now.

Of course, Trask and Moyne had deemed regular exposure an indispensable part of maintaining their supremacy over him.

He slipped his hand into the pocket of his shorts, and his fingers closed around the piece of paper.

Will collect after use.

Did that mean she didn’t think he could be trusted to keep the box overnight?

Or did it mean she knew it had been Moyne who had plastered the toothpaste on the wall?

Her office had been in darkness when Moyne had come into the prison and inflicted his mindless destruction. It seemed unlikely that she had witnessed it.

What had Moyne told her?

Did she trust Moyne?

She’d replaced the ruined toothbrush.

And for that, he wanted to thank her.

But how?

Then, he had an idea.

He went to the newspaper and ripped out eight letters from the various headlines.

He went back to the door and arranged the scraps of paper across the bottom of the box — THANK YOU.

He closed the lid and carefully placed the box in the bowl, just a few inches from the door.

He moved to the opposite corner of the prison and lay on the concrete.

He wriggled a little, trying to get more comfortable. He closed his eyes and waited for sleep to come.

For the first time since he’d walked into his mother’s kitchen and collapsed in excruciating pain, he felt the timid approach of an almost-forgotten emotion.

Hope.

Part 7

The next time Lois looked up, the prisoner was lying on his side, facing away, presumably asleep.

She took the binoculars and examined his back. It was healing remarkably well. A smear of Neosporin marked a faint arc across his spine — presumably tracking the limit of his reach. Stepping closer to the window, Lois looked down. The tin box was in the bowl next to the door.

She went down the stairs. Longford was writing something — perhaps a letter. He looked up. “I wondered if you were still here,” he commented. “I didn’t hear you leave.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Still here.”

His expression showed he didn’t understand why she would choose to spend her evening here, but he didn’t ask further questions.

“I want you to go into the cell,” Lois said.

“OK.”

“Just inside the door is the bowl. All you have to do is reach in there and get it.”

Longford stood and went to the closet.

“Would you consider doing it without the rod?” Lois asked.

“Not a chance.” Armed with the Achilles rod, he waited for her to unlock the cell door.

Lois pushed in the key. “I’ll get it,” she said. “You stay there with the rod.”

She saw his quick, reflexive movement towards her, but his hand dropped before making contact. “Ms Lane,” he said uneasily. “I really don’t think you should do that.”

Lois was not going to allow his anxiety to pollute her own perceptions. “He’s asleep on the far side of the cell.”

She didn’t wait for Longford to continue arguing; she pushed the door half open, crouched low, and reached around the corner. Glancing up, she saw the recumbent figure of the prisoner, motionless on the floor. She grasped the bowl with the box in it, pulled them through the door, scrambled to her feet, slammed the door, and quickly locked it.

Lois looked at Longford, hoping he couldn’t hear the pounding of her heart. He turned away and replaced the rod without comment.

“Thanks,” Lois said breathlessly. She took a steadying breath. “See you tomorrow.”

“Good night.”

She carried the box up to her office and put it on the shelf.

As an afterthought, she unclasped the lid and opened it.

Everything she’d expected was in there. But … there were little scraps of the newspaper littered throughout the items. She picked up one, checked both sides, and realised it had been intentionally ripped out around a letter ‘K’.

Lois gathered the rest of the fragments and placed them on her desk with the letters face up. For a few moments, she rearranged them and then, there is was.

Staring right back at her.

THANK YOU

Nausea coursed a bilious path through her stomach.

He wasn’t an animal — certainly not in one sense.

He could read.

He could write.

He was educated.

He understood the etiquette of expressing gratitude.

He was strong in body. Stronger than he had any right to be considering the way he had been forced to live.

And he was strong in mind. Strong enough that not even the worst of Trask’s and Moyne’s abuse had turned him into a monster.

But was it all an act? Lois was certain now that he’d realised there was someone different on the other side of the window. Was he working her? Working to gain her trust? Did he sense weakness in her? Did the things she’d supplied — the food, and the toothpaste, and the soap — depict her as easy quarry?

Lois collapsed into her seat as the nausea continued to eke its way through her stomach.

Was he the victim? Or was he playing the role of a victim with frightening credibility?

How was she going to determine the truth?

Moyne and Shadbolt had been utterly prejudiced by Trask.

Longford admitted he wasn’t sure.

Scardino knew almost nothing and cared even less.

The prisoner knew … but could she trust him?

He didn’t owe her anything.

Certainly not his honesty.

Or his trust.

Would he trust her?

Could she trust him?

If this was a ploy to work her over psychologically, he was good. Darned good. The fact that he had used his first communication to express his thanks — rather than trying to proclaim his innocence or make a request — stamped him with …

Something.

Decency.

A level of decency that was hard to disregard.

But … if this were psychological chess, he was no novice.

Lois picked up another one of Trask’s books. This one detailed the alien’s planet of origin. Somehow — by extrapolating his knowledge of the spaceship — Trask had managed to write a thesis on an entire society — its values, traditions, culture. Shaking her head in disbelief, she flicked through the pages, stopping only long enough to read a few words to ascertain that the subject hadn’t changed.

She put the book on her desk and looked out of the window.

The prisoner still appeared to be asleep.

She heard Moyne arrive at ten o’clock.

The prisoner slept on.

She heard Longford leave at eleven o’clock.

Lois looked at the pile of so-far-unread books that were filled with Trask’s theories. The log he had kept since the prisoner’s capture had proven to be grossly unreliable. She stood from her chair and quickly packed all of his books — including the log and the loose sheets — into the boxes.

It was possible that they contained useful information, but in getting it, she risked Trask’s prejudices poisoning her judgment. He wrote powerfully and with staggering fervour. If she studied his books, it would be difficult to avoid subconsciously attributing some authority to his claims.

Whether she got this right or wrong, she would do it on her own convictions — not on the back of second-hand hokum from the pen of a hate-filled bigot.

Lois pushed the boxes into the corner — next to the boxes of Trask’s personal possessions — and went down the stairs.

Moyne was making himself coffee. “Would you like a drink?” he asked.

“I know you have another key to the cell.”

He turned from the coffee machine with a smug smile. “But, Ms Lane, you took my key.”

“It wouldn’t have been hard to have a copy made.”

He spread his arms wide, and his smile turned rank. “Wanna search me?”

Lois turned abruptly to the closet. She hauled out the four rods and marched them out of the staffroom and up the stairs to her office. She loaded them into the corner, checked that the camera was working, locked the closet, and picked up her bag.

After a final glance to the sleeping figure in the cell, she exited and locked the door.

Moyne was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, all traces of self-satisfaction wiped from his face. “You can’t leave me here with the alien and no access to the rods,” he bleated.

“The cell door is locked,” Lois said. “So long as it remains locked, you’re perfectly safe.”

He glowered at her. “You’ll pay for this.”

Lois brushed past him. “Good night, Moyne.”

She got into her car but hesitated before starting the engine. Her strained association with Moyne had just blistered into open hostility. He was not the sort of man to back down gracefully. The only possible outcome was one of them leaving the operation.

And it wasn’t going to be her.

***

~~ Thursday ~~

Lois arrived at the compound before six o’clock the next morning. She closed the external door with enough force that Moyne had to hear and then went up to her office without detouring into the staffroom.

The prisoner was jogging around the extremities of his cell. He was moving easily — in fact, with surprising athleticism for a man of his age. As he ran away from her, Lois checked his back and saw that only a few small patches of slight redness remained to bear testament to Moyne’s attack.

She watched as he circled. He’d picked up speed — his stride was long and powerful. There was something mesmerising about how he moved. He had a natural grace; he looked fit, looked as if he had been born to run. He looked primed.

Primed for what?

Lois turned away and opened his tin box. She tore a single piece of paper from a notepad and took a black crayon from her bag. After a lot of consideration, she had decided that she was going to give him the chance to communicate — but not too much. She didn’t want a long correspondence. Nor did she want to imply that she would respond.

She didn’t want anything that would suggest an affiliation of any sort.

But she did wonder what — if anything — he would write. Would he assert his humanity? Would he accuse Moyne of smearing the toothpaste? Would he request particular foods? Would he decry the injustice of the treatment he had received? Would he ask to speak to her? Would he try to flatter her with compliments about how she’d run the operation so far?

This time, she did add the deodorant to the tin box. She told herself that it was experimental. Would he know what to do with it?

But in her heart, she knew it wasn’t experimental. Either he was human, or he had lived with humans. Deodorant was not going to be outside his experience.

She took out the two blueberry bagels she had bought on her way to Bessolo Boulevard this morning. She hadn’t given him breakfast before. When Trask was alive, the prisoner had been supplied with one — disgusting — meal a day. Yesterday, she had included lunch.

He wouldn’t be expecting anything so soon in the day.

A tiny snippet of gratifying anticipation broke free from the dark cloud that permanently cloaked her disposition. She snuffed it out quickly and turned her attention to reviewing the tape of the night.

Moyne hadn’t entered the cell. Nothing of note had happened.

Lois allowed herself a moment of satisfaction.

She waited in her office until she heard Moyne leave and then went down to the staffroom, taking the tin box, the bagel, and the morning edition of The Daily Planet with her.

“Good morning,” she said to Shadbolt.

“‘Morning.”

She filled the bowl with hot water. Without waiting for her to direct him, Shadbolt went to the closet. She heard his squeak of surprise.

“The rods!” he exclaimed. “They’re gone.”

“I took them,” Lois said casually. She moved the bowl from the sink to the table and began to make two cups of coffee from the machine.

Shadbolt closed the closet door and leant against it, his arms folded across his chest. “I am not going in there without a rod,” he stated firmly.

“OK.”

“You shouldn’t either.”

For a moment, Lois considered tossing back a light comment about not having realised he cared for her safety, but he looked so antagonistic that she said nothing. When the coffees were made, she put them on the table and went to her office to get one rod. Back in the staffroom, she offered it to Shadbolt. He took it, but said nothing.

“Here’s how we’re doing this,” Lois said in a tone that didn’t leave room for any dispute. “I’m going to open the door. You’re going to stand behind me with the rod and pass me the stuff. I’ll put it inside the cell, and when it’s done, we shut the door.”

Shadbolt wasn’t happy — she could see it in his expression.

Lois unlocked the door. “Ready?”

He nodded grimly.

She swung the door away and took half a step forward. As she’d expected, the prisoner was crouched into the far corner, facing away from her.

She took the full bowl from Shadbolt and placed it on the floor of the cell. She added the tin box, then the bagel, and the newspaper.

Shadbolt stopped handing her things.

“And the coffee,” Lois said, indicating the cup.

“You’re giving him coffee?” Shadbolt asked with disbelief. “Hot coffee?”

“Just give it to me.”

He did, and Lois placed the steaming cup next to the tin box.

She glanced up. The prisoner hadn’t moved, but there was no tension across his back or shoulders to indicate that he was suffering.

“Come on,” Shadbolt said desperately from behind her.

Lois moved out of the cell and closed the door. After she’d locked it, she looked at Shadbolt. “Easily done,” she said, trying to sound as if she had had no doubts.

He shook his head. “You have no idea what you are doing,” he said in a tone that shivered up her spine.

“He hasn’t done one thing to suggest he is a threat.”

“Would you like to see the photos of Deller and Bortolotto?” Shadbolt demanded bitterly.

“That won’t be necessary.” Lois put out her hand, and he gave her the rod.

“It would give you a reality check that might just save your life.”

“Thanks for your help.”

Carrying the rod, Lois climbed the stairs and went into her office.

The prisoner had approached the door and was staring — dumbstruck — at the little collection of things on the floor. He dropped to his knees and picked up the cup of coffee. His hands surrounded the cup. He lifted it and inhaled deeply. His eyes closed, and his pleasure was palpable.

Lois felt something react inside her.

That a simple cup of coffee could bring such a depth of reaction …

Lois sat at her desk so he wasn’t directly in her line of sight.

In the United States of America, criminals who had committed the most heinous of acts were still granted basic human rights.

The right to dignity.

The right to food.

The right to a speedy trial.

He killed two people, her cautious side reminded.

Did he? her gut challenged.

Did he?

Lois drank her coffee and ate her bagel as, below her, the prisoner did the same. After he had finished, he placed his empty cup near the door with the paper bag that had contained the bagel.

He picked up the tin box and opened it.

Immediately, his head jolted up towards the window. He took out the paper and crayon, closed the lid of the box, and used it for support as he quickly wrote a few words.

Whatever he wanted to say was obviously of great importance to him.

Lois wondered what it could be.

After seven years of enforced silence, what would she say first?

She acknowledged grimly that there was every chance some of her first words would probably not be considered the language of a lady.

What would he say?

Below her, the prisoner was washing himself with a speed and purpose that he didn’t usually display.

Why?

He was, after all, an individual who had nothing if not eons of time and very little to do.

When he had finished — including applying the deodorant — he packed everything into the box, carefully added the paper and crayon, closed the lid, and positioned it in front of the door.

He picked up The Daily Planet and went to the corner furthest from the door. He sat down — facing into the corner — and unfolded the paper.

He wanted her to collect the box!

He’d taken himself out of the way so she could collect the box without feeling threatened by him and without him being too affected by the rod.

Had he felt any pain earlier when they’d kept the rod behind the door?

Even if he had, he was willing to suffer again to convey his message.

Was the distance he so carefully put between them for her? Or him?

Was he aware of how much fear he had engendered?

Suddenly, Lois had to know what he’d written. She picked up a rod and went down to the staffroom. Shadbolt eyed her with surprise. “You’re going in again?” he said.

“Just for a second,” she replied. She gave him the rod and unlocked the door.

“How can you be sure he’s not lying in wait for you?”

“I’m sure.”

Shadbolt wasn’t sure at all. Lois could feel his apprehension. She opened the door, crouched low, and reached into the cell. She seized the box and pulled it towards her body.

Then, she paused.

Looked up.

His head had turned.

Their eyes met.

Lois felt a tug on her shoulder as Shadbolt dragged her backwards. As soon as she was out of the doorway, he pulled the door shut and drove home the lock.

“What on earth were you doing?” he demanded angrily. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

She removed the key from the lock and looked into his red, agitated face. “Thanks.”

“Thanks for what?” he exploded. “What was he doing?”

“Nothing. He just looked at me.”

“Looked at you how?”

“No way. Just looked.”

“Did he look angry? Threatening?”

Lois put the bowl on the drainer. “Neither,” she said. “He didn’t look like he was in any pain.”

Shadbolt thrust the rod at her. “This is going to end with a funeral,” he predicted.

She took the rod and went up the stairs, taking the tin box with her.

In her office, she looked through the window.

The prisoner had turned around — he was now backed into the corner. His knees were arched and the newspaper lay across them as he read.

Suddenly, he looked up. Looked directly at the window. Stared at her, his face unreadable.

Lois quickly opened the lid.

The paper was lying on the top of all the other items.

Are my parents OK? Jonathan and Martha Kent from Smallville, Kansas.

Lois stared at the note as her breath rasped through her airways.

Eleven words, and they changed everything.

He had a name.

Mr Kent.

Mr Someone Kent.

He had parents. People who were worried about him. People he worried about.

His parents must be old by now. In their seventies, probably older.

Were they aliens? Or humans?

He had a hometown.

Smallville, Kansas.

Wherever that was.

He hadn’t mentioned a wife or children. That probably meant he wasn’t married.

Had he been living with his parents at the time of his capture?

If so, why?

Were they infirm? Did they need him? Or did he need them?

Had they been captured, too?

Where were they now?

Lois sank into her seat, her eyes glued to the black crayoned words.

He hadn’t used his chance to communicate to say anything about himself.

He’d enquired about his parents.

How awful not to know.

She could only imagine the terrible possibilities that must have plagued him during the last seven years.

Lois picked up her bag and locked her office.

She stopped briefly at the staffroom. “I’m going out,” she told Shadbolt. She was gone before he had a chance to reply.

***

“You what?”

“I want to know where his parents are now.”

“Ms Lane, it’s been seven -”

“I know it’s been seven years,” she snapped. “And I figure he knows it’s been seven years. And every day of those seven years, as well as having to deal with his own problems, he’s probably been worried sick about what they were doing to his parents.”

Daniel took a breath and tried to claw back some equanimity. “I had no knowledge of anyone else involved in this,” he said.

Ms Lane stood abruptly. She’d only been sitting for a minute. “You need to get some knowledge,” she said. “Jonathan and Martha Kent from Smallville, Kansas.”

“We can’t just turn up and start asking questions,” Daniel said. “This mission has the highest possible secrecy rating.”

“At the very least you can find out if they were captured at the same time as their son.”

Son. Daniel swallowed roughly. Son. That word brought a distressing connotation of humanity to a situation that he’d been trying to view only as a matter of national — even international — security. That made it personal. And pressing. “I’ll do what I can,” he said.

“Will you?”

Daniel paused, debating with himself whether he should speak or not. “There are complications.”

“Such as?”

He’d known she would ask that. “Mr Moyne has friends in high places.”

“What does that have to do with finding out what happened to the prisoner’s parents?”

“After you left yesterday, I received a call.”

“Go on.”

“Your handling of this assignment is being questioned.”

She stared blankly at him. “In what way?”

“It’s been suggested that you are getting too personally involved.”

“You told me that all I had to do was ensure that he stayed in the cell. I’ve done that.”

“Ms Lane … Lois … you told me that you wish to remain in Metropolis.”

“I do.”

“Then my advice is to tread carefully.”

“What are you going to do about his parents?”

“I’ll do what I can. But it must be done discreetly.”

She nodded, but Daniel didn’t know whether she understood the full implications of what he was saying.

“Jason Trask’s funeral is on Monday at 2pm,” he said.

“Why wait so long?”

“We had to explore every avenue to try to find family or friends.”

“And?”

“None. No one. Do you know if any of the assistants wish to attend?”

“I haven’t asked them.”

“If all three wish to be there, I will try to find a suitable substitute to guard the prisoner.”

“If they all wish to attend the funeral, I will guard the prisoner.”

“There’s no need for you to do that,” Daniel said quickly. “I can -”

“There are no issues with safety,” Ms Lane said. “When exposed to the Achilles rods, the prisoner becomes weak and suffers great pain. He is no danger in the presence of the rods.”

“Ms Lane,” Daniel said, hoping she would recognise the warning in his tone.

“I will inform the assistants of the time of the funeral,” she said. “You should expect all of them to be there.”

Daniel nodded. He didn’t want Ms Lane to be alone with the alien, but he realised there was little to be gained from arguing with her.

“Call me as soon as you know something about the Kents,” she said.

He nodded.

She strode out of his office.

Daniel sighed as the door slammed. Lois Lane shouldn’t be worrying about aliens, or Moyne, or prisoners, or the need for rods.

She should be lazing on a beach somewhere.

Trying to forget.

***

The pen poised, Lois waited for inspiration.

What could she say?

He would be waiting for an answer. She’d arrived back in her office twenty minutes ago and while she’d been trying to work out what to write in a note — and continually realising that she was staring at him — he had been reading the newspaper — and continually glancing up towards the window.

Have made inquiries re parents. Will inform.

That was short. Formal. It didn’t invite extraneous dialogue. But it was enough to let him know that she had received his note and was attempting to act on it.

Should she add a caution that he shouldn’t allow his hopes to be raised?

No. Hope was probably in short supply in the cell.

She opened a paper bag containing a ham and tomato sandwich and slipped the note inside. She gathered up a pear, a bottle of water, and one of the rods, and went to the staffroom.

When he saw her, Shadbolt stood and held out his hand for the rod.

She unlocked the door, opened it, and put the bag, the pear, and the bottle on the concrete. Then she closed the door. It was done in less than five seconds.

Shadbolt placed the rod against the wall and looked at her uncomfortably. “I’m sorry if I hurt your shoulder before,” he said. “It wasn’t my intention to be rough.”

Lois shrugged. “You didn’t hurt my shoulder,” she said. “And I appreciate what you were trying to do.”

He moved to the coffee machine. “Would you like one?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

He poured her coffee.

“Was Moyne there when the prisoner was captured?” Lois asked.

“Yes. He and Trask did it.”

“Did either of them ever say anything about it?”

“Both were really guarded about giving away any specifics.”

“What impression did you get?”

Shadbolt put the coffee in front of her and sat down. “My assumption was that they tracked him down over a long time — probably in the woods or some other equally remote place. I figured they’d set a trap for him — like you would for any animal.”

“Did Moyne or Trask ever confirm that specifically?”

“No. I asked Moyne once. He asked how I thought they’d caught him, and when I said something about trapping him, he just smiled and wouldn’t admit to anything.”

“Did they mention any other people?”

“You mean others helping with the capture?”

“No,” Lois said. “Others who were with the prisoner.”

“Other aliens?”

“Or humans.”

“No,” Shadbolt said. “They didn’t mention anyone else.”

“Did they ever refer to the prisoner by name?”

“No. Trask usually referred to him as ‘the brute’ or ‘the animal’.”

“Did he have the beard when you first saw him?”

“No.”

“Clean-shaven?”

“Stubble.”

“Short hair?”

“Yeah, short and neat.”

Lois picked up her coffee. “Thanks,” she said.

“Ms Lane?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve seen this happen before. Bortolotto asked questions similar to the ones you’re asking now. Questions that raise the possibility that he is human. Questions only one step away from believing he’s an innocent man who had done nothing to deserve being caught up in this. He’s not human. And he’s not harmless.”

“I’m just trying to find out who he is,” Lois said. “I haven’t come to any conclusions yet.”

“Trask already found out who he is,” Shadbolt said. “He’s an alien whose intentions are to conquer the earth and destroy the human race.”

Lois nodded tightly and picked up the rod.

She sprinted up the stairs and went to the window. The prisoner was sitting next to the wall, eating his lunch.

There was no sign of the note. Had he read it? How had he responded? Had he tried to gesture something of meaning towards the window?

He wouldn’t know that she hadn’t seen.

Inexplicably, she felt like she’d missed something important.

But she wasn’t sure what.

***

That evening, Lois came down to the staffroom at half past nine, planning to retrieve the bowl and tin box — which she’d placed in the cell with the prisoner’s evening meal — before Moyne arrived.

To her surprise, Moyne was already in the staffroom, and there was no sign of Longford.

“Where’s Longford?”

“He wasn’t feeling well, so he called me in early.”

Lois wasn’t sure she believed him, but it wasn’t worth making an issue out of it. However, the box would have to stay in the cell for the night. She wasn’t going to open the cell door — not with Moyne here.

“Has he attempted to communicate with you yet?” Moyne asked.

Lois turned from where she was washing her cups in the sink. “What do you mean?”

Moyne nodded towards the cell. “Has he attempted to communicate with you yet?”

Lois felt her stomach knot. Could Moyne possibly know about the notes? “How could he communicate?”

“Notes. Hand signals towards the window.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s the first sign.”

“The first sign of what?”

“The first sign that his killer instincts are coming out of hibernation and that he’s chosen his next victim.”

The cup clattered loudly in the sink, and Lois grabbed at it. She heard Moyne snigger. “There’s not much he can communicate about,” she said, trying to sound casual.

“He usually begins with something close to home,” Moyne said. “Family. Friends. Anything to make him appear human.”

Lois turned quickly and snatched at a tea towel to dry her hands. “What exactly are you trying to say?” she demanded.

“I’ve been here a long time, Ms Lane,” Moyne said in a tone that stopped just short of being patronising. “You’ve been here less than a week. I’m trying to assist you because I figure it is unlikely that you would recognise the warning signs.”

“Warning?”

“Deller and Bortolotto. Both tragedies began with what seemed like innocent attempts to communicate. Both ended with mutilated bodies in the morgue and grieving families.”

“Did you witness the attacks?”

“Yes,” Moyne said. “I saw it all. They didn’t stand a chance.”

“And the prisoner did it?”

Moyne laughed — hard, and cold, and slimy. “Who else could have done it?”

Lois dried the cups and replaced them on the shelf above the coffee machine. “Thanks for the warning,” she said.

“It’s the least I can do,” Moyne said. “Just make sure you watch your back.”

Lois — almost out of the door — spun around to face him. “Is that a threat?”

His insolent grin widened — as if in reaction to some secret thought. “Just simple advice,” he said. “Although people rarely listen.”

“I’m leaving now,” Lois said. “Don’t go into the cell.”

“He hasn’t had a discipline session for three days,” Moyne said. “Anyone who goes in there now is unlikely to come out alive. Another couple of days, and you’ll have an uncontrollable monster on your hands.”

“Trask wrote in the log that he had resumed discipline sessions,” Lois said. “That suggests to me that he stopped them for a while.”

“He did,” Moyne agreed. “But then he realised the foolishness of showing mercy to a crazed animal.” He considered her with his black eyes. “The question is whether you will realise it before it’s too late.”

Lois was done with his hints and insinuation. “Good night, Moyne.”

She left the staffroom, stalked by his sniggering laughter.

***

~~ Friday ~~

The blackness closed in on her.

Pierced with screams.

They were her screams, Lois realised as wakefulness slowly pushed away the terrifying images.

She turned on the lamp and listened as her tortured breaths echoed loudly around her silent bedroom.

The blackness had separated her from her friend. Her partner. The one person she trusted above all others. The person who had shared all of her secrets. They had worked together. Laughed together. They had trusted each other implicitly. Trusted each other with their lives. Literally. They had gone into dangerous situations together. Come out of dangerous situations together. Made a pact to stick together. No matter what.

Except for this time.

The last time.

They had gone in together.

And only one of them had come out.

Lois had left her partner.

They had promised to never leave.

But Lois had.

Death had come slowly.

But she couldn’t think about that.

It was too raw. Too agonising.

She looked at the clock. It was ten to four.

Sleep would not be possible again.

Lois tried to push away the horror of that night.

She couldn’t merely empty her mind. She had to fill it with something to stop the memories flooding back.

Mr Kent.

Mr Kent of Smallville, Kansas.

Son of Martha and Jonathan.

A sinister shadow of foreboding crept from the darkness and settled on her.

Moyne.

He was planning something.

He was planning it now.

She knew.

Her gut was sure.

Last time, her gut had known.

But Lois had ignored it.

Her friend had died.

Lois had failed her. Badly.

Because she had ignored the warning of her gut.

But this time …

Lois sprang from the bed, checked her weapon, strapped her gun holster to her ankle, pulled on jeans and a sweater, and grabbed her bag. Five minutes later, she was speeding through the dark streets of Metropolis towards Bessolo Boulevard.

Part 8

Lois paused at the external door of the compound.

She was here … and she hadn’t really thought too much about what happened now.

The wall of the warehouse loomed large behind her, but there was nothing explicit to support her instinctive feeling that something was wrong.

She calmed her tattered breaths and pressed her ear against the door.

The compound was silent.

Did that mean she was too late?

Should she enter quietly?

Or burst in and claim the advantage of surprise?

Raising her knee, she slid her hand down her leg to feel the comforting bulk of her weapon strapped to her ankle.

She slipped the key into the lock and turned it very slowly. She pushed the door open and winced as it creaked loudly in the silence.

From the staffroom, there was the sound of a chair scraping across the floor, and the silhouette of Moyne appeared in the doorway. “Ms Lane,” he said. “What are you doing back so soon?”

Lois shut the door and carefully locked it. “Is everything OK?”

“Yep,” he said easily.

Lois climbed the stairs and let herself into her office. Once she’d locked the door, she stood in the darkness and looked into the brightly illuminated cell.

The prisoner was asleep on the floor. He was lying on his back — which was unusual. However, it wasn’t necessarily indicative of trouble; it could simply be that he’d healed enough to allow a greater variety of sleeping positions.

She lifted the binoculars to her eyes. His chest rose and fell in steady rhythm.

Lois released a deep sigh. Her gut had gotten it wrong.

She was losing her edge.

Had lost it.

She switched on the light and sank into the chair.

She’d been so sure. She’d felt the danger. Felt it like a clinging presence.

She’d felt it many times before.

Linda had always said that the Lois Lane gut was more reliable than any barometer.

Linda.

Her partner.

Her friend.

Lois missed her so much.

They’d worked on so many assignments together that they had often joked about how they thought as one, acted as one, advanced as one, retreated as one.

And it was true. Lois had known what Linda was thinking before Linda did. Linda had known what Lois was going to do before Lois did it. That had saved them more times than bore thinking about.

They had shared an unshakeable belief in Lois’s gut feelings.

More than once, they had risked everything on the strength of Lois’s intuition.

And then had come the night … that night.

Linda had wanted to go — she had argued that there was no reason to believe there was any danger.

Lois had agreed. But her gut had protested.

Linda had insisted.

Lois had been torn.

Torn between her friend and rationality on one side and the nagging insistence that something was amiss on the other.

They’d gone.

The only thing that transcended their faith in Lois’s gut was their sworn pact that they would never split.

So, they’d gone together.

And strolled straight into the trap like two naive schoolgirls.

They’d been gagged, tied up, and locked in a dark room.

They’d managed to communicate a little — through grunts and the uncanny ability to predict how the other was likely to react. They had shuffled awkwardly until they’d managed to position Lois’s bound feet under Linda’s bound hands.

Slowly, tediously, painfully, Linda had worked at those knots.

Ultimately, that perseverance had saved Lois’s life.

Linda had saved Lois’s life.

But not her own.

“Ms Lane?”

Lois jumped as the sound of the voice on the other side of her door dragged her out of the desolation of her memories.

“Yes.”

“There’s something I think you should see.”

Lois stood and glanced into the cell. The prisoner hadn’t moved. She approached the door. “What is it, Moyne?”

“I think you need to see this.”

She couldn’t cower in her office until the end of Moyne’s shift.

“Ms Lane?”

And, whatever the problem was, it was her responsibility.

Lois unlocked the door and cautiously opened it.

Moyne was there — looking tentative.

“What is it, Moyne?”

He gestured down the steps. “You need to see this.”

Lois leant out of the office door and looked down the stairs.

With a sudden flash of movement, Moyne’s arm snaked across her throat and seized her upper arm, twisting her and ramming her back against his chest.

Lois reacted — trying to free her arm, trying to pull air into her crushed lungs, trying to bend enough to reach her gun, trying to land a kick on his legs.

Her efforts achieved little — such was the strength of his grip.

Her training clicked in and overpowered her adrenaline-fuelled impulses. With one concerted effort, Lois inched her left arm forward and then thrust her elbow back into Moyne’s ribcage.

She heard him grunt and felt the swoosh of air explode from his mouth.

Lois sensed her moment to attack. She jolted her arm again. This time, his hold gave way, and the sudden release caused her elbow to smash into the doorframe. Excruciating pain flared up her arm, and she gasped.

Moyne re-tightened his chokehold and dragged her towards the stairs.

Numbness was spreading through her left arm as it hung uselessly at her side. Lois clawed at his forearm with her right hand as her lungs began to crave unrestricted oxygen.

He pulled her towards the stairs.

He reeked of stale cigarette smoke.

“Let … me … go,” Lois panted.

“Sure,” Moyne puffed. “Once we get to the cell.”

The cell? He was taking her to the cell?

What would the prisoner do to her?

Had Trask been right? Was the alien a vicious killer?

Halfway down the stairs, Lois swivelled the lower portion of her body enough to kick at Moyne’s lower legs. He retaliated with a vicious blow that landed on the point of her left ankle.

She stumbled, and her ankle twisted sharply, shooting a second rocket of pain up her leg.

Lois bit down on her scream and tried to clear her mind.

Physically, he was stronger.

If she were going to overcome him, she had to plan.

The cell door.

That would be her chance.

He would have to unlock it.

That’s when she would strike.

At the bottom of the stairs, Moyne turned them into the staffroom and hauled her backwards towards the door to the cell.

His left arm tightened its grip. He reached past her with his right hand and picked up a key from the table.

“I didn’t expect you would give up so easily,” he sneered. “Given your reputation.”

Good. Let him think he’d beaten her.

“Wanna know what’s going to happen to you?” he taunted. “You’re going into the cell — without a rod. The brute hasn’t had a taste of the Achilles for three days … and he hasn’t seen a woman in seven years. When he’s had his turn, I’ll be down — with a rod — to finish the job.”

Lois closed her eyes as the blackness crowded in on her.

Linda!

Linda had been raped.

And then he’d killed her.

Lois hauled in a breath, and her scream echoed around the staffroom.

Moyne’s fist swung and grazed her left cheek.

In the moment of her confusion, he heaved her to the door of the cell. He buried the key into the lock and kicked open the door.

Ahead was the cell. The prisoner’s domain. She couldn’t let Moyne lock her in there.

Moyne pressed his weight into the centre of her back and edged her forward.

Lois clamped her good foot against the doorjamb.

His foot crashed into the area behind her knee, and her resistance crumbled.

Moyne released his hold across her throat. Lois twisted and grasped blindly with her right hand, managing to seize a fistful of his shirt.

Moyne shoved her forward.

Lois clung to his shirt.

She fell into the cell. She hit the concrete, and his shirt slipped from her grasp. The weight of Moyne crashed on top of her. He clasped her hair and jerked her head backwards. Lois swung her good elbow, flailing blindly as all technique was lost in the blizzard of battle.

His weight squirmed. She felt his hand on her right leg and kicked frantically.

He clamped her leg against the concrete and slid her gun from its holster.

His weight left her, and the mayhem of movement stopped abruptly.

Lois rolled onto her back. Moyne stood over her, gun poised.

Blood was streaming from a cut on his lower lip. He squinted at her, his eyes dark and filled with fury.

“You’re gonna die for that, bitch,” he snarled.

“This time, they’ll know it was you,” she said defiantly.

Moyne sniggered. He lifted the gun and pointed directly between her eyes.

She stared at his finger on the trigger. It squeezed slowly, with deadly purpose and chilling certainty. The explosion shattered the air …

… but the pain didn’t come.

Lois opened her eyes … and saw a pair of shorts and a bare back below the hem of bushy dark hair. The prisoner was standing over her, one foot on either side of her body. Her view of Moyne was restricted, but she could see enough to know that they were facing each other like two gladiators.

They were going to fight over her.

Fight for the right to kill her.

Abuse her.

With an angry roar, Moyne sprang at the prisoner.

There was a blur of movement, and Moyne collapsed with a dull thud next to Lois’s legs. Her gun shot from his hand and slewed across the concrete.

There was stillness.

And silence.

Except for the pounding of her heart as it thrashed hysterically against her sternum.

Moyne didn’t move.

The prisoner raised his foot and stepped over her.

He turned towards her, and his eyes slammed into hers.

Lois’s breath stopped.

What was he going to do?

The door was too far away. He was standing — she was flat on her back. If she tried to make a run for it, she doubted she would even make it to her feet.

Would he try to escape?

If he did, she had no chance of stopping him.

He still hadn’t moved.

He still watched her.

Moyne hadn’t moved either. He must be unconscious.

Her gun!

Was too far away.

She had thought that Moyne had fired.

From close range.

But Lois was sure she hadn’t been shot.

There was no expanding puddle of blood.

The prisoner wasn’t bleeding either.

She could feel a sluggish drizzle oozing down her cheek.

But it wasn’t enough for a gunshot wound.

The prisoner hadn’t moved. Could he possibly be waiting for her? Waiting to see what she was going to do?

She pressed the hand of her good arm into the concrete and struggled to a sitting position.

The prisoner didn’t react.

Her left arm felt like it was encased in a cast of heavy steel.

Her ankle hurt like crazy.

The prisoner stood like a statue, his eyes riveted to her.

She glanced down his body. His right fist was clenched, but he had no signs of any injury. His former wounds had healed — without evident scarring.

He was less than a yard from her.

The cell door was wide open.

The rods were in her office.

Moyne was unconscious on the floor.

And her gun was out of reach.

The prisoner’s left hand began to move. It lifted in agonising slow motion.

Her breath froze, and her throat convulsed.

His hand stopped … suspended in the air … his forefinger slightly adrift of the others.

It didn’t seem threatening. Had it been anyone else, she would have thought he was trying to reassure her.

Without releasing her from his gaze, the prisoner moved slowly towards Moyne.

Lois gulped.

Was he going to kill Moyne in another horrific attack?

Was this his moment of retribution?

He reached Moyne and looked down at the unconscious figure. The prisoner crouched low, reached under Moyne’s shoulders and knees, and lifted him with ease. He carried Moyne and laid him perpendicular to the doorway — with his head pointing towards the staffroom.

Then, the prisoner picked up the tin box.

He swung open the lid and rustled through the contents.

He removed something, closed the lid, and returned the box to the floor.

His eyes sought Lois again.

He took a step towards her. Then another. And another. He bent forward, and his left hand continued towards her. His fingers uncurled. In his palm was the Neosporin.

Lois’s eyes leapt from his outstretched hand and to his face.

His eyes were deep brown.

His unruly beard made it impossible to read his facial expression with any certainty.

In Moyne’s eyes, hatred had burned.

In the prisoner’s eyes, there was … Lois didn’t know.

But it wasn’t hatred.

They were within touching distance; they weren’t touching, but the distance between them was bridged by the fusion of their eyes.

Time stopped.

Then, his other hand lifted, his forefinger unfurled from his fist, and he ran his fingertip along his cheek, as if signalling the place of her injury.

Lois pulled her gaze from his eyes and took the ointment from his palm.

He straightened.

Hesitated.

His eyes veered to her gun, and icy fear shivered through Lois.

But he turned away and walked in the opposite direction — to the far corner of the cell.

He sat down against the wall, arched his knees, and perched his forearms on them. He stared ahead — not looking at her, although Lois was sure he could still see her.

She scrambled to her feet and gingerly placed her ankle on the concrete. Pain shot up her leg. She limped to her weapon, picked it up, locked it, and slipped it into the holster.

When she reached Moyne, she hopped over his inert body and through the doorway.

She bent over to drag him into the staffroom, but then she hesitated.

Leaving him there in the open doorway, she turned, hobbled up the steps with more speed than her ankle appreciated, grabbed her bag, and returned to the staffroom. Moyne was still motionless. She peered into the cell. The prisoner hadn’t moved either.

Lois sat on the table and lifted her ankle onto the seat of the chair. She took the cell phone from her bag and called Scardino’s private number.

His drowsy voice answered a few moments later. “Daniel Scardino.”

“It’s Lois Lane,” she said. “You need to get to the compound now.”

She heard the alarm in his swiftly inhaled breath. “The prisoner?” he said. “Has he killed again?”

“No,” Lois said. “But I think that was the plan.”

2. Bridge

Part 1

~~ Friday (continued) ~~

She had come into his prison.

A woman.

The woman.

She had come in … forced against her will by Moyne.

Just like the other times.

She was beautiful.

Petite. Feminine. Stunning. Young. Beautiful.

Fiery. Strong. Courageous. Spirited.

Moyne had had the advantage of physical strength, but she had fought valiantly … until Moyne had stolen her gun.

Moyne had hurt her.

Moyne was a killer.

He shouldn’t be near her.

She was a woman.

A beautiful …

He had watched them wrestle on the floor of the prison — utterly torn.

He’d known he couldn’t allow the monster to continue hurting her.

But if had he intervened, he risked Moyne bringing in the poison. Then he would have been incapable of protecting her.

Moyne had shot her.

And he’d leapt into the path of the bullet. Caught it before it reached her. It was in his pocket now. He’d cleaned it on his shorts and put it next to the two notes she had written him.

He opened his right hand and stared at the gouge caused by the bullet.

He wasn’t at full strength … hadn’t had enough sunlight … still weak from the poison. He wasn’t at full pace either … but he’d been fast enough.

Fast enough to intercept the bullet.

He stretched out his leg and slid his hand into the pocket — the empty one — of his shorts. He flattened his palm against the material to wipe away the drizzle of blood.

He withdrew his hand and checked it. The bleeding had stopped. He closed his fist to continue applying pressure and winced at the pain.

It would heal.

She wouldn’t have.

He’d stood over her, determined to defend her until his last breath if Moyne brought in the poison.

Moyne’s anger had flared, his temper had exploded, and he’d charged. Moyne’s head had cannoned into his shoulder. The monster had dropped, unconscious.

He’d turned his attention from Moyne to the woman.

The memory of the fear on her face felt like a knife twisting through his stomach.

Every instinct had been to offer his hand — not the one holding the bullet — to help her up … but he was sure she would have recoiled at the thought of touching him.

He had considered returning the gun to her … but if he’d made even the slightest move towards the weapon, he was sure she would have freaked out completely.

All he had been able to do was give her the Neosporin.

It had been a pitiful gesture.

But anything else would have terrified her.

And she’d been scared enough already.

Moyne had hurt her.

Her cheek had been oozing blood.

Moyne was still unconscious; still in the cell, still visible. Unconscious, he couldn’t hurt her.

The woman had struggled to rise from the concrete. She’d limped to her weapon and picked it up. She hadn’t even looked at him as she’d gone through the door and disappeared to the outside.

When he’d seen the obvious pain that movement caused her, he’d wanted to spring to his feet, rush over, and help her.

But that would have terrified her.

And her reaction to his nearness would have hurt him more than the poison did.

He’d given her the only thing she would want from him — he’d taken himself as far away from her as possible.

She had fought so frantically to avoid entering his prison.

What had she thought he would do to her?

She had touched him.

Before he’d walked away — she’d touched him.

When she’d taken the antiseptic ointment from his hand, her fingertips had lightly scraped across his palm.

He stretched open his left hand and examined it. There was no evidence of her touch … but it was forever inscribed into his memory.

Would he ever see her again?

She had looked so frightened.

Would she leave now?

Why would she stay?

He was nothing.

Less than nothing.

An animal.

That was what they all thought.

That was what they would have told her.

She was everything he was not.

Free.

Human.

Beautiful.

***

Lois bent low, took a firm grip of Moyne’s shirt with her right hand, planted her right foot, and pulled.

He moved a few inches, but the effort-to-progress ratio was disheartening.

He was heavier than he looked.

She bent low again and readied herself for another effort.

There was movement and noise at Moyne’s feet.

She looked up and gasped.

The prisoner was there.

He dropped to his knees and planted his hands around Moyne’s ankles. He glanced up, their eyes met for a brief second, he pushed, she pulled … and Moyne’s inert body slid into the staffroom. When only the lower portion of Moyne’s legs remained in the cell, the prisoner quickly withdrew his hands and rolled backwards onto his haunches.

The momentum, together with Lois’s continued efforts, took Moyne to within inches of clearing the threshold.

Lois slowly lifted her head. The prisoner was still crouched low. Their eyes were on the same level.

He stared at her.

She stared at him.

Why had he shrunk back from the doorway?

Could it be that years of incarceration had made him fear the outside world?

Had he been locked away for so long that now the cell gave him a sense of security?

Lois broke from his gaze and put all of her concentration into dragging Moyne the final few inches. She tugged, the pain in her left ankle reared in protest, but she gained the ground she needed.

Again, Lois looked at the prisoner. She opened her mouth to thank him, but before her words had formed, he stood abruptly and faded away.

She went to the doorway and shoved Moyne’s legs aside. The prisoner was walking across the cell — away from her. She closed the door.

And locked it.

It had to be locked.

She pulled Moyne’s copied key from the lock and put it in her pocket.

Moyne showed no signs of regaining consciousness.

He was breathing.

Lois turned away, indifferent to his fate.

She’d seen better men than Moyne die.

She took a mirror and a cloth from her bag and surveyed the damage to her face. There was an abrasion across her cheek and darkening puffiness around her eye.

At the sink, she turned on the faucet and waited for the water to heat up. When it was pleasantly warm, she put the cloth into the flow.

He’d given her the tube of Neosporin.

His eyes … The memory of them was vividly etched across the screen of her mind.

He’d said nothing … but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he had wanted desperately to communicate.

Don’t be afraid.

He could have killed Moyne.

He could have killed her.

He could have escaped — with her gun.

She and Moyne had been in the cell without protection. The rods had been in her office — inaccessible.

Perhaps the prisoner hadn’t known the rods were out of easy reach.

But he’d known they weren’t in the cell.

Every advantage had been with him. Height. Strength. Position. Speed. Motivation.

He had to have noticed that she was incapacitated. Had to have known she was powerless to defend herself.

Shadbolt had been steadfast in his belief that entering the cell without a rod would result in certain death.

It hadn’t.

He’d given her the Neosporin.

And then — instead of escaping or doing anything that might be expected of the savage they had portrayed him to be — he’d moved away so she would know she had nothing to fear from him.

When he’d approached her again, it had been to help her move Moyne.

Was he alien? Or human?

Suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore.

It didn’t matter at all.

Unless …

What if others of his kind were coming?

Lois realised that her hand was still under the running water. She quickly turned off the faucet and wrung the excess water from the cloth. Peering into the little handheld mirror, she patted at the blood seeping from the graze on her face.

When the wound was clean, she uncapped the Neosporin and dabbed a little onto her face.

Moyne still hadn’t moved.

How had he been knocked out? Her view had been blocked by the body of the prisoner. Had the prisoner done it?

If he had, it had been self-defence.

Moyne had been the aggressor.

She’d seen that much.

Lois sat on one chair and lifted her injured leg onto another one. She looked down into Moyne’s vacuous face. What had happened to Deller and Bortolotto?

It was possible that Moyne’s version was correct, but her doubts — which until now had been little more than nagging speculation — were bellowing through her brain.

Had Moyne killed them?

Had they voiced concern about Trask’s methods? Had Moyne silenced them … permanently?

And used the prisoner as a convenient scapegoat?

A knock on the external door shattered the silence.

Lois heaved herself to her feet and limped to the door. “Who is it?”

“Daniel Scardino.”

She opened the door, and Scardino entered in a brisk, business-like fashion.

“What happened?” he said. He saw her face, and his apprehension deepened. “What the hell happened?”

Lois didn’t answer. She shuffled into the staffroom, and Scardino followed her.

She went to the table and hitched her thigh along the edge to take the weight from her ankle. Scardino was gaping at Moyne. “The alien did this?” he said, his voice punctured with alarm.

Lois swallowed down her resentment. “No,” she said. “Moyne forced me into the cell.”

“He forced you?” Scardino shrieked.

Lois nodded. “He said that he was going to let the monster take what he wanted.” The wave of fear rolled through her again … but it was propelled more by her resident memories of the night Linda had died than by what had happened here.

Scardino laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Have you called an ambulance?”

Lois recoiled from his touch. “No.”

Scardino removed his hand, took his cell from the pocket of his coat, and made the call. “They’ll be here soon,” he said. “Do you have any other injuries?”

“Nothing serious.”

“Nothing serious?” he questioned anxiously. “What else?”

“A few bumps and bruises. Nothing that won’t heal.”

Shock had leached the colour from Scardino’s face. “We could have lost both of you,” he said shakily. “Where are the rods?”

Lois felt outrage seethe up her throat. “You still think he did this, don’t you? You still think he’s the danger?”

Scardino flinched at her tone. He shook his head in dismay. “We were lucky.”

“This …” Lois gestured angrily towards her face. “This wasn’t him. This wasn’t the prisoner. This was Moyne.”

Scardino gulped. “Moyne?”

Lois pressed her fingers into the rock-hard strap of muscle across her neck and grappled for composure. “This prisoner didn’t touch me,” she stated vehemently. “Moyne did this when I was trying to stop him hurling me into the cell.”

Moyne did it?”

“Does that surprise you?” she demanded.

“Yes!”

Lois shook her head but avoided succumbing to the temptation to itemise the deficiencies in Scardino’s handling of this operation. “Moyne knocked on my office door,” she said flatly. “When I opened it, he grabbed me and hauled me down the stairs and threw me into the cell.”

Scardino’s eyes volleyed from her to unconscious figure on the ground. “So how did that happen?”

“The prisoner put himself between Moyne and me. Moyne flew at him … I’m not exactly sure what happened then.”

“So the prisoner did this to Moyne?”

Lois eyed Scardino, knowing her lip had curled with disgust. “I expect that is how Moyne — and all the other bigots — will depict this.”

“Where were the rods?”

“They were in my office,” Lois replied coolly. “I don’t know whether Moyne felt he didn’t need a rod because he didn’t intend to go into the cell or whether he realised that he would need both hands to overpower me.”

“Why were the rods in your office?” Scardino asked. “Trask insisted that they be kept near the cell door.”

Obviously, Scardino was more acquainted with Trask’s practices than he’d previously admitted. “I moved them into my office because it was the only way to prevent Moyne bashing the prisoner during the night when no one else was here.”

“You left him here without access to a rod?” Scardino gasped in alarm.

Lois shrugged nonchalantly. “The door was locked.”

Scardino thrust his hands into the pockets of his coat and looked away. Lois had a sudden inkling of what he was going to say. “Trask had ways of … curbing the extremes of the alien’s behaviour.”

“I have ways, too.”

“You’re going to order a discipline session?”

She shot him her most potent look of contempt and was gratified when he wilted under her gaze.

Scardino shuffled uncomfortably. “I’ll … ah … I’ll call Shadbolt and get him to come in early.”

“There’s no need to do that.”

“We can’t leave the cell unguarded.”

“It won’t be unguarded,” Lois said. “I’ll be here.”

“Once the ambulance arrives, you and Moyne will be going to the hospital.”

“I won’t be.”

“Ms Lane -”

Lois stood from the table and choked down the pain of her foot touching the floor. “Let’s get this straight, shall we?” she said. “You may be the higher-up in this operation, but it’s my operation. You offered it to me. I took it. Unless you have tangible evidence that I have been negligent in my duties, you can’t remove me from this operation. No revolving door, remember? I know too much … way too much for you to -”

“Are you trying to intimidate me?” Scardino asked. He seemed more surprised than offended.

“No,” Lois replied. “I’m speaking straight so there will be no misunderstanding. This is my operation, and I intend to continue with it. I haven’t failed; the prisoner is still in his cell. And I’m not going to the hospital because there is no need to.”

Scardino gave the barest of nods, but it was enough for Lois to know that she had won this round. She’d known she would be able to talk him down — the one who cared the most invariably prevailed in battles of this sort.

“What about Moyne?” Scardino asked.

“I don’t want him back,” Lois declared. “Take him to the hospital. When he has recovered, decide what you want to do with him. But he is not to come back here.”

“Do you intend to pursue this?”

“You mean in-house? Or outside?”

“Either.”

Lois paused. The one who was most vulnerable here was Mr Kent. If this went further, more people would have to know about the existence of the operation. If that happened, there was a chance that someone would step up and try to right the wrongs. But there was also the possibility that someone would decide there were more advantageous ways to benefit from an alien captive.

They could insist on all sorts of tests.

They could decide that his existence threatened humanity to such a degree that he must die.

It was inconceivable that Trask had managed to keep this operation under wraps for seven years. But in doing so, had he actually protected Mr Kent from the whims and prejudices of the higher-ups?

Had Trask’s tyranny — horrific though it had been — actually delivered a better outcome for Mr Kent than if someone else had been calling the shots?

Would his life have been better or worse with someone else in control?

If there seemed a good chance that publicising this operation would provoke outrage at Mr Kent’s treatment, there was reason to insist that Moyne be held accountable for his actions.

But Moyne had friends in high places.

“No,” Lois replied. “I don’t want to be dragged through being questioned by the police.”

“There will be an in-house inquiry.”

“There’s no need,” she said quickly. “And that’s what I’ll be saying if they call me in.”

Scardino nodded, and although Lois was convinced that he lacked even the most basic understanding of her reasons for wanting to put this incident behind her, she chose not to enlighten him.

“Do you want another assistant?”

“No,” she said with certainty. “Longford, Shadbolt, and I can cover it.” She glanced at her watch. It was half past five. “Shadbolt will be here soon. Later, when Longford arrives, I’ll talk to both of them, and we’ll work out a new roster.”

Scardino looked set to argue, but she was saved from his objections by a knock on the door. Scardino opened it, and two paramedics entered the compound.

“I want you to get checked out,” Scardino told Lois.

She nodded submissively. She’d fought the important battles. The less important ones, she could let slide.

Lois allowed them to prod and strap her ankle, manipulate her arm, and apply another layer of antiseptic cream to the abrasion on her face.

“Is she all right?” Scardino asked uneasily.

“She’ll be fine,” the paramedic said. “She should stay off that foot for a day or so.”

Scardino looked pointedly at Lois. “Let me know if you need more help.”

The paramedics lifted the stretcher, and they carried Moyne from the compound. While they loaded him into the ambulance, Scardino hovered in the doorway.

“Go,” Lois said. “You need to be with Moyne.”

“Be careful,” Scardino said. “I don’t want any more agents getting hurt.”

He turned away, closing the door behind him.

“Then keep Moyne out of here,” Lois muttered.

Leaning heavily on the handrail, she swung up the steps on her good foot and went into her office. The prisoner was jogging listlessly around the cell. His face was set; his eyes were fixed straight ahead.

What was he feeling?

Why hadn’t he spoken?

Did he regret that he hadn’t taken his chance to escape?

Why hadn’t he run through the open door?

Did he assume there would be layers of security? Other locked doors? Armed security guards? Had he been conscious when Trask had brought him into the cell? If not, he wouldn’t know what lay beyond the door of his cell. He wouldn’t know that he’d been so close to freedom.

Perhaps he assumed that his cell was in a high-security prison.

Lois shrugged.

Whatever his reasoning, his actions today — although baffling — made her feel as if she had been privy to a glimpse of the person that languished under the captivity-hardened veneer.

The question of his humanity or otherwise was irrelevant.

He was him.

A person.

Not an animal.

Not a monster.

Not a savage.

A person.

Mr Kent.

A noise sounded loud in the quietness, and her heart did a frantic circuit around her ribcage before realisation kicked in and curbed her fears.

Lois took a twenty-dollar bill from her purse, shoved it in her jeans pocket, locked her office door, and clumped down the steps.

Shadbolt was in the staffroom. He saw her, and his face darkened. “You went into the cell, didn’t you?” It sounded like accusation.

Lois nodded.

Shadbolt’s breath exploded with frustration. He turned to the coffee machine.

“I didn’t choose to go in there,” Lois amended.

He spun around. “What?”

“Moyne attacked me and threw me in there.”

All colour left Shadbolt’s face, and he slumped heavily into the seat. “Moyne forced you in there?” he asked unsteadily. “Physically?”

Lois nodded. “He pulled me down the stairs, opened the cell door, and tried to shove me in there.”

“I thought you took his key away from him.”

“He had a copy.”

Shadbolt swallowed. “What … what did the alien do?”

“Very little. He didn’t touch me.” Lois gestured to her cheek. “Moyne did this.”

Shadbolt slid his hands backwards through his hair and halted them on the back of his head. “Did you have a rod?”

“No,” Lois said. “When we reached the cell, I managed to cling to Moyne’s hair. He tried to push me in, but I held on. We ended up wrestling on the floor. He ripped my gun from my ankle holster and threatened to shoot me.”

Shadbolt was looking sick. “What happened?”

“The prisoner positioned himself between Moyne and me.”

“Did he hurt Moyne?”

“Moyne got knocked out. I couldn’t see exactly what happened because I was behind the prisoner.”

“So the alien attacked Moyne?”

“If you want to call what was — at most — a single blow an ‘attack’, then, yes, I guess the prisoner attacked Moyne.”

“He didn’t continue? Didn’t tear Moyne’s flesh from his bones?”

“No. He walked away.”

Shadbolt shook his head, his face a warren of confusion.

“Will you do something for me, please?” Lois asked.

He managed to nod.

“I’m not very mobile, or I’d do it myself. Would you go and get some breakfast?” She pulled the bill from her jeans and held it towards him. “A few bagels. Or biscuits. Sandwiches. Anything.”

His eyes lingered on the bill and then leapt to her face. “For you? Or him?”

“Both. I’m hungry. I’m responsible for him. I have no intention of starving him.”

“Are you worried about what happens when he reaches full strength and fitness?” Shadbolt asked.

Lois didn’t sense any animosity in the question. “No,” she said.

Shadbolt took the bill and left.

“Thanks,” Lois called after him.

With Shadbolt gone, Lois hobbled around the staffroom. The washing bowl was still inside the cell, so she rinsed the bucket and filled it with hot water.

She clambered up the stairs to her office. She picked up a pen and wrote on a piece of paper from the notepad — THANK YOU. She stared at the words. They didn’t seem to be enough.

Moyne had meant for her to die tonight.

Lois put the pen to the paper again and added two words. Now it read, THANK YOU, MR. KENT.

That was better. It was still short. It was still impersonal. But he had saved her life, and she wanted to acknowledge that. She wanted him to know that she appreciated what he had done for her.

Lois slipped the note into her pocket and returned to the staffroom. Just as she finished making two cups of coffee, Shadbolt let himself in. He put two bags, some bills, and a few coins onto the table.

“Thanks,” Lois said.

“Do you want me to take them into the cell?” he asked.

“Are you willing to go in there without a rod?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll do it.”

He nodded tersely. “I want a rod here — just in case.”

“OK.”

“Is your office unlocked?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want me to get the rod?” Shadbolt asked. “Or will you?”

Lois paused, remembering how difficult it had been to negotiate the stairs on one foot. “Would you mind getting it?” she asked. “They are just inside the door.”

He turned, and she heard his footsteps echo up the stairs.

Lois picked up one bag and looked inside it. It contained two toasted bacon-and-egg sandwiches. The other bag held two bagels. Clearly, Shadbolt had expansive ideas about breakfast.

Lois put one bagel on a plate. She took the note from her pocket and added it to the bag with the remaining bagel.

Shadbolt returned with the rod, and she unlocked the cell door. She swung it open and hopped forward. He handed her the two bags, which she placed on the cell floor. Next came the cup of coffee. She gestured to the bucket, and he handed her that, too.

As she straightened from placing the bucket on the floor of the cell, Lois looked up.

Mr Kent was sitting on the far side of the cell. He wasn’t turned away. He wasn’t cringing in pain. He was looking at her.

Lois lifted her hand in a tiny gesture of greeting.

A moment passed as she awaited his response.

Then slowly, his hand rose a few inches from where it had been positioned on his knee.

Lois hopped backwards, closed the door, and locked it.

Shadbolt eyed her — a smattering of unexpected amusement in his expression. “How are you going to get up the stairs with a rod, a bagel, and a cup of coffee?” he asked. “On one foot?”

Lois pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “One at time?”

“The coffee could be a challenge.”

She gave him an embryonic smile. “Could I impose on you one more time?”

He didn’t reply. He picked up her cup of coffee, the bag containing her bagel, her change, and — still carrying the rod — he went up the stairs.

She was halfway up when she met him coming down. “You OK?” he asked.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Shadbolt stood aside to let her pass, and Lois continued her rather awkward progress up the stairs. In her office, she shut the door but didn’t lock it.

She sat at her desk, elevated her foot, ate her bagel, drank her coffee.

And watched Mr Kent.

He was eating one of the bacon-and-egg sandwiches. He was so clearly relishing it that she felt a smile tickle her mouth.

However, much as he seemed to be enjoying the toasted sandwiches, she had a feeling that what he found in the second bag would mean more to him.

She watched him intently — determined not to miss the moment.

When he had finished both sandwiches, he wiped his fingers on his shorts, opened the second bag, and looked in. His hand dived into the bag, and when it emerged, it wasn’t the bagel he held but the note.

He stared at it for a long time.

It was difficult to ascertain his expression through his beard and falling-forward hair, but Lois found it heart-wrenchingly easy to empathise with what he was feeling.

His hand lifted and dove under the cloak of his hair.

Perhaps he was brushing a few stray strands out of his eye.

Or perhaps it was something else.

Lois wiped her own eyes. But it wasn’t hair that had caused moisture to pool in them.

It was him.

***

Just before lunchtime, Scardino arrived at the compound.

Shadbolt let him in, and Lois looked down on them from the top of the stairs.

After a very brief exchange with Shadbolt, Scardino climbed the stairs. When he reached the top, he said, “I need to speak to you privately.”

Lois gestured for him to go into her office, followed him in, and shut the door. There was only one chair. She offered it to him.

Scardino shook his head. He looked uncomfortable. Lois noticed that he was careful to avoid looking through the viewing window.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Moyne has regained consciousness,” he said.

Lois didn’t respond.

“He has spoken about the events of this morning,” Scardino continued.

“What’s the problem?” Lois asked, although she had an idea of what was coming.

“His version of events is different from yours.”

“OK.” That wasn’t unexpected.

“He says you insisted on going into the cell. He says the scuffle came about because he was trying to prevent you from risking your life.”

“I suppose he also has a story to explain how he ended up unconscious?”

“He remembers the alien charging at him, but nothing beyond that.”

“Convenient.”

“Mr Moyne was most insistent that I pass on his gratitude to you for rescuing him. He figures that you must have gotten the rod to nullify the powers of the alien.”

“Nice story.”

“You don’t sound too perturbed about this,” Scardino said. “You do realise that it’s your word against his?”

“I’m the superior.”

“Yes, and that will probably be enough to prevent any action being taken against you,” Scardino said. “However, the suggestion that your ill-advised actions put a member of your staff into mortal danger could be enough to have you removed from this operation.”

Lois looked at him scornfully. “Have you spoken to Shadbolt?”

“Not yet. But I called Longford.”

“And he would have said that I’m unsure the rods are necessary.”

“Yes.”

“Shadbolt will confirm that, too,” Lois predicted dryly. “I haven’t made a secret of my disgust at the way things were done before I took over this mission.”

“Ms Lane,” Scardino said quickly. “No one is blaming you. I shouldn’t have allowed you to take on another assignment so soon. This won’t even appear on your record. We’ll put it down to the unfortunate consequences of not having recovered from the trauma of your previous assignment.”

“When you said it was my word against Moyne’s, you didn’t mention that you had already decided to believe him.”

“Ms Lane,” Scardino said. “I have been concerned that you are getting too personally involved with this assignment. I think you have allowed your judgment to be impaired. It happens to all of us in this job.”

Lois reached into her pocket for the keys.

She thrust one into the padlock on the closet door and opened it.

She sensed Scardino’s surprised reaction to the set-up inside the closet.

“Watch this,” Lois said. “I’m sure you’ll find it very illuminating.”

Part 2

Lois watched the counter whirl backwards as the tape rewound. A few seconds later, she pressed ‘play’ on the remote control and waited.

Slightly to the left of the picture, Mr Kent was lying on the ground, presumably asleep.

Lois contemplated voicing the snarky thought about how frightening he looked, but she controlled herself.

Scardino leaned forward to study the figure on the screen.

She paused the tape. “Why don’t you look through the window?” she suggested. “You’ll get a much better view of him.”

Scardino gasped, swallowed, and then slowly turned towards the window. Mr Kent was on the ground, doing push-ups. Again, a caustic comment sprang all too easily to Lois’s mind, and again she managed to restrain herself.

After a few seconds, Scardino’s attention returned to the small screen. Lois began the tape again. They waited for a minute — watching the prisoner do nothing more menacing than breathe.

Suddenly, he jolted to a sitting position, his eyes fixed in the direction of the door. With an agile movement, he leapt to his feet. Lois looked to the right of the screen and could see nothing. A wave of apprehension flooded her.

What if it hadn’t been within range of the camera?

She tried to recall how far they had ventured into the room. She wasn’t sure. She hadn’t exactly been taking note of their position when she had been embroiled in the battle with Moyne.

Then, a flicker of movement came into view — the jostling edge of two entwined bodies.

Her dismay deepened. So far, the tape didn’t disprove Moyne’s story. He could have been fighting to stop her from entering the cell.

What was comforting was that the picture clearly showed Mr Kent — standing a few feet from the fight, poised but passive.

Moyne twisted — revealing his face clearly to the camera. He pinned down her legs and yanked her gun from its holster.

He stood and aimed it at her.

There was a blur of movement — it looked as if the tape had jumped a dozen frames — and Mr Kent was standing over her, confronting Moyne and the gun.

Moyne ran at Mr Kent, ricocheted off him, and crumpled to the ground.

Mr Kent’s right hand was clearly visible hanging at his side — it hadn’t moved.

Scardino reached for the remote in Lois’s hand and paused the picture. “Neither you nor Moyne mentioned the gun,” he said grimly.

“You think Moyne was keen to admit that he pulled a gun on a superior?” Lois asked incredulously.

“Does he know about the camera? Does he know that everything that happens in the cell can be recorded?”

“I don’t know,” Lois said. “It was already set up when I arrived.”

“Trask didn’t say anything about it to me.”

“Trask was paranoid.”

Scardino gave back the remote control and looked intently at the floor for a long, silent moment. “If Trask had this camera here a long time ago, there’s a chance he had concrete evidence about what happened when Deller and Bortolotto were killed.”

“Uh huh,” Lois said, hoping Scardino would actually be able to draw a conclusion from what he’d said.

“If the alien did kill them, Trask could have proven it beyond doubt.”

Lois stared at him, allowing time for his words to permeate deep into his mind. “I think they thought they had proven it beyond doubt,” Lois said resentfully. “No one seemed to question their version of events.”

“Are there any other tapes?”

“Not in this office. Did anyone check his home?”

“Yeah,” Scardino said. “We went through it looking for anything that could possibly be sensitive.”

“Nothing?”

“No. He kept his home and job separate.”

“What happens now?” Lois asked.

“The tape doesn’t disprove Moyne’s contention that you went into the cell of your own volition and he tried to stop you.”

“He stole my weapon and threatened me with it.”

“But he didn’t shoot.”

Didn’t he? Lois had been sure she’d heard gunfire. But Moyne couldn’t have missed — not from that range.

She could push this. She could demand that the tape be analysed. She could hand over her gun to forensics. She could insist that Moyne be tested for gunpowder residue.

If Moyne had fired, that was attempted murder. That was enough to put him in prison.

But if they proved he had fired the gun, what conclusions would they reach concerning Mr Kent?

If they analysed the tape, they would have verification of the ‘frightening powers’.

They could order that the ‘discipline sessions’ be resumed.

If Lois set the ball rolling, she would have no control over where it stopped.

Scardino let loose a breath that seemed to go on forever. “Ms Lane,” he said. “Moyne has an imposing record. He has done jobs no one else was willing to do. If I pursue this, we will lose an operative who is greatly valued by the higher-ups.”

Lois stared at him for a long moment. She understood what he was saying. It was in her hands. She could insist on an official inquiry — but there would be ramifications. The tape evidence probably favoured her story, but it wasn’t definitive proof that Moyne had forced her into the cell.

He had aimed the gun at her — but he could say that he was trying to get her out of the cell and protect them both from the alien.

If he had fired, that could be proved — but he could claim it had been an instinctive reaction to the alien running at Lois.

And Moyne had friends in high places.

If she pushed this, it was probably going to be her against them.

And while she was fighting that battle, who would be brought in to guard Mr Kent?

What she’d witnessed in this compound reinforced what she’d known since her earliest days as an agent. The end justified the means. In this job, the end always justified the means.

And if the end was the perceived deliverance of the human race, the means employed to achieve it were not going to trouble the consciences of too many people.

Her best option was to try to broker a deal. Clearly, Scardino wanted this entire episode to die a quiet and dignified death. That was understandable — if it came out that she’d asked him to remove Moyne, there would be awkward questions regarding his handling of the operation.

But if she agreed to let this slide, she wanted assurances in return.

“You do know that I could take this tape and go way above your head?” Lois said.

“I know you could,” Scardino said sombrely. “But if there’s an inquiry, there will be consequences. Is it still important that you remain in Metropolis?”

“It’s imperative. I have to be in Metropolis at least until the end of the year.”

Scardino said nothing. He didn’t need to. She understood.

“I keep my assignment here — without interference,” Lois said in a voice as cold and hard as steel. “Moyne is given an assignment that takes him a long way from Metropolis.”

“And the events of this morning are forgotten?” Scardino looked pathetically hopeful that this could be brought to a speedy — and, for him, satisfactory — conclusion.

“Do I have your word that Moyne will never return to the compound?”

“Yes.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I’ll have him transferred from the hospital in Metropolis and to a government hospital. He’ll stay there until he’s ready to begin a new assignment.”

“If he leaves — for any reason — I want to know.”

“OK.” Scardino nodded towards the television. “What did the alien do next?”

Lois re-started the tape. They watched as Mr Kent walked over to Moyne and picked him up. He disappeared from view and then returned empty-handed. They watched from behind him as he stood next to Lois. She figured there was no need to inform Scardino that Mr Kent had given her the Neosporin. “He took Moyne to the door,” she explained. “He realised that Moyne was too heavy for me to lift.”

“And he didn’t keep going through the door?” Scardino exclaimed.

“No.”

“Was it open?”

“Wide open.”

It took Scardino a moment to recover from the realisation of how close they had come to having a rampaging alien killer on the loose. “What is he doing now?” he asked.

“I think he is trying to make it clear that I have nothing to fear from him.”

“Did he say anything?”

“Not a word. According to Shadbolt, he hasn’t spoken since about a week into his imprisonment.”

Scardino grimaced but quickly tried to hide his reaction. He was probably wondering what Trask had done. Shadbolt had said that Mr Kent’s desire to speak had been beaten out of him, but Lois couldn’t help wondering if there were more grisly reasons for his silence.

On the screen, Mr Kent turned and walked away from Lois. He arrived at the back wall of the cell and dropped to a sitting position.

“There’s the savage brute in action,” Lois said, unable to keep silent any longer. She stopped the tape. “It may not prove conclusively how Moyne and I ended up in the cell, but it does prove that even if I had intended to go into the cell, I was never in any danger. Not from the prisoner.” Lois ejected the tape from the VCR. “When you are considering Moyne’s new assignment, you should make sure he has no contact with women.”

“Why?”

“He threatened to lock me in the cell. He mentioned that the prisoner hadn’t seen a woman in seven years. He gleefully anticipated what the prisoner would do to me. He said he would watch from up here, and once the prisoner had finished, he would come down and take his share.”

Scardino swallowed roughly and held out his hand for the tape.

Lois paused.

“I give you my word that the tape won’t get destroyed,” Scardino said earnestly. “It won’t get lost. It won’t be used against you to support Moyne and his claims.”

“Will it be used against the prisoner?”

“I don’t see how that would be possible. He didn’t do anything.”

That statement was a victory — a minor one, but a victory nevertheless. Lois gave the tape to Scardino. “I want a copy.”

He took it with a nod.

“Shadbolt and Longford will be at Trask’s funeral on Monday,” Lois said.

“You’ll be here by yourself?”

“Yes.” She said it firmly, hoping he wouldn’t slide into his ‘I want you to be safe’ spiel.

“Will you be OK for the rest of today? You should go home.”

“I will,” Lois said. “Did you find out anything about Jonathan and Martha Kent?”

“No. Nothing yet.”

“Keep asking. Someone has to know what happened to them.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t see you outside.”

Scardino walked to the door of her office. “If you need anything …”

Lois nodded. After he’d gone, she shut the door, returned to her chair, and lifted her throbbing ankle onto her desk.

Mr Kent was running laps of the cell.

Not running, but sprinting. He had a long, smooth stride and moved with effortless grace. He reached the side wall, abruptly changed direction, and charged the length of the cell.

“I hope I’ve done the right thing,” Lois muttered. “For both of us.”

***

At two o’clock, Longford arrived at the compound. Lois — having sent Shadbolt out to buy lunch — had eaten hers while watching Mr Kent eat his. Now, she left her office and limped into the staffroom.

Shadbolt rose and pulled out a chair for her. She collapsed into it with a nod of thanks and faced both men across the table. Longford looked uneasy. Shadbolt was doing a good job of looking unruffled.

“Do either of you have any questions about what happened this morning?” Lois asked.

Shadbolt shook his head.

“Longford?”

“Mr Scardino called me and asked a lot of questions about whether correct procedure has been followed when we have contact with the alien,” he said. He fidgeted with the handle of his cup. “I told him there have been some changes.”

“Moyne and I ended up in the cell together without the rods,” Lois said. “Moyne is saying that I insisted on going into the cell and that he attempted to physically detain me. I am saying that Moyne forced me into the cell with the intention that I would come to the same ending as Deller and Bortolotto.”

Longford’s head shot up, his mouth dropped open, but he said nothing.

Lois shrugged. “There isn’t going to be an inquiry, so I doubt either of you will be asked any further questions.”

“No inquiry?” Shadbolt said sharply.

“No,” Lois said. “It’s my word against Moyne’s. The only other person here was the prisoner, and I’m sure they would never even think to ask an alien, so no resolution is possible.”

“Is Moyne coming back?” Longford asked.

Lois studied his face. His attempt to look unconcerned didn’t hide the anxiety in his eyes.

Watching closely for his reaction, Lois said, “No, Moyne won’t be coming back. He has been transferred to another assignment.”

Longford almost smiled. He pulled his face into line quickly, but he’d revealed enough. “Will we be getting someone else?”

“No. Not in the short term.”

Shadbolt was gently tapping on the table with his fingers. “We’ll need a new roster,” he said.

Lois nodded. “I’m thinking we could have eight hour shifts. I can’t see the need for three hours a day when there are two of us here.”

“Us?” Shadbolt asked.

“I’ll be doing the third shift.”

Shadbolt nodded as if that confirmed his conjecture.

“We’ll do eight hour shifts,” Lois continued. “But if there is something that requires two people, someone will have to stay a few extra minutes.”

“No problem,” Shadbolt said gruffly. “But I can’t change my hours.”

“OK,” Lois said. “You do the 6am to 2pm shift.”

Shadbolt nodded.

Lois looked at Longford. “Do you want the eight hours overnight or the eight hours of the afternoon and evening?”

“I’d like the overnight hours,” Longford said hesitantly.

“Done,” Lois said. “You do from ten in the evening to six in the morning. I’ll do from two until ten.”

Both men nodded, although Longford looked as if he had more to say. “I have a commitment tonight,” he said. “Can we start the new arrangement tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Lois said. “I’ll go home soon and be back at ten to take over.”

“Thanks,” Longford said.

Shadbolt shuffled in his seat. “Will you leave a rod with us when you’re here not here?”

Lois had known that this would have to be raised. She looked at Longford. “During your shift overnight, there should be no reason to go into the cell,” she said. “The door will be locked. I will give you my home number. If you feel you need to enter the cell, I want you to call me first.”

Longford nodded. Looked relieved even.

Lois figured he liked the idea of sleeping away the hours of his shift.

She turned to Shadbolt. “The prisoner needs breakfast early in your shift and possibly lunch late in your shift.”

He nodded.

“I will give you a key and one rod. I don’t want you to actually enter the cell. Put everything just inside the door. Have it prepared beforehand and have the door open for the shortest time possible.”

“OK.”

“I have a suggestion,” Longford said.

Lois tried to stifle her surprise. “Go ahead.”

“We could put breakfast in there before I leave. If Shadbolt steps into the doorway, I’ll stand behind him with the rod. That will cut down the time he’s in there; he will have both hands free because he won’t have to hold the rod.”

Lois’s attention swung to Shadbolt. “Is that all right with you?”

He nodded. “And we could give him lunch the same way when you arrive at two.”

This was working out better than Lois had hoped. “I want to reiterate that no one is to enter the cell unless there are extraordinary circumstances,” she said. “I can’t think of any reason why you would need to open the door other than at the scheduled times, but if you do, I want to know about it beforehand.”

They both nodded. She thought she detected relief — perhaps neither of them had liked going into the cell.

Or perhaps they really were worried about what the alien might do now that he wasn’t being regularly ‘disciplined’.

“Do you want us to give him the bowl of washing water when we put his breakfast in there?” Shadbolt asked.

“Would you be willing to do that?”

“Yes.”

“OK,” Lois said. “Good. I’ll get the bowl out of the cell the night before and leave it on the drainer for you.”

Shadbolt tapped the table again. “Are you going to wait until ten o’clock when Longford gets in to give the alien his evening meal?”

“No,” Lois said.

“You’re going to open the door even though you’re here alone?”

“I will use the rod,” Lois said, not knowing whether her words were the truth or not.

“Are you worried about being alone with him?” Longford asked. “I’m sure anything could wait until I get here at ten.”

Lois felt genuine appreciation for the willingness of both men to cooperate. “Thanks,” she said with a small smile at Longford. “If I have any doubts about safety, I’ll wait for you to arrive.”

Shadbolt looked up at her, his face tight.

“What are you thinking, Shadbolt?” Lois asked. She could guess, but couldn’t see any harm in encouraging him to be open.

“He hasn’t had a discipline session for almost four days. He’s barely had any exposure to the rod in that time.”

“There hasn’t been a change in his behaviour,” Lois said evenly. “He hasn’t become more aggressive. He can anticipate when someone is going to open the door, yet he’s always on the other side of the cell.”

“Perhaps he’s trying to lure you into carelessness.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Bortolotto decided that the rods weren’t needed …”

… And he’s dead.

The completion of Shadbolt’s sentence hung in the air more tellingly than if he’d spoken aloud.

“I haven’t decided the rods aren’t needed,” Lois said.

“I’ve seen what he can do,” Shadbolt retorted.

“So have I,” Lois said.

His eyebrows shot up. “You’ve seen the photos of Deller and Bortolotto?”

“I’ve seen enough,” she hedged.

“I don’t want to have to do any more body recoveries,” Shadbolt said grimly.

“I don’t want that either,” Lois said, trying to inject a little levity into the conversation. It fell flat. “I’m going home for a few hours to get some sleep. I’ll be back before ten tonight.”

“What happens with his meal tonight?” Longford asked.

Lois hesitated, thinking through the logistics. “We’ll give it to him when I get here.”

“OK.”

“Trask’s funeral is on Monday at two o’clock,” Lois said. “I’ve told Scardino that you’ll both be there.”

Their nods of agreement held no trace of any emotion.

“On Monday, I’ll be here by mid-morning so you have enough time to get ready,” she told Shadbolt.

“Thanks.”

“Anything else you wanted to ask? Discuss?”

“What happens to that tin box you gave him?” Shadbolt asked. “Do you want it taken from him?”

“No,” Lois said. “It can stay in there permanently now. Any further questions?”

Both men shook their heads.

Lois returned to her office and looked through the window. Mr Kent was reading one of the copies of the Daily Planet. She wondered how many times he had read them. She wished there was a way to get a note to him telling him that his evening meal would be delayed … telling him that things were going to be better from now on … telling him that not everyone outside the cell feared and hated him … telling him that she was convinced he hadn’t murdered Deller and Bortolotto.

But she shrunk from giving him a note now. If she did, Longford would know.

Never give anything away.

Her respect for the power of knowledge had been hard-won. And if Shadbolt knew that she was communicating with the prisoner, he would worry. It was possible he would be so worried that he would go to Scardino.

So there could be no note. Not now.

“Sorry, Mr Kent,” she muttered as she picked up her bag. “Your meal will be a little delayed tonight.”

She couldn’t activate the camera because she had no tape.

At the bottom of the stairs, she called to Longford. “I’ll be back before ten. Call me if there are any problems.”

“OK.”

Lois exited the compound and walked past her parked car, past the warehouse, and onto the sidewalk, where she hailed a cab.

She probably could have tolerated the pain of trying to drive her car, but she just wanted to get home and crash into bed.

In the cab, she called Uncle Mike.

She postponed tonight’s delivery and asked for two meals at 9:30.

“Nine-thirty?” Uncle Mike said. “You won’t be eating until then? Lois, are you looking after yourself properly?”

Lois clamped down on her bleak chuckle. Would Uncle Mike deem that the events of this morning — tussling with a man she believed was a cold-hearted killer in the cell of a supposed alien with a rap sheet that included two murders — constituted ‘looking after herself’?

“I’m fine, Uncle Mike,” she said.

“Two meals?” he said. “Are you expecting to be hungry? Or do you have a friend?”

“I have a … a friend,” Lois said, hoping there would be no further questions about the ‘friend’.

“You haven’t dropped into the cafe yet.”

“I will,” she promised, glad to move away from the topic of the second meal. “I’ll try to get there over the weekend.” She hung up the call and sank back into the seat of the cab.

Her ankle hurt, her arm was stiff, and her face had an uncomfortable tightness that made it feel as if it was beginning to swell. But she was exhausted — exhausted enough that sleep should come painlessly.

And for that, Lois was grateful.

In her apartment, she slipped the holster from her ankle and took out her weapon. She unloaded it and gasped.

It had been fired.

Moyne had fired it.

How could he have he missed from a few feet away?

The alien is bulletproof.

They’d said that the alien was bulletproof.

They’d said he’d been shot before … and survived.

Was he impervious to bullets?

Had he taken the bullet that Moyne had meant for her?

Lois locked the weapon in her safe and slipped into bed.

Tiredness enveloped her body.

Questions stormed her mind.

The tiredness won, and she slept.

***

It was after eight o’clock when Lois awoke that evening. She had slept dreamlessly, and when she tumbled from her bed, she felt more refreshed than she had for a long time.

After showering and adding more ointment to the graze on her face, she took out her rolled-up camp mattress, her sleeping bag, and a pillow. She put her toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturising cream, hairbrush, and a blank videotape into her bag.

It didn’t feel completely different from the times she had packed for a Girl Scout camp.

The feeling was heightened when she put a Snickers bar into her bag.

And then added another one.

Lois called the nursing home and asked the nurse to pass on a message to her father that she had been detained at work and would visit him the next morning. She hoped she would be able to walk without noticeably limping by then — and that makeup would be sufficient to reduce the abrasion to little more than a scratch.

She left her apartment, caught a cab, and as the brightly lit streets of Metropolis whizzed past, she couldn’t totally dispel the slightly adventuresome feeling invoked by the presence of her sleeping bag.

Lois punched her pillow into the junction of the seat and the door and reclined into it.

She’d been working on her new assignment for five days.

She had been determined to remain aloof … to avoid getting involved … to do the duties assigned to her like a robot …

On that front, she’d failed dismally.

She’d made an enemy.

An enemy who had tried to kill her.

She’d arrived at a working relationship with Longford and Shadbolt. Sometimes, she even found Shadbolt almost affable — in crusty and curmudgeonly sort of way.

And then there was Mr Kent.

When Moyne had pushed her into the cell, Mr Kent had instantly chosen to help her.

He could have stayed in the far corner of the cell. He could have run through the open door. He could have attacked both her and Moyne. He could have assisted Moyne. He could have raped her.

But he’d instantly and unequivocally sided with her.

He’d stood over her … not to threaten but to guard.

Was that because she was a woman, and he still maintained old-fashioned ideas of gallantry? Or was it because he knew about Moyne — had witnessed the killings that had been perpetrated in his cell?

Were his actions an expression of his hostility towards Moyne?

Or were they indicative of his attitude towards her?

Was it possible he had figured out that she was responsible for his improved conditions? He knew that someone lurked, unseen, behind the window. He seemed to realise that whoever was behind there controlled his life.

Had he connected the unknown figure behind the window with the person who had been pushed, rather ingloriously, into his cell?

Had he worked out that she was the one with absolute authority over his life?

And, therefore, that she was the one to work on to gain an advantage?

And if he were manoeuvring for an advantage, was it simply to try to keep the small improvements she had begun?

Or did he have a much bigger — and more sinister — agenda?

Why hadn’t he escaped when the door was open?

The cab pulled up outside the warehouse, and Lois paid the driver and hauled her things to the compound. She unlocked the door, and Longford came from the staffroom.

“Is everything OK?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“His meal will arrive soon,” Lois said as she began to climb the stairs. “We’ll put it in the cell, and then you can go home.”

Longford looked at the array of articles she carried. “It’s difficult for me to climb stairs if I’m carrying something,” he said. “But I can stand at the bottom and throw your things up to you.”

“OK,” Lois said. She dropped everything except her bag and slowly mounted the stairs.

At the top, she turned and caught the three individual bundles as Longford tossed them up to her.

“Thanks,” she said.

He nodded and returned to the staffroom.

Lois unlocked her office, entered, and went directly to the window. The alien was sitting against the wall. The newspapers were next to him, but he wasn’t reading them; he was staring ahead with a blank look on his face.

Actually, it wasn’t blank.

It was the same disheartened look that he’d had after Moyne had destroyed the toothbrush.

Like he’d lost something.

Lois groaned in self-recrimination.

Of course, he was going to wonder about the outcome of what he’d witnessed that morning.

Of course, he was going to fear how it would affect him.

Since then, two meals had been pushed into his cell — and a note of thanks — but now there had been nothing from the other side of the door for over seven hours.

A week ago, that was probably the normal — and most desirable — situation for him.

But things had changed.

Lois experienced a small trickle of satisfaction. Things had changed. She had changed them. And she intended to continue changing them.

But first, she had to reassure him that his life wasn’t going to return to how it used to be.

Was he surreptitiously watching the door, wondering if someone armed with a rod was about to burst through it and start attacking him? Was he awaiting Moyne to come and take revenge?

Mr Kent’s face — what she could see under the beard — seemed to indicate that he thought it was a possibility.

Within her rose a compulsion — a strange compulsion considering she was just about convinced that he’d survived a bullet.

She had to protect him.

She had been assigned to ensure that he didn’t escape.

That he didn’t hurt the world.

But now … now she was much more driven to ensure that the world didn’t hurt him.

And to do that, she had to stay.

She had to stay long enough to safeguard his future.

And that meant she had to be careful. If it somehow got back to Scardino that she was forging any sort of association with the prisoner, the higher-ups would get antsy and rip her off the assignment.

Particularly Moyne’s ‘friend’ — whoever he was.

Despite all the advancements, the higher-ups were usually male. And they usually believed that a woman was more susceptible to a clever story than a man was.

If she protested Mr Kent’s situation too loudly, it was more likely that she would lose respect than it was that he would gain it.

Lois groaned.

She had asked Scardino about Mr Kent’s parents.

That was — potentially — a mistake.

In order to ensure that she remained on this assignment, she needed to break all communication with the prisoner. She had to be impersonal, remote, and unequivocally professional.

Scardino had already made a couple of comments about her becoming too involved.

She’d ignored him because she had known that — other than her curiosity regarding how Mr Kent had ended up as Trask’s prisoner and showing some basic compassion for someone who’d been treated so appallingly — Scardino’s concerns were unfounded.

But that was before this morning.

That was before he had stood over her to protect her from Moyne.

Before he had given her the Neosporin.

Before he had looked at her with his eloquent eyes that communicated on a level so much deeper than mere words could have done.

She could still see those dark brown eyes … staring at her … speaking to her …

In the cell, the prisoner hadn’t moved.

His shoulders were slumped. His hands were lying listlessly on his thighs.

Either the communication between them had to stop …

… Or she had to ensure that Scardino believed it had stopped … And keep Shadbolt and Longford from suspecting it had started.

Lois gave a small smile. Work in secret? Maintain a charade to cover what she was really doing? Lie when necessary? Appear detached? She could do that.

She walked out of her office and retrieved her bedding from the landing.

Then she went downstairs to await the arrival of their meals.

Part 3

Lois had been waiting outside for five minutes when Uncle Mike’s delivery guy arrived with the meals. She accepted them and hurried back to the staffroom as quickly as her still-tender ankle would allow.

She lifted the lid of the container. It was a pasta dish — a creamy chicken sauce redolent with a rich, tangy aroma.

Back in the staffroom, Lois gave Longford the rod she had brought from her office, unlocked the cell door, and peeped around the corner.

Mr Kent hadn’t moved from his position against the back wall. However, his head was turned in her direction. His face was deadpan, but some of his air of abject hopelessness had lifted.

Lois put the hot container on the floor and added a new bottle of water. Then, she turned back to Longford and raised her hand. “Pass me a fork,” she said.

“A fork?” he replied with a level of incredulity that wouldn’t have seemed out of place if she’d asked for a machine gun.

“Yes,” she said urgently. “A fork.”

He took one from the tray on the counter and gave it to her.

Lois placed it on top of the container and looked Mr Kent.

Their eyes met.

His fingers unfurled in greeting.

Lois lifted her hand a few inches in response.

Then she stood and retreated into the staffroom. She shut and locked the door. “Thanks,” she said to Longford. “You can go home now.”

He handed her the rod, but didn’t move towards the door. “Ms Lane?” he said.

Was he going comment about her treatment of the prisoner? “Yes, Longford?”

“I wasn’t being difficult about not doing the shift tonight. My mother has an appointment with a specialist tomorrow, and she is staying at my apartment. She would be nervous being alone overnight in the big city.”

“That’s fine, Longford,” Lois said. “Thank you for explaining. Will you be able to do your shift tomorrow night?”

“Yes,” he said, looking relieved. “I will take my mother home tomorrow morning after her appointment and be back in Metropolis well before my shift starts.”

“I hope your mother does well,” Lois said. “Good night, Longford.”

“Thank you. Good night, Ms Lane.”

He walked out of the staffroom and into the dark of the night. Lois took the rod to her office and hurried to the window.

Mr Kent was eating.

He was using the fork with deftness — she wouldn’t have expected anything less.

He was hungry.

She was, too.

Lois pulled back the lid of her container and inhaled appreciatively.

As she drove the fork into the pasta, she couldn’t help thinking about what it must have been like to receive food only once a day — and for that food to be a cold, disgusting mess.

Tomorrow, she had to remember to call the caterers and cancel the orders.

From now on, both she and Mr Kent would be eating Uncle Mike’s food.

She finished her meal about the same time as Mr Kent finished his. He returned the lid to the empty container and then used some water from the bottle to wash the fork. He placed the container next to the door and put the clean fork on top.

Lois picked up a pen and hovered above the notepad.

She wanted to write something, but what?

Mr Kent:

Good. That was nicely formal.

Sorry for

No. She ripped the paper from the pad, tore it into little pieces, and threw it in the trashcan.

Mr Kent:

The unfortunate incident this morning caused several disruptions to the routine today. Moyne has been permanently removed from this operation.

“So, you no longer have to worry about being bashed in the middle of the night,” she muttered.

Lois chewed on the end of the pen as she read the words she had written.

She had so many other questions.

What really happened when Deller and Bortolotto died?

How did you survive seven years of Trask’s abuse?

Are you an alien?

Did you stop the bullet Moyne meant for me?

Why didn’t you escape when the door was open?

Do you intend to take over the Earth and kill all humans?

Why don’t you speak? What did they do to you?

Can I trust you?

Lois tapped the pen on her desk.

Could she trust him?

That was more important than all the other questions put together. If she couldn’t trust him, nothing else had relevance.

She looked up to where Mr Kent was again reading one of the editions of the Daily Planet. She needed to remember to get tomorrow’s edition and give it to him.

A sudden vision flashed into her mind.

Mr Kent, reading the paper, drinking coffee … and munching on a chocolate bar.

She folded the vision into a box in her brain and firmly closed the lid.

Giving him a chocolate bar definitely crossed the line.

So far, she had done nothing more than take reasonable care of someone who was her responsibility. She would have done the same for a dog.

But chocolate?

That was indulgent.

Fun, though.

How would he react?

Did he like chocolate?

Stupid question.

Everyone liked chocolate.

It would mean unlocking the door when no one else was here.

Was she willing to do that?

She’d told Shadbolt that it didn’t concern her.

Did it?

She looked again at Mr Kent.

When was the last time he’d spent an evening reading the paper, drinking coffee, and eating chocolate?

At least seven years ago — she knew that for sure.

Had he spent quiet evenings with his parents?

If she made him a cup of coffee, she could give him the note.

She should just go to bed. It was after ten-thirty.

But she wasn’t tired at all. And she knew too well the perils of trying to sleep before her mind was ready to succumb to exhaustion.

Coffee … was a dumb idea.

It was too late.

But tea?

Did he drink tea?

Before her mind could descend further into the whirlwind of indecision, she stood abruptly. She picked up the unsigned note and pulled one of the Snickers bars out of her bag.

She went down the stairs, careful to tread gingerly on her sore ankle. She set the kettle on the stove to boil, put a tea bag in each of two mugs, and waited.

This was silly.

But she was alone.

With him.

Mr Kent.

Who had saved her life this morning.

That was it — he’d saved her life this morning. This was nothing more than a way to express her gratitude.

If he hadn’t stepped in, neither of them would be drinking tea or eating chocolate tonight.

The kettle boiled, and Lois poured the water into the mugs.

How did he have his tea?

After all these years, he probably had it however she gave it to him.

Milk?

Sugar?

Strong?

Weak?

She removed the bags when the tea was of moderate strength and then added milk to both mugs.

She hesitated over the sugar. She never used sugar, but Linda had liked two teaspoons in her tea. On the occasions when Lois had accidentally picked up her partner’s drink, she had almost gagged at the taste.

No sugar, she decided.

She looked at the door and removed the keys from her pocket.

All the rods were still in her office.

She should go up there and get one.

She fidgeted with the keys.

It would take a minute to get a rod … perhaps longer … climbing the stairs was still a laborious process.

She could have the door open; the tea, the chocolate bar, and the note in there; and the door locked in less time than it would take to get the rod.

While she was wallowing in uncertainty, the tea was getting cold.

Lois put everything within easy reach and thrust the key into the lock.

She turned the key, pushed open the door, put the tea on the floor so roughly that a little slopped onto the concrete, dropped the chocolate bar next to it, and added the note.

She backed away, slammed the door, and locked it.

Her heart felt like a herd of buffalo was rollicking through it.

She picked up her cup and eagerly climbed the stairs, ignoring the objections from her ankle.

When she arrived at the window, Mr Kent was walking across the cell — approaching the door with caution.

When he reached it, he crouched there — right next to the door — and picked up the note. After he’d read it, his head turned towards the window. He lifted his arm and waved in her direction.

His attention returned to the floor, and he picked up the chocolate bar.

He held it in both hands and stared.

Much to Lois’s frustration, she couldn’t see his face clearly. She had wanted to share in his reaction. Then his head turned, and he looked up.

From the midst of his scrubby facial hair, she saw movement.

A smile?

It was brief.

Fleeting.

But his mouth had appeared to move.

And it could have been a smile.

Lois found herself answering him.

Even if he hadn’t smiled, she was smiling.

He picked up his cup of tea and took it back to the place against the wall where he had been sitting.

He read the newspaper.

He sipped the tea.

He slowly and luxuriously nibbled the chocolate bar.

Lois sipped her tea.

Nibbled her chocolate bar.

And watched him.

***

The nightmare was back.

She screamed.

Hauled in a breath and screamed again.

Her eyes shot open.

Where was she?

She wasn’t in her bedroom.

Where was she?

It wasn’t dark — there was light behind her.

She couldn’t be back in the room where he had killed Linda. That had been black.

Where was she?

She turned towards the light … and realisation seeped through her.

She was in her office.

She was guarding Mr Kent.

Lois stood from the mattress on the floor and looked into the cell.

He was sitting up. He was looking directly at the window.

Had he heard her screaming?

He looked concerned.

Unsure.

Suddenly, he leapt to his feet and rushed to the newspapers. He picked up one and began ripping it into strips.

He placed the strips on the floor.

A word appeared — written in roughly torn newspaper strips positioned on a concrete floor.

ARE

He moved to the right and continued.

YOU

Lois could easily guess what would be next.

OK

Yes, she was OK. But did she want to admit to the nightmare? Even if she didn’t go into details -which she most certainly wouldn’t — did she want him to know that she had her own demons that haunted her?

No, she didn’t.

She didn’t want him to know about her weaknesses. Her insecurities. Her pain.

She didn’t want anyone to know about them.

She hadn’t admitted them to Scardino. When the shrink had probed, Lois had insisted that she enjoyed long and uninterrupted sleep every night.

She wasn’t about to start unburdening to a prisoner who must already have more than his share of nightmare material.

She took the pen from the desk and scribbled on the notepad.

I’m fine.’ Then she added, ‘Go to sleep.’

She took the note down the stairs, opened the door, and slid the note into the cell. The mug was there — she grabbed it, stepped back, and then shut and locked the door.

Inside the mug was the Snickers wrapper.

Lois put the cup on the drainer and took the wrapper upstairs to deposit in her own trashcan.

When she arrived back at the window, Mr Kent was already standing by the door and reading her note.

He put the note in his pocket, waved towards the window, and returned to the place on the floor where he usually chose to sleep.

He lay down, shuffled a bit, and then settled to stillness.

Lois watched the steady rise and fall of his chest as the creeping claws of the nightmare slowly receded from her mind.

***

He lay on the concrete, facing away from the window.

The window that hid her from his sight.

She’d brought him tea. And a chocolate bar.

Chocolate!

If he had to list the top one hundred things he had pined for most, chocolate wouldn’t have made the list.

Tea would have been there, but not chocolate.

And yet … it was the chocolate that had gripped his heart and pushed a lump into his throat as he had pretended to read the paper.

She’d given him chocolate!

It was such a normal … extravagant … sweet … totally unexpected thing to do.

He might never taste chocolate again. But if he did, he knew it would always cause heady memories of her.

After he’d finished his cup of tea and the chocolate bar, he’d washed the cup, brushed his teeth, and settled onto the concrete to sleep.

Moyne was gone. Forever.

That knowledge rolled through him over and over again, each time bringing fresh relief.

Trask was gone.

Moyne was gone.

Suddenly, from a place of no hope, there was hope.

From a place of abject terror, there was mercy.

From a place of dread, there was compassion.

From a place of darkness, there was light.

And it was because of her.

It was her.

He didn’t know her name.

When she’d opened the door, she’d waved to him. The next time, she’d responded to his wave.

What did she believe about him?

Did she believe he was a savage brute?

Did she believe he had killed?

Did she believe he deserved to be caged like an animal because he wasn’t human?

Her actions suggested that she didn’t despise him.

Did she pity him? Did she think of him as she would think of a pet?

He tried to go to sleep … but it was so hard not to think about how the events of today would affect his future.

For so long, he hadn’t permitted himself to think about the future. Surviving each day had been difficult enough … to think ahead to the endless years of torment … to dwell on what was to come …

But now …

He was pragmatic enough to know that the extent of his hope was that life would become bearable. That the exposure to the poison would be minimised. That he would be spared the regular beatings. That he wouldn’t have to endure constant hunger and thirst. That he would be given sufficient water to clean himself.

There was no hope of freedom. He knew that. There was no hope of a normal life.

They knew too much about him. About what he could do.

But if she stayed, her presence would shine a light into his cell — a clear, warm, soothing light.

Which birthed a new fear.

What if she left?

She’d brought him a cup of tea.

Tea!

He hadn’t tasted tea for seven years.

He had drunk numerous cups of tea in his mom’s kitchen.

Usually accompanied by her homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Since his capture, he hadn’t been able to think about his parents without pain slicing through his insides.

Tonight, even that had been different.

The fear, the sorrow … both of those emotions were still there … but they had been assuaged by hope. She was going to try to find out what had happened to his parents.

He’d been thinking about that earlier when the scream had pierced the silence, and he had sprung to his feet.

His immediate thought was that Moyne had come back.

Come back to finish what he’d started that morning.

The screams had stopped, and he’d strained to hear. He’d closed his eyes, centred every ounce of concentration onto her … and had picked up the muffled roar of her heartbeat. It had been tearing along at a frenetic pace, but he couldn’t hear any other sounds. No low and menacing words, no thumps of violence.

He’d doubted she would respond, but he’d had to try to find out if she were OK.

He couldn’t just lie there, not knowing.

He’d laid the strips of newspaper on the floor.

Would she see them?

Would she bother replying?

She had. She’d given him no explanation, but he hadn’t needed that. All he’d needed to know was that she was OK.

That Moyne hadn’t come back.

Perhaps her screams were due to a nightmare.

He closed his eyes … and listened intently.

Her breathing was regular.

Her heartbeat was back to normal.

She was OK.

His relief was profound … because he knew with awful certainty that he was powerless to protect her.

While they had the poison, he would always be powerless to protect her.

Then a harsh, cruel thought occurred to him, and his heart felt like it wanted to curl up and die.

What if the nightmare had been about him?

What if — in her dreams — he had done something to her … something brutal … something savage? Something that had that scared her so badly, she had screamed with terror?

What if being forced into his cell had brought to life all the stories she had been told? Things they said he was capable of doing? More than capable … things that were innate to him … inborn.

What if — in her dreams — he was the monster?

***

~~ Saturday ~~

Lois awoke the next morning and was surprised to realise that — after the nightmare — she had fallen asleep quickly and slept peacefully.

She slipped from her sleeping bag and checked on Mr Kent.

He was kneeling in the far corner of the cell — facing away from her. Naked.

What was he doing?

She scanned the cell and realised the bowl was missing.

Then she realised.

He must be washing his shorts.

Without looking back to the corner, she turned away and checked the clock. It was twenty to six. She should slip down to the bathroom before Shadbolt arrived.

Her ankle had improved enough that she was confident she would be able to walk into the nursing home without eliciting any questions.

If anyone noticed her face, she would fall back on the old excuse of running into a door.

Her thoughts returned to the previous evening.

She’d given him chocolate!

Lois shook her head.

What had she been thinking?

Despite the sleeping bag and the camp mattress, this wasn’t a camp for giggly, chocolate-devouring Girl Scouts.

This was her job.

She needed to remember that.

Ten minutes later, Shadbolt came through the door as Lois was making the coffee. He plonked two paper bags on the table with a grunt.

Lois turned from the coffee machine. “What are they?” she asked casually.

“Breakfast,” he grunted. “And lunch.”

“Your breakfast?”

“No. I’ve had mine. They’re for the alien.” The look on his face told her that if she made a fuss, he would never do anything like this again.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I figured that now I’m only working eight hours a day … “ He picked up one bag. “This can be his lunch.”

“What is it?” Lois said, trying to make her question sound like interest and not mistrust.

“Nothing much. Ham-and-cheese sandwich.”

“Thanks,” Lois said. “When the coffee is made, you can give him the breakfast.”

Shadbolt put one bag in the fridge. “You want me to give it to him?”

“If that’s OK,” Lois said. “I’ll hold the rod and pass you the stuff.”

Shadbolt shrugged. “Do you want me to get the rod from your office?”

“Yes, please.”

When the coffee had brewed, Lois unlocked the door and held the rod while Shadbolt put one paper bag — containing another toasted bacon-and-egg sandwich — on the floor of the cell. He added the cup of coffee and retreated quickly.

“Thanks,” Lois said as she locked the door. “I’ll be back at two, and we’ll give him lunch then.” She paused long enough to give Shadbolt the opportunity to ask about having access to a cell key and a rod, but he said nothing as he made himself a cup of coffee.

“See you later,” she said.

“Bye.”

Lois took the rod to her office. She rolled up the bedding and stashed it under her desk in case she needed to do the night shift again.

After a final glance into the cell — Mr Kent was eating his breakfast — she turned on the camera and left the compound.

***

After stopping at her apartment for a shower, Lois drove to the nursing home.

As she walked in the door, she was greeted by Veronica. “Ms Lane,” she said cheerily. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“What’s wrong?” Lois said quickly.

“Nothing’s wrong,” the nurse replied. “I got your dad up first this morning because there was a note saying that you would visit.” She smiled. “I’m glad he doesn’t have to wait. I think he’s looking forward to seeing you.”

That her father could look forward to anything seemed highly optimistic to Lois. However, she didn’t comment as she turned towards his room.

“Ms Lane?”

“Yes?”

“Does your dad own any sweatpants?”

“Ah … no,” Lois said. “He was more a tweed jacket type of guy.”

“We’re going to see how he copes with being out of bed for a few hours each day,” Veronica said. “It might be nice for him to be able to get dressed. Wearing pyjamas during the day is so depressing.”

Lois’s instinctive reaction was that it was a lot of extra bother for very little benefit, but Veronica’s earnestness stopped her from voicing her doubts. “Would you like me to get him some casual clothes?” she asked.

“That would be wonderful,” Veronica said with a happy smile. “Something smart but loose enough that he can do his physiotherapy.”

Lois nodded. “I’ll bring something next time I visit.”

“You’re a sweetie,” Veronica said. “Sam is lucky to have you.”

The ‘sweetie’ grated a bit, but Lois couldn’t deny that it felt good to have someone voice appreciation what she was trying to do for her dad.

She walked through the common area, trying not to catch the eye of the few residents as they sat in the chairs and watched the Wizard of Oz on the television. She swung into her dad’s room and smiled across to where he was sitting up in bed. “How’re you doing, Dad?” she asked.

She pulled up the chair and sat next to his bed. His head had turned in her direction. She took his hand in hers and looked into his eyes. She resisted the compulsion to speak. She just looked into his eyes and waited … perhaps it would be possible to communicate without words.

Her dad’s gaze wavered a little, but when it settled in hers, Lois felt a wisp of recognition. Deep in his eyes, she could almost find her dad … the man who had come — sometimes — to her school concerts. The man who had always told her that she could do anything she wanted to. The man who hadn’t tried to hide his disappointment when she’d told him she was going to work as a singer on a cruise ship. “Lois Lane,” he’d said. “You can do so much better than dress up like a streetwalker and warble to overindulged, overfed passengers on a floating hotel going nowhere.”

In her heart, Lois had agreed. But she couldn’t tell him that. Not then. Not now.

Without breaking the link of their eyes, Lois said, “I’ve started a new job, Dad. I’m not working on the ship anymore.”

It was entirely possible that she imagined the tiny gleam in her dad’s eyes. But it felt as if he’d answered. As if he’d spoken his approval.

“I’m working with a man from another place,” Lois said. “I think he knows a lot, but there’s a … a language barrier. He’s very fit, and he loves to run. And he misses his parents a lot.”

Her dad’s fingers trembled in her hand.

“Anyway, I have my own office, upstairs. It has a big window, and he’s in the room next door. Yesterday, I got this little graze on my cheek — it’s nothing serious, I should have been more careful — but he gave me some antiseptic ointment for it.

“I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the new job, Dad. I didn’t think it would be very interesting, but I’m learning more than I thought I would. Other people work there, too. One man has a prosthetic leg. He got shot and was too far away from a hospital to save the leg.”

He dad could have been listening. His eyes hadn’t moved from her face.

“We had a bit of excitement yesterday, Dad. One of the men at my work … I didn’t like him right from the start. He had shifty eyes. I didn’t trust him, and I thought he might be bullying the man from the other place. Yesterday, they caught him, and he was dismissed. It’s going to be a much better place to work now that he’s gone. I think the foreign man will be much happier, too.”

Her dad’s mouth twitched. Lois smiled.

“You always did say that I talk too much, Dad,” she said. “Remember how you used to say, ‘Lois, if you were to actually stop to draw breath, someone else might get a chance to use their mouth, too’?”

Impulsively, Lois leant forward and dropped a kiss on her dad’s cheek.

“After our visit, I’m going shopping, Dad. I’ll buy you some new clothes. They want you to start getting out of bed during the day. Do you mind if I get you some bright colours? Perhaps some greens or blues? Or a sweater in fiery red? This place could use a bit of colour. You could brighten it up a bit.”

Lois looked directly into his eyes and smiled. Perhaps he smiled back — not with his mouth, but with his eyes.

“Uncle Mike will be in to see you, soon, Dad,” Lois said. “I’m going to leave now so I can get the shopping done before my shift starts at two o’clock.” She stood, slowly eased from his grasp, and replaced the chair to the corner.

“I love you, Dad,” she said. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Lois kissed him again and then walked out of her dad’s room. She was halfway across the common area when she saw Uncle Mike. He hurried over to her, and she slipped into his embrace.

“How are you, Lois?” he asked as he drew back. His hands stayed on her shoulders, and he examined her face. “What happened?”

“Carelessness,” she replied. “It’s nothing.”

He looked closer for a moment, and then his eyes lifted. “Did you get the meals last night?”

“Yes, thanks,” Lois said, glad the subject of her injured face had been passed over so easily. “My friend loved your cooking. Can we order two meals from now on?”

“What time? Nine-thirty? Or back to six-fifteen?”

“Six o’clock would be wonderful,” Lois said. “Keep the tab, and I’ll come in every Sunday to pay you, and we’ll have lunch together.”

Uncle Mike beamed. “Aw, Lois love, it’ll be great to see you regularly.” His hand lifted from her shoulder and pointed at her. “It’s a date. Sunday lunch. Every week. My place.”

Lois smiled. “Thanks, Uncle Mike. It was lovely to see you.”

“We’ll catch up properly, tomorrow.”

She nodded, gave him a kiss, and walked out of the nursing home — and for the first time, it didn’t feel like she was running away.

Part 4

Lois stared numbly at the endless assortment of male underwear. How could there be so many variations on what surely had to be a standard article of clothing?

And that was before she even got to size.

Or colour.

She’d already chosen two sweatsuits — one green, one blue — for her dad. They had been easy. She’d bought clothing for him before … birthday presents, Christmas presents … enough to know his size and have some idea of his taste.

But even as she’d been looking at the sweatsuits, she hadn’t been able to dismiss another idea from her mind.

A ridiculous idea.

An unrelenting idea.

She’d been heading determinedly to the checkout. She had been. Then she’d noticed the rows of boxers and briefs and hadn’t been able to stop herself from looking.

There was no harm in looking, right?

As she stared at the jumble of choices, the idea continued to bubble away with exasperating insistency.

It was a stupid idea that deserved to be swept away without consideration.

And yet …

She’d given Mr Kent food.

And chocolate — although she’d made a pact with herself not to think about that.

He had one pair of shorts. She remembered this morning when she’d looked into the cell and caught him washing his shorts. Had he put them on again while they were still wet?

That would not be comfortable.

It didn’t have to be extravagant.

A pair of briefs, a tee shirt, a pair of shorts. That was all that would be required.

The temperature had been quite mild in the cell when she’d been in there. At least, she hadn’t noticed that it was particularly cold.

She could always get a sweater later — when winter was more established.

The briefs came in packets of two.

She had never bought male briefs before. Working around the world as an agent just wasn’t conducive to a relationship developing to the point of buying intimate apparel for each other.

What size?

30?

40?

Somewhere in between?

A young man — probably in his early twenties — walked into the aisle and began perusing the rows of briefs. Would he think she was ogling the half-naked male bodies on the packaging?

Lois snatched at a packet of size 34-36 — one pair blue, one pair red — hid it under her dad’s sweat pants, and scurried away.

A tee shirt. That should be easier.

She found a long row of plain tee shirts and picked one from the rack. It was navy blue and looked about right for his size. She checked the label. Large.

That would do.

Shorts.

She found a pair of black shorts that looked like lopped-off cargo pants. She held them up and tried to visualise Mr Kent’s hips. These should fit.

Maybe.

If they were too small, she could return them to the store.

If they were too big, she could buy him a belt.

Feeling satisfied — if not with her purchases, then at least with having overcome her indecision — Lois went to the checkout. On her way through the department store, she noticed a box of cute stress balls. They were shaped like rounded dogs — with a squished-in bulldog face that was so ugly Lois had to chuckle.

On impulse, she picked one up and decided she would buy it for her dad. She was sure they would have things like this for him to use when he went to the therapy sessions, but maybe the dog could make his room a little cheerier. Perhaps he could squeeze it with his good hand.

As Lois waited at the checkout, she realised exactly how much she dreaded the cashier asking about the clothes.

Surely, other women bought male clothes. Surely, wives bought male underwear.

But she wasn’t wearing a ring.

If the cashier said anything, Lois would say they were for her brother.

Did sisters buy their brothers’ underwear? She gulped. Probably not.

It was her turn to be served before she’d come up with an adequate excuse.

The young cashier giggled.

Lois felt herself begin to blush.

“Awww, that doggy is so cute,” the girl said.

Lois manufactured a nervous smile.

“I love dogs,” the cashier continued. She processed all the articles of clothing while telling Lois about the dog she’d owned as a child. She kept the stress ball until last. “I’m going to have to get one of these.”

Lois smiled again and paid.

Then, she gathered up her bags and escaped from the store.

That hadn’t been too hard.

***

He stared glumly at the ham and cheese sandwich.

He should be grateful.

He was grateful.

Just a few days ago, a ham and cheese sandwich would have been beyond his dreams.

But she hadn’t given it to him.

She hadn’t given him breakfast.

He didn’t mind that.

He was in no position to ask for food, let alone dictate who gave it to him.

But since she had put the note in the prison last night telling him that she was fine, he hadn’t seen her.

That was OK.

What scared him … petrified him … depressed him … was the possibility that she was gone. Forever.

They were still feeding him.

If she had left, perhaps her legacy would be that he would receive food. Given enough water to drink and still have some for washing. Not be bashed with the poison rods.

The soap and toothpaste she had given him would last a few weeks. Perhaps longer if he used them sparingly.

Food … water … That was more than he would have dared to hope for just a few days ago.

But now …

Now he felt as if the most precious thing in his life had been ripped away.

Had her nightmare been about him?

Had contact with him freaked her out completely?

He’d tried so hard not to scare her.

He was being stupid. Allowing himself to mope over something so far outside of his control was stupid.

Perhaps it was her day off.

She probably hadn’t given him another thought.

She was probably off with her friends, her family, her husband, her children, having a great time and not expending one thought on the alien being she was paid to keep locked away.

He had no rights.

Certainly, he had no say in who pushed the food through the door of the prison.

Perhaps she would be back tomorrow.

He finished his sandwich and swilled it down with the water from the bottle.

Then — because he needed something to keep his mind from descending into a dark slush of dejection — he spread out the strips of newspaper that he’d previously tidied and began putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

It was something to do.

But it didn’t dislodge the beautiful woman from his thoughts.

Nor did it soothe the ache in his heart.

***

Lois stared at the little pile of clothes on her desk.

Buying them — she’d now discovered — had been the easy bit.

She had returned to the compound and held the rod as Shadbolt had pushed the bag containing the sandwich into the cell.

If he wondered at her sudden desire to avoid any contact with the prisoner, he hadn’t voiced his questions.

The details of the way forward were becoming clearer in her mind.

All of her interaction with Mr Kent would happen during the eight hours of her shift — the time when they would be alone. Whenever someone else was here, she would be the aloof, professional boss.

But that left her with two problems.

She could easily hide her contact with Mr Kent. Much more difficult would be hiding the results of that contact.

Shadbolt and Longford couldn’t see into the cell unless they opened the door. Fortunately, their concerns about the possible dangers posed by the alien meant that they were unlikely to linger when the door was open.

However, when pushing the food or washing bowl into the cell, they would check on him. And some changes were going to be obvious.

If she gave him the clothes, should she ask him to change back into the tattered shorts whenever Shadbolt or Longford opened the door to deliver his breakfast or lunch?

It had been less than a week but already, Lois had already begun to notice changes in his physique. He wasn’t so gaunt. His skin was smoother. His lips were no longer crusty and dry. He walked with more energy. His shoulders were straighter.

He was clean.

Those changes couldn’t be concealed.

However, food and water were just the beginning of the ever-growing list of ideas that were flourishing like daisies in her mind.

Things to make the cell seem less like a prison — a mattress, a pillow, blankets, a chair, a small table.

Things to bridge the yawning chasm between him and the rest of the world — newspapers, a clock, a calendar, perhaps even a radio.

Things to give him back a small scrap of self-worth — a haircut, socks and shoes, the means to shave if he wished to, scissors so he could cut his nails instead of having to bite them off.

If she implemented those changes very gradually, perhaps Shadbolt and Longford would accept them without threatening a mutiny. After what had happened with Moyne, she couldn’t risk them running to Scardino claiming she was putting their lives at unnecessary risk.

The second problem was deciding what level of interaction was appropriate between her and Mr Kent?

Giving him chocolate had been a mistake.

Her impulsive action now seemed overly … intimate.

She wouldn’t do it again.

Except … she couldn’t push away the lingering feeling of how much she had enjoyed witnessing his pleasure.

He had suffered so much. He had been abused and neglected to such a degree that she couldn’t comprehend how he hadn’t died. Not only was he alive, but he had also shown a remarkable ability to recover. And not just physically — his body was no longer marked with any mementos of Moyne’s brutality — but in every other way.

In fact, she was in awe of his emotional resilience.

The thing that shocked her most was that he seemed to have accepted her without prejudice. He hadn’t automatically assumed she was another despot who had come to inflict further pain and suffering.

When he looked at her, it wasn’t with hatred but with cautious curiosity.

And, startlingly quickly, he seemed to have come to trust her.

Was it really trust? Or was trust easy when, realistically, he didn’t have anything to lose? How could he show a lack of trust?

Refuse to eat the food that had been supplied?

That was possible but, in the circumstances, highly impractical.

Refuse to approach the door for fear of what might lurk behind it?

Again, possible, but it would hurt him the most.

He seemed to have accepted that the reason for putting his food and water near the door was not about luring him into a trap but limiting his exposure to the rods.

He had stopped turning away whenever the door opened.

Was he being deliberately non-threatening because he wanted her to trust him? Because he had a plan? Either to kill her — as Moyne had suggested — or to somehow lead, or be involved in, a coup aimed at world dominion?

She didn’t believe that.

The epiphany rocketed through her, wringing the breath from her lungs.

She didn’t believe that his intentions were for evil.

She didn’t.

She just didn’t.

Her gut said he wouldn’t hurt her.

Her gut said he wasn’t evil.

Her gut said he had done nothing wrong.

And this time … this time … she would listen.

Lois released a long groan of frustration.

Knowing what she believed was only the first step.

What should she do now?

She couldn’t go to Scardino and demand justice on Mr Kent’s behalf.

If she did, she would be shipped off to another assignment so fast she wouldn’t have the time to push a final cup of tea into the cell.

That brought another pressing consideration into this chaotic mess.

She couldn’t stay here forever.

Eventually, she would feel strong enough to end her sabbatical and return to the field.

What would happen to Mr Kent then?

For his sake, she had to be circumspect in her association with him because when she moved on, he would still be the supposedly evil alien they believed had killed two men.

Perhaps that would be the time — knowing that she was leaving — for her to confront the higher-ups and demand justice.

With a sigh of exasperation, Lois stood from her chair and looked at the clock on the back wall. It was nearly three o’clock. Shadbolt had gone home … and Longford wouldn’t be here for another seven hours.

She was alone with Mr Kent.

On her desk — next to the small pile of clothes — was today’s edition of The Daily Planet. She’d bought it this morning but had chosen to give him nothing except the sandwich and a bottle of water when she and Shadbolt had unlocked the cell door earlier.

She looked through the window.

Mr Kent was sitting — listlessly — against the back wall. He’d meticulously arranged the torn strips of newspaper back together.

He’d done it without much enthusiasm, though.

Why had he done it?

Surely, his proclivity for neatness didn’t extend to -

Lois groaned as comprehension rolled through her brain. He was bored.

Of all the things he had suffered under Trask, boredom had probably been the least of them.

Now that he wasn’t fighting hunger, or thirst, or injuries, or exposure to the rods, time hung heavily.

What was he going to do?

For that matter, Lois wasn’t sure how she intended to fill the next seven hours.

But she could start with giving him the newspaper — and a notepad and pen.

The pen would enable him to do the crossword puzzle in the paper if he so desired. It would allow him to write … draw … it would open up possibilities to occupy his time.

Lois picked up the pen and paused.

Last time, she had given him a crayon — because a crayon couldn’t be used as a weapon.

A pen could be used to stab … but … he wouldn’t do it.

She was sure he wouldn’t do it.

And she was tired of jumping at every possible shadow.

She picked up the newspaper and the notepad, lingered for a moment at the door as she looked at the rods, and then continued down the stairs without one.

She unlocked the door.

She pushed it open.

She crouched low and looked around the doorjamb.

He hadn’t moved from the back wall, but he was looking directly at her.

She put the newspaper on the floor, and added the pen and the notebook.

Lois lifted her head, and her gaze scooted across the yards of concrete that separated them and locked on him.

She stood. She waited, watching him, her hands on the doorjamb, one foot just inside the cell, the other in the staffroom.

Mr Kent didn’t move for what seemed like a long time.

Then, his hand flattened against the wall, and he rose slowly to his feet.

He made no move towards her.

What would he do if she stepped into the cell?

Lois shuffled back and leant against the open door. She ran her hand down the edge of it. As she had expected, there was neither a lock nor a handle on his side of the door. If she stepped in, she would have to leave the door open.

She definitely couldn’t risk it locking behind her.

She couldn’t go in. The rods were upstairs in her office.

She would be defenceless.

But he wouldn’t hurt her.

She was sure he wouldn’t hurt her.

Her mouth had gone dry.

Her heart was racing.

She raised her hand in farewell and retreated into the staffroom.

She closed the door, locked it, and hurried up the stairs, noting that the pain in her ankle had diminished to an occasional twinge.

In her office, she went to the window.

Mr Kent had picked up the things she had left at the door and was returning to his place against the wall.

He carefully placed the newspaper on the floor, sat down, rested the notepad against his raised thigh, and began to write.

Above him, Lois watched.

A minute later, he stood, took the pen and notepad to the door, and left them on the floor. Then he returned to the wall, sat down, and picked up the newspaper.

Lois descended the stairs, unlocked the cell door, and opened it. She gathered the pen and paper, and looked up at Mr Kent.

He was watching her, as she knew he would be.

She wrested her eyes from him and looked at the top sheet of the notepad. It read, Thank you for everything you have done for me.

The word ‘everything’ was underlined twice.

His handwriting was neat and flowing.

She could almost imagine his voice … saying these words.

Thank you for everything you have done for me.

Would his voice be gentle? Deep? Melodious? Somehow, she couldn’t imagine it being harsh or cold.

Would he look at her with those expressive brown eyes as he said the words?

Why didn’t he speak?

Had Trask and Moyne done something to ensure that Mr Kent would never speak again? To guarantee that he could never tell of their atrocities?

Lois stared at Mr Kent, wondering so many things.

Was he hoping she would respond to his note? After the years of not being able to communicate, did he shrink from it? Or welcome it?

She wrote, Keep the pen and notepad.

It was formal and cautious. It allowed for the possibility of further communication, but without assuming he would want to.

Lois put them on the floor, waved to him, waited for the response she knew would come, and then shut and locked the door.

Back in her office, the pile of clothes seemed like an affront to her indecision. She turned away from it and watched Mr Kent instead.

He had retrieved the notepad and pen and was back in his place, reading the paper. The pad and pen were on the floor next to him.

Did he understand the need to take this slowly?

Was he — just as she was — hesitant about what to say? What to admit? What to ask?

Lois checked the time. It was twenty past three.

What was she going to do to in the hours that stretched ahead?

She wasn’t prepared at all.

Now she understood why Trask had filled his office with books and crossword puzzles.

Her glance fell to the boxes shoved in a rather haphazard pile in the corner. Two of the boxes held Trask’s possessions, and the other three held his notes and research.

Should she try to read the notes again? Should she search for any information that might give her answers to her many questions?

She turned to Mr Kent.

And then back to the boxes.

Reading Trask’s notes seemed like an act of treachery.

She knew that they contained inaccuracies. She suspected that some of his reports were blatant lies.

If she wanted information about Mr Kent, shouldn’t she ask him?

In doing that, she risked being given the opposite — yet possibly equally unbalanced — view of what had happened.

But she trusted Mr Kent more than she trusted Trask.

She hadn’t spoken one word to Mr Kent. She had exchanged only a few notes. Yet her gut said he was likely to give her the truth than Trask.

If she wanted information, she would ask Mr Kent.

Should she simply write out a list of questions and put them in his cell? How would he respond if she did that?

Would he answer her openly? Or would it overwhelm him?

There was another possibility …

A possibility that played around her mind like a wilful child.

A possibility that she knew she should reject without further thought.

And she had rejected it. Repeatedly. And — like a child’s swing — it kept coming back.

The harder she pushed it away, the more forcefully it came back.

She could go into the cell.

She could open the door.

Walk in.

Walk right up to him.

And say, “Hello, Mr Kent.”

How would he react?

She was sure he wouldn’t hurt her.

She was almost sure he wouldn’t try to escape.

But, beyond that, she couldn’t settle on the most likely scenario.

Would he speak?

Would he cower into the corner?

Would he try to gesture to her?

The notepad and pen were in his cell. If he didn’t seem able to respond verbally, she could put them in his hand and suggest he write something.

Would he be scared of her?

She knew her heart would be pounding almost to the point of exploding in her chest.

Who would be the most apprehensive?

Him?

Or her?

It might just be dead even.

Should she do it?

When?

Perhaps more notes first?

But what?

Should she tell him something?

Or ask him something?

The notepad still lay next to him.

Was there a reason why he hadn’t written anything else?

Was it just that he didn’t know what to say either?

Lois took another notepad from the desk drawer and wrote two words:

Tea

Coffee

Next to each of the words, she drew a little box.

Then, underneath, she wrote:

Milk

Sugar

And two more accompanying boxes.

Then she paused.

Was this too much like he was the patron in a restaurant? Or was this just making simple adjustments that would cost her nothing and might mean a lot to him?

She’d do it. If only because then she wouldn’t have to think of something else to write.

She ripped the paper from the pad, hurried down the stairs, opened the door, took half a step over the threshold, and bent low to put the paper on the concrete.

From nowhere, an idea washed over her like a breaking wave.

It rekindled a spark of youthful vitality that she’d thought had gone forever.

And engulfed her with playfulness. Frivolity.

It was powerfully persuasive … and Lois found that she didn’t want to resist.

She lifted her hand, palm towards Mr Kent, in a gesture that she hoped he would take as, ‘Be back in a minute,’ and went into the staffroom. She shut the door, but didn’t bother locking it.

She put the piece of paper on the table and quickly folded it into a paper airplane.

This was ridiculous.

But, ridiculous or not, she suddenly couldn’t stop grinning like a cheeky schoolkid planning a silly prank.

She hadn’t felt this alive since the last time she and Linda had laughed together.

Lois straightened her face and pushed the door open.

Mr Kent was still sitting, but he’d removed the newspaper from his lap and had picked up the pen and notepad.

Lois lifted her right arm — loaded with the paper plane — paused long enough that a sudden missile invading his cell wouldn’t startle him, and then thrust the plane forward.

It glided, dived, and landed about three feet short of where Mr Kent was sitting. He stared at it — his eyebrows lost in the tangle of his hair. He needed a few seconds to recover, and Lois had to restrain the giggles that were threatening to explode. Finally, he looked from the airplane to her. He pointed at it with a long forefinger, and Lois nodded.

Mr Kent rose from the concrete and took two slow steps towards the paper plane. After he’d picked it up, he retreated to the wall, unfolded it, and read it.

He picked up the pen and wrote more than the expected couple of checks. Then he slipped the pen into his pocket and faced her, poised like a spear thrower.

He lobbed the plane forward. It glided in a perfect arc and executed a smooth landing at her feet.

Lois looked up to him and gave a slight grin of surprise and delight.

She picked up the plane and unfolded it.

He hadn’t checked her little squares, but he had written, Either. Tea — milk, no sugar. Coffee — milk, 2 sugars. Thank you.

She took two steps into the staffroom, picked up the pen from the table, and wrote, I’m having coffee. Suit you?

She quickly refolded the creases and moved into the cell.

Mr Kent hadn’t moved.

She energetically launched the paper jet, hoping to match his effort. It barely lifted above head height and then suddenly nosedived with a spectacular lack of grace. It came to rest on the concrete, its front portion crumbled like a concertina.

It had split the distance between them.

What now?

Lois looked at Mr Kent.

He looked at her.

Did she move further into the cell?

Or did he move towards the door?

Neither.

He retreated … into the far corner of the room.

He slid down the wall and sat.

Lois’s legs felt like hardened concrete. Her heart was pulsating in her eardrums. Her lungs couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen.

Did she walk into the cell?

Or did she walk away?

If she walked away, the message would be clear: I don’t trust you.

If she walked forward, she would be putting herself into a perilously vulnerable situation.

A situation so vulnerable that death was a possibility.

Deller and Bortolotto had died horrible deaths in this cell.

But the man she believed had killed them wasn’t here.

Trust your gut, Lane.

Linda’s voice echoed through her mind.

Lois pushed the door all the way open and took half a dozen shaky steps forward. She kept her eyes on Mr Kent. He didn’t move. She picked up the plane, hurled it towards him, and then backed steadily towards the door, fighting the impulse to turn and run.

He didn’t move until she had reached the haven of the doorway.

Then he stood, picked up the plane, and read her message.

He turned over the paper and wrote a few words.

He refolded it, carefully straightening the damaged cockpit, and launched it.

Again, it landed within inches of her feet.

He was good at this!

Lois picked it up. His message read, Perfectly. Thank you.

Her pounding heart needed a reprieve. She dropped the plane to the ground and hurried into the staffroom. Once the door was shut, she leant against it, her head flopped back. Every muscle in her body was strained to rigid tightness.

She’d been into the cell — and walked out unharmed.

He had done nothing more threatening than lob a paper airplane in her direction.

Lois brewed the coffee, poured his, added two sugars, stirred, and put it just inside the cell. Mr Kent waved his appreciation.

She locked the door and went slowly up the stairs with her coffee.

Things had changed.

In just a few minutes, things had changed. They had communicated … but so much more than that had happened. He understood her caution … her lack of trust. He expected it … and that ripped a little hole in her heart.

Why hadn’t he spoken?

Could he speak? She had third-hand information through Shadbolt that Mr Kent had spoken in the early days. Was that true? What if he couldn’t speak? He could read and write. He looked human. But what if his particular kind of alien was mute?

Or had Trask and Moyne done something unthinkable?

She hadn’t spoken either.

Was he wondering about that?

Lois slumped into her chair and sipped at her coffee as her mind spun itself into a dizzying hodgepodge of questions that had no answers.

***

Mr Kent spent the afternoon hours reading the newspaper.

Lois spent the afternoon hours reading one of Trask’s murder mysteries. It didn’t seem right to do one of the crosswords from his books. Reading a book seemed less intrusive.

She had chosen the one that looked least dreary, but it wasn’t able to hold her interest for longer than a few minutes at a time. For reasons that she decided not to examine too closely, watching a man read a newspaper was more riveting than the story in the pages of Trask’s novel.

Tomorrow, she would be better prepared.

She thought she had come prepared today. She glared at the little pile of clothes as they sat in silent condemnation.

Why was she so undecided?

Perhaps she could give him the tee shirt and the shorts but keep the underwear. Would that seem less personal?

She unlocked the closet, shoved the clothes into the shelf under the television, and shut the door with a sharp bang.

A few minutes later, Mr Kent rose from the floor and began to run. For the next half an hour — while he ran, and did push ups, and sit ups, and stretches — Lois managed to read not one word of the book.

It was five-thirty five when he finished. There was just enough time for him to wash up before supper. Lois hesitated over whether she should write him another note.

Eventually, she decided to.

She wrote, I will be in the staffroom until dinner arrives in half an hour. You will have privacy.

She stared at the note. Was it the height of gullibility to alert him to the fact that he wasn’t going to be watched? No — she had warned him that she would be in the staffroom, which shut down any possibility of escape.

Pointedly ignoring the pile of clothes, Lois checked that the camera wasn’t on, went to the staffroom, and filled the bowl with hot water.

She placed it in the cell, put the note next to it, and lingered just long enough to meet his eyes and acknowledge him with a slight wave of her hand.

Lois locked the door and slumped onto a chair as regret rolled over her. This would have been the perfect time to give him the clothes. But she couldn’t do it now. If she went back up to her office, she would be breaking her word to him. He would probably never know, but it seemed important that if she promised him something, she didn’t renege.

And if she tried to give him the clothes, there was always the chance that she would open the door to the cell and catch him in a compromising position.

She tidied the staffroom — wiped down the table and drainer, washed the few cups that had been left there, and waited for their supper to arrive.

At six o’clock, she exited through the external door, locked it, and went to the sidewalk to wait for Uncle Mike’s delivery boy.

He arrived half a minute later, and she returned with the two meals.

Removing the lid revealed roast beef, roasted potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and beans — all covered in thick gravy.

Lois reached into the tray and picked out a fork and a knife. A small part of her questioned the wisdom of giving an accused killer a knife, but she refused to be swayed.

He needed a knife to cut the beef.

He needed a knife … and he would have a knife.

Lois unlocked the door and pushed it open a few inches. She peeped in and saw the empty bowl next to the doorway. Good — he’d finished.

She placed the meal on the concrete with the knife and fork. There was a note there. She picked it up, took the washing bowl, and glanced up to Mr Kent. He was sitting against the back wall.

She read what he had written. Thank you for giving me privacy. I hope your injuries are recovering well.

Fighting down the lump that had suddenly flared into her throat, Lois gave him a small wave and moved back into the staffroom.

She shut the door, locked it, and picked up the other container.

As she climbed the stairs, Lois made a decision.

If he returned the knife and fork after he’d eaten, she would get them out of the cell, and then she would step in.

She would walk into the cell — without a rod — and she would speak to Mr Kent. Face to face.

Part 5

When Mr Kent had finished eating his supper, he used his bottle of water to rinse the knife and fork and then placed them on top of the container near the door.

As Lois watched him, half of her insides plummeted downwards with nervous apprehension, and the other half surged upwards in excited anticipation.

He’d given back the ‘weapons’. He’d used the knife — for exactly the purpose she had intended — and returned it.

That had been her litmus test. Now, there was nothing to stop her from going into the cell. It was just before seven o’clock. Longford wasn’t due for another three hours.

Should she go into the cell at twenty minutes to ten? That way, if anything did happen, there was a chance that Longford would realise she was in trouble.

Lois quelled that idea almost immediately.

If she didn’t trust Mr Kent, she shouldn’t go into the cell. Period.

If she did, she shouldn’t be thinking about possible means of escape.

She opened the closet and removed the little pile of clothing. She put it in a bag. She took it out of the bag. If she walked into his cell holding a bag, he was going to wonder what was inside it. She would freak out if he approached her holding a bag.

She put the clothes back in the cupboard.

Entering the cell was enough. Once they had negotiated that, it would be easier to give him the clothes.

So … going into the cell.

How exactly was she going to do it?

Unlock the door. Walk in. Walk right up to him.

And then what?

Speak?

OK. Then what?

Well, that would depend on what he did.

Should she take in a cup of tea? Should she give it to him instead of leaving it on the floor?

Lois threw up her hands in frustration.

She didn’t know what to do.

She hadn’t worked alone in such a long time. She really needed her partner right now. This would be so much easier with Linda.

They would discuss it from every angle. They would propose ideas and counter ideas. They would come to a conclusion and implement it together.

Lois pushed aside those thoughts. She worked alone now, and that wasn’t going to change.

What was she going to do about Mr Kent?

She couldn’t imagine doing this job for a considerable length of time and not going into the cell. Much as she had determined to remain detached, this wasn’t a job that could be done from a distance.

But doing it … Actually going into the cell … The first time …

It wouldn’t be the first time — she’d been in there before.

Mr Kent wasn’t going to hurt her.

He wasn’t.

She was sure of it.

Lois leapt from her chair, strode purposefully to the door, and stopped as indecision ensnared her again.

The rods?

Leave them here?

Take one to the staffroom?

She had to lock her office. She was relying on the creak of the external door to alert her if Shadbolt or Longford arrived unexpectedly. However, if one of them came in quietly and realised she was in the cell, she didn’t want them to be able to watch her undetected from the window in her office.

But if she locked the rods in her office, she would be completely without any means of defence.

“Aggghhhhh.” Lois’s exasperation erupted into a long groan.

She took one rod out of her office. She placed it at the top of the stairs and then locked her door.

She went down the stairs, her heart thumping so loudly that it reverberated through her brain cells.

She went into the staffroom.

Pushed the key into the cell door.

Turned it.

Pressed -

From behind her, the external door creaked loudly into the stillness.

She frantically pulled the door shut, thrust the keys into her pocket, and scuttled to the sink.

The footsteps approached, and Lois spun around, knowing that if she looked one quarter as startled as she felt, she deserved to face a firing squad of questions.

It was Longford.

“L …Longford,” she said.

He smiled guardedly as he put a pillow and duvet on the bed that was tucked under the stairwell. “My mother thought it was very nice of you to do my shift last night. She said I should come in early and do a few extra hours.” He shrugged. “And as I intend to sleep, I didn’t mind.”

“Ah … thanks,” Lois said. “I … ah … I was just about to make myself coffee.”

“You can go if you want to.”

Lois was pretty sure that Longford wanted her to leave so he could settle into the bed and sleep away his shift. “OK,” she said. “Thanks.”

She left the staffroom and ducked into her office to activate the camera. She was confident that Longford’s plans for the night hours included nothing that required more energy than slumber, so she set the tape to begin recording at six the next morning. Then she locked the closet — with Mr Kent’s clothes safely inside — locked her office, picked up the rod, and went down the stairs.

Longford was making the bed.

“Longford,” Lois said as she put the rod in the closet. “Are you aware that there is a camera in my office that records everything that happens in the cell during my absence?”

He straightened from the bed, and his eyebrows rolled together. “A camera?”

Lois nodded. “Trask set it up.”

“Oh,” he said slowly. “Ah … no … I didn’t know that.”

“I don’t want you to go into the cell without calling me first,” Lois said in a calm, cool tone. “If you do, I will know, and I will have you removed from the operation.”

He nodded vigorously. “I understand.”

“When Shadbolt gets here at six o’clock tomorrow morning, you can give the prisoner the bagel that is in that container.” Lois pointed to the shelf above the fridge. “If you wish to include a cup of coffee you can. If you don’t want to, that’s all right.”

“OK.”

“One of you must hold the rod while the other puts the food into the cell.” She took one of the cell keys from her bag and put it on the table. “That key is not to be taken from the premises.”

Longford nodded again. “How long has Trask had the camera?”

“I don’t know.”

“But it’s possible he had it when those men were killed?”

“Yeah,” Lois said. “It’s possible.”

Longford said no more.

“Good night,” Lois said. “Remember, other than for breakfast, the cell door isn’t to be opened without my prior authorisation.”

“Yes, Ms Lane,” Longford said. “Goodnight.”

She turned from the staffroom and left the compound — feeling oddly like she was abandoning a friend.

***

He’d heard the click of the lock and had been anticipating the door opening and the woman appearing.

Would she have another message for him? Another plane?

A lot of shocks had come through that door, but a woman brandishing a paper airplane probably topped them all.

In terms of shock factor, maybe not.

In terms of making him want to smile, it was unequalled.

He remembered the last time he had smiled.

It was when this same woman had given him candy.

Before that, he doubted he had smiled in over seven years.

She had walked in, her arm lifted high above her head and a look on her face that said she knew this a crazy thing to do, but she was going to do it anyway.

He shook his head and touched his fingers to his mouth.

Yep, he was smiling.

It felt strange. Like entering a room that had been shut off for a long time.

When the lock had clicked, he’d thought she was coming in again.

But then, the door had shut abruptly.

He’d managed to turn up his hearing enough that he’d heard voices — nothing distinct — but voices. Someone else had arrived.

He picked up the now dilapidated plane and ran his fingers along its wings. He unfolded it and relived their ‘conversation’.

Her handwriting was large and loopy — as if her habit was to write quickly.

He knew she wouldn’t come into his cell now.

But he had hope that she would come back tomorrow.

And that meant everything.

***

~~ Sunday ~~

Lois had gone to bed early.

She’d fallen asleep easily … thinking about paper airplanes.

She’d awoken feeling refreshed and ready for whatever the day would bring.

Her first thought had been the compound … and whether Shadbolt and Longford had gotten the breakfast into the cell without incident.

After showering, she paused over her choice of clothes. Eventually, she decided on her dressiest jeans, a plain white tee shirt, and a red sweater.

She spent twenty minutes searching through the boxes that she’d had no inclination to unpack since she’d moved into her apartment three weeks ago. She found two novels she had been meaning to read. She found an unopened jigsaw puzzle that Lucy had given her for Christmas five years ago. And, after a lot of rummaging, she pounced on the tennis racquet she had last used when she was in college. She thought she had kept it. She even found a tennis ball — it was a bit worn in places and slightly flat, but it would work just fine.

She put her dad’s new sweatsuits into a bag and loaded everything into her Jeep. She placed the doggy stress ball in the passenger seat and drove to the nursing home.

“Ms Lane,” Veronica greeted as Lois walked into the common area.

“Good morning, Veronica,” Lois replied. The brightness in her voice sounded strange in her own ears. The nurse, however, didn’t seem to notice anything awry.

Her smile was reminiscent of sunshine after a storm. “Call me ‘Ronny’,” she said.

“I got Dad some casual clothes,” Lois said.

Ronny’s face lit with excitement. “That’s wonderful,” she said. She moved closer and lowered her voice. “I forgot to mention it, but did you remember to put his name on them?”

Lois shook her head. It hadn’t occurred to her that it would be needed.

Ronny patted her shoulder. “It’s OK. I have a permanent marker that will do the trick.”

“Do you want me to take them home and label them?” Lois asked.

“No,” Ronny said. “But if you can remember next time, that would be really helpful. It’s my fault. I forgot to tell you.”

“I wasn’t in Metropolis when Dad moved in here,” Lois said. “I missed all those little details.”

Ronny smiled. “It’s easily fixed. But it would be awful if Sam’s lovely new clothes went to the laundry and got lost, wouldn’t it?”

Lois nodded.

“Your dad is still in bed,” Ronny said. “He’s had breakfast, and I’ll be in there in about thirty minutes to get him up.”

“I’ll go and talk to him,” Lois said.

Ronny gave her another motherly pat on the arm and turned to talk to a resident.

Lois took the bag into her dad’s bedroom.

After greeting him with a kiss, she took the sweatsuits from the bag and held them up for him to see. There was no noticeable response to the first one, but she continued with the second undaunted. Her dad had never had much interest in clothes.

Lastly, she took the little dog from the bag and showed him it as she sat next to his bed. “Look at this, Dad,” she said. “Isn’t he cute?”

His eyes moved slowly from her face to the dog. Lois took his good hand and laid it flat on the bed, palm up. She placed the dog in his hand and helped his fingers curl around it.

“Squeeze, Dad,” she encouraged. “It will help keep the muscles in your hand and arm strong.”

His hand didn’t move, so Lois moved her attention from the stress ball to her father’s face. “How are you, Dad? Ronny told me you’re getting up today. That’s exciting. Being in bed all day is so demoralising. And today, you have some new clothes to wear. Tell you what. I’ll come a bit later tomorrow so I’ll be able to see you in your new gear.”

Lois ran her fingertips along his lower arm and tried to imagine what question he would ask if he could.

“Work’s going well, thanks, Dad,” she said. She smiled. “You’ll never guess what we did yesterday. I made a paper airplane — you know, just the way you taught me. We flew it from one side of the room to the other. It worked really well for a few flights, and then it crashed … wheeeeeeee …” She demonstrated the plane’s demise with her hand. “… nose-first into the floor. It looked a bit crumpled after that, but that man I told you about — the one from the place far away — he still managed to make it fly well. He probably knows a lot about things that fly.”

Her words stopped as ideas zipped through her mind. Mr Kent had shown extraordinary skill with the paper plane. Had it been luck? Or did he really have knowledge of air … spacecraft?

Lois pushed away what was just another question without an answer and continued chatting. “Anyway Dad, I’m going to Uncle Mike’s for lunch today. Ronny didn’t say if he’d been in to see you yet. He probably has — I know he comes early. After lunch, I’ll be going to work. Maybe we’ll fly paper planes again, although I don’t think so, because I have other plans for today — something I wanted to do yesterday.”

Her gaze drifted from her dad’s face to his hand. His fingers were tightly clasping the stress ball. She eased them away. “That’s great, Dad,” she said. “Now, squeeze again.”

His fingers curled around the ball.

Lois smiled. It was such a tiny step forward, but it felt so significant. The ball was in his right hand — which wasn’t paralysed — but she felt as if they had achieved something together.

“Let go, Dad,” she said.

His fingers straightened.

“Squeeze, Dad.”

His fingers closed around the dog.

Lois stood and gently folded her arms around his shoulders. “That’s great, Dad.” She withdrew and looked into his face. “I know it doesn’t seem like much,” she said. “But we have to start somewhere, and this is fantastic. I’m so proud of you.”

She touched her nose against his and then kissed his cheek.

Tears were pushing up into her eyes. Lois wasn’t sure if they were happy tears because of the progress or sad tears because she’d gotten so excited over such a miniscule event. She didn’t want to end today’s visit with tears, so she kissed her dad again. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she promised. She replaced the chair against the wall. “I love you, Dad. Keep squeezing that dog.”

She left his room, unable to hold back her tears any longer.

***

Lunch with Uncle Mike buoyed Lois’s spirits. They ate together next to a wide sunlit window. The food was great — Lois had ordered the lasagne with a creamy tomato sauce. Uncle Mike was upbeat about Sam, believing that his brother had made definite progress during the past week.

Lois asked for a serving of lasagne to take away and couldn’t help thinking ahead when she accepted the container from Uncle Mike and paid her tab.

She gave him a big hug and then left for Bessolo Boulevard.

As she let herself into the compound, Lois felt a strange assortment of emotions. There was some nervousness — she was going to meet Mr Kent today. The nervousness was blended with a touch of anxiety. She hadn’t heard anything from either Longford or Shadbolt and had managed — with considerable difficulty — to refrain from calling them. She hoped everything had gone smoothly in her absence.

But mostly, she felt confident.

Good.

Assured.

She had been through the vacillation yesterday and had no intention of repeating it today.

She was going into Mr Kent’s cell.

Her gut said it was the right thing to do.

Lois entered the compound. “Hi, Shadbolt,” she called, hoping to deter him from coming to investigate the sound of her entering.

She took her bag — with the racquet handle sticking out rather obviously — up to her office and shut the door behind her. Mr Kent was sitting against the back wall. He had folded The Daily Planet over his knees and, pen in hand, looked to be doing the crossword puzzle.

She glanced around the cell — everything seemed to be exactly as it should be.

Lois went down to the staffroom, carrying the takeout container of lasagne and a bottle of water. “Is everything OK?” she asked as she went to the closet and took out the rod.

Shadbolt stood from the table. “Yep.”

Lois added a fork to the top of the container lid and handed it to Shadbolt. He eyed it doubtfully, but made no comment. She unlocked the door and stood back for Shadbolt to deposit the meal and water in the cell.

It was done quickly and efficiently.

Lois put the rod in the closet. “Any problems during your shift?” she asked as she went to the coffee machine.

“No,” Shadbolt said. “We gave him the bagel at six. He stayed on the far side of the cage.”

Lois managed a tight smile. “Good,” she said. “You can leave now if you want to.”

“It’s not even half past one yet,” Shadbolt said.

Lois shrugged. “Whatever. I’m here. It doesn’t need two of us.” She poured milk into her coffee and headed for the stairs. “See you tomorrow.”

She went into the office.

Five minutes later, she heard Shadbolt leave.

Lois took a deep breath. As soon as Mr Kent had finished his lunch, she was going into his cell.

***

He ate the meal, knowing it was delicious but barely tasting it.

She was back.

He was sure he’d heard her voice just before Shadbolt had opened the door and put the lunch on the floor.

She was here.

Shadbolt would go soon.

Then, maybe, she would come in and put a message on the floor. If she didn’t, he would wait awhile, and then he would put a piece of paper near the door. She would see him do it. If Shadbolt was gone, she might come to collect his message.

He’d already made a new plane. Just in case.

***

While Mr Kent ate his lunch, Lois skimmed the tape from the morning.

He did the usual things. It started with breakfast — they didn’t give him coffee, but he got the bagel — and then he washed with the water in the bowl that Shadbolt and Longford had provided. When Mr Kent started washing, Lois stopped the tape and forwarded it without watching.

Once it had whirred through half an hour, she hit ‘play’ again and continued fast forwarding. He did the usual things — stretching, push ups, reading the paper. Then …

She slowed the tape to normal speed.

She watched as Mr Kent tore a piece of paper from the notepad and carefully folded an elaborate version of a paper airplane.

Once it was done, he spent half a minute gazing at it, and then he hid it under one of the old newspapers.

Lois continued to the end of the tape. Nothing of note happened.

She rewound it to the beginning and turned off the television.

Mr Kent had finished his lunch. He brushed his teeth and used water from his bottle to wash his face and hands. He even tried to finger-comb his hair but gave up when it became apparent that he was achieving very little.

It was almost as if he were preparing for company.

He couldn’t be expecting her … surely.

Once he’d finished his ‘preparations’, he went to his place against the back wall and continued with the crossword puzzle.

Lois filled her lungs and slowly released the air.

She felt good.

Ready.

“Let’s do it, King,” she muttered as she locked her office door. When she reached the bottom the stairs, she checked that the external door was locked.

She went to the cell door and slipped the key into the lock.

She was sure about this.

And it felt so very good to be sure. Confident. Decisive. Strong.

She turned the key, pushed the door open and dragged a chair into the doorway.

When the door had been secured by the chair, Lois looked across the cell.

Mr Kent was watching her.

Their eyes collided.

The newspaper slid from his lap, unnoticed.

Lois stood still, her heart exploding, and her breath coming in short jabs.

She took a step. Then another one. And another.

Mr Kent hadn’t moved — not as much as a fingertip. His eyes were wide and fixated on her.

She reached the middle of the cell. About where the plane had crash-landed.

She saw him swallow and, without meaning to, she copied his action.

It had little effect. Her mouth felt as if she sucked in a sand dune.

Lois took another step. She estimated that she had four more to go.

Three.

Two.

One.

She stopped a few inches from his feet. He was looking up at her, his eyes dark, his shoulders rigid, his forearms flexed, his knuckles gnarled, his face — what she could see under the beard — a frozen mask.

He wasn’t smiling.

He looked stunned. As if he couldn’t believe she was here.

Lois wasn’t sure she believed it either.

She took a craggy breath.

She swallowed.

Opened her mouth.

“I’m Lois,” she said.

He blinked a couple of times. He swallowed again — rough and scratchy — and hauled in a quivery breath.

“I’m Clark,” he said.

Part 6

Clark.

Clark Kent.

Lois stared at Clark.

He stared at her.

Was he doing the same thing she was? Rolling her name around his brain and fitting it with the person who — until now — had been unidentified?

Actually, ‘Clark’ was perfect.

Clark.

Strong … yet gentle.

His eyes were ‘Clark’ eyes.

His hands were ‘Clark’ hands.

Clark.

The silence was becoming awkward. Looking down on him wasn’t comfortable either.

“Would you like to stand up?” Lois asked hesitantly.

He rose to his feet in a lithe movement. Once he was standing, however, all his fluency dropped away. His hands hung by his side as if he didn’t know where to put them. His eyes rested on her but seemed poised to rear away if she did anything unexpected.

His height surprised her. She had assumed that his gauntness made him look taller. She hadn’t expected him to be four or five inches taller than she was.

He was significantly broader as well. His shoulders were wide, and his chest — what wasn’t hidden by the long beard — spoke of the potential for power.

For his age, he was in good condition. If she factored in all the neglect and abuse he had suffered, his physique was incredible.

In difference circumstances, he could have been anything.

He appeared to be scrutinising her just as closely as she was scrutinising him.

Was what Moyne had said true? That Clark hadn’t seen a woman in seven years? It seemed likely.

This felt awkward for her. How much more must it be for him?

Someone had to speak.

He was waiting for her. That was understandable. She had come to him. She had come into his place. She had initiated this.

Her inclination was to ask questions. Hundreds of questions, all fired at him with breath-taking swiftness.

But she couldn’t do that to him.

If their positions were reversed, what would he say to her?

He would ask if she were OK. He’d torn up strips of paper to ask exactly that when he’d heard her screaming during the night.

“Are you all right?” Lois asked.

His head jolted slightly.

“Does it hurt you to talk?”

“Not m…much.”

His voice was scratchy. Jagged. It reminded her of a piece of machinery being coaxed back into operation after years of rusted immobility.

The questions were going to have to wait.

If he had felt able to talk freely, what would he ask?

The answer was obvious.

“I’ve made inquiries about your parents,” Lois said gently.

His eyes widened; he was preparing himself to face the worst of news.

“I haven’t heard anything yet,” she said. “It might take some time.”

He nodded with acceptance, and Lois felt an almost overwhelming need to reach out and touch him. To lightly run her palm down his upper arm.

“As soon as I know anything, I’ll tell you.”

“Thank you.”

What else would he ask?

“Trask is gone,” Lois said. “He won’t be coming back.”

His reaction was remarkably subdued. Perhaps he’d already concluded that. Or perhaps he was not a man to exhibit his hatred openly.

“Moyne has gone.”

“You … you said that … in the note.”

The notes. That reminded Lois of something. “Do you still have the notes that we wrote to each other?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Where are they?”

“In my pocket.”

“Would you mind giving them to me, please?”

Something flickered in his eyes. It could have been disappointment. He didn’t say anything, but pushed his right hand into his shorts pocket and fumbled for a few seconds. As his hand emerged, a small object fell from his pocket and clattered onto the concrete.

His hand froze.

Apprehension set like a granite mask on his face.

Lois tore her eyes away from him and searched the floor. She saw it — a small bullet. Dented at the end. A fired bullet.

It had hit something. What?

She bent low and picked it up. She rolled it between her thumb and fingers and then lifted her eyes to meet his. “Is this the bullet Moyne shot at me?”

Clark nodded.

“Do you know what it hit?”

His eyelids fell shut as if he wished there was a way to avoid her question. When his eyes opened again, he gave her a taut nod.

“Hold out your hands,” Lois requested softly.

Clark put forward both of his hands, palms up. Lois took the notes and the now-limp airplane from him and shoved them into her pocket. Being careful not to touch him, she leant slightly forward and examined his hands.

There was a small blemish in the middle of his right palm. If she hadn’t been looking for it specifically, she probably wouldn’t have noticed it.

She nodded downwards, indicating his hand. “Is that where you caught the bullet?”

His breath hissed, and his eyes dived. “Yes.”

Lois — who avoided physical contact whenever possible — thrust both hands into her pockets to restrain the urge to reach for him. Touch him. She yearned to reassure him. To ease away the nervousness so evident in his eyes.

“Clark?”

His head jolted up, and his eyes shot into hers. Fear burned in them. He had paid such an incredibly high price for being different.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for stopping Moyne from hurting me.”

He gulped. Gritty resolve pushed back the fear. “I … I … couldn’t … let him …”

His hands dropped, and he slid them into the pockets of his shorts. He stared at his feet.

Lois figured he was close to the end of his endurance. She could only imagine how difficult this had been for him. She smiled. He probably wouldn’t see it, but she hoped he’d hear it in her voice. “Would you like tea?” she asked. “Or coffee?”

His head rose. “Tea?” he said with gratitude that she knew was in response to far more than her offer of a drink. “Please?”

“I’ll make it.”

Even as she said the words, Lois realised the problem inherent in her offer. To make the tea, she had to go into the staffroom. To go into the staffroom, she had to either turn her back on Clark or walk backwards — thereby clearly demonstrating that she didn’t trust him.

He turned, walked back to his corner, and sat down.

Lois watched him for a second and then turned away and ambled across the cell. At the door, she waved to him.

He lifted his hand a little.

She pushed the chair out of the doorway and shut the door. She filled the kettle and put it on the stove.

How could a man who had been starved of human interaction for seven years retain the ability to read the uncertainties of others and the grace to respond with such humility?

He always seemed able to anticipate what she needed from him.

She wanted to do the same for him.

Leaving the kettle to heat, Lois ran up the stairs to her office. Mr Kent … Clark was sitting against the wall, staring forward.

He looked shocked.

He looked as if he had just survived a monumental ordeal.

Perhaps she should have warned him that she intended to come into the cell — given him some time to prepare emotionally.

She had tried to consider this from his viewpoint, but the truth was that she couldn’t even imagine how he must feel.

Was he hoping she wouldn’t linger when she returned with his tea? Or was he hoping she would?

There was every chance that he was too stunned to know what he wanted.

They had been very kind at the US embassy when she had arrived after a month of being on the run in hostile territory. They had tried to help her … tried to anticipate her needs … tried to provide anything she needed. She had wanted to be alone, yet being alone had felt so chillingly remote. She had shrunk away from the company of others; yet their presence had blunted the terror of her darkest memories.

She had found it impossible to give answers to even the simplest of their well-meaning questions.

And that was after weeks of trauma.

Clark’s suffering was measured in years.

Lois took the scraps of paper from her pocket. He had kept them. Kept them in his pocket. She was about to rip them to shreds and drop them into the trashcan when she paused. She put them in a compartment in her bag and added the bullet that could have ended her life.

She took the pile of his clothes from the closet and took them down to the staffroom.

The kettle was boiling vigorously.

She made the two cups of tea as her mind replayed her conversation with Clark.

She remembered looking at his hands … and seeing his fear that she would respond negatively to his admission that he could stop a bullet.

The tea was ready. Should she take the clothes and the tea in together? And then drink her tea in the staffroom so he could change?

That would give them both much-needed time to regain some equilibrium.

Lois opened the door and pulled the chair into the doorway. She picked up his cup of tea and the clothes and crossed the threshold.

Clark was standing next to the back wall.

She smiled as she approached him. It felt awkward, and — as far as she could tell — he didn’t respond. When she reached him, she squatted to put the tea on the concrete.

She straightened and smiled again.

He was so still that she wasn’t completely sure he was breathing.

With the pile of clothes between her palms, she held them towards him.

His eyes leapt from the clothes to her and then dived back to the clothes. His throat jumped, and she figured he was going to struggle to speak.

Lois took half a step closer. “I’ll drink my tea in the staffroom,” she said.

“Th …” He gulped and stopped.

Her emotions erupted inside her. If she didn’t get out really soon, she was going to dissolve into a bawling clutter of tears.

She was probably going to do that, anyway.

Lois shoved the clothes into his hands and turned away. She ran to the doorway, pushed the chair away, and slammed the door shut.

She leant against it and wept immense body-shaking sobs.

She wept for her friend, Linda.

She wept for her father.

She wept for herself.

But mostly, she wept for the man on the other side of the door.

What Trask and Moyne had done to this man was horrendous. Sickening.

Small excerpts from Trask’s log assaulted her mind.

He is an animal.

He killed today.

The beast mauled the broken body of his prey.

Regular discipline sessions are deemed necessary.

The brute is a despicable beast.

His spirit can be broken.

Each memory drove her tears harder. The pressure clutched her stomach and pinched the muscles of her neck.

Clark had suffered so much.

It was a long time before the tide of her emotions began to turn.

Slowly, her resolve overcame her raw fury.

She would not allow them to win.

She would stand and fight.

If only she could go back seven years and prevent this from happening.

She couldn’t.

She couldn’t restore the stolen years.

But she could make a difference now.

She wouldn’t rest until Clark had the best life possible.

She wasn’t sure what that would entail or how it could be achieved, but she was determined to do it.

Because there was something about Mr Clark Kent that had touched her in a way no other person ever had.

***

Clark held the clothes in hands that shook.

His head felt as if it was reeling.

His heart felt like a cold, numb clod.

He hadn’t expected anything like that.

He’d hoped she would write him a note — perhaps carried by a paper jet.

But she’d walked into his cell. She’d walked right up to him as if she neither saw his differences nor feared them. She’d spoken to him. She’d asked him about the bullet.

Never before in his life had he been so tempted to lie.

He was desperate to hide.

To hide what he’d done.

More importantly, to hide who he was.

Particularly from her. He so desperately wanted her to keep liking him.

Well, she didn’t like him. How could she? But he had been hoping she would continue to tolerate him.

He’d told her the truth. He couldn’t lie to her. He just couldn’t.

So, he’d admitted to being a freak that could catch a bullet.

And she’d thanked him.

There had not been even a hint that it had occurred to her that normal people didn’t catch bullets fired from guns.

She hadn’t recoiled in disgust.

He knew he must look like something inhuman. He’d admitted to bizarre abilities, and she’d thanked him.

She’d thanked him.

Then he heard her.

From the other side of the door came the sound of her weeping — weeping as if her heart was shattering. It enveloped him like a cloak of dismay.

Who had made her cry?

Please, he begged. Please don’t let it be something I did.

Should he have taken the clothes more quickly?

In the end, she’d had to push them onto him.

Did she think he wasn’t appreciative?

He hadn’t even managed to thank her.

If she looked into the prison and found him still wearing the old shorts, she was going to be sure that he was an ungrateful ruffian.

Every sob felt like a vice tightening around his heart.

He moved into the corner under the window. He laid the pile on the concrete and then lifted the tee shirt and slipped it over his head. He pulled his hair and beard out from under the shirt and stroked the material.

It was soft.

He didn’t feel so exposed.

His eyes fell to the pile.

Briefs?

He gulped.

She had brought him briefs?

Two pairs?

Had she bought these clothes? Personally? Or had she sent someone else to do it?

He didn’t know whether he was touched or mortified.

But he was sure of one thing … she …Lois was the most amazing person he had ever met.

***

Over an hour passed before Lois felt composed enough to think about going back into the cell.

She had cried until there were no tears left.

Then she had drunk hot, very strong coffee and cleaned away the mass of soggy tissues — running up the stairs to put them in her own trashcan, but not even glancing through the window.

She went to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on her puffy eyes. She dabbed them dry and peered into the mirror. She applied a little makeup and decided that she looked almost human.

What now?

Go back into the cell?

Stay away?

She decided she would go in again. If she stayed away, he would wonder why. She would try not to overwhelm him with questions. She would just try to be there for him. If she just went and sat with him, he could talk if he wanted to … or be silent if he chose.

She pulled the chair to the door, unlocked it, and opened it. She wedged the chair against the door and looked up.

Her breath jammed in her throat.

Clark was standing against the back wall. He was wearing the clothes she had brought.

He looked … wow!

Lois walked over to him and smiled. “You look good,” she said.

He pushed his hands into the pockets of his shorts and looked down as he dragged his toe across the concrete. “Thanks.” He cleared his throat. “Thanks for everything.”

“Perhaps we could sit down,” she said, hoping to ease him through the awkwardness. “You sometimes sit in the sunshine at this time of the day.”

Clark gestured towards the little patch of sunlight on the floor of his cell, and Lois walked over to it.

She lowered herself to the floor, leaving most of the light for him. She folded her legs and hooked them in the ring of her arms.

Clark sat — facing her.

“Are there any questions you’d like to ask?” she said.

He nodded. “Two.”

“OK,” she said, curiosity searing a path through her brain. “First one.”

“Was it something I did that made you cry?”

Lois felt her mouth fall open. She knew she was staring dumbly, but she couldn’t get beyond her surprise at his question.

His eyes were fixed on his hand, which was draped over his arched knee. He must be continually fighting the compulsion to hide. She was staggered at how often he had managed to meet her eyes.

“It wasn’t you,” she said softly and sincerely.

He looked up. “It wasn’t?”

She shook her head. “No,” she said firmly. “It wasn’t you.”

Some of the anxiety faded from his eyes.

Had he been worrying about that?

Suddenly, she knew his second question. “And when I screamed the other night, that wasn’t anything you did either.”

More anxiety ebbed away.

Trask had called him a monster.

Did Clark believe that? Had he internalised all the lies they had told him?

“It wasn’t you,” she repeated with emphasis. “Was that your second question?”

“No,” he said, although the word got lost somewhere and was never quite vocalised.

“What’s your other question?”

He took a moment before speaking. “Why did you take the notes?”

Lois hesitated. There was a long answer and a short answer. “Because, in my job, it’s a good idea not to leave anything behind that could be used against you if it got into the wrong hands.” She saw his look of confusion. “And I don’t mean yours.”

He didn’t respond for a moment, and then a glimmer of insight lit his brown eyes. “Do you want me to change back into the other shorts whenever someone else opens the door?”

Lois smiled at the ease with which he had understood. “I can probably justify a few clothes,” she said.

“Can you justify coming in here?”

“No,” she said. She smiled to soften her reply. “No, I can’t. But if no one knows, there isn’t going to be a problem.”

“Will you get into trouble if they find out?”

“Not trouble exactly,” she said. “I’m just being careful. It becomes a habit after a few years.” Not for anything was she going to tell Clark that the most likely form of ‘trouble’ would involve her being removed from this operation.

“Are you worried about someone coming and catching you in here?”

“I’m listening,” Lois said. “The outside door creaks. I’m hoping I’ll hear it and be able to get back into the staffroom before anyone realises.”

“I’m listening, too.”

She smiled. “Thanks.”

“You shouldn’t do anything that might cause you trouble.”

The remnant of her tears huddled again for another assault on her emotions. She smiled, hoping he wouldn’t notice the dampness in her eyes. “I’ll be fine. You don’t need to worry about it.” But somehow, she thought he probably would worry — not for himself, but for her.

Silence fell again. Lois took the opportunity to study him — although she tried not to be too obvious. She had the feeling he was doing exactly the same.

It was possible he was a few years younger than she had surmised. The skin around his eyes was smooth — perhaps the lack of sunlight had been good for that, at least. Dark lashes framed his brown eyes — eyes that kept drawing her back to them. In them, she could see so much — pain certainly, but tenacity and resolve, too … as if they had encapsulated the ravages of his battle.

His lips were no longer chafed and rough. His teeth were nothing short of a miracle — they carried no hint of the years of neglect.

“They told me that you don’t talk,” Lois said.

She knew immediately that it had been the wrong thing to say. His face closed.

“I guess that was just another one of their lies,” she said.

His eyes shot into hers. “You don’t believe them?”

“No,” Lois said before her agent training could step in and smother her declaration.

His mouth opened, only to close again. He had wanted to ask something. She needed to try to guess what he was thinking.

“What happened to those two men?” she asked gently. “The two men who died in here?”

“Didn’t they tell you?”

“I’m asking you.”

“Moyne killed them.”

Lois let out a long breath. This was a major fork in the road of their association. If he was an alien with plans for escape and slaughter, admitting she believed him over the word of other humans was going be a huge fillip to his plans. But if she said she wasn’t sure, it was going to crush him. And he had already been crushed so much. Her gut was screaming at her — crying out with clench-fisted-red-faced-insistent screams. She obeyed. “That’s what I figured happened,” she said.

Clark’s eyes closed, and his throat wobbled tremulously. He needed some time alone.

Lois stood. “I’ll be back soon with supper,” she said. She walked out of the cell as her tears rose again.

***

Clark slumped against the wall, unable to believe that after all he had suffered, the thing that was coming closest to bringing him completely undone was not the beatings, not the hours and hours of lying in pain and wondering if, this time, he was going to die, not the days of hunger and thirst, not the hatred so evident in the jailers as they had beaten him … but a beautiful woman saying she believed that he wasn’t a killer.

She didn’t think he had killed anyone.

She believed him.

Lois believed him.

She didn’t know him. They must have told her awful incriminatory things about him … but she believed him.

He’d been petrified when the bullet had fallen from his pocket. Her presence had made him so nervous that it had been difficult to stop his hand from shaking as he’d tried to retrieve the pieces of paper. Then, the bullet had hit the concrete, and he’d known that she would know.

She would know that he was different.

Alien.

Someone to be feared.

Shunned.

Hated.

Despised.

But … she had thanked him.

He scrunched his eyes shut, but it was in vain. His tears flowed … flooding down his cheeks and soaking his beard.

He turned away, towards the wall, away from Lois — and wept.

***

Lois locked the door to the cell. That way, before she went in, she had to unlock it, giving Clark notice that she was coming.

She climbed the stairs, her steps slow and heavy. At the top, instead of going into her office, she slumped onto the top step and leant back against the wall.

She felt like a dry rag that had had every possible drop of moisture squeezed from it. But the avalanche of tears had washed away some of the grime that had clogged her heart since she’d abandoned Linda’s dead body and made her dash for freedom.

Lois felt as if she could sleep for a week.

But in the oppressive exhaustion, there was a quickening of hope — hope that sleep would usher in a new dawn on a world that was no longer completely shadowed in darkness.

Sleep wasn’t possible now, and Lois needed to pull herself together.

He’d already shown his dismay at her distress.

If he was — as she assumed — a bachelor, he might not have had a whole lot to do with women. He hadn’t had any contact with people — not of a good sort — for seven years. No matter how distraught she felt because of his situation, he needed her to be calm and in control.

He definitely didn’t need her dissolving into an emotional mess every time she went into his cell.

No wonder he’d thought he had caused her tears.

In a way, he had.

One thing she could give him was calm composure.

Some semblance of normalcy.

She had half an hour to settle herself.

Lois hauled herself to her feet and entered her office. Out of habit, she looked through the window.

Clark was hunched into the wall.

His shoulders were shaking.

Her eyes skidded through the cell, searching frantically for a rod.

There was nothing.

Then she realised.

This time, his pain wasn’t physical.

Within her rose a swell of empathy and an urgent longing to fly down the stairs, storm into the cell, and surround him with her arms. To hold him while he wept. To comfort him. To pledge to him that his fight had become her fight, too.

She wanted to … but what would he want? What did he need?

Probably privacy, she realised.

And, if she went to him, he would almost certainly feel compelled to try to control the release of his anguish.

She would probably embarrass him.

Like her, he would probably feel better if his tears ran their course.

Lois turned away from him and went back to the staffroom.

Privacy was another gift she could give him.

And it was one that probably meant more to him that she could ever imagine.

Part 7

By the time Uncle Mike’s delivery boy handed Lois the two meals, she had settled on her plan for the evening ahead.

After a chain of thoughts that had coiled in an ever-tightening loop, she had concluded that making Clark uncomfortable by being with him was preferable to leaving him in solitude to ponder why she preferred to stay away. She was hoping to stay for at least an hour — longer if he seemed to be adjusting having company.

She knew it was going to be harrowing for him. Her initial thoughts about entering the cell had centred on her own safety. Gradually, her focus had shifted from herself and to him — so much so that when she had finally stepped in, she had done so with a partial understanding that it wasn’t going to be easy for either of them.

But now that she had glimpsed the destruction wreaked by Trask’s brutality, she’d realised that, for Clark, recovery was going to be just as gruelling as survival had been.

She hoped she would know what to do to help him. To know when to gently push and when to retreat.

This evening, she intended to push by going into his cell with two meals. She’d decided not to ask him if it were OK for her to eat with him. Sometimes — when your brain felt like it was being inundated with new and unfamiliar circumstances — being asked just made everything harder. Sometimes, being told was such sweet relief.

As she carried the containers back to the compound, Lois was aware that another telling moment loomed. She was going to take a meal into the cell to Clark — with a knife and fork.

It would only be a butter knife, but it was still a knife.

Lois foraged through her feelings in search of any uneasiness — any possible squeak of dissent from her gut. She found none.

There was something about Clark Kent.

Something that reassured her.

Something that steadied her.

She was confident that she could go into the cell with an entire cutlery tray of knives and be perfectly safe.

The external door creaked as she opened it. In the staffroom, she placed two knives, two forks, and a bunch of napkins on the top container and unlocked the cell door.

She deliberately paused. They needed a signal. She didn’t want to go into the cell at an ill-timed moment. And it couldn’t be ideal for Clark’s peace of mind to be constantly listening in case she was about to appear.

Having waited a few seconds, Lois opened the door. Clark was sitting in his place against the back wall.

“Are you ready for supper?” she called.

He got to his feet — diffidence cloaking him like a mantle of misgiving.

Yep, this was going to tough. He’d had time to think about it. Time to let his apprehension permeate through him like yeast through dough.

Lois lodged the chair in the doorway and crossed the cell. She reached Clark and smiled. “Hungry?”

He nodded.

She picked up one knife, one fork, and about half of the napkins and held them towards him.

He looked up, his eyes ablaze with questions.

“Take them,” Lois said.

“Are you s…sure?”

She heard the tiny wobble in his voice and saw his desperate attempt to cover it. “I’m sure,” she said, saturating her words with calm assurance in the hope that some of it would reach across the divide between them and light his way through this.

He clasped the little bundle.

Their eyes made contact, and she smiled. We can do this, she telegraphed. She held one of the containers towards him.

He took it and waited for her to determine what they did next.

She lowered herself to the floor. Clark copied her, and they sat side by side on the concrete.

“I don’t know what we have,” Lois commented. “I haven’t looked yet.” She pulled back the lid to reveal breaded fillets, creamy mashed potatoes, broccoli florets, and sliced green beans.

Clark opened his container and placed the lid on the floor.

“Do you think the fillets are chicken or fish?” she asked conversationally.

He gazed into the container for a few seconds. “Chicken,” he said. It sounded more like knowledge than speculation.

Lois put her container on the floor and cut a piece from the end of the fillet. She held it up to examine it. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s chicken.” She cut up the fillets into bite-sized pieces and then discarded her knife, picked up the container, and began to eat with her fork.

Clark put his container on the floor and did likewise.

He speared a piece of chicken and dunked it into the mountain of potato. “Did … did you cook this?” he asked.

Lois laughed loudly. “Me?” she exclaimed. “No, I can’t cook.”

Her laughter had cinched tension through his shoulder muscles, but they relaxed again at her explanation. “You can’t cook?” he asked in a soft voice that held no hint of reproof.

“Nope,” she said easily. “Uncle Mike — he owns the restaurant that provided our meals — has been offering to teach me for years, but I’ve never had either the time or the inclination.”

“I … can …” His fork paused on the way to his mouth. “I … thank you … for the food.” He captured her eyes again. His words were simple and understated. The depth of his gratitude was not.

Lois dropped her gaze to her food. “Which meal did you like the best?”

“Probably the first one,” he said.

“The chicken and vegetables?”

He nodded. “Just because it was the first.”

The first in such a long time.

Neither of them said it, but Lois figured they were both thinking it.

Lois chewed slowly as she contemplated her next question. It was slightly precarious, but she decided to ask anyway. “Is there any food you really, really miss? Any particular food you crave?”

She could see that he had an answer but wasn’t sure about saying it.

“Go on, Clark,” Lois prompted with a small chuckle. “Tell me.”

“I …”

“You what?”

“I like it when you say my name.”

He’d done it again — touched her with his words. “You haven’t called me by my name yet,” she pointed out.

“I don’t know your surname.”

“If I tell you what it is, will you call me ‘Ms’?”

Her question had stumped him. “Ah … yes?”

“Then I won’t tell you,” she declared with a smile.

“You want me to call you …”

She pointed her fork at him and laughed. “You have forgotten my name, haven’t you?”

“No,” he said solemnly. “I will never forget your name.”

Clark’s earnestness nearly undid all of her resolutions to keep her emotions under control when she was with him. “Prove it,” she challenged.

“Lois.”

He said her name with such utter softness that something stupid happened to her heart. Lois put all of her concentration into stabbing multiple green beans. She shovelled them into her mouth and told herself that whatever had just happened had everything to do with her heightened emotional state and nothing to do with the man sitting next to her on a concrete floor. “You never told me what food you’d really like,” she said after she’d swallowed.

“Why do you want to know?”

That was easier. “Well, if it’s something exotic, I can’t make any promises, but Uncle Mike can usually provide just about anything.”

“Apple pie.”

She chuckled. That was so unexpected but so exactly right. “Apple pie,” she repeated. “With whipped cream or ice cream?”

He hadn’t finished his meal, but he put the container on the floor. “I … I shouldn’t have said that,” he said in a voice infused with regret.

“Why not?” Lois said with equal gravity.

Clark shrugged and stared at where he was listlessly pushing his fork into a piece of broccoli.

“I can guess,” Lois said gently.

He didn’t say anything.

“I figure it’s because someone you love used to make you apple pie. Or you once ate apple pie with someone special. And — much as you love the food — you’re not sure if the pain of remembering will be worth it.”

Clark was still for a long minute. She heard him clear his throat. “How do you know?” he asked thickly.

“Because I love pizza,” Lois replied. She brushed at the moisture drizzling from the corner of her eye. “But I can’t eat it. There are days when I figure I’ll never eat pizza again.”

His eyes slowly rose. She could see the questions burning in them. He didn’t ask. He just picked up his container and continued eating.

“Can I ask a personal question?” Lois said.

He nodded.

“Was it your wife who made you apple pie?”

He gasped with surprise at her question, but Lois wasn’t sure if it signified more than the obvious fact that he’d hardly been in a position to be married for the last seven years. “No,” he said.

“Never married?”

“No.” So, the apple pie maker was probably his mom.

Clark stared at his last piece of chicken. “Are you?” he muttered.

“No.”

Lois placed her fork in her empty container, picked up a napkin, and wiped her mouth. Clark did the same, carefully wiping his dark beard — although he hadn’t spilt any food in it.

“Does that get in the way when you’re eating?” Lois asked.

“Yes,” he said, scrubbing even harder. “But, until now, it hasn’t mattered.”

“You didn’t drop any food in it,” Lois told him.

He looked relieved and wiped his mouth.

“Would you like tea?” she asked. “Or coffee?”

“Tea, please.” He put the cutlery and used napkins into the containers and stood up. When Lois was standing, he gave them to her. “Thank you,” he said. “And not just for the food.”

Lois gave him a quick smile and took the containers. “I’ll be back with the tea.”

She walked to the door. He didn’t follow.

Lois put the kettle on the stove and took the trash from their meal to her office. She picked up the jigsaw puzzle. She intended to go back into Clark’s cell, and — just like at the nursing home — they would need something to do. Something to smooth over the silences.

The jigsaw puzzle picture was of a double-storey house with a wide porch, a thatched roof, a lush lawn, and colourful — if slightly rambling — garden beds. Would this be OK? Clark had come from Kansas. Lois had never been to Kansas. What had his home looked like? This? She checked the back. This house was in the Cotswolds in England.

England. Hopefully, it would be all right.

Lois paused as an idea lit up her imagination. She decided not to invest any time into debating its merits.

She was just going to do it.

She hauled her camp mattress out from under her desk, gathered Trask’s mattress from the top of his pile of boxes, and juggled them well enough to be able to pick up the jigsaw puzzle box. She lumbered down the stairs and dragged them into the cell.

She approached Clark who was looking askance at the camp mattresses. She thrust the box at him. “Do you like doing jigsaw puzzles?” she asked.

He took the box and glanced at it absently, still eyeing the mattresses.

Hopefully, his lack of reaction to the photograph meant that the English house didn’t elicit any negative emotions.

“We have a couple of hours to fill before Longford comes. I’m not sure I want to sit on the concrete much longer.” Lois smiled. “And it seemed a bit rude to only bring a mattress for myself.” She dropped them onto the floor. “Do you want to lay out some sheets of newspaper for the puzzle and set up the mattresses next to them?”

Clark nodded.

“I’ll be back with the tea.”

The kettle hadn’t boiled yet. She skipped up to her office to collect the pillows and the block of chocolate she had stashed in her desk drawer.

Coming down the stairs, she refused to admit that this felt exactly like a scout camp-out.

It was going to be fun.

Other than the paper-plane-flying episode, there had not been even a whisper of fun in her life since the fateful night when she and Linda had decided to trust the wrong person.

As for Clark — ‘fun’ had probably vanished from his vocabulary a long time ago.

Lois took the pillows into the cell, dumped them on the floor, and scurried to the staffroom for the tea and chocolate without stopping to linger on Clark’s stunned expression.

When she returned, he’d recovered enough that the mattresses were stretched out at right angles next to the sheets of newspaper. Lois grinned at him. “Good job,” she said.

She put the mugs on the floor next to the two mattresses and plonked herself down, intentionally choosing Trask’s mattress.

A few minutes later, the jigsaw box was open, and the first few pieces scattered on the paper. Lois peeled back the wrapper from the chocolate and held it towards Clark. “Want some?” she said.

His eyes dropped to the chocolate and then rose. By the time they reached her face, a half-formed smile had split his beard.

He was smiling.

Clark was smiling.

His beard limited her view, but Lois felt a surge of excitement sweep through her.

She answered his smile, hoping it would encourage him to extend his smile just a little more.

He did.

She laughed.

She just couldn’t help it.

He looked a bit bashful, and Lois controlled her laughter. “Help yourself to the chocolate,” she said. “And please do it before I eat it all.”

He took some and slipped it into his mouth.

Lois broke off a piece, too and then turned her attention to the puzzle. “Are you an ‘edge’ person?” she asked. “Or a ‘sky’ person? Or a ‘most distinctive feature’ person?”

“Sky,” he replied, reaching for a blue puzzle piece.

Yeah, he probably yearned for the blue expanse of sky. Lois sipped from her tea … waiting … giving him the opportunity to say something … anything.

He didn’t.

“I’ll push all the sky bits in your direction,” she said as she replaced her cup on the concrete. “I’m going to start with this crimson rose bush.”

“OK.”

They worked for a time — the quietness only broken by occasional comments regarding the jigsaw puzzle or a quick word of congratulation when a piece found its place.

Lois’s attention was only three-quarters on the puzzle. Surreptitiously, she watched Clark. There were little signs that he was slowly unwinding. There was the chocolate. She’d felt like dancing with celebration the first time he’d cautiously reached for the chocolate and broken off a piece without her specifically offering him some. And there was the puzzle. He seemed to be absorbed in it … Perhaps, just for a short time, he could forget that he was locked in a cell.

“Clark?”

“Uhmm?”

“We need some sort of a signal.”

“Uhmm.”

Lois rotated a piece one-hundred-eighty degrees in an effort to make it fit. “How does this sound?” she said. “If — for whatever reason — it’s not convenient for me to come into your room, you take the box containing the toothpaste and soap away from the door? I’ll open the door a few inches, and if I see the box right there, I’ll know it’s all right to come in.”

“OK.”

Lois grabbed Trask’s pillow, swung onto her stomach, pushed the pillow under her arms, and rested on her elbows. She scanned the pieces, looking for one where the deep red of the rosebush met the lush green of the lawn.

She saw a piece that was a possibility and swooped on it.

Clark’s fingers arrived a millisecond before hers did, and they clashed. His hand jolted back as if he’d been stung. “Sorry,” he said quickly.

Lois picked up the piece and offered it to him with a smile. “Is this the piece you wanted?”

“I was going to give it to you,” he said. “I think it fits into the part you’re working on.”

“Thanks,” Lois said. She slipped the piece into its place and pressed it home. She looked up at Clark with another smile. “Good job.”

He responded with a ripple of movement through his facial hair. Shadbolt had said that Clark had been clean-shaven when he’d been captured. Did he like the beard? Or would he get rid of it if he could?

His attention returned to his steadily growing expanse of sky.

Lois picked up a piece of green and absently tried to fit it into the lawn. In her mind, she replayed the moment when her fingers had brushed against his.

He’d pulled back. Apologised immediately.

How would it feel to have been starved of touch for so long?

The effects of what they’d done to him had gone so very deep.

Was he wary of touching her?

Or did he assume that she didn’t want to touch him?

Lois gave up on the piece and swung to a sitting position. “Clark?”

He also put down his piece and looked up at her.

She smiled. “I’m trying to understand how extremely difficult this must be for you, but I need your help to know how best to do this.”

He nodded, and his eyes met hers for a moment before dropping back to the puzzle.

“I know it was really hard for you to admit that you had caught the bullet, and I think I understand why. I want you to know that I appreciate your honesty.”

His eyes rose cautiously. “I wouldn’t … I wouldn’t lie to you.”

Lois smiled. “I know,” she said. “I’m not talking about lying; I’m talking about trying so hard to do what someone else wants that you don’t think about what you want.”

He seemed to understand. He nodded slightly.

“I’d like to come in here again tomorrow. I’d like to keep doing the puzzle with you, and I have other ideas, but I don’t want to push too hard. If I go too fast, I need you to tell me to slow down. If you need some time alone, I want you to tell me.”

“I’ve had a lot of time to be alone.”

“I know,” she said softly. “But I want you to know that we can take this at exactly the speed you need us to.”

Clark looked down to where his right hand was clenched around his left. “How long will you be here?” he asked. “Days? Weeks? Longer?”

“I’ll be here for as long as it takes to work out something better for you than what you’ve had.”

“You’ve done that already,” he said, and his voice shook.

“I haven’t finished yet.”

His clenched fist pressed against his mouth, and his eyes slid shut.

Lois waited, wishing she had a wand she could wave over him, magically healing all of his hurts.

His hand dropped, and his eyes opened. “You say that we can take this at exactly the speed I need, but I don’t know what you mean by ‘this’.”

Lois smiled sadly. “The truth is that I don’t know exactly either,” she admitted. “That’s why I need your input. I need to know what helps and what doesn’t. If there’s a day when you need to be alone and take stock of what’s happening, just tell me to stay away.”

“I can’t ever imagine doing that,” he said.

Lois chuckled.

His brown eyes pulsed gently into hers. “Are there people who don’t agree with what you’re doing?”

She had to be honest. “Yes.”

“And you’re worried that if anyone finds out that you’ve come in here, they’ll force you to leave?”

“Yeah,” Lois said, wishing that he wasn’t quite so perceptive.

“I won’t say anything,” Clark vowed. “Whatever they do, I will never say anything.”

She couldn’t dwell on the ‘whatever they do’. She was sure that, for Clark, that phrase came with graphic images. “It won’t come to that.”

He didn’t reply.

“There’s a lot I don’t know,” Lois said. “I’ve been told that Moyne has friends in high places. I have to be cautious. That’s why I haven’t pestered them more about your parents.”

“I understand.”

She smiled, hoping to disperse the gloominess that had crept into the cell. “We have made a few small steps of progress. The big steps might require more time.”

“The ‘small’ steps seem enormous to me.”

She had done so little — food, water, clothing. Just everyday items. Her tears threatened again, and she pushed through them to give him another smile. “How do you feel about Winnie the Pooh?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

Lois giggled, easing the build-up of emotional pressure around her heart. “Would you mind using a Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag?”

His eyebrow raised just enough to suggest a speck of amusement. “Pooh Bear is definitely preferable to bare concrete.”

Lois smiled. “I’ll leave my camp mattress and pillow here and go and get the sleeping bag. You can decide where you’d like to set up.”

“Is this going to cause a problem?”

“It shouldn’t.”

“I’ve slept on concrete for seven years,” Clark said without a trace of self-pity. “It’s not worth risking problems.”

But he was. He was definitely worth the risk. “I’ll take these other things away and bring back my sleeping bag,” Lois said. She picked up Trask’s camp mattress and pillow.

“Whose are they?” Clark asked.

“Trask’s,” Lois said coldly. “You’re not having them.”

Her tone caused Clark to shrink back.

“I don’t want anything associated with that man coming near you again.”

Clark gaped at her as if she had just crossed the line from implausible to unbelievable.

Lois winked at him. “I’m sure that sleeping with his stuff would give you nightmares,” she said lightly as she turned towards the door.

In the staffroom, she shut the cell door — just in case Longford arrived early again — but didn’t lock it. She hauled Trask’s bedding up the stairs and threw it onto the pile of his boxes. She bent low to retrieve her sleeping bag from under the desk and glanced through the window.

Clark was still sitting next to the unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Her pillow was on his lap. His hand was resting on her pillow, and the side of his thumb was absently gliding across it.

Lois set the camera to begin recording at six o’clock tomorrow morning and locked the closet. She emptied her trashcan into a plastic bag, put it in her bag, and quickly tidied her desk.

The next time she looked, Clark was positioning the camp mattress against the back wall.

She locked her office and went down to the staffroom with her sleeping bag. Poking her head into the cell, she called, “This is for you.” She tossed it towards him.

“Thanks.”

Lois filled his washing bowl with hot water and took it into the cell. Clark was standing next to his ‘bed’. She stood beside him, and they gazed at it together. “Looks good,” she said.

He turned to her, and suddenly, they were only a few inches apart.

His eyes settled in hers. “Lois …”

She knew what he was going to try to say. And right now, she couldn’t take it. She would burst into tears, and that would upset both of them.

“Clark.” She interrupted before he had the chance to form his words. “I need to take the chocolate with me, just in case one of the others sees it.”

“OK,” he said.

“I understand,” she murmured.

“Thank you,” he murmured back.

She broke away from the invisible bonds that were holding them together and gathered up the chocolate.

“Are you leaving the puzzle here?” Clark asked.

Lois nodded. “You can keep working on it if you want to.” She pointed to the bowl near the door. “I’ve left you some water. I’ll be in the staffroom. If you knock on the door after you’ve finished, I’ll know I can come and collect the bowl.”

“OK.”

“See you tomorrow, Clark,” she said lightly.

“See you,” he replied.

Suddenly, she had to get out. She hurried to the door and shut it behind her. She turned on the coffee machine and began making the coffee — not because she wanted coffee, but because she needed something to do.

Had she done the right thing?

Had she gone too far?

Would she be able to complete what she had started today?

She had to. For Clark’s sake, she had to.

It was so hard to believe that she had walked into the cell only a few hours ago. Walked in and faced a stranger.

Tonight, she had walked out on a …

A what?

He was more than an acquaintance.

Tonight … just minutes ago … when they had stood together … their closeness had seemed to transcend the tangible.

When … if …

She had realised that when the time came for her to leave, it was going to be difficult for Clark.

But Clark wasn’t going to be the only one affected.

She was going to be devastated.

She couldn’t leave him.

She couldn’t leave him.

Until now, she had thought that she could walk away, content in the knowledge that she had made a difference … that she had righted some of the wrongs inflicted by Trask.

Until this morning, she had been working towards obtaining the best life possible for Clark.

How wrong she had been.

Even if she did manage to secure a reasonable life for him — safety, dignity, provision of his needs — even then, she wouldn’t be able to walk away knowing he was still imprisoned.

She couldn’t leave unless he did.

And she had no intention of spending the rest of her days in a compound behind a warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard.

This was no longer about making prison bearable.

This had become about preparing him for the outside world.

And getting him out.

Legally, if possible.

Or otherwise, if not.

***

Clark lay on the mattress.

His head was on a pillow.

Her pillow.

He’d awoken this morning, not knowing that his entire world was going to be turned upside down by a beautiful woman with mesmerising brown eyes and a laugh that was the sweetest sound he had ever heard.

The mattress felt strange.

The sleeping bag — Winnie the Pooh, no less — felt weighty.

The pillow pressed into his cheek.

It felt weird not to have to use his arms as support for his head. He couldn’t find a position for them that felt natural.

He wasn’t tired.

That was good.

He didn’t want to sleep.

He wanted to think. To relive. To dwell. To experience again every second he had spent with Lois. Once simply wasn’t enough.

He’d awoken this morning with anticipation. Hoping that … maybe … she would come into his cell and fly planes with him again.

They hadn’t flown planes. The one he had made was still hidden under one of the newspapers.

But they had talked. They had eaten. They had shared the jigsaw puzzle.

They had smiled.

She had smiled more than he had.

And he treasured every single smile she’d given him.

He’d wanted to smile but it had felt so awkward that he had wondered if the result had looked like a grimace. And he’d known that even if he did manage to smile, it would be mostly covered by his beard.

He had been so nervous that his stomach had felt like tangled knots of turbulence.

He’d been so scared that he would say something to frighten her away.

Or do something that caused her to make a quick excuse and hurry back to her world.

The day was brimming with highlights, but one … one he hugged close to his heart and replayed over, and over, and over again.

See you tomorrow, Clark.

She’d said, “See you tomorrow, Clark.”

She was coming back.

Lois was coming back.

That was enough to wrap his heart in a soft blanket of anticipation.

What would they do? Continue with the jigsaw puzzle?

Whatever she did, whatever she brought, Clark doubted she would be able to exceed what she’d done for him today.

He’d been careful not to touch her. And he’d noticed that she hadn’t touched him. Except for when their fingers had lunged for the same piece of jigsaw.

He’d apologised quickly.

She hadn’t seemed perturbed at all.

His throat felt dry and raspy. He’d managed to speak without too many squeaks. He had been so worried that the first time he tried to speak to her, nothing would come out. Or worse, that he would make an inhuman grunt.

The muscles of his jaw felt a little achy. But it was such a good soreness.

The best gift she had given him was not the food, not the bedding, not even the clothes. The best gift was how she had treated him as if he were just a regular guy. Not a monster. Not a killer. Not an alien. Not a prisoner. Not an animal. Just someone to hang out with.

Someone to share chocolate with.

She’d been so careful to show him respect. So careful not to intrude.

See you tomorrow, Clark.

Part 8

~~ Monday ~~

Lois had a wonderful morning.

She visited her dad, arriving in his room just as Ronny finished combing his hair. He was in his wheelchair, dressed in one of the sweatsuits Lois had brought for him.

“Ms Lane,” Ronny greeted with a wide smile. “Just in time to see how wonderful your father looks this morning.”

He did. Ronny had been right — getting him out of his bed and dressing him made him look more like a person and less like a patient.

Lois hugged him — and she didn’t have to pretend to smile. When she saw the doggy stress ball in his right hand, her smile widened further.

Ronny tidied up the few things she had been using and left with a cheerful directive for them to enjoy their visit.

Lois positioned a chair next to her father. “You look great, Dad,” she said.

He wasn’t looking at her — he was looking at his hand. She followed his gaze and saw his fingers tighten around the stress ball. As he did, the bulldog’s face bulged grotesquely, and Lois laughed.

The sound startled both of them. Lois met her dad’s eyes, and she smiled. “Do it again, Dad,” she encouraged.

He did.

When his hold loosened, Lois rotated the dog so her father would be able to see its distended face. He squeezed again, and Lois’s eyes jumped to his face to see his reaction.

The right side of his mouth twitched, and his eyes rose slowly from the dog to meet those of his daughter.

You seem happy this morning.

He hadn’t said it, but Lois felt it.

“I am happy,” she said, realising it was true. She felt good. Buoyant. As if she had managed to rise above the dark turbidity of hopelessness to find both air and light. After so long, it felt intoxicating. “I had a great day yesterday,” she continued. “Things are settling in my new job, and I really enjoy it. I’m getting to know the people there, and one man is particularly nice. We ate dinner together last night.”

There could have been interest in her father’s face. His right hand — still holding the stress ball — lifted slowly and swung horizontally for a few inches before collapsing onto the tray of his wheelchair.

Lois wasn’t sure if it had been an involuntary movement, or if he had been trying to communicate something and his arm had lost strength. She paused, unsure how to respond.

He repeated the action. This time she was sure it was deliberate.

Suddenly, she understood.

She grinned at him. “The paper planes, right? You want to know if we crashed them again?”

He blinked. Was that how he said ‘yes’? The first time she had visited the nursing home, they had told her so much. She had met with a variety of specialists, and one had spoken about forms of communication other than speech, but Lois had been too numb to take in anything.

“We didn’t fly them,” she said. “Actually, that was my fault. The nice man went to a lot of effort to make an elaborate plane, and I think it would have flown like a bird. But I wanted to do a jigsaw puzzle, so we did that instead.”

Her dad seemed to be listening.

Lois delved back through her memories to her childhood. She had done jigsaw puzzles with her dad. Mom and Lucy had despised them; they’d never had the patience, and at times, Lois had found them tedious, too. But her dad had enjoyed them, and Lois had enjoyed being with him.

An idea floated into her mind and settled like a falling snowflake. Maybe …

“I have to go into work early today, Dad,” Lois said. “One of the men who used to work at the place died, and I didn’t know him, so I’m going to work while the others attend the funeral. I’ll try to remember to bring the plane the nice man made so I can show you.”

She told him about her lunch with Uncle Mike yesterday. Which led to the chicken fillet dinner. Which — in her thoughts — led to Clark.

She told her father she’d had to spend a night at work. Which led to the camp mattress. Which led to recalling a father-and-daughter scout camp they had attended together. Which led to the Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag. Which — in her thoughts — led to Clark.

Lois checked the time and was stunned that over half an hour had passed. “I have to go,” she said with genuine regret. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. She stood, kissed his cheek, and smiled. “I love you, Dad.”

His hand tightened around the stress ball, and Lois was smiling as she left his room.

She drove to the department store.

Overnight, the ideas had rolled into her head like waves on a surf beach. Things she could give Clark. Things she could do for him. Things they could do together. Ways to ease the world into his room to prepare him for life outside again.

She didn’t intend to implement all of her ideas today. This was going to take time. Despite him appearing astonishingly normal, seven years of suffering had to have wreaked untold damage. She had to remember that.

She was going to have to be patient, and patience had never been her strong point.

However, this wasn’t about her — this was about Clark.

Lois trekked through the various departments, gathering an odd assortment of things that included a tennis racquet that was bigger and heavier than hers, a tin of white paint, and a wall mirror. As she added each item to the cart, her excitement inched a notch higher.

This was going to be fun.

Patience, she reminded herself as she stowed them in the Jeep. Don’t kill him with kindness.

But if anyone deserved an attempt made on his life with kindness, it was Clark Kent.

She kept telling herself it was entirely possible that Clark would be withdrawn today — that he would need time to recover from the upheaval of yesterday. But all of her caution couldn’t dampen one plan in particular — one plan that she so, so, so, soooooo hoped they would be able to do today.

Lois figured this particular idea would push the boundaries of Clark’s comfort zone, but she was hoping he would trust her enough to allow her to do it.

But if he really didn’t want to, she would accept that.

She would.

Even if her impatience jangled frenetically on the very edge of detonation.

She would wait for him. She would give him all the time he needed.

Because what he needed more anything else was the chance to exert some control over his own life.

And she was going to give him that.

***

“Good morning, Shadbolt.”

“Good morning, Ms Lane.”

“Is everything OK?”

“Yeah. Longford and I gave him breakfast and a bowl of hot water at six.”

“Did he seem OK?”

“Yeah … although …”

Lois halted her progress to the coffee machine — empty mug in her hand — and looked at him. She might as well get this over with now. “Although?”

“There seems to have been some changes in the cage.”

“Oh. Such as?”

“He has a bed.”

“A bed?”

“A mattress. A pillow.”

Lois smiled. “He used them? Oh, good. I wondered if he would.”

“You put them in the cage?”

“Yeah.” Lois casually poured her coffee. “Anything else to report?”

“There seems to be something else in there.”

“Any idea what?” Lois said. “I haven’t been up to my office yet.”

“It looks like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Lois smile widened. “So he got that as well? Wonderful.” She opened the fridge and took out the milk. “Anything else?”

“He’s dressed.”

She paused, her hand on the fridge door, her expression one of puzzlement that he would comment on something so fundamental.

Shadbolt shook his head. “I’m not sure about this.”

Lois pushed the fridge door, and it thudded shut. “I know,” she said as she poured milk into her coffee. She lifted her gaze to centre on the man sitting at the table. “But are you disconcerted because you really think he’s going to be a threat to your safety? Or are you disconcerted because you’ve realised that the way things were done around here violates just about every human right our country holds as important?”

Shadbolt shuffled in his seat and stared at his magazine. “Trask said he wasn’t human.”

“And you believed him.”

“I’ve seen the alien do things that aren’t human.”

“I’ve seen humans do things that aren’t human.”

Shadbolt tossed his magazine onto the table and scowled at it.

Lois sat down. “Can I ask you something?”

“OK.”

She took a breath and tried to prepare herself for an assault of horror. “What surgery did you do on the prisoner?”

Shadbolt’s jaw dropped. “Excuse me?”

“The surgery you and Moyne did? What did it entail?”

Shadbolt shook his head. “I didn’t do any surgery,” he stated.

“Are you sure?” Lois said. “In Trask’s log, there’s an entry that says you and Moyne did some sort of surgery on the prisoner.”

Shadbolt shook his head again. “I didn’t,” he said emphatically.

Lois stood. “Wait here.” A minute later, she returned to the staffroom and pushed the open logbook across the table.

March 1, 1988

Today, I strengthened my position over the enemy. We exposed him to the Achilles for a full twelve hours overnight, leaving him weak and defenceless this morning. The surgery was performed by Moyne and Shadbolt.

Some of the colour faded from Shadbolt’s cheeks as he read. “This … this didn’t happen,” he said, pointing to the entry. “I wasn’t involved in any surgery.”

“Could it have been a procedure that you don’t think of as surgery, but Trask did?”

“No,” Shadbolt declared indignantly. “I’m not a doctor. I was never involved in anything that could have been construed as surgery.”

“It was over six years ago,” Lois persisted. “Do you remember anything out of the ordinary? A day when Trask told you not to go into the cell?”

“No! Nothing.” Shadbolt read the entry again, his annoyance obvious. “Is this an official record?”

Lois shrugged. “I don’t think there are any official records of this operation.”

“I didn’t do this,” Shadbolt reiterated.

“Do you have any thoughts about what the surgery could have entailed?”

He grimaced. “Plenty … but I hope for everyone’s sake that I’m way off base.”

“Uhmm,” Lois said, fighting against the nausea that wanted to rise into her throat. She picked up the logbook and snapped it shut.

“Are there other things in there that I am supposed to have done?” Shadbolt asked, eyeing the logbook with distaste.

“Some.”

“I don’t suppose you’d let me read it?”

Lois considered for a moment. “OK,” she said. “You can read it, but it’s not to leave the premises.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll leave it in the closet with the rod tonight. You can read it tomorrow after Longford has gone.”

“What if he finds it?”

Lois smiled. “I don’t think Longford does anything other than sleep.”

Shadbolt smiled, too. “Do you want me to put the prisoner’s lunch in there before I leave?”

Lois shrugged. “Sure. Thanks. I have it here.” She reached into her bag and drew out a prosciutto and coleslaw sandwich. “I’ll get the rod.”

Shadbolt unlocked the door and pushed it open while Lois stood there with a rod providing the ‘protection’ that she knew with absolute certainty was not needed. He put the sandwich inside the cell and shut the door.

“Thanks,” Lois said as she put away the rod.

“It’s OK if I leave now?”

“Yep,” she said. “I deliberately came early enough that you would have plenty of time to get ready for the funeral.”

“Thanks,” Shadbolt said. “I appreciate it.”

Lois returned the milk to the fridge, picked up her coffee, and headed for the stairs. “See you tomorrow,” she said.

“Bye.”

Clark was pacing along the far wall. He was wearing the clothes she had given him yesterday. The puzzle was almost done — he had made great progress since last night.

Lois watched him for a few moments. The clothes fitted well. The tee shirt -

She snatched the binoculars from her desk and zoomed in on Clark’s arm.

The sleeve of the tee shirt was stretched slightly across an alluring mound of bicep muscle.

She banged the binoculars onto the desk and spun away as her heart thumped and self-reproach rose like pungent steam.

Lois perched on her desk, gripped it tightly with her hands, and stared at the door of her office as she rounded the rooms of her mind and slammed shut every door that wanted to entice her to places she knew she couldn’t go.

She sprang from her desk and busied herself with dusting and tidying her office, refusing to allow herself to even peek through the window.

A few minutes later, she heard the external door open and close, and then she watched the digital clock tick over two minutes to ensure Shadbolt was truly gone.

She hurried down the stairs and outside to her Jeep. As she carted her purchases up to her office, she couldn’t help envisioning Clark’s reaction to her initiatives, and little scraps of her excitement returned.

Finally, all of her purchases were on or under her desk.

What first?

She picked up the rectangular wall mirror she had bought. For the next fifteen minutes, she connected a strong cord to the mirror and hung it from the closet. She positioned it at the correct angle for the sunlight to reflect into Clark’s room.

She glanced into the cell and smiled. A shaft of sunlight outshone the artificial light to create a patch of brightness on the side wall. Clark was still sitting at the jigsaw puzzle, but his attention had moved to the beam of natural light.

He looked up to the window and waved.

He smiled — tentatively — but it was a smile.

Lois smiled and waved, even though she knew he wouldn’t be able to see her.

She gathered the things she would need for her ‘big plan’ and left them where they would be easily accessible on her desk. Then she ran a comb through her hair, checked her makeup in the mirror, locked the door to her office, and went down the stairs.

At the staffroom, she paused. “Patience, Lane,” she muttered. “One step at a time.”

***

Clark had been listening for the lock for a couple of hours. He knew it was too early, but that knowledge hadn’t been enough to curb his anticipation.

He could hear the clunk of the lock with normal hearing. The temptation to use his extra hearing abilities was strong — to try to hear her voice, or her footsteps, or anything that would alert him to her presence. So far, he’d managed to resist.

He had no right to try to track her movements.

She had every right to arrive without notifying him.

And Shadbolt wouldn’t have left yet.

Shadbolt wouldn’t be going for a few hours.

But the waiting had become unbearable.

She would come. She had said, “See you tomorrow, Clark.”

He tried to straighten his unruly hair with his fingers. He’d already washed his body and brushed his teeth. There wasn’t much else he could do to ready himself for her company.

The lock clicked, and every muscle in his body tensed.

But it wasn’t Lois who appeared at the door; it was Shadbolt. Clark turned away quickly.

A paper bag that probably contained his lunch was pushed into his prison. Did that mean Shadbolt was leaving soon?

He hoped so.

It was so hard to wait.

He had spent seven years in this room, and right now, the next hour seemed to stretch longer than all of those years.

He wanted to see her so much.

Would she come in as soon as Shadbolt left?

If she did, what would they do?

He’d almost finished the jigsaw puzzle.

Clark hurried over to the puzzle and dropped next to it. He started to pick out some of the pieces — being careful not to disrupt the rose bush that Lois had put together — and spread them randomly on the newspaper.

He picked up the box and looked at the picture. Was the sky really that blue? It reminded him of a crisp summer morning on the farm with his dad. His attention moved to the house. It was nothing like the farmhouse where he’d lived, but it was too easy to imagine his mom sitting in the shade of the porch — knitting, or reading, or shelling peas, or painting her latest masterpiece.

He had to push away thoughts of his parents. He knew they were suffering. The best he could hope for was that their suffering was limited to knowing nothing of what had happened to him. If he thought about all the other ways they could be hurt … If he thought about the fact that their love and acceptance of him had brought such heartache and disruption to their lives … He couldn’t think about that. He knew that if he dwelt on them, his pain would become intolerable.

Then, his prison brightened suddenly. He looked up from the puzzle and saw an irregularly shaped splash of sunlight on the side wall — a place where the sun had never shone before.

It was Lois.

Clark felt himself smile. Lois shining light into his world was so symbolic.

He looked up to the window and waved as the knowledge that she had arrived simmered through him like a boiling kettle. He wasn’t sure whether that made him more patient or less.

He checked again that the tin box was next to the door, right where she couldn’t possibly fail to see it when she opened the door.

Then, he went to sit in the sunshine that Lois had provided for him and waited for her.

He didn’t have to wait for long.

A few minutes later, the lock clicked, the door opened, and Lois peeped into his prison. She glanced down to the box and then fully opened the door and pulled the chair against it.

Clark stood, his heart rollicking around his chest in a wild dance of anticipation.

She walked over to him with steady steps and a welcoming smile. “Hi, Clark,” she said when she reached him.

“Hi, Lois.”

They didn’t say anything for a few seconds, but that was OK because Clark needed some time to try to settle insides that were romping like children on Christmas morning.

Lois didn’t seem to mind the lull. “It’s good to see you again,” she said.

Oh, yes. “It’s good to see you.”

“Did you sleep OK?”

Clark glanced to the mattress and hoped she wouldn’t perceive the truth about how difficult it had been to readjust to real bedding. But he wanted to be honest with her. “It might take some time to get used to it again,” he said.

“That’s OK,” she said with an understanding smile. “I wanted to give you the choice. If you choose to sleep on the floor, that’s fine.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“You haven’t eaten your lunch yet.”

“No.”

“I haven’t either. Would you like us to eat together?”

That was precisely why he hadn’t begun to eat.

Lois grinned, probably realising why his lunch was untouched. “I’ll get us some drinks,” she said. “What would you like? Coke? Or a hot drink?”

“Coke, please,” Clark said. “Thank you.”

While she was out of the room, Clark removed the sleeping bag and pillow from the mattress and pulled it to a place against the side wall where the sunlight fell.

“Would you like to sit here?” he asked when she returned.

“Sure,” she said.

Clark waited until she had sat down, and then he sat next to her, his body turned towards her.

“Are you doing all right?” Lois asked.

He nodded.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Because yesterday was huge,” Lois said as she lifted her sandwich from the bag. “I thought about it later. If I was too … much … yesterday, I’m sorry.”

“No,” he said quickly. She had thought about him later. “You got it exactly right.”

“Really?”

She looked pleased by his words. As if his approval meant something to her. There was so much more he wanted to say. That she was amazing. And breathtaking. And beautiful. But he didn’t. He just nodded.

He was an alien.

A prisoner.

A nothing.

“I think I might today,” Lois said.

She might what? Clark scrambled back through their conversation and still couldn’t grasp her meaning. “Excuse me?”

“I might push too hard today.”

He wasn’t sure if that pleased him or petrified him. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to suggest we do something that I think you’ll find really difficult.”

Uh oh. What was she going to ask of him? Now, he was definitely petrified. He couldn’t refuse Lois anything.

Could he?

“If you don’t want to do it, that’s OK,” Lois said. “It’s your decision. If I’m going too fast, you need to tell me. And if there’s anything you’d like us to do, please say so.”

Clark nodded. He took a bite of his neglected sandwich.

“Sometimes I see you finger-comb your hair.”

He had hoped — inanely — that she wouldn’t have noticed his unsightly hair and ugly unkempt beard. “I … I was trying to get around to asking if it would be possible to have a comb.”

Lois nodded. “I thought so.” She looked at his mass of long, black hair, and Clark had to control the urge to push it off his shoulders to try to hide it. “It’s not going to be easy to comb out after all this time.”

“I tried to keep it from getting too knotty, but …”

“But that would be close to impossible with no comb and limited water.”

And — until she came — no soap. He nodded.

“Would you prefer that it was cut?”

“Yes,” he said. “But you can’t do that.”

“I know,” Lois said. “Not yet. It would be impossible to hide something as drastic as a haircut from the others. And there would be no way to explain it other than by saying I’d come in here and done it, or I’d given you scissors — both of which would cause a commotion that would be best avoided.”

Even with scissors, she probably wouldn’t be able to cut it. Not now that his powers were coming back. Clark chewed slowly to give himself some time. “What do you have in mind?” he asked after he’d swallowed.

Lois smiled. “I’d like to wash your hair — I have some shampoo and some detangling lotion, so after I’ve washed it, I’d like to comb it out.”

Clark felt his throat constrict is if a string laced through it had suddenly been pulled tight. Touch him? Touch his hair? His hideous, knotty, uncared for hair? He couldn’t let her. He just couldn’t. That she’d seen it was bad enough. To have her touch it, feel it. “I … I couldn’t …”

“Why not?”

“Because … because …” He had washed it. More than once since she’d given him the shampoo. But the thought of her soft hands touching the ratty mess just didn’t bear thinking about.

“Because?” she prompted with a gentle smile.

“Because … because someone might come.” The final few words had come in a rush. He hated that he didn’t have the courage to admit to the real reason.

“No one will come,” Lois said decisively.

“How can you be sure?”

“Because they’re all at Trask’s funeral.”

Funeral? “Trask’s dead?” Clark asked in a strangled voice.

Lois nodded.

“Did … did Moyne kill him?”

“No,” she said. “He walked under a bus.”

Clark put the remainder of his sandwich on the paper bag. “He’s really dead?”

“Yes. He’s really dead. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

Clark brushed back his hair and shuddered a long sigh. “I … I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

He picked up his sandwich and ate it without speaking.

Lois finished her lunch as well.

Clark slowly sipped his Coke and tried to concentrate on the all-but-forgotten taste. Nothing, however, could detract from the revelation that Trask was dead.

He was dead. Gone. Never to return.

More than once, Clark thought Lois was about to speak, but she said nothing.

Was she thinking about Trask?

Or was she disappointed by his refusal to allow her to wash his hair?

Why would she want to touch him?

He didn’t understand.

Clark drained his Coke and put it on the floor. It clattered as it hit the concrete. Lois waited, smiled.

“L…Lois?” he said.

“Yes?”

“About my hair … I’m sorry.”

Her smile didn’t waver, but something vital ebbed away. “That’s OK,” she said. “I understand.”

“I … I … “ He had nothing to give her except his honesty. “It’s bad enough that you saw my shame in the way I lived -”

“That is Trask’s shame, not yours.”

“It’s too …” Too much. Too soon. Too close. Too intimate. Too humiliating. Too indicative of how low he had sunk.

“I’m sorry,” Lois said.

“Please,” he said hastily. “Please don’t be sorry. I’m the one who’s sorry.”

“The offer stands,” she said. “Anytime you want to take it up, just say so.”

He nodded, but he couldn’t imagine ever being comfortable enough around Lois to allow her to do something as personal as washing his hair.

She’d gone quiet.

He’d disappointed her.

She’d given him so much.

And he’d disappointed her.

But …

Perhaps if they did something else first. He gathered up the empty cans and put them into one of the bags. “The jigsaw puzzle?” he suggested.

“OK.” She took the trash and walked slowly out of the prison.

She left the door open, Clark noticed. He could hear her as she moved around the adjoining room. He picked up the mattress and placed it near the puzzle. Unless Lois came back with Trask’s mattress, they would have only one.

He would sit on the concrete.

She wasn’t carrying anything when she returned. Clark gestured for her to sit on the mattress. She sat down and shuffled over.

There was sufficient room that he could sit there without risk of touching her.

He sat, too, but he didn’t pick up a puzzle piece.

Lois chose a piece, tried to fit it in three difference places, and gave up on it. She selected another piece.

All of Clark’s interest in the puzzle had faded away.

He’d hurt her.

It was just washing his hair … no big deal.

Any other man would be honoured to have her wash his hair.

But he wasn’t a man.

He was an alien.

He could let her do it. He could grit his teeth, and close his eyes, and take himself to the place where he’d gone so often when they’d beaten his body with the poisoned rods.

Except … that was the place he went when he was hurting.

And Lois would never hurt him.

Clearly, it meant a lot to her.

Was it because he hadn’t managed to wash his hair properly? Despite his efforts, was his hair truly disgusting? He hadn’t seen it — but he could imagine how horrendous it must be.

“Clark?”

He jumped at the sudden sound of her voice. “Yes, Lois?”

She checked her watch. “It’s almost one o’clock. The funeral starts at two. There’s no chance of us being interrupted now.”

“OK.” Was she going to ask again?

“I have an idea for something we could do.”

“You do?”

“I do,” she said. “Tennis. Well, it will probably be more like squash.”

Clark looked around the prison, seeing the possibilities. “Squash?”

She nodded. “I know you’ve kept fit with running and other exercises. I have a ball and two racquets. Would you like to?”

He sprang to his feet. Squash he could manage.

Part 9

Lois stormed up the stairs and only just refrained from slamming the office door into next week.

She was an idiot.

She had allowed her impulsiveness to override her common sense. In pushing too hard, she had bulldozed over all the progress they had made yesterday.

Poor Clark!

He’d tried so valiantly to conceal his dismay.

He was a bachelor. And probably not one of those bachelors who revelled in their ‘freedom’ to sashay from woman to woman but one of those bachelors who felt self-conscious around women. Add to that seven years of being treated as a subhuman monster, and how could she have expected anything else?

Why hadn’t she taken it slowly?

Lois wanted to scream. But she couldn’t — Clark would hear.

She wanted to punch something. But she couldn’t — he would hear that, too.

She snatched up the two racquets, the tennis ball, and a large piece of chalk from her desk.

She forced herself to pause. Take a breath. Calm down.

This was redeemable, her rational side insisted in a small voice.

But now he’ll be on edge, she argued. He’ll worry that I’m going to suggest something else that will be too difficult for him, he’ll obsess about declining, he’ll wonder if I’ll back away, he’ll fear that his refusal will have ramifications.

She’d put him in such a difficult position.

If he agreed now, the reasons would be all wrong.

Stuck in her mind had been how washing her father’s hair had seemed to break down barriers between them. And she hadn’t been able to forget how Clark had recoiled when their fingers had brushed yesterday.

She so wanted to make up for seven lost years.

How did it feel to not know the touch of a friend for seven years?

He must feel so isolated.

Lois grated out a silent groan of frustration.

The longer she stayed away, the longer he would agonise over what had happened.

It was vital that he trusted her. He had to trust her enough to give her the information she needed to ascertain the best way to procure his freedom.

Trust took a long time to build up. And seconds to break down.

Linda had always provided the steadying hand in their partnership. She had been the word of caution that perfectly balanced Lois’s impetuosity.

But now, that hand had gone, and Lois was working alone.

On the most challenging, most important assignment she’d ever had.

Perhaps the situation with Clark could be restored through their game of squash. At least it was going to be physical. She could keep her mouth firmly shut — and that was a good thing. Unless she accidentally whacked him with the racquet, she wasn’t going to be able to do much damage.

Lois walked purposefully down the stairs, telling herself that it would be good to get active again. Since returning to the US, she hadn’t felt any motivation to exercise. Then her ankle had been hurt in the incident with Moyne.

She should be feeling great — this was one of the ideas she had looked forward to most.

She arrived back in the cell — not in the greatest frame of mind — and dropped the racquets onto the concrete.

They discussed a few rules for their game as they used the chalk to draw some lines on the floor and along the side wall.

“Let’s just hit for a while,” Lois suggested. There was no enthusiasm in her voice.

“OK,” Clark said. There was none in his either.

When Lois handed him a racquet, she didn’t meet his eyes.

Clark hit the ball against the wall, and it ricocheted to her. It sat up, and she swiped at it. It flew back towards the wall — faster than she’d intended.

Clark stuck out his racquet and returned the ball, moderating its speed enough that it lobbed back to Lois.

She pounded it at the wall.

He muted it.

She slugged it.

He slowed it.

She thumped it.

He tamed it.

She charged at it, absolutely determined to either belt the cover off the ball or blast a hole in the wall. She drew back her racquet -

And excruciating pain seared through her left ankle.

Her leg crumbled.

The concrete rushed towards her.

Lois dropped the racquet and put out her hand to cushion her fall.

Before she crashed, two arms surrounded her and lifted her.

Clark carried her — one arm under her shoulders and one arm under her knees. He dropped smoothly to the concrete, gently lowered her onto the mattress, and slipped his arms out from under her.

“Lois?” he said.

Her ankle felt as if it were being consumed by raging fire. She bit down on her lip and closed her eyes.

She felt Clark’s hands on her leg. Her eyes shot open to protest. Movement … touch … anything was going to compound the pain.

Before Lois could object, he had raised her foot and was cradling it in his hands. He breathed in and blew a zephyr of air onto her ankle. It felt cold against her skin, but it smothered the fire and brought instant relief.

Clark’s breath finished, and his eyes lifted from her ankle to her face. “Is that any better?”

She nodded.

He inhaled, and the cooling breeze whispered across her ankle again. Lois closed her eyes. The pain had subsided enough that it was possible to concentrate on other things.

The way her foot was nestled into his large, gentle hands.

And the memory of the concern so vividly expressed in his brown eyes.

She heard him inhale. His out-breath coincided with another flutter of pulsing air on her ankle. It was becoming numb, and the searing pain had faded to a dull throb. Lois lowered herself from her elbows and lay on her back. Clark placed her leg on the mattress, and she felt the prickle of disappointment that he was leaving her.

When she opened her eyes, he was offering her the pillow. She took it from him and slipped it under her head. “Thanks.”

“How’s your ankle?”

“It felt better when you were holding it.”

He crouched at her feet, and his long fingers slid around her lower calf and lifted her ankle. “How’s that?”

“It still hurts, but it sure feels better than it did.”

“More ice?” he asked as nonchalantly as if he were offering an everyday icepack from the freezer.

She nodded.

He breathed in again and blew across her ankle. At the end of his breath, his eyes connected with hers. “I think it might be best if your shoe came off now,” he suggested quietly. “In case your ankle swells.”

“Is it going to hurt?” Lois asked with a grimaced smile.

He gave her a little smile of assurance. “I’ll try to make sure it doesn’t.”

“Thanks.”

He placed her foot on his thigh, and Lois watched as he undid her laces with such care that he didn’t jolt her foot at all. He loosened the shoe and grasped it. “Ready?”

Lois nodded.

Clark eased off the shoe and placed it on the concrete. Then his hands returned to her foot to steady it as it perched on his thigh.

“Do you want to get more comfortable?” Lois asked. “I’m not going to feel like moving for a while.”

He dropped to the mattress with a smooth and effortless movement. “Do you want me to keep your foot elevated?” he asked. “Or would you prefer that I put it on the mattress?”

Maybe they could achieve through a sprained ankle what they hadn’t been able to achieve through a hair wash. “It feels better when it’s elevated.”

“OK.” He adjusted his hands slightly so they provided a sling of support. “How’s that?”

“That’s great,” Lois said. “Thanks.”

“What happened?”

“I think my ankle must still be weak from when I twisted it a few days ago. It just gave way under me.”

“There are no broken bones,” he stated.

He waited … probably preparing for a barrage of questions. Lois decided there were more important things at stake than knowing how he could ice her ankle with his breath.

Or react so quickly that he’d caught her before she hit the floor.

Or know with certainty that her ankle wasn’t broken.

“Thanks for helping me,” she said, hoping to move them away from the gulf of looming questions.

“How’s it feeling?” he asked.

“OK. Perhaps a little more ice?”

Clark breathed in, and his breath cooled the lingering coals of pain.

They were silent. Lois closed her eyes as the last vestiges of discomfort ebbed away. When she opened them again, Clark was gazing at her, deep in thought.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“How sorry I am that I made you mad.”

“You didn’t -”

“Yes, I did,” Clark said. “I made you mad when I wouldn’t let you wash my hair.”

“I wasn’t mad at you.”

“You were mad,” he said. His beard twitched, and for a fleeting moment, Lois was sure his eyes glistened with amusement. “And you were taking it out on that ball.”

“True on both counts,” Lois said. “But I wasn’t mad at you.”

He glanced around the room. “There are only two of us here,” he noted.

“Yep — and it’s not you.”

“Oh.” He looked down to where her foot hung in the haven of his hands. “I guess that leaves you.”

“I was so mad at myself for pushing too quickly and destroying all the progress we -”

“You didn’t do that,” Clark said.

“Yes, I did.”

His eyes settled in hers. “You must have questions,” he said.

“You, too.”

“You weren’t the one blowing your icy breath everywhere.”

“You weren’t the one trying to blast an innocent tennis ball through a brick wall.”

Clark smiled. Lois couldn’t see much of his mouth, but she sure could see the humour in his eyes.

They said nothing. She was smiling. He was smiling. She was drinking in his smile.

“I’m sorry, Clark,” Lois said. “I was an idiot over the hair-washing.”

He slowly shook his head. “You could never be an idiot.”

“You hardly know me yet.”

“I know enough to know that.”

“You don’t know some of the things I’ve done. You don’t know some of the incredibly stupid decisions I’ve made. Decisions that … hurt people …”

“Was your intent to hurt them?”

Lois closed her eyes and was transported back to the putrid place where Linda had been raped and killed.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Clark said quietly. “I know the answer.”

His voice had the power to drive away the blackness. Lois opened her eyes. “Thank you,” she said.

He looked down, as if her thanks had discomfited him. “It hurt you a lot, didn’t it?”

Was he being deliberately ambiguous? Lois nodded. “But your ‘ice’ was wonderfully soothing.”

He lifted her foot a few inches and blew on it again.

It felt good.

“I have a suggestion,” Lois said at the completion of his breath.

Clark’s eyes crinkled. “Does it involve my hair?”

Lois managed to keep her reaction to a restrained chuckle. Clark was teasing her. How could a man who had been locked in a cell for seven years still have even a scrap of humour left to draw upon? “No,” she said, smiling on the outside as her admiration for him surged on the inside.

“Squash?”

Lois shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll be playing squash again for a few days.”

He winced, and his thumb slid across the curve of her ankle. “Does it still hurt?”

“Not much,” Lois said. “Not if I don’t think about having to stand up.”

“We can stay here for a while,” he said. “There’s no hurry.”

Somehow, staying here with Clark — as he held her foot, and talked to her in his soft voice, and looked at her with those sometimes-smiling brown eyes — seemed like the best idea Lois had ever heard. “Here’s my suggestion,” she said. “We both have questions, but neither of us wants to ask them in case the other doesn’t want to answer.”

He nodded. His thumb was still gliding across her skin.

“What if we answer questions?” Lois said. “What if I guess which questions you would ask and answer the ones I’m willing to answer? And you could guess which questions I would ask and answer anything you feel comfortable telling me.”

“OK.”

He didn’t sound completely sure. “If there’s nothing you feel you want to tell me, that’s OK,” Lois said.

Clark nodded slightly. His thumb had stopped. Did that mean he was tensing up? Perhaps he needed a reminder of how much he had helped her.

“My ankle’s starting to throb again,” she said. “Would you mind?”

He inhaled and blew the cool breeze across her ankle. “Better?”

She nodded. “Thanks.”

“Who goes first?” Clark asked. “With the answers?”

“I will,” Lois offered. She had hundreds of questions she wanted to ask him and very little that she was sure she wanted to say, but it would be unfair to ask him to go first.

“OK.”

Lois searched through her mind. “I work as a secret agent,” she said.

Clark’s thumb slid across her skin in an arc of encouragement.

“When you spend so much time pretending to be someone else, it’s very easy to forget how to be you.”

“Yep.”

She hadn’t realised how aptly her statement could apply to him. Part of his survival technique must have been to hide and protect the real Clark. “The only way to stay grounded is to have a friend,” she said. “Someone who knows you, and accepts you, and allows you complete freedom to be yourself. Who you really are.”

His thumb cruised back and forth across her skin.

“I had a friend,” Lois said quietly.

Sympathy budded in his eyes. He — who had lost absolutely everything — could feel the pain of her loss. “I’m sorry about your friend,” he said.

“He raped her before he killed her,” Lois said with such raw anguish that it didn’t sound like her voice. “He raped her, and he hurt her, and he hit her, and he violated her, and … and … and … there was nothing I could do to help her.”

His eyes had deepened to dark brown — deepened to such a level of feeling that it was like a physical blanket of support being wrapped around her.

“I heard it all,” Lois whimpered. “I heard his evil triumph, and I heard her fear, and I heard his cruelty, and I heard her pain.” A tear squeezed from her eye and rolled down her temple, leaving a damp trail. “And I heard her die. I heard her final breath.”

“Lo -” The word was chopped off as Clark swallowed jaggedly. “Lois,” he said. “Aww, Lois.”

She could see that he wished he had words for her, but she didn’t need his words. His empathy was so pure that words would have cheapened it.

Lois brushed away the trail of her tear. “Your turn.”

Clark took a breath, and his thumb stopped on the protrusion of her anklebone. His mouth opened … and then closed.

“Take your time,” Lois said. “You can say something as frivolous as whether you prefer coffee or tea, and why.”

“That would seem to trivialise what you told me.”

“I know you wouldn’t mean it like that.”

“I like coffee in the morning and tea in the evening,” he said.

She smiled a wobbly smile. “I like tea in the morning if I’ve slept well and coffee if I haven’t.”

“I’m an alien,” he said. “I don’t belong here.”

Where are you from? How did you get here? How can you look so human? Are you going back? Are there other aliens here? Why did you come here? The questions jostled around her mind. With a colossal effort, Lois subdued them and gave him time to choose his answers.

“I came here as a baby,” Clark continued. “My planet was about to self-destruct. My biological parents figured this was my only chance.”

A baby? She’d read an entire notebook filled with information about a spaceship, but if Trask had mentioned that it had carried a baby, she’d missed it. “Did they -” Lois slapped her mouth shut. “Sorry.”

“Ask,” he said. “It’s OK.”

“Did they come, too?”

“No. Only me.”

“Why did they send you to Earth?”

“Because they thought I would be enough like humans that I could be …”

“Accepted here?”

He nodded. “Two Kansas farmers — Martha and Jonathan Kent — found my spaceship. They lifted me out, and took me home, and gave me a name, and raised me as their own son.”

And Trask had ensured that they had paid an enormous price for their kindness.

Clark looked down, his eyes blinking rapidly. When he looked up, they were damp with unshed tears. “I can’t talk about my parents,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“I think it’s my turn again,” Lois said.

“Thanks.” The gratitude in his eyes drilled deep inside her.

She searched through her mind. There had been wonderful release in the little she had told Clark about Linda, but Lois wasn’t sure she wanted to tell him any more.

Not now.

His thumb began coasting over her ankle again.

What could she tell him?

Something light — but what? All of the best parts of her life had disintegrated. She’d had some fun times with Lucy … who’d moved to the West Coast and whom Lois hadn’t seen in two years. Her relationship with her mother became more strained every year. She’d had a good — if at times turbulent — relationship with her father … who was now in a nursing home paralysed from a stroke. She’d had a friend, a partner — someone she loved and trusted … who had died a horrible and violent death.

The stark truth was that the best thing in her life right now was the prisoner she was supposed to be guarding — the man she had spoken to for the first time only yesterday.

The pressure of Clark’s thumb increased a tiny amount. “It’s OK,” he said. “You don’t have to say anything.”

“Thanks.”

“Would you mind if I asked a question?” Clark said. “I don’t think it will be intrusive, but if it is, you don’t have to answer.”

“OK.”

“Other than your ankle, whatever else Moyne did to you … are you OK?”

She nodded. “I’m fine.”

His hand left her ankle and rose to his face. He brushed his fingertips across the top of his beard, along his cheekbone. “I’ve been watching the graze you had here. It has almost faded to nothing.”

“The Neosporin you gave me helped,” Lois said with a smile.

“I wanted to do so much more,” Clark said. “But I knew that anything I did would scare you more — and you already looked so frightened.”

“I was,” Lois admitted.

“Did … did Moyne use me to scare you?”

“Yeah.”

Clark flinched as if she had hit him. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

She waited for him to look up before answering. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“No wonder you were screaming that night.”

“That was not about you — it was about the … the night my friend died.”

There was such depth of understanding in his eyes that Lois felt irresistibly drawn to him. What would it feel like to have his arms around her? To lean into his chest and -

“Having been there … that must be tough,” Clark said.

Lois nodded, and tears flooded her eyes.

His thumb continued to work her ankle. She stared up at the high ceiling. Was he aware of what he was doing? Was he doing it to comfort her? Or because human contact felt so good after the years of segregation?

Did he know how amazing it felt?

Lois looked back to Clark. “Do you know why Moyne forced me into your cell? Did he really think you would hurt me?”

“That’s what he did the other two times.”

“He forced Deller and Bortolotto in here?”

“Yeah, he locked them in here, and then he returned with the poison and a knife. Because of the poison, I couldn’t do anything while he attacked them.”

“They weren’t able to escape?”

“The second one wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t very strong.”

“What about the first one?”

“Trask helped Moyne that time.”

That definitely hadn’t been in Trask’s log. “So, you think Moyne’s plan was to leave me here with you … although he probably knew you wouldn’t hurt me? Then, he planned to return with the rod, kill me, and say you’d done it?”

“Yeah.”

“But he pulled my gun on me,” Lois said. “He tried to shoot me.”

“If he said you walked into here with a gun, and you ended up shot, who do you think they were going to blame?”

That question didn’t need an answer.

The grim silence fell again, and Lois could imagine too well the horrific things that had happened in this place.

“I’m sorry I believed — just for a few moments — that you might hurt me,” Lois said.

“You don’t have to be sorry,” Clark said. “You had no reason to think I was anything other than what they said I was.”

“Yes, I did,” she countered. “I had plenty of reason.”

“But reason gets easily lost in the heat of the moment.”

“Thanks,” she said. “Thanks for being so understanding.”

“And two days later, you walked in here unarmed.” Clark shook his head in wonderment. “I could never have imagined such an act of trust.”

“Trust?” she said, smiling. “Or stupidity?”

“What do you think?”

“Trust,” she said decisively. “Even then, I knew there was something about you.”

He smiled cautiously. “There’s plenty about me,” he said. “Mostly it makes people terrified and suspicious.”

“Was it always like that? When you were younger?”

“No one knew. I didn’t tell anyone. I just tried to blend in.”

Lois had thought a lot about the trauma of his imprisonment but nothing of the lifelong anguish of being so different. She didn’t know what to say. And … she was going to have to get up.

“Clark?” she said. “I need to use the …” She glanced to the door of the cell.

He carefully placed her sore foot on the mattress and removed her other shoe. “Would you like me to help you to your feet?” he said. “Or carry you to the door?”

He had carried her to the mattress, but she had been in so much pain, it was nothing more than a blurred memory. “Would you mind carrying me?” Lois asked.

Clark knelt beside her, slipped his arms under her body, and lifted her as easily as if she were a child. As he walked across the cell with smooth, even strides, the bottom of his beard tickled her arm.

They arrived at the door, and he lowered her to her feet. His hands loosely circled her waist as he steadied her. Lois grasped his shoulders and put her foot to the ground. She gingerly transferred her weight from her good foot to the injured one.

The expected shot of pain didn’t come.

It was sore, but not unbearably so. She smiled up at Clark. “It’s OK,” she said.

He seemed suddenly conscious of their closeness. He lifted his hands from her, but they hovered, ready if she should need him again.

“I’m fine,” Lois assured him. She squeezed her fingers into his shoulder, smiled into his eyes, and then turned and walked into the staffroom.

***

Daniel Scardino escaped from the funeral home as soon as was seemly.

Funerals overflowing with raw emotion made him uncomfortable, but this had been infinitely worse. It had the feel of a stilted business meeting. A small group of strangers — a few men in suits and one woman — had gathered. None had wanted to be there. None had cared. All had hoped that it would be over as quickly as possible.

It had been mercifully short.

There had been no eulogy and only the sparsest of detail regarding the life that had ended.

In fact, more had been said about the manner of his death than the years of his life.

Daniel had been asked to be a pallbearer. He — who had met Jason Trask exactly three times and knew nothing about his life outside of the job.

Thankfully, his duties had involved nothing more than moving the casket from the front of the tiny room, through the door, and into the waiting hearse.

The body was to be cremated.

Scardino hoped no one would contact him about what to do with the ashes.

He reached his car with a sigh of relief.

“Scardino!”

His heart sank as he turned.

As he’d expected, it was Menzies.

The tall man hurried over to him. “I’m Eric Menzies,” he said gruffly.

Scardino had known that — although the men had never met. “Daniel Scardino.”

“I want to know everything that is happening in the operation Neville Moyne just left,” Menzies said. “Be at my office, eight o’clock sharp, Wednesday morning.”

Daniel nodded, hoping his apprehension wasn’t obvious.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s a complete fiasco,” Menzies said. His eyes narrowed, and he leant forward. “What in heaven’s name possessed you to appoint a woman to the position?”

“Ms Lane is a highly competent operative,” Scardino said.

Menzies snorted. “She’s still a woman.” He turned and strode away without a backward glance.

Daniel slipped into the driver’s seat of his car.

Eric Menzies was not just a ‘higher-up’. He was one of the ‘highest-ups’.

He was a man feared for his inflexible austerity and sharp, scything tongue.

He had recently returned to the job after a yearlong absence that had evoked a legion of rumours, but no one Daniel knew had dared to ask the man himself.

And he was married to Moyne’s aunt.

Part 10

As soon as Lois stepped out of his prison, Clark moved away from the door.

He’d said the scariest three words in his vocabulary.

I’m an alien.

The three words that had haunted him before his capture and condemned him since.

But Lois …

Lois hadn’t recoiled. She hadn’t flinched. She hadn’t bombarded him with a million questions.

She’d probably suspected before his admission. They would have told her. But even so, her reaction to his bald statement confirmed what he had already known.

Lois was an extraordinary woman.

Her easy acceptance reached deep inside him and squarely confronted all of the hate, and the animosity, and the suspicion, and the fear. And in the face of her support, all of their repugnance crumpled to insignificance.

He could stand against the hostility of the whole world if she were standing beside him.

He’d let her see his speed and his freezing breath. He hadn’t given one thought to how she would react. All that had mattered was that she was in pain, and he’d known exactly how to help her.

Only as his first cooling breath had floated across her ankle had he realised that her most likely reaction would be to yank her foot away in shock. She hadn’t done that. She’d thanked him — just as with the bullet, she’d thanked him.

In the distant past, when he’d still allowed himself the luxury of dreams, he had dreamed of someone who could learn to overlook his oddities.

But Lois … she embraced them.

He had to fix his concentration on his weird powers.

Because that would keep his mind from giving licence to the thoughts that were poised like athletes on the starting block, just waiting for a signal that it was OK to break free and revel in all the other memories.

Holding her.

Clark closed his eyes as every inch of skin on his arms quivered with the remembrance of her.

Holding her in his arms …

Had been …

His heart accelerated. She had been tucked so close to his heart that it might never recover its normal rhythm.

Touching her.

Her skin was so soft.

His thumb. He could still feel her skin under his thumb.

She smelled like the first flush of spring flowers after a long winter.

She was so soft.

So strong.

So womanly.

So beautiful.

And he needed to think about something else.

Anything else.

Because no matter how she reacted to his disturbing disclosures or how tolerant she seemed of his peculiarities, two facts were immutable.

He was a prisoner. Worse than that, he was an alien.

And, one day, she would leave.

He would remain.

Clark’s heart splintered.

He’d already lost everything once.

Could he lose everything again and still fight on?

He didn’t know.

He shoved his hands into his pockets and leant his shoulder against the wall, his head low, his eyes locked onto his bare feet. In the first months of his imprisonment, he’d thought that deprivation came in the denial of freedom. Then, he’d realised that it came in the dearth of food, and water, and dignity.

Now he knew better.

Deprivation … true deprivation … came in being separated from Lois.

And that was his inevitable destiny.

He had to decide.

Should he fight to re-establish a distance between them? Should he withdraw from her the way he had withdrawn from Trask and Moyne in order to keep them from desecrating his soul?

Should he hide away and refuse her entry into his world?

Would that make her departure any less painful?

He doubted it.

Or should he accept what she seemed to be offering? Should he talk to her, allow her to pervade his world? Should he open up to her? Allow her to be the first person — other than his parents — to see him as he really was?

A discordant thought struck him with such power that he almost toppled over.

What if this was just an act? What if Trask wasn’t dead? What if they had decided that the beatings were never going to get him to admit that others of his kind were coming? What if they were trying a new tactic? Sending in a beautiful woman to ply him with her kindness? To treat him humanely so that he would spill the secret of the marauding army of aliens?

There was no army.

Trask had done everything in his power to get Clark to admit to knowledge of the alien army.

If there were an army — Clark had no knowledge of it.

But saying that had only provoked Trask’s paranoia and goaded Moyne’s anger.

What if Lois asked him about the coming armies?

What would he say?

Clark shrugged slightly.

All he could give her was the truth.

That — as far as he knew — he was the only surviving Kryptonian.

But that didn’t answer what he should do about Lois. Should he cower away in the dark shadows of his mind? Or continue to allow her to awaken and invigorate the vestiges of what had once been his life?

Then he remembered.

Lois had been hurt, too.

She had witnessed the death of her friend, and buried deep inside her, she still carried the oppressive burden of grief. He had sensed guilt there, too.

And … perhaps even … Was there more? What else had she endured?

The thought of it felt like a blade lacerating his heart.

How could he even contemplate withdrawing from her?

He couldn’t.

He could do nothing to help her … not in a practical sense. He had nothing to give her. Nothing of worth to offer. But he could be there for her … He could listen if she wanted to talk. He could be the safe sounding board that she might need before she reconnected with the outside world.

That was probably why she had taken this job. To escape. To recover.

He heard a footstep and turned.

Lois was there — holding two cups of tea. She offered him one. “It’s closer to the evening than the morning,” she said. “I figured you’d like tea.”

He reached for both cups. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he scolded lightly. “You should be resting your ankle.” He put the cups on the floor. “How can I help?”

She looked around the prison. “You could bring the mattress over here,” she said. “And we’ll lean against the wall while we drink our tea.”

Clark hurried to position the mattress as she had suggested. Then, he hesitantly raised his hand towards her and waited for her to decide if she wanted or needed his help.

With a little smile that lassoed his heart, she took his hand and lowered herself onto the mattress.

And Clark accepted his powerlessness.

Her touch. Her hand in his. Her smile. In that moment, he knew that it didn’t matter that heartache was coming as inescapably as an avalanche rolling down a hill. In that moment, he knew that he could hold nothing back from this woman.

She had shown such trust in him.

He wasn’t going to allow the poison of doubts to steal these few transitory days with Lois. He was going to store up every memory he could so that when she was gone, he would have memories to help him through the endless nights and the lonely days.

He sat beside her and handed her one of the mugs. “How’s your ankle?” he asked.

“It barely hurts at all,” she said. “What you did was wonderfully effective.”

“I’m glad,” he said.

“I was able to go up the stairs to my office.”

Was she going to tell him she had looked through the window and seen the moroseness of his stance? Was she going to question him?

Lois sipped from her tea, and then with a smile, she nodded to the door. “I got the shampoo and the comb,” she said. “I’ll leave them for you, and you can do your hair whenever you want to.”

Clark stared into the brown liquid of his tea.

Was he going to spend the rest of his life regretting his gaucheness? Or was he going to dislodge a few bricks from his wall of isolation and give himself a memory that would remain with him forever?

“Lois?”

“Uhmm?”

“I know we can’t do it today, but maybe … maybe … you … we … could …” He couldn’t bring himself to actually ask her.

He didn’t have to.

She smiled. Smiled as if he had given her something of immense value. “That’s great, Clark,” she said. “Dinner will be here soon. We’ll do it after we’ve eaten.”

“You can’t do it tonight,” he said quickly. “Not with your injured ankle.”

She thought for a moment. “We could if you were OK with lying on the mattress. I’ll sit behind you while I wash your hair, and then we’ll both sit on chairs for the combing. It won’t hurt my ankle at all.”

“Are you sure?”

Totally sure.” She grinned. “Assuming you’re willing to help me up from the floor.”

That would mean holding her hand again. Clark nodded as anticipation sparked fire inside him. He needed to move on. Quickly. He had a question. But he could frame it as a statement. “I don’t understand why you want to do this so much.”

Her eyes tugged at his for a moment. “It’s not that easy to explain,” she said. “There’s someone else, and it was really difficult with him, and then someone suggested that doing something practical was a great way of connecting, so I washed his hair, and … “ She shrugged. “It seemed to work.”

“Why do you want to connect with me?” His question was out before discretion could contain it.

Lois didn’t seem bothered by his directness, although she did hesitate before answering. “Because I noticed how you were so careful to avoid any contact between us. And I thought that if it happened in a mundane and everyday circumstance, it would be less awkward and not seem like such a big deal.”

She wanted to break down his barriers. She wanted entry into his world. As that revelation swept over him, Clark smiled and hoped it looked natural. “Did you fake your sprained ankle?” he asked.

Lois chuckled. “No,” she said. “But I would have if I’d thought of it.”

She took his breath away — not once, but over and over again until his lungs felt oxygen-starved and his head floated with delicious buoyancy.

She smiled over the top of her cup. “I’ve answered your questions,” she said. “I think you owe me a couple.”

His shutters flew up instinctively, but Clark determinedly pushed them back down. He didn’t want his memories to be full of half-conversations, and unanswered questions, and missed opportunities.

“I do owe you,” he agreed, trying desperately to sound unconcerned.

“After Moyne was knocked out, why didn’t you speak to me? I sensed that you wanted to communicate, but you didn’t say anything.”

Clark thought for a moment before replying. “Silence is a hard habit to break,” he said. “I spoke to Trask and Moyne in the first few days, but then they stopped me. After that, I didn’t speak for so long that it didn’t seem natural anymore.”

“I guess having me thrust into your room was a rude shock.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” Clark said. “I didn’t know -”

“Yes, you did.”

“I couldn’t think straight. I was -”

“You didn’t need to be able to think straight to know what to do,” she said with what sounded astoundingly close to admiration.

“I didn’t speak,” Clark said. “I was awkward. I was flustered. Thinking back now, I’m surprised I didn’t completely terrify you.”

“Whatever Moyne did, you were going to stand between him and me, weren’t you?” Lois asked gravely.

Clark could feel the warmth rise from the upper echelons of his beard to become — he was sure — visible on his cheeks. He nodded.

Lois gave a little half smile that tightened her lasso around his heart. “Is that the only reason why you didn’t speak?”

No, it wasn’t. But to admit to the other reason would require knocking down a few more of the bricks and exposing another piece of his soul. Clark shook his head.

“What was the other reason?”

He gave a nervous chuckle. “You’re asking a lot of questions.”

“You know you don’t have to answer,” Lois reminded him.

“I was scared that if I tried to speak, I would either squeak like a teenager whose voice is starting to break or sound like a wild animal.”

“When you did speak, it sounded fine.”

He nodded. “I’d practised by then.”

“You were expecting me to come back?”

“No,” he said. “I was sure that you would never come back, but if you did, I wanted to be ready.”

She smiled. “You are …”

He felt himself answering her smile. “I am what?”

Her lovely brown eyes burned warmth into his soul, and he felt his heart go into freefall. Right when he was sure that he couldn’t maintain eye contract a moment longer without risking permanent damage to his heart, she broke away and looked at her watch. “You are hungry,” she said. “And our food should be here soon.”

Clark jumped to his feet and picked up her shoes. “Will you need these?”

“Yeah. I have to go outside to get the food.”

He gave her one shoe and carefully eased her right foot into the other one and tied her laces.

“Do you have a child?” Lois asked.

“No.”

“A kid brother or sister?”

“No. Why?”

“Because you seem pretty good at that.”

“My mom …” Clark said in stilted explanation.

“Is she disabled?”

“No,” he said hurriedly. “I was thinking back to when she used to tie my shoelaces.” He rose from his crouched position and offered her his hand. She took it, and he gently pulled her to her feet. “Would you like to be carried to the door?” he offered.

“There’s no need,” she said. “Really, my ankle feels fine.”

“OK,” Clark said, telling himself that he should be relieved but unable to blunt the sharpness of his disappointment. He handed her the empty mugs.

“I’ll be back soon,” Lois said.

He watched as she walked to the door — her limp barely noticeable.

One day, she would walk away from him — just as she was walking away now. Except then, she wouldn’t come back.

Clark pushed away that certainty. This time, she was coming back. He would concentrate on that.

***

As Lois walked past the warehouse, her mind was embroiled in a battle.

Her gut was insisting that time was limited. Insisting that she needed to push forward with Clark, needed to get the groundwork done, needed to establish enough trust that it would withstand the onslaught of whatever opposition they faced.

But against that rose her memory of his reaction to her suggestion that she wash his hair.

She paused at the street and waited for Uncle Mike’s delivery boy.

She needed to sort her questions. Those driven by mere curiosity could wait. What did she have to know?

His parents.

She didn’t know the exact circumstances of how Clark would leave his cell, but she did know that his first thoughts were going to centre on his parents.

If the news were bad, it would be preferable that he knew before being propelled into the outside world.

If the news were good, that would give him impetus and much-needed support in recovering his life.

Except …

Could that be why he seemed to have dismissed the possibility of escape? Was he convinced that if he broke out of the cell, there would be consequences for his parents?

Was that why, when the cell door had been open, he had refused to go through it?

Or was it that he believed that life outside of the cell wouldn’t be significantly better than in it? Did he shy away from being chased like a criminal? Being hunted down like an animal? Being hated and feared for being different?

If his parents were alive, would he go to them?

Or would he believe that by going to them — even if he could — he would put them in danger?

She needed to find out what had happened to Jonathan and Martha Kent.

And to do that, she had to question their son.

And that was going to require trawling through memories that would hurt him.

When she had been hurt, he’d carried her. Seemingly without any effort at all. She wasn’t exactly a heavyweight, but he must have great physical strength to be able to lift her with so little effort.

Being in his arms …

It had felt …

Whatever it had felt, it had been enough to make her decline his offer to carry her again.

Why?

Well, she hadn’t needed to be carried.

And yet …

A car pulled up to the kerb, and Lois stepped forward to take the two containers. “Thanks,” she said.

She walked back — almost painlessly — to the compound. Clark did trust her. He’d let her see some of the things he could do. Some of the things that made him different. He’d admitted that he wasn’t from Earth.

But she needed more — she needed to know about his capture.

Lois locked the external door behind her and stopped in the staffroom long enough to pick up the cutlery and napkins. As soon as she’d stepped into the cell, Clark approached her. “What can I do?” he asked. “Take the meals?”

Lois gave him the containers. “Thanks.”

They reached the mattress, and Clark put the meals on the ground and stretched out his hand to help her. She took it with a smile and lowered herself onto the mattress.

He sat opposite her.

“What do we have?” Lois asked.

Clark paused, his hand on the still-closed lid of the container. “Is that a loaded question?” he asked.

Lois grinned. “Only partly.”

Under the beard, he was grinning, too. “How can a question be ‘partly loaded’?” he demanded.

Neither of them had opened their containers. Whatever the food was, it couldn’t compete with Clark’s smile. “You could take it as an oblique way of asking whether you can see through the container,” she said. “Or you could take it as just a conversation-filler.”

He pulled off the lid. “We have what looks like chicken curry and wild rice.” He picked up his fork, but didn’t begin eating. “I can see through things,” he admitted with a wry smile.

“Thought so,” Lois said. She lifted her container to her nose and inhaled deeply. “It smells great.”

Clark ate a piece of chicken. “Uhm,” he said. “Tastes great, too.”

Lois slowly ate her meal, trying to decide how to work around to the subject of his parents. It was encouraging that he hadn’t been perturbed by her allusion to another of his abilities. Would it be easier if they spoke while eating? Would that help them through any rough spots?

She put her food on the mattress and looked at him.

He paused, his fork halfway to his mouth. He put the fork in the container and the container on the mattress.

“Clark,” Lois said. “I need to talk to you about your parents.”

He paled, and his eyelids slowly dropped.

She placed her fingers on his forearm. “No,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything.”

He opened his eyes. “You don’t know if they’re OK?”

“No,” Lois said. His forearm muscles were hard and taut. “I don’t. But I want to find out, and to do that, I need your help.”

“Anything,” he said. “I’ll do anything I can to help you.”

She reluctantly removed her hand from his arm. “It could be that we have lots of time,” she said. “It could be that now Trask is buried and Moyne has left, the higher-ups will forget about this operation again, and we will have a long time to find out what we need to know.”

“But?”

“But it’s also possible that this has unsettled them — and that someone is going to start asking questions and demanding answers.”

“That would be bad?”

Lois scrunched her nose. “It could be good,” she said hesitantly. “But it could be bad.”

“They could take you away?”

She could see the smouldering fear in his eyes. She wanted to hold him. Wanted to assure him that if they forced her to leave, she wouldn’t leave without him.

She had done that once — left her partner. She would never do it again.

“I don’t know,” Lois said. “That’s why we have to deal with some things now.”

He nodded.

“I have asked about your parents,” she said. “But I’ve received nothing back. I could ask again, but that might only agitate things.”

Clark rubbed his forehead. “Is it possible that asking questions could make things worse for my parents?”

Lois had been hoping he wouldn’t realise that. She nodded slightly, knowing her admission would distress him but not wanting to mislead him.

“Do you have any ideas?” Clark asked. “About what we can do?”

“I have one,” Lois said. She picked up her meal and loaded some rice onto her fork. “But I don’t know how you’ll react.”

“I’m willing to do anything,” he said desperately.

“You were raised in Smallville, Kansas?”

He nodded.

Lois picked up his meal and handed it to him. “Eat,” she said softly. “Don’t let it get cold.”

He took it with a little smile. “I was raised on a farm just north of Smallville.”

“I think I should go there.”

He didn’t react immediately. “Why?” he asked after a few seconds.

“There’s a chance your parents were allowed to return home,” Lois replied. “We don’t know what they were told. If they think you are dead, that would stop them looking for you.”

“I … I hadn’t considered that possibility.”

“Surely that would be the best we could hope for?” Lois asked. She dug her fork through the curry and lifted it to her mouth.

“Yes,” he agreed. “But I don’t think that’s what happened.”

“Why not?”

“Trask and Moyne used the poison to get me here,” Clark said. “But once I was here, they took it away. When I’d regained consciousness and recovered a bit, Trask came into the prison and asked me a lot of questions. He said that if I cooperated, my parents would be unharmed.”

“He came in here? And asked you questions? Without the rods?”

Clark nodded. “You seem surprised.”

“Everything Trask wrote suggested that he believed that you would kill if anyone came in here without protection.”

“He knew that wasn’t true,” Clark said. “He came in here without the poison many times in the first few days.”

Suddenly, Lois understood something. “In one of his books, Trask wrote about things you are able to do,” she said. “Is that how he knew?”

Clark nodded. “He asked what I could do. I wasn’t sure it was wise to tell him, but he said that if I answered truthfully, he would ensure that my parents were treated well.”

Lois braced herself for the answer to her next question. “What happened then?”

“Once he had asked about what I can do, he started asking about how I planned to use those abilities.” Clark stopped and waited for her response.

“What did you tell him?”

“The truth — that as far as I know I am the only person left from my planet — and all I wanted to do was live peaceably.”

“Did you tell him you arrived here as a baby?”

“He already knew that,” Clark said. “My spaceship wasn’t big enough to hold an adult.”

“He didn’t think that fact was important enough to mention in his records.”

“Perhaps the idea of a baby wasn’t terrifying enough for him.”

“But an army of super-powered alien invaders was,” she said darkly.

“Lois …”

“You don’t have to say it,” she said quickly.

“Say what?”

“You don’t have to tell me that you aren’t here to conquer us and take over our planet.”

An indecipherable expression sprawled across his face. “Why?” he asked in a strangled voice.

“Because nothing you say will change what I believe,” she declared with a slight lift of her chin that defied him — or anyone else — to challenge her.

He looked to be on the edge of a smile. “What do you believe?”

“I believe that you have enough strength and speed that you could do almost anything,” she said. “But I believe that your heart could never be for destruction.”

“H …” He stumbled over his word. He closed his fist and pressed it against his mouth. When he looked up to her, his eyes were damp again.

Lois stood. “I need another drink,” she said. “Tea?”

He nodded from behind his fist. As she walked towards the door, she heard him roughly clear his throat. Every instinct implored her to turn back to him. To hold him as he fought to free himself from the dungeon of hatred where Trask and Moyne had entombed him.

But he wasn’t ready for her to get that close. She knew he wasn’t ready.

She was willing to wait.

Willing to give him as much time as she could.

She just hoped that circumstances would give him the time he needed.

Because it was going to be a long and arduous road back.

***

Clark fought against his tears.

That woman.

That beautiful, incredible, astonishing, remarkable woman.

She had brought him to the brink of tears more often than Trask and Moyne combined. It was as if she had reached in and touched his heart — his hard and calloused heart that had become accustomed to pain but was finding kindness to be almost unbearable.

He had to subdue his tears.

He couldn’t dissolve into a mess in front of her. She would be gone in a few hours. He could do it then — when he was alone.

But for now …

He took a deep, deep breath and steadied himself as it rattled through him.

Through the open door, he heard the kettle boil and then the sound of water being poured into the cups. She would be here soon.

He watched the door for the first sign of her appearance. Not because he was worried that she would catch him crying, but because she brightened his world simply by stepping into it.

He heard her footsteps and knew she was going up the stairs. He glanced to the window and saw the hazy light go on. A few seconds later, the light disappeared, and he heard her footsteps on the stairs again.

He quickly zapped her cooling meal with heat from his eyes.

Then, she was at the door, carrying two mugs and the chocolate leftover from last night.

Clark rose to meet her. He took the mug she offered him. “Thank you, Lois,” he said, hoping she would comprehend that his gratitude went far beyond the cup of tea.

Her smile said she understood.

She sat down and picked up her meal.

He watched to see if she reacted to the temperature of the container.

She did. Her eyes rose to him, her smile budding. “You are full of surprises, Mr Kent.”

He pointed at her, smiling because that helped alleviate the bound-up tightness across his chest. “That is most unfair,” he said with mock severity.

“Unfair?” she questioned, although the sparkle in her eyes made him think she knew exactly what he meant.

“Yes,” he insisted. “Ms …” His hands rose in question. “Ms Who?”

She grinned but didn’t answer him. He almost told her that she didn’t have to answer, but her expression assured him that she wasn’t disconcerted by his question.

“Lane,” she said.

“Ms Lane? Ms Lois Lane?”

She nodded.

“That is a very pretty name,” Clark declared.

“Thank you,” she said. She loaded her fork. “And thank you for re-heating my meal.”

“Any time,” he said.

She finished her chicken curry and settled back against the wall with her hands wrapped around her mug of tea. “How do you feel about me going to Kansas?” she asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want you going into a dangerous situation.”

“Clark! You make Smallville, Kansas, sound like Suicide Slum.”

“Where?” he exclaimed.

“I’ll be fine, Clark.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ll go to Smallville. If I find out that your parents aren’t at the farmhouse, I’d like to go there.”

“You won’t try to contact them?”

“Probably not,” Lois said. “It’s always a good idea to obtain as much information as possible before showing your hand.”

“You can trust them,” Clark said earnestly.

“I know that,” Lois said. “But I have to make sure that I don’t do anything that puts them in danger.”

He nodded. “I guess that if someone is expecting an invasion, it would make sense to watch the farm where they found the alien.”

“We should be careful, Clark,” she said. “But we shouldn’t get jumpy over every possibility. We don’t know anything yet.”

“It’s hard not to think about the possibilities.”

“I know,” she said softly.

“You said you’re a secret agent. You said that you often pretend to be someone you’re not.”

“Yeah.”

“So, I’m guessing you won’t go as Lois Lane.”

“No,” she said. “I’ll think up a cover story.”

“When will you go?”

“As soon as possible. This week.”

He was going to miss her. He would count down the hours until her return — and not only because she might bring the long-awaited news of his parents but also because he would worry. He would worry every second because he was locked away and powerless to help her.

“Would you like me to draw you a map?” he offered.

“Yes, please.”

Clark stood and brought the notebook and pen back to the mattress. He drew two maps, refusing to allow his mind to be hindered by the memories of things that were once so familiar. After a few minutes, he gave the first map to Lois. “You’ll fly to Wichita,” he said. “You can hire a car there. This is the road to Smallville.” He flipped to the second map. “This is Smallville. You take this road to the north. Along here. And that’s … that’s our farm.”

She examined the paper. “Are there roads from the farm back to Wichita without returning to Smallville?”

“Yes. But it’s a few miles out of your way.”

“That’s OK. Could you add them to the map, please?”

He drew two alternate routes.

Do you have neighbours?” Lois asked.

“Yes,” Clark replied. “The Irigs. They are good people. They live here.” He added a square to the map.

Lois studied the map again, and when she looked up, she rested her hand on his arm for a tiny, exhilarating second. “Remember, Clark,” she said. “This is what I do. I go into places, I find information, and I get out.”

“I just can’t stand the thought of you being hurt,” he said.

“I won’t get hurt,” she said.

He took a deep breath. “Lois,” he said. “I wish I had the words to thank you for all you’re doing for me.”

“I don’t need words,” she said.

“What do you need?” His question surprised him almost as much as it had surprised her.

“Well,” she said. “I needed someone to stop me crashing into the concrete, and then I needed someone to ice my ankle, and then I needed someone to heat my dinner.”

He smiled. And suddenly, more than anything else in the world, he wanted to touch her. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t force himself to lift his hand and reach for her arm. But he could remind her about the hair washing. “You said your offer is always open,” he said.

She chuckled. “I’ll get the water.”

“Are you sure about this?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” she said firmly.

“Is your ankle hurting?”

“No. It’s fine.”

“OK,” Clark said, feeling disoriented at the speed with which their conversation had leapt from Smallville to Lois washing his hair. “You … ah, get the water, and I’ll move the mattress away from the wall.”

Part 11

Lois stepped into Clark’s room carrying the bowl of hot water.

He saw her and hurried over to take the bowl. His steps jarred. His eyes skimmed across her face without pausing to connect.

He was nervous.

“Wh…what do you want me to do?” he asked.

The little stumble in his words caught at her heart. He had qualms about this, but he was trying so hard to overcome them.

She wished he were more confident.

No, she didn’t.

If he were more confident, more sure, less hesitant, he wouldn’t be Clark.

His confidence would return slowly. And she intended to celebrate every tiny step forward.

“You could roll up the sleeping bag so we can use it as support for your shoulders to raise your head off the ground,” she said, trying to sound as if this was something she did every day.

Clark moved towards the Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag, and Lois slipped into the bathroom to collect a bundle of dry towels.

They met back at the mattress — him on one side, her on the other.

Uncertainty draped him like a dark cape.

“Clark?” Lois said.

His eyes lifted to meet hers.

“There is so much about you that I respect,” she said. “Right now, I’m in awe of your willingness to do this. If it were me, I don’t think I’d ever let anyone touch me again.”

His throat leapt; his eyes dropped. She’d embarrassed him. But pleased him, too. “Thanks,” he mumbled. “I’ll lie on the concrete. You sit on the mattress.”

“There’s room for both of us,” Lois insisted. She took the sleeping bag from him and placed it on the mattress.

Clark didn’t move. If anything, he looked even more uncomfortable. “Do you want me to take off the shirt?” he asked falteringly.

“It’s up to you,” Lois said. “It might get a bit damp if you leave it on, but that’s OK if you don’t mind.” She turned and walked away to gather the shampoo and conditioner, conscious that it would give him the chance to settle on the mattress without her hovering over him.

At the door, she bent low to pick up the bottles and peeked back to Clark.

He looked like he was being stretched between indecision and uncertainty. Perhaps she shouldn’t have offered him a choice about his shirt. But it wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen him topless. Until yesterday, she hadn’t seen him in a shirt.

Suddenly, she realised something. If he could heat a meal, he could dry a shirt.

Lois hastened to the mattress to rescue him. “A few splashes of water aren’t going to matter,” she said easily. “Leave your shirt on.”

He sat down, looking about as awkward as it was possible to look.

Lois knelt behind him and wrapped the towel around his shoulders. She freed his hair and then positioned the rolled-up sleeping bag behind him. “Lie back,” she directed.

“Lois,” Clark said as he reclined. “If my hair is totally disgusting, you don’t have to do this.”

“It’s fine now,” Lois assured him. “And by the time I’m finished with it, it will be totally cool.”

He didn’t smile. His fingers clutched the towel.

“How about we set some guidelines?” Lois said in a chatty voice. She hurried on before he had the chance to answer. “You can stop this whenever you want to. We can stop and keep going later. Or we can stop, and I can go into the staffroom while you finish it.”

His long hair hung over the sleeping bag like a bushy rug.

“If you want to, you can close your eyes,” Lois said. “You don’t have to talk. Just try to relax.”

As Lois pushed the bowl towards his flowing hair, Clark suddenly lurched to a sitting position. “Lois …” he grated. “I’m making such a mess of this.”

She draped her hands on the edge of the bowl, and her fingers dangled in the water. “Are you worried about something specific?” she asked. “Or everything?”

Self-consciousness suppressed his attempt to smile. “Specifically, I’m worried that if I relax, I’ll lift off the mattress and freak you out completely.”

Lois nodded slowly as if considering that scenario. “Does it hurt you to …” She raised one dripping hand from the water.

“No.”

“Then do it now,” she suggested. “Let’s both get over being freaked out, and then we can wash your hair.”

He slowly lifted from the mattress and hovered about a foot in the air. He gazed at her, awaiting her verdict.

Lois pinned her jaw together and nodded. “OK,” she said casually. “We both survived.” She grinned at him. “Now, Clark, will you please just lie on that mattress, and let me get started?”

One clenched fist opened, and his hand covered his mouth — thumb on one cheek, fingers on the other — as he slowly dropped back to the mattress. Above his beard, his eyes shimmered with amused relief.

“I can see that you’re smiling,” Lois told him. “You can’t hide as easily as that.”

He removed his hand, and they grinned at each other.

“We should get started,” Lois said. “Lie down — or I am going to push you down.”

Her threat widened Clark’s smile, but he obediently turned around and settled into position on the sleeping bag.

Lois lifted the hanging sheet of his hair and slid the bowl under it. She plunged her hands into the warm water, wet the washcloth, and wrung it out loosely.

“OK,” she said. “I’m going to wet your hair.”

She put the washcloth on his forehead. A rivulet of water broke free and trickled between his eyebrows and down his nose into his eye. Lois snatched the towel and used the corner of it to dab away the moisture. “Ooops,” she said. “Sorry.”

He looked up at her. “It’s OK.”

“Here,” she said, pushing the towel into his hand. “It might be better if you were armed in case of more leaks.”

“Thanks,” he said.

She used her hand to sweep the water back from his forehead.

She’d touched him. Skin on skin contact. He seemed OK. That was one obstacle cleared.

Once his hair was thoroughly wet, Lois squirted the shampoo into her palm and applied it in creamy streaks. With feathery touches, she used her fingertips to disperse it and then scooped up some water from the bowl and tipped it on his hair to increase the lather.

Her fingers dived into his foaming hair, and she began a leisurely massage of his scalp.

Clark’s eyes had closed. The towel was threaded loosely though his slouched fingers. Lois doubted he was asleep, but he seemed to have quit obsessing and become relaxed enough that he could enjoy this.

She felt a little spurt of satisfaction. This had been a risk … but, so far, it seemed to be working.

Her eyes coasted the length of his body. His feet were quite large, and his ankles sharply defined. His lower legs were covered in a thin sprinkling of dark hair.

Lois cupped her hands and scooped up some water. When she released it, a stream of bubbles flowed into the bowl. She reloaded with a second dose of shampoo and continued her slow dance through his hair.

Clark’s hands lay across his chest. They were large … definitively masculine … with long fingers. Her eyes fixed on the thumb of his right hand.

The thumb that had caressed her ankle.

Her ankle.

It had been one of the most sensual acts she had ever experienced.

The memory had taken up residence in the forefront of her mind. She could still see his thumb gliding over her skin. She could still feel his touch.

It was so soft … so …

She gulped.

So loving.

Her fingers froze. Lois forced them to regain their tempo and glanced at Clark’s face to see if he had noticed.

His eyes were still closed — his face still impassive.

Lois stared ahead at the wall and concentrated on keeping the momentous nature of her thoughts from playing out in her fingers.

This man.

Clark.

It was completely inappropriate, but she was attracted to him.

Really, really attracted to him.

It was wrong on so many levels.

He was way too old for her.

He was a prisoner.

Her job was to guard him.

He was damaged. Hurt. Broken.

He was strong.

And kind.

And gentle.

And steadfast.

And trustworthy.

An array of paths rolled out before her, all enticing her forward into places she shouldn’t go — even in the privacy of her mind.

If … and that was the biggest ‘if’ of her life … if anything like that were to happen, it couldn’t happen until they were out of this cell.

She was the guard; he was the prisoner. While that situation continued, she couldn’t even contemplate the slightest hint of anything like that between them.

And that was a good thing.

That was the boundary she needed to rein in her impetuosity.

For all his immense strength, he was the vulnerable one here. He was the one most likely to get hurt.

He was the one whose future was shrouded in dark uncertainty.

Getting him out of the cell was not going to be the end, but the beginning. Once he was on the outside, he would face the enormous task of readjustment. How much of his old life was redeemable?

There were still so many questions about his parents.

Did he have other family?

Friends?

Or had being alien meant that he’d lived a life set apart?

Did he have a career?

Would it be possible to return to that career?

Was there anything in his old life that he could pick up again?

Or would he have to start everything anew?

All of those questions were immaterial if the price of freedom was a life of being hunted and hated.

Aww, Clark, she thought.

At least in the cell, the future had been certain. Horrible, but certain. Once he was out, it all became horribly uncertain.

And once he was out, would he want to be with her?

If he could ever re-establish any sort of life, would she just be a terrible reminder of things that he would want to forget?

Lois scooped up the water again and allowed it to drizzle slowly into his hair.

She couldn’t stop what she had started. She had to keep going. She had pushed him into this. She had insisted. She couldn’t let her silliness adversely affect him.

And it was silliness.

Mentally, she stepped away, searching for perspective.

She was vulnerable, too.

She was broken, and grieving, and insecure.

And then she’d met Clark. It was so obvious that she should have expected it.

And guarded against it.

But who would have expected that an alien could be so understanding? Supportive? Comforting?

Who would have thought that a man who had been imprisoned for seven years could have anything left to give to someone else?

Lois put a generous amount of the conditioner on her palm, lifted it to her nose, and inhaled. It had a lovely scent of freshly picked apples. She smeared it through the long strands of his hair and began to gently finger-comb his tangles.

She looked at his face and discovered that his eyes were open. She leant forward and smiled calmly, fervently hoping that nothing of the passage of her thoughts had leaked into her expression. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” he said.

She began to massage the conditioner into his scalp, and his eyes closed again.

After the tragedy of Linda’s death, it was to be expected that she would gravitate towards the first person who made her feel needed.

Appreciated.

Linda’s passing had left such a huge hole in Lois’s life.

She had to be careful.

But she couldn’t back away.

With any other man, she would back away. Make a few lame excuses and disentangle herself from the web before it closed around her too tightly.

But she couldn’t do that to Clark.

She just couldn’t.

She was the one who had initiated contact.

She was the one who had tried to gain his trust.

Her long finger-sweeps gradually restored order where there had been chaos. When she’d worked through every section, Lois wrung out his hair. “OK, Clark,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t betray the disconcerting ramblings of her mind. “Can you sit up, please?”

As he rose, she bundled his hair into the towel.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. She stood and lifted the bowl of water.

“I can carry that to the door,” Clark said.

“No,” she said firmly. “You sit there. I’ll do it.”

He didn’t argue.

As she refilled the bowl at the sink, Lois took a steadying breath.

If — however this ended — her heart got shattered, so be it. But she couldn’t risk that happening to Clark.

She had to protect him.

She had to give him a chance at the best life possible. And if that didn’t include being with her, she would accept that.

For now, she wouldn’t even think about how much that was going to hurt.

When the bowl was full, Lois returned to the cell. She unwrapped the damp towel and replaced it with a dry one. He lay back again, and she doused his hair as it squeaked under her fingers.

She was done.

His hair was clean. All traces of the shampoo and conditioner had been rinsed away.

And yet …

Lois put her hand on his forehead and gently slid her palm over his pulled-back hair.

With her fingers, she traced the path from his sideburns, around the top of his ears, and down towards his neck.

His eyes were open, and he was staring up at the ceiling.

Had he sensed anything of her thoughts?

Has he felt anything in her touch? Anything beyond the practicalities of washing his hair?

With a smothered sigh, Lois folded the towel across his forehead. “OK, Clark,” she said brightly. “You can get up now.”

He rose and turned to her with a hesitant smile. “That was … good,” he said shyly.

Maybe he had felt it, too.

This bond between them.

Or maybe he was just trying to come to terms with simple human contact.

Either way, now was not their time.

Perhaps it would never be their time.

“I’ll get the chairs,” Lois said.

Clark came with her to the doorway, but as always, he was careful not to cross into the staffroom. Lois checked her watch. It was just after half past seven. They still had plenty of time before Longford was due to arrive.

“It’s OK,” Clark said. “I’m listening.”

“Can you hear really well?” she said. “Better than the rest of us?”

He nodded.

“That’s good to know.”

They moved two chairs into the cell, and Lois pushed a third into the doorway. Clark sat on the front chair, and Lois sat behind him. As she unrolled the towel from his shoulders, she realised that he probably hadn’t sat in a chair in a long time.

It was another little step back to normalcy.

She squirted the de-tangling lotion into his hair and heard a slight murmur.

“What’s up?” she asked.

Clark chuckled. “I wasn’t expecting it to be so cold.”

Lois hesitated, again fighting her impetuosity.

She lost.

She leant over his shoulder and held the bottle in front of him. “Warm it then,” she challenged lightly.

He paused just long enough to incite panic within her, but then Lois felt warmth spread from the bottle and into her palm.

She laughed. “That would be very useful on a cold day.” She squirted some more and began working through the thick dark hair. It was very thick. Did aliens go bald? Clark certainly had a full head of hair.

“Lois?”

“Uhhmm?”

“Do you want to know how I heat things?”

“I’d love to know,” she said. “But only if you want to tell me.”

“I do it with my eyes.”

She chuckled, and his shoulders pulled square.

“What’s funny?” Clark asked quickly.

“Well, sometimes in romance novels, the hero is said to have ‘smouldering eyes’. I guess you really do.”

His tension ebbed away, he didn’t comment.

“Do you use it to dry your clothes after you’ve washed them?”

“Yeah. When I can.”

She kept working through strand after strand, releasing knot after knot.

“Lois?”

“Uhhmm?”

“I have a question that is definitely none of my business.”

“OK.”

“You don’t mind me asking?”

No, Lois realised. Clark would never demand answers. “No,” she said. “I don’t mind.”

He chuckled, but it sounded a little forced. “I figure that as you’re holding huge clumps of my hair, you could just yank it hard, and that would tell me I’d crossed the line.”

Lois smiled. There was something wonderfully encouraging in Clark using humour to ease them through difficult patches. “Ahh,” she said. “But even if I yanked really hard, would that hurt you?”

“Not physically, no.”

He’d said it in a quiet way that made her wish she could see his face — to know for sure that there had been underlying meaning to his words. There was, she decided. She was sure of it even without seeing his expression. He was acknowledging that she could hurt him.

Hurt him where he was truly vulnerable … his emotions. His feelings. His heart.

She pushed away her ever-deepening feeling of connection with him. “Ask away,” she said lightly.

“Whose hair did you wash?” Clark asked. “Who was it that you wanted to connect with?”

“My father.”

“When you were a child?”

“No. Just a few days ago.”

Clark didn’t ask any more questions.

“He had a stroke,” Lois continued. “He’s in a nursing home now.”

Clark spun his head to look at her. There it was again — such profound sympathy. “Aw, Lois,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It happened a couple of months ago.”

“Is it bad?”

“Paralysis on one side of his body. No speech. For a long time, I wasn’t sure my dad was still actually there.”

“It that why you took this job?”

She nodded. “I need to be near him for a while.”

Clark gave her a little smile — fuelled not with humour, but with compassion. “He’s lucky to have you.”

“Thanks.”

He paused, not saying anything, just waiting. He was so good at that — waiting, waiting without any pressure, willing to listen if she decided that she wanted to speak.

Lois reached for his hair again, and Clark turned around.

He’d pushed the door ajar with his question. Lois decided to prise it open a little further. “How did your parents explain suddenly having a child?”

“They said there had been a death in the family, and I was an orphan.”

“So no one in Smallville knows the truth about how you arrived?”

“No,” he said. “We were worried that … you know.”

Yes, she knew. And what had happened was probably all of their worst fears rolled into one appalling nightmare. “So as far as anyone knew, the Kents adopted you?”

“Yeah.”

She wanted to ask if that meant everyone had assumed he was human, but that sounded too blunt, so she rephrased. “If you were just a baby when you arrived, how do you know so much about your planet? How do you know it was going to be destroyed? Did your biological parents leave notes with you?”

“Not notes. They put a globe in my spaceship. It gave me information.”

“A globe?”

“Like a little model of a planet.”

“Did Trask find it?”

“I don’t think so,” Clark said. “My father hid it in the loft of the barn.”

“But Trask found your spaceship?”

“Yeah. Dad and Mom figured that if they found a spaceship on our farm that was going to be hard to explain. A globe — that most of the time did nothing extraordinary at all — was easier.”

“How did the globe give you information?”

“It spoke to me. It was a recording of my parents telling me why they were sending me to a faraway planet.”

“Did the globe translate? Or are you bilingual?”

He chuckled. “I can’t speak Kryptonian.”

“Was that the name of your planet? Krypton?”

“Yeah. And, yes, the globe translated my parents’ messages into English.”

That was some globe. “Was that hard? Discovering you hadn’t come from this planet?”

Clark sighed. “Not really,” he said. “By then, I already knew that I was very, very different. I knew that I didn’t fit in here, and it was a relief to know why.”

Yeah, it would have been.

And as for being different … he was right. Clark Kent was very different. Different in ways that just kept sneaking into her heart. And each one drew her closer to him.

A few minutes later, Clark’s hair lay in a long, smooth sheet down his back. Lois unhooked the towel from his shoulders and slipped it from under his hair. She rounded the chair and faced him.

“You look great,” she said with a smile.

“It feels great,” he said. “Thank you.”

“I’ll leave the comb and everything here for you to use.”

“Thanks.”

“Your shirt’s a bit damp at the back.” Lois crouched low to pick up the bowl, but movement from Clark caused her to look up.

He’d turned away and peeled the shirt over his head. His back was a broad expanse of pearly skin. Had it always been that muscular? She’d scrutinised it … checking for wounds. Now that there were no injuries to distract her …

Lois swallowed down the rough lump in her throat.

Clark spun around and caught her looking at him. “Leave that,” he said with a nod to the bowl. “I’ll carry it to the door.”

“Thanks.”

Clark pushed his hair off his shoulders, held up his shirt, and focussed his eyes. Seconds later, a little cloud of steam rose from it. Then, he turned it around for her to see.

It was dry.

Lois grinned.

Clark shrugged.

Lois’s eyes felt like they had a weight pulling them downwards — down to his chest. She trained them on his hair, his face, but they slipped anyway.

Then she saw something.

There was a small protrusion just above his right collarbone — about half an inch across.

As he positioned the tee shirt to pull it over his head, Lois checked his other shoulder and saw that his left collarbone had no corresponding bulge.

Was it an old injury?

Or was it a physical difference between Kryptonians and humans?

Clark’s head squeezed through the neck of the shirt, and he released his beard and hair from under the material. He smoothed down his hair at the back and smiled at her. “That feels fantastic. Thanks.”

Inexplicitly, the tide of awkwardness flowed back now that the task of washing his hair no longer provided a distraction.

Lois pointed to the door. “We should get these chairs out of here,” she said. “Longford will arrive soon.”

Clark picked up both chairs and took them to the door. Once all three chairs and the bowl were back in the staffroom, they faced each other — Lois in the staffroom, and Clark in the cell. She handed him the bowl filled with hot clean water.

“I won’t go up to my office,” she said. “Knock on the door when you’re finished, and I’ll collect the bowl.”

He paused, looking at her with those brown eyes that had the power to melt every sinew in her body. “Thank you,” he said softly. “For everything.”

His words were soft, but their power was dynamic.

Lois managed a wobbly smile. She had to get out from under the warmth of his eyes. If she didn’t, she was going to capitulate and reach up to hug him. She couldn’t do that. That crossed just about every line of propriety that existed. And — more importantly — it would freak him out completely. “Good night, Clark,” she said. “See you tomorrow.”

He took the bowl and walked away.

Lois closed the door and locked it.

She sank into the nearest chair.

She had suggested that she wash his hair because she wanted to give him something he would enjoy. She wanted to find a non-threatening way to ease him back to being comfortable with human contact. In that, she figured she had succeeded. He had seemed relaxed. He seemed pleased that his hair was smooth and untangled.

But what she hadn’t reckoned on was how much she would enjoy it. How much she would enjoy touching him. How much she would enjoy the physical contact.

How much it would bind them together.

How right it would feel to be with him.

She missed him.

He was on the other side of the door, and she’d spent most of the day with him, yet she already missed him.

When the time came for him to be free … to begin the rest of his life … she wanted to be with him.

More than anything, she wanted to be with Clark.

***

Clark emptied the bowl of water and knocked on the cell door. He heard her approaching footsteps, and the door opened.

He held the bowl towards her, knowing that he was never going to be able to express his appreciation of what she had done for him tonight. If he tried, it might sound as if he was only referring to her washing his hair.

But it was so much more than that.

Lois took the bowl.

She didn’t seem to know what to say either.

“Goodnight, Lois,” he said.

“Goodnight, Clark.”

He turned and walked away from her.

Freeing her to return to her world.

A world where he would never be welcome.

Part 12

Lois shut the cell door and locked it. She put the bowl on the drainer and went up to her office.

Clark was unrolling the sleeping bag. He looked different with smooth, straight hair.

It was very dark — almost black.

She could still feel its thick silkiness.

Lois picked up Trask’s logbook and found March 1988 — the day of the surgery. She quickly turned the page and read the entries from the following days.

Among the expected vitriol, she found a passing comment that the alien had recovered enough to ‘require’ a discipline session four days later.

However, there was no further reference to the surgery.

Lois closed the book as biting nausea engulfed her.

Reading Trask’s record of abuse had been gruelling enough when Clark had been an unknown stranger.

It was so much worse now that she knew him as a person.

A good-hearted and considerate person whose only crime was being different.

She knew that some of Trask’s ‘records’ were lies. All she could hope was that the abuse hadn’t been as bad as described in the log. From what she knew of Trask and Moyne and from what she’d observed when she’d first arrived, that didn’t seem likely.

She forced away her too-vivid imaginings and took the logbook down to the staffroom to put it in the closet for Shadbolt to read tomorrow. Back in her office, she checked that the camera was set to record the next morning. Ten minutes later, when Longford arrived, she locked her office and went down the stairs.

“Ms Lane,” Longford said as she entered.

“Longford,” she greeted. “How is everything?”

“Good,” he replied. “Is there a bagel in the fridge for the alien’s breakfast?”

“Yep,” Lois said. “And, Longford, I need to attend to some personal business this week. Would it be possible for us to swap shifts on Thursday?”

“I can’t on Thursday,” he said. “My mother has an appointment.”

“Wednesday? Friday?”

“Wednesday would be all right.”

Lois smiled. “Thanks, Longford. You take over from Shadbolt at two o’clock, and I’ll get here as soon as I can.”

“What time will that be?”

“I’m not sure,” Lois said. “Probably in the evening some time.”

“OK,” he said.

“Thanks. See you tomorrow.”

Lois was pleasantly tired when she arrived at her apartment. Tired enough that she was hopeful she would fall asleep quickly, but not so tired that her body ached.

She pulled off her socks and shoes and examined her injured ankle. It was a little bit puffy, but from the time Clark had nestled it in his large, capable hands, the sum total of her discomfort had been a few minor pangs.

As she prepared for bed, Lois planned the following day.

She intended to be at the travel agents when they opened. She needed to book a seat on the first airplane to Wichita on Wednesday morning and a return flight during the afternoon. She estimated she would have three hours in Smallville. It was a lot of travelling for such a short time, but she couldn’t leave Clark for longer than a day.

After booking her flights, she intended to visit her dad and then go to his home to collect a few things for an idea that had been fermenting for a couple of days.

By then, she hoped it would nearly be time to go to the compound.

Lois slipped between the sheets, and the simple act of closing her eyes crumbled all the dams and allowed thoughts of Clark to sweep into her mind. Was he asleep? Was he thinking about the day they had shared?

He would be.

He had so little else to occupy his thoughts.

The aborted game of squash, her sprained ankle, sharing their meals, washing his hair…

Lois gave a little sigh as she recalled the feeling of gliding sudsy fingers through his thick, dark hair.

She would never forget the feel of him. Touching him. The joy of restoring another small fragment of what Trask had stolen.

She knew she had to be patient.

She knew she had to give him time.

She knew that if she moved too quickly, it would difficult for Clark to adapt to life outside. The damage from seven years of imprisonment and abuse couldn’t be wiped away in a few days.

She didn’t know how she was going to get him out.

She didn’t even know enough to begin to plan.

Was it going to be possible to successfully appeal to the higher-ups? Or was she going to have to break him out?

She had been a fugitive for a month after the death of her partner. She had hidden, and stolen, and bartered, and lurked, and haggled, and lied, and skulked until — finally — she had gained her freedom.

And that had been in a foreign country where her language skills were no more than adequate.

She could do it again if that was what was required.

It would be best for Clark if those in authority freed him so that he could live like any other regular guy.

But in even alluding to that, she risked a backlash. They could determine that she didn’t fully appreciate the dangers inherent in an alien invader. They could attempt to remove her from the operation and stop her contact with Clark. One misplaced question from her could alert them to the possibility of an attempted escape.

There was so much she didn’t know, but she did know that the alternative — that Clark spend the remainder of his life in that room — was unthinkable.

And — once he was out — if he chose to be with her …

It was a long time later when sleep finally calmed the bustle of her mind.

***

~~ Tuesday ~~

The peal of her phone awakened Lois the next morning.

She clambered out of bed as trepidation coursed through the fog of her sleepy mind. Had something happened to Clark? Or was it the nursing home?

“Lois Lane,” she said into the phone.

“Ms Lane. It’s Shadbolt.” Her dad was OK. But was Clark?

“Shadbolt.” Lois checked the time — it was a few minutes past six. What had happened? Was Clark all right? “What’s up?” she asked, requiring every ounce of her expertise in duplicity to sound unconcerned.

“Is it possible for you to come to the compound?” he said. “Longford is here, and we would both like to speak with you.”

He sounded resolute, but not overwrought. “Are you both OK?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Is everything OK in the room?” she asked as a slither of fear crisscrossed her gut.

“Yes,” Shadbolt replied. “Are you able to come now? Or should I tell Longford to come back at two o’clock?”

“I’ll come now,” Lois said.

“Thanks,” Shadbolt said. “See you soon.”

***

As Lois sped to Bessolo Boulevard, her anxiety escalated with each passing mile. What had happened? She knew Shadbolt couldn’t give her more details over the phone, but not knowing felt like an attack of prickly heat spreading through her insides.

She parked the Jeep. At the external door, she took a steadying breath.

Assume nothing.

Give nothing away.

She opened the creaky door and walked casually into the staffroom.

Both men were sitting at the table.

“What’s wrong?” Lois asked briskly.

Shadbolt stood from the chair and leant back against the sink. He folded his arms across his chest.

Longford was staring at his tightly clenched hands.

Lois controlled the compulsion to look at the door to the cell. Was Clark OK?

“We have concerns,” Shadbolt said.

“Specifically?” Lois said.

“During the night, Longford heard a low pounding noise coming from the cell.”

“Pounding?” Lois said, her eyebrows lifting. “He was probably running.”

“When we pushed the bagel into the cell, we saw a tennis racquet in there.”

Lois’s eyelids wanted to slide shut in dismay. She’d forgotten all about the racquets. “That explains the pounding,” she said evenly.

“A racquet could be used as a weapon,” Shadbolt said.

“Did he threaten you when you put his breakfast in there?”

Longford’s head jolted up, and she saw the fear pitted on his face. “No,” he admitted. “But you’ve stopped all exposure to the rods. He’s probably close to full strength. And now you’ve armed him.”

Had something else happened? Was she missing something? Lois glanced to Shadbolt, but there was nothing in his expression to give clarification.

Lois slid into the seat across from Longford and looked at him directly. “You told me that you’d never seen anything from the prisoner to suggest he is a danger,” she said in a tone that she hoped would encourage him to speak openly. “I don’t understand what has changed.”

“Until now, he couldn’t attack,” Longford said. “He was weak, and underfed, and always recovering from the latest beating.”

“And now?”

“And now, an attack is possible,” he said. “And when I heard the thudding, that’s what I thought was happening.”

It sounded as if he’d heard an unexpected noise, and his imagination — fuelled by Trask’s lies — had done the rest.

His fears were unfounded, but the last thing Lois needed was Longford taking his concerns to Scardino. She leant back in her chair and laced her fingers on the table. “What is your greatest concern? Your short-term safety? Or the long-term safety of humankind?”

“Both,” Longford said.

“But?”

“Mostly, I’m concerned about opening the door. And it’s not just about me. I don’t want either of you getting hurt because you took risks for me.”

“What do you suggest?” Lois asked.

Longford faltered under her steady gaze. “I … I think that regular exposure to the rods sends a message,” he persisted. “A message of strength.”

“Assuming someone is listening,” Lois muttered dryly. She felt as if she were hurtling down a hill at an ever-increasing speed. She grappled for a subtle way to realign their perspective. “OK,” she said in calm voice. “I’ve given him food. I’ve given him water for washing. I’ve given him a tennis racquet and a jigsaw puzzle to help pass the time. I’ve stopped the regular torture sessions. Let’s be reasonable here. I’ve done nothing that isn’t done in our highest security prisons.”

“Those prisoners aren’t aliens,” Longford said.

That was probably the driving factor here — fear of someone who was different. Fear — not of what he’d done — but what he could do. Nothing she said was going to change that. Lois nodded thoughtfully. “Can you give me some time to work this out?”

Longford looked to Shadbolt, and Lois saw a small nod pass between them.

“OK,” Shadbolt said. “A day. Two at the most.”

She sensed warning in his agreement.

“What about his meals?” Longford asked.

“You don’t have to open the door if you have concerns about your safety.”

“So, he doesn’t get fed?” Shadbolt said.

“I’m sure he’ll be all right,” Lois said dismissively. “He survived for a long time with only one meal a day.”

A heavy silence fell. Longford shuffled uneasily to his feet. “I’m sorry to have caused such a bother,” he said.

“If you’re worried about something, it’s important that you speak up,” Shadbolt said.

Longford looked relieved. “I … ah … have an appointment. Is it OK if I leave?”

Lois nodded, and Longford returned his empty coffee cup to the sink and left the room.

When the external door had closed, Lois stood from the chair and faced Shadbolt squarely. “OK,” she said. “What gives?”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you that when Moyne pushed me into the cell, the alien did nothing to me. You’re a smart guy — you must have questions about some of the things you’ve been told.”

“What’s your point?” His tone hinted at bemusement, but Lois wasn’t buying it.

“You told me that your biggest concern was that you would have to haul my body out of that cell,” she said. “I was thrown in there, and I walked out, unharmed except for what Moyne did to me.”

Shadbolt’s expression didn’t waver.

“So why the one-eighty?” Lois demanded. “Why are you suddenly so twitchy again?”

He glanced down. When he looked up again, the phony confusion was gone. “Longford was in a state when I arrived,” he said as if that explained everything.

“Just because of a few noises?”

“Longford’s concerns needed to be taken seriously.” Shadbolt went to the closet and took out Trask’s logbook. “While we were waiting for you, I read some of this,” he said.

Lois fought down her frustration. He’d been swayed by Trask. Again. “And?”

“I know that some of it isn’t accurate, but it makes for compelling reading.”

“Compelling?” Lois echoed, struggling to keep her voice from exploding with indignation. “It’s supposed to an official document, not the script of a horror movie.”

“Trask believed it.”

“Trask was a lunatic.”

Shadbolt’s left eyebrow edged upwards, and most of his sternness melted away. “I think you could be right about that.”

Lois wasn’t sure if that were jest or an admission, so she waited for him to continue.

“But nothing changes that you need to find a way to placate Longford — you do not need him going to Scardino.”

OK, that sounded more hopeful. “Any ideas?”

“I have one idea,” Shadbolt said. “But I don’t think you’ll like it.”

He was going to demand that Clark be exposed to the rods. Lois smoothed her face to a mask. “Go on.”

“A pet door would enable us to get food into the cell without having to open the door.”

Lois pushed back her hair and secured it behind her ear. “I have been thinking along the same lines,” she said. “But I’d thought of a chute.”

“How would you handle the installation?”

“I’d have to use the rods.”

Shadbolt nodded. “That’s the bit I expected you to resist.”

Lois’s mind was surging forward at breakneck speed. “My first responsibility is the safety of the humans working here,” she said. “If the installation of a pet door means Longford can do his job, it’s worth considering. Scardino isn’t going to be happy if Longford quits.”

“Simply using the rods isn’t enough,” Shadbolt said. “You would need to keep the prisoner out of sight.”

“Yeah.”

“How would you do that?”

“I thought I’d watch him from my office, and when he goes behind the wall, I’ll go in with a rod. He’ll collapse there, meaning I wouldn’t have to move him. Someone working on the door wouldn’t be able to see into that part of the cell.”

“You’d have to stand there with a rod while he’s working on the door,” Shadbolt said. “How would you explain that?”

“I’ve thought about that,” she said. “I’ll go in and pretend to be another worker — probably a painter would be easiest. I’ll paint the wall, keep the rod close, and watch the prisoner.”

“Are you absolutely sure that the rods incapacitate the alien?”

“Yes,” Lois stated firmly.

“Sure enough that you’re willing to risk your life? And the life of a civilian?”

“I don’t think there’s a risk,” Lois said. “Not with the rods.” She expected Shadbolt to remind her that the presence of the rods hadn’t saved Deller and Bortolotto.

He didn’t. “Do you want me here? When the pet door goes in?”

No, she didn’t. “I’ll make the calls,” Lois said. “It can’t be tomorrow — Longford and I are swapping shifts.”

“So you’ll try to get someone to come today?”

“Guess so.”

“Get them to come this morning.”

“I’ll try,” Lois lied.

Shadbolt rubbed his hand across his newly-shaven chin. “There’s something that doesn’t add up.”

If he’d been reading Trask’s logbook, there was probably a lot that didn’t add up. “What?”

“Why didn’t he escape when the door was open?”

“I don’t -”

But then she did.

The surgery.

The little lump just above Clark’s collarbone.

His careful avoidance of the doorway.

She couldn’t process the ramifications now.

With a hand that shook just a little, Lois reached for the logbook. Shadbolt gave it to her. She found the March 1988 entry and quickly turned the page to look at the preceding days.

February 29, 1988

The cage was fortified today. During the installation, Moyne guarded the unconscious alien in my office. Later, we dragged him back into the cage.

Tomorrow, I will ensure that he never leaves again.

Lois offered the open book to Shadbolt.

He took it, read it, and looked up.

“The surgery was the next day,” Lois said.

Shadbolt turned the page and read again. “Do you know what the surgery entailed?”

In her mind, she had to keep Clark distanced from this conversation. She had to pretend that they were discussing an unidentified stranger. “I think so.”

“What?”

“I think Trask put something around the doorway to act as a trigger. The next day, he and Moyne implanted something into the alien which, if activated, will kill him.”

“A piece of the Achilles?”

“Probably. But if that is what Trask used, it means he knew the Achilles is poison to the prisoner.” Lois leant forward and pointed to the entry. “Trask says he strengthened his position over the enemy. He already had him locked in a cage. He already had the rods. This had to be something more.”

Shadbolt’s eyes leapt from the book to Lois. “Did the alien tell you this?”

“No,” Lois said. “Trask left binoculars in his office. I noticed there is a lump just below the alien’s shoulder. One shoulder only. It explains why he didn’t escape even though the door was open.” She paused to give emphasis to her next statement. “I think Trask was the sort of person who covered every possible eventuality. As he says, he guaranteed the alien can never leave the cell.”

Shadbolt slammed the book shut as his face contorted with doubts.

Lois waited.

“If the rods really do totally incapacitate the prisoner …”

Lois continued to wait.

“What do you think happened to Deller and Bortolotto?” Shadbolt asked bleakly.

“I don’t have any evidence for what I believe.”

“Do you think the alien did it?”

“No,” Lois said. “I don’t.”

Shadbolt pulled his hand through his hair and muttered an expletive. “Why kill them?” he demanded.

“Perhaps they were causing problems. Perhaps they were threatening to draw attention to what was going on here. Perhaps it was felt that they needed to be silenced.”

Shadbolt shook his head vehemently. “That wasn’t being silenced,” he said. “That was perversion.” He swallowed, and his throat jagged roughly. “Do you think there is an alien invasion coming?”

“I don’t know,” Lois said. “But if Trask was right, and the alien initially believed supporting armies were coming, don’t you think that by now, he’d be totally demoralised? Don’t you think he’d have realised that he’s on his own?”

Shadbolt slammed the logbook onto the table. “I knew Trask was driven,” he said, as if speaking to himself. “I knew he was obsessive. But I was sickened by the state of the bodies … I didn’t want to believe that a fellow human being had done it.”

“You’ve been an agent for a long time,” Lois said gently. “You must have seen some awful things.”

“I have,” Shadbolt agreed. “But there was something intrinsically evil about these murders. Something inhuman.”

Lois figured she’d said enough. It was best now to leave Shadbolt to draw his own conclusions. She took a step towards the door. “I have to go,” she said. “See you later. I’ll call you if I can get someone to do the pet door this morning.”

“Are you going to check with Scardino first? Get him to OK the finances?”

“No,” Lois said. “This is my operation. I make the decisions.”

Shadbolt nodded distractedly. “OK. Bye.”

Lois went through the external door. Once outside, she released a huge breath.

What was happening with Shadbolt? Was it possible that he was finally questioning some of the things he had accepted as truth?

Or was he feigning his change of heart in the hope she would disclose information about her contact with the prisoner?

Had Scardino asked Shadbolt to watch her and report back to him?

Had someone higher than Scardino — Moyne’s friend — talked with Shadbolt?

Why had he suggested the pet door? It fit perfectly with Lois’s partly developed plans for concealing the gradual changes that she intended to bring to Clark’s life, but what was Shadbolt’s motivation?

Was he genuinely worried about Longford?

Was he concerned that if they lost another agent, the operation would be closed down, and he would no longer be able to do whatever was so important every afternoon?

Lois’s mind was churning as she walked to her Jeep.

She had to be careful. She couldn’t trust anyone. She had to work alone.

She smiled suddenly as she started the motor.

No, she wasn’t alone.

She had Clark.

***

Lois was waiting outside the door of the travel agents when they opened. Half an hour later, she had booked an early morning flight to Wichita and a mid-afternoon return for the next day.

She returned to her apartment, searched through the directory, and called a company that supplied and fitted pet doors. They had what she needed — a one-way pet door for a small dog — at a price she thought was reasonable … and could come next week.

Lois thanked them and called the next number in the directory.

Three calls later, she found someone who was willing to come late that afternoon. She gave the address, thanked him profusely, and hung up.

She hurried to her Jeep and drove to the nursing home. Her dad was dressed and sitting in his wheelchair. She talked, and he listened, but all the time, Lois was wondering how it would affect him if she suddenly had to leave. Not just leave the nursing home but also leave Metropolis. Perhaps be out of contact. Again.

She could try to give him some sort of explanation. But not today. The future was too hazy. She didn’t know enough yet.

Lois told him about the game of squash, not getting too conscience-stricken when she knew it sounded as if the game had gone longer than a few hits.

“Then I twisted my ankle pretty badly, Dad,” she said. “But that nice man looked after it.”

Her dad lifted his arm and swung it for a few inches before letting it drop onto his tray.

“Ah, Dad,” Lois said with regret. “I forgot about the airplane. I’m sorry. I’ll ask him to make one for you.”

Her dad’s hand rose from the tray and moved to the centre of his chest.

Was he in pain?

Lois scrutinised his inert face in alarm. “What is it, Dad?”

He slowly curled his fingers to a clenched fist and patted his sweatshirt.

“I don’t understand,” Lois said regretfully. “I’m sorry.”

His forefinger straightened, and he pointed at her.

“You love me?” Lois asked uncertainly. She knew he did, but she wasn’t sure at all that that was what he was trying to say.

He returned his hand to the tray.

This must be so frustrating for him.

She would have to guess.

“If you’re saying that you love me, Dad, I know that,” she said with a smile. “I’ve always known how much you love me.”

His eyes blinked twice.

Did that mean ‘no’?

It couldn’t mean that he didn’t love her. She would never believe that. It must mean that she had interpreted wrongly.

Lois hugged him. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she said. “I’ll think about it and try to work it out. OK?”

He blinked once.

She talked about a few more subjects — the awesomeness of Uncle Mike’s food and how nice apple conditioner smelled — encouraged by the fact that her dad appeared to be listening.

Then Lois rose from her seat next to his wheelchair. She put the doggy stress ball in his hand and kissed his cheek. “I can’t come tomorrow, Dad,” she said. “But I’ll be back to see you on Thursday.”

By Thursday, she might know something about Clark’s parents. She might know something about what had happened to them. The future might be just a little clearer.

After leaving her dad, Lois drove to his home and let herself in. His cleaner had kept it from becoming dusty, but nothing could expel the feeling of empty abandonment.

She went into his garage and passed his late-model Buick. It probably hadn’t been driven in months. Decisions were going to have to be made about what happened to his house … his car … his finances … his share of the medical practice where he had worked.

At the back of the garage, Lois rustled through her dad’s tools. She collected a hammer and a bag of small nails. She found a flat piece of wood about the size of a broadsheet newspaper and a couple of lengths of half-inch-square moulded lumber. She added a small saw and carted it all to her Jeep.

It was midday.

She wanted to go to Clark.

But she couldn’t appear too eager. She didn’t want it getting back to Scardino that she couldn’t keep away from the compound.

She drove to a strip of stores and meandered along the sidewalk in the soft fall sunlight. She walked into most of the stores — even those that held very little interest. Every article she looked at evoked thoughts of Clark. Would he like this? Did he miss that? Had he used those?

Did he have a favourite colour?

What made him smile?

Did he buy only what he needed? Or did he occasionally splurge on extravagances?

Lois regularly checked her watch — and grew increasingly frustrated at time’s torpid pace.

Finally, it was one-thirty, and Lois decided she had waited long enough.

She went into a cafe and bought two shaved ham and havarti cheese herbed rolls. She added two tubs of strawberry yoghurt topped with granola and a bottle of fresh orange juice.

Then, with mounting excitement, she drove to the compound. So much had happened since he’d left him yesterday. How much of it could she discuss with him?

All of it, she realised.

All of it.

She could trust him.

There was no need for secrets between them.

She didn’t want secrets.

Except for one thing.

She wouldn’t tell him outright that she intended to get him out of the cell.

If he asked, she wouldn’t lie. But if he didn’t ask, she wouldn’t tell him.

If she told him, he would worry. He would worry about how they were going to overcome whatever Trask and Moyne had implanted in his shoulder. He would worry about her. He would worry about his parents.

She would tell him about the pet door.

And how it seemed as if Shadbolt was questioning some of the things he’d been told. Clark might have some insights on Shadbolt. Had he been overly cruel? Or had he just done what Trask had ordered?

She would tell Clark about her trip to Kansas tomorrow. How would he feel about that? Excited? Apprehensive? Hopeful?

As Lois parked her Jeep, she realised how wonderful it felt to have someone she could confide in again. To have someone to work with. To not feel so alone.

She let herself into the compound and went into the staffroom. Shadbolt looked up from where he was reading Trask’s logbook. “No luck with the pet door?” he asked.

“Not for this morning,” Lois said. “Is everything OK here?”

“Yep. I didn’t open the door. Did you bring him lunch?”

She nodded. “I’ll get the rod.”

Lois ran up to her office. She deposited her bag on the floor and turned towards the window.

Clark was there, leaning against the back wall, his hands deep in the pockets of his shorts, his hair falling straight and neat past his shoulders.

He was waiting.

Waiting for her.

“Hold on, Clark,” she whispered. “I’ll be there soon.”

Once she was downstairs again, Lois held the rod while Shadbolt deposited the ham and cheese roll into the cell.

“Thanks,” she said as he pulled the door shut.

“What’s going to happen with his evening meal?” Shadbolt asked.

“The pet door will be in by then,” Lois said.

“They’re coming this afternoon?” he asked with surprise.

“Yeah.”

“What time?”

“They’re going to try for four o’clock.”

Shadbolt looked conflicted. “I can’t stay,” he said. “I have to be gone by three.”

Lois had relied on that. “That’s OK,” she said casually as she put the rod in the closet. “There won’t be a problem. I have two rods here.”

Shadbolt seemed more resistant to the idea than he had been earlier. “Perhaps you should call Longford and get him to come in.”

Lois shook her head. “Longford is already nervous,” she said. “We don’t need the installer picking up any vibes about this place.”

Shadbolt nodded. “Are you sure you’ll be OK?”

“I’m positive,” Lois said.

“I wasn’t expecting that you would do it alone.”

“When he said he could come this afternoon, I accepted,” Lois said. “It can’t happen tomorrow, and Thursday is too long to wait.”

“Do you know how long it will take to install?”

“Half an hour.”

That piece of information seemed to disperse his worries a little. “Be careful.”

“I will,” Lois said, wishing she could open the external door and push Shadbolt through it.

He picked up the logbook and offered it to her. “Thanks for letting me read it,” he said.

Lois took it from him. “I’ll put it back,” she said. “It’s not something that should be left lying around — not with civilians coming in. See you Thursday.”

“Bye.”

Lois walked up the stairs to her office, reflecting that it might be a good thing that she wouldn’t see Shadbolt for a couple of days. If he were reporting back to someone, distance was a good thing.

She tossed the book into one of Trask’s boxes and looked into the cell. Clark was combing his hair. Lois smiled at his technique. He ran the comb down the back of his head to the limit of his reach. Then he removed the comb and started again at the top.

Clearly, when he had had a choice, his hair had been kept short.

Once the pet door was installed, a haircut might be possible.

His lunch lay near the door, untouched.

As she watched Clark return the comb to his tin box, Lois listened intently. Waited.

Finally, she heard the creak of the external door, and she looked at the clock. It was 1:51. She would wait until 1:55.

Four minutes. Four long minutes.

Part 13

While she waited for the time to pass, Lois checked the assortment of things she had bought yesterday. She had prepared well. She had known she would need some of these things … she just hadn’t thought it would happen so soon.

A sense of urgency pressed in on her again, and she thought of Clark.

If things happened quickly, how was he going to cope? Physically, he would be fine. Emotionally …

How could she best prepare him?

Lois waited the four minutes, and then, with a smile she couldn’t repress, she took her herbed roll, both of the yoghurts, and the bottle of orange juice from her bag. She glanced into the cell. Clark was still waiting.

She locked her office door and ran down the stairs. Her ankle hadn’t given her any trouble at all. Clark’s ‘ice’ had worked amazingly well.

She stopped briefly in the staffroom to collect two spoons and two glasses, and then she unlocked the door.

As she stepped into the cell, she stooped low to add Clark’s roll to her bounty. He was already halfway across the room. He stopped when he saw her, smiled hesitantly, and then hastened forward, his hands outstretched to help carry their lunch.

Lois’s heart gave a little leap to see him again. “Hi, Clark,” she said brightly.

“Hi, Lois.”

His voice was so soft and so full that it felt more like an embrace than a greeting. It would have felt so natural to step up to him, place a hand on his shoulder, and drop a little kiss on his cheek. That wasn’t possible, so she made do with running her eyes across his face. “Your hair looks great,” she said.

“Thanks. How’s your ankle?”

She smiled. “It feels fantastic. Thank you for what you did for me yesterday.”

“You’re welcome.” He shrugged slightly, and his eyes fell to the food they carried. “Shall we eat? I waited for you.”

They sat on the mattress he had placed against the wall. “How was last night?” Lois asked as she removed the plastic wrap from her roll. “Did you sleep any better?”

“A little. The mattress and bedding didn’t seem quite so unnatural.”

Something told her that it was more than the unfamiliar bedding that had kept him awake. Could it possibly have been thoughts of her? Memories of her washing his hair, perhaps?

“Is something wrong?” Clark asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I …” He winced apologetically. “I thought I heard your voice early this morning. I didn’t hear anything that was said, but … Sorry.”

Again, Lois wanted to touch him — to reach across the small divide of the mattress and brush her hand on his arm. She smiled and hoped that would suffice. “You don’t have to be sorry,” she said. “I was here. Shadbolt called me in. And it doesn’t matter if you heard because I intend to discuss it with you anyway.”

His reaction — a little flicker of his eyelids and a ripple through the whiskers around his mouth — reminded her of how something as small as not being excluded meant so much to Clark.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

“Nothing that can’t be fixed,” she said.

“What happened?”

“Longford got a bit anxious.”

Clark understood immediately — understood that the cause of the anxiety was something they thought he might do. Lois saw the pain streak across his face. How awful to believe that people always thought the worst of him — always thought he was capable of violent and brutal behaviour. “What are we going to do?” he asked.

Lois halted her herbed roll halfway to her mouth and gave him a lingering smile.

“What?” he asked, his puzzlement showing in the quirk of his eyebrow.

“You,” she replied.

“Me?”

“I love that you asked what we are going to do.”

Instead of smiling, he glanced around the room. “Realistically, there is very little I can do,” he said sombrely.

“There’s a lot you can do,” Lois corrected. “You can discuss ideas with me. You have unique insight into Shadbolt and Longford and how they are most likely to act. I need you to help me decide the best way to do this.”

It was true, but Lois’s primary reason for her words was the need to counterbalance the little dip in Clark’s spirits.

Instead of the reaction she had hoped for, an outbreak of questions plagued his expression. He placed his roll on the paper bag and stared at it. “Lois,” he said in a voice wrapped in anguished uncertainty.

“What’s wrong, Clark?” she asked.

“Why are you doing this?” he grated hoarsely.

Lois smiled at him, but he didn’t raise his eyes. “Do I need a reason?” she asked.

“Where do you see this ending?”

“Where do you see it ending?”

Clark lifted his head, torment burning in his eyes. “It can’t end outside this prison,” he stated dully.

His words hacked through her plans. “Why not?”

“I can’t leave here.”

Lois studied him for a moment, perceiving the vast depths of his fear and hopelessness. She guessed it was fear for his parents and hopelessness for himself. She waited for him to raise his lowered eyes.

He didn’t.

Lois put down her lunch and laid her hand on his right shoulder.

Under her fingers, he stiffened.

With her thumb, she traced the line of his collarbone — lightly skimming over the protrusion that could be felt under his shirt. The point of his shoulder curved forward, pushing her away. Lois raised her thumb, but didn’t remove her hand.

“Because of that?” she asked.

His reply was a stunted nod.

“Clark,” Lois said. “We are not going to let a little lump stop us from doing what is right.”

His head slowly rose, and solemn brown eyes drilled into hers. “I accepted a long time ago that I can’t have a life outside of this prison.”

“I have not accepted that.”

“Lois,” he said wretchedly. “They put granules of the poison inside me. If I go through the door, the lead shell bursts open, the poison spreads through my body, and I’ll be dead within minutes.”

“We’ll bulldoze the wall if we have to,” she said with quiet resolve. “We’ll find whatever Trask put there to activate the poison, and we’ll destroy it. We will find a way.”

A slender thread of hope weaved through the despair so apparent in his face.

Lois gently curled her fingers into the hard slope of muscle. “But we don’t have to think about that yet,” she said. “We need to plan other things first.”

Her hand slid from his shoulder.

Clark picked up his roll.

And Lois realised that she had just crossed the line from which there could be no return. She had planted hope. Acceptance of his situation probably hadn’t come quickly or easily, and she had brushed it aside in a moment.

She had to nurture that hope. Protect it. She couldn’t allow it to wilt or be uprooted. If she did, her cruelty would be greater than Trask’s had been.

Clark had resumed eating his roll. Lois took that as a good sign. “I’ve been concerned about how Shadbolt and Longford will react to some of the changes we’ve made,” she said, keeping her tone casual.

“Yeah, I’ve wondered about that, too.”

“I figure we need a way to give them access to this room while limiting how much they can see.”

“A small chute in the wall?”

Lois smiled. “That was my thought,” she said. “But a pet door will work just as well.”

Clark slowly chewed a mouthful of his roll and then looked at her. “What happens when the man is here to work on the door?” he said.

Lois grinned. “I have that all worked out.”

A tiny suggestion of a smile pushed through his despondency. “What?”

“In my office, I have a pair of coveralls.”

“OK,” he said hesitantly.

She grinned again. “I also have a pot of paint and a brush. You put on the coveralls; you paint the wall; you just look like another worker.”

He couldn’t hide the wave of his relief.

“Clark!” Lois exclaimed. “What were you thinking?”

His eyes darted away. He didn’t want to tell her.

But she knew. And she was horrified. “Clark! You weren’t thinking that I would bring one of the rods into the cell, were you?”

That was exactly what he had been thinking. It was as clear as a neon sign on his face. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

Lois reached across the short distance between them and laid her hand on his for a tiny moment. “The rods are never coming back,” she promised. “Not if I can help it.”

“I didn’t think you would want to,” he said. “I just couldn’t see any other way.”

“As far as the door man is concerned, you will be just another labourer working on the renovation of this place.”

His smile came haltingly. “Thanks.”

She looked around the room. “After we’ve eaten, we should get rid of some of this stuff. It would be hard to explain tennis racquets and a mattress in a room that’s being painted.”

“Ah, no,” Clark said suddenly. “Did they hear me hitting the ball against the wall? Is that why they called you in early this morning?”

She nodded. “But it doesn’t matter.”

“It was the middle of the night,” Clark explained. “I couldn’t sleep, and I hadn’t heard any sounds for a long time. I figured the guard was asleep. I hit the ball really softly, hoping he wouldn’t hear.”

“Maybe the acoustics in here are weird,” Lois said. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Not much,” she said with a grin.

“I’m sorry,” he said ruefully. “I should have realised. I didn’t mean to make everything more difficult for you.”

“Clark, it worked out well. Shadbolt suggested the pet door — that meant I didn’t have to.”

“Why do you think Shadbolt suggested it?” Clark asked.

“I don’t know,” Lois said. “I don’t know if he was trying to be genuinely helpful, or if someone has asked him to report back on how I run this operation.”

“Does he know you come in here?”

Lois grinned. “Only two people know I come in here.”

His answering smile began but was aborted before it acquired full strength. “Lois, you need to be careful.”

“I am being careful,” she said. “I’m avoiding all contact with Scardino and hoping he will forget about this operation again.”

“Scardino?”

“The one above me in the chain of command.” Lois picked up a sliver of cheese from where it was perched on the edge of her roll and slipped it into her mouth. “What do you know about Shadbolt?”

“They made him come in here and get the bodies.”

“Did he have anything to do with the murders?”

“No. Nothing. But he was the one who had to clean up the mess.”

“Did he seem affected by it?”

“Very. He had to run for the bathroom once.” Clark’s eyes clouded with a memory. “He is sure that I killed them.”

Again, Lois fought against the compulsion to reach forward and connect with Clark. There was such hurt in his eyes. Why was she noticing it so clearly today? Because of the things they were discussing? Or because he was letting down his guard and allowing her to see his suffering?

Was he beginning to trust her?

Or had something happened inside her that meant his pain was becoming her pain?

Suddenly, there was a flash of movement, and Clark was on his feet. “Someone’s coming,” he said. He swept her into his arms, and the next thing Lois knew she was at the doorway. She stepped into the staffroom and locked the cell door. She put her half-eaten lunch on the table and began pouring a cup of coffee.

A knock sounded on the external door.

She went to answer it. “Who is it?”

“Daniel Scardino.”

Lois opened the door. “Come in,” she said. She walked into the staffroom and left him to follow. “Coffee?”

“Ah, no. Thank you.”

She turned, coffee mug in hand, and leant against the counter as she waited for Scardino to speak. On closer evaluation, he seemed nervous. She wasn’t sure if that were good or bad. Why had he come to the compound?

Lois sipped from her mug, and then her patience dissolved. “Are you here for a particular reason?” she asked lightly.

“I’ve been summoned by a higher-up to answer questions about this operation,” Scardino said.

Her gut had been right — it was doubtful they were going to be able to fade into obscurity after the mayhem with Moyne. “With regards to what?”

“I’m not sure exactly,” Scardino said. “But if I had to guess, I’d say that he wants to know about the changes you’ve implemented.”

Lois took her key from her pocket and held it towards Scardino. “Do you want to go into the cell?” she asked.

He quickly shook his head. “No,” he said. “But I’d like to go to your office and look through the window.”

“OK,” Lois said nonchalantly. She picked up her coffee and lunch and headed up the stairs, working overtime to keep her edginess concealed.

She entered her office and allowed herself a fleeting glance into the cell. Inside, she smiled. Outside, she crossed to her desk, set down her mug, and turned her attention to Scardino.

He stepped into the little alcove between her desk and the closet and peered through the window. Lois spun around and took the opportunity afforded by Scardino’s turned back.

The cell didn’t look significantly different from the first time she had looked into it. The thin camp mattress was lying in the corner. His tin box was placed near the door. Clark was sitting against the back wall, listlessly eating the roll.

She was sure that he had messed the front and sides of his hair.

Scardino turned to Lois. “You gave him a mattress.”

“Yeah,” Lois said as if it was what anyone else would have done.

“And he has clothes.”

Lois dropped her head and squeezed her forefinger and thumb along the bridge of her nose.

“Are you all right?” Scardino asked.

As she looked up, Lois swept the back of her hand across her eye. “My partner was raped and killed,” she said in a voice that shook. “I wanted him clothed.”

Scardino visibly recoiled. “Sorry,” he said. He intently scanned the cell, probably to give her some time to compose herself. “What other initiatives have you introduced?”

Lois indulged in a steadying breath. “I feed him — usually three times a day. I give him enough water so that he can wash.”

“Anything else?”

“I’ve stopped the discipline sessions.”

“Why?”

“Because his behaviour doesn’t change whether he has them or not, and I can’t justify the risk of sending the assistants into the cage when there is no benefit.”

“You asked about his parents.”

“Yeah.” Lois picked up one of her novels from her desk and absently flicked through the pages. “I found something in Trask’s notes — a couple of names. I figured they could be his parents.”

“Why did you want to know?”

Lois returned the book to the desk with more force than was necessary. “Have you any idea how boring this job is?” she said. “I was sitting here with nothing to do except watch a man in a cell, and I was reading Trask’s notes and came across two names. It seemed it would be interesting to find out if they were the real names of real people. I’m an agent, remember? It’s usually my job to find out information.”

“I got the impression it was more than that,” Scardino said carefully. “You seemed to care what had happened to his parents. It seemed to be becoming personal.”

Lois pushed back a lock of her hair and took a deep breath. “It was personal,” she admitted quietly. “But it wasn’t about him. My own dad is really sick.”

“I’m sorry,” Scardino said. “If you need time off …”

“Thanks,” Lois said. “But for now, I want to work. It gives me something else to think about.”

Scardino looked as if he didn’t know what to say next. “I need to take Trask’s notes.”

“Good,” Lois said. “Could you take his personal possessions, too, please? They take up a lot of room.”

Instead of looking at Trask’s pile near the door, Scardino’s eyes skipped over the assortment of things under her desk. “Are they Trask’s?” he asked.

“No,” Lois said. “They’re my dad’s. I went to his home this morning. I didn’t want to leave them in my Jeep in case they got stolen.”

Scardino nodded. His eyes fell on the mirror, but he didn’t comment.

Lois gestured to the boxes. “Let’s get rid of these, shall we?”

Scardino paused before picking up a box. “How’s your ankle?”

“It’s fine,” Lois said. She picked up the first box and headed down the stairs with it.

A few minutes later, they had removed all remnants of Trask’s presence from her office. Lois handed the pillow to Scardino, and he put it in his vehicle. “When are you meeting with the higher-up?” she said.

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Longford is doing my shift tomorrow. I have some personal stuff I need to do.”

Scardino nodded. He didn’t ask any questions about the nature of her ‘personal stuff’. That saved her from having to lie.

“Should I tell him to expect you to visit?” Lois asked.

“I don’t know,” Scardino said. “I’ve been summoned to Menzies’ office. I don’t know if he’ll want to actually come here.”

Menzies.

The name alone was enough to dump icy trepidation onto her heart. “I thought he was on leave.”

“He was.”

Lois swallowed down the expletive and instead fixed chilly unwavering eyes on Scardino. “What possible interest could he have in this operation?”

Scardino looked at the ground. “Menzies is married to Moyne’s aunt.”

The ice burned gouges deep into her heart, and Lois steadied herself against Scardino’s vehicle. By the time his head had lifted, her face contained — she hoped — no more consternation than would be expected. “What has Moyne said to him?” she demanded coldly.

“I expect that is what I will find out tomorrow.”

“Any questions raised now will highlight the deficiencies of those who should have investigated this operation a long time ago.”

Scardino sucked in a quiet breath, and Lois knew that her barb had hit home.

“Don’t expect that I will move on quietly,” she warned. “I need to be in Metropolis for my father. I’m not going to be forced to leave him because of someone like Moyne. Or Menzies.”

“You wouldn’t have to leave,” Scardino said. “I would approve at least two months of leave with full pay.”

“Perhaps you didn’t understand the severity of my father’s condition,” Lois said coldly. “Two months is not going to be enough.”

Scardino grimaced. “I’m sorry. I … ah … I didn’t realise.”

“I have done nothing wrong,” Lois said. “And nepotism, sexism, and unlawful imprisonment would make for a tantalising combination.”

“Lois,” Scardino cautioned quietly. “Threatening to go public will not help you.”

Lois gestured towards the compound. “Was there anything else you wanted while you’re here?” she said. “My coffee’s getting cold.”

“No. That’s all.”

“Bye.”

Lois closed the external door and collapsed against it as she heaved in a long breath and tried to settle her jangled nerves.

Tomorrow. Scardino was meeting with Moyne’s uncle. Tomorrow. She would be in Kansas.

Should she postpone her trip?

If she did, they would ask questions.

Would her presence be enough to protect Clark? If Menzies demanded to go into the cell, they would use the rods.

And Lois wouldn’t even be able to protest.

Should they go? Her and Clark? Tonight? Now?

They couldn’t.

She didn’t know enough. Didn’t know enough about how to disable the implant Trask had embedded in Clark. Didn’t know what had happened to his parents.

Clark’s best chance … their only chance … was if she kept this assignment for as long as possible.

At this stage, that had to be her highest priority.

On reflection, it might be better if she were in Kansas. It seemed likely Moyne had talked to Menzies. If she sensed any negativity in Menzies’ attitude towards Clark… On numerous occasions, Linda had kept Lois’s mouth from getting them both into trouble.

Now Linda wasn’t here.

Lois opened the door and peeped outside. Scardino had gone. After locking the door, she returned to her office to collect the remains of her lunch. She paused and looked into the cell.

Clark had reduced his room to starkness. He’d thought of everything. There was no sign of tennis racquets, or Winnie the Pooh sleeping bags, or jigsaw puzzles, or tubs of strawberry yoghurt.

If Scardino had talked to Shadbolt and Longford, would he think they had been exaggerating the extent of her amendments? Or would he think that the cell had been cleared for his viewing?

She’d had no warning of Scardino’s visit. She could only hope that what he’d seen would carry more weight than anything he’d been told.

But what Scardino believed was no longer the most telling consideration. Not with Menzies in the equation.

She rewound the tape, covered the camera lens with the black curtain, and pressed ‘record’. She needed to be more careful about leaving any evidence that she had been into the cell. She couldn’t add credibility to Moyne’s story that their scuffle had been because he had been trying to stop her entering the cell.

Clark was eating his lunch. He looked disconsolate, but not distraught.

Had he been able to hear what had been said outside the compound?

She reviewed the conversation. She would tell Clark about the meeting and hope that his questions would indicate whether he’d heard about Menzies.

She hated the thought of keeping information from Clark.

But Menzies had links with Moyne, and Clark thought Moyne had gone. Clark had made so much progress the past few days — she couldn’t put that in jeopardy.

After locking her office, Lois used the time as she walked down the stairs to decide exactly what she would tell Clark.

And exactly what needed to be kept from him. For now.

***

Clark sat alone in his cell, eating his lunch.

It didn’t taste as good now Lois wasn’t here.

He knew he shouldn’t have listened to what was being said on the other side of the door, but that would have required more self-discipline than he possessed. Particularly as he couldn’t banish the fear that Moyne would return, seeking retribution.

He’d heard most of it — enough to know that the visitor wasn’t Moyne, but Scardino.

Enough to know that Lois was working without the support of those above her. Enough to know that questions were being asked by someone with a lot of authority.

From what she’d said earlier, she didn’t have the support of Shadbolt and the other assistant either.

She was alone in this.

And he had no way to help her.

When she came back, he needed to try to talk to her about minimising the risks.

He’d heard her statement about her partner. Was that really why she had bought him clothes?

He’d heard the footsteps up and down the stairs before the few minutes when everything had gone silent. When he’d heard Lois’s footsteps return alone, Clark had turned off his extra hearing. He would not track Lois. Not unless he believed someone was trying to hurt her.

But even then, what could he do?

He heard the click of the lock and jumped to his feet as his heart did a little dance inside him.

The door swung into his cell, and Lois entered.

He always found it hard to breathe in that first second when he saw her again.

He crossed the cell, revelling in the freedom to approach her without being worried that he would frighten her. He studied her face. Despite Scardino’s surprise visit, she didn’t look unduly concerned.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She smiled, magically lifting some of the heaviness from his spirits. “We’re OK,” she said as she looked around the prison. “Where is everything?”

Clark pulled back the mattress to reveal the two tubs of yoghurt, two glasses, and the bottle of juice.

Lois laughed. “From up there, I didn’t even notice that your mattress was a bit lumpy. Where’s the rest of it?”

“Behind the little wall,” Clark said. “Because of the angles, there’s a bit of space that can’t be seen from the window.”

“You did an amazing job of clearing the cell,” she said.

His worries receded further — unable to stand against the impetus of her approval.

Realistically, Clark knew that there was very little chance he could have any sort of life on the outside. He knew that those who had power on this planet knew too much about him to permit his freedom. He knew he was too different … too alien … too unacceptable.

But … being with Lois made the impossible seem possible.

Being with Lois made him want to believe.

Impulsively — even though he knew her ankle wasn’t troubling her anymore — Clark offered his hand to steady her as she lowered herself onto the mattress.

Her responding smile set off fireworks in his heart. She put her small soft hand into his and tightened her grip as she lowered herself onto the mattress. Her hand slid from his grasp, and she collected the remains of their lunch.

Clark sat next to her, hoping she couldn’t detect the tingling across the skin of his palm.

There was something he needed to tell her. “Lois?”

She unscrewed the top of the juice bottle. “Yes?”

“I listened,” Clark said. “When you were with Scardino. I listened.”

She poured orange juice into both glasses. “Did you hear about the meeting?”

He nodded.

That’s good,” she said. “That saves me from having to repeat it all to you.”

“When it is?”

Lois handed him a glass of juice. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Are you concerned?”

She picked up her juice and sipped. “It could amount to nothing more than a higher-up getting puffed up with self-importance,” she said. But there was a little crease on her forehead.

“What are you worried about?” Clark probed.

She sighed. “The meeting is to take place in an office, but Scardino doesn’t know whether they will come here.”

“OK.”

“And if they do come here, it’s possible they will come into the cell.”

And that meant they would bring in the poison. Clark faced her steadily. “That’s OK,” he said.

Concern had clouded the lovely brown of her eyes. “It’s not OK,” she said with a tiny tremor in her voice. “But I can’t do anything to stop it. I’m still hoping they will forget about us again, but that’s not going to happen if I remonstrate against something that was standard practice for seven years. I’ll lock my office — and the rods will be in there — but I’m pretty sure Scardino will have a master key.”

“It will be OK,” Clark quietly assured her.

As Lois turned her head, Clark saw her blink away a pool of tears.

If she started crying, he was going to feel even more inept than he usually did.

But her being upset about something that might happen to him was infinitely better than her being upset by something he had done.

That thought strengthened him. He could take another dose of the poison if he knew that Lois -

His thoughts stopped and clattered around his mind.

If he knew that Lois cared about him.

Did she? Of course, she didn’t. He was being ridiculous.

“I’m so sorry, Clark,” she said as she gazed at him with still-glistening eyes. “I wish there was another way.”

“It’s OK,” he said. “With Moyne and Trask gone, it’s doubtful it will be anything more than exposure.”

The anguish blazed in her eyes. “But it still hurts, doesn’t it?”

Clark shrugged. “Don’t worry,” he said. It wasn’t the thought of exposure to the poison that terrified him; it was the thought that the meeting might result in Lois being taken away. He would gladly suffer hours of pain if it meant that he could still see her.

“I won’t be here tomorrow,” Lois informed him quietly.

His fears surged.

“I’ll be in Smallville,” she said.

A medley of competing thoughts darted through his mind. His parents. His home. The farm. The neighbours. And a day without Lois.

“I’ll try to find out whatever I can about your parents,” she said.

“Will you be gone all day?”

“Most of it.”

Clark felt as if he was being tossed around in a violent sea. He had yearned for news of his parents, and now it seemed he was on the cusp of discovering something of their fate. He knew it could be bad news. He knew it was possible that the tiny flame of hope he had nurtured for seven years would be snuffed out forever. Or it could be good news — maybe they had been allowed to return to the farm — perhaps believing him to be dead, but in all other ways untouched by Trask’s savagery.

A whole day without Lois.

It would feel like a day of darkness.

Clark didn’t know what to say. He slowly peeled back the lid from the tub of yoghurt.

When he raised his eyes, Lois was looking at him.

“I’ll be back in the evening,” she said.

“Will you come here?”

She smiled, and her fingertips grazed over his bare arm. “Of course I’ll come here, Clark,” she said. “I’ve swapped shifts with Longford, so we’ll have plenty of time to talk about Smallville.” Her smile died. “And whatever happens if Scardino comes here.”

From the din of blaring questions, one rose to ascendency. He had to ask. He knew the answer, but he had to ask. “What if they order you to go?”

She didn’t answer for a moment, and Clark’s heart sank as he figured she was trying to find a way to tell him that today could be their last day together.

Still, she didn’t speak.

He couldn’t fathom the expression on her face, but he knew it scared him.

But then, she held out her hand towards him in an unmistakable invitation.

Clark stared at her outstretched hand. It seemed symbolic. It seemed to convey so much more than inconsequential contact between two people who had been thrown together temporarily.

He wiped his hand on his shorts and then slowly edged forward to meet her. When they touched, her fingers closed around him. He stared at their joined hands.

When his eyes leapt to hers, he saw that she was staring intently at him. “Clark,” she said in a steady voice. “I’m not leaving you.”

Mixed-up hope and disbelief hurtled around his brain. “Lois,” he said. “I can’t let you do that. You have a life. You’re human. You belong on this planet. You -”

Her fingers tightened around his, and it choked his words.

“I’m not leaving you,” she vowed.

He had to try again. He was being sucked into the swirl of hope by the unwavering certainty of her eyes, but he had to try to free her. “Lois. You’ve only known me for a few days. I’m an alien. I can’t let you throw away your life on a hopeless cause …”

Her thumb began to slide over his knuckles. “I’m not leaving you,” she said again.

He stared at their joined hands. Stared at where her thumb was setting fire to his skin.

“I can’t give you any real answers yet,” Lois continued in a soothing, steady voice. “I don’t know exactly how this will work out. I don’t know what we will need to do. I don’t know how much opposition we will face or the form it will take.”

“Then how can you say so unequivocally that you won’t leave me?” he said. The brusqueness of his question shocked him but it didn’t seem to unnerve Lois.

“I made a deal with Scardino. His part is to leave me on this operation.”

“Will he honour that deal? Will he be allowed to honour it if someone above him orders you off this operation?”

“I think Scardino will try to honour the deal,” she said. “I know this has to be incredibly unsettling for you, and as soon as I have answers, I’ll give them to you.”

She put her other hand on top of his, enclosing him, and Clark was sure there was a good chance his hand was going to melt away and slither between her fingers.

“I need to ask you a question,” she said. “And I need you to answer me honestly.”

Her solemnity carved deep chasms through his hope. He nodded.

“I probably should have asked you this before now,” she said with a shy smile.

The heat from her hands had climbed up his arm and parched his mouth.

Lois took a breath. “Is this what you want?” she asked. “If there’s even a small chance that you can get out of here and go back to having a life on the outside, is that what you want?”

He wanted to be with her.

Lois.

But that wasn’t going to happen.

A beautiful woman like Lois Lane would never choose to spend her life with an alien.

She had already committed to more than he had any right to expect by saying she would stay until she procured his freedom.

Three times, she had said she wouldn’t leave him.

Clark nodded. “Yes,” he said. “For so long, I’ve believed it wasn’t possible, but if you think there is a chance, that is what I want.”

Her smile repaid him a thousand times over, even as his heart crumbled with the knowledge that his freedom from this prison would inevitably mean her freedom from him.

She had given him so much.

That would be his gift to her.

It would be the most difficult gift he had ever given.

But this was Lois … and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her.

In reality, nothing had changed.

He’d always known that their time together would be limited.

He wanted to enjoy every second, to store up every memory against the certain loneliness that was coming — whether he was physically imprisoned or physically free, life without Lois would feel no less desolate than the past seven years.

But he would know that she was free.

He would gather memories as a farmer gathers wheat, and he would store them away for the famine that was surely coming.

Sweet memories of Lois — her smile, and her touch, and her blindness to all of his anomalies.

Memories so sweet and so strong that whatever happened, he would always have the essence of her to carry with him.

Part 14

“Finished?”

Clark’s single word question sliced smoothly through the comfortable silence that had followed in the wake of their discussion.

The unexpected hint of chirpiness in his tone caused her to look up. Lois took in his smile and felt her own spirits lift. “Yeah, thanks,” she replied. She drained the last of her juice.

Clark scanned the room. “We should clear this stuff away.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “A few of these things would be really hard to explain.”

“Like the Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag?” Clark said, his tone suddenly imbued with a definite tinge of light-heartedness. “And the apple-scented conditioner?”

Lois checked his face and, seeing no warning trace of shadow, said, “What the almost-finished-and-then-pulled-apart-again jigsaw puzzle?”

Clark tried to rein in his smile, and the effect — eyes that were lit with amusement and a mouth that hovered alluringly on the precipice of laughter — was electric. “Have you been spying on me, Ms Lane?” he asked.

His feigned sternness called to something within her. Something alive and joyful. Something she thought had been left in the dark place where Linda had died. Something that couldn’t help but respond to him. “Absolutely,” she said with a jaunty grin.

His response elicited a grin, but he tried to hide it with pursed lips and a sucked-in breath. I’ll have to be more careful around you.” Before she could think up a reply, he sprang to his feet and offered her his hand.

Just two days ago, their fingers colliding over a jigsaw puzzle piece had been enough to discomfit him. His progress was remarkable. There had to be damage, Lois reminded herself. Alien … human … it didn’t matter. No one could suffer what he had suffered and not be terribly wounded.

She slid her hand into his, knowing that his gesture — and her response — would not be trivial and insignificant to him.

He smiled as his large hand closed around her smaller one.

She’d never met anyone who appreciated the tiny things the way Clark did.

He pulled her to her feet. She didn’t withdraw her hand, he didn’t loosen his, and suddenly, they were standing together, connected.

She stared into his brown eyes.

His beard parted, and he smiled.

He nodded towards the window. “Are you going to hide the stuff in your office?” he said.

She forced her mind to his question. “Yeah.”

“We should get it done.”

“We should,” Lois said. But she didn’t want to. She wanted to stand here, holding his hand and drinking in the balminess of his eyes.

Then one of them moved, and they were apart.

“I’ll bring everything to the door,” Clark said.

There wasn’t a trace of negativity in his tone, but Lois sensed an unspoken complement to his statement — regarding what he couldn’t do.

“Have you painted before?” she asked as she picked up the trash from their lunch.

Clark nodded. “Dad and I painted fences and the barn. We even painted Mom’s kitchen one summer.”

“Did you do other jobs?” Lois asked. “Like with a hammer and nails?”

“Sure,” he said as he began to roll up the camp mattress. “Is there a reason why you’re asking? Does it have something to do with your trip to Smallville tomorrow?”

“Nothing to do with Smallville,” she said. “I’m wondering if you’d do something for me.”

“Of course, I will,” Clark said. Again she heard the unvoiced postscript: If I can.

“I told you about my dad and how he’s in the nursing home.”

His compassion was swift and palpably sincere. “Yeah.”

“He used to enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles, but I think it would be hard for him now, particularly if the pieces got swept off the table.”

“How about a sort of large, flat tray?” Clark said. “With raised edges to keep the pieces where they belong?”

Lois smiled. “That is exactly what I was thinking.”

“If you can get the materials, I could make it easily,” Clark said.

“What would you need?”

Clark leant his knee into the half-rolled-up mattress and lifted his hands to indicate size. “A flat piece of wood — probably chipboard or something similar. I’d also need some moulded lumber for the edges. And some nails. That’s it.”

“I have all of those things in my office,” Lois told him.

Clark glanced to the window, his face lit with happy surprise. “That is some office,” he said appreciatively.

She shrugged a little self-consciously. “I’ve been planning to ask you.”

His gaze settled on her. “Hey, Lois,” he scolded gently. “If I can do anything for you, please don’t hesitate to ask me.”

“Thanks,” she said, pausing to look at him as she said the word so he wouldn’t miss the fullness of her gratitude.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “I’ll make it after the pet door guy has left.”

For the next ten minutes, Lois traipsed up the stairs with the surprisingly large number of objects that had accumulated in just a few days, but her mind didn’t leave the cell.

They had negotiated some potentially hazardous topics during their interrupted lunch — and more than once, she had held her breath, fearing that she had steered them into turbulent waters.

And then had come his comment about the sleeping bag and the conditioner. His good humour had felt like the first rays of sunshine after the freeze of winter.

It had felt so good.

And it confirmed her decision not to tell him about Menzies.

Since then, his mood had brightened perceptibly as each item was removed from his room.

Was it simply because he had something practical to do?

Was it the satisfaction of working together? Was it the anticipation of making the tray for her dad?

Or did it go deeper than that?

Was he relieved that they had touched on the subject of the future?

At first, her assertion that she wouldn’t leave him hadn’t seemed to reassure him at all. Had he assumed she’d meant she would stay until it was possible for him to leave, too? Or had he assumed her pledge extended further than that?

Either way, could that have possibly contributed to his cheerfulness?

Or was he optimistic that tomorrow he would hear something about his parents?

Regardless of the cause, Lois decided to enjoy it.

There was something invigorating about Clark Kent with a ready smile and a buoyancy in his voice that just intensified its sexi-

Lois stopped mid-step, her hand half-reaching towards Clark for the racquets.

He smiled at her, but this one held a tinge of concern. “You OK?” he asked in that voice that was definitely sexy.

She nodded, hastily took the racquets from him, and hurried across the staffroom.

In her office, Lois deliberately turned away from the window and forced herself to take a moment to curb the headstrong thrust of her thoughts.

She was attracted to Clark — she’d accepted that.

She was determined that he would get a happy ending.

She couldn’t deny that a happy ending for her included him.

Being with him.

As friends.

Partners.

And — Lois sighed as she remembered the stretched seconds when they had stood as if their hands had been glued together — and so much more.

Say it, Lane.

Linda’s voice elbowed itself into Lois’s mind.

Say it, you big wuss. Admit that you’re hopelessly smitten.

Lois felt a smile tug at her mouth.

She missed Linda so much.

If Linda were here …

… This would be so much easier.

Linda would give her perspective.

Linda would give her balance.

Linda would show her a way through the minefield of falling in love with an alien from another planet who had been horrifically imprisoned for seven years and was probably almost old enough to be her father.

When put like that, it sounded laughable.

It was laughable.

And crass.

And grossly unprofessional.

Except …

She turned and looked out of the window.

Clark was kneeling on the concrete rolling up her Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag.

Except this was not about an alien.

Or a prisoner.

Or a man too old for her.

This was about Clark.

And when she was with him, nothing else mattered.

In the last few minutes, he’d been as happily relaxed as she had ever seen him. She was going to enjoy it. She knew there were difficult times ahead. She knew that getting him out legally was going to require something close to a miracle. She also knew there would be far-reaching consequences if they broke out of the compound and ran away together.

So why not enjoy whatever time they had together before they had to tear through the murky curtain and enter a future doused with uncertainty?

Why not simply enjoy being together?

And … if she caught herself dwelling too long on the ripped muscles of his forearms or the curves of his calves or the breadth of his back … well … she was a woman, and he was a man.

Lois chuckled.

She was sure that was what Linda would have said.

You’re a woman, Lane; he’s a man. Everything else is an unnecessary complication.

In the cell, Clark had bundled up the sleeping bag and was waiting for her return. He would be wondering what was taking her so long.

She skipped down the stairs and sped through the staffroom.

“Everything OK?” Clark said.

She paused before reaching to take the bedding. She smiled at him, and her heart did a pirouette when he smiled back. “Everything’s fine,” Lois said. “I just needed a few moments to get some things straight in my head.”

Understanding filtered into his smile. “You, too, huh?”

She nodded.

Clark picked up the pillow and handed it to her.

“Thanks,” she said as she became lost in his eyes again.

She broke away and took the bedding to her office. On her return, she brought the coveralls, the tin of white paint, and the brush, and she gave them to Clark.

“Thanks,” he said.

Lois pointed to the side wall beyond the screened area. “You need to paint that bit of the wall,” she told him.

“OK,” he said easily.

She picked up several editions of the Daily Planet and took them to her office to deposit in the trashcan.

When she returned, Clark was wearing the coveralls and had removed the lid from the paint tin. He looked up from his crouched position. “Do you have something to stir the paint, please?” he asked. “Something broad and flat?”

“A knife?”

He chuckled. “I’ve never stirred paint with a knife before, but it should work fine.”

Lois took a knife from the tray and gave it to him. “Thanks,” he said with a smile.

She sat next to him and watched as the knife glided through the thick white liquid, hoping that her next comment wouldn’t jeopardise his good mood. “Clark? I … ah …”

His eyes rose from the paint to meet hers, and he waited for her to continue.

“I don’t want to embarrass you, but I wondered if you’d like something to tie back your hair. To keep from getting paint in it.”

“That seems to be more practical than embarrassing,” he said with a puzzled look.

“I wondered if you might think that only females tie back their hair.” She shrugged, now feeling uncomfortable that she had brought up the subject. “I don’t know the fashions in Smallville for men with long hair.”

“Not many men in Smallville have long hair,” Clark said. “It’s too dangerous when you’re around farm machinery.”

“Oh.” She had a question she wanted to ask, and now seemed like a good chance to use it to move them away from the subject of hair accessories. “Do you mind how long your hair is? Even now it’s clean and untangled, do you dislike it?”

The knife stilled in the paint.

“Just tell me the truth,” Lois said.

“It seems such a petty thing,” Clark said as he began stirring again. “But I hate it. I hate having long hair, and I hate the long, scraggly beard.” He glanced up at her. “I know it’s silly to get so hung up on something that, in reality, isn’t important, but it’s … it’s like my hair and beard are somehow representative of everything else.”

Lois nodded. “As if your lack of control in making decisions about your personal appearance is a small part of a much bigger picture where you can’t control anything in your life.”

“Yeah,” he said. He rallied a smile for her. “It’s only a small thing. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

“I asked,” she reminded him.

His smiled gained strength as some of his good humour flowed back. “It’s silly,” he said. “It’s only hair.” He grinned at her suddenly, and her heart jigged in response. “And anyway, having long and knotty hair meant I needed someone to untangle it for me.”

Until that moment, Lois hadn’t been sure if he’d enjoyed or endured her washing his hair. Now, she had no doubts. She smiled with jubilant satisfaction. “And then, we both would have missed out.”

He smiled but tried to hide it by studying the swirling paint.

“How about — once the pet door is in — I cut it for you?” Lois offered eagerly. “I’m not sure I will do a great job, but I can cut it short. And I can get you a razor so you can shave off the beard. Once we are out, you can go to a -”

“Lois!”

The suddenness of his exclamation checked her outburst but not her smile. Enthusiasm was coursing through her, and that hadn’t happened for such a long time. “Yes, Clark?” she asked.

“You can’t cut my hair.”

“Oh,” she said, her elation subdued. “OK.”

“You physically can’t cut my hair,” he explained. “It’s too … strong. From the time I was about ten years old, no human could cut it.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t even considered that possibility. “So, how …?”

“I used to do it myself. With two mirrors.”

Mirrors? “So … if I were to give you two mirrors, you could cut your hair to whatever length and style you wanted?”

Clark nodded.

“That’s …”

“Weird?”

She chuckled. “No, I was going to say ‘cool’. That’s really cool.”

Clark lifted the knife out of the paint and held it while it dribbled into the tin. “Would you mind washing the knife?” he asked. “We shouldn’t leave it out — real painters don’t stir their paint with a knife.” He picked up the lid and put the knife on it.

“Sure,” Lois said as she rose to her feet.

“Thanks.”

Lois took the lid and the knife to the sink in the staffroom and turned on the faucet. As she rubbed the sticky white paint from the knife, she couldn’t help trying to imagine what Clark would look like clean-shaven and with short, neat hair.

As soon as the pet door had been installed, she could give him the mirrors.

Except … Lois grunted with impatience. They would have to wait until after tomorrow — just in case the Menzies did demand to see the alien.

A knock sounded on the external door as Lois finished cleaning all traces of the paint from the knife.

“Hi,” the young man said when she opened the door. “I’m Jake. I’m here to install the pet door.”

“Hi, Jake,” Lois said. “Come in.” She showed him through the staffroom and gestured to the cell door.

“You ordered a one-way door?” he asked as he put the carton that he’d been carrying on the table.

She nodded. “I want it going into the next room.”

“Easily done,” Jake said. “I’ll bring in a few things and get started.”

When he was gone, Lois looked into the cell and gazed at Clark’s back as he swished the brush from side to side along the wall. She watched until she heard Jake’s footsteps and then turned quickly.

“Would you like coffee?” she asked, hoping to forestall any questions about the specifics of why they had ordered the pet door.

“Thanks,” Jake said as he began to remove the screws from the door hinge. “No milk, one sugar.”

Lois leant past him and poked her head into the cell. “Would you like coffee?” she called to Clark.

“Thanks,” Clark replied, without even turning towards her.

“How do you have it?”

“Milk, two sugars.”

Lois picked up the novel she had left on the shelf and pretended to be engrossed in it while the coffee brewed. When it was ready, she poured three mugs, put Jake’s on the corner of the counter, and took another one through the doorway.

She placed it on the floor next to the paint tin. “Here’s your coffee,” she said in a detached tone.

“Thanks,” he said, giving her no more than a passing glance.

Lois stepped back and stood for a few seconds, pretending to examine his progress. In reality, she was infinitely more interested in the worker than his workmanship.

“Looking good,” she muttered as she turned away.

She slipped through the doorway and returned to her novel as she sipped her coffee and pretended to be oblivious to the sounds of Jake’s labour.

Half an hour later, he replaced the door and used a powered screwdriver to refasten the hinges. When he’d finished, he swung the door a few times, and then closed it. Crouching low, he pushed the flap and grunted with satisfaction when it opened easily. “All done,” he said as he jumped to his feet.

“Thanks,” Lois said.

“The boss will send the bill.”

“OK.”

Lois returned to her book while he packed away his tools and downed the remainder of his coffee. “Would you sign this, please?” Jake asked.

She dragged her eyes from the novel and scrawled her name in the book he held. He tore off a copy and handed it to her.

“Thanks,” she said as she followed him to the door. “Bye.”

After Jake had left, Lois locked the external door and hurried back to Clark, feeling as if they had secured the first step of his freedom. Now, their preparations could progress without being immediately obvious to Shadbolt and Longford.

There was still the possibility of someone — Scardino, if he had a key — looking through the window in her office, but they had bought some protection. Clark’s everyday needs could be met without anyone else opening the door. Without anyone observing him.

If only something else distracted Menzies and kept him away tomorrow.

Clark was still painting the wall. The movement of his arm caused the material of the coveralls to stretch across his butt.

He turned. “All finished?”

“Yep. All done.”

He crouched low and wiped the brush on the edge of the tin. “Could you bring me a bowl of water, please?” he asked. “I need to wash the brush.”

Lois would have thrown it in the trash, but it wasn’t surprising that Clark would clean up after a job. And it was possible that they would need this ruse again. She filled the bowl with water, and took it back to him.

“Thanks,” he said with the quiet and sincere gratitude that was his standard reaction to everything she did for him. “Would you like to get the materials for your dad’s tray while I finish up here? I can probably have it done before supper.”

“Be right back.” As Lois mounted the steps to her office, she smiled at Clark’s eagerness. She’d glimpsed something else in him … the farmer … the capable man, used to practical tasks.

And that facet of his personality was no less attractive than all the others.

As she picked up the flat piece of wood, Lois chuckled.

If she could find something excitingly attractive in a farmer, she had it bad.

She should be struggling to bring cold rationality to her situation.

She should be fighting to suppress this attraction.

But if she did … if she were successful in smothering her feelings … if she freed Clark and then walked away from him … what would she have?

A job — but no partner.

A family — a sister she never saw, a mother she never agreed with, and a father whose future was perilously uncertain.

A life — but no one to share it with.

Compared with that, the prospect of being with a kind, caring, patient man seemed eminently enticing.

And his body wasn’t too bad either.

Lois carried the board down the stairs.

She wanted to be with Clark.

There were enough impending problems without her adding a few extra by complicating something that — on the inside — should be simple.

If she wasn’t already in love with him, she was within one smile or one lingering gaze from those luscious brown eyes of being completely smitten.

There you go, Lane. That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Lois chuckled. “Shut up, King,” she muttered. “Who asked you?”

She was still smiling when she went into the cell.

Clark straightened from where he’d been washing the brush in the bowl. He wiped his hands on the coveralls and smiled.

And there it was.

The smile that pushed her over the edge.

He took the board, apparently completely unaware of the monumental upheaval happening inside her heart.

Clark perused the board as Lois perused him.

“Perfect,” he said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Lois said.

“Have you got the nails?” he asked. “And the lengths of lumber?”

“Yep. I’ll … ah … I’ll get them.” With difficulty, Lois turned away.

In her office, she loaded up the hammer, nails, and two sticks of lumber. Running down the stairs, an idea hit her.

She couldn’t do it.

But it was sooooo tempting.

If she were to trip … just a little … and wrench her ankle.

She couldn’t do it.

She had to be honest with Clark. Totally honest. She had to be honest in the little things because she was going to need his trust in the big things.

But she couldn’t dissolve the lingering feeling that if she were to tweak her ankle just a little — nothing serious, but enough to require some special attention from Clark — he wouldn’t be too disappointed.

She walked into the cell, and handed him the tools and lumber.

“Exactly what I need,” Clark said, looking like a kid who’d just been given his first bike.

“Oh,” Lois said. “I forgot the saw.”

Clark shook his head. “I don’t need a saw,” he said.

“You don’t?”

He picked up the stick of square lumber and peered at it.

A few seconds later, a tiny piece dropped from the end, and Clark held up the stick — grinning broadly — to show Lois a perfect forty-five degree cut.

She put her hands on her hips and grinned right back. “It seems I have underestimated the skills of Kansas farmers,” she said.

“Lois,” Clark said with a half-mast grin that curled her toes. “You do realise that your reaction to my weirdness is even weirder than the things I can do?”

“You’re an alien,” she said lightly. “I expect you to do things differently.”

“Yes, but expecting and accepting are worlds apart.”

“Not for me,” she said.

“Does it bother you that I could …” He gestured towards his eyes. “… hurt someone?”

“Would you do anything like that? Would you use your abilities to hurt an innocent person?”

“No.”

She shrugged. “It’s not your abilities that I see,” she said. “It’s your heart.”

The warmth in his eyes turned to liquid fire — and seared through her.

They stared at each other. Lois’s breath was rough, her heartbeat was erratic, and her muscles felt like molten lava.

Finally, Clark eased his eyes away. “I … I should get on with the tray for your dad,” he said.

His voice sounded as if he’d been starved of oxygen, too.

“You should,” she said. “I have a couple of things to do in my office. Wave or call if you want me to come down.”

“OK,” he said as he dropped to his knees next to the flat piece of wood.

Lois climbed the stairs and slumped into her chair.

She had been sure.

Sure of what she wanted.

But …

… What about him?

What did he want?

She had been so wrapped up in trying to analyse her own feelings, she hadn’t spent too much time thinking about his side of this.

Life on the outside was going to be a phenomenal adjustment for him. Would being with her make it easier? Or more difficult?

Did he have someone else? She knew he wasn’t married, but did he have someone that he hoped was waiting for him?

If she said she wanted to be with him, he would agree — out of misplaced gratitude if nothing else.

He was the sort of guy who would put his own feelings to one side.

How could she find out what he really wanted?

It wasn’t as if she could just stroll up to him and inquire nonchalantly if he wanted her to stick around once he was free.

He probably didn’t know what he wanted.

For seven years, he had believed there was no hope of a future outside of the cell. She’d only just introduced that possibility. She had to give him time to get used to that.

Patience.

There was that word again.

She had to be his friend first.

He had to trust her.

Then, once he trusted her enough to walk out of the cell with her, perhaps he would begin to trust her with his heart.

A heart that must be calloused and damaged.

A heart that must be wary of being hurt again.

With a huge sigh that Lois hoped would magically infuse her with patience and wisdom, she looked down into the cell.

The tray was finished already.

She hurried through the door, down the stairs, and into the cell.

Clark held out the tray for her to see.

It was exactly what she had envisioned.

She took it from him. “Clark,” she said. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”

He looked pleased by her reaction. “You’re welcome.”

She ran her fingers over the smooth board. “After I left my dad’s place, I realised that I should have brought some sandpaper.”

“No need.” His fingers split to form a ‘V’, and he pointed at his eyes.

Lois caressed the smooth surface of the wood again. “You did a great job, Clark.”

“I’ll put everything in a pile near the door,” he said.

“And I thought we should check what can be seen through the pet door. So you’ll know when you’re out of sight.”

“OK.”

She took the tray into the staffroom and placed it carefully on the table, imagining her dad sitting in his wheelchair and working on a jigsaw puzzle. She would buy one to give to him on Thursday.

Lois closed the cell door and dropped to her stomach on the floor. She wriggled forward and pushed the flap open. Clark’s bare feet came into view. “Clark?”

“Right here. I’ll go over to the back wall.”

As he walked away, more of him came into view. “Go to the furthest corner,” Lois called through the pushed-open screen.

He did.

When he was standing in the corner, she could see far enough up his body that the lowest tendrils of his beard were visible. Lois smiled with triumph. “When you are standing, any changes to your hair and beard won’t be obvious,” she called.

His legs walked towards her, and a few seconds later, his face appeared on the other side of the narrow tunnel, and he held up the flap. “So, if I remain standing, no one will be able to see my face and head?”

“That’s correct, Mr Kent,” Lois said. “When I get back from Smallville tomorrow, I might need somewhere to keep my mirrors.”

“My place is available,” he offered with a wide grin.

“Then that’s what I’ll do.”

His smile radiated with happiness. “Could you tell me when I’m out of sight, please?” he asked. “I’ll position the mattress so that most of my body is in view, but not my head and shoulders.”

“OK.” She watched his feet walk away at a forty-five degree angle. “Step right,” she directed.

He did.

“I can’t see you now.”

A few seconds later, Clark’s feet appeared, and then he lay down on the concrete, his chin resting on his arms and a smile lighting up his face.

“I have an idea,” Lois said. It was an idea that had been romping around her mind for the past few hours, becoming more insistent as she had thought about how difficult tomorrow would be for Clark. She hadn’t known how to suggest it, but for reasons she wasn’t even going to examine, it seemed easier to bring it up while they were lying on their stomachs and staring at each other through a hole in a door.

“What’s your idea?” Clark asked.

“How about tomorrow evening, we have a little celebration?”

“A celebration?” he said hesitantly.

“The pet door is in, and that gives us the freedom to make some changes.” She paused and was encouraged when he didn’t immediately oppose the idea. “So to celebrate, I could bring in a camp table and two chairs, and we could pretend we were in a restaurant. I’ll get a nice bottle of wine and ask Uncle Mike to provide a dessert as well as a main course.”

Clark’s smile had rolled out slowly as she had expounded on her idea.

“Sound good?” she urged.

“Lois …”

“Whatever tomorrow brings, we’ll deal with all of it together tomorrow night.”

“That is a wonderful idea,” Clark said, his eyes firing little darts of excitement that shot directly into her heart.

“I’ll give you the mirrors as soon as we’re alone, and then I’ll stay away to give you the time to use them.”

Excitement invigorated his expression. “I can’t wait,” he said.

“Neither can I,” Lois replied.

Part 15

Uncle Mike’s seafood risotto was delicious, but Lois wasn’t sure if there was another reason for the silence that had fallen as she and Clark had eaten.

Perhaps it was that Clark’s transitory high spirits had been no match for the sobering realisation of the impending news of his parents’ fate.

He must feel as if he were being torn in numerous directions. Wanting to hope, but not daring to. Trying to be realistic, but not willing to acknowledge — even to himself — some of the worst of his fears.

Lois wondered if he were giving any thought to the possibility of being exposed to the rods tomorrow. He had tried to gloss over it, but she wasn’t sure if that had been an attempt to prevent her from worrying.

The thought of it whipped dread through her stomach.

But she couldn’t afford to let that fear paralyse her. They had to discuss Smallville and his parents — and the need was becoming more pressing as their time slipped away. She had said nothing so far, hoping to give Clark the chance to raise the subject when he felt ready to do so.

When they had both finished eating, Clark started to clear away their empty containers.

“Leave it,” Lois said with a smile.

He put down the containers and wiped his hands on the napkin. “Is there something specific you’d like to do?”

Lois retrieved the pillow from where she’d thrown it and lay on her back on the mattress — her head on the pillow, her knees bent, her eyes fixed on Clark. Beyond her feet, he leant against the wall and settled into his favourite position — one long leg arched, one wrist resting on the point of his knee.

He smiled across at her. “Are you tired?”

“A bit.”

“You should rest this evening. You’ll be doing a lot of travelling tomorrow.”

So, he was thinking about Smallville. “Yeah.”

He stared at his hand. “For a long time, I have tried not to think about my parents or the farm or anything else related to the life that used to be mine.”

A spasm of pain rippled across his cheek.

“They gave me everything,” he said in a voice humming with anguish. “And Trask made them pay for their kindness.”

Lois could feel the pain radiating from him like heat from a wildfire. She wished there was a way to alleviate it — to lift away some of the despair and guilt that had burdened him for seven long years.

She wanted to say something — but every possibility she dragged from her mind risked sounding trite.

Clark sighed and turned his head. “What do you need to know?”

Inside, she felt the need to connect with him. The right words remained frustratingly elusive, so Lois stretched out her left leg and plonked her foot next to him.

He scooped up her foot and placed it on his thigh.

“I plan to go into Smallville first,” she said. “Before doing anything else, I need to find out if they ever went back to the farm.”

Clark undid the knot of her laces and slipped off her shoe. “And if they did?”

She wasn’t sure how he was going to react to her reply. “I think I should just come back to Metropolis.”

Clark’s thumb did a long sweep of her ankle. “I agree,” he said. “It is safer for them if you don’t approach them.”

The turmoil that must be raging inside him hadn’t blunted his insight. “I’m so sorry, Clark,” Lois said. “This must be heart-wrenching for you.”

“If they are both all right …” His voice cracked as his throat jumped. “… that will be enough.”

But the other — more likely, in Lois’s opinion — circumstance was they had been taken from Smallville and never returned.

“What is your plan?” Clark asked. “You mentioned that you work undercover sometimes.”

“I work undercover most of the time,” Lois said.

His thumb pressed into one side of her ankle while his fingers stroked the other. “Do you need any local knowledge?”

“Where would be the best place to go?” Lois asked. “Is there someone who loves to talk about what is happening around Smallville?”

“You should go into the cafe in the main street,” he said. “There are two women who work there — Maisie and Audrey. Either of them would love to talk to you. And they will know everything there is to know about Smallville.”

“Is there a nearby town?” Lois asked. “A place that always competes with Smallville — in sports or whatever?”

“Granville.”

Lois smiled at the speed of his reply. She glanced to where her foot disappeared into his large competent hands. “That feels amazing,” she said. “Thank you.”

Clark’s smile made another brief appearance. “I assume you will try to avoid mentioning my parents by name?”

“Yes,” Lois said. “That would be too risky. If it got back to Scardino that a stranger had been in your hometown asking about the names I gave him, I think he would definitely conclude that I was too involved.”

She wondered if Clark would ask for clarification about her being ‘too involved’, but he didn’t. “What are you going to say?”

Lois rose onto her elbows, and Clark’s fingers stilled on her foot. “I need you to understand that sometimes, in order to get information, you have to use ways that seem a bit heartless,” she said.

“I just want to know what happened to them,” Clark said desperately. “But without putting them at further risk.”

She smiled, hoping it would reassure him.

He continued spreading relaxation through her ankle. Lois knew he was waiting for her — waiting for her to decide if she wanted to enlighten him. And if she didn’t, she knew he wouldn’t push her.

She settled back into the pillow. “My plan is to go into the cafe and say that I’m a junior reporter for a city newspaper. I’ll say that I have one chance to impress my editor, and he’s given me a story about mysteries in small country towns.”

Clark’s fingers slid along her foot towards her toes.

“I’ll say I’ve heard that Granville has a big mystery,” Lois continued. “Hidden treasure or something equally unprovable. I figure that if your parents never returned, someone will try to convince me that Smallville’s mystery is more newsworthy than Granville’s is.”

Clark nodded. To her relief, there was nothing in his face to indicate he was distressed by her reducing his parents’ plight to a contest between rival towns for the attention of a big city paper. “I think that will work,” he said. He glanced to her other foot.

Lois moved it closer to him.

He carefully laid her left foot on the mattress and picked up her right. “About ten years ago, one of the farmers in Granville bred a promising colt. It’s not really horse country, and there was a lot of ridicule — particularly in Smallville. But the stories coming out of Granville were all about how this colt was going to win the big races — the Kentucky Derby and so on. Then, one morning, the colt was found dead in his stable.”

“What happened?” Lois asked.

“No one knows. There was no sign of injury, and the most persistent rumour was that he had been poisoned, but the autopsy didn’t support that.”

“Did they suspect someone from Smallville?”

“Probably,” Clark said. He slipped her shoe from her foot. “It certainly did nothing for neighbourly relations.”

“So, it was a mystery?” Lois said. “And one that the people of Smallville would probably not want re-visited in case the glare of suspicion swung to them?”

Clark nodded. “They are not going to want it in a big city paper.”

“Thanks,” Lois said. “It’s sad about the horse and the bad feeling between the towns, but it works well for us.” She wondered if having his attention on her foot was helping him through this. She was certainly enjoying it. “Clark?”

“Uhhmm?”

“Are you OK with me going out to the farm? I’ll only go if I know for sure that your parents aren’t there.”

“What if someone catches you there?” Clark said as his fingers skimmed across her ankle. “They’ll think you’re trespassing.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“Do you intend to go into the house?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t have a key.”

Lois hadn’t expected he would have a key. “That’s OK,” she said. “I know something about picking locks.”

She sensed his amusement, but when he spoke, it wasn’t evident in his voice. “That makes it worse,” he said. “That means the charge will be ‘breaking and entering’.”

“We could get a lot of information,” Lois said. “We could find out if anyone has lived there in the past seven years. I’ll look for anything that might give us a hint about what happened to them. I think it’s worth the risk.”

Clark turned his attention to delving into the slopes of her ankle. His touch was amazing. Her other foot was still tingling. “There’s a woman called Rachel Harris,” he said. “She was a junior police officer seven years ago. She’s probably the sheriff by now. If you get into big trouble, try to talk to her.”

“And tell her what?”

“If you can talk to her alone, you could tell her that you know Clark Kent. Tell her that I asked you to go into the house. I trust her.”

Lois shook her head. “I can’t do that,” she said. “This operation has the highest possible security rating. If I were to divulge information to anyone — even a sheriff — that would be the end of my career.”

“What if you’re about to be charged?”

“That’s a part of the job.”

“But this trip hasn’t been authorised,” Clark said. “Doesn’t that mean you won’t have anyone to pull the strings to get the charges dropped?”

“I won’t get caught,” Lois said.

Clark’s fingers stilled on her ankle, and he stared at them.

“What are you thinking?” Lois asked softly.

He looked up at her. “That a lot could go wrong. That I should be protesting more about you doing something so potentially dangerous.”

Lois grinned. “Protesting probably wouldn’t work,” she told him.

He nodded with grim acceptance. “I figured that.”

“Clark,” Lois said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Just try to think about tomorrow night, and us having a lovely meal together.” Except every time she thought about tomorrow night, her stomach tightened. Would Clark feel like eating if he’d been exposed to the rods?

The mention of their meal didn’t recover Clark’s mood. “Near the end of the driveway, there’s an old eastern red cedar,” he continued. “If you park behind that, no one will be able to see the car from the road.”

“OK, thanks.”

“Go past the maples to the back of the house and enter through the kitchen door.”

She nodded.

“The bedrooms are upstairs.”

“Which room was yours?”

“On the left at the top of the stairs.”

His uneasiness hovered like a dark cloud. “Whatever happens, we will deal with it together tomorrow evening,” Lois said. An image shot into her mind — an image of Clark, coiled in pain. Nothing that might happen in Smallville worried her as much as Menzies coming to the compound.

Clark stared at where his fingers had stilled on her ankle. “If Trask did kill them seven years ago, that wouldn’t be the worst outcome.”

Lois swallowed, as another series of gruesome images crowded into her mind.

Clark turned fully to her. “Will you promise me two things, please, Lois?”

She nodded.

“Be careful. I know this is your job, but please be careful. We don’t know what happened. We don’t even know if the farmhouse is being watched.”

“I doubt it has been watched all these years.”

“But you don’t know that.” He took a deep breath and looked down at his hands. “And second, whatever you find out, please be honest with me. Please don’t try to spare me by not telling me. Regardless of how bad it is.”

“Whatever I find out, I will share with you,” she promised.

“Thanks.” The concern was still in his eyes. “And you’ll be careful?”

“I’ll be very careful.”

Clark jolted suddenly, and his face closed.

“What is it?” Lois asked.

“Nothing.”

Lois sat up and moved into his line of sight. “That’s probably the first lie I’ve ever heard you tell,” she said with a little smile.

“It is nothing,” Clark stressed.

“But?”

“I don’t want to scare you.”

“Clark, I’ve been to scarier places than Smallville, Kansas. If you’ve remembered something, it could be important.”

“It’s not anything like that. It was just a horrible thought that occurred to me.”

“Tell me.”

“Do you know where Moyne is?”

Her heart stalled. “Moyne?”

“He was with Trask when they came to the farmhouse. He knows where I used to live.”

“He’s in the hospital.”

“He only had a concussion, didn’t he?”

“I haven’t heard.” She hadn’t cared enough to inquire.

“But it’s possible he’s been released from the hospital.”

“Scardino said he would ensure that Moyne went directly from the hospital to his next assignment.”

Clark settled back against the wall. Lois could see the disquiet simmering in his eyes.

She put her hand on his forearm. “I’ll be OK, Clark,” she said. “I’ll only be there for a few hours.”

“I … I’m sorry,” he said. He put his other hand on top of hers. “It’s just that I can’t stand the thought of you being hurt. And I hate that I’m stuck here and I can’t do a single thing to help you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Lois said with a reassuring smile. “This is what I do. I go into a place, and I find out information. I know the risks. I’ve been trained. And I’ve gotten out of places far worse than Smallville, Kansas.”

Clark looked down and seemed to become aware of how intimately his hand was clutching hers. He lifted it away.

“In those first few days when Trask was interrogating you about your abilities, did you ask about your parents?” Lois said.

“He wouldn’t tell me anything. He said they had forfeited their right to freedom by their traitorous act of harbouring an alien.”

Lois tightened her grip on his arm. “Aww, Clark,” she said.

He stared ahead, and Lois could see the tension straining through his face and neck.

“Did he give you any specific information?” she asked. “About where they were? About whether they were well?”

“No. Nothing.”

“No messages? Nothing from them at all?”

“Moyne told me a few things. Things he said my mom had asked to be passed on to me.”

“Do you think they came from her?”

“No,” Clark said. “I’m sure they weren’t from her. Not unless they forced her to say them.”

His fear for his parents was palpable. It resonated through his face. His voice. The tension across his shoulders. Lois figured Trask and Moyne had seen it, too and had used that knowledge as the cruellest of weapons to coerce Clark into cooperating.

As much as she wanted to reach out to him, Lois reclined onto the mattress and returned her foot to his thigh.

His hands cupped her ankle. “Lois?”

“Uhmm?”

“I’d like to ask you a question.”

“Go ahead.”

His head turned, and his eyes crashed into hers. “You’ve seen the things I can do. You’ve seen me float. You’ve seen me heat food. You’ve seen me cut wood with my eyes. You know that I caught a fired bullet and only sustained a small graze.”

She waited.

“Your easy acceptance of my differences astounds me even more than those differences astound you.”

Lois gave him a sad smile. What he’d said was probably true — and it broke her heart.

“Why aren’t you scared that I will hurt you?” Clark asked.

His expectation that people would fear him ripped through her, leaving a trail of regret and indignation. “Because I know you won’t.”

“Of course I won’t,” he said. “But how do you know that?”

“You didn’t have to save me when Moyne fired my gun,” Lois said. “You could have hurt me when Moyne was unconscious and I was lying helpless on the concrete. You’ve had multiple opportunities, and you’ve done everything possible to avoid scaring me.”

“But you seemed to know,” he said. “Before you’d even spoken to me, you seemed to know that I wasn’t a threat.”

“I did.”

“How?” he persisted. “How can you be sure that I won’t zap you with my eyes and incinerate you? How do you know that I won’t snap your ankle as I rub it? Why aren’t you concerned that I won’t — even accidentally — injure you?”

Lois smiled as the answer sharpened to crisp clarity. “Because I don’t see the things you can do,” she said.

“Then what do you see?”

“I’ve already told you — I see your heart.”

His mouth fell open, but drifted shut without uttering a sound.

Lois sat up and put her hand on his. “I see your heart, Clark,” she said. “And I am sure that you will do everything in your considerable power not to hurt me or anyone else.”

His throat jumped a few times, and Lois wasn’t expecting him to reply.

“You’ve spoken about getting me out of here,” Clark said, his voice steady but toneless.

“Yes.”

“I can only assume that you have no concerns about the safety of any human — even if the alien was free again.”

Lois tightened her hold on his hand. “I am sure that the world will be a safer place with you in it,” she proclaimed.

His eyes burned into hers. “No doubts?”

She stared right back. “Not for one second.”

Clark hauled in a deep breath. “I wish that I had the words to convey how you make me feel,” he said.

“I don’t need words,” she said. “I can see it in your eyes.”

He pulled back a little, loosening the unseen bond between them. “That’s a good thing,” he said with a small smile. “Because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express my appreciation for what you’ve done for me.”

He’d done so much for her, too. “Clark,” she said. “I’m not ready to talk about some things yet, but I want you to know that when I am ready, you will have played a big part in that.”

He looked confused. “I haven’t done anything,” he said.

“You’ve done plenty,” she said. “You trusted me, and that helped me to begin to trust myself again. You showed me your strength, and that helped me to get up and keep going when I didn’t think I could. You showed me that the darkness can only overcome light if I let it.”

His surprise melted her heart. He swallowed again. “It feels to me as if you are my light,” he said.

Lois quickly blinked back her surging tears. “We should clean up this mess,” she said. “Because if I don’t move, I’m going to cry. And this time, it will be your fault.”

“Ah …” He stopped, flailing between his discomfort at her threatening tears and his pleasure at her response to his comment. “Perhaps we should get the bedding into your office before Longford arrives.”

“We can leave the mattress here,” Lois said, following his lead in taking refuge in the practical. “Scardino’s seen that.”

“OK.” His smile came tentatively. “But I think Winnie the Pooh has to go.”

“You’re probably right.”

Clark reached for her shoes, put them on her feet, and tied the laces. Lois resisted the urge to help. “Thank you, Clark,” she said when he’d finished.

“You’re welcome.” He rose from the mattress and held out his hand to help her up.

Once she was standing, she tightened her grasp on his hand. “Try not to worry about tomorrow,” she said.

He nodded, but Lois knew that nothing she said was going to make the long hours of waiting more bearable for him.

She reluctantly slipped her hand from his. “I’ll get the water for you to wash

“Thanks.”

Ten minutes later, only the jigsaw puzzle, a bottle of water, the tin containing his toiletries, and the mattress remained in the cell.

Lois and Clark stood together — her in the doorway, him inside the cell.

“Do you want the pillow?” Lois said.

“Do you think it will matter if they see it?” Clark asked.

“No,” Lois said. “Shadbolt has already seen the pillow and mattress.” She pushed it at Clark, and he took it.

His arms hung limply by his sides, and the pillow drooped against his leg.

What to do now?

Hug him?

Hold him?

Wave?

What?

The journey they had travelled today had been too momentous to conclude with a simple ‘goodbye’.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I want you back safely tomorrow,” he said.

And he wanted to know what had happened to his parents.

Lois managed a sad smile. “I meant now,” she clarified.

A rueful smile broke out from his awkwardness. “You want me to decide?”

“Would you be horrified if I hugged you?”

He looked down. He looked sideways. Finally, he looked at her, his expression a medley of just about every emotion possible. “Is that what you want to do?”

Lois decided that her impulsiveness might just be the answer here. She stepped forward and put her arms around his neck. She tightened for a fleeting second and then drew away. His arms hadn’t moved, but she wasn’t fazed. She smiled to show him that everything was OK. “I promise you that I will be back tomorrow evening,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“I’ll come here directly from the airport, I’ll get rid of Longford, and then I’ll be in here as quickly as possible.”

“Thank you.”

“Goodnight, Clark.” She wanted to say that she hoped Scardino stayed away. She wanted to say how much the thought of him being exposed to the rods tore at her heart, but he looked as if this goodbye had gone as long as he could endure.

“Goodnight, Lois.”

She stepped back into the staffroom. “I will see you tomorrow.”

He nodded.

Lois closed the door and locked it.

She pressed her ear against the door and heard the slow, sad rhythm of his footsteps walking away from her.

Lois scanned the staffroom for anything else that needed to be removed. There was nothing. She went to the closet and collected the rod.

In her office, she put all the rods into the corner — there was more room now that Scardino had taken Trask’s boxes.

She hesitated for a long moment, pondering what to do with the camera. The tape could stay — she had effectively wiped it clean by recording a black screen. She pulled the curtain away and threw it onto her desk.

Should she set the camera to record tomorrow?

No — she decided. Whatever happened, she could ask Clark about it. And if her fears were realised and Scardino and Menzies went into the cell, she wouldn’t be able to endure watching Clark suffer.

Longford arrived just before ten o’clock, and Lois went down to the staffroom. He looked at her diffidently, and she wondered if he were embarrassed by the events of the morning.

“Hi, Longford,” Lois said brightly.

He nodded and then looked at the door to the cell.

“Situation fixed,” she said.

“I … I was probably too hasty in some of the things I said this morning,” Longford said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lois said. “It worked out well because now the door doesn’t need to be opened.”

“What about his washing bowl? That won’t fit through the pet door.”

“I’ll get a hose, and we’ll run water directly from the faucet at the sink through the pet door and into the bowl.”

“You don’t have the hose yet? You don’t want me to give him water?”

“Not yet,” Lois said. “All you have to do is push his breakfast in there tomorrow morning. He’ll be subdued anyway; I used the rods so the door guy was safe.”

Longford nodded as if that answered an unvoiced question.

“Could you tell Shadbolt there is the possibility of a visit from Scardino and a higher-up tomorrow?” Lois said nonchalantly.

“OK,” Longford said. “And I’ll be back at two o’clock to do your shift.”

“Thanks,” Lois said. “I’ll get here as soon as I can, and then you can go home.”

“I … I don’t mind doing the full shift,” Longford said. “I can stay until ten.”

Lois smiled, and with a lowered voice, she said, “Actually, after the day I’m expecting tomorrow, it will be a relief to get here for some peace and quiet.”

Longford nodded with understanding.

“His lunch is in the fridge,” Lois continued. “But his evening meal won’t be delivered here. I’ll pick it up when I get something for myself.”

“OK.”

“I’ll just get my bag from upstairs and be out of here.” She entered her office and stood next to the window, looking at Clark. He was lying on the mattress, facing away from her. His bushy hair covered a lot of the pillow, and she felt a spike of excitement at the thought of seeing him clean-shaven and with neat, short hair.

“Stay safe,” she muttered.

He turned over abruptly, sat up, looked at the window, and raised his hand in greeting.

Lois grinned. She was going to have to remember how well he could hear.

“I’m going now,” she said. “I’ll be back tomorrow, and we’ll spend the evening together.”

He waved again.

Lois turned away as the thought of being separated from Clark for so many hours chipped a lonely chasm through her heart.

***

~~ Wednesday ~~

Lois got out of the rental car and looked along the sprawling main street of Smallville. A few people were dotted on the sidewalk, but it felt decidedly sedate after the bustle of Metropolis. Twenty yards to her left was a cafe.

She bent low to glance in the side mirror and adjusted her spiky blonde wig. It made her appear younger — well, maybe not younger, but definitely someone desperately trying to look younger.

Younger — she’d discovered — worked well. If you were female and young, the general perception was that your head was filled with little more than fashion and the love lives of celebrities.

Which usually worked to her advantage.

Lois sauntered along the sidewalk and into the cafe. It looked as if it were still hopelessly stuck in the sixties. She gazed around her, wide-eyed.

“What can I do for you, love?”

Lois slowly turned towards the voice. “I think I’m lost,” she said with a not-quite-suppressed giggle.

The older woman smiled. “You’re in Smallville, Kansas,” she said.

“Smallville?” Lois said plaintively. “But I’m supposed to be in Granville.”

The woman snorted. “Why would you want to go to a hole like that, love?”

Lois stepped up to the counter. “I’m a reporter,” she said with another little giggle. “Well, I want to be a reporter, and like, I’ve been given a try-out with a big city paper, and like, the editor gave me a story about unsolved mysteries, and he told me there was something about a horse, and it had happened in Granville, Kansas.”

The older woman wiped her hands on her apron. “That would be the racehorse poisoning in the eighties,” she said. “Can I get you a drink? Something to eat?”

“A cup of tea, please,” Lois said. “No milk, no sugar.”

The woman dropped a tea bag into a cup. “I’m Maisie,” she said with a friendly smile. “And if you want a story that is really going to impress your editor, you shouldn’t go chasing a dead horse in Granville; you should look right here in Smallville.”

Lois glanced outside and wrinkled her nose. “Ahhh … thanks, but I think I should just do what my editor said. This is my big break. If he likes my story, I might have a chance to get a permanent position.”

Maisie put the cup of tea in front of Lois. “A dollar, thanks, love,” she said. “But if you surprise him with a bigger, more interesting story, he’ll know that you have initiative.”

Lois paused in the act of taking the bill from her purse. “Well,” she said doubtfully. “It’s going to take a few minutes to drink my tea, so if you really want to …”

Maisie smiled as she placed the bill in the register. “Come and sit down, love,” she said. “And I’ll tell you a story that’ll really get your interest.”

Lois took her tea to the square Formica table and sat down. Maisie slid into the opposite seat with a loud sigh.

As Lois sipped her tea, memories of Linda came flooding back. Lois only ever drank tea without milk when she was undercover. The bitter, pungent taste worked as a reminder that she wasn’t Lois Lane but someone else.

Maisie plonked her elbows on the worn Formica. “Do you have paper?” she asked.

“Tell me about Smallville’s big mystery,” Lois said. “And if I think there’s like, a story in it, I’ll take some notes.”

“Well,” Maisie said. “Just over seven years ago, a local family, the Kents, disappeared.”

Lois cocked one eyebrow. “They disappeared?” she said. “Like … gone?”

Maisie nodded eagerly. “They simply disappeared. Here one day. Gone the next.”

“What? Like, the entire family? Mom, Dad, and all the kids?”

“The parents, Martha and Jonathan, and their son, Clark.”

“And then what happened? Did they come back?”

“Nope,” Maisie said triumphantly. “Never heard of ‘em ever again.”

Lois slowly sipped from her tea, pretending to consider the information while, in the deep recesses of her heart, she grieved for what this would mean to Clark. “What happened to them?” she asked.

“That’s the mystery,” Maisie said. “Nobody knows.”

“This would have been in all the papers,” Lois said. “I really don’t think there is a story here after all this time.”

“It was in some of the papers,” Maisie admitted. “But when the police found no clues about their whereabouts, the interest died.”

“Did they find the bodies?”

Maisie vigorously shook her head. “Nothing,” she said. “Not a trace.”

“I think the Granville story is better,” Lois said. “At least they have a body.”

Maisie leant across the table. “The rumour is that they were abducted by aliens.”

Lois stared in open-mouthed, jaw-suspended shock. “Aliens?” she gasped. “Do people around here believe in aliens?”

Maisie didn’t flinch. “Old Jack Wetherly from out that way swears he saw a spaceship in the field years ago.”

Lois gulped down the rest of her tea and rose from the table. “Thanks, Maisie,” she said.

Maisie stood. “Are you going to investigate? It makes sense, you know, that the government would cover it up. I mean, can you imagine the uproar if it were proven that they’d been taken by aliens?”

“I think -”

“Would you like to know how to get to the Kents’ place? The neighbour, Wayne Irig, has been working the farm — someone had to look after the animals — but no one’s touched the house in seven years.”

“Which way to Granville?” Lois said.

“You’re not even going to follow it up?” Maisie asked, disappointment drizzling from every word.

Lois shook her head. “I get one shot at this story,” she said. “If I take my editor a story on an alien abduction, that’s going to finish my career before it even starts.”

“OK,” Maisie conceded. “Granville’s that way.” She pointed south down the quiet street. “About half a mile out of town, there’s a turn off to your left.”

Lois nodded. “Thanks,” she said.

She got into the rental car and drove out of Smallville on the road towards Granville.

Part 16

Daniel Scardino stepped away from the drab and inauspicious office block, unable to determine which of his competing emotions — relief and annoyance — was ahead in the battle for precedence.

He was relieved that his meeting with Eric Menzies had been short and relatively painless.

He was annoyed that, despite Menzies’ edict that the meeting was to begin at eight o’clock sharp, the higher-up hadn’t seen fit to arrive until after ten. And when he had arrived, whatever had delayed him — he hadn’t seen the need to enlighten Scardino or offer an apology — had put him in a more-objectionable-than-usual mood.

He’d barked a few questions demanding details of the changes Lois Lane had implemented at the compound. Scardino had answered simply and accurately, and to his relief, Menzies hadn’t pushed for in-depth explanations.

Daniel had handed over the boxes of Trask’s notes, Menzies had grunted a dismissal, and Daniel had left, rueing a wasted morning but acutely aware that it could have been worse.

Although he assumed his reprieve would be short-lived.

Menzies was not one to let things lag. He would read Trask’s notes, draw his own conclusions, and make a decision about what happened now.

And that decision would be final.

Scardino had given his word that he wouldn’t take Lois Lane off the alien operation. And he wouldn’t. But if Menzies decreed that she was to be removed, Daniel would be powerless.

Lois Lane, however, would fight it. She would.

And that would put Scardino squarely in the middle of the ensuing confrontation.

Daniel sighed as he unlocked his vehicle. He guessed it was too much to hope that whatever had taken Menzies out of the job for over a year would make a convenient reappearance.

That would be just too easy.

***

Clark had been awake a long time before the first glimmer of sunlight brought subtle changes to the hue of the window.

From his first moment of consciousness, thoughts of Lois had filled his mind. There was so much to think about — his parents, the farm, and Lois in Smallville; whether Scardino would come into his prison with the rods; the outcome of the meeting; and if the higher-up would decide that Lois had to leave.

If he did, what would she do?

Clark sat up and put her pillow behind his head as he leaned against the wall.

Tapping away in his brain was a possibility that he had repeatedly refused to contemplate.

It was unthinkable.

But from what he had gleaned about Lois Lane, there seemed to be every chance that she was thinking about it.

She knew about the implant.

That should have been enough to convince her that he could never leave this prison.

But it hadn’t been — she had simply threatened to bulldoze the wall.

Despite the gravity of the situation, Clark felt himself smile.

If anyone ordered a bulldozer, it would be Lois.

He looked at the wall surrounding the door. Trask had had it lead-lined, and since then, Clark hadn’t been able to see beyond the plasterboard even during the fleeting intervals when he hadn’t been weakened by exposure to the poison.

Now, he felt close to fully recovered — although it was difficult to judge accurately when there was no real way to test his strength and speed.

He concentrated his vision on the wall surrounding the door.

There were a few small gaps in the lead, allowing Clark patchy visual access into the interior of the wall. He saw some wires and tracked the disjointed network. Within seconds, he realised that they appeared to converge on one spot about a foot above the door.

He followed a wire through the breaks in his vision as it snaked towards the window. It separated into several strands that surrounded the large pane of glass.

Trask had been so vigilant in maintaining levels of exposure that Clark hadn’t considered the window to be a means of escape. Now, he was almost sure he would be able to fly up to the window and crash through it.

Except for the presence of the wires.

He should have expected that.

Trask had been nothing if not thorough.

But Lois intended to get him out.

Clark wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about that.

He wanted to get out of this prison … obviously.

But to what?

Nothing was going to change that he was an alien in a suspicious and hostile world.

Freedom wouldn’t be freedom if he were being hunted like a feral animal.

If they were chasing him, what would happen to Lois?

Would she face the same fate as his parents?

He couldn’t let that happen again. Not to Lois.

And, anyway, what sort of life would it be for her? Always running. Always hiding. Always having to be careful about leaving any clue as to their whereabouts.

That was no way for her to live.

If he were to escape, it had to be done in such a way that Lois was not implicated.

And that meant they couldn’t be together.

But when Clark searched the depths of his heart, he wasn’t sure he could face life on the outside without her.

She had hugged him.

She’d stepped up to him and taken him into her arms.

He’d been dumbstruck.

And petrified of doing something that would cause her to pull back.

So, he’d just stood there. Like a statue.

Last night, he’d mulled over it for a long time. He’d tried to split it into fractions of seconds and relive them individually. Had it meant anything? If so, what? That she liked him? That she thought he would face the poison and had wanted to comfort him? Or had it been meant as confirmation of her commitment to getting him out of the prison?

If he escaped, what would it mean for his parents? He couldn’t do anything that might jeopardise them.

But Lois seemed determined.

Conflict was coming. Clark could feel it as surely as he used to be able to feel the onset of a big storm as it rolled across the fields.

Even with Trask dead, there was no chance that the authorities were going to allow him back into the world to live as a normal person. It just wasn’t going to happen. They believed he was a killer. They knew about his phenomenal strength, his lightning speed, and some of his other weird abilities. They were convinced he was an unacceptable threat to a vulnerable human race.

And that meant Lois was going to want him to break out. He could not take her with him. And he wasn’t sure he could do it without her.

When it came to eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, he was ominously sure that he and Lois were not going to agree.

He would prefer to stay in the prison if the alternative was to ruin Lois’s life.

Would she accept that?

Clark sighed.

Her opinion of him was going to plummet if he said he didn’t want to leave the prison. But that was preferable to her dutifully staying with him after they had run away.

What possible future could they have?

None.

The authorities would never stop looking for him.

He and Lois might be able to steal a few hours … a few days at best … but then what? Certain capture. Perhaps with Lois being hurt or killed. They would bring the poison, and he would be powerless to protect her.

And then, he would be returned to captivity.

But infinitely worse — Lois’s life would change. Perhaps she would be imprisoned. Perhaps she would suffer whatever fate had befallen his parents.

Clark could not allow that.

He would prefer Lois think of him as a coward than live with the certain knowledge that he had ruined her life.

He had no future outside of the prison.

And somehow, Clark had to find a way to convince Lois of that.

Lois … where was she now? Had she arrived in Kansas safely? Had she rented a car?

What would she find when she got to Smallville?

The flap of the pet door lifted, and a paper bag was pushed into the cell. Clark rose to his feet, collected it, returned to the mattress, and ate with stark disinterest.

The morning, the afternoon, the entire day stretched ahead of him like a long, never-ending highway.

He wanted Lois. He wanted to be with her so much that the ache in his heart radiated through his ribcage, causing physical pain. He tried to think ahead to this evening. He’d guessed that the real motivation behind her suggestion had been to give him something to take his mind from everything else.

He would enjoy the evening. It would be incredible. It would be the closest thing he’d had to a date in such a long time.

A date.

Neither of them had used that word, but that was what it would be.

A date.

A date with Lois.

It should have been enough to overwhelm him with joyful anticipation. And it did … except, he found it impossible not to look beyond the evening to the time when his separation from Lois wouldn’t be measured in hours, but in foreverness.

He had experienced excruciating pain, but he couldn’t even imagine the agony of knowing he would never see her again.

Never was such a long time.

The morning crawled past. Clark watched the indistinct changes of the window and tracked the passing of time.

It was only mid morning. He had to do something. He could run. Exercise.

He leapt to his feet and began jogging slowly up and down the length of the cell. If he did one hundred laps, that should eat away at least half an hour.

He ran, feet pounding, mind hurtling from Lois, to his parents, to Smallville, and back to Lois again.

He stopped after a while — worried about how his vigour would be interpreted if anyone were silently watching him from Lois’s office.

If they still believed Trask’s allegations, they would think he was training to take his place in the alien invasion of Earth.

Trask had spent hours trying to get Clark to admit to an obsession with world domination.

But all Clark had ever wanted was to live like a regular guy.

That was until he met Lois.

Now all he wanted was to be with her.

***

Lois drove south towards Granville for five miles and then navigated a wide circle back to the area north of Smallville. She followed the map Clark had drawn and found the gate to the farm where the Kent family had lived.

She stepped out of the car and listened intently. She could hear the sounds of the birds and the rustle of the leaves, but there was no low hum of an approaching car.

She hurried forward to open the gate, drove through it, and closed it behind her. At the top of the long and curvy driveway, she nosed the rental car between the huge cedar and the grove of maples that fanned out behind it. She killed the motor and got out of the car.

Through the vibrant foliage, she could glimpse the little white farmhouse where Clark had been raised. What had once been a garden in front of the house was now overgrown — weeds flourished in the midst of the spindly shrubs. The lawn had spread its scraggly edges onto the path.

Lois reached into her bag and took out her filed-down Allen key, a small screwdriver, and a pair of thin white cotton gloves. She lifted her small suitcase from the back seat and pulled on the gloves as she slipped between the trees and behind the house.

A minute later, the lock gave way to her steady pressure on the Allen key, and she pushed open the door. The kitchen was neat — the chairs were pushed against the table, the counters and sink were clear — but a film of dust covered everything, a cobweb was stretched between the plain white light fitting and the top of the bureau, and the pervading odour strongly suggested the presence of mice. Lois stepped to the bureau, placed her suitcase across her feet, and opened the first drawer.

She discovered multiple sheets of blank paper; a few old pamphlets about things like seed, and calf food, and farm equipment; some pens; and two yellowed copies of the Smallville Press that were dated July 1987.

She opened the second drawer, already suspecting that the house had been cleared of everything personal — there were no photos, no shopping lists, no handwritten recipes, no letters, no greeting cards, no envelopes addressed to the Kents. There was nothing to point to the people who had lived here.

Lois opened the final drawer. It contained more of the same — papers, some pages torn from a gardening magazine, a crumpled packet of flower seeds, and a pair of scissors, but nothing personal. She shuffled the papers aside and uncovered a man’s pair of glasses.

She shut the drawer, picked up her suitcase, and continued through the house into the living room. The chairs — worn and well-used — formed a forlorn semi-circle around the fireplace. On the mantle was a clock that had stopped at twelve minutes past seven. A painting of an ice-capped mountain hung on the wall. There were other nails in the wall — surrounded by faint rectangular shadows where the pale blue paint had been protected from the smoke particles.

Lois crossed to the foot of the wooden stairs and tiptoed up them. At the top, she opened the door on the left and entered cautiously.

Clark’s room was dim — the blue curtains covered most of the window, shutting out the sunlight. The bed was made — the once-white sheets were folded down over a blue quilt. An alarm clock, two pens, and a copy of National Geographic hunkered into the dust on top of the little table next to the bed. Lois carefully lowered her suitcase onto the blue quilt and opened the lid. Inside were five hardcover books bought for their weight rather than their words, a few pieces of clothing she had used when working undercover as a streetwalker, her favourite cherry-red dress, and matching shoes. She pushed the shoes into the corner of the suitcase and laid the dress on the lid. She rolled up the remaining clothes into an untidy bundle and turned to the closet.

The door was painted white. Inside, the clothes were arranged in neat rows and orderly piles. Six pairs of shoes lined the floor of the closet. Lois pushed the bundle of clothes and the books into the back corner with a muttered apology to Clark. She crouched low, chose a pair of sneakers and a pair of black leather shoes, and placed them in the suitcase.

She selected the two newest pairs of jeans, added two white cotton shirts and two checked shirts, and laid them all in the suitcase. She took three sweaters from the pile, and packed them as well. She took down the formal-looking grey pants and maroon jacket and laid them across the top of the other clothing.

After closing the closet door, Lois opened the drawer under the bedside table. She reached in quickly and grasped a handful of the bundled pairs of socks and another handful of the folded briefs. She shoved them into the gaps around the edges of her suitcase.

Then, she scrutinised Clark’s bedroom.

It had been cleared more comprehensively than the other rooms. The bookshelves were empty apart from the layers of dust that marked the passing years. There were nails in the wall, but whatever had once been proudly displayed was gone.

Lois skirted around the bed, went to the desk under the window, and rifled through the drawers. Two were empty, and the third contained a handheld mirror and a small, threadbare reindeer that was probably a Christmas tree decoration.

She picked up both items and shut the drawer. Back at the bed, she slipped them between the folds of one of Clark’s sweaters. She placed her dress across the contents of the suitcase and fastened the lid.

She lifted it and thumped the quilt a few times. A dark cloud of dust rose, and Lois turned away, leaving it to settle on the place where she had put her suitcase.

After shutting Clark’s door, she hesitated.

Should she go into his parents’ room?

She carefully turned the knob and stepped in.

There was a dark stain on the pastel-green bedspread. Lois figured that whatever had caused it had happened after the family had been forcibly removed from their home.

She opened the closet, hoping it would be empty.

It wasn’t.

Lois perused the hanging row of clothes. Clark’s mom was about Lois’s size. Clark’s dad was tall and large.

On one hanger, there was a lady’s coat made from creamy wool. Around its neck was a silk scarf in vibrant reds and blues with splashes of rich yellow. Lois ran her fingers along its softness. Should she take it to Clark?

How would he react? Would it upset him?

She wasn’t sure. But if she took the scarf, she could choose the right moment to give it to him. And there was always the possibility that someone might come and clear away the clothes, and then they would be lost forever. How long could a house sit here — abandoned? Wouldn’t someone eventually decide that something had to be done with it?

She slid the scarf from the hanger and pushed it into the pocket of her jacket.

On the dresser, there was a hairbrush and some bobby pins. Had it once displayed a photo of Clark? Perhaps as a baby?

If it had, there was nothing now. Nothing to bear witness to the couple who had lived their lives in this little farmhouse. Raised their son. Dreamed their dreams. Shared their hopes.

Lois closed the closet, stepped from the room, quietly shut the door, and crept down the stairs with her suitcase.

In the kitchen, she paused. She had the scarf that belonged to Clark’s mom; should she also take him something of his dad’s?

Stepping around the table, Lois opened the drawer of the bureau and took out the pair of glasses. She slipped them into her pocket and folded the scarf around them to protect them.

After a final glance to ensure there was no telltale evidence of her visit, she left the farmhouse and carefully locked the door.

Five minutes later, she was driving north, putting more miles between herself and Smallville. She would have to do a wide circle to avoid the town but she estimated she would reach Wichita in good time for her flight back to Metropolis.

Her thoughts scampered ahead to Clark.

He would be wondering.

Wondering about her.

Wondering about his parents.

Wondering what she had discovered.

Hoping she would bring good news of them.

She had so very little to give him, and her disappointment sat like a lump of cold stone in the pit of her stomach.

But this was just the beginning — and, as she knew, it was rare to strike gold in the first place you looked.

Something had happened to Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Lois intended to find out what.

This was just the first step in what she expected to be a long journey.

But she wished she had something more promising to take back to Clark. Something that would ease the worry from his eyes and cast a smile upon his face.

***

It had reached mid-afternoon in what was definitely the slowest day in Earth’s history.

The guards had changed. Clark had heard a few minutes of voices, and then an egg salad sandwich had been pushed into his cell.

Hope that Scardino wouldn’t come was growing steadily. Or perhaps he’d come already and hadn’t requested entry into the cell.

Clark knew that Lois would be relieved.

He was, too — not only at having avoided the pain of exposure but because he really didn’t want to be still feeling the effects of the poison later this evening.

Would Lois be on the airplane by now?

She hadn’t told him the exact time of her flight — and anyway, he had to guess the time from the amount and angle of light behind the window.

Was she on her way back to him?

What had she found out?

Did he dare to believe that Trask had allowed his parents to return to the farm?

Clark wanted to. But somehow … hoping for that seemed to be the forerunner of certain disappointment.

But he could hope that Lois would arrive soon.

That wasn’t empty hope.

She had promised him that she would get back as soon as she could.

Was she safe?

He wished it had been possible to go with her.

He sat down next to the jigsaw puzzle and determined that he was going to finish it. That should eat up another half an hour.

***

As Lois pushed the key into the external door of the compound, her emotions were a patchwork of contrast.

There was excitement — very soon, she would be with Clark. Clark, who had probably spent the entire day awaiting the moment she would walk into his room.

There was regret — she wished she had more information regarding his parents. Something to buoy his hope. Something to alleviate his fears for them.

There was foreboding — what if, right now, Clark was collapsed on the floor, recovering from a dose of the rods?

And there was gleeful anticipation. She hadn’t mentioned to Clark that she hoped to bring him some clothes. Tonight, he could cut his hair, shave off his beard, dress in his own clothes, and eat a meal at a table.

Her heart bounced every time she thought of what tonight would mean to Clark.

She hoped it would be enough to overcome his disappointment that her trip to Smallville hadn’t produced more definite and happier news.

She hoped it would be enough to overcome her distress if he had been hurt.

As Lois walked into the staffroom, Longford looked up from the table. “You’re back early,” he commented.

“Am I?” Lois looked at her wristwatch — although she was very aware that it was a few minutes before eight o’clock. She gave Longford a weary smile. “It was a long day.”

“Did it … did everything work out OK?” he asked. “With … ah … everything you had to do?”

“Yes,” she said. “And thank you so much for taking my shift.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Did Shadbolt say if Scardino came?” she asked casually.

“No one came,” Longford said.

“No one?” Lois echoed as she tried to calm the hope carousing through her heart.

He shook his head. “Shadbolt said nothing happened. No one came. There was very little noise from the cell. It was just another quiet day.”

Lois’s relief congregated in her knees, and she grasped the chair.

“You really are tired,” Longford said.

“Yeah,” Lois said. “The evening meals will be delivered soon. I’m going to push one into the cell, eat the other, and then I’m going to bed.”

“Do you want to go home?” Longford offered. “I can stay here tonight.”

“No, thanks,” Lois said. “To be honest, I don’t have the energy to go home. I just want to crash here.” She yawned and made a feeble effort to cover it with her hand. “See you tomorrow.”

Longford took the hint and stood from the table. He replaced his coffee mug on the sink and picked up his bag. “Goodnight.”

Lois forced her feet-that-wanted-to-dance to plod slowly up the stairs. She unlocked the door to her office and stepped in. She didn’t turn on the light, but she slammed shut her eyes anyway. She didn’t want to see Clark before he had the chance to see her.

Scardino hadn’t come!

They hadn’t used the rods!

No one had hurt Clark while she was away!

Lois stood in the dark room with her eyes closed and counted slowly to one hundred as her impatience crashed over her like waves against a cliff.

She reached one hundred and started again, counting to the beat of her thumping heart. When she reached eighty-eight, she couldn’t wait a moment longer. She opened the door, took the stairs in two leaping strides, opened the external door, and peered out.

Longford’s vehicle was gone.

She was alone with Clark.

After locking the external door, Lois sprinted through the staffroom, and pushed the key into Clark’s door.

As soon as she turned the key, Clark would know she was here.

Actually, there was every chance that he knew already.

He’d probably heard her voice.

Lois turned the key and pushed open the door.

He was standing, just a few yards away.

His face was split wide open with an unbridled grin of welcome.

Lois stepped up to him. In his eyes, there were questions, but for now, the potent cocktail of relief and excitement overshadowed them.

“Lois,” he said, and in that one word, he managed to portray the anguish of waiting for the hours to pass.

“Clark,” she said.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” he said emphatically.

Lois had so much to tell him, and it all wanted to tumble out in an incoherent mess. She had to consider Clark — this was going to feel like an emotional roller coaster for him. “You speak,” she said. “I’m too jittery.”

The tide of his anxiety flowed back. “My parents?”

All of her excitement was swept away like twigs in a flooded river. “I’m sorry, Clark,” she said. “I wasn’t able to find out much at all.”

“They’re not at the farm?”

“No,” she said. “All I was able to establish is that they disappeared and have not returned.”

His expression mirrored her feelings — it could have been worse, it could have been better, and they still knew so little.

“I’m so sorry, Clark,” Lois said.

He slowly shook his head. “It’s what I expected.”

“But not what you hoped?”

“No.”

Was now the right time to give him the scarf? Would it ease his disappointment? Or intensify it? Lois put her hand into her jacket pocket. “I brought something for you … but …”

“But?”

“But I’m not sure if now is the right time.”

He waited, and Lois knew he would accept her decision.

Lois freed the scarf from the glasses. With a quick movement, she withdrew her hand from her pocket and held it — palm open — towards Clark.

His throat jumped, and his hand shook as he reached for the scarf. “My mom’s,” he said hoarsely.

Lois nodded. “It was in her closet.”

“Only this? Or other clothes as well?”

“Other clothes.”

Clark enclosed the scarf in his big hand. He looked beyond her, his eyelids flickering and his face set.

Lois couldn’t watch his distress any longer.

She stepped into the sphere of his pain and wrapped her arms around his neck. She held him closely, burying her fingers into the softness of his hair.

His arms eased out from between their bodies and hesitated before loosely encircling her waist.

Lois inched closer and placed her cheek alongside his.

He held her.

She held him.

“You OK?” she whispered.

She felt him nod, and his arms fell away.

Lois slipped back, and her hands came to rest on Clark’s shoulders. He gave her a hard-pressed smile. “Thank you,” he said.

“I … ah, got something belonging to your dad, too.”

That seemed to surprise him, and Lois felt a ray of excitement as she imagined the moment when she would give him the suitcase of clothing. She took the glasses from her pocket and held them out to him.

This time, Clark’s reaction was different. He chuckled as he took the glasses from her hand. “Thanks,” he said.

“Am I missing something?” Lois asked.

“I’ll show you later.”

“OK.” She smiled at him, feeling as if they had weathered the most difficult components of their reunion. “I have some things for you,” she said, unable to wait a moment longer.

“Oh?”

“I’ll have to go outside and get them from the Jeep. I didn’t want to bring them in while Longford was here.”

She skipped outside and hurriedly returned with the suitcase. She laid it on the table, removed the cherry-red dress and matching shoes, and placed them on the bed. Then she quickly refastened the suitcase and carried it into the cell.

Clark watched her, a half-smile filtering through his bafflement.

Lois put the suitcase on the floor, undid the clasp, and threw open the lid.

She heard Clark gasp as he knelt beside her. “Lois,” he breathed.

“Do you recognise anything here?” she asked with a smile.

He picked up the maroon jacket and stared at it. “Lois,” he said. “I didn’t expect …”

“I didn’t want to say anything just in case it wasn’t possible to get into your house … or I got in there, and everything had been taken.” She slipped her hand into the sweater and brought out the mirror and the little reindeer. “Here’s your mirror,” she said. “And I didn’t know if this little guy means anything to you, but I found him in your bedroom.”

Clark took the reindeer and smiled. “This was mine to put on the Christmas tree,” he said. “I always put him as high as I could reach, and we watched him slowly climb the tree year after year, until finally, he was sitting right at the top.”

Lois put her hand on his hand where he held the reindeer. “I’ll bring down another mirror,” she said. “And then I’ll leave you alone for a while. Our meals will be here in about half an hour.”

“Did you get a camp table?”

“Uh huh.”

“If you bring it in here — and the chairs, too — I’ll set it up for us.”

“Thanks,” she said. “And I thought about something else, too. About cutting your hair.”

“Oh?”

“If someone notices that you’ve shaved, I can probably explain it by saying I gave you a shaver. However, short hair means scissors — and that could be a problem.”

She saw him try to suppress his disappointment. “OK.”

Lois smiled. “But, I had an idea. On the way home, I bought a bathing cap. Would it be possible for you to melt it a bit and stick your hair into it? Then, if we really need to, you could put on the cap — and it will look like your hair hasn’t been cut.”

Clark smiled. “Do you think that would fool them?”

“It probably won’t stand up to really close inspection, but from the window or the pet door, it might be enough.”

“That’s a great idea,” Clark said with obvious admiration.

“Thanks.” He seemed poised to say something else.

“Yes?” she prompted with a smile.

“Would you mind not looking?” Clark said with a dash of self-consciousness. “While I’m getting ready?”

“Of course I won’t look,” Lois said. “I need to freshen up in the bathroom. I won’t go into my office.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“I’ll bring everything in — and then I’ll leave you to it.”

“Lois?”

She paused.

“Thank you for going to Smallville,” Clark said. “And thank you for coming back.”

She chuckled. “See you soon.”

Lois walked through the door and shut it. She leant against it for a few moments as her excitement bubbled over.

This felt like a real date.

She was going to dress up. She had ordered a special meal and bought a bottle of wine. She was looking forward to a wonderful evening.

With the man she loved.

Yep, it felt exactly like a real date.

Part 17

Lois took a final look in the mirror in the bathroom. It felt strange to be so concerned with how she looked.

She hadn’t dressed up in such a long time.

She smiled. She’d always liked the cherry-red dress.

She was looking forward to Clark’s reaction.

A minute later, the heels on her shoes were tapping a clipped rhythm as she passed the warehouse to collect their meals.

What would Clark look like?

Was he apprehensive about her reaction?

Did this feel like a date to him?

Did he have any inkling about her feelings for him?

Did he feel anything for her?

Anything beyond gratitude?

He couldn’t … He wouldn’t … not while he was locked in a prison with little realistic chance of freedom.

The delivery guy pulled up against the kerb, and Lois took the two bags. “Thanks,” she said.

Back inside the compound and with the external door firmly locked, Lois hauled in a deep breath.

She was nervous!

She hadn’t had a date in six months.

How must Clark feel?

He hadn’t had a date in at least seven years.

He must be feeling everything she was feeling, but magnified exponentially.

Did his clothes still fit?

Had he been able to shave? To ‘cut’ his hair?

It would still be shaggy. Surely.

Lois put the dessert container into the fridge and took two dinner plates from the shelf.

She opened the largest container and smiled. She’d asked Uncle Mike for his best cuts of steak — one large, one smaller. She put one on each plate. Next came the golden baked potatoes — two for Clark and one for herself — and butter-sautéed Portobello mushrooms. Lastly, she arranged a few curly lettuce leaves, tomato wedges, and thin slices of cucumber.

There was nothing to use as a sauceboat, so Lois decided to leave the béarnaise sauce in its small round container.

The meals looked great, and she sent silent thanks to Uncle Mike. He had questioned her about how her ‘friend’s’ appetite seemed unusually large for a woman. Lois had admitted nothing, and Uncle Mike had chuckled knowingly.

The time had come. The food was on the plates, and the bottle of wine was open.

Lois sighed around a big smile.

Was Clark ready?

She tapped loudly on the cell door.

“Lois?”

He sounded the same. “Can I open the door?” she called.

There was a slight hesitation — and her ears filled with the thundering of her heart.

Then his answer cut through her anticipation. “Yes.”

Lois unlocked the door and reached behind her for a chair. Once it was secured in place, she looked up.

Her heart swooped.

Her jaw flumped.

Her breath tangled.

Clark smiled tentatively. “You look beautiful, Lois.”

Lois cranked her mouth shut and gulped. “C…” She jerked her eyes from the allure of his face and swept them down his body, past the maroon jacket and white shirt to the grey trousers and black shoes.

The world tilted, and Lois groped the air for something solid. Clark’s hand found hers, and he guided her to a chair and steadied her as she collapsed into it.

He put one hand on the back of the chair and one on the table as he crouched beside her. “Are you all right?” he asked.

He was wearing the glasses she had brought from Smallville. Lois peered through them and locked into those familiar brown eyes. They were Clark. The rest of him — except for his voice — the rest of him was a stranger.

But she knew those eyes.

They were — as always — filled with understanding. And gentleness. And concern for her.

“Are you all right, Lois?” he asked again.

She managed to nod, although she wasn’t sure if it were a lie. She wasn’t sure she would ever be all right again.

Clark was …

Stunning.

Stunningly handsome.

Tongue-cleaved-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth gorgeous.

She had fallen for prime beefcake thinking it was aged rump.

There was nothing aged about Clark.

He was young, and he … Lois gulped … he smouldered with an understated virility that beckoned to every single female hormone currently searing through her body.

Clark moved his hand an inch, and two fingertips landed gently on her arm. “It’s still me,” he said with a smile that — although hesitant — was powerful enough to melt her insides.

His beard had concealed a national treasure.

“Cl…”

She snatched his forearm. She needed something to hold on to, and he was it.

His smile unfurled further, intensifying the havoc inside her.

OK. Deep breath.

It was time to pull herself together.

She had to stop gawping at him.

Clark was more than a face … a lot more than a face. She knew that better than anyone did.

He was … well, it didn’t matter how mind-numbingly good he looked, he was still Clark, and he still needed her.

And she had to pull herself together. For him.

She would.

But she had to ask one question first. “How old are you?” Lois blurted.

“Twenty-eight.”

Twenty -eight!

“I’m twenty-seven,” Lois said — which was inane, but she was too busy congratulating herself on putting two words together to care that he hadn’t asked, and it wasn’t usually information that she tossed around like confetti.

Two dark eyebrows rose as if to direct attention to his hair — now short. Neat. Immaculate.

Except for one little lock that had broken away and fallen forward onto his forehead.

Her fingers ached to reach forward and touch it. She tightened her grip on Clark’s hand.

“You seem surprised,” Lois said — aware that Clark’s level of surprise was the equivalent to one small piece of space rock compared with her galaxy of shock.

“I … I thought you looked younger, but when I thought about you being given this job … I figured you must be a few years older than you look.”

At any other time, Lois would have paused long enough to enjoy the compliment, but right now, it washed over her ineffectually.

“I’m sorry if I surprised you,” Clark said.

Lois dragged her eyes away from the smooth naked curve of his jaw. “I … I don’t think ‘surprised’ is quite the right word,” she said.

“Well, I am sorry,” Clark said. “I should have done it one thing at a time … the hair, and then the beard, and then the clothes, and then the glasses. I should have given you some time to become accustomed to the changes.” He looked down shyly. “But I wanted our meal together to be special. You said we were celebrating.”

“We are celebrating, Clark,” Lois said. She was still grasping his arm, but he didn’t seem to mind … and it wasn’t as if she could damage him no matter how hard she squeezed. “I was just a bit … dazed. I’m fine now.”

His smile reassured her — although Lois reminded herself that she was supposed to be reassuring him. She breathed in until her lungs could take no more and then let out a long, slow, steadying breath.

He was still the Clark that she knew. He looked poised and confident, but he was still a prisoner who carried so many emotional wounds and insecurities. He was still vulnerable. She had to be careful.

She smiled at him as she had smiled at him so many times before — smiled to assure him that everything was OK. “Would you mind if I did something?” she asked.

“No,” he said — with just a tinge of indecision.

Before he had time to worry about what she intended to do, Lois let go of his arm and reached forward to lift the glasses from his face. She laid them on the table and smiled into his eyes.

That was better. Now she could connect with him properly.

“I’m sorry, Clark,” Lois said. “I needed to find you again.”

“I understand,” he said. “But it’s still me.”

They shared a smile. “You look so different,” Lois said. “I wasn’t prepared at all.”

“I was shocked the first time I looked into the mirror.”

“Please don’t be offended if I stare at you all evening.”

“I won’t be offended at all.”

“Thanks,” she said. “And I don’t think I ever actually said it — but you look amazing.”

She saw his pleasure. “So do you,” he said.

Lois felt herself being drawn into his eyes and knew that she would have been content to lose herself in them while time marched on unnoticed.

Clark cleared his throat. “We should eat,” he said.

They should. Having something to do would help cover all of the gaps, because Lois was sure that her brain was going to be in a flap for quite some time yet.

He rose from where he had been crouching next to her chair and offered her his hand. Lois felt the warm river of familiarity flow through her. That was Clark. That was her Clark.

Lois accepted his hand and then went into the staffroom to get the meals. When she returned, she noticed Clark’s little smile of appreciation. “Do you like steak?” she asked as she handed him the bigger meal.

“Yes. Very much. Thank you.”

They put the plates on the table, and Lois returned with the glasses, the bottle of merlot, and the tub of béarnaise sauce.

Clark stood behind Lois’s chair and waited for her. As he pushed in her seat, she realised something — he had been only twenty-one when Trask had taken him.

His age had come as a shock.

But it made his poise and his steadfastness so much more incredible.

Clark sat opposite her and smiled.

He must be nervous. This was only the fourth day since she had walked into his cell. He was having a first date with a woman — which was enough to freak out more than a few men. And, instead of him having the years of experience that she had assumed, his life had gone into forced hibernation when he had been only twenty-one.

He poured the wine into both glasses and handed her one. “A toast?” he suggested.

She nodded.

“To what?” he asked.

“The future,” Lois said.

“The future.”

As their glasses clinked together, Lois realised that she wanted only one thing from her future.

To be with Clark.

She wondered what he was thinking. What did he want in his future?

“Would you like me to re-heat your steak and potato?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” Lois said.

He gazed at her meat, and a few seconds later, a little wisp of steam rose from it.

“Thank you,” Lois said.

“You’re welcome.” Clark stared at his meat until it also began to steam.

“Would you like to put your glasses back on?” Lois asked as she poured some sauce on her steak.

“Do you mind?”

“No.”

Clark picked them up and slid them onto his face.

Lois offered him the sauce. “I’m sorry I thought they belonged to your dad.”

“That’s OK.”

“I’m surprised you need glasses. I never noticed that you couldn’t see too well.”

He reached for the sauce. “I can see fine,” he said.

“Then … why?”

He meticulously poured the sauce over his thick steak. “You know I can see through things,” he said without looking up.

“Unless they’re lead-lined?”

“Yeah,” he said. He put the sauce on the table and met her gaze. “How did you know that?”

“It was in Trask’s notes,” Lois said.

“Oh.” The mention of Trask’s name chilled the atmosphere.

“I stopped reading his notes after a short time,” Lois said. “I wanted to know the truth about you, and I realised there was very little truth to be found in those notes.”

Clark’s smile dispersed the frostiness.

“Do you mind if I ask why you wore glasses if you can see fine?” she asked.

He picked up his knife and fork. “It’s a bit embarrassing,” he admitted.

“If you want to, we could swap embarrassing stories,” Lois said.

“I doubt your story could be as embarrassing as mine,” Clark said. He was smiling, though, so Lois felt confident to continue.

“You want to go first?” she asked.

“No,” he said with a restrained smile that reverberated through her already tightened muscles. “But I will. The glasses mean I can’t see through things — they’re lined with lead. My parents got them for me when I was a teenager.”

Lois wanted to laugh — not at what she could see would be a discomforting situation for a teenager who was already trying to deal with some major identity issues, but with unfettered joy that he was willing to confide such information to her.

She smiled, choked down the laughter, and said, “Thanks for telling me.”

Clark couldn’t hide his relief that she didn’t ask more questions. “Your turn,” he said.

“Do you know why I was so flabbergasted when I saw you earlier?”

“I think so,” Clark said. “I was shocked myself when I first looked in the mirror. I didn’t dare do it while you were in here. When I looked … it was even worse than I had imagined. It’s not surprising that you were shocked that I could look … normal.”

His reasoning speared into her heart. Sometimes, the way he thought, what he expected, affected her so deeply. “No,” she said with quiet certainty. “That isn’t why.”

“Lois,” he said. “When Moyne pushed you into this prison, you must have been petrified. I looked like I was capable of doing anything.”

“I try not to judge people’s likely actions by how they look,” Lois said.

His eyes melded with hers. “I know that,” he said solemnly.

She smiled to loosen the moment. “There was another reason I was so shocked tonight. You looked very different — that was a big part of it, but not all.”

“Then what else?”

She smiled, encouraging him to enjoy her story. “Before that moment, I’d thought you were old enough to be my father.”

Now, it was his face that froze with shock.

Lois giggled — taking the opportunity to release some of the build up of tension.

“That’s why you asked how old I am?”

She nodded. “I was stunned by your hair — you did a great job, by the way — and actually being able to see your face, and seeing you dressed so smartly … it was a shock. But finding out that you are so young … that just blew me away. I still can’t believe it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’ve realised how young you were when Trask captured you. I’ve realised how little life experience you’ve had … and yet … from your actions, your behaviour … you … you’re astounding.”

He stared at her. “I always feel so awkward and uncertain,” he said. “Surely you must have noticed?”

“Not often,” Lois said. “Most of the time — as I’ve said before — I’m in awe of you.”

His eyes just about melted in hers. “And … I’m in awe of you,” he said.

The room had heated and was on the verge of erupting. “We … we should eat,” Lois said. “Before it gets cold again.”

“Yeah,” he said.

Clark cut off a piece of steak and put it in his mouth. Lois decided to stay quiet and give him the opportunity to choose the subject.

Or to enjoy his meal.

But while she ate, she couldn’t keep from continually looking at him.

The jacket accentuated his broad shoulders.

He had a tear-shaped dimple that peeked out of his left cheek when he smiled.

His jaw line and chin looked like the work of a master carver.

And — to Lois’s surprise — his glasses didn’t detract at all. Now that she’d had the opportunity to study him, she realised that, without the glasses, he looked about twenty. With them, he looked more mature.

But not as mature as she had imagined.

She smiled, and Clark caught her. “What?” he enquired gently.

“I’m still thinking about how — the first time I saw you — I figured you were in your fifties.”

His mouth pursed, although he still managed to convey his amusement through the sparkle in his brown eyes. “Fifty?” he said with gentle teasing.

“After I’d watched you run, I lowered it a bit … forty-five, perhaps.”

The uncertainty crept back into his eyes. “Does it matter? Does it change anything?”

“No,” she said. “It changes nothing.”

His relief pushed away his doubts. “That’s good.” He wiped the mouth that could turn a smile into a piece of art. “Have you thought about what we should do next?” he asked.

“About finding your parents?”

“Yeah.”

“I figure there were two people who might have known something at the time,” Lois said.

“Trask and Moyne.”

She nodded. “Trask is dead. It’s possible he left a clue in his notes, but I didn’t find anything that mentioned people being with you. I could ask for the notes back, and we could go through them together.”

“Would they give them to you?”

“There’s no reason not to,” Lois replied. “This is my operation. It’s reasonable that I should have access to all prior information.”

Clark put down his knife and fork and picked up the glass of wine. “Moyne was there when I was captured. There’s a good chance he knows what they did with my parents.”

“Moyne has gone away,” she said as her thoughts wandered to Menzies. Was it possible that Moyne had told him anything? “And I think he’d get sadistic enjoyment out of not telling me.”

Clark stared into the red liquid as he slowly swirled it. “Lois?”

“Yeah?”

He looked up into her eyes. “This is one of those questions that feels a lot like stepping off a cliff.”

Lois leant forward. “Clark,” she said. “I know that you would never deliberately hurt me. If you want to know something, ask.”

His eyes shone with such pure appreciation that it enveloped her heart like a velvet cocoon. But it still took him a moment to gather himself enough to ask his question. “Did Moyne threaten to rape you?”

Lois nodded tightly.

Clark’s face hardened. “I don’t want him near you,” he grated. He met her eyes and retreated. “Not that I can tell you what to do,” he added quickly.

Lois chuckled — partly to evade the subject of rape and partly to entice Clark’s smile to return. “You can try,” she said.

He gave her a sombre smile. “But I doubt I would be very successful.”

“Probably not,” Lois said with a grin. “But, in this instance, I agree with you. Trying to chase down Moyne involves a lot of risks and has very little chance of giving us anything useful.”

“Is there anyone else who might know? Or might be able to find out?”

“Scardino is a possibility.”

“Are you sure about him?”

“No, I’m not,” Lois said. “I will try to find out about today’s meeting, but I don’t want to appear too eager. I’m going to try to gauge if we can trust him. Whether — if I push him to find out more about your parents — he will run straight to the higher-ups or whether he’ll try to find out information discreetly.”

“What’s your feeling?

Lois sighed. “I’m not sure. His main objective is that this operation doesn’t cause him any inconvenience. But it’s only been in his portfolio for two years. There’s a possibility that his predecessor knows something.”

“He’s not dead? The predecessor?”

“Scardino said he’d retired.”

“Do you know his name?”

“O’Brien.”

“First name?”

Lois searched through her memory. “I don’t think Scardino mentioned it,” she said. “But I’m sure I’ve heard of him before.”

“If he’s still alive, would it be worth trying to locate him?”

“I don’t know,” Lois said. “He would be sworn to secrecy, of course. It would be a part of his retirement contract.”

“But?”

“But he’s not going to want his retirement disrupted with a nasty story in the papers.”

Clark’s eyes shot her a volley of questions. “You’re not thinking of going to the press? If this became public, it could hurt my parents.”

“I realise that,” Lois said. “But sometimes you only need to threaten.”

Clark ate a wedge of tomato and said nothing.

Lois sipped on her wine and continued trying to remember O’Brien’s first name.

“You said that Moyne has friends in high places,” Clark said.

Lois stifled her grimace, dipped her final piece of steak into the last of the sauce, and gave him a circumspect smile. “He does,” she said.

“Do you know their identities?”

“I know of one.”

“And?”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t ask.”

“Why?”

“Because it will worry you.”

“Are you worried about it?”

“Yes.”

“Then you should tell me, and we’ll worry together.”

Clark’s expression was one that spiralled the strands of concern and gravity together, but with just a smattering of light-heartedness. As if he, too, was starting to believe that, together, they could find a way through the most treacherous situations. “Moyne has an uncle,” she said. “By marriage. Eric Menzies.”

All traces of the light-heartedness melted away. “Was Scardino’s meeting with him?”

Lois had been hoping Clark wouldn’t make that connection. She didn’t want to admit it to him.

She didn’t have to.

On Clark’s face, the fledgling seeds of hope withered and perished.

Lois put down her fork and slid her hand across the table towards him. He looked at it but didn’t move towards her.

She nudged the table with the back of her hand.

Still, he didn’t respond. His newly shaven cheeks had lost all colour.

“Clark?”

“Lois,” he said desperately. “I’ve always known that there was very little chance of any sort of future outside of this prison. With Moyne’s uncle involved, there is no way I will ever get out of here.”

Lois tapped her knuckles on the table again. “Give me your hand,” she said.

He looked as if he were going to refuse.

But then, very slowly, his hand crept into hers, and her fingers closed around him.

“Clark,” she said. “I am not going to accept that you have to stay here. I am not going to do it. I will fight -”

“What’s the point of fighting, Lois?” he said. “When there is no possible chance of success and every chance that trying will hurt people that I care about.”

“Your parents?”

“Yes,” he snapped.

“And me?”

His head lurched away.

“And me?” she repeated.

“Of course ‘and you’.”

Lois pressed her thumb into the back of his hand. “And I care about you, Clark,” she said. “I care way too much to give up.”

His eyes slowly fastened on hers. “You are considering breaking out?”

She nodded staunchly. “If we have to.”

His breath expelled with a swoosh. “For what? To spend a few days running and hiding before finally being hunted down?”

“I’m pretty good at running and hiding,” she said.

He ignored her attempted levity. “I won’t let you give up your life and your freedom on a half-baked -”

“It wouldn’t be half-baked. It would be meticulously planned and brilliantly executed.”

“Lo-is.”

His tone caused her to smile. “Can you fly, Mr Kent?” she asked casually.

“Yes, I can.”

“Can you carry something when you fly?”

“Something?” he demanded suspiciously. “Or someone?”

She grinned, working to break down his negativity. “Someone.”

“Yes.”

“That’s going to be more effective than running.”

“I can’t fly if they bring the poison.”

“They have to find us before they can expose you to the rods.”

Clark shook his head and stubbornly refused to smile.

“I’m not saying it will be easy,” Lois said. “And I’m not saying that’s what we will do. But I do think it’s silly to reject any possibility.”

“You’ve rejected one.” Now he sounded grumpy.

“If you’re talking about you staying here for the rest of your life, then, yes, I’m not willing to accept that. Anything else, I’ll consider.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt, and I don’t want to risk further danger to my parents.”

“Clark.” Lois tenderly brushed her thumb across his knuckles. “I’m not going to force you into anything. I want to work with you. I think we can do this if we work together.”

His gaze burned into her eyes. “You really think so?” he asked with raw intensity.

“I really think so.”

“You’re not going to give up on me?”

Lois shook her head. “I’m not going to give up on you.”

“Why? I don’t understand.”

“Because … because there’s something about you that touches me … heals me … completes me …”

A labyrinth of questions lined his face.

“You don’t have to understand it,” Lois said gently. “And I realise that trusting anyone is going to be extremely difficult for you, but can you just go with me for now? Can you just work with me?”

“Lois, I can’t …”

“I think you can.”

The tiniest hint of his smile imbued her heart with hope. “I can’t … refuse you anything.”

Lois grinned. “Then, we’re agreed?”

He nodded.

She squeezed his hand. “Shall I get dessert?”

“What do we have?”

“Tiramisu.”

“What’s that?”

“A coffee, cake, cream, and chocolate mix that tastes divine.”

“It sounds wonderful.”

“I’ll get it.”

Clark nodded but didn’t make any move to disconnect his hand from her grasp. “Lois,” he said, and it wasn’t a word, but a caress. “Thank you.”

Love for him infused her heart. But it was a love that she couldn’t speak out … a love she couldn’t act on.

Not yet.

Part 18

Eric Menzies checked the time.

It was too early to think about going home. Phoebe had made it very clear that she found his presence intolerable.

He knew that being alone all day — and all night, too, since she had moved into the spare room — wasn’t good for her, but he had no desire to incite her certain fury.

He trudged to the boxes that Scardino had brought this morning and picked out the first book from the top box. It was the logbook. Menzies took it back to his desk, pulled out a drawer, perched his feet on it, and picked up his glass of scotch.

He glared at the cover as if it were somehow responsible for everything.

This was going to end in trouble. He could feel it in his bones.

Anything involving Phoebe’s nephew always brought trouble.

But if Eric looked through this logbook, he would be able to answer truthfully if Phoebe inquired.

Thankfully, Neville had had enough sense to speak in riddles when Phoebe had been with them. Even so, she had comprehended enough of Neville’s righteous indignation at his removal from the operation, to make it very clear that she expected Eric to exact retribution on the unnamed woman who had dared to mistreat her nephew.

Eric’s focus swung from the book, and he gazed — as he did so often — at the photo of the little curly-haired boy that adorned his desk.

The whisky glass was empty when Eric finally broke from his contemplation of the photograph. He opened the logbook and began to read.

***

Clark rested the spoon in his empty bowl.

“Did you like it?” Lois asked. She knew he had — and she had savoured his enjoyment.

“It was delicious,” Clark said as he dabbed his mouth with the napkin. “The whole meal was perfect, Lois.”

“What would you like to do now?”

“Do you have any ideas?” Clark asked.

“Some,” Lois said with a smile. “But I’d like your thoughts first.”

He gestured to the table. “Lois, this is just so far beyond anything I ever expected to have again.” He smiled with gracious appreciation. “We can do anything you’d like to do.”

No. They couldn’t.

“How about a movie?” Lois suggested quickly.

Surprise lit his eyes. “A movie?”

“I have a small television and a VCR in my office.”

“A VCR? That’s a machine to play video tapes, right?”

“Yeah. Have you seen them before?”

“I’ve seen them,” Clark said. “Mom and Dad didn’t have one on the farm, though.”

Lois stood from the table. “I’ll clear this stuff away. Then could you move the table, please? We’ll set up the television on it.”

“Will we sit on the floor?” Clark asked.

Lois paused at the door. “I dropped into my dad’s place on the way home from the airport and took his camp mattress and sleeping bag and an extra pillow. We should be very comfortable.”

“Are you sure?”

She could see his regret at the deficiencies of their surroundings. “Clark, it’s not about where we sit.” She smiled at him. “It’s about the company.”

He opened his mouth to respond and then let it relax into a smile.

Lois waltzed into the staffroom in a swirl of happiness.

She was in love with Clark.

Totally.

Utterly.

Wholeheartedly.

In love with the man.

But the face … the smile … She hadn’t expected that.

The memories of their meal … the promise of the movie … it was enough to push away the cold harsh reality of their situation.

She would enjoy this evening. She would enjoy basking in the warmth of his smile. She would delight in restoring another little piece of what Trask had taken away.

And tomorrow — tomorrow, she would decide how they were going to find answers to their questions.

But she wasn’t going to allow the shadow of tomorrow spoil their time together tonight.

***

“There,” Lois proclaimed. “Almost like being in a movie theatre.”

Clark’s eyebrows arched as he sat next to Lois on the springy thickness of two mattresses. “A movie theatre?”

She gestured to where the small television was positioned on the table. “We’re looking up to the screen,” she explained. “Just like in a theatre.”

Clark chuckled as he put one pillow behind his back and hunkered to get comfortable. “If you have a lot of imagination.”

Lois shoved her pillow behind her and tried not to look too longingly at Clark’s broad shoulder. Would he notice if her head slipped sideways during the movie?

“What movie do we have?” Clark asked.

That hadn’t been an easy choice. Lois hadn’t consulted Clark — she hadn’t wanted to highlight the seven-year gap in his knowledge of the world. She had avoided anything violent, anything romantic, and anything particularly heart-wrenching involving families. But she also hadn’t wanted to insult him by choosing a movie squarely aimed at very young children. “Do you like dogs?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

“I thought you would — being a farmboy.” She picked up the video case and handed it to him. “Beethoven.”

“Beethoven,” Clark said as he perused the cover. “I figure not the composer?”

“No,” she said. “The dog.” Her doubts rose again. Perhaps it was too juvenile. “Do you think it will be all right?”

Clark smiled. “I think it will be exactly right,” he replied. “As you said, it’s about the company.”

Lois pressed the remote, and the movie began. Three minutes in, she readjusted the pillow and inched closer to Clark.

Twenty minutes after that, her head made first contact with his shoulder.

He looked down at her with a smile. “Tired?”

She nodded — and the movement settled her even further into his shoulder.

As the movie played out on the little screen, Lois filtered everything through Clark’s reactions. She smiled when he chuckled. She laughed when he laughed. She tried to discern the things that had changed from the world he remembered.

Too soon, it was over.

And Lois no longer had an excuse to recline on Clark’s shoulder.

It was late.

As they had watched the movie, Lois had given some thought to how they were going to end a date that couldn’t finish as most first dates did — on her doorstep.

She couldn’t kiss him.

A hug stayed — just — on the right side of the line.

Friends hugged each other.

Friends did not kiss — mouth on mouth. And it wasn’t fair to Clark to hint at such intimacy with a peck on the cheek.

It opened all sorts of possibilities that couldn’t be opened yet.

Not until he was free.

So — Lois promised herself — whatever she felt like doing, however much she was captivated by those brown eyes and that mouth that begged to be explored, she wouldn’t kiss him. Not while she was still his guard and he was still her prisoner.

But once they were free …

Clark waited until she lifted her head from his shoulder. Then he stood and offered her his hand.

He pulled her to her feet, and they stood together — their hands still attached.

She was only a few inches from his face — a face no longer concealed behind the bushy beard.

Clark pushed his free hand into the pocket of his grey trousers and looked at his feet.

“What are you thinking?” Lois asked.

He smiled self-consciously. “I’m not sure whether I should offer you your sleeping bag back. You can have it — of course — but I’m not sure if you …”

Lois put her hand on his elbow. “Dad’s is bigger. Would that be more comfortable for you?” She grinned. “Or have you become accustomed to Winnie?”

“I’d like to keep yours … if you don’t mind.”

She gently squeezed through the material of his jacket. “I don’t mind at all.”

“Thanks.”

“We can’t leave your suitcase in here,” Lois said wistfully. “And you’ll have to get changed back into your shorts and tee shirt.”

“That’s OK,” Clark said.

“I’m sorry,” Lois said. “I wish it could be different.”

“It is different,” Clark said. “It is so different.”

“Thanks for understanding.” She looked around the cell. “Did you make the ‘wig’?”

Clark released her hand and went to the corner of the cell. He returned with a hairy object that made Lois want to laugh aloud. She restrained herself — until she saw the grin on Clark’s face.

“Would you like to see it on?” he offered.

“No,” she said with a giggle. “I like you just the way you are now.”

Her words choked their shared amusement and intensified the feeling in Clark’s eyes as they meshed with hers.

You like me?

His mouth didn’t move, but that in no way lessened the impact of his question.

Lois smiled and rubbed her hand down his arm. “Yes.”

Wonderment laced his smile, and for a moment, they stared at each other.

“I … I like you, too,” Clark said.

Lois had to look away. She didn’t trust herself to keep her recklessness in check if she kept drinking in the ocean of feeling in those spectacular brown eyes.

She took the bathing cap-wig from him and laughed. “You did a great job,” she said. “It looks almost real.”

“Yeah.” Clark looked down at her with solemn appreciation. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much for an unforgettable evening.”

“Thank you,” Lois replied. “I had a wonderful time, too.”

Before she could be tempted to drown in his gaze again, Lois pushed the wig into his hands and picked up her dad’s sleeping bag.

For the next few minutes, they worked together to remove all evidence of their date from the cell. On one of her return trips, Lois brought down her sleeping bag for Clark and gave it to him with a cheerful, “Here’s Winnie.”

He grinned and thanked her, and as she took the VCR back up the stairs, she reflected on how she and Clark were getting more adept at negotiating potentially awkward situations.

Did that say something about him?

About her?

Or — her heart did a happy dance — about them?

She felt such certainty about Clark. He was exactly what had been missing in her life. He was someone who gave her the freedom to be exactly the person she had always wanted to be.

Herself.

With Clark, she could be Lois.

No pretence. No hiding. No deception. No charades.

Linda had given her that, too.

But with Clark … it was so much more.

He filled her heart in ways it had never been filled before.

And she loved him.

***

Eric Menzies stared at the hand-written words as a horrified revelation crashed over him.

Neville had killed again.

Eric flipped back to the start of the book.

He skimmed through it — reading a sentence here and there — whenever he saw the words ‘Achilles’ or ‘rod’.

In every instance, the presence of the rods was enough to disable the alien. They had been used at his capture. They had been used to enable the surgery to be performed. Trask had documented his order that no one was to enter the cage without the protection of the rods.

And then came this …

He killed today.

Deller and Moyne entered the cell, and the animal attacked Deller. Despite the valiant efforts of Moyne, the kill was swiftly and expertly accomplished.

Deller had become lax in obeying the rules — fatally so. He entered the cell with Moyne, but only Moyne was armed with the Achilles rod.

And a few more pages later, this …

He killed again.

Moyne and Bortolotto entered the cell to take him food. As they placed the food on the floor, he sprang on them from behind, killing Bortolotto instantly. Moyne ran for his life — and watched, horrified and helpless, as the beast mauled the broken body of his prey.

Eric turned back to the page where it had all become so gut-wrenchingly clear.

March 1, 1988

Today, I strengthened my position over the enemy. We exposed him to the Achilles for a full twelve hours overnight, leaving him weak and defenceless this morning. The surgery was performed by Moyne and Shadbolt.

The rods … whatever they were … weakened the alien to such an extent that two men had been able to perform surgery on him.

Menzies knew enough about Jason Trask to suspect that no anaesthetic had been used.

Yet two men hadn’t been able to stop the alien from killing. In the first death, Trask had noted that Neville had a rod — which, according to everything else Eric had read in the log, would have rendered the alien weak and debilitated.

Deller had died.

Neville had killed.

Again.

Probably twice.

Why hadn’t he, Eric, followed up?

He’d known Neville had a vicious streak.

He’d strongly suspected that Neville had killed during his previous assignment.

But Eric, fearing recriminations from Phoebe, had used every ounce of his authority and the full measure of his ability to bluster through a situation to turn the glare of suspicion away from Neville. The next thing Eric had heard, Neville had been assigned to the bizarre and very hush-hush assignment that involved guarding a monster believed to be a depraved and dangerous alien.

Eric had sighed with relief. This assignment would keep Neville occupied, and it would keep him in Metropolis, which, in turn, would placate Phoebe. Eric had given no thought to whether the captive was actually an alien — but he did know that even the suspicion that he was not human would be enough that, should he die, his death would raise barely a rustle of questions.

Never once had it entered Eric’s mind that Neville’s victims would be fellow agents.

Eric sank his head into his hands as self-condemnation clawed at his insides.

Phoebe wouldn’t cope. She wouldn’t. For reasons Eric had never understood, she’d always had a particular fondness for her sister’s son. Perhaps it had begun when Neville was a child, and Phoebe had been facing the heartache of not being able to conceive a baby of her own.

Then — when they had just about given up — Phoebe had become pregnant, and their son, Malcolm, had been born. For seventeen years, life had been good. Phoebe was happy. Eric had enjoyed the time at home between assignments. Malcolm had grown up — he had been indulged by his mother, but Eric’s attempts at discipline had never been vigorous enough to cause any real ripples in the harmony on the home front.

Then, as unexpectedly as his conception, the veil had lifted on Malcolm’s drug abuse, and their lives had been thrown into turmoil as their son had fought his heroin addiction.

Eric had taken leave from work to try to save his son.

It had been for nothing.

Malcolm had died from an overdose two months ago.

Phoebe was inconsolable.

She hadn’t left the house since the day of Malcolm’s funeral. Every one of Eric’s suggestions had been met with hot tears and enraged accusations that she would still have her son if Eric had stayed at home and been a father.

He’d failed his wife.

He’d failed his son.

And now this with Neville …

It would kill Phoebe if anything happened to Neville.

After he’d come whining about his removal from the alien operation, Eric had investigated the details of the new assignment Scardino had given Neville. It was perfect. He would be working alone. He would be working in one of the most volatile and dangerous places on earth. He would be working in a situation where death was an everyday occurrence.

Neville would survive. Eric had no doubt about that.

And he probably couldn’t get into any sort of trouble that was likely to follow him back to the US.

But … something had to be done to guarantee that no one reopened the case of the two agents who had died on Bessolo Boulevard. Not while Phoebe was so fragile.

Eric closed the logbook and stared at the photo that had been taken on Malcolm’s fifth birthday — the first such occasion that Eric had been home.

He hadn’t been able to save his son.

But he would save Neville.

And to do that, he had to ensure that the alien operation was terminated and obliterated from every record.

***

Clark knew that sleep was not going to come quickly.

His mind was overflowing with the events of the day. That seemed to happen a lot lately.

Since he’d met Lois Lane.

His parents weren’t at the farm. There was some disappointment in that, but he’d never believed that Trask would have allowed his parents to return to Smallville.

Scardino had met with Moyne’s uncle today. Would anything come from that meeting? What would it mean for Clark? More importantly, how would Moyne’s continuing involvement affect Lois? Would she be in any danger from him?

Clark couldn’t think Moyne near Lois without needing to jump up and begin pacing. And he couldn’t do that with Lois on the other side of the window.

He pushed his fears to the dark recesses of his mind and opened up the book of memories that he and Lois had written today.

There were so many of them.

The movie.

Lois’s choice had been perfect. He’d laughed more than once. He’d glimpsed the world as it was now — he noticed slight changes to the cars, and the clothes, and the fads of language, and the advancement in technology.

He’d relished everything. Those things so mundane that he doubted anyone else would have noticed — the grass, the flowers, the animals, the trees, the stores, the sky, the people … everything.

But his overwhelming memory was … would always be … the feel of Lois’s head leaning against his arm. When she had first touched him, he had hardly dared to breathe. He hadn’t wanted to do anything to make her think he didn’t like her being there.

He did.

He loved the feel of her against him.

There was so much else to recall.

The meal … He would never forget the meal. They had sat at a table — it had been a foldaway table with no cloth, and they’d still been in a grimy concrete cell, but none of that had mattered.

The food. The wine. The dessert. Sitting on chairs. At a table. Using plates and cutlery. Sharing a meal with someone.

And not just anyone, but with a woman who took his breath away every single time he looked at her.

And that was when she was dressed in jeans and a sweater.

Tonight … Lois’s dress had been exquisite. It was modest in style, but the soft material had lightly clung to her body, emphasising her curves.

She’d worn shoes of the same colour — with heels high enough to shape her calves and accentuate the slight swing of her hips when she walked.

Lois Lane was a beautiful and sophisticated woman.

And she’d chosen to spend the evening with him.

She had given him freedoms he’d thought would never be his again.

Being able to dress in the clothes of his choice.

Wearing socks and shoes.

Clark ran his hand over his short, neat hair.

From tomorrow night, he would wear the cap while he slept. Tonight there was no need — it was Lois who was ‘guarding’ him.

Lois.

Every moment spent with her made him more certain that a life without Lois wouldn’t be a life.

And yet … he couldn’t get past the certain knowledge that it would end.

It had to end.

Why would a woman like Lois choose to spend her life with an alien?

She wouldn’t.

He wouldn’t let her.

She was young, and beautiful, and free, and one day she was going to meet someone and fall in love with him, and there couldn’t possibly be a place in her life for an alien prisoner from another planet.

“Are you still awake, Clark?”

Her voice floated across the silence. He sat up and looked towards the window.

“I’m tired, but I don’t feel sleepy at all,” Lois’s voice said.

Neither did Clark. He still had far too many memories to relive to want to waste time on sleep. But what was keeping Lois awake? She must have caught an early flight to Wichita. She should be asleep.

“Thank you for a lovely evening, Clark.”

He smiled and waved to her and hoped she would realise he was trying to say that he had had a wonderful time, too.

“Goodnight, Clark.”

“Goodnight, Lois.”

He lay down again, turning to face the back wall so Lois would assume he was going to sleep and wouldn’t be distracted by his wakefulness.

He was a long way from sleep.

There were two memories of the night that he had deliberately left until last.

There was the moment when they’d been laughing together over the ridiculous sight of his bushy hair exploding out from the bathing cap. The moment when she’d said, “I like you just the way you are now.”

Her declaration had ravaged his ability to speak. He’d stared at her like a dumbstruck doofus, and she’d answered his unvoiced question with a resounding affirmation.

Lois liked him.

And later had come the moment that would be forever carved into his mind.

The moment when their date had ended.

Actually, the minute before that.

She had stood just inside the cell at the door.

He had stood and faced her — with absolutely no idea of how to bring closure to what had been the most unforgettable evening of his life.

Clark had been on a few dates. He’d taken the girls home. He’d stood on their doorsteps. Mostly, they had parted with a hug. On four occasions, the girl had reached up and kissed him — once on the cheek and three times on the mouth.

All of the kisses had been quick.

All had surprised him.

All had left him wondering how the girl would react if she knew she had kissed an alien.

But tonight … Lois was no girl. She was a beautiful woman.

And she knew.

Clark had known she wouldn’t kiss him.

But he’d wondered … hoped … obsessed over whether she would hug him again.

She’d smiled up at him … he loved her smile so much … particularly when she looked directly at him with those soft brown eyes.

She’d thanked him for a lovely evening.

As she said the words, her eyes and her smile had told him with certainty that she wasn’t just being polite; she wasn’t just playing a role.

She had truly enjoyed his company.

Clark didn’t understand how that could be possible, but she had already told him that it was all right if he didn’t understand why she did the things she did.

With anyone else, his suspicions would be rampant.

With Lois … he believed her.

She had enjoyed being with him.

He had managed a few bumbling words about how much he had enjoyed being with her, and then he had waited … his breath snagged … to see if she would do anything before she turned around and walked away.

She had paused. He wasn’t sure for how long, but it had felt like many minutes. Then she had risen onto her toes, placed her arms around his neck, and hugged him.

The thing he remembered most vividly was the touch of her fingers as they had made contact with his neck. Perhaps the years of being covered with hair had made the skin there more sensitive.

Or perhaps it was just Lois.

Her touch had made his neck tingle.

He could still feel it.

He had looped his arms around her, loosely enough that she could have avoided their bodies making contact if that was what she’d wanted. But she had leant into his chest. She had nestled her head into the curve of his shoulder.

Then, after a much-too-short time, she had backed away, bid him goodnight with a soft smile, and stepped into the staffroom.

Clark adjusted his position on the camp mattress.

Lois was just a few yards away.

Was she asleep yet?

She’d said she would come to see him for a few minutes before Shadbolt arrived tomorrow morning.

And then she would be back for her shift in the afternoon.

What would they do?

Would she be able to find O’Brien? Would he give her any information?

For so long, Clark had despaired of ever knowing the fate of his parents.

But Lois …

Lois brought hope to the most hopeless of situations.

But now Moyne’s uncle was involved.

Clark didn’t want to think about Moyne.

He wanted to think about Lois.

And he had so much to think about.

Her head on his shoulder.

The rose scent of her perfume.

The feel of her fingertips on his neck.

Her smile.

Her laugh.

Her head on his shoulder.

The rose scent of her …

Part 19

“Clark?”

He dragged himself from sleep and sat up. He was alone in the prison.

“I’m in my office, but I can’t sleep. Would you mind if I came down to you?”

Would he mind? He loved being with Lois … but in the middle of the night? What was she wearing? Nightwear? What sort of nightwear?

“It’s all right. I’m being silly. Good night, Clark.”

Clark hastily raised his hand and beckoned to the window. “Come on down,” he said, although he didn’t know if she would hear him.

“Are you sure?”

He nodded vehemently.

He heard a series of shuffling sounds, and a few moments later, the door opened, and Lois walked in — dressed in modest mauve pyjamas and with a few strands of her dark hair endearingly tussled — clutching her pillow and sleeping bag under one arm and her camp mattress under the other.

Clark rose from his bed, glad that he had decided to wear the tee shirt as well as the shorts. “Hi,” he said when he reached her.

“Sorry if I woke you.”

“It’s OK.”

“Were you asleep?”

He smiled. “Don’t ask personal questions.”

She smiled, too. “Sorry,” she said.

Clark slid her mattress out from under her arm. “Where do you want this?”

She pointed to the space next to where he’d been sleeping. “There?”

He placed it on the concrete, and Lois stepped into her sleeping bag and lay on her side with her head perched on her flattened hand.

Clark slipped back into his bed and faced her. “You OK?” he asked.

She nodded. “I couldn’t sleep. I was trying to remember O’Brien’s first name — I knew I’d heard it once.”

“Did you remember it?”

“Yep,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Reuben. I kept thinking it was Benjamin, but Ben O’Brien just didn’t sound right.”

“Reuben O’Brien,” Clark mused. “Did you remember anything else about him?”

“Only that he was in the job long enough to be considered a living legend, and this operation was a part of his portfolio before Scardino took over.”

“Do you think it’s worth trying to find him?”

“Yes, I do,” Lois said. “I’m just not sure about Scardino.”

“If Menzies ordered you to leave, do you think Scardino would challenge that decision?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t.”

She was so desperately alone in this. And Clark was powerless to help her. Or protect her. “You should try to get some sleep,” he said. “You must have caught an early flight this morning.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “But I can’t sleep when my mind is wrestling with something.”

“Well, you can rest now that you’ve remembered his name,” Clark said.

She grinned. “Are you trying to get rid of me, Mr Kent?”

“I would never try to do that, Ms Lane.”

“That’s what I called you, you know?” Lois told him. “Before I knew your name was Clark, in my mind, I thought of you as ‘Mr Kent’.”

Clark remembered the note. He’d thought the paper bag would contain food, but there had been so much more. Four unforgettable words … ‘Thank you, Mr. Kent.’

Four words that had shone like a beacon into his bleakness.

Four words that would never fail to resonate through his heart.

Lois was smiling as if she, too, were reliving a pleasant memory.

He sent her an unspoken question.

“The paper airplane,” she answered. “You must have thought you were being attacked by a madwoman.”

“I was a little surprised,” he admitted. “But I was impressed by your resourcefulness.”

“We never did fly the plane you made,” she said.

“Where is it? Did you take it away when we cleared this place?”

“Yeah,” Lois said. “It’s on my desk — a bit crumpled, but still a magnificent example of aerospace technology.”

He raised an eyebrow, and she giggled in response.

“Well, you could fly my rather pitiful effort with amazing skill,” she said. She adjusted her pillow and resettled her head onto her palm. “You cheated, didn’t you?”

“Does using a few extra skills count as cheating?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then, yes, I cheated.”

She laughed. “I thought so.”

“Sorry.” Except he wasn’t. He wasn’t sorry about anything he’d done that had inexplicably led them to this moment — when, unbelievably, a gorgeous woman was chatting to him as if the time, and the place, and their entire association were nothing out of the ordinary.

“Actually, that reminds me,” Lois said. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Would you make a paper airplane for me to take to my dad?”

“Of course I will,” Clark replied. “I still have the notepad you gave me.”

“We used to fly them together when I was a kid. He liked the elaborate ones, too.”

Did that mean Lois had spoken about him to her father? “I’ll make it first thing tomorrow,” Clark said.

“Thanks. I’ll take it to him. And I have the tray you made for him as well.”

Clark fell quiet as a parade of Lois-memories marched through his mind — the plane, and the candy, and the food, and the clothes, and the water, and all the other things she had given him.

They were wonderful … but they were things — things anyone could have given him.

His greatest treasures — the memories that would always have the most-visited place in his inventory — were more obscure. Like her smile. And her openness. And the fact that she’d never, ever recoiled from him. She had never done anything in word or deed to make him feel as if he were different.

Or strange.

Or unacceptable.

Lois sighed suddenly. Her head had fallen onto the pillow, and her eyes were closed.

Clark smiled.

Someone would have to stay awake to ensure that they were not still here when Shadbolt arrived.

That someone would be him.

He could relive his memories. And watch her sleep.

As he settled more comfortably into the sleeping bag that belonged to Lois, he marvelled at the profound depth of her trust in him.

She was here … asleep. Totally vulnerable.

He was strong enough that he could do anything to her, and she would be powerless to defend herself.

They were alone. It would be hours before anyone else came.

Clark knew that if he queried her trust, she would say that although he could hurt her, he never would.

And she would be right.

Her trust meant everything to him.

There was nothing in his life that he valued more.

***

~~ Thursday ~~

“Lois?”

Lois groaned and hoped that whatever was intruding into her sleep would have the good grace to fade away and leave her alone. It could not be time to get up yet.

“Lois?”

She accepted her fate and prised her eyes open.

Clark was smiling at her. “You have to wake up,” he said. “Shadbolt will be here soon.”

Lois lurched to a sitting position and looked around the cell. “Uh oh,” she said. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep here.” She turned to Clark and giggled. “Can you imagine the look on Shadbolt’s face if he’d walked into the staffroom and found the door open and both of us asleep in here?”

A gleam of amusement sustained Clark’s smile. “You should get all of your stuff out of here before that happens.”

A dusting of dark stubble shaded his chin and cheeks. Lois wriggled out of her dad’s sleeping bag to evade the temptation to run her finger along the rugged terrain of his jaw line.

“Take your sleeping bag and pillow,” Clark said. “I’ll bring the mattress to the door for you.”

“Thanks.” She bent low to gather her bedding and met his eyes. “If I embarrassed you by falling asleep in here, I’m sorry. I did intrude uninvited.”

“You didn’t intrude,” he said. “And I wasn’t embarrassed.” But it was what his expression said that gave her heart its first tremor for the morning. He appreciated her trust. He valued it. He didn’t expect it, and it hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“I should go,” Lois said — before she could get lost in the vista of his brown eyes.

Clark nodded, and she walked away.

In her office, Lois changed into jeans and a sweater. Her red dress lay across the desk, a conspicuous reminder of the previous evening and her date with Clark.

It had been in a cell.

Sitting at a foldaway table.

And on camp mattresses.

Watching a tiny screen.

With a prisoner.

Who was also an alien.

It had been the best date of her life.

And — Lois thought with a wry smile — it had finished with her sleeping next to her date.

She should be mortified by her indiscretion.

Falling asleep in the cell, with the door wide open, and the prisoner right there next to her.

But it had been a long time since she’d thought of Clark as a prisoner.

And she knew with certainty that if she were with Clark, she would always be safe.

Knowing that Shadbolt would be here soon, Lois hauled her thoughts away from Clark and hurried back to collect the mattress. When everything was safely stowed in her office, she returned to the staffroom and filled the bowl for Clark.

He met her with an outstretched hand that held a paper airplane. “This is for your dad,” he said.

She put the bowl on the concrete, took the airplane from him, and examined it. “Thanks, Clark. It’s great.”

“Thanks for the water.”

“I’ll be back this afternoon. Hopefully I’ll have a lead on Reuben O’Brien’s whereabouts.”

He smiled — although it didn’t hide his despondency at their parting. Even though it was only a few hours until she would return, the time apart must seem like a canyon of emptiness to Clark. “See you, Lois.”

“Thanks for waking me,” she said. “See you soon.” She left him, locked the door, and turned on the coffee machine.

Ten minutes later, Shadbolt arrived. He was scowling as he entered the staffroom. “Everything OK?” he said gruffly.

“Everything’s fine,” Lois said mildly. “The pet door is in. His breakfast is in the fridge. And I’ve just turned on the coffee machine.”

Shadbolt grunted in reply.

“Do you want me to be here while you push the breakfast through the door?”

“I thought that’s why you had the door installed,” Shadbolt said grumpily. “So we can do it without needing someone else here.”

Lois figured now was a good time to leave. “See you later,” she said.

She detoured to her office, but only stopped there long enough to pick up her bag and lock the door. Then she slipped back down the stairs and into the cool Metropolis morning.

***

“Reuben O’Brien.”

The woman behind the desk at the Vital Records office looked at her askance. Lois pulled out her purse and handed over the card that usually facilitated her access to whatever information she needed.

The woman stared at the card as if unconvinced of its legitimacy.

“Reuben O’Brien,” Lois repeated.

With a puckered expression, the woman returned the card and began tapping on her computer keyboard.

“There are three,” she said after a silence of close to a minute.

Lois took out her pen and notepad. “Born in which years?”

“1856, 1878, and 1915.”

“The last one,” Lois said. “Could I have his full name, please?”

“Reuben Robert O’Brien.”

“Current address?”

“I am not at liberty to divulge that.”

“Could you check the deaths register, please?” Lois asked.

The woman tapped again. “There is no entry of his death,” she said.

“Thank you.” Lois turned and walked away.

1915.

That would have made him seventy-seven when he’d retired two years ago. It wasn’t unheard of to retire at that age, but it cast significant doubts on whether this was the Reuben O’Brien she needed.

Lois had driven halfway to her father’s nursing home when she remembered that the paper airplane was still on the counter in the staffroom at the compound.

She groaned in frustration. She’d promised her dad that she would bring it. It was such a small thing — something he possibly wouldn’t even remember — but she’d learnt from Clark that small things could hold great importance.

She couldn’t risk disappointing her father. She would have to go to the compound and get the plane.

***

Lois stepped into the staffroom and stopped.

Shadbolt was sitting at the table — with the frame of a sewing machine towering over a sprawl of disassembled parts.

His head shot up as she entered, and his expression darkened.

“I forgot something,” Lois said in hurried explanation. She glanced past him and saw the plane on the counter — untouched and undamaged. She edged past Shadbolt and picked it up, trying to hide it in her hand as she headed back towards the door.

“You came all the way back here to get a paper airplane?” Shadbolt said scornfully.

“I made it for someone who’s in the hospital.”

“You couldn’t just make another one?”

“It’s quite complex,” Lois said as she held it up for him to see. “I followed pages of instructions. It seemed easier to come back and get this one.”

Shadbolt grunted and returned his attention to the scattered components of what had once been a sewing machine.

“Do you … ah, need any help?” Lois said.

“Do you know how to put this contraption back together again?”

“No.”

“Then you’d be no help at all.”

Lois slid into the seat at the table and ignored the cold stare that Shadbolt flung in her direction. “Is it your wife’s?” she asked timidly.

“I don’t have a wife,” he retorted.

“Oh.” She made a vague gesture towards the muddle of gears and cranks and circuit boards. “Do you know how to put this back together again?”

“Nope.”

“What are you going to do?”

Shadbolt pushed back in the chair and glared at the table. “I don’t know. It stopped working, and I said I’d have a look at it … but I think I’ve destroyed it completely.”

Lois decided to take a risk. After all, Shadbolt’s mood couldn’t get any worse. “Who does it belong to?”

He said nothing for such a long time that Lois became convinced he intended to disregard her question. “My daughter.”

“You have a daughter?” Lois said before she could mute her surprise.

Shadbolt’s gaze slowly switched to her, and he nodded. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Is that why you can’t swap any shifts? Because you have to be there for her?”

“She’s seventeen.”

“Then why?”

“My other daughter. She’s only four years old.”

Lois’s surprise sharpened to shock. “You have two daughters?”

“Is there a law against that?”

“I … I didn’t know. I assumed …”

Shadbolt exhaled as if he was giving up trying to keep his private life private. “I have two daughters,” he said stoically. “One is seventeen. This is her sewing machine, and she needs it working by this afternoon because her college entrance submission is due tomorrow. My younger daughter is four. She is the reason why I won’t change my hours. She needs routine, and I need to be with her every afternoon.”

“You’re a single father?”

“Two daughters, no wife,” he said caustically. “I guess that makes me a single father.”

“Shadbolt,” Lois said. “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have under-”

“I didn’t tell you because it doesn’t affect my ability to do my job.”

“When I asked you if you’d requested this assignment or if you’d been ordered, you said ‘both’. Was that because of your daughters? Because you can’t work an assignment that would take you away from home?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“Sorry.” Lois stood from the seat and looked at the parts. “I hope you manage to fix it.”

“Not much chance of that.”

Suddenly, Lois had a thought. It was another of her ridiculous, outlandish ideas. One of those ideas that probably should have been suffocated before it had a chance to draw its first breath. “What are you going to do?” she said.

“I can’t even put it back together,” Shadbolt said disconsolately. “I have no hope of fixing it.”

“I have a friend who could probably do it.”

His face lit with immediate interest. “You do?”

“If you go and get lunch for the prisoner — I forgot to — I’ll make a call, and then I’ll pack away all of the pieces and drop it off on the way to the hospital.”

Shadbolt only hesitated for a moment. Then he sprang from the seat. Lois took a ten-dollar bill from her purse and offered it to him.

He shook his head. “If you can get that machine fixed, I’ll buy him lunch for a week,” he said as he scurried towards the door.

As soon as Shadbolt had gone, Lois took an old plastic container from the shelf above the fridge and packed all the bits of the machine and Shadbolt’s meagre supply of tools into it.

Then, she unlocked the cell door.

Clark hurried over to her, concern on his face at her unexpected appearance.

“Do you know anything about sewing machines?” Lois asked.

“I know a bit. Mom had one.”

“And you could see into it and locate the problem, right?”

“Yes.”

“And if any wires were broken you could …” She gestured towards his eyes.

“Yes.”

Lois pushed the container at him and then darted back to get the frame. “Could you try to fix this, please?”

Clark took a few seconds to peruse the pieces before shrugging easily. “I should be able to.”

“Thanks.” Lois squeezed his arm. “I have to go. See you later.”

“Bye, Lois.”

Lois locked the cell door. As she sat down to wait for Shadbolt to return, doubts assailed her.

Had she helped someone who needed it?

Or had she done something that — if Shadbolt asked difficult questions — could lead to jeopardising her association with Clark?

***

Lois — the tray under her arm and the paper airplane and jigsaw puzzle in her bag — crossed the common area of the nursing home. As she passed, an elderly woman looked up from her knitting.

“Good morning,” Lois said.

The lady smiled. “It’s a moighty foine mornin’,” she responded in a broad Irish accent.

“It is,” Lois agreed. With a smile, she continued to her dad’s room.

He was sitting in his wheelchair, wearing the green sweatsuit.

“Hi, Dad,” Lois said as she bent down to kiss him. “How are you?” She covered his hand with hers and smiled. “I missed you,” she said.

He blinked once.

Lois put her bag on the ground and then lifted her dad’s inert left arm and slid the wooden tray onto his wheelchair. “This is for you, Dad,” she said as she gently lowered his arm. “Remember how we used to do jigsaw puzzles together?”

She pulled up a chair, took the box out of her bag, and held it up for him to see the picture of a 1950s Ford Thunderbird parked under a towering oak tree. She opened the box. “Do you want to start with the edges?”

Her dad was looking at the tray.

“I’ll get them out for you, and you can start putting them together.” She picked out three pieces and put them on the tray.

Her dad didn’t move — and Lois had an awful feeling that she had misjudged his level of ability. She kept searching through the pieces. “Ooh, Dad,” she said with feigned enthusiasm. “Here’s a corner.”

For the next few minutes, Lois surreptitiously watched her dad’s hand as she picked edge pieces out of the box and placed them on the tray. His lack of response caused a rocklike lump to expand into her throat. She had pushed too hard. She had expected too much.

Lois looked up into her father’s face, an apology ready on her lips. It was detained by movement — movement of his hand as he shakily approached a piece and clasped it between his thumb and forefinger.

Lois smiled and returned her attention to the box.

By the time she put the next few edge pieces on the tray, two bits of the puzzle were hanging precariously together.

“Well done, Dad,” Lois said with a smile.

She continued searching for the pieces, deliberately slowing her pace so as not to overwhelm him with too many. “Hey, Dad?” she said. “Guess what I did yesterday? I went to a lovely little farmhouse. The leaves on the trees are turning — I saw so many beautiful golden yellows and flaming reds. It was nice to get out of the city for a while. It was a long day, and I should feel tired today, but I don’t.”

Her dad — a piece of puzzle in his hand — lifted his arm, moved it horizontally and then let it drop onto the tray where the jigsaw puzzle was just beginning to take shape.

Lois grabbed her bag from the floor and brought out the paper airplane that Clark had made. “I brought this for you, Dad,” she said. “I remembered.”

Her dad opened his hand, and the jigsaw piece dropped from it. Lois put the airplane in his palm. He turned his hand so the plane fell onto the tray, slowly clenched his fist, and tapped it against his heart. Then his forefinger gradually unfurled, and he pointed at Lois and then at the plane.

And, this time, Lois understood. She smiled.

“You’re asking if I love the man who made the paper airplane?”

Her dad blinked once.

“Yes,” she said, her smile irrepressible. “Yes, I do love him, Dad.”

It felt so good to say it aloud. To admit it.

Her dad straightened his fingers, and Lois put her hand in his. His hand folded around hers.

“You seem happy about it, Dad.”

He blinked once.

“This man is different from anyone I’ve ever met,” Lois said. She tried to identify the questions her father would ask if he could. “He’s kind, and he’s caring, and he’s strong, and he has such a good heart. Yes, Dad, it did happen quickly, but I know it is right. When I’m with him, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. He makes me feel … secure … grounded … happy. When I’m with him, everything is all right even when it’s not.” She looked into her dad’s eyes. “Does that make any sense?”

His eyelids dropped once.

Lois squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Dad,” she said. “Thank you for understanding.”

As they worked together on the puzzle, Lois chatted about the movie ‘Beethoven’. Other than her father’s total silence, it didn’t feel significantly different from the times they had shared in her childhood.

Half an hour later, a patch of pieces expanded out from the corner piece. “We’ve done well, Dad,” Lois said. She placed the box on the end of his bed within easy reach of his chair and bent to kiss his cheek. Her dad’s hand lightly gripped her arm. Lois paused, and in his eyes, she saw the essence of the man who had always been there for her. In them, she saw his love.

Lois swallowed down the rising lump in her throat. “And I love you, too, Dad,” she said. “I’ll come back tomorrow to see how you’ve done with the puzzle.”

Ronny was at the nurses’ station when Lois walked by. “Ms Lane,” she said cheerily.

“Call me ‘Lois’.”

“How is your dad this morning, Lois?”

“He’s great. I brought him a tray and a jigsaw puzzle.”

Ronny’s face lit with enthusiasm. “What a wonderful idea,” she said. “How’s he doing with it?”

“It’s going to be slow, but I think he’ll be able to manage. It’s only one hundred pieces, and they’re larger and thicker than normal. I thought I could get him another one — either harder or easier — depending on how he copes with this one.”

“I’ll watch him and let you know.”

“Thanks.” Lois scanned the large open area. “Ronny, do you know any agency nurses? Someone who fills in whenever one of the regulars has a sick day?”

“I know a few,” Ronny said. “In fact, we have one here today. She’s just over there, talking to the two men playing checkers.”

“Is it OK if I go and talk to her?”

“Of course. Would you like me to introduce you? She’s very friendly. You don’t really need an introduction. Her name is Angie.”

“Thanks. I’ll just go over there.” Lois walked over to Angie. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Lois.”

“I’m Angie,” she said.

“You work in different nursing homes and hospitals?”

Angie nodded. “Mostly nursing homes, but occasionally I do a hospital shift.”

“I was talking with a friend who knows that I come here to visit my dad,” Lois said. “She asked if someone called Reuben O’Brien was in this nursing home. I don’t think he’s here, but I wondered if perhaps you knew of him.”

Angie smiled. “Reuben’s at Everglen House — the nursing home on the east side of town, just off Central Avenue.”

Lois wondered if this was just too easy. “Can he have visitors?”

“Of course.” Angie’s smile died. “But warn your friend that Reuben might not remember her — he suffers from dementia.”

Lois let out a soft groan. “Oh, no,” she said.

“It came on quickly,” Angie said. “I’ve been told that he was still in full-time employment only a couple of years ago.”

“Thank you,” Lois said. “I’ll pass that on to my friend.”

Lois walked from the nursing home, her thoughts tumbling over each other. Was this the Reuben O’Brien who had worked as an agent? How much did he remember? Would the dementia work in her favour and loosen his tongue? Or would it render his information unreliable?

It was almost midday when Lois climbed into her Jeep. She had a couple of hours to get to Everglen House and be back in time for her shift. It would be tight.

Perhaps she should leave it and go first thing tomorrow morning.

No. Deep inside her, the feeling was strong that Clark didn’t have much time.

Lois reversed out of the parking bay and turned east.

Part 20

Lois waited outside the locked front door for someone to respond to the buzzer. Her initial impression of Everglen House was that it was more austere than the familiar atmosphere of her dad’s nursing home.

“Yes?” came a tinny voice from the speaker.

“I’d like to visit Mr Reuben O’Brien.”

“Are you a family member?”

“No. I’m visiting Metropolis, and my father asked me to call in and see his old friend.”

Lois heard a clunk, and a green light appeared next to the speaker. She pushed open the door and proceeded along the short corridor towards the reception area.

The young woman shoved a visitors’ book towards Lois. “Sign here, and print your name and address,” she said.

Lois took the pen and wrote: Linis Aneki, 67 Royal Lane, Altoona, Pennsylvania. She added a signature that included no recognisable letters.

As the receptionist examined the latest entry in the visitors’ book, Lois’s thoughts tumbled back to the hilarity she had shared with Linda whenever they had added to their inventory of names to be used in situations such as this. They had devised numerous aliases over the years, but Linis Aneki — one of their first — was still Lois’s favourite.

“He will be in the sunroom,” the woman informed Lois. “Through the door and on your left.”

“Thank you,” Lois said with a synthetic smile.

She walked into a large room where the towering ceilings and elegant decor made it feel more like a showpiece mansion than a home where people lived. To her left, there was a small cosy room with wide south-facing windows. Four people were seated around a large table — three women and one man. Lois entered the room and walked up to the man. “Mr O’Brien?” she asked.

He smiled with warm recognition. “Sit down,” he said. “How lovely of you to visit me.”

Lois sat next to him. “How are you, Mr O’Brien?”

He chuckled delightedly. “Call me ‘Reuben’,” he said. “You’ll make me feel old if you call me ‘Mr O’Brien’.”

Lois smiled as hope rose within her. So far, he seemed cognisant. And accommodating. And possibly the Reuben O’Brien who had been in the job.

“What has brought a lovely young lady like you to visit an old man like me?” Reuben asked.

Time was short. Lois didn’t feel she had the luxury of building up with small talk. “I’m hoping you will be able to answer some questions,” she said.

“Are you writing a book?” Reuben asked eagerly. “If you are, I have a plethora of great stories.”

“Oh?” Lois said, adding a smile to her question. “Why is that?”

“Because my life was a series of stories.”

Inside, Lois nodded in concurrence. That was a perfect description of the life of an agent — entering into a scenario for a time, playing a role, and then sliding out of it. She leant forward and lowered her voice. “What is your most incredible story?”

Reuben grinned. “Well, there was the time I was invited to dine with the President,” he said in a loud whisper.

“Really?” Lois said, hoping she sounded suitably impressed. She checked the three women. None of them seemed to be taking any notice. Perhaps they had heard Reuben’s ‘stories’ before.

“You don’t have to worry about them,” Reuben said with a dismissive nod towards the women. “Two of them are deaf, and the other one wouldn’t know her own name.”

Even so, Lois would have been more comfortable if she could have been alone with Reuben. However, she didn’t want to do anything that might damage her prospects of procuring information. “Anything else?” she said. “Anything truly unbelievable?”

Reuben’s forehead wrinkled, and he stared into the distance.

Lois waited, willing him to recall something about the capture seven years ago.

“I have a story about aliens,” he said. “Would that qualify as ‘truly unbelievable’?”

Aliens! That definitely sounded encouraging. Lois scanned the room. There had been no reaction from the women. “That sounds like a fascinating story,” she said. “I would love to hear it.”

Reuben beamed. “I’m not sure I’ll remember all of it,” he said. “My memory isn’t what it used to be.”

“Tell me what you can remember,” Lois said.

He paused through several raspy breaths while Lois held hers. Surely, she couldn’t have found Reuben O’Brien only to be thwarted by evaporating memories.

“We captured him,” Reuben said.

That was progress. “Why did you capture him?” Lois asked, looking enthralled.

“Because the rest … were coming.”

Uncertainty had crept into his words, and Lois reined in her impatience. She had a strong feeling that she needed to get to the crux quickly, but it was imperative that she avoid planting ideas in his mind. “Were they with him when he was captured?”

“The capture was swift and … “ He looked at her questioningly. “Someone was with him?”

“Was someone with him?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t remember anyone being with him.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“He didn’t have any family? Brothers? Sisters? Parents?”

Reuben’s head lifted, and his eyes blazed. “Parents! Why didn’t you say so? Of course, I remember them.”

“What happened to them after he was captured?”

Reuben’s eyes glazed over, and his bony fingers tapped an intermittent rhythm on the table.

Lois lightly touched the back of his hand with the pads of her fingers. “What happened to his parents, Reuben?”

He jolted and refocussed on her. “We knew that when the invasion happened, they would be a target. They were American citizens, and despite the ease with which the alien had been able to coerce them into treason, it was our duty to protect them from the wrath of the raiders.”

“They were taken into protective custody?”

“Naturally.”

Lois quashed her surprise. “Do you know where?”

“That was on a strictly need-to-know basis.”

Lois groaned silently at the advent of the too-familiar obstacle. She decided to evade rather than confront. “What do you think happened to them? Are they well?”

Reuben’s gaze drifted out of the window. “It’s a lovely day for January,” he said.

Lois deepened her contact with his hand. “Do you know if they are all right?”

“The man …” Reuben sighed, and his mouth slowly closed.

“The man?” Lois prompted.

Reuben’s eyes searched for her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What were we talking about?”

“The man,” Lois said, trying to smooth the urgency from her voice. “The man who was with the alien when he was captured.”

“He died,” Reuben stated blankly.

“He died?” Lois gasped.

“Years ago.”

“How did he die? Was he ki-”

“Heart attack.”

Aww, Clark, Lois thought. I’m sorry. “Are you sure?”

Reuben grinned suddenly. “It’s a good story, huh?”

Lois stifled her desire to take his scrawny shoulders and shake the truth from him. “The best stories have an element of truth,” she said, hoping she’d managed to keep the impatience from sneaking into her tone.

He nodded as if considering her statement. “Very true, my dear,” he said.

“Did the man really die?”

“He was a man of weak will and poor judgement. He should have protected his wife from the schemes of the alien invader. He should have notified the authorities. He should have chosen the safety of his own planet instead of harbouring the vile brute. But he paid a high price for his foolishness.”

Lois nodded in agreement, straining to keep her inner turmoil concealed. “That would have avoided a lot of trouble.”

“Absolutely right,” Reuben said gravely. “But I suppose they were victims, too, in a way. Victims of their country simplicity. Victims of wanting to believe that those of lesser bearing hold to the high human values of justice and truth.”

Lois could feel a tirade poised inside her, demanding release. Instead, she smiled — tightly, but with the hope that Reuben would be too engrossed in his story to notice her indignation. “What about the woman?” she asked.

Lois could hear the barely contained outrage in her voice, but Reuben appeared to be responding to her words rather than her tone. “I … I … “ He slowly rubbed his hand over his cheek. “I seem to remember hearing something about her. I can’t recall what.”

“Please try,” Lois said. “The story isn’t complete without knowing what happened to her.”

He grinned. “No loose ends, huh?”

“No,” Lois said. “No loose ends in the best stories.”

“Perhaps she died, too.”

“Perhaps?”

“I can’t remember,” he grated. “It is so frustrating. There was something. She was ill. Or something. No … perhaps she died.”

Anguish for Clark seized her heart. “You’re sure she died?” she asked in a small voice.

Reuben hesitated for a stretched moment. “I’m not sure. Something happened to her …”

“Are you sure about the man? Are you sure he died?”

“He was a large man, I think. The woman was much smaller.”

“Are you sure the man died?”

“Yes,” Reuben said firmly. “I’m sure the man died.”

“Did you see them? Did you ever visit them?”

“No. I saw photos in the file before it was destroyed.”

“The file was destroyed?”

“Yes. We had to ensure that the aliens wouldn’t be able to locate them. They were given a new life. Untraceable identities.”

“So it was more than protective custody?” Lois asked. “You changed their identities?”

“Of course. If the aliens found them, anything was possible … captivity, deprivation … torture. They knew too much.”

Lois nodded as the sickening irony crawled through her. Was it worth trying to bring clarification? Or would that just confuse him further? She accepted that she wasn’t going to be able to find out anything regarding location, but she still needed to try to ascertain whether they were alive.

“Do you know where he’s buried?”

“No.”

“Do you know where she’s buried?”

Reuben’s long bristly eyebrows rose. “She’s dead? The woman is dead?”

“I don’t know. What did you hear?”

“I heard the man had passed away. The woman became ill, but I can’t remember …”

Lois waited.

Reuben’s eyes — clear and sure — fastened in hers, and Lois held her breath.

“Will you call the nurse, please?” he said. “I’m feeling tired.”

A tall thin woman swept through the door of the sunroom. “Thank you for visiting Mr O’Brien,” she said crisply. “He is tiring, and he becomes extremely vexed when he can’t remember.”

Lois stood and smiled down at Reuben. “Thank you for telling me such a wonderful story, Mr O’Brien,” she said.

He smiled vacantly. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it, my dear. Perhaps you will come again and listen to more reveries from an old man’s imagination.”

Lois nodded and retreated from the sunroom. In the corner of the big room, another nurse was busily writing behind an imposing desk. Lois approached her. “I’m Linis Aneki,” she said. “My father used to be friends with Mr O’Brien. Thank you for allowing me to visit him.”

The nurse looked up. “How was he?”

“Very confused,” Lois said, shaking her head. “Is he always so confused?”

“He has moments of lucidity, but they are becoming less frequent.”

“Does he have many visitors?”

“His family — two sons and a daughter visit regularly.”

“How much of what he says is real?”

A sudden smile graced the expression of the nurse. “Did he tell you about the coming alien invasion?” she asked.

Lois nodded.

“Don’t worry,” the nurse said. “That’s his favourite story.”

“At the beginning, it sounded so real,” Lois said with a sideways glance — as if she half expected the alien army to be storming down the corridor. “But by the end, it was very confused.”

“That has been happening a lot lately.”

“Did the story used to have a more definite end? The man? The woman? Were they always dead?”

The nurse grinned, and Lois reflected that she would probably never realise the inappropriateness of her response. “He’s killed the woman, too, has he?”

“So the story doesn’t always end with her death?”

“No. Usually, she’s living happily ever after in her new identity.”

“And the man?”

“Reuben always killed off the man.” The nurse tapped her nose. “If you ask me, I think Mr O’Brien has a bit of the thing for the woman. In his mind, of course.”

“He seemed so sure the man was dead.”

“He is always sure,” the nurse said. “The story has grown over the months he has been here. At first, he would make odd comments and then stop mid-sentence as if he hadn’t devised the next bit yet. Slowly, he added in more detail — the human couple who adopted the alien baby, the certainty of an alien invasion, the necessity to protect the parents.”

“So … no one believes him?”

The nurse chuckled. “An alien?” she scoffed. “Who looked exactly like a human? And was sent to Earth as a baby to lead an attack on all humanity? Who would believe that?”

“How did he know it was an alien if it looked just like the rest of us?” Lois asked.

“Reuben hasn’t filled in that detail yet.” The nurse smiled. “Perhaps that’s coming next.”

“It’s sad, isn’t it?” Lois mused.

“It’s very sad. I believe Mr O’Brien was a very successful businessman. Now, he’s reduced to telling stories about aliens.”

“Thank you again,” Lois said. She walked past the woman in reception and out into the weakly shimmering sunshine, her mind in turmoil.

How much of what Reuben said was truth, and how much was the product of a mind slipping into confusion?

Some of his story was accurate. The baby. The farmers. The capture. Where was the line where fact became fantasy?

Had Clark’s father died? Lois had to admit that it seemed likely.

But what had happened to his mother?

***

Lois let herself into the compound and hurried up the stairs before Shadbolt could come out of the staffroom. Once in her office — with the door locked behind her — she went to the window. “Clark?” she said under her breath.

He looked up immediately from where he was writing on the notepad resting on his raised knee. He put it down and stood up.

“Were you able to fix the sewing machine?” Lois asked.

He nodded and pointed to the area behind the half-wall.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Lois said.

She hurried down the stairs, and Shadbolt jumped up from the seat. “What’s happening with my daughter’s sewing machine?” he asked.

“It’s fixed and ready for you to pick up,” Lois said as she walked to the coffee machine and began pouring herself a drink.

“Where is it?”

“Do you know the arcade off Westborough Street?”

“Yes.”

“My friend works in the sewing store there. I had to go over to the east side of the city this morning, and I didn’t have the time to drop in. But I called him, and it’s ready. Can you go and get it?”

Shadbolt glanced at his watch. “I have to pick up my daughter in less than an hour.”

“Go now,” Lois urged. “The guy’s name is Angus. Ask for him.”

“You sure it’s OK if I leave now? It’s not two o’clock yet.”

“Yep.”

“OK,” Shadbolt said. “Thanks.”

He picked up his magazine and left the compound. Lois waited a few moments, although she was reasonably sure that he would be too concerned about the sewing machine to return unexpectedly. She opened the door to the cell. Clark was there, holding the put-back-together sewing machine.

“Hi, Clark,” she said. “What was wrong with it?”

“A couple of broken wires.”

“Did it take you long to fix?”

“About thirty seconds. It took about five minutes to put it back together again, though.” He deposited it at the doorway. “I couldn’t test it.”

Lois lifted the sewing machine onto the staffroom table and plugged in the cord. The little light came on, and she looked sideways at Clark. “What happens now?” she said.

“You need to connect the pedal.” He pointed to the bed on the far side of the room.

Lois attached the pedal to the machine.

“Press down on the pedal,” Clark advised from the doorway. “Lightly.”

She did. The machine sprang to life, and the needle whirred up and down. Lois lifted her foot and looked through the door to Clark. “Great job,” she said. She took her cell phone from her bag. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Back in her office, Lois found the paper where Trask had written the details of the assistants, and she punched in Shadbolt’s number. He answered a few seconds later.

“Evan Shadbolt.”

“Shadbolt,” Lois said. “It’s Lois Lane. There’s been a misunderstanding. Angus just delivered the sewing machine to the compound.”

“It’s there?”

“Yep. It’s here.”

“Is it OK?”

“Better than OK. Angus said it was just a few loose wires. He fixed it, and you’re all ready to go.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

“OK,” Lois said. “See you then.” She sprinted down the stairs to where Clark was waiting on the other side of the doorway. “Shadbolt is coming back to get the sewing machine. When he’s gone, we’ll have lunch.”

“OK.”

“I have to shut the door,” she said. “Sorry.”

“I know,” Clark said in that quiet voice that always caused mayhem in her heart. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

Five minutes later, Shadbolt came through the external door like a tornado, and his eyes leapt to the machine. His urgency dissipated, and he moved towards it in a more circumspect manner, eyeing it as if he couldn’t quite believe that it had been resurrected. He reached for the pedal with his toe and smiled with relief when the machine responded. “Your friend is a miracle worker,” he said. “How does he want to be paid? Will he send a bill?”

“He said not to worry about it,” Lois said. “It only took him a few minutes.”

“You sure?”

Lois shrugged. “That’s what he said.”

Shadbolt shot another glance at the machine. “How did he manage to put it all back together again?”

“Don’t know,” Lois said nonchalantly. “But it’s all ready for you to take, and your daughter will be able to get her project done.”

“Thank you,” Shadbolt said gratefully. “This is really important. It’s a part of her portfolio for entrance into college. She has her heart set on getting into fashion design.”

“Creative young lady,” Lois commented.

Shadbolt disconnected the power cords. “Thank you,” he said again. “I had given up hope.”

“Why didn’t you take it to someone?” Lois asked. “Why did you try to fix it yourself?”

“It stopped working late last night,” Shadbolt said. “There aren’t too many repairers open before six in the morning.”

“You could have called and asked me to stay a bit longer,” Lois said with mild reproof.

“I didn’t think about that.”

Lois smiled. “Or did you just not want anyone to know that you have daughters?”

“I keep my home and my job separate.”

“Yes, but it’s hardly a national secret that you have two daughters,” Lois said pragmatically. “And now that I know, should you need to miss a shift — if one of the girls is sick — it won’t be a problem.”

Shadbolt picked up the sewing machine. “Thanks,” he said again.

“I hope your daughter’s project goes well,” Lois said.

He nodded. “Bye.”

“Bye, Evan.”

A half smile almost escaped before Shadbolt turned and hurried through the door.

***

Clark couldn’t help feeling on edge as he awaited Lois’s return.

Something was wrong. He’d known the moment she had unlocked the door and walked into the prison. She hadn’t been able to meet his eyes. She hadn’t looked at him.

What had she discovered?

What had they told her?

Had Menzies ordered that she be replaced?

Clark knew that Shadbolt was coming back. That explained her haste. But it didn’t explain why she wouldn’t look at him.

Had something happened to her father?

Or had she discovered something about his parents?

And what did the sewing machine have to do with anything?

She’d only been gone a few hours, but something had changed.

Something was wrong.

And Clark couldn’t control the fear clawing at his heart.

***

Lois waited at the external door. Shadbolt’s motor started, and she tracked the noise of his engine until all trace of it had faded away.

She could no longer put off deciding what to do. She had toyed — very briefly — with the idea of not telling Clark what Reuben O’Brien had told her. But Clark would ask. And although she was a consummate liar when she needed to be, she didn’t like lying to people she cared about.

She wasn’t sure that her information was correct.

And yet …

Her gut said that Reuben had been telling the truth about Jonathan Kent.

If Jonathan were dead, Clark was going to find out one day.

She had to tell him.

If she didn’t, it was going to develop into a barrier between them. Clark would wonder why she had suddenly closed up. He would detect her evasiveness. And, being Clark, he would probably decide that he was the cause.

She couldn’t allow that to happen.

She had to be honest. Even if she hurt him. Even if Reuben’s information was wrong, Lois had to tell Clark what he had said.

Their relationship — whatever it was — had to be built on trust.

She couldn’t lie to him.

She couldn’t.

But she hated the thought of hurting him. He had been hurt so much already.

But if his father had passed away … there was nothing she could do to save him.

Lois checked that the external door was locked, and with heavy steps, she went into the staffroom.

She had to tell Clark. They had eight hours before Longford was due. She had to do it now.

She couldn’t stay away from Clark, and she couldn’t go in to him and pretend everything was all right. She had to tell him now.

But it felt as if she were raising a dagger to plunge into his heart.

From her bag on the chair came the sound of her cell phone. She considered not answering — except she didn’t want repeated calls interrupting her time with Clark.

She picked up her cell phone. The caller was her dad’s nursing home. Sudden tension squeezed her heart. “Lois Lane.”

“Lois.” She recognised Ronny’s voice. There was nothing in her tone to suggest an emergency.

“Ronny,” Lois said. “Is Dad all right?”

“Sam had a wonderful morning, Lois,” Ronny said cheerfully. “He’s almost finished the first puzzle. I’m calling to ask if it would be possible for you to bring in another one for him to do.”

“He’s almost finished?” Lois gasped.

“Yep,” Ronny said triumphantly. “When I went into his room, he was totally engrossed.”

“When I was there, he was struggling to pick up the pieces.”

“Yeah,” Ronny agreed. “But we have thin corrugated foam that makes it easier to grasp things, so I put the single pieces on that.”

“Oh,” Lois said. “Thanks, Ronny. That’s great.”

“The wooden tray is perfect,” Ronny enthused. “Did you buy it or make it?”

“A friend of mine made it.”

“Is there any chance your friend would be willing to make some more for the nursing home’s general use?”

“Ah … yeah,” Lois said. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

“We’ll pay for them — whatever’s fair for materials and labour.”

“OK. How many?”

“Six? Could your friend manage to make six?”

“That should be fine,” Lois said. “I’ll check with him.”

“Thanks, Lois. See you soon.”

“Bye, Ronny. Thanks for calling me.”

Lois replaced the cell in her bag. Was it too much to hope that giving Clark something to do would ease his pain? Just a little?

Lois didn’t know.

Her only experience of the death of someone she loved was Linda.

And that death had been so draped in horror that Lois didn’t know if her feelings were typical. She had been shocked, and angry, and guilty, and traumatised. And she had had to stifle her mourning in the effort to survive.

Clark would have hours and hours to think about it.

And he still wouldn’t know for sure.

Did that make it easier? Or harder?

Either way, she needed to tell him. And she needed to do it now.

And then, she needed to find a way to help him. To be there for him.

***

Clark sat against the back wall, one knee bent, his arm lying listlessly across it.

As each minute passed, he became more convinced that something was wrong.

Lois hadn’t come back into his cell.

He wouldn’t listen through the walls. He wouldn’t.

Why hadn’t she come back to him? Was she avoiding him? Or was she avoiding having to tell him something?

Was she leaving him?

The lock clicked, and Clark sprang to his feet. He waited against the wall — not moving towards the door.

It opened, and Lois appeared. She dragged a chair forward and wedged it against the door.

Then she slowly turned to him.

It was there on her face … in her eyes that still wouldn’t look at him.

Something was wrong.

Clark pushed off the wall and walked towards her, his eyes glued to her face. “Lois?” he said in a voice that sounded less substantial than the first time he’d spoken to her.

Her eyes were burning with something that reached inside him and incited his fears.

He couldn’t wait any longer. “Are you leaving?”

Surprise spread over her face, and she quickened her steps towards him. When she reached him, her hand curved around his upper arm and stayed there. Her eyes converged with his. “No, Clark,” she said. “I’m not leaving.”

Lois wasn’t leaving. “Then what’s wrong?”

“I found Reuben O’Brien.”

A tidal wave of awareness swept over him, and the world reeled as the horror of his fears assaulted him anew. Lois put both hands on his shoulders, stabilising him. He scanned her face, and he knew.

His parents.

“Tell me,” Clark gasped.

“Clark, you need to understand that O’Brien is in the early stages of dementia.”

“What did he say?”

Her chin wobbled. “Your dad,” she said in a quiet voice.

His dad? Did that mean his mother was all right? Did that mean they hadn’t both been killed? “Dad?” he gulped.

“I’m so sorry, Clark.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that your father passed away.”

Memories swarmed into Clark’s mind. Memories of the man who had been the only father he’d known. The quiet farmer who’d taken in a strange child, loved him, raised him, taught him … and then been repaid with suffering.

“O’Brien told it like it was a story he’d made up,” Lois said. “But he said some things that were accurate — he talked about a baby who was raised by farmers. The nurse said that his story varies a bit …” Her fingers splayed along Clark’s neck — just below his hairline. “… but that the man — the father — always dies.”

Clark gulped. “How? Did … did they k…kill him?”

“No,” Lois said gently. “Reuben said it was a heart attack.”

“And Mom?”

“He said that they were both taken into protective custody. He said they were given new identities to protect them from being found by the alien invaders. He was really confused about your mom. The story kept changing.”

Chaotic fragments of thoughts zigzagged through Clark’s brain. If this were true … if no one had hurt his parents … That was better than he had ever dared to hope. But if his Dad had passed away … his mom would be alone.

Lois slid her arms further around his neck and drew him into her embrace, as if she had tracked the passage of his thoughts and known instinctively how to be what he needed. Her forehead nestled into the side of his neck, and her head lay on his shoulder.

Clark wrapped his arms around her back and clung to her.

He let her presence surround him.

Let her pervade him.

Let everything that was Lois answer the cry of his heart.

And, for the first time in his life, Clark didn’t feel alone.

Part 21

Many minutes passed, but for Clark, they blended into a timeless realm that felt like the mellow oasis of the eye of a storm.

His mind whirled with the first news of his parents in seven years.

His heart squeezed with grief — for a father who had probably died and for a mother who had lost both of the people she loved most.

Lois lay on his chest.

With her arms around his neck.

And the sweet scent of her hair in his nostrils.

Her body relaxed in the circle of his arms.

Her steady, calming breaths infused him with tranquillity.

Every thought, every feeling, every emotion started with Lois. Finished with Lois. Centred on Lois.

And because of her, the pain of his fear and loneliness and isolation melted away.

Neither of them had spoken since she had answered his question about his mom. Lois hadn’t moved, and Clark began to wonder if she had fallen asleep. And if she had, whether it would be acceptable to sit down … and perhaps settle her onto his lap.

“Lois?” he whispered.

She lifted her head and looked at him with eyes that glistened with sympathy.

What should he do now? He should try to ease out from her embrace. But how? He slackened the pressure of his arms a few degrees.

Lois didn’t back away. “How are you?” she said.

The sincere compassion that enveloped her simple inquiry weaved through his heart, causing further impairment to his ability to think clearly. He didn’t know what he was feeling — other than the certain comprehension that Lois had become as vital to his existence as the air that he breathed.

“Would you prefer to be alone?” she asked.

That was something he did know. “No,” he said. “Unless you would prefer to go.”

Lois shook her head. “No,” she said. “I would like to stay with you.”

That was what he wanted. It was what he would always want. “Thanks.”

“Would you like to stay here?” she asked. “Like this? Would you like to sit down? Would you like me to get us a cup of tea?”

“Do you have lunch?”

“Shadbolt got something for you.”

“Yeah, he pushed it through the door. I haven’t even looked at it.”

Lois lifted from his chest, and his heart whimpered with the loss of her. His hands dropped from her body, and his arms hung at his sides like clumsy appendages. She turned towards the door. “I’ll make us some tea.”

She moved, and suddenly, they were apart, and coolness flooded where her warmth had been. Clark followed her to the door and waited there, watching while she filled the kettle and put it on the stove.

She looked up and caught him staring at her. She smiled.

“Did you get some lunch for yourself?” Clark asked, thankfully grasping at a practicality.

“Nope. I didn’t have time.”

“You can have mine.”

“We can share it,” she said.

That was even better. He would have willingly given her his entire lunch, but sharing it emphasised their … affinity? Was that overstating it? Rapport? Was that what they had?

“I have some chocolate in my desk drawer,” Lois said. “We can have that, too.” She went out of the room, and her footsteps reverberated on the stairs. When she returned, she was carrying two candy bars. She put them on the table and stepped up to the doorway. “Clark?”

Her stride had been purposeful, but doubt clouded her eyes. “Yes?”

“I’m floundering here,” she said with a little smile that sought his understanding. “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling. I don’t know what you need. I’m not sure how to help you.”

Whatever he was feeling was such a turbulent clutter that the words to explain it were going to be unattainable. But Lois had sensed what he’d needed without words and simply held him. With his thumb, he gestured over his shoulder. “That …” He cleared his throat. “That was exactly …”

She gave him a shy smile. “We have some time before Longford comes,” she said. “If you want to be quiet, that’s what we’ll do. If you want to talk, we can talk about anything. Or we can do something. I have a pack of cards if you’d like to play a game.”

“Thanks. How about we have lunch first and then see how we feel?”

Lois moved to the counter and poured the boiling water into the cups. “There is something I should tell you,” she said. “But I don’t know if you’ll want to even think about it now.”

“What?”

“I took the tray to my dad, and it was such a great success that they’ve asked if you can make six more.”

Six more? Clark didn’t know what to say.

“Would you mind making others?” Lois asked as she reached into the fridge for milk. “Not today, but sometime.”

“I’d really like to make more,” Clark said, realising it was true. To make something. To achieve. To gain satisfaction from a job well done. That hadn’t been possible for such a long time.

Lois gave him one mug and picked up the candy bars. “Tomorrow? Or today?”

“It couldn’t be today,” Clark said. “I can’t imagine that you would have enough lumber in your office for another six trays.”

Lois threw him a smile over her shoulder as she walked towards the mattress at the back wall. “I don’t,” she said. “But there’s a hardware store about fifteen minutes from here. If you make a list of what you need, I can go after we’ve eaten.”

Clark took her hand to steady her as she lowered to the mattress. “Would that be OK?”

“Perfectly OK. It won’t take long.”

Clark sat next to her and opened the bag that Shadbolt had pushed into the cell. It contained two roast beef and tomato sandwiches. He offered the bag to Lois.

She took one of the sandwiches with a smile. “Thanks.”

“How is your father?” Clark said, hoping it would be a safe subject.

“He was better this morning than at any time since the stroke,” Lois said. “He still can’t speak, but we’re slowly learning how to communicate.”

“It must be very difficult for you.”

Lois stared at her sandwich for a moment. “It was,” she said. “The stroke happened when I couldn’t be contacted, so the first I heard about it was a couple of weeks later. When I got home, I felt as if I’d been thrown into a dark and menacing world, and I had no notion of what to do or how to help him.”

“Did he like the paper airplane?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” She smiled as if remembering something, but said no more.

“And he was able to do the jigsaw puzzle?”

“Yeah. When I spoke to Ronny later, she said that he’d nearly finished it.”

“Ronny?”

“One of Dad’s nurses. She bubbles with energy and optimism.” Lois grinned at Clark. “It was her idea that I wash Dad’s hair.”

Clark felt himself begin to smile. “And because of that, you coerced me into allowing you to wash my hair?”

She responded to the lightness in his tone with a radiant smile. “Coerced, Mr Kent?” she said. “I coerced you?”

“You did,” he said firmly. “And I loved every minute of it.”

Her eyes dropped and then lifted. “So did I,” she murmured.

If he hadn’t been an alien and a prisoner … He could almost have believed that she felt more for him than pity. Almost. Clark took a bite of his sandwich, using it as a way of camouflaging the absurdity of his thoughts.

They finished their meal in silence, and then Lois stood and gathered the trash and empty mugs. “I’m going to wash my hands,” she said. “And I’ll bring you back some water.”

“Thanks.” Clark closed his eyes, and immediately his mind filled with the memory of Lois leaning against him. The last time anyone had held him so closely was probably his mom when he’d arrived home from college.

If he’d had time to prepare — if he’d known it was going to happen — he would have imagined he would feel incredibly awkward. But he hadn’t. Lois had made it seem natural. On one level, it was. On another level, it was unbelievable that any woman would want to be so close to him — knowing everything about him.

As she had held him, it had seemed as if the furthest thought from her mind had been that he was an alien. And because of her attitude, it hadn’t mattered to him either.

In her arms, it had been almost possible to forget.

He heard her footsteps and broke from his memories. She put the bowl on the ground, and Clark knelt to wash his hands.

“Would you like me to go and get the materials for the trays now?” she asked.

From the haze of his indecision, something definite emerged. “No,” Clark said. “I’d like you to stay with me.” In fact, what he’d really like would be to go back to how they were before lunch — when her physical closeness and unqualified acceptance had chased away his segregation and lit his way back from exile.

But Clark knew that even if he were able to find the right words to ask if he could hold her again, he would never be able to build up the courage to voice those words. He tried to wrench his mind from the memory of her touch. He dried his hands, and followed Lois back to the mattress.

“Do you think Reuben O’Brien was telling the truth about my dad?” Clark asked when they were seated.

Lois breathed out. Then she slowly nodded. “There is no way to be sure,” she said. “And I’m so sorry that all of my digging didn’t get you any certainty, but yes, my gut feeling is that he was convinced about your dad.”

Clark had accepted that already, but somewhere in a heart that had become used to harbouring the most forlorn of prospects, hope had still flickered. Now it was gone. And it felt as if his heart was being impaled.

With a swift movement, Lois was kneeling next to him, facing him, her thighs alongside his. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

Clark nodded, trying to force down the tears that were pushing into his eyes. “What exactly did he say about my mom?”

He saw the flash of sorrow his question had caused, and apprehension reared inside him.

“His story kept changing,” Lois said. She reached for Clark’s hand and took it in hers. “Once, he said that perhaps she’d died, but he denied it really quickly, and every other time I asked, he said that something had happened to her, but he couldn’t remember what it was.”

“So she could be dead, too?”

Lois’s hand tightened around his. “He only said it once, Clark,” she insisted. “And then he denied it. Later, I asked if he knew where your dad was buried, and he said he didn’t. Then I asked if he knew where your mom was buried, and he looked shocked and asked me if she’d died.”

Clark stared at where Lois’s hand covered his as all the grief and uncertainty and fear rose again. If his dad were dead, who was looking after his mom? He realised now that there had been some small comfort in hoping that they were together.

“There’s something else,” Lois said.

He looked up into her eyes, preparing for another onslaught of bad news.

“O’Brien said that all records were destroyed. It could be that Scardino did actually look for them, and that’s why he came up empty.”

Clark nodded.

Lois leant forward, her face kindled with hope. “But that’s good news in a way, Clark,” she said. “Because if your mother can’t be located, it means that nothing we do is going to adversely affect her.”

But it also meant that he might never find her.

“Yes, you will,” Lois said. “Once you’re out of here, I’m sure you will be able to use your speed, and your vision, and your hearing to track her down. I’m sure you’ll find a way to do something that means so much to you.”

Perhaps she was right. If he were able to search for his mom, Clark knew he wouldn’t rest until he’d found her. But staying with Lois meant everything to him as well, and he was confident that all the strange abilities in the world were not going to make that happen. “About them being put somewhere for their protection? Do you think that was true?”

“I think that is what O’Brien thought happened,” Lois said.

“But?”

Her hand slid up his arm and around his neck, and her fingers slipped into his hair.

“But there’s Trask,” Clark answered his own question.

“I wish I had something more definite for you.”

“Thank you for telling me,” Clark said. “Thank you for not shutting me out.”

“I wanted to,” she admitted, and her eyes fell to her lap. “I would have done anything to avoid hurting you.”

“It did hurt,” Clark said. “But …” … somehow you made it bearable.

He couldn’t speak those words. He couldn’t let her know how close he felt to her … how much he yearned to be even closer.

He already didn’t know how he was going to survive when she left him. If he got any closer to her, it was going to be worse than all the years of Trask’s torture.

Her gaze rose and spilled into his eyes. “Would you mind if I did something?” she asked.

“No.”

“It’s something I have wanted to do for a while.”

Clark gulped. She wasn’t going to kiss him. She wasn’t. He nodded as tension cinched through every muscle in his body.

“I noticed that you shaved since this morning,” she said.

Clark nodded, his throat relentlessly dry.

“Your face looks so different without the beard. I still do a double take every time I see you. Would you mind if I just …” Her hand lifted from his shoulder and hovered in front of his face.

“I … don’t … mind,” he said through a strangled throat.

Her hand approached him and landed on the curve of his cheek. Her touch was exquisite — soft and warm and yet electrifying all at the same time. “You do this with a mirror?”

“Uh huh.”

Her fingers slid down his cheek and past the line of his jaw to his throat. Then, they curled and the upper side of her forefinger swept forward to the point of his chin and rested there.

It felt exactly like the precursor to a kiss.

Clark awaited his fate, unable to think, unable to breathe, unable to move.

Her eyes were on his mouth, or perhaps it was his chin. His gaze fell to her mouth. It was slightly open. Open enough that he could almost imagine what it would feel like if the impossible happened.

Then, her hand slipped away and dropped into her lap.

Clark felt a wave of light-headedness assail him.

“I’ll … go and get the stuff you need for the trays,” Lois said.

Her voice was neither steady nor strong, and Clark didn’t know if that made him feel better or worse.

“OK,” he said. “I’ll write you a list.”

“I’ll have to lock the door while I’m away.”

“That’s OK.” He rose to his feet, and before he could talk himself out of it, he offered Lois his hand.

She took it without any noticeable hesitation, and he helped her to her feet as he had done so many times before. Perhaps the only significance to her touch on his chin had been in his own hopelessly compromised mind.

“Do you have a pen and paper?” Lois asked.

“Yep.”

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

“OK.”

Clark picked up the pen and notepad and began to write out the list of materials he would need to make six jigsaw puzzle trays. It should have been a simple task.

It would have been a simple task.

If he’d been able to wrest his mind away from the enthralling memory of Lois’s hand on his chin. Lois’s mouth just a few inches from his. Lois’s breath mingling with his.

Clark closed his eyes and refocussed.

He was being completely illogical. Lois was his guard. Lois knew he was an alien. Lois knew that, even if he did escape from this prison, he had no realistic chance of long-term freedom.

Lois wouldn’t kiss him.

Ever.

He was sure that no thought of anything like that had ever entered her mind.

And yet …

If he wanted to remain sane, he had to stop thinking about that moment … that indelibly etched moment when a kiss had seemed such a viable possibility that he had almost felt her mouth on his.

And he also needed to stop thinking about what it had felt like to have her in his arms.

Clark opened his eyes and forced his attention to the list.

Lois getting the materials for the trays meant he would have something to concentrate on this evening. That was good.

Lois going to get the materials meant that he would be alone with his memories for a time. That wasn’t so good.

When she returned, she was carrying a small rectangular device that he didn’t recognise. She held it out to him. “It’s a cell phone,” she said. “If anything happens, if anyone comes, you can call me.”

Clark took the cell phone and examined it. “This is a phone?” he said.

“Yep.” She took it from him and unfolded a flap. “Press that button, and it will speed-dial my other cell.”

“You have two of these?”

“Yeah. This one belongs to Lois Lane. The other is for work purposes.”

“Does everyone have these now?”

“Not everyone, but they are becoming more popular all the time.”

“And I can call you without it being connected via a cable?”

She nodded. “No one should come — and I won’t be gone for very long. But if you hear anything, just press that button, wait for me to answer, and speak into it like a normal phone.”

“OK.”

“Keep it in your pocket,” Lois said.

Clark slipped it into the pocket of his shorts, wondering what other changes he would have to deal with if he ever left this prison. He had never felt as if he fitted into this world. Now he would be even more estranged from it.

“You’ll adjust quickly,” Lois said with an encouraging smile. “I’ll help you.”

She always seemed to know exactly what he was thinking. “Here’s the list,” Clark said.

Lois took the paper and skimmed over it. She looked up at him with a smile. “You have nice handwriting.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll be back soon.”

“See you.”

She walked out of the door, and it closed. Clark heard it lock.

And he was alone.

Alone with a jumbled labyrinth of thoughts that elicited the whole spectrum of emotions … grief, despair, guilt, hope, bewilderment, awe.

And …

The word became jammed in the wringer of his mind.

And …

Love.

He loved Lois.

Part 22

At the hardware store, Lois gave Clark’s list to an eager-to-help assistant and let him collect the items for her.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t have found everything on the list, but this way gave her time to reflect on the moment in the cell when she had come within a whispered breath of kissing Clark.

The electricity from their curtailed encounter still sizzled through her veins.

She’d held his chin in the curve of her forefinger. She’d focussed on his mouth — which had opened as if it were issuing captivating encouragement. Her heart had been pounding heat through her body — heat that had razed almost every barrier of common sense.

And she’d nearly done it.

She’d nearly kissed him.

And now, she was in utter turmoil. She knew that she should be submerged in self-recriminations for having come so close to something so foolhardy. She knew she should be relieved that, somehow, she had managed to extricate herself from the situation without inflicting too much damage.

But she wasn’t.

She wished she had kissed him.

She regretted not leaning forward and imprinting her mouth on his.

What would have happened then? How would Clark have reacted?

Lois didn’t know, but she would like to know.

Would he have been embarrassed? Flabbergasted? Or had he felt the growing attraction between them? She understood why he hadn’t made even the suggestion of a move on her. He would feel that he was in no position to offer her anything, and Clark would never be someone who would take without a thought of what he could give back.

The chemistry between them was so strong it was conceivable that Clark felt it, too. And if he did, a kiss would have helped him glimpse that whatever they had could survive beyond his cell. It would have helped him realise that she was hoping for a future with him.

Lois paid for the goods and followed the assistant to where she had parked the Jeep. She opened the hatch, and he started loading it for her.

Was Clark, right now, thinking about that moment? He must have felt something. He must have realised what logically followed.

But did he?

He had been twenty-one when Trask had captured him. Some men had plenty of experience with women by that age, but Lois wasn’t sure that Clark would have been one of them. He would have been restrained by his differences. He probably would have been wary of getting involved with any woman unless he felt able to tell her his secret.

From what he’d said, he hadn’t told anyone about himself before his capture.

Lois shut the Jeep and tipped the assistant. “Thanks,” she said.

He didn’t move away.

She brushed past him towards the driver’s door.

“Ah … would you consider going on a date with me?” he asked.

Lois looked at him — seeing him for the first time. He was passably good-looking and had a nice manner about him. In other times, she might have been tempted to give him her number. Now, she smiled, hoping to soften her rejection. “No,” she said. “I’m with someone. Sorry.”

His face fell, but he recovered with a good-natured smile. “Pity.”

“Thanks.”

He walked back to the store, and Lois climbed into the Jeep.

I’m with someone.

In one sense, that wasn’t quite the truth.

In one sense, it was as far removed from the truth as was a schoolgirl crush on an unavailable man who hadn’t shown the slightest interest.

But in every other sense, it was exactly the truth.

Lois wanted to be with Clark.

She loved him.

And it couldn’t be this powerful if he felt nothing for her.

Could it?

***

Clark heard a faint noise and tuned in his hearing.

It was Lois. That was her heartbeat.

He hurried to the door and dropped low to the tin box. He ran the comb through his hair, picked up the mirror, and lasered away his film of stubble.

A minute later, the door opened, and Lois walked in carrying a piece of chipboard. “Hi,” she said. “Everything OK?”

“Hi, Lois. Everything’s fine.” He took the board from her and looked at it. “This is exactly what I need. Thanks.”

“I’ll get the rest.”

She brought in all of the materials, and Clark placed them in neat piles near the back wall.

“Are you hungry yet?” Lois said as she stood next to him.

“No.”

“I think I’ll call Uncle Mike and ask him to hold off our meals for a couple of hours. Is that OK?”

“Sure.”

“Do you want to get started?” she asked with a sweeping gesture towards the sticks of lumber and slabs of chipboard.

“Do you want to do something else?”

Her smile held a tinge of self-consciousness. “Actually, my lack of sleep last night has caught up with me, and I’d like to crash for a while. Is that OK with you?”

“Of course.” He controlled the impulse to drop a light touch on her shoulder by burying his hand in his pocket. “You get some rest.”

“I’ll make the call.”

Clark withdrew the cell phone from his pocket and gave it to Lois. He listened while she spoke to her uncle, hardly able to believe that she could make a call without a cable connection to the telephone network.

As she hung up, she smiled at him. “All done.” Then she glanced sideways. “Do you mind if I stay here with you while I sleep?”

“Won’t I disturb you? With the hammering?”

“I doubt it. I feel tired enough that I could sleep in the middle of a kid’s birthday party.” She turned around and slipped away, returning shortly with a pillow and her dad’s sleeping bag. “Would you wake me in a couple of hours, please?”

Clark nodded. “Sleep well.” He crouched next to the pile and pretended to be examining a piece of chipboard as he watched Lois settle onto the mattress and pull the sleeping bag over her shoulder. She seemed to like being with him. Even when she could be somewhere else, she chose to be with him.

When she couldn’t sleep last night, she’d asked to come to him.

And now — she could have slept in the bed in the next room, or even in her office, but she’d brought her pillow and chosen to be with him.

Clark glanced up to the open door.

It wasn’t because she felt the need to guard him.

He loved her.

He’d never been in love before, but that in no way diminished his conviction that that was what had happened.

He was inescapably in love with Lois Lane.

It was hardly surprising. A beautiful woman had entered the black hole that had been his life, provided him with everyday practicalities that released him from having to live like an animal, exhibited jaw-dropping trust by walking into his cell, and proceeded to treat him with unwavering respect.

He hadn’t stood a chance. It was inevitable.

But now that he’d realised, what was he going to do about it?

They couldn’t have a future together.

Even if the authorities allowed him to go, all it would take was another Trask — or another Moyne — to decide that the alien was an unacceptable threat to the people of Earth, and Lois would be in danger.

Clark extricated himself from the web of his thoughts and picked up the first piece of chipboard. He’d looked forward to making the trays, but now, much of the pleasure had drained away.

He had to talk to Lois.

He had to be honest.

He had to ensure that they both understood that there could be no forever for them.

***

Lois awoke and opened her eyes. Clark was kneeling on the floor, working on one of the trays. He was wielding the hammer, but with such subdued power that she figured he had to be using some other skills to minimise the noise.

Perhaps he had already bored a hole in the wood, and the hammer was only needed to tap home the nail.

Five finished trays were lined up against the wall.

Lois smiled. Ronny was going to be pleased.

And hopefully, making the trays had proven therapeutic for Clark.

She sighed softly. He must be devastated. He must have feared that his parents were dead. In fact, he’d probably feared much worse than death from a heart attack, but that wouldn’t assuage his grief now. He would be mourning the lost years that could never be restored.

When they had been in each other’s arms, the flow of support and empathy between them had been tangible. Lois had never liked physical contact much, but with Clark, it was different. With Clark, despite all the reasons it should be awkward, it wasn’t. She could have stayed like that — leaning into his broad chest — for hours.

It had helped her. It had soothed the distress of having to tell Clark the news of his father’s probable passing. And inexplicably, it had alleviated some of her buried heartache over Linda’s death.

And it had helped Clark — she was sure of that. He had needed her.

They had needed each other.

This evening — after they had eaten — would there be any way to manoeuvre them into some sort of physical contact? Her head on his shoulder, perhaps? Or she could inch her foot towards him and hope he would massage it again …

Clark stood with the completed tray in his hand. He looked in her direction, and he smiled when he saw her open eyes. “Did you sleep well?” he asked.

Lois sat up and stretched. “Uh huh. Now, I’m hungry.” She checked the time on her watch. “And our meals should have been delivered five minutes ago.”

“That’s good.”

She went to the row of trays and picked up the nearest one, admiring the quality of his craftsmanship. “These are great,” she said. “Ronny is going to be ecstatic.”

Clark added the final tray to the row, but he didn’t respond to her compliment. Perhaps making the trays had been ineffectual in taking his mind from his parents.

“I’ll bring in some water for you, and then I’ll get our meals,” Lois said.

“Thanks.”

“Would you like me to bring down your suitcase so you can get into some of your own clothes? Jeans, perhaps?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” His attempt at a smile didn’t dispel the sombreness that clung to him.

It was to be expected, Lois told herself as she brought his suitcase down the stairs. His life had been static for seven years. Unchanging. Hopeless. Futile. Empty.

Now, in less than two weeks, everything had changed.

And he would be mourning his father and worried about his mother.

She handed him the suitcase. “I’ll go and get our meals.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Will jeans be OK?”

“Jeans will be perfect,” she said with a smile that she hoped would hearten him.

He smiled in reply, but it seemed little more than an expected gesture.

As Lois stepped outside, she groaned audibly as comprehension illuminated her mind. Yes, Clark was upset about his parents, but she hadn’t detected any detachment when she had held him. This was about the almost kiss. She had freaked him out. She had pushed too hard … again. And this time, she wasn’t sure how she was going to redeem it.

Ten minutes later, they had settled onto the mattress and were eating the roast chicken and fried rice supplied by Uncle Mike.

Clark had said very little.

He did look stunning in his jeans and one of the checked shirts, but Lois had allowed herself only the briefest of glances before turning her wayward concentration to the food. He had donned the glasses again, and the overall effect was of a slightly serious young man whose bearing hinted at an alluring combination of grace and power.

She wanted to delve into his thoughts — her questions were straining for release, but Lois was determined to give Clark the time and the space he needed.

Before he had finished his meal, he put down the cutlery and container and leant against the wall with a long sigh. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Her heart roared into frenzied overdrive. “You know you can talk to me about anything.”

“This … this is going to be … precarious.”

Yep, she had panicked him. Lois cast aside her food and hunched her knees into the circle of her arms. “We’re friends,” she said. “And friends can say anything to each other.”

“Friends?”

She nodded. “We’re friends.”

Clark’s head swung away, and he seemed to be gathering the impetus to continue. “Lois,” he said as he looked back at her. “There probably isn’t a twenty-eight-year-old male on this planet who knows less about women than I do … but … did you nearly kiss me before?”

A disconcertingly large part of Lois wanted to laugh … and then lean forward to answer his question with a kiss. “Yes,” she acknowledged. “I nearly did.”

Shock thrashed across his face. “Why?” he gasped.

“Because I wanted to.”

“Lois … Lois …” He lifted his hand and then let it drop, as if the words he was grappling for were out of reach.

Lois leant towards him. “Clark,” she said. “I like you. You’re single. I’m single.”

“You’re human. I’m alien.”

“So?”

“So!” he exploded. “Lois — there can never be anything like that between us.”

“Do you find me unattractive?”

Disbelief filled his expression.

“Do you?” she repeated.

“No,” he said tightly. “You’re beautiful.”

Now wasn’t the time, but Lois couldn’t help taking a millisecond to process his compliment. “Are you committed to someone else?”

Clark looked around the room that had been his prison for the past seven years. “What do you think?” he said harshly.

“Is there someone you’d like to be committed to?”

“I’m an alien, Lois.”

She laid her hand on his arm. He flinched at the contact but didn’t draw away. “Are there any Kryptonian women on Earth?”

“No,” he said, again looking as if her question was the last thing he’d expected.

“Then you’re limited to human women,” Lois said pragmatically.

“Lois,” he hissed. “Even before Trask captured me, I’d realised that marriage … family … anything like that… probably wasn’t going to be possible for me.”

“Is that what you want? To be alone? Always?”

“What I want hasn’t been important for a very long time.”

“It’s important to me,” she said.

“Lois,” he said as agony carved across his face. “We can’t do this. We’ve started all wrong. I’m a prisoner with no realistic chance of getting out of here. You’re a guard who has a life that will continue long after you’ve left this operation. If you feel anything at all for me, it’s because we’ve been thrown together at a time when you’re still vulnerable because of the death of your friend.”

“I don’t believe that,” she said staunchly.

“What do you believe?”

She drew her fingers over the tautness of his arm muscles. “I believe that, regardless of the circumstances of how we got together, you would still be you, and I would still be me, and you would still make me feel different from the way anyone else has ever made me feel.”

Clark threw back his head and stared at the ceiling.

She slid down his arm and hooked her hand in his. “Can you tell me honestly that you’ve never noticed this feeling that’s between us?”

“I can’t stop feeling it,” he said in anguished tones.

Lois dropped her head to hide her smile. When she’d clawed back a shred of control, she said, “Look at me, Clark.”

His head turned slowly, and his tortured eyes met hers.

“We can’t do anything about this yet,” she said. “And that’s the only reason why I didn’t kiss you. But every time we talk about the future, you seem to accept that soon after you’re out, I’ll leave you. That isn’t what I want. I want to be with you. I want to help you.”

“Lois, I need your help. I need it now, and if I ever get out of here, I’m going to need you more than ever. But if all I am is a project to you …”

“From the moment I met you, you’ve been far, far more than a project to me,” she declared.

“Lois, I can’t let you waste your life trying to achieve something that isn’t possible.”

“Clark, you need to understand something. It might be hard for you to accept, but I want you to try.”

He nodded.

“I need you.”

He grimaced. “Perhaps it feels like that now … you’re grieving for your friend … but one day, you’ll heal, and you’ll be ready to meet someone who can be everything you need.”

“I’ve already met him,” she said forlornly. “But nothing I say convinces him that my feelings are real.”

He released a long breath, and at its end, it birthed a hesitant smile.

“There are no guarantees for me, either,” Lois said. “In fact, the guy at the hardware store today asked me for a date. When you get out of here, you are going to meet hundreds of women. You might feel differently about me -”

“What did you tell him?”

Lois considered gently teasing Clark about being jealous, but she wasn’t sure he was ready for that yet. “I told him ‘no, thanks,’ and I said I was with someone.”

Clark made a gallant effort to nod sombrely, but the corners of his mouth lifted. “Lois,” he said, still fighting the grin. “Are you seriously telling me that you would choose to be with me instead of a regular guy?”

She nodded. “Yes, I am.”

His smile unfurled like petals in the spring sunshine. His eyes were soft and clear, and for the first time, there was no cautionary veil to mask his feelings. “How are we going to do this?” he asked in a low voice that melted her insides.

“I don’t know the practicalities,” Lois said. “But I know how I feel, and I know it will never change.”

“I have nothing to offer you,” he said.

“Yes, you do,” she corrected.

He looked at her hand, still clasped in his. “Lois, what you have done for me blows my mind. That you would want … It’s a lot to take in.”

“I won’t rush you,” she said. “I know you are going to need to readjust to so many things, and you can have as much time as you need.”

“I want to trust you,” Clark said. “But I can’t see how I can get out of here. I just can’t see how I could have any sort of life on the outside.”

“I found out that Shadbolt has daughters,” Lois said. “On the weekend, I’ll tell him that I will cover his shift so he can take them on an outing, and that will give us all day -”

“To do what? If I walk out of here, I die.”

“Did Trask tell you that?”

“No, Moyne did.”

“Do you believe him?”

“Yes, I do. He constantly left the door open during his shift and tried to lure me into going through it.”

Whether it was true or not, Lois wasn’t going to risk Clark’s life on the word of scum like Moyne. “We can dress you as a painter again and have you working on the back wall,” she said. “And we’ll bring in labourers to strip the wall.”

“It’s not just around the door. The wires are all through the wall.”

“Does your presence in here stop it from reacting? Or does it work like a tripwire?”

“A tripwire. If I go through that network of wires, the lead shell inside me disintegrates, and I’ll be poisoned.”

“Whatever Trask had put in the wall, we can have taken out.”

“And once we’re out of here?” Clark said. “We’ll have to run and hide, won’t we?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“That is no life for you, Lois,” Clark insisted. “I can’t let you live like that. And if they catch us …” Pain flared into his eyes. “If they catch us, they’ll take you away from me.”

Just as they had taken away his parents.

Lois didn’t have any assurances to ease his anxiety. “The alternative is that we both stay in here.”

His jaw dropped a little. “You’re saying that if I can’t get out, you’ll stay here with me?”

“Yes,” Lois said. “But that is problematic because of the possibility that I will be removed from this operation. But when we’re out there — no one can tell me that I have to leave you.”

“This is sounding like a crazy, improbable dream,” Clark said in a voice cloaked in disbelief.

“You have time,” Lois said. “You have some time to think about it.”

He grinned suddenly but said nothing.

“What?” Lois asked.

He shook his head.

“What?” she demanded.

“I have a question that I probably shouldn’t ask.”

“Ask it.”

“Are you going to kiss me?”

She chuckled lightly. “No,” she retorted. “I’m going to wait for you to kiss me.”

He looked down and adjusted his glasses. When he looked up, he was grinning. “Lois, I don’t think we should … not until … not until I’m free.”

“I agree,” she said quickly. “I had decided that, too … but then I nearly succumbed to a weak moment.”

Clark shook his head, his face draped in wonder. “You are the most extraordinary woman imaginable,” he said.

“You’re pretty extraordinary yourself.”

He nestled her hand in both of his. “I have so very little,” he said. “But everything I have is yours.”

“I need your strength, and your humour, and your steadfastness,” Lois said. “I need you.”

He stared at their joined hands. “It seems superfluous to say that I need you.”

“The strength of what we have is exactly that,” Lois said. “We need each other. We just seem to fit together — and I don’t think our circumstances have anything to do with it.”

He looked into her face, his eyes solemn. “It’s not going to be easy.”

“I know,” she said. “But we can work together to prepare for a life outside.”

“How much time do we have?”

“I’m hoping for a couple of weeks.”

“Have you heard anything about the meeting yesterday? Scardino and Menzies?”

“Nothing.”

“Is that a good thing? If Menzies had ordered any changes, wouldn’t you have heard by now?”

“Maybe.” Lois looked at her watch. “We have half an hour until Longford arrives.”

“What do you want to do?”

Lois smiled. “I’d like to turn around and lean back against you. Would that be all right?”

Clark cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said. “That would be all right.”

“Good,” Lois said with a satisfied sigh.

She spun around and reclined against him. His arm came across her shoulder as if it were natural for it to be there. Lois laced her fingers through his, and silence fell.

They stayed like that until it was time to clear the cell in preparation for Longford’s arrival. Then Lois put the trays in her Jeep and returned the hammer and leftover nails to her office while Clark changed into his shorts and tee shirt. After she’d brought in a bowl of hot water, they stood together, facing each other.

“I’m so sorry about your dad,” Lois said. “I wish it could have been different.”

“Thank you.”

“Try to remember all the good times. It does help … a little … if you can cling to the happy memories.”

“Yeah.”

She reached up and put her arms around his neck. His arms widened to receive her and closed around her back.

I love you, Clark.

They had covered so much ground … progressed so far, but she couldn’t say those words. Not yet. She had promised she would allow him to set the pace. But she could hope that the essence of her feelings would seep into Clark and help him through a long night when, she was sure, his grief would fester and claw at his heart.

After Linda had died, the nights had been the worst.

Lois wished she could stay with him. Wished she could bring down her mattress and sleep with Clark.

But she couldn’t.

She put her hands on his shoulders and drew back. “Good night, Clark,” she said.

“Good night, Lois. I’ll miss you.”

She would miss him, too. “See you tomorrow.” She pulled away before she could even think about how much she wanted to fall back into the haven of his chest.

She stepped into the staffroom and closed the door with a sigh.

Leaving him was not getting any easier.

***

Eric Menzies had had a tornado of a day.

He’d slept through his alarm, rushed through his shower, and cut himself while shaving. He’d sprinted down the stairs, still pulling on his jacket, grabbed his coat, and hurried towards the garage.

Then, he’d seen Phoebe.

She was on the couch, her arms flung wide, and her face deathly pallid.

He’d found a pulse and nearly collapsed with relief. He’d called the ambulance and pushed enough meaning into his garbled words that they had understood it had been an emergency.

From there, the day had passed in a whirl of doctors, nurses, and psych consults as the health workers had tried to piece together what had led to Phoebe’s attempt on her life.

Now it was late.

He’d left her in the hospital. She hadn’t responded to him all day. He’d sat next to her bed hour after hour and silently begged her forgiveness for all of his mistakes, but if she’d sensed his presence, she had ignored him.

He had been such a failure as a husband that his wife had chosen death instead of life with him.

Eric put down his glass of scotch and picked up the phone. He dialled Scardino’s home number.

“Daniel Scardino.”

“Scardino,” Eric barked. “It’s Menzies.”

“Good evening, Mr Menzies. Is everything all right?”

“I’ve read Trask’s records and realised that there is absolutely nothing that can be salvaged from such a woeful and incompetent mess,” he growled. “The entire operation is to be wound up and all records are to be destroyed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You have until Monday.”

“Monday?”

“The alien is to be killed and his body cremated. The compound behind the warehouse is to be demolished. I want nothing left. Do you understand?”

He heard Scardino swallow. “Killed?”

“Yes,” Eric said, his impatience rising. “Killed. It’s the only way.”

“How?”

Menzies snatched at his glass and took a gulp of the scotch. It burned down his throat. “Expose him to the rods until he is sufficiently weakened that a bullet will end his life.”

“Are you sure about this?” Scardino asked.

His hesitation ignited Eric’s simmering temper. “Yes, I’m sure,” he exploded. “If the rods could make him weak enough that surgery could be performed, I’m sure they can make him weak enough that a bullet can penetrate him — thereby killing him.”

“Are you sure this is the correct outcome for this operation?”

Eric poured himself another large scotch. “There is no other option,” he said firmly. “The longer the operation continues, the more chance there is of a nosy reporter finding out about it. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. It has to be terminated, and all traces that it ever existed have to be destroyed.”

“What about the agents?”

“Longford is useless. Retire him with a generous pension, and make sure he understands that he is never to even think about the last few years. Shadbolt has spent too long sitting on his butt doing nothing of note. He used to be a good operative. Find him a challenging assignment away from Metropolis, and get him back into the field.”

“And Ms Lane?”

“Do what you should have done in the first place. Insist that she take three months compassionate leave, and don’t let her wheedle you into anything else.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Monday,” Eric said. “By Monday, none of this ever happened.”

“But -”

Eric slammed down the phone.

Whatever Neville had done to those two agents, there would be no record of it. There would be nothing that could come back and upset Phoebe.

He had saved her from that.

She would never know that he’d done it for her.

But Eric was sure that if the trouble with Neville blew up, Phoebe would try again — and next time, she wouldn’t fail.

Part 23

~~ Friday ~~

Lois slept immersed in memories of Clark.

Good memories. Memories alive with hope and blooming with promise.

When she awakened, it was a few minutes past seven.

She lay in bed as thoughts of Clark lingered like the waning final notes of a beautiful song.

He had felt it, too.

He was more circumspect than she had been, but that was to be expected. If she had been in his position, she would have been haunted with similar uncertainties, similar fears that everything would be taken away … again.

But Lois knew she wasn’t going to walk away.

What she felt for Clark was unlike anything she had ever felt before. She wanted to be with him — but it was so much more than that. When she was away from him, her world faded to sepia.

She missed him. Suddenly, her thoughts converged, birthing an idea. Lois lurched from her bed. She didn’t want to wait the long hours to see Clark again. She would go to the compound and into her office. She was sure she could concoct a viable excuse.

Shadbolt might think she was checking on him if she arrived unexpectedly two mornings in a row.

But …

Any concern for where Shadbolt’s ponderings might lead didn’t come close to matching her desire to see Clark.

Lois showered, dressed, and drove to Bessolo Boulevard.

She unlocked the external door and stopped long enough to poke her head into the staffroom. Shadbolt was relaxed in the chair with his feet perched on the table as he read a space magazine. He looked up but didn’t adjust his position.

“Hi, Evan,” Lois said. “I have to sort out some notes for Scardino.”

She didn’t wait for him to respond before hurrying up the stairs. She opened the door to her office and locked it behind her.

Then, she crossed to the window. Clark was on the ground, doing push-ups — the wig jostling on his back with each movement. The muscles of his upper arm swelled under the sleeve of his tee shirt in a way that captured her eyes and held them spellbound.

Lois gulped.

It seemed that Clark’s body was being sculpted daily. Was it because he hadn’t been exposed to the rods for over a week? Was this how he was supposed to look?

She wrenched her feasting eyes from his body. “Clark?” she said.

He leapt to his feet, pulled the wig from his head, and looked in the direction of the window.

“Good morning,” Lois said.

He smiled and waved.

“Would you come over here, please?”

He walked to under the window and looked up. His forefinger pointed skywards.

“Yes,” Lois said.

He slowly rose until he was level with her, his feet dangling.

“Good morning,” Lois said, being careful to keep her voice to a whisper. “How are you this morning?”

He smiled and nodded.

“You can obviously hear me,” she said. “Can you see me?”

Clark shook his head.

“Is it safe for you to put your hands on the window?”

He scanned the edges of the window and then placed his palms flat on the glass.

Lois matched her hands to his. “My hands are against yours,” she said.

He looked at his hands and smiled. His mouth moved, but Lois wasn’t concentrating sufficiently to catch his meaning.

“It’s OK,” she said. “You can hear me, and I can see you. That is enough.”

His answer was a smile of agreement.

“Did you sleep well?

He nodded.

“Are you OK with what we talked about?”

Clark’s lower jaw dropped in a precise and deliberate movement, and Lois chuckled softly. His smile evolved from amidst the layer of shock.

“It was kind of mind-blowing,” she said.

He nodded emphatically.

“I’m going to Scardino this morning. I’ll try to find out what transpired at the meeting.”

She read the concern in Clark’s eyes.

“I’ll be careful. Don’t worry.”

The broad, bulging-under-his-tee-shirt muscles of his shoulders lifted.

“I know you think you can’t help,” Lois said, smiling and hoping he would hear it in her words. “But just concentrate on later this afternoon when we’ll have eight hours to be together to discuss everything.”

His mouth moved, and Lois was able to decipher his words.

“I’m looking forward to it, too,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to see you — that’s why I came now.”

His grin broadened.

Lois gazed at him — his face, his hair where the wig had left ripples of disorder, his large hands. Then she remembered that his only link to her was through her spoken words.

“Sorry,” she said.

His expression was quizzical.

“If you must know, Mr Nosy, I was looking at you.”

His eyebrows jumped.

“Yes, really.”

His expression floated between surprise and pleasure. The words sprang into Lois’s mind, and she opened her mouth. Now wasn’t the time, but the compulsion was too strong to be denied.

“I love you, Clark.”

His reaction was something she would treasure for the rest of her life. His eyes opened wider and blinked rapidly, his mouth fell apart, and his fingers twitched.

Lois was sure speech wouldn’t have been possible for him even if they hadn’t been separated by a pane of glass.

“I love you,” she repeated.

Then, she remembered. She was supposed to be waiting for him to take the lead.

“I’m sorry, Clark. I should have -”

His head shook wildly, and his mouth formed the word ‘no’. She continued watching his mouth.

“I love you, Lois.”

She smiled, and her eyes blinked against the sting of tears. “You can’t see me, so I’ll describe for you — my eyes are damp with a gush of tears, and my heart is thumping around my chest … and I can’t remember a moment in my life when I’ve felt like this.”

A fragment of the moisture in his left eye broke away and skittered down his cheek.

Lois chuckled and tried to bridge the gulf with words. “I just want to stare at you,” she said. “You look so happy, and incredulous, and it appears as if you’re almost daring to believe. When I look into your eyes, I can see there the euphoria that I am feeling. I wish I could touch you.”

“Your words touched me.”

“I can lip-read some of what you’re saying, but even with limited words, you touch me, too — with your eyes and your smile.”

His smile came again.

Lois wanted to gaze at him forever, but the outside world impinged on her consciousness, and she realised that it was going to be hard to explain a prolonged time in her office.

“I have to go,” she said, hoping he would hear her regret.

She could see his disappointment.

“I will be back at two o’clock.”

Clark nodded.

And then, his hand lifted from the window and went to his mouth. His kissed the pads of his fingers and blew towards her.

Lois laughed, and she saw that he had heard her.

His tinge of self-consciousness transformed into a wide smile.

“Does that count as a kiss?” Lois asked.

His shrug was so transparently flirtatious that giggles burst from her mouth. His eyebrows narrowed in semi-serious reminder to keep quiet, and she stifled her outburst.

“You are a tease,” she whispered.

He grinned.

“And as much as I’m enjoying flirting with you, Mr Kent, I need to get out of here.”

His smile died.

“Bye,” Lois said. “See you soon.”

He nodded and dropped onto the floor.

Lois picked up a handful of blank sheets of paper and shoved them into her bag. With a parting glance to Clark, who — bewigged again — had returned to his push-ups, she exited her office and locked the door.

When she arrived in the staffroom, Shadbolt was sipping a mug of coffee. A second mug was steaming in front of a vacant chair.

Lois looked from the coffee to Shadbolt.

“I made a drink for you,” he said.

Why? Lois tried to iron the questions from her face as she slipped into the seat at the table. “Thanks,” she said as she picked up the mug.

There was silence as Shadbolt took another gulp from his coffee. “I figure I owe you some sort of explanation,” he said, his eyes not venturing in her direction.

“You do?”

“You got me out of a real fix yesterday,” he said. “It was imperative that Layla finish the dress last night. It had all this elaborate stitching on it, and she said that even if I got another machine for her, there was every chance that the stitching would look different from what she had already done.”

“Layla?” Lois said. “That’s your daughter’s name? It’s very pretty.”

The stiffness in his expression loosened a little. “Yeah,” he said. He waited a few moments as if thinking about something … or probably someone. His eyes refocussed, and he looked across the table to Lois. “You must be wondering how a cantankerous old grump like me ended up with two daughters.”

“It’s none of my business.”

Shadbolt rubbed his fingers down his cheeks. “I wasn’t very fair to you in the beginning,” he said. “In general, I don’t like women.”

Lois couldn’t help smiling at his directness. “I discerned that.”

“Sorry.” Shadbolt’s smile flickered. “I can appreciate the irony,” he said. “Me, a chauvinistic dinosaur, single-handedly raising two daughters.”

“I would never have guessed.”

He drank from his coffee and then set the cup on the table. “I was on assignment in a foreign country,” he said. “And I met a woman.”

Lois sipped her coffee and waited.

“Shanti,” Shadbolt said, and bitterness tainted the word. “I’d met women before. I was always honest. I always made it clear that I would be moving on. But Shanti … Shanti was different. I fell for her so hard that I believed every word she said … everything about the man who had gotten her pregnant and left her, everything about how her family had rejected her and Layla because she wasn’t married. When the assignment was over, I came home, pulled some strings, and got them into the US. I married her three days after she arrived.”

It sounded like a story that should have had a happy ending.

“I was away a lot in the early years, and it soon became obvious that Shanti wasn’t happy. I applied for any position that would keep me in Metropolis, and a few months later, I got this assignment. I missed being out in the field, and things didn’t really improve with Shanti. I had the afternoon shift then, which meant I could be there for Layla in the morning and take her to school. Shanti told me she got a job working at night, so we only saw each other for a short time each day.”

But there was another daughter.

“Then, Shanti announced she was pregnant — five months pregnant. I wondered how she hadn’t realised earlier, but my entire knowledge of pregnancy could have been written on a postage stamp, so I believed her. A couple of months later, she stopped working, and we saw a bit more of each other, and things weren’t too bad for a while. I discovered that I was looking forward to the baby arriving and hoping that perhaps we could revive what we’d once had.”

Shadbolt’s expression turned sour.

“What I thought we’d once had,” he corrected bleakly.

Lois grimaced but said nothing.

“Anyway, the call came while I was here that Shanti had gone into labour, and I was to go home to be with Layla when she came from school. I had offered to be with Shanti, but she said that in her culture, it was considered perverted for a man to be at a birth. The next morning, the hospital called.”

“Your daughter had been born?” Lois guessed with a little smile.

“That was partly why they called,” Shadbolt said with no discernable pleasure. “But mostly, they wanted me to come and get my daughter because her mother had left the hospital without her.”

“Left?” Lois gasped.

“Shanti told the nurses that she had wanted a boy and she had no interest in another daughter. The nurse told me that a man came to get her and they left together. She’d already completed the paperwork — although she left the name part blank — and listed me as the father.”

“She just left?” Lois asked. “She left her baby?”

Shadbolt nodded. “Looking back, I realised that her work — all those night shifts — probably wasn’t a job but an affair. The nurse had thought that the man who came to pick her up was the baby’s father.”

“Oh, Evan,” Lois said. “That must have been a terrible shock.”

He released a harsh breath. “So there I was — a man most suited to the life of a bachelor with a newborn baby and a teenage daughter.”

“Shanti didn’t come to get Layla?”

“No. About a year later, I received divorce papers from her lawyer, but other than that, the girls and I never heard from her again.”

“You didn’t try to track her down?” Lois said.

“Nope,” Shadbolt said. “The girls deserve better than a mother who doesn’t want them.”

“I think their dad cares about them a lot,” Lois said.

He shrugged with a self-conscious smile. “Except that I don’t like women.”

“We’re not all the same.”

“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I avoid women whenever possible.”

“You wouldn’t have had much time — between working here and looking after the girls.”

“Not much time,” he agreed. “And absolutely no inclination.”

“You must be very proud of your girls.”

He nodded, and the austerity of his features softened. “I am,” he said. “They are the joy of my life — and despite the unconventional way we were thrown together, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“I can tell that you’re a wonderful father.”

“Most of the time, I feel totally overwhelmed,” he said. “Totally unprepared and unsuited for what I need to be. That’s why I got so agitated about the sewing machine. I hate to think that either of the girls misses out on anything.”

“What is your younger daughter’s name?”

Shadbolt half smiled. “Abi,” he said. “Short for Abigail. Do you know what that means?”

“No,” Lois said.

“Father’s joy.”

“You chose her name?”

Shadbolt nodded. “It seemed important for her to know that someone wanted her.” A strange expression twisted across his face. “I’m not completely naive, Ms Lane,” he said. “I do know there is every chance that Abi isn’t my biological daughter. But my name is on that birth certificate, and nothing else matters.”

“It doesn’t matter at all,” Lois agreed.

Shadbolt stood abruptly from the chair and took his empty cup to the sink. “I would appreciate it if none of this went any further. I try to keep my work and my home separate.”

Lois drained her coffee and added her mug to the sink. “I should go. I have a few things to do before my shift.”

“Don’t worry if you’re half an hour late,” Shadbolt said. “I’ll still be in time to pick up the girls.”

“Thanks for telling me about them.”

“See you later, Ms Lane.”

“Lois.”

He grinned. “Lois.”

She picked up her bag and left the compound, her mind awhirl.

Clark loved her.

And — more momentously — he seemed to believe that she loved him.

And Shadbolt … who would have thought?

***

Lois carried three of the trays into the nursing home and gave them to Ronny.

The nurse’s face lit with excitement as she examined at them. “Lois! These are wonderful. They are exactly what I was hoping for. Your friend is brilliant.”

“They are fairly simple.”

“The best things are,” Ronny said.

“I’ll go and get the other three,” Lois said. When she returned with the rest of the trays, Ronny held out an envelope.

“What’s that?” Lois asked.

“Payment. Three hundred dollars.”

“Three hundred dollars?” Lois gasped. “That seems too much.”

Ronny vehemently shook her head. “No,” she said. “Good work deserves good pay. Look at these mitre cuts — they are perfect. These trays are the work of a master craftsman. I can’t believe they are finished already. Your friend deserves every dollar. Let me know if it’s not enough — I would happily pay more.”

Lois slipped the envelope into her bag, mentally picturing the moment she would give it to Clark. It would represent another step back into the real world, and give him hope that there would be ways he could earn a living when he was outside of the cell.

“Thanks, Ronny,” Lois said. “I’ll go and see Dad. I’ve brought him three more jigsaw puzzles.”

“Three?” Ronny said. “That’s fantastic. He really enjoyed doing the first one.”

Lois walked to her father’s room, smiling at the other residents as she went. “Hi, Dad.”

She admired his completed puzzle and showed him the three boxes. When she asked if he wanted her to disassemble the completed puzzle, he blinked once. Lois chatted as she pulled apart the pieces of the Thunderbird. Then her dad indicated which puzzle he wanted to do next — a picture of woodlands — and they began.

Lois had put about a dozen edge pieces on the tray when she noticed that Sam was making the diving plane movement.

Lois grinned. “You want to know about the man I love?”

He blinked once.

“Well, I told him that I love him, and he said that he loves me.”

Her dad blinked once again. Lois took that as approval.

“He’s amazing, Dad,” she said, knowing the joy of her earlier encounter with Clark was bubbling in her voice. “He’s honest, and caring, and gentle, and so very strong.”

Her dad stared at her, and Lois could guess his question.

“I think what we have is real, Dad,” she said earnestly. “I know that we met at a time when we were both vulnerable, but I honestly believe that whenever we had met, we would have fallen in love. We are meant to be together. I want to be with him. And I believe he wants to be with me.”

Her dad reached for her left hand and rested his thumb on her third finger.

Lois understood immediately. “Marriage?” she said.

He blinked once.

Lois didn’t have to think about her answer. “That is what I want, Dad. This is serious. This is forever. I want to marry him.”

The right side of her dad’s mouth twitched — the closest thing she had seen to a smile since his stroke.

“It might take some time,” Lois said. “He’s been through some difficult times. His dad died recently.”

Her dad stared at her with eyes that seemed full of concern.

Lois rose from her seat and hugged him. “Thanks for understanding,” she said. “Thanks for being my dad.”

From Lois’s bag came the shrill of her cell phone. She unfolded from the embrace and smiled an apology as she took her cell from her bag. Her heart dived when she saw that the call was from Scardino.

“Lois Lane.”

“It’s Daniel Scardino,” he said. “I need to see you.”

His tone and lack of build-up reached into Lois and snaked a path of trepidation through her heart. “I’m visiting my father,” she informed him coolly.

“When can you be here?”

Much as she dreaded what he would say, Lois knew she wouldn’t be able to relax until she had found out why Scardino needed to see her. “Less than an hour.”

“See you then.”

Lois replaced the cell as fear scorched through her insides. The meeting. The meeting with Menzies. He had probably ordered her from the operation.

In her mind, she listed the things she needed to do and then formulated her plan.

At the top of the list was her dad.

She put down the puzzle box and turned to him. In his eyes, she could see his apprehension. She covered his hand with her own. “Dad,” she said. “There is something I need to tell you.”

He nodded slowly.

“The man I love has to go away. I have to go with him. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I want you to know that he will always look after me. I’m sorry that you weren’t able to meet him, but I’m asking you to trust my judgement here. I trust him, and I know that he would never let anyone hurt me. I’ll be with him. I’ll be safe. And as soon as I can, I’ll come back to Metropolis and visit you.”

Her father blinked once, and Lois’s tears rose.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she said brokenly. “I have so enjoyed spending this time with you, and we made such great progress in learning to communicate again. I want that to continue. I want to come back and keep going. But I can’t give you any idea when that will be.”

He blinked again.

“Hold me, Dad,” Lois said as she stood from the chair and wrapped her arms around her father. His right arm lifted and grasped her back.

When she pulled away from him, her cheeks were wet with tears. “I love you, Dad,” she said. “You do the puzzles, and keep working at the therapies, and I’ll visit you as soon as I can.”

He blinked once, and his hand made a slow path to his heart. “I know you love me,” Lois said. “I will never forget that. I wish this could be different. I wish …”

His hand reached for her face and clumsily swiped the tears from her cheeks. She looked deep into his eyes and saw his acceptance of her decision to leave. He knew so few of the details, but he trusted her. She felt a gush of love for her dad and hugged him again.

When she straightened, she arranged the foam pad in the bottom of the box and put the pieces on it. Then she placed it on the bed where her dad could reach it.

“See you, Dad,” she said, fighting down her tears.

He lifted his right hand in farewell.

“I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

He blinked once; then his face turned away, and his hand moved towards the box.

Lois gasped at first, but then she realised that he was telling her to go — to go and do what she needed to do.

“Dad?”

He looked up.

“Could I borrow your car, please?”

He blinked once.

“Thank you.”

His focus returned to the box, and Lois left his room, her tears flowing freely.

***

Lois let herself into her dad’s home and sprinted up the stairs. She went into his study, pulled out his hardcover copy of The Great Gatsby, and found the little key she wasn’t supposed to know was hidden behind there.

She used the key to unlock the deep drawer in his large wooden desk and took out his black doctor’s bag. She opened it and rustled through it, quickly finding what she needed. She took out a single-use scalpel, a syringe and needle, and a vial. She checked the label and recognised a brand name of prilocaine. Next, she found five packages — a laceration repair pack, a sling, a sterile pad, gauze squares, and butterfly clips. She pulled a handful of gloves from the box and added them to the steadily growing pile.

Did she have everything? Lois closed her eyes and worked through her memories of the time she had watched her dad treat Lucy’s badly gashed leg.

Skin disinfectant!

She searched through the compartments of the bag and found the small packages of disposable wipes. In her mind, she went through the procedure, checking off what might be needed for each step. Confident she had everything, she snapped the bag shut, and replaced it in the desk drawer.

She gathered everything into her own bag, and a few minutes later, the key had been returned, and Lois stood at the door, inspecting the room for telltale signs of her visit.

Satisfied, she crossed the wide hall to the bedroom that had been hers when she had stayed with her father after he had separated from her mother. She entered, chose a few items from the clothes she had left languishing in the closet, and shoved them into her rapidly filling bag.

She rummaged through her drawers and found one of her early wigs. It was hideous crimson in colour and looked more like a stuffed toy than something anyone would actually wear. Linda had dared her to buy it and double dared her to wear it.

As Lois pushed it into her bag, its shagginess reminded her of Clark’s wig, and from the nebula of her assorted plans, one crystallised. It wouldn’t change anything long-term, but it might buy them some time.

And every minute might be important.

Her idea expanded, taking on a life of its own. Despite the direness of the circumstances, she couldn’t help the spurt of amusement that teased her mouth into a smile. She scurried back into her father’s study and walked up to Jonas, the skeleton her dad had inherited from his uncle, who had been an orthopaedic surgeon.

“You’re coming with me, Jonas,” she muttered. She disconnected him from his stand and hunched him over her shoulder. After collecting her bag from her room, she went down the stairs and took the spare car keys from the hook in the entrance hall. In the garage, she unlocked her dad’s Buick, lay Jonas in the trunk, and folded his legs onto his cavernous ribcage.

Upstairs again, she went into the bathroom and was pleasantly surprised to find her old toothbrush, a pot of moisturiser, and a rudimentary collection of make-up essentials — all in passable condition.

In the kitchen, she opened the pantry and crammed several packets of cookies, a handful of candy bars, and some cans of soda into her overflowing bag.

She put her bag next to Jonas in the trunk of the Buick and then checked the oil and water levels. The gas was over two thirds full. She wouldn’t need to go to a gas station in Metropolis and risk someone connecting her with her father’s car.

The Buick started easily despite the length of time since it had been used, and Lois drove it into the street before parking her Jeep in her dad’s garage.

She locked the Jeep and the garage and then got into the Buick and drove to Scardino’s office.

Part 24

Scardino was nervous.

The moment he opened the door to his office, Lois knew that he was nervous.

“Ms Lane,” he said in a choked-off voice.

His nervousness confirmed Lois’s suspicion. This was the end. They were taking her from the operation. Her focus now had to be about ensuring they allowed her one final shift.

Scardino sat on his side of the desk and fidgeted with a pen before gathering enough poise to look in her direction.

“Is this about your meeting with Menzies?” Lois asked.

Scardino took a moment to compose his reply. “It’s about the outcome of that meeting,” he admitted.

Yep, Menzies had ordered her removal.

“Go on,” she said.

Scardino withered under her gaze.

Lois felt the rise of her impatience. Why wasn’t he just telling her? These weren’t his orders; he had at his disposal the perennial excuse of anyone in a chain of command when delivering unpalatable orders.

“What is it, Scardino?” Lois demanded. “I’m due at the compound soon.”

“Menzies wants the operation terminated.”

“Terminated?”

“He’s ordered that all trace of it be destroyed.”

Lois’s heart telescoped on itself. “What is to happen to the prisoner?” she asked, managing to bully her voice into steadiness.

“He is to be killed.”

The telescope twisted violently, and Lois gasped. “Killed?”

Scardino nodded, his eyes shifting back and forth and never coming close to connecting with her.

“How?”

“Menzies has ordered that he be exposed to the rods until he is vulnerable enough — and then he is to be …” Scardino had paled. In fact, he looked within a hiccup of vomiting.

“He is to be what?”

“Shot.”

Lois’s brain cells felt like an unruly mob threatening to riot. “Can he do that?” she asked, toning down — but not completely eliminating — her disgust. “Can Menzies order that someone be murdered?”

“It isn’t murder,” Scardino said. “It’s national security. The prisoner is an alien. Human rights don’t apply.”

“I can’t believe this,” Lois said slowly.

“The compound is to be demolished. By Monday, there will be nothing left to show that any of this happened. There will be no record of his existence.”

“And no record of his death,” Lois said bitingly.

“Death is an inevitable part of this job.”

“When done in self-defence.”

“Not always.”

He was right, but it did nothing to diminish her outrage.

“The assistants are to be deployed elsewhere,” Scardino said quickly. “You are to be offered three months of compassionate leave with full pay.”

The blueprint of Lois’s plan was already in the throes of adapting to this development, but she needed to try to act as if it had caught her unprepared. “Is Menzies in any mood for an appeal?” she asked.

“Has Menzies ever been in the mood for an appeal?” Scardino asked.

Lois grimaced. “OK,” she said. “But I want to be the one who supervises the final day of this operation.”

Scardino’s eyes cannoned into hers. “There’s no need for that,” he said. “I’m higher up; I don’t expect you to do the dirty work.”

“Are you saying that because I’m a woman?” Lois asked scathingly.

“No,” he said, too quickly to be believable. “I can’t give orders unless I’m willing to carry them out.”

“Then shouldn’t Menzies be the one doing it?”

Scardino’s acerbic look said plenty.

“I want you to call Longford and tell him not to come for his shift tonight,” Lois said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Longford freaks out when he has contact with the prisoner. I had a pet door installed so he could push food into the cell without having to open the door.”

“OK,” Scardino said. “I’ll call Longford and tell him.”

“What has Menzies ordered for him?”

“Retirement.”

“A pension?”

“Yeah. A generous one.”

“Good,” Lois said. “And Shadbolt?”

“He’s to be given a foreign assignment.”

“No,” Lois said. “He needs to stay in Metropolis.”

“Why?”

“He told me things in confidence,” she replied. “But I stress that he must remain in Metropolis. If you force him to leave, you will lose him.”

“It’s that important to him that he stay?”

Lois nodded. “I can guarantee it. He’s a fine man and a good operative. You need to find him an assignment that allows him to stay here.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“And I accept your offer of three months’ leave,” Lois said. “I’m going to do what I should have done in the first place — I’m going away for a long vacation.”

“What about your father?”

“My father’s condition isn’t going to be resolved quickly. If I go away and get some perspective, I’ll be more able to assist him when I return.”

Scardino nodded with obvious relief. “I … I thought you might be more … resistant.”

Lois pinned him with a cold stare. “I think this is a cowardly and despicable way to solve a problem caused by Trask’s paranoia and bigotry. But after having witnessed the situation firsthand, I think it could be argued that keeping him alive is just as inhuman as finishing this.”

“Have you had any contact with him?” Scardino asked. “Have you communicated with him at all?”

Lois looked unwaveringly into his eyes. “No,” she said. “I’ve made a few improvements to his conditions because I cannot tolerate needless cruelty, but I quickly realised that the damage is too severe for rehabilitation to be possible.”

“So, you’ll do it?” Scardino said. “You will expose him to the rods?”

“Yes.”

“And you definitely want to go back?” Scardino’s fingers tapped a jerky rhythm on his desk. “You can just go home and begin your leave now if you want to.”

Lois pretended to consider his offer. “No,” she said. “This was only a short assignment for me, but I feel the need to see it through to completion.”

Scardino leant forward, his elbows on his desk, his hands melded together. “Ms Lane,” he said. “Lois, I think you seeing it through to completion will be unnecessarily distressing for you. After what happened in your previous assignment, I don’t think -”

“It is because of my previous assignment that I need to do this,” Lois said, her voice rising. “I deserted my partner. I never want that feeling again.”

“Linda had passed away,” Scardino said gently. “You didn’t desert her.”

“Yes, I did,” Lois countered. “And I will never do that again.”

Scardino leant back. “OK,” he conceded. “You can be there until he has become sufficiently vulnerable. Then, you’re to call me. Understand?”

Lois eyed him as she silently counted to ten. “All right,” she agreed grudgingly.

“I … I’ll be unavailable during some of tomorrow morning. How long do you think it will take … until he is weak enough?”

“At least twenty-four hours,” Lois said. “Earlier than that, and you risk it going horribly wrong.”

Scardino blanched. “OK,” he said. “My appointment should be completed by noon.”

“I’ll call you …” Lois nervously brushed her hair behind her ear. “I’ll call you when … when it’s time.”

He nodded, looking like a man who wished he were somewhere else.

“I’ll go to the compound now and explain the situation to Shadbolt,” Lois said.

“You’ll start the exposure as soon as possible?”

“Yes.”

“Will the alien resist? Is there a chance that implementing these orders could be dangerous for you?”

Lois shook her head. “No,” she said. “The rods have a totally debilitating effect on him.”

Scardino nodded uncomfortably. “Menzies says everything is to be done by Monday. That will give us two days to have the compound demolished.”

“You’ll organise that?” Lois asked, accepting his steering them towards the practical aspects of the orders.

“Yes.”

“And the disposal of the body?”

“Yes.”

Lois stood.

Scardino stood also and offered her his hand. “I appreciate the way you have accepted this,” he said.

“I wish to reiterate my revulsion,” Lois said solemnly. “But way too much time has passed for this situation to be redeemable. Although perhaps there is a lot to be learnt about keeping people like Trask accountable.”

Scardino made no comment. “If you need anything - if it gets too hard, if you need a break — call me.”

“This is my operation,” Lois stated firmly. “I need to do this. I need to see it to the end.”

Scardino opened the door, and Lois walked through it without even glancing in his direction.

***

Lois drove to the compound, stopping only once — to withdraw eight hundred dollars from an ATM. As she drove, her anger seethed. How could Menzies reduce Clark’s life to a nuisance that needed to be eradicated? Had Moyne poisoned his thinking? Was this Moyne’s idea?

She would probably never know.

She hated their callousness. She hated their bigotry. She hated their lack of conscience simply because Clark was different.

And all of that hatred fired her determination.

In a really weird way, this was a better outcome than them ordering her removal from the operation. This way, no decision was required. If they didn’t escape, Clark would be killed.

She was going to get him out of the cell. Today. As soon as possible. His readiness or otherwise to rejoin the world was no longer a consideration. It had to be today.

And hopefully, they would have close to twenty-four hours before anyone discovered they were gone.

Lois parked the Buick and let herself into the compound. Shadbolt was in the staffroom. He looked up as she entered.

“You’re early,” he said.

Lois knew that if she told him that the prisoner was to be killed, he would insist on staying while they took the rods into the cell. Whatever she told him had to hasten his departure.

“Can we sit down?” she asked.

His face immediately creased with concern. “What has happened?”

“They’ve decided to pull all of us from this operation.”

All of us?”

“Yeah,” Lois said. “I’ve told Scardino that you are to be given something so you can stay in Metropolis.”

Shadbolt scowled. “What do you think are the chances of that?”

“Good, if you stick to your guns,” Lois said. “Scardino always does what is easiest. You just have to threaten him with more trouble than anyone else, and he’ll give you what you want.”

“You make it sound easy,” Shadbolt said dubiously.

“Emphasise that you’ve served in this difficult and important operation for seven years. I know you don’t like mentioning your daughters, but if that is what it takes to keep you here, use them.”

“If I can’t get something suitable, I’ll resign.”

“That’s what I told Scardino,” Lois said. “And I also told him that you’re a valuable operative and they’d be idiots to let you go.”

The scowl eased. “Did you really?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Shadbolt gestured to the cell. “What happens to him?”

“Scardino wouldn’t say,” she said.

“Do you think they’ll kill him?”

“They couldn’t, could they?” Lois said. “Surely that violates human rights conventions.”

“They’ll say he isn’t human.”

She sighed shakily. “You’re finished here — as of now. Scardino will contact you.”

“That’s it?” Shadbolt said. “It’s finished? Just like that?”

“It happens,” Lois said. “I’m wondering if any reporters have been sniffing around, asking questions. Perhaps they are going to move him to a more remote location.”

“When do you finish?”

“This is my last shift — I’m staying overnight. I thought it would be easier that way. I don’t need Longford getting spooked.”

“So … tomorrow morning, you hand over to Scardino … and it’s finished?”

“Yep.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ve been offered leave.”

“And Longford?”

“I shouldn’t say too much.”

“Will he be looked after?” Shadbolt demanded.

Lois nodded. “That was the impression I got.”

“Good.”

“You can go,” Lois said. “I wouldn’t contact Scardino today — he’s being pressured by the higher-ups to have this dissolved by Monday.”

“Monday?”

“Yep. This place is to be demolished, so you should take anything that is yours.”

Shadbolt rummaged through the cupboards and packed a few items of crockery into his bag. He added the magazine from the table and then looked around the staffroom. “That’s it,” he said. “Nothing else is mine.”

“I haven’t been here for long, Evan,” Lois said. “But if we ever get paired up on an assignment, I wouldn’t have any reservations about working with you.”

Shadbolt grinned and tried to hide it by scratching his neck. “But I don’t like women,” he reminded her.

“Tough,” she said with a smile. “You’ll survive.”

“Seriously,” he said. “I would gladly work with you again, too.”

Lois put out her hand, and Shadbolt shook it. “Thanks, Lois,” he said.

“Bye, Evan.”

Lois watched him walk out of the compound for the last time. She waited until the sound of Shadbolt’s vehicle had faded and then turned to the cell door.

How much had Clark heard?

Lois took a deep and fortifying breath and unlocked the door to the cell.

Clark was halfway across the room, striding towards her. His welcoming smile drained away when he saw her face. “What’s wrong, Lois?” he said.

The sight of him evaporated her carefully maintained veneer of control, and hot tears of fury erupted in her eyes. Lois reached for Clark, and he swept her into his embrace. His arms closed around her, holding her tightly against his strong chest.

He held her for long moments as his support and understanding soaked through her.

Her tears ebbed.

And still he held her. His large hand moved higher to cup her head.

Lois could have stayed in his arms forever, but she eased back from him. His arms dropped immediately.

She pulled a tissue from her pocket and dried her eyes before looking up at him.

“Lois?” Clark said. “What happened? Is it your father?”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just … it was a shock … and I couldn’t let anyone see how shocked I was … and I was holding it all together …” She gave him a wobbly smile. “… until I saw you.”

His confusion deepened. “What happened?” he repeated.

“I was summoned to Scardino’s office. Menzies has decided that they are going to terminate this operation.”

Clark’s shoulders drooped, his eyes slid shut, and the colour washed from his cheeks. “They’re taking you away.”

Lois clasped his hand. “No,” she said. “They are closing down this operation. We have to go. We have to get out of here. We have to go now.”

“Lois. I can’t go. I -”

“Yes, you can,” she cut across him. “We don’t have time to pull down the wall, so we’re going to have to get that implant out of you. I have the things we’ll need.”

Clark grasped both of her shoulders and levelled his eyes in hers. “Lois,” he said quietly. “You don’t understand. I’m invulnerable. I haven’t been exposed to the poison for days. No one can take out that implant.”

“You can,” she said. “You’re strong. You’re so strong, you can do anything. I got a scalpel -”

“Lois, the scalpel will break.”

She stared at him. “You can’t do it?” she gasped.

“No,” he said. “I can’t cut my own skin. I’ve healed from the effects of the poison.”

“There’s nothing you can do?”

“No, nothing.”

Panic was threatening to overwhelm her. “You have to be able to do something,” she squeaked. “Can’t you use your eyes?”

“No,” he said. “Nothing will penetrate my skin.”

And then she understood what he was trying to tell her. She forcibly smothered the volcano of panic and refused to think about anything other than how they were going to get Clark out of the cell. She looked directly into his eyes. “Tell me how we can get that implant out,” she demanded.

“Lo-is.”

“Tell me.”

He took a deep breath. “There’s only one possible way.”

“How long will it take?”

“Hours.”

“How many hours?”

“I’m not sure. At least six. Maybe eight. Maybe longer.”

Lois pressed her fist against her mouth to stop her tears from exploding into an uncontrollable blizzard of despair. There had to be another way. There had to be. “We’ll cut the wires,” she said, her words tumbling out. “You can fly up there, put a hole in the wall, and cut the wires.”

“Lois.” Clark’s hands squeezed her shoulders. “Lois. Trask was not the sort of man to make it that easy.”

“What do you mean?”

Clark stepped sideways and ducked his head to look through the door. He gazed for a long moment and then grunted with frustration.

“What?”

“There is another system of wires around the next door,” Clark told her.

“We’ll cut them, too.”

“That wall isn’t lead-lined, so I can see …”

“See what?”

“There’s a back-up system that activates the implant if the connection is broken.”

Lois closed her eyes as the reality pummelled her.

Clark’s hand gently lifted her chin so that when her eyes opened, they locked with his. “There is only one way,” he said. “I understand if you don’t want to do it. It’s not too late. You can -”

Lois jolted from his touch and glared at him. “Don’t offer me a way out now,” she said in a shaky voice. She pointed to the window. “Just a few hours ago, you told me that you loved me. You can’t retreat from that now.”

“I’m not retreating,” Clark said, clearly taken aback by her outburst. “I’m offering you the chance to -”

“Didn’t you hear what I said to you?” Lois cried. “Or did you think I didn’t mean it?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. His shoulders drooped further, and his head hung low. “But this is too much to ask you … It’s too much to ask anyone.”

“Either we walk out of here together, or we wait for them to come and get us.”

He seemed to be considering that as a viable alternative.

Lois put her hands on his arms and squeezed. “Clark,” she said. “I’ve already left one partner. I’m not leaving another one.” She shot into his eyes, daring him to contradict her statement about them being partners.

He chose not to. “Have you thought about this?” he said. “Really thought about this?”

“No,” she admitted. “I don’t want to. But I do know that I can’t face the alternative.”

“If we do this … it’s going to be you. You are going to have to do most of it … and I will be powerless.”

“I know that.” She moved her hands up his arms and slid them onto his neck. Her thumbs reached for his jaw and caressed his smooth skin. “We can do it,” she said. “We have to do it.”

Clark took a breath that lifted his shoulders, and his brown eyes filled with purpose. “I have to ask you just once more,” he said. “Are you sure? Are you totally sure about all of this? From beginning to end?”

Lois nodded resolutely. “From the beginning to the end — I’m sure. I want to be with you. I’m willing to do anything so we can be together.”

“I hate asking you to do something that I don’t think I could do.”

“What do you mean?”

“I couldn’t watch you in pain,” he said. “I just don’t think I could do it. This is going to be harder on you than on me.”

Lois closed her eyes and drew strength from every reservoir she had. “We have to,” she muttered. “We have to.”

“Is there anything we should do before we begin? Anything I can do to help before -”

“Are you hungry? Do you want to eat?”

“No.” He looked around the room. “Is there anything we should take? Do you want my help to move it?”

“What do you want? Do you want me to be with you all the time? Or would it be all right if I leave you for a few minutes to get things organised?”

He paused as he glanced around the cell. “I think we just need to get started. We need to leave as quickly as we can.”

The moment she dreaded crawled closer.

“Do you have a marker?” Clark asked.

“Yes.”

“Could you go and get it, please?”

Lois turned and ran up the stairs to her office. She unlocked it and hurried in. If she was really going to do this, she couldn’t think about it. She couldn’t think about the long hours when she would have to watch Clark suffer. That would be the worst. That would be worse than actually cutting the implant out of him.

She snatched a black marker and ran down the stairs with it.

Clark had taken off his tee shirt and was holding his mirror. He looked so robust with bulging curves of muscle, but now, that just accentuated the horror of what was to come. He held out his hand for the marker and looked into the mirror.

“I can’t pierce my skin,” he said. “But I can see through it.”

“Could you try?” Lois asked in a hopeful voice. “Could you just try and see if it were possible to cut it out? Like you cut the wood?”

Clark’s gaze swung from the mirror and to her. “I already have tried,” he said sombrely. “I can’t do it.”

He needed her reassurance, and that was easier than dwelling on her own fears. “Thanks for trying.”

“I wish …”

“I know.”

Clark looked back into the mirror and used the marker to draw a line above the protrusion in his shoulder. “The lead casing could be quite soft,” he said. “We don’t want to risk damaging it.” He lowered the mirror. “If you cut along that line, you will avoid the lead.”

“What …” Lois regathered her strength. “What should I do after I’ve made the cut?”

Clark took her hand and laid her fingers on the lower curve of the lump above his collarbone. “I think it would be best to push here and try to get it to pop out.”

“Is there only one?”

He nodded. “It’s about the size of a walnut. Once it is out, just position the skin back together again. It will heal by itself when the poison is taken away.”

“It won’t need stitching?”

“No,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“OK.” Lois felt as if she were caught in a swiftly flowing river that was pushing her towards a huge drop. She had to keep clawing her way back. If she stopped scrambling for just a moment, she would go over the edge and disintegrate into a blubbering mess. “If we use four rods, will it happen more quickly?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is that what you want to do? Use four rods? Or just one?” Lois couldn’t believe they were discussing this so calmly. Her questions were valid, but she knew that her real reason for asking them was to push away the moment when she would have to walk into the cell carrying a rod.

“Four,” Clark said. His hand lifted to her face, and his thumb swept tenderly over her cheek.

Lois had to push ahead. She couldn’t dwell on his touch. “Is there any benefit to putting them close to your shoulder?”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“How will I know? How will I know when you’re … ready?”

“I’ll know. My abilities will slowly diminish. You’ll be able to cut through my skin about an hour after I can’t float anymore.”

“How do you know?” It was an irrelevant question, but it was out before Lois could stop it.

Clark looked away. “Moyne did tests,” he said.

The memories carved into Clark’s face pushed Lois closer to the edge. She fought her way back again with a deep breath. She had to do this.

“We need to discuss what happens after,” Clark said.

“I get the rods out of here as quickly as possible,” Lois said firmly.

“And then?”

“Then we get into my dad’s car, and we start driving.”

“When will they realise we’ve gone?”

“Hopefully not until tomorrow afternoon.”

“We’ll try to go during the night?”

Lois nodded.

“Where do we go?”

“I figure west … possibly south-west. There’s a lot of country to hide in.”

“Lois … they’ll hunt you down.”

She gripped his hand. “Let’s not even think about that yet,” she said. “By then, we will have the implant out of you, we’ll be out of this cell, and you’ll be starting to recover.”

“It might take a few days before I’m stronger than normal humans,” Clark warned.

“OK.” Lois searched through her flustered mind for another question. Another clarification. Anything.

Clark looked into her face with a small smile. “Thank you, Lois,” he said. “Thank you with my whole heart.”

She could feel herself edging perilously close to the drop. “I wish … I wish there was another way.”

The ends of Clark’s fingers grazed over the skin of her cheek. “Once … once we get started, I won’t be able to help you much. I’m sorry.”

“We need to do it,” Lois said. Her stomach heaved.

“Go and get them,” Clark said with gentle resolve.

“Are you ready?”

He nodded.

Lois couldn’t stand there looking at him any longer. It felt like the most terrible treachery — it felt like the heartless betrayal of a beloved friend.

She hauled her shaking body up the stairs in a blur. She had to get two rods and take them into the cell. She had to do it quickly. It wasn’t fair to Clark to keep him waiting.

She had to do it.

She picked up the two instruments of torture and used them to steady herself as she stumbled down the stairs.

She crossed the staffroom in a daze.

She reached the door and peeped through it, holding the rods behind her.

Clark was sitting on the mattress against the back wall. In his hands, he held the wig. When he looked up, his expression was not one of fear for himself, but concern for her.

She had to do this. She had to do it for Clark. She had to remember that by hurting him, she was giving him his only chance of life.

She had to remember that Menzies had ordered Clark’s death.

“It’s OK,” Clark said. “We can do this.”

Her heart was thumping, pushing bitter dread into her throat. Her stomach was churning. Clark was about six yards away. Six yards. She had to go to him. She had to close the distance between them.

She clutched the rods and forced her right leg forward into the cell.

Then, she was walking towards him. She saw the moment he was hit by the poison, and it took every ounce of self-control not to turn and run, taking the rods with her.

She dropped the rods next to him and sprinted away to get the other two.

Her journey passed in a haze of torment. All she could think of was Clark, suffering and alone.

She was helpless to ease his suffering, but she could be with him.

She ran across the cell and placed the two rods with the first two. He was lying down now, curled up, his hands clutching at his chest.

Lois fell to the mattress. She lifted his head onto her lap and looked down into his face.

A face that was contorted with pain.

Part 25

For a long time, Lois sat on the mattress with Clark’s head on her lap. She stroked his hair; she ran her fingers down his neck, across his forehead, along his jaw, over his cheek, past his temple.

She didn’t know if anything she did brought Clark relief, but being absorbed in him helped guard against her leaping from the mattress, seizing the rods, and expelling them from Clark’s presence.

She couldn’t do that. She couldn’t even give him respite from the agony. If she did, they would lose ground — ground that would have to be recovered.

They had started this — they had to see it through.

Clark was suffering, and it was splintering her heart, one shard at a time.

His breaths were ragged; each marked the passing of a small portion of time and inflicted a reckoning of pain. His fingers clutched at his chest, his knuckles ivory peaks above rigid welts of muscle.

Lurking in the shadows of her consciousness was the knowledge that she would have to leave him to finalise their preparations. She didn’t need to think about it yet. There was still time.

Too much time.

Lois checked her watch. One hour had passed.

One hour.

It felt as if that hour had been plucked from reality and transported to an ethereal realm with neither beginning nor hope of an end.

Lois ran her fingers through his hair again. “I’m here,” she said. She closed her eyes and rested her cheek against his head.

Clark jerked suddenly. “S…someone … s’coming.”

Lois shuffled sideways, placed Clark’s head on the mattress, and sprinted across the staffroom. As she closed the cell door, she heard the click of the lock from the external door. She poured herself some stale-smelling coffee from the machine and clasped the mug, hoping its warmth would steady a heart that was threatening to buckle.

Eric Menzies strode into the staffroom. He was a mountain of a man, and it was instantly obvious how he had gained the reputation of a tyrant.

“Lois Lane?” he barked.

“Yes,” she said. “Mr Menzies?”

He nodded curtly. “Where’s the alien?”

“In the cell.”

“Is he being exposed to the rods?”

“Yes.”

Menzies pointed to the cell door. “Through here?”

“Yes.”

He shoved the door. It swung open, and his footsteps hacked heavily through the stillness. Lois closed her eyes, trying to track Menzies over the thundering of her heart. Silence came abruptly, and Lois held her breath, praying that Menzies wouldn’t inflict further pain on Clark.

After a prolonged moment, the footsteps sounded — coming closer — and Lois breathed again.

Menzies towered in the doorway. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “I expect that by then, he’ll be weak enough that the necessary measures can be implemented.”

Measures?

Lois leached the disgust from her face as she looked at him. “I’ll leave the rods in there overnight,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take.”

“If you hadn’t been so slipshod in maintaining the proper level of exposure to the rods, this could have been accomplished much more efficiently,” he said wrathfully.

Lois didn’t comment. She couldn’t afford to allow herself to comment. She just had to think about the fact that when Menzies arrived tomorrow afternoon, she and Clark would be a long way from Metropolis.

He strode to the external door, exited, and slammed it behind him.

Lois waited.

Waited until the last strains of Menzies’ motor had faded away.

Then she rushed through the door and crossed to Clark.

He had turned towards the wall, and his body was coiled into an arc. He had donned the bathing cap wig, and its tresses straggled from his head and onto the mattress.

Lois knelt against his back and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Lo …”

“I’m here, Clark,” she said. “It’s OK. He’s gone.”

Clark’s arm lifted a few inches, and Lois reached over him to slip her hand into his. His fingers tightened around hers.

“Is there anything I can do to make this easier?” she asked desperately.

“Just … stay. Stay with … me.”

“I will,” she promised.

She removed the cap and shuffled forward so that her thighs provided support for his head. She drifted her fingers through his hair — a long sweep from the bristles of his sideburn to the satiny black waves higher on his head.

“That’s … good,” Clark muttered.

She continued making slow tracks through his hair as she forced her mind to prepare for their escape. If Clark’s estimation had been accurate, they should be able to get out under the cover of darkness. She would drive until tiredness overtook her, and then she would look for somewhere to stop.

What should she take from the compound? What should she leave? If she decided now, it would minimise the time she needed to be away from Clark.

When the first tingles of numbness started to climb up her legs, Lois leant forward and brushed the back of her finger across Clark’s cheek.

“Lo … is.”

“I’m here,” she said. “But I need to get ready for us to leave.”

“‘K.”

“I won’t be long.”

“Come … back,” he said as his hand briefly squeezed her fingers.

“Always.”

She reached for the pillow and gently lowered his head onto it.

For the next fifteen minutes, Lois carried things between the Buick and the compound. She took Clark’s suitcase of clothes, his box of toiletries, her father’s camp mattress, one pillow, and both sleeping bags to the car.

She opened the suitcase; selected one of Clark’s checked shirts, his jacket, a pair of socks, and his sneakers; and laid them on the back seat. After placing his glasses in the safety of the glove compartment, she returned to the trunk and unpacked her clothes from her bag. She spread them on top of Clark’s clothes and squeezed the suitcase shut.

Next, Lois draped the Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag over Jonas, hauled him into the staffroom, and stashed him in the closet. On her final trip outside, she collected her bag. Then she locked the Buick and hurried back to the staffroom.

Once there, she put the medical supplies into the bowl and hid it with Jonas in the closet. She flew up the stairs to her office with her bag and removed the tape from the VCR. She had wiped it of data, but she didn’t want to risk some advanced technology lifting anything from it. On her desk was the paper airplane that Clark had made. She pushed it into the side compartment of her bag.

Lois scanned her office for anything that might be useful. Her eyes fell on the coveralls, and she slung them over her arm. She locked the door and raced down the stairs. In the staffroom, she laid Jonas on the table, and with hands made clumsy from an overdose of nervous energy, she pushed his bony limbs into the legs and sleeves of the coveralls.

Once Jonas was dressed, she deposited him and her bag in the closet, shut the door, and took a moment to calm her jitteriness.

Had she remembered everything?

She would review her plans again, but now, she needed to get back to Clark.

His eyes opened when she arrived. “OK?” he croaked.

“All done,” she said, making a feeble attempt to instil a dash of optimism into her voice. “Now I can stay with you for a while.”

She sat against the wall and lifted Clark’s shoulders so that some of his upper body sagged onto her lap.

“Too … heavy,” he protested weakly.

“No, you’re not,” she said.

His head lolled against her arm, and Lois touched a kiss into his hair.

And so another eon began.

A time when his agony was inscribed in ravages across his face.

Lois swept back his hair.

The drone of her voice seemed to soothe him, so she kept up the flow of words. It didn’t matter what she said — the meaning was lost as they inched through time together.

The next time she looked at her watch, it was after five o’clock. “Three hours done, Clark,” she said, hoping that would encourage him.

It was too early to hope that he’d lost the ability to lift from the ground.

Perhaps he had discerned her thoughts because his weight decreased for a few seconds before settling back down onto her.

“Too … heavy?” he murmured.

“I’m fine for now,” she said. “Do you want anything? Water?”

His head rolled to one side and back again.

The minutes ticked by … and stretched into hours.

Clark was becoming noticeably weaker. All trace of colour had drained from his face. His grip on her hand had dwindled. His sporadic movements had slowed.

A long time later, Clark shifted again. “L …”

She bent low against his mouth. “What, Clark?”

“I ca…can’t lift.”

Never had such simple words had the power to bring such overwhelming relief. “One hour,” she said. “It’s twenty past seven now.”

“Go … stretch … your legs.”

“Will you be OK?”

He nodded faintly, and Lois eased out from under him.

“I’ll be back soon,” she promised.

She ran out of the compound and collected the meals Uncle Mike’s delivery boy had left at the door of the warehouse. Back inside, she put them in the fridge. Then, she called Uncle Mike on her cell phone.

“Lois,” he said. “How lovely to hear from you.”

“Uncle Mike,” she said. “My job is sending me away again.”

“Ah, no, Lois,” he said with obvious disappointment. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m leaving tomorrow. I won’t have the time to come in and fix up what I owe -”

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m just sorry you’re leaving us again. Sam is going to miss you.”

“I know,” Lois said. “I told him today.”

“How did he take it?”

“OK, I think,” she replied. “Thanks for the meals tonight. I’ll contact you as soon as I get back to Metropolis.”

“Bye, Lois,” Uncle Mike said. “You take care.”

“I will. Bye, Uncle Mike.”

Lois hung up and slipped her phone into her bag.

In the cell, Clark was lying on his back. Lois knelt beside him. His eyes didn’t open, but his fingers tapped against his chest. Lois stretched out beside him and lightly rested her head on him. His arm slowly rounded her and collapsed onto her hip.

His heartbeat seemed alarmingly sluggish. She had to remind herself that they wanted his bodily systems to be shutting down.

“Hang in there, Clark,” she whispered. “We’re nearly there.”

The minute hand of her watch climbed towards the apex and then began its slow descent. She had spent the past hours willing time to speed by, but now, she felt grossly unprepared.

Lois waited — marking each second — until the minute hand of her watch was suspended between the two and the three. She sat up, fighting a potent fusion of relief and dread.

“Clark?”

His only response was a soft grunt carried on a serrated breath. His condition seemed to have deteriorated dramatically in the past half an hour.

“I think it’s time,” Lois said. “I’ll get what we’ll need.”

He didn’t reply, and Lois felt sickening fear scorch through her. What if they had miscalculated? What if Clark had had too much exposure?

She couldn’t think about that now. The implant had to come out, and she had to do it. Once that was done, they could concentrate on Clark’s recovery.

A minute later, she was back with the bowl, and soon, she had set out everything within easy reach.

Clark’s eyes were closed. She put her hand on his chest. “Clark?”

His eyelids peeled back. “Is … it … time?”

“Yes.”

He looked dreadful. She had to get the rods away from him. But if she took them away, how quickly would his skin become impenetrable?

Lois lurched to her feet, swept up all four rods, and ran with them to the staffroom. She thrust them in the corner, away from the door.

In the bathroom, she lathered her hands and forearms and then used the hottest water she could tolerate to rinse off the soap. After drying her hands with a clean towel, she returned to Clark and knelt beside him, conscious that she had to work quickly. That helped. That meant there was no time to think. No time to worry. No time to reflect.

She opened the sterilised pad and unfolded it on the concrete.

First, she needed the local anaesthetic. She opened the syringe packet and assembled it as she had seen her father do many times. Then she pushed the needle into the vial and drew the liquid into the syringe.

“OK, Clark,” she said as she leant over him. “You’ll feel some burning. Try not to move.” That was exactly what her father had said to Lucy.

The end of the needle quivered above his skin. Lois closed her eyes and tried to calm her rattled nerves. When she opened her eyes, Clark was looking at her.

His left hand crept across his stomach and gripped her elbow. His eyes sent a silent message of support: You can do this.

Lois positioned the syringe near one end of the black line that Clark had drawn. She gradually increased the pressure, and to her relief, it slid easily into his flesh. Clark’s breath came in a gush, but he didn’t flinch. When about a third of the liquid was gone, she withdrew the needle and inserted it near the middle. Then she injected the final third at the far end of the line.

She snapped the needle from the syringe and put it in the small capsule. When she looked back at Clark, his eyes were fixed on her. His mouth fluttered to the ghost of a smile.

“Are you in any pain?” Lois asked.

He shook his head. “I just feel totally powerless,” he said. “I’m not sure I could even stand up.”

Lois managed a fragile smile. “We’ll get this out, and then you’ll start to feel better.” She tore open one of the sterilised wipes and ran it over the area around his collarbone. Then she opened the laceration repair pack, took out the drape, and placed it over Clark’s shoulder, positioning it so that she could see the black line above the lump.

She opened three packets of gauze squares and placed them in readiness on the pad.

Clark’s smile flickered again. “You’re doing great,” he said in a raw, rough voice.

“We need to wait a moment for the local to take effect,” she said.

“Are you OK?”

“We’re nearly there,” she said. “You’ll be out of here soon.”

“Lois,” he said. “Lois … you are … amazing. I … I didn’t think …”

She pressed her fingers into the area near his collarbone. “Can you feel that?” she asked.

“A little.”

“OK, a few more moments,” she said as she wiped him again with the disinfectant.

“Is everything ready for us to leave?”

“Nearly. Once this is done, we can be out of here within a few minutes.”

“Thanks … thanks for staying with me … while …”

“It was awful,” Lois said, and her voice shook.

“You being there … not being alone … knowing there was a reason for it … It wasn’t too bad.”

It had been horrific, but Lois knew she couldn’t think about that now. She took one of the gloves and put it on her right hand. It was too big, and the ends ballooned on her fingertips. She tried to push the excess towards her palm. It wasn’t ideal, but hopefully it wouldn’t affect her dexterity too much.

After pulling a second glove into place on her left hand, Lois prodded Clark’s shoulder. “Can you feel that?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“OK.” Lois tore open the package and lifted out the scalpel. She removed the cover, and the sight of the sharp blade brought home the chilling reality of the task that was being demanded of her. She looked at Clark for reassurance.

“You can do this,” he said quietly. “I know you can.”

Lois took a deep breath and picked up a gauze square with her left hand. She placed the tip of the scalpel on the end of the black line.

Clark’s hand gripped her thigh. “You can do it, Lois,” he said. “I trust you.”

Slowly and steadily, she drew the scalpel along the black line. A small stream of blood oozed behind it, and she mopped it up with the gauze. She came to the end and put the blood-tipped scalpel on the pad.

“Did I hurt you?” she asked anxiously.

“No,” Clark said. “Just push it out.”

She touched her fingers on the underside of the protrusion, and a grey orb squeezed out, rolled down Clark’s shoulder, and thudded softly onto the mattress.

“It’s out,” she announced as relief surged through her.

The walls of this prison could no longer hold Clark.

He stared at her with admiration. And wonder. And disbelief. And such intense gratitude that Lois had to remind herself that the job wasn’t done yet. “I’m going to leave it there,” she said. “I don’t want to risk touching it until I’ve finished this.”

“OK.”

“Are you sure there’s only one?”

“Yes, only one.”

Lois used clean gauze to wipe up the little trickle of blood, then positioned both sides of the wound and secured them with a row of butterfly clips. She covered it with another square and moved Clark’s left hand to his right shoulder. “Can you hold that?”

He nodded.

She peeled the gloves from her hands.

“You did it,” Clark said in awe. “You did it.”

We did it,” she said with a tremulous smile.

“What do you want me to do now?” Clark asked.

“Lie there for a moment,” Lois said. “I’ll clean up this mess and take the rods to my office.”

“OK.”

Lois put the cover over the scalpel and rolled all of the used medical supplies securely into the pad. She picked up the little ball of lead-encased poison, went behind the half-wall, and flushed it.

A minute later, the trash from the surgery was securely tied in a plastic bag, and the rods were locked in her office.

Lois washed her hands and hurried back to Clark. She knelt beside him and peeped under the gauze. There was a little blood, but not enough to cause concern. “How does it feel?”

“It’s still numb,” he said. “But Lois, you were amazing.”

“So were you,” she said. “I came so close to taking those rods away. I would have given up if it hadn’t been for you.”

“No,” Clark said, shaking his head. “You would never give up.”

“I have a couple of other things to do,” she said. “Will you be OK here?”

He nodded.

Back in the staffroom, Lois removed the skeleton from the closet and pulled the blanket off the bed. She carried Jonas into the cell and wedged him between her knees as she stretched Clark’s wig over his skull.

“Do you think you can sit up?” she said when she was crouching beside Clark again.

He nodded, and she grasped his good arm and helped him to a sitting position.

“OK?” Lois asked. He was still very pale.

“A bit dizzy.” Clark leant back against the wall.

“Just relax.” She brushed his hair back from his forehead.

“I’m OK,” he said. “Do what you need to do.”

Lois moved to the end of the mattress and clasped it in both hands. “Could you lift your butt, please?”

Clark did, and she slid the mattress out from under him.

She laid it in the back corner of the cell and arranged Jonas on it, facing him into the wall. She arranged the blanket over him and pulled it up to his shoulder. She draped the strands of the wig onto the mattress.

Yep, that looked pretty authentic.

She turned back to Clark and saw the look of incredulity on his face. Even better than that, his mouth had stretched to a suggestion of a smile.

“It might buy us some time,” she explained as she gathered up the unused wipes and butterfly clips and put them into her bag. “When someone — probably Scardino — arrives, the first thing he’s going to notice is that I’m not here. He might glance into the cell, think you’re here, and spend half an hour trying to contact me.”

“But if he looks in here and it’s empty, he’ll know straight away that we have both gone?” Clark said.

“Yep.”

“You are truly amazing.”

“Thanks,” Lois said. “Have I forgotten anything?”

“The rods?”

“They’re locked in my office,” Lois answered. “I wish I could have destroyed them or hidden them, but we don’t have time, and they certainly can’t come with us.”

“Should we leave them in here?” Clark asked. He nodded towards Jonas. “Next to him?”

“They’ll have keys to my office,” she said. “So locking them away doesn’t achieve much in that sense.”

“If Scardino or Menzies looked in here and saw no rods, it might be enough to make them investigate further.”

“Good thinking,” Lois said. “Once you’re in the car, I’ll put them next to poor Jonas.”

“Jonas?” Clark asked.

“He’ll die for a good cause,” Lois said. She took the sling from its package and deftly slipped it between Clark’s arm and his body, and then leant in close to tie it behind his neck. “How does that feel?”

“Good,” he said.

Her instinct was to haul him to his feet and rush him out of the compound, but she tempered her impatience. They had made good time. It was still early evening. She could afford to give Clark a few extra minutes of recovery time.

Lois looked around the room that had been Clark’s prison for seven years. In the corner under the window was a small pile of things, including a newspaper and a pen. “Is there anything else you want to take?” she asked.

“The notepad,” he said.

Lois walked over to the corner and retrieved the notepad. She took it back to Clark, and he held out his hand. She gave it to him, and he slipped it into the space in his sling. “Anything else?”

“No.”

“Do you feel strong enough to get up? I’ll help you.”

“Yeah.”

“Be careful of your shoulder.”

Clark flattened his left hand against the wall and staggered to his feet as Lois steadied him. “Just … give me a minute,” he said as he leant against the wall.

He was swaying slightly. Lois put her hands on his hips and waited. After a few steadying breaths, he straightened.

“OK?” Lois asked.

He nodded.

Lois picked up her bag and slipped under Clark’s left arm, placing it across her shoulders. She put her arm around his back.

Slowly, they crossed the cell for the final time.

At the doorway, Clark stopped.

Lois waited, realising how momentous this had to be for him. She stepped through the door and turned.

“Lois …” he said.

“Come with me?” she said. “Come and be a part of my life?”

“Is that what you truly want?”

“More than anything.”

He gulped … and stepped from his prison.

Lois looked into his face, wanting to share their victory.

But Clark was staring ahead, his eyes fixed on the external door.

He was physically free. He was out of the prison. But in that moment, Lois realised that true freedom would not be achieved so simply.

“Ready?” she asked gently.

He wrenched his eyes from the door and mouthed ‘yes’.

Lois wrapped the Winnie the Pooh sleeping bag around Clark’s bare shoulders. Outside, it was dark and cold, and despite the sleeping bag, he started shivering violently. “This way,” she said. She slipped under his arm again and led him to the Buick. “Do you want to sit in the front seat or lie down in the back?”

“The front.”

She opened the door and helped him in. After fastening his seatbelt, she tucked the sleeping bag around him. “Better?”

“Yeah. Th…thanks.”

But his shivering hadn’t subsided. And his face was lined with shock. She wished she could stop and hold him. Comfort him. Reassure him. But she couldn’t — they had to keep moving.

After positioning the four rods around Jonas, Lois picked up Clark’s discarded tee shirt and ran from the cell. In the staffroom, she took the meals from the fridge. At the external door, she locked it for the final time and sprinted to the Buick.

Lois started the motor and turned on the headlights. She glanced across at Clark.

His head was back, and his eyes were closed. He looked exhausted.

She slipped the Buick into reverse and backed out of the parking bay. She turned the car, drove past the warehouse, and waited for a break in the traffic.

Her career was in tatters.

Never again would she work as a government agent.

She was now a fugitive — on the wrong side of the law and without the protection of her job.

She glanced again at Clark, and this time, he was looking at her.

“Second thoughts?” he asked sombrely.

“Not one,” she said decisively.

His eyes slid shut, and Lois pulled onto the road.

She had no doubts. No second thoughts.

Clark was more important than a job, than a career, than her reputation.

And he always would be.

3. Trail

Part 1

~~ Friday (continued) ~~

The world was dark.

And noisy.

And crowded.

And constantly moving.

Other vehicles came at them.

Shot past them.

His shoulder throbbed.

And he was thirsty.

He felt as if every ounce of strength had been squeezed from his body and every morsel of resistance had been pounded from his heart.

Inside, he was numb. Lethargic. Broken.

Outside, movement bombarded him relentlessly.

The lights whizzed by — stabs of piercing brightness in the sea of darkness.

Clark pulled the sleeping bag higher.

This was not his world.

He didn’t belong here.

He never would.

***

As each mile passed under the hood of the Buick, Lois’s uneasiness increased.

They had reached the western fringes of Metropolis, and Clark hadn’t said one word.

The traffic light turned to red, and she slowed to a standstill. She looked to her right, taking advantage of the muted glow from the streetlights.

Clark’s eyes were closed, but the rigidity of his posture indicated he was not asleep.

Was this how he typically reacted to having endured hours with the rods?

Or was he worrying about the enormity of what they had done?

They had wagered everything on this roll of the dice.

But, as Lois knew, this was their only chance. Going to Scardino or Menzies and pleading for Clark’s life would have achieved nothing other than getting her banished from the compound.

And not getting Clark out of the cell would have meant his certain death.

They were together.

For better or worse.

The lights changed, and her eyes shifted forward, but her thoughts stayed with Clark. Tension had chiselled tight ridges through his cheek and jaw. He’d pulled the sleeping bag high on his body. Was he cold? He had finally stopped shivering about half an hour ago. Lois turned the heater to a higher setting.

She wrested her thoughts from Clark and forced herself to think about what they needed to do now. She wished she had had the time to decide on a destination, plan a route, and research hotels and campgrounds before leaving the compound. But now, she was going to have to plan on the run.

When she became too tired to drive safely, should she simply pull over so they could sleep in the car?

A fleeting glance towards Clark dispelled that idea.

Was he huddled into the sleeping bag for cover, not warmth?

After all the years of being confined, did this feel like being thrust into a huge unfamiliar expanse?

Tonight, Clark needed to stay in a hotel room. It would be impossible for him to adequately rest if he felt open and exposed. He needed a quiet and private place where he could begin to acclimatise to life outside the cell.

Unable to keep her eyes away, Lois looked at Clark again. He was terribly pale. Anxiety sharpened the dull ache of hunger in her stomach. What if they had left the rods in the cell for too long? Surely Trask and Moyne had exposed him for longer periods. Perhaps the sudden exposure coming after more than a week of respite had compounded the effect.

After another sideways glance that heightened her fears, Lois decided to stop at the next motel displaying a vacancy sign. She had hoped to drive for longer tonight, but that wasn’t as important as getting Clark settled. She wanted to be able to see him in the light and check his shoulder.

Hopefully, they could be on the road early tomorrow, getting far away from Metropolis before anyone discovered they had left the cell.

Clark had told her that sunlight helped him recover. Perhaps that was why he was still looking so pallid. Perhaps tomorrow there would be signs that he was beginning to regain his strength. Normal strength first, then the super-normal stuff.

Her task was to keep them hidden until then.

Once Clark could fly … once he could move quickly … once he was strong enough to resist anything that threatened their freedom … once he was invincible enough to catch fired bullets … once his mind was well enough that he could help her plan … then they would decide together how they were going to do this.

Where to live?

What role to play?

What story to tell?

It would be just like another assignment.

The lights of a motel sign glimmered in the distance. As they passed it, Lois decided it appeared big enough that two late-night travellers wouldn’t cause much of a stir and mid-range enough to be comfortable without eating too far into their cash reserves.

Two miles later, they came to an intersection, and Lois turned right. She drove another mile before pulling over.

“Clark?”

His eyes opened, but he didn’t turn towards her.

“We’re going to stop for the night soon.”

“Already?” he asked anxiously.

“We’ll start early tomorrow. Right now, we both need food and rest.”

He said nothing else, and Lois’s fears tightened another notch.

She gathered her hair into a ponytail and checked it in the mirror. She opened the car door onto the cold night air and went to the trunk to find the bland sweater that had been a gift from an aunt nearly a decade ago. She put it on — over her current sweater — and then slipped off her pumps and replaced them with sneakers.

She took Clark’s checked shirt from the back seat and opened his door. “Can we put this on?”

He held out his left arm, and she slipped it into the sleeve and then threaded the shirt between his back and the seat and arranged it over the sling

Back in the driver’s seat, Lois turned the car, and five minutes later, she parked in front of the motel reception. “You stay here,” she said to Clark. “I’ll get us a room.”

She took her purse from her bag and locked the Buick.

The reception area was brightly lit but empty. Lois rang the bell and reviewed her story. A short dumpy woman with grey speckled through her hair appeared at the door behind the counter.

Lois smiled wearily. “Do you have a room, please?”

“Double or twin?”

“Double, please. My husband is in the car.”

The woman eyed her questioningly for a few seconds before lowering her attention to the open book on the counter.

“My husband isn’t well,” Lois said quickly. “I am taking him to Metropolis for an appointment tomorrow.”

When the woman looked up