By Shayne Terry <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted October 2000
Summary: Clark, thinking that Lois has chosen Dan Scardino over him, leaves and becomes involved in negotiating peace in a civil war in the Middle East. But Lois refuses to let Clark get away from her that easily, and so, in this very well-written and hard-hitting story, Lane and Kent discover that there are many shades of grey — in life and in love.
*WARNING* This story contains some descriptions of conditions in a war-zone, which some readers may find difficult to read.
Author's Note: I'd like to thank a number of people. First, I'd like to thank Irene, without whose unflagging support I never would have written more than a simple letter. She persevered through the entire writing process, even when real life made it difficult. I'd like to thank Jo March for her help with researching Islam and the Middle East. I could find the information; she put a human face on it.
I'd like to thank Dr. Klein's LabRat for her help in beta reading the story after it was done, and Wendy Richards both for her work as an editor, and her unflagging support.
Finally I'd like to thank the readers at Zoom's Message Boards. Their feedback influenced the stories in ways both subtle and obvious. Their support kept me motivated, and their comments were both eloquent and enthusiastic. No one could ask for a better group of beta readers.
Rights to all recognizable characters in this story belong to DC Comics and Warner Brothers, and no infringement is intended by their use in this story. Other characters are mine.
This story takes place at the end of Whine, Whine, Whine.
I didn't think I would ever write this; some things are too personal for words. All I have left are dreams of things that won't ever be, especially now that you have made your choice. I guess Dan Scardino can offer you all the things that I can't: an ordinary life, children. He can be there when you need him, and that is something I could never guarantee.
Do you know what it is like to fly? Once I thought it was the most wonderful feeling in the world, a feeling of total and absolute freedom. I could just let go, and all the cares of the world floated away. There was nothing I enjoyed more than flying from place to place, seeing new sights, and meeting new people I didn't realize that I was searching for something. The void within me was so deep that I wasn't even aware that it existed. It was like I was born in darkness, and had lived my whole life without a single spark.
Everything changed on the day I met you. Somehow I knew from the first moment that I heard your voice that I had found the place that I belonged. It was like the first time that I flew; I was filled with unutterable joy. I was instantly captivated and knew my life would never be the same again. I actually floated when I saw you at Luthor's party that first time. I almost revealed my secret to the creme of Metropolis' society at the sight of you. You were so beautiful that my heart actually hurt.
You've only grown more beautiful each day that I have known you. Maybe there was a time I could lie to myself and say that there was another woman out there for me, but I cannot lie to myself any longer.
I don't know what I will do without you. The light of my life has gone out, and I have only myself to blame. I guess the thing about flying is that you have to be willing to fall. You can't have the joy of soaring through the air without the risks that come with it.
I can't regret a single moment I have spent with you. I wouldn't trade one of them for the world. All I know is that I cannot stay. You told me once that we all wear masks. I don't think that mine could survive seeing you with someone else. I think it's time for the mask to become the man.
I love you, Lois, and I know I always will.
The apartment was empty. The floors were devoid of furniture and the walls were completely bare. Not so much as a crumb remained to show that Clark Kent had once lived there. All that was left was the cavernous shell of a place. It was a match for the empty feeling growing inside her chest.
Lois had been prepared to open her heart to Clark. She had been in love with him for longer than she had been willing to admit. Now she was glad that she had waited to tell him. He was like every other man in her life. Her father, Claude…none of them had been reliable. How she had fallen in love with a man who made a career out of running from her she would never know.
She stepped through the doorway and looked around. It was immaculately clean. Clark always had been conscientious; he wasn't the sort of person who would ever lose his deposit. She felt almost disconnected from everything; the shock was almost too much to bear.
"Are you looking for a room to rent? This just opened up. It would be nice to have a beautiful woman around the place for once."
Startled, she turned to see a sweating fat man behind her. She didn't like the look in his piggish eyes. The man had no right to leer at her, and she was tempted to kick him in the shins. After a moment, she reconsidered, and simply said, "This just opened up?"
"The last tenant just turned in his key a couple of hours ago. It's a lovely place, isn't it? The rent is reasonable too, only fifteen hundred dollars a month. Of course, apartments in this area go fast; you are really lucky to get it."
Clark had been paying nine hundred a month, but he made many improvements to the place on his own. The apartment had been a dump when he first rented it.
"I'll have to think about it."
She left quickly, driving in a daze. She found herself at the Daily Planet, and for a moment was confused. After a moment, it became clear. The Planet was more of a home to her than anywhere else, and there was only one person she wanted to see.
When she left the elevator and saw Perry White standing beside her desk, she knew that she was the last to know. The expression on his face was a dead giveaway. Lois felt a small spark of anger rise in the midst of her numbness. The least Clark could have done was to tell her before he told Perry.
"Honey, we need to talk. Let's step into my office." Perry put his hand on her shoulder, and squeezed gently. Perry had been more of a father to her than her own father and for a moment she took comfort in his touch. He closed the door and Lois noticed that the blinds were already shut. He walked to his desk and sat on the edge of it.
"Where is he?" Lois asked. It galled her to think that she had to ask Perry where he was. The anger grew within her, and she welcomed it.
Perry sighed and said, "I should have known that it wouldn't work out between you two. I guess it was doomed from the start." He held his hands up in a placating gesture, "I tried to get him to stay, but he wouldn't hear of it."
"Wasn't he required to give two' weeks notice?" Lois asked angrily. "The last time I tried to leave work, I practically had to sign away my first born child. Wasn't there anything you could have done to keep him here? It's not like he's not half of the best team of reporters in Metropolis."
"He had two weeks' vacation coming." Perry sighed. "I tried to talk him out of it, hell, I even told him the story about the time Elvis left Priscilla."
"Did he tell you why he was leaving?"
"He said that he had a chance to be an international journalist. There's a civil war brewing in Quazistan, and he said they had made him an offer he couldn't refuse."
Quazistan? The civil war that had been brewing there for the past eighteen months had already claimed the lives of four journalists. Why was Clark willingly entering a war zone when he should be at home with her? It hurt to think that he was so desperate to get away from her, and it made her angry as well.
"Didn't he say anything to you at all, honey?"
Lois shook her head, and for a moment felt on the verge of tears. "He didn't say anything to me, didn't leave a note…he didn't leave me a single clue that he was going."
She stared into the distance, willing herself not to cry. "After all we've been through together, I would have thought he respected me enough to tell me he was leaving to my face."
It was a shock to find out that she had been wrong. "I thought I meant more to him than that." She rose to her feet and grimaced. "You know what? Who needs him? Lois Lane was the best reporter in the city a long time before Kent ever came into the picture. I can do the work myself."
She headed for the door, then hesitated with her hand on the knob. "Let me know if you hear from him."
She rushed through the door and headed for her desk. She was so distracted by her own thoughts that she did not see Jimmy headed for her, his arms filled with files. They slammed into each other and Lois fell back against her desk.
"I wish people would have a little more consideration around here. Nobody gives a damn about anyone else! Nobody pays attention anymore!"
The look on Jimmy's face caused her to backtrack. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I guess I'm venting a little. Let me help you get these up."
No reason to let Clark undo the progress she had been making with Dr. Friskin. Sure, he had betrayed her, but she didn't need him anymore. She would immerse herself in the work. As they always said, living well is the best revenge.
She helped Jimmy gather the files, never noticing the letter that had fallen under her desk.
It was harder than she would have thought, having Clark gone. It had only been a week, and she found herself living from day to day in a daze. His absence wasn't made any easier by the fact that Superman had pledged his full time intervention in Quazistan.
Metropolis had been quiet since Superman had left. News was slow, and Lois found herself with more time to think than she would have preferred.
It nagged at her not to know why Clark had left. Certainly, things had been a little strained between them while she struggled with her attraction to Dan Scardino, Clark and Superman. Leaving like he had, however, had been an overreaction.
The more her anger faded, the stronger her hurt grew. Hadn't he loved her? He had said that he did. Was it all a lie? If she had an address or a phone number, she would dearly love to give him a piece of her mind. As Doctor Friskin had said earlier this week, she was lacking closure.
Lois cursed again. She was having trouble with the power cord to her computer. She had been using Clark's, but a new reporter had taken the cubical just this morning. She needed to send in the finishing pieces to her story. She tried to ignore the pang it gave her to see someone else at Clark's desk. At least Perry hadn't tried to force her to take a new partner.
"Jimmy!" She grabbed the young man as he was passing by and said, "Could you take a look at this? The people down in maintenance can't get up here till tomorrow and I need to get the information in tonight."
She hated the wheedling tone in her voice, but she had found herself growing weepier as the days passed. She had always despised women who wept at the least provocation. Anyone who expected to live in a man's world had better be willing to act as tough as a man. Crying at a scene in a romantic movie was one thing; losing composure at work was quite another. She was finding the distinction harder and harder to make these days.
Jimmy patted her awkwardly on the hand, and said, "I've got a minute, Lois. Let me take a look at it." He ducked under her desk to check the connections.
Lois found herself wondering where Clark was. Her eyes strayed to the bank of television monitors that seemed permanently tuned to LNN. They were covering the Quazistan situation at the moment, and she moved forward to listen.
"Chemical weapons caused the deaths of over fifteen hundred Quazistani Muslims in the city of Katar today, many of them women and children."
Streets littered with bodies contorted in agony, the brutal remnants of a brutal war. Flashed images of horror filled the screen, burning themselves into her retina. She felt a moment of sharp concern for Clark. Perry had told her that he was reporting from Rial, not Katar, but…
"Superman had managed to contain much of two earlier attacks in the cities of Rial and Quatan, but was busy stopping a battle between the last remaining tank divisions of Generals Alsadin and Hussein when the attack took place."
A shot of Superman standing in the midst of the bodies, his shoulders slumped with defeat. Even through the distance of the zoom lens, his pain was easy to see. Lois wished she could reach out to him. She ignored the sounds of Jimmy's grumbling under her desk.
"Despite Superman's early successes in disarming the tanks and large weapons of war by both sides, the situation remains largely unchanged."
Scenes of shattered buildings and continual weapons fire were interposed with earlier pictures of Superman bringing weapons by the armful to a United Nations watch post at the border.
"Superman has been working almost twenty four hours a day taking weapons from combatants on both sides and rescuing victims of bombings and chemical attacks. His continual pleas for peace have been falling on deaf ears."
"In a nation with a well-deserved reputation as the most heavily armed country in the Middle East, it has been estimated that there are over three million combatants in a nation of fifteen million people. Though the United Nations has estimated that Superman has collected over fifteen thousand weapons in the last week alone, he has been unable to make an appreciable dent in the fighting."
The close-up of Superman made him look haggard and exhausted. It looked as though he had not slept in the past week. He had not been shaving and his eyes blazed red. The expression on his face was far grimmer than Lois had ever seen it. It was as though he was losing his soul. It was obvious that this footage had been shot earlier in the day, before the chemical attack. If he had already been hurting that badly, how badly must he be hurting now?
She ached for him, and wished he had the time to come and talk with her. Just because she was not interested in him as a lover did not mean that she could not be his friend. He looked like he very much needed a friend. At least he had Clark to talk to, if he ever took the time.
She heard Jimmy curse as he bumped his head.
"The United Nations continues to be deadlocked as to which of Quazistan's three governments are to be considered legitimate, and over the decision to send in troops."
People were dying, and the United Nations was arguing about technicalities?
"Issues of legitimacy are complicated by recent changes in leadership among all three factions. Until the deadlock is broken there is no end in sight for the fighting."
Even if she could not be to Clark what she had wanted to be, she should still try to salvage the friendship. If Superman was as affected by the sights he was seeing, after what he had been dealing with every day for the past two years and more, then Clark must be devastated.
"I've got it working, Lois. You might want to talk to the janitorial staff; it doesn't look like they've cleaned under there in a year!"
"I got into a little argument with them last month," Lois said distractedly. "They've been boycotting my desk ever since."
"Well, I've got to run." Jimmy paused. "Oh yeah! It looks like you dropped this." Jimmy handed her a letter, and she nodded absently to him. She took the letter blindly and set it on her desk. She began making phone calls.
After an hour, she managed to find the hotel Clark was staying at, and asked to speak to his supervisor. Clark was working under special assignment, and was likely rooming with some of the other reporters. He might not even be in the hotel at all. His boss, however, would be easier to find, and would be sure to know where to reach him.
"Mr. Michaelson?" The line was fuzzy, but she could understand the voice on the other end perfectly well. "My name is Lois Lane. I'm Clark Kent's partner…ah, his former partner at the Daily Planet, and I was wondering if I could get a message to him."
She listened to the voice on the other end with growing horror. Clark had not been seen since the second day of the war, and in the confusion of refugees, destroyed buildings and periodic gunfire, no one had been able to find him.
She did not remember disconnecting, but found herself staring into space, her mind blank. She had loved Clark. She should have gone after him, and even if she had to have Superman hold him down, made him listen to her.
It was several minutes before she could even look down at her desk, her mind blank and her chest numb. It was then that she noticed that the plain white envelope in front of her had her name written on it in Clark's handwriting.
With trembling hands, she opened the envelope, and began to read.
I'm sorry I didn't have the courage to tell you that I'm leaving in person, but I could not see you again without falling to my knees and begging you to change your mind. I owe it to you to respect your decision, and I hope that in time we can be friends again. It's hard to write this; it hurts sometimes to open your heart to someone knowing that your feelings are not returned. All I have left are dreams of things that won't ever be. I guess Dan Scardino can offer you all the things that I can't: an ordinary life, children, and dependability. He can be there when you need him, and that is something I could never guarantee. >>>
Clark thought she had chosen Dan Scardino?!? It was clear now, why he had left, but it made Lois angry that he had so little faith in her judgment. Had he had so little faith in his own value that he assumed he would always be the loser? How had he known that she was making a choice anyway? The only people she had told were Dan and Superman. Superman was far too ethical to have been telling tales, but maybe Dan had…
<<<Do you know what it is like to fly? Once I thought it was the most wonderful feeling in the world, a feeling of total and absolute freedom. I could just let go, and all the cares of the world floated away. There was nothing I enjoyed more than flying from place to place, seeing new sights, and meeting new people.>>>
What the hell was Clark talking about? She knew what flying was like; she had done it often enough in Superman's arms. The possibility of Clark's death was making it hard to concentrate; the knowledge that he might have left over a misunderstanding was almost more than she could bear. Flying was a wonderful sensation, but she'd give it up in an instant just to take a simple walk in the rain.
<<<I didn't realize that I was searching for something. The void within me was so deep that I wasn't even aware that it existed. It was like I was born in darkness, and had lived my whole life without a single spark. Everything changed on the day I met you. Somehow I knew from the first moment that I heard your voice that I had found the place that I belonged. It was like the first time that I flew; I was filled with unutterable joy. I was instantly captivated and knew my life would never be the same again.>>>
Lois felt her eyes well with tears. They had wasted so much time. She had been so stubborn, refusing to admit how she had felt for Clark. Even when she had admitted to herself that she loved him, she had let silly things get in their way. Now that Clark was missing, it was worse than she could have imagined knowing that she had let him slip through her fingers. She should have talked to Clark before she spoke to Dan. Two hours may have made the difference between life or death. Two hours could have meant her soul.
<<<I actually floated when I saw you at Luthor's party that first time. I almost revealed my secret to the creme of Metropolis' society at the sight of you. You were so beautiful that my heart actually hurt.>>>
She had felt like floating too when she saw him that day. She had known that he was attractive, of course, but she hadn't realized just how attractive he was until the moment she had first seen him in his tuxedo. It had made her defensive. What right did a hack from Nowheresville have being so good looking? Clark had been even better looking than Claude, and remembering that experience had helped to harden her heart against him. It was one more reason to curse Claude; in retrospect, the most unforgivable. She reread the passage again. Clark had a secret? She'd suspected for a long time that he'd known Superman before he came to Metropolis. Clark always seemed to be able to get in touch with the man of steel at a moment's notice. No wonder Trask had taken the Kents hostage.
She frowned. It wasn't really the sort of secret you blurted out in the middle of an upper crust party though. Had Clark been keeping other secrets?
<<<You've only grown more beautiful each day that I have known you. Maybe there was a time I could lie to myself and say that there was another woman out there for me, but I cannot lie to myself any longer. I don't know what I will do without you. The light of my life has gone out, and I have only myself to blame. I guess the thing about flying is that you have to be willing to fall. You can't have the joy of soaring through the air without the risks that come with it.>>>
Lois stood, her eyes burning. She quickly slipped into the conference room, and closed the blinds. She locked the door, then sank to the floor and wept. It was quite some time before she could see well enough to finish the letter, which was now crumpled and stained with her tears.
<<<I can't regret a single moment I have spent with you. I wouldn't trade one of them for the world. All I know is that I cannot stay. You told me once that we all wear masks. I don't think that mine could survive seeing you with someone else. Perhaps it's time for the mask to become the man. I love you Lois. I always will.
What was he talking about? Masks. Lois sniffled, then quickly read the letter again. Clark talked about flying and floating about masks and secrets, and never being able to guarantee that he would be there for her. He had lied to her so many times, run out on the least excuse, and he seemed to say in an indirect way that it hadn't all been about her.
Clark had always been curiously close to Superman. It was strange that she spent so much time with two men, and yet had only seen the two of them together once. Clark was always running off moments before Superman appeared.
It was odd. Why hadn't she questioned his running off to call the police when she knew perfectly well that he had a cell phone? She knew that Clark was no coward; he had thrown himself in front of a bullet for her, so why wasn't he ever there when danger threatened?
Was Clark trying to tell her, in his own oblique way, that Diana Stride had been right? Had Clark been lying to her for all the time she knew him? Was she the most inept and unobservant reporter on the planet?
God, she hoped so.
If Clark was Superman, then he couldn't be injured physically. That meant that he was still alive, that there was still a chance for them both. It hurt that he had been lying to her, but it hurt far less than having Clark dead. Lois stomach clenched at the thought that she might be wrong. Until she was sure, she was afraid to think, afraid that, somehow, thinking about it might make it not be true.
If Clark were Superman then there would be plenty of time to think about his side of the story. There would be so many issues to deal with, the lies, his feelings, his reasons for doing what he did.
If he was alive, then she could ask him.
But she could easily be wrong. The specter of death rode heavily in her mind, and she had a curious sense of fragility. It was as though she was a piece of crystal poised at the edge of a precipice, waiting for the single breath that would shatter her into a million pieces.
Until she knew that Clark was alive, she couldn't think about anything else. She didn't have the energy. All that was keeping her going was that one slim ray of hope.
She had to find out. She could think of only one way to know for sure. She picked up the phone and began to make plans.
Late that evening, Lois stood leaning against a door. She was drenched by the run from the car to the front porch, and knew she didn't look much better than a drowned rat. She rang the doorbell again, shivering miserably in the cold.
Martha Kent opened the door, and said, "Come in, Lois. You must be freezing out there!" Martha looked almost as though she had been expecting Lois to come, and for a moment Lois wondered why.
"Is Clark here?"
"He's in Quazistan, covering the civil war. What in the world would make you think he might be here?"
Lois sat down, watching Martha closely. "Clark has been missing for almost a week. I'm afraid that something has happened to him."
"I've already heard. His supervisor called me earlier this week." Martha's expression tightened for a moment, and she looked almost angry. To Lois' trained eye she didn't look like a mother bereaved.
"He's planning on just vanishing, isn't he?"
Martha looked startled at the accusation, and Lois could see that she had struck a nerve.
"He already pretended to be dead once, now he's planning to make it permanent!"
Now Martha looked alarmed. "Lois…"
"He left me a letter!" Lois stood up, pulling the letter from her handbag, waving it in the air. "He told me everything, but he didn't even say goodbye!"
"I told him that not seeing you was a mistake, Lois, but men are sometimes stubborn and thick headed."
"Did you know that I was going to tell him that I loved him the night he left? I walked into an empty apartment and I didn't…" Lois was dismayed to find herself breaking down. She sat again, devoid of her momentary burst of energy.
"I didn't even know what happened to him."
She felt Martha's arms wrap around her, and she sobbed. She was barely aware of Martha's words, but the hug was comforting. "Everything's going to be all right," Martha said. "Clark's not dead. He loves you and you love him. He's wanted to tell you his secret for a long time, but…"
"I was so worried. I hoped I might be right, but I was so afraid that I wasn't. I mean, sure, I'd never seen them both in one place, but…" She shuddered and bit back a sob, "I don't know what I would do without him!"
She cried. The tears she had been holding back since she first realized that Clark was gone came in a cleansing flood in her relief that he was all right. They had let too many foolish things come between them, and now that she had a second chance, she wasn't going to waste it.
That didn't mean that she had forgiven him. They had a lot to talk about.
Clark let himself fall towards the ground. He had the strength to land properly, but felt little reason to care. The only woman he would ever love did not love him, and every time he closed his eyes, he saw scenes of death.
His sense of smell was more of a curse to him than a blessing; he could still smell the minute traces of blood and urine and gunpowder on his costume. No matter how many times he had washed it, no matter how many times he washed himself, the smell would not come out.
He could only hope that time at home would help him decompress, would help to dull some of the images that he couldn't seem to shake. The Kent farm was as far from the killing fields of Quazistan as he could imagine.
Not that he wouldn't still hear gunfire in the midst of the Kansas wilderness. The memories of death and the dying, of the times he'd arrived moments too late, haunted him.
He stumbled as he landed behind the barn, his eyes burning and blurry. He had not slept in over a week, and he had refused to shed a tear. A scene of contorted bodies flashed through his mind, and he could almost hear the sounds of gunfire. It took him a moment to realize that it was the distant sound of thunder. It had rained quite recently, and the ground outside the barn was muddy.
He quickly spun and changed into an old, gray sweat suit. He burned his costume with his heat vision; it was gone in a flash, but the smell remained, clinging to him like a legacy of shame.
He heard a small sound behind him, and he turned quickly. Had he not been so preoccupied he would have noticed it before he had ever reached the barn. Once, he would have noticed her heartbeat from half a city away.
It hurt to see how beautiful she still was. Especially now that he felt dirty and soul-sick. He couldn't look her in the eye.
"I suppose I made it obvious in the letter." She knew his secret. In a way, it was a relief. He hadn't been thinking clearly when he wrote the letter, but he was glad that she knew. He was glad that he didn't have to lie to her anymore.
"How did you know where I would be?"
"I saw the newscasts. You didn't look like you had slept in a while. This is the only home you have left." Lois stared at him for a long moment, then said, "And it was unnecessary. Metropolis is your home."
"I had to go, Lois." He refused to look at her for fear of breaking down.
"I wish you had talked to me about it before you left. I always thought friends talked things out before making major decisions like this. Weren't we friends?"
"It just felt…easier."
It hurt, hearing her use the past tense. He had hoped to at least salvage the friendship, once he had time to work things out. Of course, he hadn't had much time over the past week for anything, other than guns and death.
"Easier for who?" Lois turned away from him. "I didn't get the note until this morning. I thought that you were…that you were…"
His head snapped up at the sound of pain in her voice. "I'm sorry! I didn't realize…" He stepped towards her, and she flinched. That hurt worse than anything. He never wanted her to be afraid of him. "I never would have wanted you to think…"
"You let me think that when you got shot by Capone and his gang."
"That was different. I didn't have time to think…"
"You could have come to me later, let me know…" She sighed. "You've been lying to me for a long time."
"I had reasons…"
"I know. I've worked some of them out for myself, and I've talked to your mother about some of the others." She sighed and stuffed her hands in her pockets. "I swore to myself that I wasn't going to get angry."
"I don't know what to say." He stood before her, awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other. He hesitated for a moment before asking, "What did you tell Scardino about this little trip?"
"I dumped Scardino even before I dumped Superman."
He gaped at her. "Then who were you talking about? You said that you loved someone else…that they needed you…"
"I was talking about you, Clark. I was all set to open my heart to you that night. I came to your apartment…and found that you had left me."
He gaped, speechless. "You chose me?"
"You. I chose you over Superman, over Dan…over every other man in the world. Then you left me. You left me like my father, like Claude…like every other man in my life." Lois' eyes never left his face. "I never expected that of you. But it hurt a whole lot worse when you did it. I was hurt…and disappointed."
Clark's throat felt as though it had a knot in it, and he couldn't speak. How could he have been so mistaken? He had come so close to attaining his dream. How could he have botched everything so badly?
"I trusted you, Clark!" Lois closed her eyes for a moment. "I told both of you things I never told anybody in my life. I opened my heart to you, and you stomped on it."
"I always loved you, Lois. I always will." Clark stared at the ground in front of him. "I guess I just couldn't believe that you would want someone like me if you knew."
Lois stared at him. "What are you talking about?"
"You've always deserved the best of everything. You deserve a home, a family, a husband, children. I don't even know if I can have children with someone from Earth." He stepped around Lois and quietly opened the door to the barn. He gestured for her to enter and she did.
"We could always adopt, he continued, "but what sort of family life would that be? You are in danger because of who and what I am, but at least you are an adult. You can choose to ignore danger; you weren't all that concerned about safety even before I came on the scene."
Lois nodded cautiously. He knew that she probably had had a dozen counter arguments prepared, and so he conceded the point.
"But a child has no choice." He paced slightly. "A child would be horribly vulnerable, and we couldn't even let it know why for fear that it would tell someone." He hesitated for a moment, then said, "I could never guarantee that I would be there at the important times either, for the child or for you."
He tried to smile, the expression looking more like a grimace. "You know what it's like, having a father you can't depend on. I've heard you talk about it often enough."
"This is about us, Clark! This isn't about anyone but you and me." Angrily, she gestured with one hand. "Who said we had to have children anyway? Given my family history it might be better for me not to have children anyway. I'd probably be a horrible mother."
Clark couldn't help himself. "No…you'd make the most wonderful mother in the world." His voice softened as he allowed his true feelings to come to the surface.
"And you would be the best father." Lois stared at him. "That's not really the issue at all."
"What is the issue then?"
"Do we love each other enough to make this work? I do."
Clark stepped towards her involuntarily. "Never doubt how much I love you."
Lois stepped forward, her face fixed. "You doubted my love for you. Did you think I was so shallow as to love you only for the cape? Did you think that I wouldn't love Superman if I knew he was just Clark?" She stepped forward again, until they were almost face to face. "Why do you keep selling yourself short?"
Clark sighed, an unfamiliar lump in his throat. He tried to speak, and couldn't. He tried again. "I get confused sometimes. When you came to me as Superman and told me you didn't love me…" He sighed. "Somewhere deep down inside, I forgot that you weren't talking to me, Clark. And with Scardino in the picture, I guess I just assumed…"
"I never would have started dating Scardino if…" She visibly stopped herself, then leaned against his chest. "Let's not fight, Clark. We've done too much of that. Just promise me that you will come back to me."
"I love you, Lois. If you want me in your life, that's where I'll be."
He bent to kiss her, then pulled back. He was suddenly conscious of the way he smelled.
"I stink. Maybe I can get a shower and then we can get a little to eat and talk." He smiled gently. "I guess we have a lot to catch up on."
She looked at him with a strange expression. "You smell fine to me." She shrugged, and followed him out of the barn. "Your mother kept dinner warm for you."
They walked together up to the house, holding hands, but not standing too close.
Clark was in the shower for over an hour and no matter how much or how hard he scrubbed, the scent of death would not leave him. He looked forward to relaxing with Lois, but in the back of his mind, he could hear the sounds of gunfire.
He leaned heavily against the shower wall, his eyes closed and ice cold water sluicing down his back. The temperature of the water matched the coldness in his heart. Though he was overjoyed to find that there was still hope with Lois, it was overshadowed by the feelings of tired numbness that overwhelmed him.
He had destroyed three of his mother's best wash towels trying to scrub away the singular scent of death and war before he had forced himself to stop. It was a hopeless task; the scent covered him like a miasma. While he couldn't actually rub his skin raw, he had done his best. There wasn't any point in ruining any more of his mother's towels for a hopeless cause.
Perhaps Doctor Klein at Star Labs could help.
He heard the soft knock at the door even over the sound of the shower. He sighed. For all that Lois was his strength, there were some places he refused to take her. There were some horrors that no one should have to face, much less the woman he loved.
"Clark?" Lois ventured quietly, "You've been in there for over an hour."
He turned the shower off, then dried himself at super speed, throwing the smoking towel into the corner, with barely a glance to make sure it did not catch fire.
He wrapped himself in a robe, and quickly opened the door.
"Oh!" Lois stared up at him for a moment.
It took him a moment to realize what she was seeing.
Without his glasses, and with his hair still wet, he looked like someone who was half Clark and half Superman. In truth, that was what he was. There was a time when he had been able to lie to himself, to tell himself that he was Clark, and that Superman was simply something that he did, not who he was.
That was before he had gone to Quazistan, before he had held dying children in his arms, knowing that it was his own choices that had condemned them. Before he had realized that there were some things too large even for a Superman to handle.
"The food was getting cold, so I put it back in the oven." Lois gestured towards the kitchen, and he followed her down the stairs." Martha and Jonathan already headed up to bed."
He pulled the covered dishes from the oven, not bothering with the pretense of using a potholder or dishtowel, while Lois poured them both cups of coffee.
"It's decaf. I know it doesn't matter to you, but it's getting late, and…"
Lois was babbling again. Clark allowed himself a moment to enjoy listening to the sound of her voice.
He had thought he would never again get to enjoy the little things. Listening to her babble, enjoying a cup of coffee together, enjoying the way the light hit her face.
Clark shook himself for a moment. He had allowed himself to drift off. He must be more tired than he had thought.
"Maybe we should talk about this in the morning?"
Clark wasn't entirely sure what they had been talking about, but he was glad to agree. They finished the last of his mother's lasagne in quiet contemplation, and then Lois gently led him to bed. He protested for a moment. He could sleep anywhere, while she would be uncomfortable sleeping on the couch. But she refused to argue with him, and he didn't have the energy to insist.
He was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
It seemed like an eternity until he awoke. Nightmares filled his sleep in quick succession. Lois dead, his parents, Perry, Jimmy. Those he had failed to save rising up to accuse him. The faces of the children who had been killed…
Metropolis a ghost town, with no one left alive to accuse him of anything. Everything was his fault.
When he finally woke, it was with a crash as he came falling to the floor. He was disoriented for a moment, unsure of where he was. His body was soaked with sweat, which was another unfamiliar feeling. He was breathing quickly, and it took him several moments to calm himself, even after he realized that he could hear the heartbeats of Lois and his parents.
The sun was already rising. He had slept almost seven hours, yet he still felt tired and groggy. The sense of emptiness that had almost overwhelmed him the night before had retreated somewhat, but it was still there.
He stepped into the shower and out again at super speed and quickly dressed. He found some of the cold coffee from the night before and poured himself a cup, heating it absently with his vision as he stared out at the sunrise.
He was startled when Lois touched him on the shoulder.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Lois laid her head against his side and said, "Sometimes we get too busy to see what we have."
"I have to go back," Clark said tersely. "I can fly you back to Metropolis as soon as you are ready."
"I thought we might stay a while and talk."
"This isn't our life, Lois." Clark gestured towards the Kansas skyline. "Peace and quiet, country beauty, safety…none of it has ever been us. It's all an illusion anyway. There was another one of those school shootings not two hundred miles from here last month." He was silent for a moment. "People used to move to small towns so their kids could be safe."
"It's still safer than the big city."
"There isn't any place safe anymore. Maybe there never was."
"When are you coming back?"
"I have things to finish." Clark stared bleakly at the horizon. "People are dying right now as we speak."
"You can't save everyone, Clark. You never could."
"That doesn't mean that I can't try!" The words emerged from Clark like bullets. "I keep making promises to myself. Every time I hand a dead child to its mother and she looks at me with dead eyes, I swear that it won't happen again. I'll get there a little faster. I'll take the guns away from the men who are giving them to children. I'll stop the children from becoming orphans, the parents from becoming shells of humanity."
He clenched his fists. "It's a lie, every time. Even when I do manage to save some of them, five die for every one I save. Even the ones I save die later on. Every time I hold one of them, one of the dead, I feel ashamed."
Lois moved to embrace him, and Clark flinched. "I need to finish it, Lois. I love you, but I can't turn my back on these people. If there is any way to stop this, I have to try."
"And what if there isn't?" Lois grabbed his hand and held it in both of hers. "You are tearing yourself up about something you may not be able to change. Even if you take these people's guns, they will continue to attack each other."
"Then I have to try to save as many of the innocent as I can."
"What about Clark? When do you plan to bring him back?"
Clark was silent for long moments.
Lois held his hand to her face. "Clark, have you ever considered that this is one situation where Clark Kent may be able to do as much good as Superman?"
He stared at her for several moments. "The power of the press? Quazistan is crawling with reporters."
Lois shook her head. "Half the news organizations have been pulling out. Each of the different factions has been infuriated by the refusal of the press to declare them the legitimate government, and have been closing the borders to the press. Six reporters were killed yesterday."
Clark winced. Those people were his colleagues. The odds were that he had met at least some of them. He should have been able to stop the killings.
"Besides, none of them would tell the story the way you would. If the UN insists on sitting on the fence, then make sure that they know why they shouldn't. Show them why they have to act."
"If the scenes LNN was showing don't convince them, I don't know what I could do that would make any more of an impact."
"All they saw were bodies. Give them the truth about each loss. I've seen your work, Clark. You really can change the world if you really try." Lois stared up at him, and for a moment he felt the first flash of hope that he had felt in days.
Her voice grew softer. "But when you need to sleep…come home to Metropolis, please." She embraced him, and this time he did not push her away. "I know the world needs Superman…but I need Clark."
He knew she was crying. He felt like crying as well, but he couldn't find any tears.
Each day that passed seemed to be an eternity. Lois spent much of her time listening for reports of Superman, and searching for reporting by Clark Kent.
Her own work she did as if on automatic pilot, barely noticing each story that passed by her desk.
She knew that her coworkers were walking on eggshells around her. She didn't care. All that mattered was that she knew that Clark was all right, and not just physically. She was seeing signs that concerned her.
Clark was allowing the press to get more pictures of him as Superman, and she could see the strain in his eyes.
The sheer pain that came through in his writing almost took her breath away. Clark had never written so eloquently, or so powerfully, before. Each piece brought home the truth in a way that had not been seen before. Clark was writing several articles a day, each a poignant reminder of the costs of war.
She had even heard rumors that he had somehow convinced several of Quazistan's less conservative newspapers to print his articles, since he was perfectly fluent in both Arabic and Turkish. He seemed to have gotten the respect of at least some of the various faction members; he had quoted several sources high in the chains of command of each group.
Of course, while Clark Kent the reporter had gained the respect of members of various factions, Superman was increasingly seen as a military threat by all of them.
In spite of Clark Kent's successes, the exodus of western reporters from Quazistan continued. Western reporters continued to be assaulted and killed in increasing numbers. The ubiquitous LNN news crews were still there, but they were increasingly becoming the only source of news about the war other than Clark, at least for those outside of the country. Even the local reporters were having trouble getting news outside the border; phone services had become only intermittent.
Superman appeared less often now, but was more effective than he had been before. He seemed to be concentrating his efforts on saving noncombatants first. He was also taking care to allow the LNN news crews to catch him in the act. His presence was one of the few things keeping them there; without him, they might have gone home as well.
Lois stared down at the magazine on her desk. A picture of Superman holding a child out to her mother had made the cover of Newsweek. This child was alive, but Lois knew that there had been so many who weren't.
She could see the fatigue in his eyes, the pain of knowing the things he could not change.
She sighed. When Clark had dropped her back at her apartment, he had promised that he would visit. It had been almost a week, and there was no sign of him. He no longer had an apartment in Metropolis, but Lois's window was always open, and he knew it.
It wasn't supposed to hurt like this. She loved Clark, and he returned that love. They should have been spending their time together, wrapped in each other's arms. They should not be stuck half a world away from each other. They had problems, but they had all the time in the world to explore them. It would happen when Clark returned. That was assuming he ever returned.
There was no sign that the war was going to abate anytime soon. The royalists were slowly losing their battle, but the military and the rebels were still going strong. The UN was still dithering as well. It was frustrating. For all of Clark's work, there didn't seem to be anything one man could do to stop a war.
Lois sighed again, and turned the magazine face down. If she didn't do some work soon, Perry would fire her. Then Clark really wouldn't have a place to come back to. She didn't think he would appreciate her living out of a cardboard box on the streets. She had gone undercover as a homeless person once, and she never wanted to repeat the experience. It had taken her three weeks to get the lice out of everything…
She sat down and began to make an inventory of her stories for the day. Just as her eyes started drifting towards the magazine again, her phone rang.
"Oh hello, Dr. Klein." She spoke absently, having dropped her pencil. She bent down to pick it up, and noticed that the underside of her desk really did need cleaning. She was going to have to finally give in and make peace with the cleaning staff…
Lois bumped her head against the underside of her desk in shock. There had been a break-in at STAR labs, and the last remaining sample of Kryptonite had been stolen. Two guards had been killed, and the lab had been trashed, as though to conceal what had been taken. Dr. Klein had checked the vault and found it empty.
"I'll warn him. Do they have any leads as to who might have stolen it?"
The videotapes of the raid had been taken when the guards were killed. What else was taken was unknown, but Doctor Klein suspected that some of the physiological data he had taken had been copied.
"Thank you Doctor Klein. I'm sure Superman will appreciate your warning. Yes, it's a good thing he's overseas, but it'll be a problem when he gets back."
She dropped the phone receiver in its slot, and grabbed Jimmy by the sleeve as he was walking by. "Jimmy! I need you to see if you can find out about any unusually large cash transactions made on a Metropolis bank in the last month."
"All of them."
"Lois…do you know how many banks there are in the central business district alone, much less throughout all of Metropolis? This is a city with sixteen million people, after all. There must be…" He trailed off at the look in her eyes. "How large a cash transaction?" He asked weakly.
"Five million and up."
Luthor had paid five million for his chunk of Kryptonite. Lois remembered how horrified she had been when she had come across that figure in the investigation following his death. The price had likely only gone up since then, as the supply had gradually dwindled.
The rest of the afternoon was fruitless. The criminals had left no fingerprints, and there were no living witnesses. They had even stolen the videotapes from the back up system. The theft of the Kryptonite was being hushed up, but it seemed to be the only thing of any importance that had been taken from the lab.
Bobby Bigmouth had no idea as to who might have pulled off the crime, but he did let Lois know that it was open knowledge in the underworld that the Quazistanis had offered fifteen million to anyone who provided them with the means to kill Superman.
Clark was in danger, and he didn't even know it. The images ran through Lois' mind. All it would take was a hidden sniper with a Kryptonite bullet, or even several. One false victim with Kryptonite hidden in a lead lined pocket, waiting to be pulled out at a moments notice. They could even poison him with it like Diana Stride had, though Lois would be both surprised and disappointed if that particular trick worked again.
All that would be left would be one more body to bury in a war that wasn't even his. Lois had left several messages with the News Bureau head to have Clark call her, but Clark hadn't been in. It wasn't surprising. Clark had been performing rescues all day, and had taken to the habit of just sending his stories in electronically.
There was little she could do, unless Jimmy had come up with something. There wasn't any way to know which faction would be successful in offering a contract on Superman's life.
Several phone calls showed her that all three factions had made similar offers. They were willing to spend millions of dollars to kill someone who was only out to help them. It was almost impossible for Lois to understand. The world needed Superman. She needed Clark.
She tried to ignore the feelings of grief that were already nibbling at the edges of her consciousness. Every man she had ever loved had left her, and deep in the pit of her stomach she couldn't help but believe that Clark would do the same. Even if he didn't mean to leave.
She wouldn't allow that to happen. She would warn him, and he would be careful, and they would find the Kryptonite before it did any damage.
As soon as she realized that she wouldn't be able to make much more progress that day, Lois decided to head home. Sleep was the last thing on her mind, but she needed to be at her best if she was going to be able to help Clark.
She opened her door, and set her bag on the floor. She shrugged out of the heavy leather jacket that Clark had given her when they flew back from the farm. It smelled like him, and she wore it as often as she could these days. It comforted her, and she was only afraid that the scent would begin to fade.
If only Clark would call, or even better, come. Then they could do what they did best; put their minds together and come up with a solution neither would have seen alone. They were stronger together than apart; why wouldn't Clark see that?
Lois locked the door, then headed for her bedroom. She kept a stakeout kit in the back of her closet just for this sort of occasion.
She had taken several steps into her bedroom when she realized that something was wrong. It wasn't anything that she could put her finger on, but her gut instinct told her that something was not right.
She started backing out of her bedroom when she heard stealthy footsteps behind her. She kicked out with her right foot, and felt it connect heavily. She turned to see a man dressed in black, wearing a ski mask, and carrying a gun.
She managed to kick the gun from his hand. When he rushed at her, she threw him over her shoulder in a move that she knew her martial arts instructor would have been proud of.
She kicked the man in the face when he started to get up; she could hear the bones in his nose crunch. He dropped to the ground, not unconscious, but in too much pain to do anything else.
Lois' heart was pounding, and her breath was harsh in her ears, as much from fear and shock as from any real exertion.
She grabbed blindly for her phone. The sooner the police collected this goon, the better.
Her heart was pounding so heavily that she did not notice the second figure attack her from behind until it was too late.
Lois drifted in and out of consciousness, aware that she was being moved, but of little more. From time to time she would hear her captors speak in a guttural language she did not recognize.
When she finally woke, she was groggy and unsure of where she was, or of what had happened to her. Her head pounded, and her mouth had a familiar chemical aftertaste. She was lying on canvas. The floor beneath it was hard, and it vibrated. She could hear the drone of airplane engines.
She pried her eyelids open cautiously, finding them matted over. The light burned her retinas and it was all she could do not to groan or wince.
She was lying on the floor of a cargo plane, both hands cuffed around a cargo pole. She was surrounded by large crates, many covered by green tarps, and all of which were strapped down. She had been lying on her cuffed arm, and it had fallen asleep. From her prone position she couldn't see any of her captors, but she could hear male laughter coming from somewhere behind her.
She had no idea how long she had been out; her watch had been broken in the scuffle at her apartment. She rested for a moment, the pounding in her head almost overwhelming. It felt as though they had overdosed her. Lois had been drugged a number of times before, and it had never given her a headache this severe.
She struggled to her knees. The pole was between her hands and the chain to the handcuff. She couldn't stand because a cross pole intersected the pole between her hands at about waist height.
She peered over the crates in both directions, and saw that she had been right about being in a cargo plane. Four armed men were sitting in the rear section, talking, and the front was closed off by a large metal door.
Lois had decided a while back that she was sick of being kidnapped, and had decided that she would be more prepared in the future. She strained to crouch and reach her pockets while not rising above the level of the crates where she would be noticed.
She reached her right pocket and cursed. They had apparently searched her. They had removed the handcuff key she had taken to keeping in her pocket. They had taken almost everything else as well.
She dropped back to the floor and ran her hands through her hair. She had practiced lockpicking with a hairpin a few times with Jack, the young ex- criminal Clark had helped to rehabilitate. She had started keeping a hairpin as a second possibility.
Most of her practice had been behind her back, because that had been how she expected to be cuffed, but she should be able to do even better when she could see.
She had small wrists, and should be able to reach the lock.
The hairpin wasn't in her hair. It must have fallen out while she was being transported. Lois sagged as she realized that she would likely have little chance to escape before the people who had captured her put their plan into action.
If it was the Quazistanis, they would have no compunctions about shooting her. She was known to have a special connection to Superman, and she had probably raised some red flags with her phone calls. They knew that she would be useful as bait, that she might have useful knowledge about Superman as well. However, they didn't really need her. All they needed to do was to put a large number of innocent people in danger, and Clark would come…unless he happened to be distracted by some other disaster of equal proportions.
A horrifying thought came to Lois. Now that she knew that Clark was Superman, she was a double danger to him. If they could get that information from her, they could kidnap the Kents. They could use Lois and the Kents as hostages. Instead of killing Superman, they might control him, use him to win the war.
While Clark was not capable of stopping the war, he was certainly capable of seeing that one side won. He could disarm one side, allowing the other side to mow their unarmed opponents down with impunity.
He could use his x-ray vision to ferret out cells of the opposition. With proper usage, Clark could be the most powerful weapon the world had ever known.
He would rather die.
This war was killing Clark. Lois had seen it with every news report that had come across the screen or across her desk. It was killing his soul, and her own had been dying inside just knowing what he was going through.
She had to get out and warn him. He would refuse to be used that way even if it meant he had to die. But to save Lois and his parents…Lois didn't think he would kill under any circumstances, but she knew that if he did, it would shatter him almost beyond repair.
She looked down at the canvas she was lying on and realized that it was a large canvas sack. She had been carried at least part of the way in a sack, and it was possible that the pin might have fallen out inside of it.
She gathered the sack up as best she could and searched through it for several long, tense minutes. Finally she found what she was looking for. The pin had fallen out, but it had not been bent.
She began the intricate work of picking the handcuff lock. It wasn't all that easy; only the fact that she had small wrists and long fingers made it possible at all. She had to force her wrists into such unnatural positions that they felt as though they would break.
She worked at it for several minutes with little success. She hadn't been able to pick the handcuff locks even with Jack, but she had to keep trying.
She wasn't even sure what good it would do her to escape her handcuffs. She was facing at least four armed men, and even if she somehow overcame them, she was trapped on an airplane that she did not know how to fly well.
Friends of her father had taken her up in a plane or two when she was in her late teens. As an army brat she was at least familiar with some of the equipment.
It had been more than ten years since she had even flown a plane, and she had never been much more than an observer in any case. She had logged maybe five hours in a simulator and never flown any sort of civilian craft. It was better than not having any experience at all, but not by much.
She would worry about what she would do once she was free. She had begun to redouble her efforts when she heard someone coming. She grimaced; there wasn't time to get free before she was seen. She concealed the pin in her hand, kicked the sack back into an approximation of its original position, then lay down.
She kept her eyes just barely slitted open, and could see booted feet come to stand nearby her. She almost tensed up when she felt the butt of a rifle prod her, but managed to stay relaxed.
After a minute, the feet walked away. Lois continued to lie motionless for what seemed like an eternity. When she heard the laughter begin again, she opened her eyes and looked around.
She began to work at the lock again. Her hands were becoming slippery with sweat, and somewhat shaky. At one point she dropped her pin and had to scrabble for it, cursing under her breath. She found it within reach with a sigh of relief.
The click of the lock seemed to be thunderous. She spent a moment rubbing her wrists, which had been terribly scratched in her efforts to get the cuffs open. She then cautiously rose to her knees.
The men were still where they had been. All kept their weapons holstered or within arms reach, but they didn't seem to be paying any special attention to anything but their own conversations.
Lois turned and saw the door to the front compartment opening slowly. She cursed as she dropped down and kicked the canvas back into its original position. The men behind her apparently did not hear the door open as they kept up their conversation.
She placed her hands back around the pole and partially back into the other cuff. She lay down and closed her eyes, ignoring the footsteps that were approaching.
They stopped. She could almost feel the person standing not three feet away, and she knew that he was looking at her. The feet paused for several long moments before continuing onwards towards the back.
She heard the men coming to attention, and the crack of a military voice. Though she did not know the language, there was no mistaking a military dressing down.
The men should have been watching her more closely, she knew. It took a great deal of military discipline to maintain order, and as the daughter of an army doctor she had heard men being dressed down often enough to relax. It would probably last several minutes. If she had been surer of a plan, she would have taken the opportunity to escape. Since she wasn't, she relaxed and listened to the men being reprimanded for their laxness.
She jerked when she heard the sounds of the gunshot.
There was silence for several long minutes. She heard the sound of something being dragged down the center aisle, and she was careful to keep her eyes closed.
She almost screamed when she felt the touch at the nape of her neck.
"You might as well not pretend, Miss Lane. We both know you are awake. What is the use of pretense among friends?"
The voice was deep and cultured, and it made her spine crawl.
The hand fondled the nape of her neck, and Lois somehow managed to keep herself from shuddering. But when she felt hot breath against her skin, she could no longer stay still. She snapped her head back, feeling the back of it connect with the man's nose.
She could hear him rise to his feet. "That wasn't very wise, Miss Lane."
She lifted her head to look at her captor and froze in shock. She recognized him. Tall, swarthy skinned, with a thin scar running down the side of his jaw, his name was Malik, once one of Quazistan's most brutal generals. He had been demoted for slaughtering Kurds on the other side of the Armenian border.
"I don't kiss on the first date."
He smirked. "You'll do a lot more than that when we are through with you."
"Why am I here?"
"You've been asking too many questions. It won't matter in a few days, but it was best that you disappear for a while."
"I'll be missed."
"By the time any of them put the pieces together, it will be too late."
Lois forced herself to look him in the eyes. The look he was giving her made her want to cringe, but she was afraid that if he looked anywhere but in her eyes for too long he would realize that one of her cuffs was not completely shut.
"You won't get away with this."
"Who's going to stop me, Miss Lane?" He smirked at her. "You seem to be a little tied up at the moment." She could feel his gaze slip lower and felt her skin crawl.
"It wouldn't be a good idea for you to resist me for too long. I'd hate to see what could happen to that pretty white skin in the interim."
His fingers fondled the hilt of his weapon. "You will help me, Miss Lane, whether you want to or not. Superman is as good as dead. The only question is whether you will survive and in what condition."
She forced herself to look up at him ingenuously. "Could I at least visit the little girls' room?"
He smirked. "So you can try to escape?" He stared at her for a moment, then grinned. "Sure, no problem. We're about to land to refuel, but once we're back in the air where will you go?"
Lois was now aware of a change in the sounds of the engine. The plane was banking, as though it was circling a city in preparation for a landing. Her one real chance for escape would be once they touched the ground.
She forced herself to sag against the pole, her right hand hidden by her body. She slipped her wrist through the loose cuff. He was here alone, and she would have the advantage of surprise. On the other hand, attacking from a kneeling position would be difficult, and keeping him from pulling his weapon would be almost impossible.
There were shouts from the front cabin. Malik turned towards the front and shouted out a number of orders in Arabic.
Lois lunged for his weapon.
He was quick, hitting her in the side of the head with his fist, but not before she was able to wrench the gun out of its holster.
She shoved the gun into his side. He froze. She could see that he had left the safety off. Idiot.
"Get back!" she hissed. "Don't say or do anything. I know how to use this, and from this distance there isn't much chance that I will miss."
"If you kill me, you'll be gunned down yourself, Miss Lane." Malik did not move. "We seem to be at an impasse."
"Your men are up front dumping the body. You'll be dead before they ever get here."
"You aren't a soldier, Miss Lane. You couldn't kill a man in cold blood." The smug self assurance in his voice grated on Lois.
"Who said it would be in cold blood? You are planning on killing Superman. Most likely you will kill me once everything is over and done with. You'd be surprised what a soft little American woman would do to protect those she loves."
He was stalling. The longer they talked, the more likely it was that one of the men would notice that something was wrong and come back to investigate.
"Where do you keep the Kryptonite?"
"It's not on this plane." The assurance in his voice could have been faked. Lois couldn't tell."
Lois backed away from Malik. He lunged at her suddenly, grabbing for the gun. It went off with a flash, and the crack of the gun was like a thunderclap to Lois.
Malik fell heavily on top of her. She could hear the shouts of the men in the forward compartment. She quickly rolled Malik off her body and rushed down the center aisle.
She dodged to the side the moment she heard the men rushing towards her. She crouched in a small niche between crates as the men ran by.
She could hear Malik shouting weakly in the back, and was briefly glad that she had not killed him. She rushed forward, and heard the ping of bullets as they passed by her head.
She reached the door and slammed it shut behind her. She quickly pulled the latch closed and locked it. She was horrified when she felt a trail of fire along her arm. A bullet had passed through the door and grazed her.
She lunged for the floor, and crawled as quickly as she could. The men had given up on firing their weapons, perhaps for fear of ricochets, and were now trying to open the door.
The plane continued its descent. Lois knew that the pilots must have heard the gunfire from the compartments behind them. They were already on their pattern of descent, and any deviation would require an explanation to air traffic control. Doubtless they hoped the situation would be resolved before they landed.
She had to make sure that didn't happen.
It wouldn't take the men behind her long to get through the door. Having shot their commander, there wasn't much chance that they would go back to being nice captors either.
In contrast to the utilitarian back half of the plane, the forward cabin was nicely furnished. The forward cabin reminded her of Lex Luthor's private plane, though not as opulent.
There was a small trail of blood along the center aisle. Hearing the men behind her fumbling for the door, Lois came to her feet and dashed for the cockpit.
She slammed the co-pilot in the jaw as he came around the corner, then flipped him over her shoulder. She took his handgun as he lay on the ground moaning, and shoved it into the waistband of her slacks.
She heard the door behind her open, and she tried to lunge for the cockpit, but the man at her feet had wrapped his arms around her legs. She fell to the ground heavily.
What came next was an explosion of pain. She gave an involuntary scream as she was kicked heavily in the side, then felt rifle butts strike her repeatedly in the ribs.
A sharp barked command stopped the men before they could go any farther.
Lois tried to catch her breath as she stared at the man leaning against the door. His normally swarthy complexion was pale.
"You are a lucky woman, Miss Lane. A soldier knows better than to hold grudges when victory is in sight." He grinned. "We'll have to postpone our first date until I'm feeling a little better. We'll talk about payment for this then."
In contrast to his grin, his eyes were as cold as a snake's. He grimaced suddenly in pain, then barked a command. Lois felt someone strike her, and everything faded to black.
She did not wake until she found herself being thrown to the ground inside a dark cell. The door was slammed shut behind her, and she was left in total darkness.
She shivered in spite of the fact that the air was hot and arid. She slowly checked herself for any signs of injury. It didn't feel as though anything was broken; even the pain in her ribs had faded to a dull throbbing.
She screamed when she felt something brush her hand.
She had never liked rats, and being unable to see them coming at her made it far worse.
She gaped, unable to believe that she was hearing Clark's voice.
"Clark!" Lois whispered. "What are you doing here?"
"I returned your call, and when I couldn't get hold of you, I called Perry. He told me about your kidnapping. When one of my sources warned me to get out of town, I figured that it might be the same people, out to get Superman. These guys grabbed me right out of my hotel room, and I didn't put up much of a fight."
He pulled her into a hug, and she winced. "What have they done to you, Lois?"
She allowed herself to melt into his embrace as well as she could, given her injuries. She leaned into him and whispered, "They have Kryptonite, and they may be listening in to us right now."
"Don't worry Lois. I'm going to get us out of this."
Clark spoke with such assurance. Lois knew, however, that Kryptonite bullets were probably being poured into molds as they were speaking. It would be tough to escape without revealing what Clark was and making him a target.
She sighed, and allowed herself the luxury of melting into his warmth. Was there ever going to be a time when they could be together? Or would the world always be set against them?
At least they were together. Lois laid her head on his chest and allowed herself to relax for the first time in days. The beat of his heart comforted her, and eventually she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Rage was Clark's constant companion.
The first embers had sparked in his soul when he saw the first child die. The fire within him had only grown with each death, with each failure to preserve that which should never have been violated.
He had known anger before, but never the sort of white hot, incoherent rage that makes a man clench his fists, grit his teeth and tremble in an attempt to control himself.
Seeing Lois all battered and bruised, her beautiful face slightly swollen, was almost enough to take Clark over the edge. In the state he was in, it wouldn't take much more for him to seriously hurt someone.
As though he didn't feel dirty enough.
He had always thought that he was immune to hatred. The values his parents installed within him had seemed like an impenetrable shield. He had always stood alone and apart, especially in this.
Nothing was simple anymore. Once he would have simply broken out of the room they were in, taken Lois to safety, and then returned to mop up the bad guys.
He wouldn't be still sitting there, frozen, afraid to move for fear of what he might do to the men who had savagely beaten the love of his life. Human lives were so fragile; it would take him barely a thought to kill.
So he lay still, holding Lois like the lifeline that she was. To kill was to deny everything Clark had represented. Lois had loved the ideals Clark stood for long before she had loved the man himself. He could not betray her trust.
It was almost an hour before Clark could bring himself to finally relax. Anger would not get Lois to a place of safety, where she could heal in body and soul. He had been working on a plan for the past day and a half. Now he needed to implement it.
The room was under surveillance; he could see the equipment with his x-ray vision. There was enough ambient light coming from under the door for him to see normally, though he suspected that Lois would be all but blind.
He had already examined Lois with his x-ray vision. Luckily, nothing was broken, though she had massive bruises over some parts of her body, and a long gouge along one arm. Her breathing was unsteady, and Clark's preternatural sense of smell could detect the scent of drugs on her breath.
Their captors were very lucky. It was hard to see her battered and bruised, but if they had actually broken her bones, he didn't know what he would have done.
He leaned against the wall, and listened. They had soundproofed the wall, but his hearing was still acute enough to hear what was going on within the complex.
In the day and a half since he had been taken hostage he had already learned a great deal. While the royal family of Quazistan had supposedly been murdered to the last member, Clark had learned that it was not true.
The only truly popular member of the family, Prince Fadi, had been kept and hidden by the royalists. What Clark had yet to figure out was why they had not broadcast his survival to the world.
Half the support given to the rebels and to the military was because there was no longer any true claimants to the throne. The popular Prince Fadi should have been able to unite most of his people, making the war short and much less painful.
Lois stirred, and Clark carefully schooled his face into an expression of gentle concern. He never wanted Lois to know about his shame and rage. He had already been tainted; there was no need to taint her as well.
"Clark?" she asked quietly.
He pulled her into a tight embrace and whispered into her ear. "They have this place bugged."
For a moment Lois shrank into Clark's embrace, looking blindly around as if to see the armies of roaches and rats which were surely waiting in the darkness.
Then she relaxed, finally getting his meaning. It was a sign of the pain she was in that she was so slow on the uptake. Usually she was a step or two ahead of everyone else, and it was all Clark could do to keep up with her.
She whispered in his ear. "They have Kryptonite bullets. We have to get out of here… and warn Superman."
Lois obviously wasn't sure about how sharp the microphones were, and was playing her bets safe.
Clark frowned. There were large areas of the complex sheathed in lead, including most of the outer walls.
He couldn't be sure that Prince Fadi was not being held captive here- or even that he might not be the mastermind behind the whole thing.
Still, the context of the conversation he had overheard led him to believe that the prince was being held elsewhere.
"Don't worry," he said.
He scanned the hallway outside and through the building as far as he was able. The lead-lined areas would be the most dangerous. They probably had traps for Superman there, traps that would be deadly for Clark if they were to learn of his nature.
They were getting smart about the limitations of his powers too. Early in the war they had discovered that weapons with muzzle velocities in the supersonic range were difficult for him to deal with. By the time he heard the shot, the target had already been hit.
It had made him sick, knowing that his choosing to stand in one direction instead of another caused someone to die.
When he was facing in the direction of the shooter, he could see and react to the bullet easily. But when his back was turned he was dependent on his sense of hearing. Too many people had been shot when they were only three steps from him.
In Metropolis, he could take the victim to the hospital, and leave the assassin to the authorities. In Quazistan there was no central authority. Leaving the killer with members of the other factions was an instant death sentence. Leaving them with their own side was tantamount to letting them go. And neither Interpol nor the United Nations was willing to do anything.
If Turkey had not been accepting refugees with open arms, Clark would have lost all hope. The thread of hope that remained with him was getting thinner all the time. His frustration had grown to dangerous levels.
Before he had discovered that Lois loved him, he had not even had the energy to grow angry. Now that she had breathed new life into him, his fury knew no bounds.
Now that they had been reunited and night had fallen, there was no more reason to wait. It was time to implement his plan. He leaned over and whispered, "Hold on."
He stared at an angle at the ceiling. Slowly, unnoticeably, it began to smoke, and a small hole pierced through. The same happened to the roof, and began to fray the main power line leading to the complex.
Clark turned his head and began doing the same to the wall beside him. He quietly spent ten minutes burning a large hole in the backup generator, working slowly, hoping to avoid detection. He suspected that they had a secondary generator somewhere, but could only hope that it would take them at least a little time to use it.
He heard the sounds of an explosion. There must have been gas fumes remaining in the generator. Quickly he turned and burned through the main power line to the outside.
At super speed, he burst through the roof across from Lois, destroying the hole he had made. He flew back through the roof, picked up Lois, and flew away with her as quickly as he was able.
It had taken him almost twenty-four hours to figure out the location of the main power line by the humming sound generated from the transformers. The lead in the roof had been enough to foil most of his attempts to see through it.
They silently flew over the city, and Clark wished Lois could have seen it before it had been stricken by war. He had visited once during his world travels, and had been delighted by the people and the culture. Most of that had been destroyed, never to return.
Some changes were forever.
He looked at Lois, and hugged her tightly as they flew. He would make sure that she never changed, that the sights that haunted his dreams never corrupted her.
He would take her home, then he would return and deal with Malik and the other people in power. He did not know why the royalists had wanted to prolong the war, but he intended to find out. Once he did, he intended to see that they pay.
They were leaving the lights of the city rapidly behind, flying out over the silence of the desert.
"Where are you taking me, Clark?"
"I'm taking you home." Clark's voice warned Lois not to push it, but she did anyway. He had known she would.
"Superman rescues the partnership of Lane and Kent. He's going to drop Kent back into the thick of danger, and return Lane back to the not-so-safe comforts of home?" Lois stared at him. "What's wrong with this picture?"
Lois had a point.
Metropolis was not the safest place for her. She would hardly sit still at the Kent farm either, and the minute she faxed a story in, his parents would be in danger.
He landed near an oasis. He had used it before. It was away from the major routes used by the nomads, and it was currently uninhabited.
He sighed. "I guess we need to talk."
Over the past two years, Clark had come to know Lois like she was a part of him. She was independent, and fiercely protective of her own territory. Her bullish determination to succeed had caused others in the newspaper industry to call her "Mad Dog Lane". Lois had never been a victim, and would never allow herself to be second best. She would demand to see justice done, and wouldn't be able to do it sitting at home in Metropolis. She was going to ask to stay.
Clark couldn't allow it. The war was dangerous for her body. It would be far more dangerous to her mind and spirit. Clark felt tainted already by all the things he had seen, by all the things he had failed to accomplish. He would die inside if he saw the light in Lois's eyes dim even by just a little.
Clark landed by the pool at the base of the cliff, gently setting Lois down. The surrounding countryside did not resemble the stereotypical sand desert. Instead, it was barren and rocky, looking almost like the pictures of Mars that Clark had once seen. It was the perfect representation of the state of Quazistan, and of the growing coldness in Clark's heart.
Clark knew Lois well enough to almost list the arguments she was going to use. He had spent a great deal of time while he was captured thinking about what his responses were going to be.
As always, Lois Lane surprised him.
"You can't go back."
Clark stared at her for a moment, stunned. "I don't have any choice."
"You always have a choice, Clark." Lois stepped away from him towards the pool. "This isn't your war; it never was."
"This isn't anybody's war, Lois."
"What good do you really expect to do here?" He could see her shoulders tense. "You save these people today, sure, but what about tomorrow? There are people across the world that could use your help. Every day you stay here is a day that could be used to save people who have a future."
"These people have a future, Lois. I'm trying to make sure of it."
"What about everyone else? The world needs Superman. You've always known you couldn't save everyone." Lois turned to face him. "Why can't you pick the world, instead of getting involved in a war that has no heroes?"
"There are heroes in this war, Lois." Clark sighed. "People just don't see it. There are people who hide refugees, who help ferry them across the border." He hesitated. "I haven't written about them because that would put them in danger. The work they do is too important to stop."
"Damn you, Clark." Clark could see that Lois's eyes were bright with unshed tears. He moved to embrace her, but she stepped back from him. "You always leave me."
She stared at the ground. "When I thought you were dead, I wanted to die. Now you're going back. You're going to make yourself a big fat target fighting in a war you cannot win. How long will it take them to get you? A day? A week maybe?"
Lois was crying silently. Clark stared at her, his limbs numb, unable to swallow.
"What about me?" Lois almost screamed the words. "I've spent my whole life alone, waiting for that one, perfect person. Now that I find him, I realize that he's never going to be mine?"
"It's going to haunt me. You were there under my nose for two years. I'm going to regret every single second that I wasted, every second that we could have had together."
"Every single second we had together was precious." Clark was as certain about that as he was about anything.
"What about all the seconds from now on, Clark? Are they any less precious? Are you willing to throw it all away? The chance of a life together, marriage, children? We could be good together."
"We are good together, Lois." Clark looked away, unable to meet her eyes. "I can protect myself."
Lois turned away from him. She looked down for a moment, and kicked a stray stone into the pool. "If you really believe that, then you are lying to yourself. Doctor Klein says that there was enough Kryptonite to make a hundred rounds of ammunition."
"I'll be careful. I'll scan for gunmen before I land anywhere. I'm too fast to hit, anyway."
"Not if you don't hear it coming."
Clark stared at her, shocked. He hadn't realized that anyone knew about the danger that high velocity weapons posed. Supersonic ammunition hit the target before the sound of the shot did.
"One of the LNN reporters made the connection the day I was kidnapped."
That would make his task harder all around the world. Why couldn't people think before they reported the news?
Lois continued. "They could shoot you in the back, and you would never even hear it coming! And that's not the worst. These people are experts in using chemical weapons. Doctor Klein says that they could use three quarters of the Kryptonite to create a gas that would be almost instantly fatal to you, and still have enough bullets left to finish you off."
"Lois, I can't back down from this." Clark shook his head. "There are people depending on me, and for the first time, I'm seeing a chance at stopping this war."
Lois was silent, staring at him. He tried to ignore the tear tracks on her face.
"Prince Fadi is alive."
Lois gaped at him. "I thought the rebels killed the whole royal family?"
"Everybody thinks that. I had a lot of time to listen in while I was waiting for you. The royalists have him."
"But the whole reason for the war was that there was no remaining members of the royal family! Why would the royalists provoke a war they could not win?"
They both knew that it was more complicated than that, but the essence of it was true.
Clark shook his head. "I'm not sure. I've been trying to think of a reason, and haven't come up with anything."
"So all we have to do is find the young prince, set him up in power and the war is over?" Lois shook her head, the momentary gleam of journalistic zeal fading from her eyes. "That's simplistic and you know it, Clark."
"We don't even know that the prince isn't orchestrating the whole thing from a bunker out in the desert." Clark spoke slowly. "But if he's being held prisoner, it could make all the difference for the course of the war."
"Even if we managed to somehow find him and get him out…who could we trust to support him?"
"I've made contacts in all three factions. I have a good idea of who would be willing to support Prince Fadi, and who wouldn't. There wouldn't be that many problems. Once the Prince reappears, all three factions will find members deserting. The Quazistanis are remarkably loyal to their royal family."
Lois's face showed animation for the first time. "So all we have to do is find the prince, rescue him, and bring him to the people you know. Then get the news out to the media in both Quazistan and the world."
"That's what I have to do, yes," Clark said softly.
"You can't go back as Superman. It would be a death sentence for you. Even being Clark Kent wouldn't be all that safe."
"I'll wear a disguise." Clark refused to look at her.
"We'll wear disguises." Lois voice was firm, but Clark was not going to allow her to return with him under any circumstances. He couldn't.
"You aren't going with me."
"You've made a career out of leaving me behind, Clark." Clark could not bear to look at her, to see the pain in her eyes. "And for most of our relationship I didn't know why."
She stepped close to him and put her hand on his arm. "I know why, now, and I know that there will always be times that you have to leave me behind. I have to accept that. But this isn't one of those times."
"You are in danger. If our roles were reversed, would you stay behind?"
"If I thought you would be safer without me…"
Lois gasped, and Clark looked at her shocked face for the first time. He rushed to explain.
"Lois, I love you. When you enter the room, the world seems brighter to me somehow. You make me strong in ways I never even realized that I needed before."
"But I can't do what I am going to have to do if I am worried about what is going to happen to you. I'm going to have to move very fast to do some of the things that have to be done… too fast to carry passengers."
"You need someone to watch your back, Clark."
He cupped her cheek. "I don't have a death wish, Lois. I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that I come back alive."
She sighed and leaned into his hand. "Clark…"
"I need you to do something for me in any case."
Lois looked up at him questioningly.
"I overheard one of the leaders… it wasn't Malik… he said that the rebels were being funded by the CIA. Of all the groups, the rebels are the one group least likely to be impressed by the return of the prince. If you were able to prove the involvement of the CIA…"
"Then they would be forced to withdraw their support to the rebels, and with at least some of their members deserting…"
Clark smiled. "The sooner the war winds down the sooner I can come home."
"I'd really like to know why the royalists are keeping the prince a secret." Lois bit her lip. "Until we know that, we are just working in the dark."
Clark frowned. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this if I have to listen in on every person in the city."
"Are you sure that you can stop being Superman? You are going to be in disguise," Lois asked. "Are you really going to be able to ignore people's cries for help?"
Clark gritted his teeth. "I'll do what I have to do to stop this war."
Each death would soil him even further, tearing at the tattered remains of his soul. He would do all he could to help without being caught, but…
Lois stared into his face for a long time before nodding. "Take me home, Clark."
"You'll work on this with me?" Clark asked.
"It's a great story. Perry would take my press pass if I were to walk away from something this big." Lois wouldn't look at him.
"This is more than just a story."
Lois sighed. "I know it is."
She spent several moments looking at him. It was almost as though she was trying to memorize the planes of his face. Her face softened, and she reached up to cup his cheek. "I love you, Clark. I'll do whatever I have to do so that you can come home safe and alive."
She leaned into his chest. "You aren't the only one who is going to have to be in disguise. We can trust Perry, but I'm going to have to be very careful."
Clark wrapped his arms around her and sighed.
The next few days were going to be the longest of their lives. They both knew it, just as they knew that any furtive kiss they shared might be their last. Without speaking, they each decided not to speak about the future, but to only enjoy the night.
Regret was not a foreign emotion to Lois Lane. It was true that in her professional life she did very few things that she truly regretted. Breaking and entering, lying to get a story, it was all part of the game. The things she truly felt were wrong she simply did not do. She had her own code of honor, and generally, she followed it. Stealing a story from Clark early in their relationship was one of her few professional regrets.
In her personal life she had done many things that she would later come to regret. She had foolishly trusted men who had betrayed her. She had allowed friendships to fade away in her pursuit of her career. She had been insensitive at times to the feelings of those closest to her. These regrets were among the things that Lois chose to think about as little as possible. As long as she could keep her focus on the next big story, on the next place to advance her career, she could ignore the niggling seeds of doubt and pain in the back of her mind.
She had made a vow to remain celibate until marriage after her disastrous affair with Claude, and had held firm. She had never regretted that vow; she was very glad that she had never allowed herself to become intimate with Lex.
She regretted that vow now.
Clark lay sleeping beside her. She looked at him, trying to fix his features in her mind. She had seen him every day for two years, and yet she had never really seen him. Even once they started dating, she still hadn't really known everything about who he was. It was only now as he lay beside her, with his glasses set to the side and his face composed, that she was seeing the real man.
Lois had always been drawn to liars. Her father's many affairs had torn Lois's family apart, and she had sworn at an early age that she would never be with a man that she could not trust. It was a promise that she had broken repeatedly. Every man she had ever had a romantic interest in had been a liar. Claude, Lex, Dan, each had been consummate liars in their own ways, almost professionals. It was ironic that the love of her life had more to hide than anyone, yet was the most honest man she had ever met.
After Claude, Lois had known that she could not trust her own judgment. She had made a promise to herself never to give herself to another man until she was absolutely sure of him.
It was a promise that hadn't been very hard to keep. Her work was fulfilling, taking up the vast majority of her time. After Claude she had made sure that the men she dated were weak men, men who were in no danger of gaining her heart.
When Clark had entered her life she had had no intention of getting involved with him. She had known instinctively that he was dangerous; handsome and strong and thus inherently untrustworthy.
The arrival of Superman had changed everything. He had reawakened feelings she thought lost forever. Not only was he the strongest man she had ever known, but he represented the ideals that she had always believed in. He was the direct symbol of truth and justice, honesty and trustworthiness. He was the perfect man.
Clark, in contrast, had never been perfect. It had taken Lois much longer to realize that all the traits she loved about Superman existed in Clark as well.
Clark had allowed himself to be her friend in ways that Superman never could. Clark was loyal and funny and always had time to spare. Clark never allowed her to run over him in the way everyone else did. He was strong, handsome, and unfailingly honest. He was a poor liar, and his many lame excuses should have clued Lois in. Her belief in his honesty had been so strong that she had never questioned the explanations; at worst, she had thought he was making excuses to run from her. She had never seen the truth.
It still hurt, knowing that he lied to her, but she certainly wasn't going to take Clark to task over it. He had more than enough worries; he thought he was hiding his pain from her, but Lois could see that he was tearing himself apart. After the war was over, they would have time to talk.
Still, the whole situation kept running through her mind. She had spent hours staring at the ceiling, thinking about the days to come. Sleep had been elusive.
She sighed, then glanced around the room. For a bed and breakfast, it was nice. It had a king-sized bed and a balcony with a lovely view of the countryside of northern Virginia. It was within easy driving distance of Washington DC. It had a modem jack. It had everything Lois would need to do her work. It had everything except Clark; he would be leaving in the morning. She had long ago admitted that her work was always better when she worked with him. Their styles complimented each other perfectly. Clark gave the stories a human component, and Lois gave them a hard edge.
When she had first seen the room, she had been optimistic. She had still been upset after seeing the condition the police had left her apartment in, but the bed and breakfast Clark had found had quickly changed her mood. The place reminded her in many ways of the honeymoon suite in which they had stayed. Those memories had made her blush. This might be their last night to see each other alive. Lois had subconsciously come to expect that they would spend it together.
Clark had been solicitous, refusing to allow her to carry any of her own luggage. He had even brought Chinese food. She had pressed him, and he admitted that the food was from Shanghai.
Another lie, and another mystery solved. Lois had spent several fruitless afternoons trying to find the Chinese place Clark patronized. He was always bringing food that was better than anything she could ever find; croissants, Chinese food, Italian food… the list was unending.
The meal had been quiet. Neither of them was satisfied with the solution they had agreed to, and Lois had to stop herself several times from begging him to reconsider. Clark had tried to break the ice, but struggled for something to say. Lois knew that his whole existence for the past few weeks had revolved around subjects neither of them wanted to talk about.
In time, they managed to relax. After the meal, they had stepped out onto the balcony to look at the moon. The warm summer air and the sweet scent of jasmine had seemed the perfect backdrop. Clark had put his arms around her and kissed her.
The force of her feelings for him had stunned Lois. His kiss had caused the whole world to fade away. It seemed to last forever, and when they finally came up for air they had somehow found themselves on the bed.
Lois loved Clark with all her heart and soul. She had been lost in her passion for him. Yet when his hand had slipped under her shirt to touch the smooth skin of her stomach, she'd flinched. He had pulled away from her instantly, and the evening had not been the same afterward. They had continued to kiss, but much of the heat had gone. In time, Clark had begun to doze.
Lois lay with her eyes open, staring at the ceiling. It had taken her almost an hour for her to remember the bruises on her stomach and ribs. It hadn't occurred to her at the time, but Clark had been very careful around her for the whole evening.
When she flinched, Clark thought he was hurting her. It was for the best. She would prefer not admit the truth to him.
The hurt she feared was not to her ribs or her body, but to her heart.
Every moment passed with an ache caused by the thought that she might never see him again. How much worse would it be once she shared herself with him? It had been years since she had been intimate with a man, and in that time, her vow had become second nature. She had been hurt too many times not to make absolutely certain of the person she was with.
Deep down, she knew that Clark was the person she had been born to find. She knew it with a certainty that frightened her. Yet he had lied to her. She had opened her heart to him, and he had hurt her in ways no one ever had before. He had allowed her to think he was dead not once, but twice. To go through that pain a third time, for the final time, would destroy her.
Lois slowly pulled herself out of Clark's arms, slipped over to the table and booted up the computer. The best way she knew to deal with her fears was to ignore them in favor of work. In this case, work might be what saved them.
She reviewed what she already knew about the war. A rebel faction lead by Kurdish separatists had existed for years in the southern part of Quazistan. They had lacked the funding, training, and weaponry to be dangerous to the royal family.
Eighteen months earlier they had begun a series of terrorist attacks that had divided the nation. They had only limited success, but the efforts of the royal family to crack down on them had made life much harder for the average Quazistani. They had gained a small following in the north.
Three days after Lex Luthor's death, King Fasil had nationalized all assets of Luthor's three oil companies working in Quazistan. Lexxon, Lexaco, and Luthor Oil had lobbied heavily in Congress. Within two months the US had withdrawn from diplomatic relations.
Six months later the rebels had murdered every member of the royal family. The government took immediate, brutal action to root out the rebels. It had also attempted to purge the military, which had been traditionally loyal to the royal family, only to find that over half of the generals had banded together at the first signs of trouble.
The generals who had been branded as traitors and a few others joined together into a committee and refused to surrender. The war began shortly afterwards as each group blamed the others for the murders.
The rebels had continued to attack both of the other factions, and they had been growing increasingly well armed. Though they were not supported by much of the northern population, they held entire towns and factories in the south.
The Luthor holdings went up in flames within a week.
The media had yet to ask the question about how a mediocre separatist group managed to become so professionally trained and equipped in the course of six months.
Lois's normal contacts in the military wouldn't be of much help. The best people to contact might be in Quazistan; the members of the other factions would have every reason to want to expose the CIA support for the rebels. However, the fact that they had not already exposed the CIA involvement probably meant they had no proof.
Other possibilities were to look at the money trails and to track the path the weapons took in moving from the US to Quazistan. She would find out what types of weapons the rebels used, who manufactured them, and then she would have a talk with the manufacturers.
She looked over at Clark and sighed. There were too many things between them to simply jump into bed together. No matter how much she loved him, she had to remain true to herself. She could only do her best to make sure that he came home safely. Then they would have the time they needed to allow their relationship to blossom.
She wanted a lifetime with Clark Kent, and she was going to make sure that she had it.
Whatever she had to do, she would have no regrets.
Lois woke slowly. The injuries she had managed to ignore the night before were throbbing, and she was stiff and sore as well. She glanced at the bed beside her; it was empty except for a single rose.
Clark had left without waking her. It would have been good to see him once more before he left, but she could understand his reluctance. She hadn't slept for half the night, and had needed the rest.
Lois glanced at herself in the mirror. She had a large bruise on her left cheekbone. Her ribs hurt, and so did her arm. Her captors had bandaged her arm. They had managed to cause her a great deal of pain without making her less mobile. They had been experts; breaking a bone might have made her more difficult to move.
It was amazing, really. She had been kidnapped more than anyone, and she had always managed to avoid any serious injuries. Oh, she'd had a few rope burns around her wrists, but she had always escaped remarkably unscathed. Even this time she was lucky to escape with nothing more than a few bruises.
Lois phoned the front desk to ask for another bag of ice. Clark had told the owner that Lois was hiding from an abusive husband. The woman had been sympathetic, and had sworn not to reveal Lois's presence.
Lois had wanted to protest. She had never been a victim, and it bothered her to be seen as one. She didn't have any other story to offer, however, and had kept her own counsel.
As she opened the door, she had to admit that the ruse was useful. The owner had prepared a breakfast tray, including a handy selection of over the counter painkillers along with an ice pack, and a copy of the Washington Post.
The woman's eyes remained fixated on Lois's cheek. Lois quickly ducked her head and took the tray, turning to set it down by the table.
Lois turned back to the woman, who was craning her head to see into the room. She was probably looking for signs of Clark.
Lois grimaced and said, "Thank You." She closed the door as quickly as she was able.
It would be days before the bruises healed completely, and she had never been one to wear heavy makeup. She was going to have to get used to odd looks.
She glanced back at the door. Big city dwellers respected each other's privacy. They had sense enough to leave people alone.
Small town people felt they had the right to invade everyone's personal space. Clark had been a quick learner, but he still slipped sometimes. Of course, she didn't mind so much nowadays.
She read the Post as she ate, holding the ice pack to her eye. She was tempted to go back to bed. It would take time for the pain medication to kick in, and Lois really hadn't managed much sleep the night before. She was forced to remind herself that the sooner she finished, the sooner Clark could come home.
Lois began making calls to the bases on the Quazistani border that Superman had been using as weapons drops. She quickly discovered that most of the newer weapons recovered were American-made M-16's. Turkish sniper rifles were a close second in popularity. Lois actually managed to talk someone into reading off four serial numbers from the sides of various weapons, though it took almost half an hour of cajoling.
The M-16 was produced by the Colt Firearms company, with plants in Hartford, Connecticut, and also Singapore, South Korea and the Philippines. It was a popular weapon used around the world, and no one had thought to comment about its usage in Quazistan. Lois, however, had a suspicion that the sales record of the company would show something odd.
Jimmy was happy to see what he could do to crack the company files, but warned that the company might not keep either financial records or serial number information online. He promised to call her cell phone the moment he found anything.
Lois made a lunch date with Sawyer Roberts, an NSA agent who was related to her mother. He had given her a break on her second big story, and she was hoping he would do so again.
Noting that she had several hours before meeting with Sawyer for a late lunch, Lois began searching the internet for anything she could find on the war. It still bothered her that the royalists were keeping the existence of Prince Fadi a secret. It didn't make sense.
Three hours later it made even less sense to Lois. The Turkish government was being magnanimous in accepting refugees; the official position of the Turkish government had always been that the people of Quazistan were Turks. Turkey had always resented the fact that the English had split Quazistan away from Turkey even as Turkey was given its independence. They had unsuccessfully invaded Quazistan three times over the past seventy years, only to be forced to back down by the weight of world opinion. Quazistan had never accepted the idea of terrorism against civilians, which was one reason that the US had formerly had cordial relations with it Against invading enemy soldiers, it had been a different story. The continuing threat from its neighbor to the west caused Quazistan to institute universal military service for everyone except religious leaders and Kurds. Almost everyone had access to small arms, though assault rifles and larger weapons were confined to military armories. Some Kurds had overcome prejudice and joined the army, but most were forced into ghettos in the southern part of the country. Their early hopes of making Quazistan their new homeland were crushed. Quazistan made it illegal to sell private weapons to the Kurdish minority, and without the military training given to their countrymen, they were at a severe disadvantage.
When the Kurdish separatists began making guerilla attacks on both military and civilian targets, the people had been outraged. The government had instituted harsh and restrictive measures on the Kurds, forcing many from their homes. The separatist movement had gained strength as many Kurds suffered unjustly.
The one factor that had held the people together was respect for the royal family. Unfortunately, King Fasil had only taken power three years before and had done a great deal to erode that respect. When he nationalized the Luthor Oil holdings, it was merely the last in a string of totalitarian actions.
After the Kurds began their campaign, he'd turned truly brutal. His son, Prince Fadi, protested and was exiled to a school in Saudi Arabia. His older sons took their places in the administration beside their father, becoming stained with the increasing brutality of the regime.
Even so, the people remained loyal to their rulers, though that loyalty was becoming strained.
The murders of the royal family members enraged the nation and plunged it into war.
The original government had to know that Prince Fadi was alive. Most of the military that seceded from the government was loyal to the royal family, and would have remained loyal to Fadi.
By keeping Fadi's survival a secret, they had guaranteed that there would be civil war. Once the war had begun, they could have produced the Prince at any time and cut much of the support for the other factions. His popularity could have easily swayed men to his cause.
The royalists were playing with people's lives, and Lois was determined to find out why.
She had lost too much time with Clark already to give up any more without a fight.
Lois dressed and applied her makeup as best she could. It didn't really hide the bruises, but it was the best she could manage under the circumstances. She donned a large set of sunshades.
She slipped down the stairs, and waved to the owner.
Lois unlocked the gray rental car and slipped inside. It was rented under an assumed name. Clark had been dismayed when Lois had produced false identification papers. It was illegal, of course, but Lois had been taking no chances on the Congo story she had been working on before she met Clark.
Clark was still such a boy scout, even after everything he had been through. It worried her, seeing the pain in his eyes. As Superman he saw things that would send an ordinary man into counseling. With the coming of the war, the sights he had seen were growing exponentially worse. Even what the LNN censors were willing to show was gut wrenching.
Clark had never become hardened to pain and death. Each death affected him deeply. He had never developed the protective detachment that helped many rescue workers get through each day.
Clark had no one to turn to other than Lois and his parents. He couldn't seek counseling. As Clark, he'd be risking his secret. As Superman, he would start a media frenzy. Dr. Friskin might be trustworthy enough to keep Superman's presence a secret, but would her secretary? Would the doorman to the building?
It might be possible to sneak Clark into the building and have Dr. Friskin see him after hours.
The real problem would be Clark's reluctance to see a counselor.
Martha had made it clear that secrecy had been drummed into Clark from the time he was a child. He had always had superficial friendships with everyone, but there was always a part of himself he had to hold back.
The habits of a lifetime were hard to break. It had only been recently in her sessions with Dr. Friskin that Lois had come to see the truth. Until Lois had been willing to face her own pain, she had been unable to reach out to Clark in the way that he needed.
Clark couldn't hold his pain inside forever. Lois could only hope that he would let her be there for him.
It took Lois a moment to realize that she had reached the restaurant where she was to meet with Sawyer.
Her cell phone rang.
"Jimmy… hold up… what?" Lois pulled into the parking lot, found a space and turned off the ignition.
It seemed that the Colt M-16 sales to Turkey had doubled within two weeks of Quazistan's nationalization of the Luthor holdings. The sales had been expedited unusually quickly, and orders had continued at the same high level since the beginnings of the Quazistani war.
Perry had been impressed with the findings and was sending Peterson to the plant in Connecticut to see if he could match the serial numbers with the records they had there. Lois closed the cell phone and dropped it into her purse. The weapons were American made, but they didn't yet have anything solid linking the CIA to the rebels.
She entered the restaurant moments later, after checking to see that her bruises were not too much in evidence. They were, but there wasn't much she could do about it.
It was a nice little restaurant, an Italian eatery that Sawyer had brought her to the last time they had met. She scanned the room until she saw him.
Sawyer didn't look like anyone's idea of a secret agent. He didn't even look like a member of Lois Lane's family. He was short, stout and balding. His eyes, though, almost gleamed with intelligence and good humor.
That good humor was gone from his expression as he stood up when Lois approached.
"Lois. You look like hell." He pulled her chair out, and Lois gratefully sank into it. He waved for the waiter.
"You always did know how to make a girl feel special."
"You need to be more careful. I'd hate to have to listen to your mother if you were to get hurt."
"You hate to listen to my mother now, so what's the difference?"
"How did you get that shiner?" Sawyer's voice was serious now.
"People don't always appreciate my reporting style." Lois gratefully accepted the iced tea brought by the waiter.
"You need to stay out of Quazistan."
Lois pretended to study her menu. "Who said I got this in Quazistan?"
"I'm serious. That whole mess has gotten people jumpy."
The waiter returned, and Lois murmured her order. He left, and Lois sipped her tea. They were both silent for several moments.
"A lot of people are being killed right now. I have a friend…no, two friends over there risking their lives in the hope of stopping a war. This isn't just a story for me."
"What do you want me to say, Lois?"
"Help me prove that the CIA is aiding the rebels."
"It would be a major embarrassment to the US government for something like that to get out, even if it were true. People lose their jobs over accusations like that."
"People are losing their lives right now. You've seen the LNN coverage, and you know that things are worse over there than anybody is letting on."
"I can't help you on this one, Lois," Sawyer hesitated. "I have a family to think about."
"What are you saying?"
"My family means the world to me. If something was to leak, the person responsible could be charged with espionage, treason, or even worse. That's if they ever managed to reach trial."
"Are you saying that our own government would…"
"I don't know anything directly," Sawyer said, avoiding her eyes. "But rumor has it that it wouldn't be prudent to make too many inquiries about Quazistan."
Lois was shocked. "That's not how things are supposed to…"
"America has always been a land of high ideals, Lois." Sawyer noted the waiter arriving with the food and sat back. After the food was served he continued. "We've never lived up to those ideals."
They ate in silence for several minutes.
"Is there anything you can give me?" Lois finally asked.
Sawyer was silent for several moments before speaking. "Bureau 39 sold a special weapon to the Quazistani government. It's a prototype rocket launcher, designed to deliver a gas payload."
"I thought that the government had given up research on chemical warfare?"
"Don't believe it. In any case, Bureau 39 decided a long time ago that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to those who are not human."
Lois gaped. "So the government sold Quazistan the equipment it would need…"
"To kill Superman," Sawyer nodded. "I wouldn't be telling you this at all, but Superman has done more for this country than just about anyone," He sighed.
He stared at his plate and sighed. "My family was on the DC-10 Superman saved last year. I owe him everything. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't even be here."
He dropped several bills on the table. "Don't call me again. It wouldn't be safe for either of us."
Lois' mind spun. Clark would be expecting a stationary bomb, not a missile. He would be a sitting duck if they caught him in the air. She had to contact him before it was too late.
Sometimes having superhuman senses was more of a curse than a blessing. Clark's senses were the first of his abilities to develop, and even as a child they had been something of a burden. The first time he had overheard his parents in their bedroom, he had been confused. The second time, he had been mortified. It had taken time to learn to shut down his senses; until he managed to do so, his life had been a hellish mix of confusion and embarrassment.
He never could have lived in a city like Metropolis without learning to regulate his senses. The sounds of sixteen million people going through the daily motions of life would have driven him insane. Add in the constant sounds of traffic, jackhammers, construction crews and rock bands, and the resulting cacophony would have been enough to drive him to become a hermit.
It was not that his mind could not take everything in. It was simply that Clark had never been able to hear another being in pain without wanting to help. Hearing every incident of domestic abuse, every child being taunted, every domestic squabble would have been pure torture to him.
Clark had learned to dull his senses to something approximating the human norm. He went through his day to day life dead to the world around him. He had worn the blinders for so long that he didn't really remember what it had been like to use them to their full capacity.
Some sounds he had never been able to ignore. The sounds of extreme panic, of pain, of police sirens and desperate people had always gotten through. Even though he chose only to hear the worst, he was often unable to rescue them all. It was something he had been forced to come to terms with at the very beginning.
Quazistan tested Clark's resolve. Although the city of Rial only had a half million people, it still generated sounds of pain and panic that exceeded anything Clark had ever known. Even when he was able to help as Superman it was difficult for Clark to reconcile himself to the death and destruction around him.
It was all Clark could do to ignore the sounds which were all around him. It went against everything that he believed to ignore people who needed him. The knowledge that he was doing what had to be done to stop the war, and the strength of Lois's love, were all that kept him going.
At least Lois was safe at home. Sometimes he imagined that he could actually feel her worry for him. It comforted him, knowing that she was thinking about him. When he had thought her lost to him, his misery had been total and overwhelming.
It would have mortified Lois to know how attuned his senses were to her. He would know her scent anywhere, not the aroma of the perfume she used, but the unique fragrance of her as a woman. It had intoxicated him when they first met. Now, her scent was permanently engraved in his mind.
He could hear the distinctive rhythm of her heart and the pattern of her breathing across a crowded room, and it never failed to grab his attention. He had always been careful never to let Lois know just how much she was the focus of his world. Lois was the last thing he thought of before drifting to sleep, and the first thing he thought of when he woke.
Or at least she had been. Recently his sleep had been troubled with nightmarish images of death and war. As long as the war continued, Lois would never be safe.
War destroyed beauty. Quazistan had been one of the wealthiest Middle Eastern nations. With one-tenth the population of Turkey and with the oil resources that Turkey lacked, it had plenty of money to spend on art and architecture and weapons of war.
Quazistan had never been the westernized nation that Turkey had become, but it had carried many of the same traditions as a secular nation. It had competed with Turkey for the title of the most liberal Middle Eastern country. Until the coronation of King Fasil, freedom of religion had been an integral right of the people. Freedom of speech was allowed as well, though not to the extent practiced by the western nations.
The nation had been thriving due to the wealth of its oil fields. One reason Turkey had always been so resentful was that it was a much poorer nation for the lack of those fields. The United States had not turned against King Fasil until he nationalized the Luthor Oil holdings three days after Luthor's apparent suicide. Luthor had died, but the pieces of his corporate empire had continued onward without him.
Clark sat on the edge of a fountain in a small cul-de-sac. The windows in the walls around him were all boarded up, and he had checked to see that the apartments beyond were uninhabited. The sole entrance was blocked with rubble that was over six foot high. It was open to the sky, and thus Clark was free to come and go as he pleased, too fast for the human eye.
The rubble was partially the remains of a gutted building nearby; the factions took care to clear the rubble off the streets from time to time.
A block away, the palace stood, grim and brooding, impregnable. It was the center of the royalists' power, the former home of the royal family. In spite of everything the other factions could manage, it had never been breached. The royal family had been lured away from its protection before being killed, so its record for impregnability was unbroken.
Workers were sheathing large sections of the palace in lead, but Clark could still make out much of its layout. He had been tempted to slip into the palace; however, he had promised Lois to be careful. Until he knew that Prince Fadi was being held in the palace, he would not enter it.
Clark closed his eyes and listened. In the distance he could hear the sounds of bombardment at the outer edges of the city. The royalists had managed to gain control over two thirds of the city, and the fighting had faded to sporadic raids. Clark was afraid that if the other two factions were driven completely out of the city that they would blockade the food and medical supplies that the city so desperately needed. That they had not already was a tribute to each group's hopes of winning the civilian populace to their side.
He managed to ignore the sounds of bombing in the distance, though the screams of the dying made him twitch. It went against everything he believed not to interfere. On the good side, most of the non-combatants had fled that section of the city. It did not change the fact that men and women were in pain, and dying. Each combatant had a mother and father, perhaps sisters and brothers. Each had someone who would grieve for him, even if it was only his fellows. Every life was special.
It took him a moment to focus in on the palace. Moving his attention from room to room, he listened as well as he could given all the background noise. It was difficult to pay attention to only one conversation in the middle of hundreds, but one caught his attention.
"We have him here."
"Why haven't you moved him? It would be the first place the alien looks." The voice that came over the telephone was familiar to Clark. He couldn't quite remember the person, but he was sure that eventually he would.
"We've got him well concealed. Our men are armed with Kryptonite, and the weapon is ready. There is no place in this country that is more secure."
"Mr. Malik, you would have done well to accept our offer. We would have smuggled him out of the country without anyone being the wiser."
Malik laughed. "The young prince is our key to victory. The group who has him in its possession has Quazistan."
"You should have used him already. Our analysts say that you are losing this war."
"Your analysts know nothing." Malik's voice was irritated. "If it hadn't been for a leak in your department, we could have cleared the military of those loyal to the royal family."
"That's never been proven." The other voice was smooth. "Are you sure you don't have traitors in your own ranks? The generals moved very quickly after the assassinations to consolidate their power. That took advance warning - more warning than you gave us."
"You were the ones supplying weapons to the Kurds. You only gave us three days to shift our best men off guard duty; it was barely enough time to arrange for the family to be where we wanted them."
"If your people had done their jobs, everything would be over now. You would be in control, and our partnership would be firm. Once you consolidated your power, we'd have given you the Kurds on a silver platter."
Malik's voice grew even more irritated. "You have never explained why you continue to supply the rebels with weapons. They have become a real danger to all our plans."
The other voice became sly. "Some of my superiors have had reason to doubt the effectiveness of your administration. Some have begun to wonder if the rebels might not work just as well for our plans as a group of incompetents."
"The rebels do not have the support of the people. More importantly, they do not have the prince. We are the only legitimate government of Quazistan. The presence of the prince as a figurehead will consolidate our position in the court of world opinion."
"Then bring him out into the open."
"Those who follow the rebel generals are the most loyal to the royal family. It wouldn't do for the prince to get the idea that he is really in control.
"I doubt he would allow family funds to be diverted to support Bureau 39 and CIA actions around the world."
"You people will be getting a military base and the promise of military intervention the next time the Turks invade."
"I have heard that the Kurds are attempting to ally themselves with the Turks, promising to give them the north if they will invade."
"Eliminate the alien, and I'll send you documentation and tapes of three of those meetings. Leak them to your major newspapers, and some of your problems are over. It should cut the support base for the Kurds; your countrymen see themselves as being quite patriotic. Nothing would bring them together like the news of a Turkish invasion. Once you bring the prince out of hiding, you should have it in the bag."
"The rebel generals will still be a thorn in our side. We have been trying to arrange accidents, but their men are almost fanatical in their devotion to their leaders' safety."
"Don't worry about them. I have people who can do the job. What about the alien?"
"He hasn't been seen in over 12 hours. We have men throughout the city searching for him and the reporter. The guards here in the palace are on full alert, and the weapon is armed and ready." Malik paused. "The sensor devices you sent us have been installed, and our men are trained in their use. Are you sure that the weapon will work?"
"Our scientists have every piece of data that has ever been collected on the alien. They say that a full body exposure should be almost instantly fatal."
"Then there will be no problem. The alien will be dead the minute he enters into the palace airspace."
"Make sure that you keep that promise, and good things will happen for your administration." The other voice paused. "If you fail us, we may have to look into other options. As long as we are both clear, Mr. Malik, our partnership should be long and profitable."
"Keep your promises, Agent Scardino, and we will keep ours."
Clark could hear Malik hanging up the telephone, but he barely noticed. His mind was reeling.
Lois's choice in men was running true to form. Dan Scardino had never worked for the DEA or the FDA.
He worked for Bureau 39.
Guilt was a cancer eating at Lois's soul. Sawyer was dead, and it was all her fault. The sick and empty feeling filling Lois's stomach was unfamiliar, and left a bitter, metallic taste in her mouth. She had been too incautious in asking questions. She had pushed too hard, and it had gotten Sawyer killed. Someone knew she had met with him, and now he was dead.
They were calling it a car accident, but it seemed suspicious to Lois. He had warned her to keep away from the story, and he was dead within twenty-four hours. Lois didn't believe in coincidence.
She'd had a taste of what it was like to face the consequences of her actions several months before, when Stuart Hofferman had faked his own death. At the time, the belief that her story had killed a man she had not really known had been almost overwhelming.
It was worse now. Sawyer had been family. The eldest child of her mother's cousin, he had been more like an uncle when Lois was a child. While her father's work as an army surgeon had kept them from staying at any one place, she had known him at the infrequent family gatherings. It would have hurt even if it hadn't been her fault.
Sawyer wasn't coming back from this one.
If she had been discreet with her questions at the Office of Public Affairs, no one would have known she was digging into sensitive areas. She had lost her head. It had been almost two days, and she had yet to contact Clark. She had left messages with Perry, Jimmy, and the Kents, and she had remotely changed the message on her answering machine at home. Perhaps her fear and anger had led her to be more forceful than she otherwise would have been. For whatever reason, because of her actions, a man was dead, and it wasn't just any man; it was family.
Now she stood at the door to his home, her hand poised to knock. She dreaded seeing Sarah. Looking Sawyer's wife in the eyes without showing the guilt she felt was going to be difficult. Asking her to allow Lois to go through his personal effects was going to be even more so. People should be allowed time to grieve for their loved ones. What she had to ask was a terrible imposition, and it made her ashamed. If it weren't so important, she wouldn't even consider it.
Sawyer had known more than he let on, and it was possible that he had left at least some of the evidence behind in his personal home office. The thought of taking advantage of his death made Lois feel physically ill, but she had no choice. All her other sources were drying up.
The door opened before she could knock.
"Lois?" Sarah looked older than Lois had ever seen her, almost as though she had aged decades overnight. Her eyes were swollen, and her face was pale. "What are you doing here?"
"I heard about what happened, and I'm sorry." Lois looked down. It was impossible to look Sarah in the eyes; it would be harder still asking what she had to ask.
Sarah didn't speak for a moment, and Lois looked up. Sarah gasped. "What happened to your eye?"
"I've had a little trouble with one of my sources. It got ugly."
"Come in, Lois." Sarah opened the door, and Lois stepped inside.
"I can't believe all this has happened, Sarah." Lois stepped into the living room and sighed. "I was having lunch with him the other day, and he was perfectly fine." It felt like a lie, being with Sawyer's wife. It almost felt as though Lois had a letter branded across her face for the entire world to see.
"They tell me that his brakes slipped. It was all over in an instant." Sarah's voice was tired, almost a monotone. "They say he never saw it coming."
*I'll bet,* Lois thought.
"Would you like something to drink?" Sarah seemed to be going through the motions of being a good hostess, but Lois could tell her heart wasn't in it. Sarah had always been lively and vivacious; Sawyer had loved that about her. Now she seemed like a mere shell of a woman.
Sarah was not fine. Though she fought to keep her composure, Lois could see unshed tears in Sarah's eyes. Sarah's lower lip trembled as she spoke. "Sawyer was always so proud of you. He kept clippings from all your stories. He always said that if you could make it in a man's world then there was hope for our little girl." Her voice broke into a sob.
Lois hesitated, then opened her arms. Sarah hugged her, holding on tight, and Lois fought her own tears. If only things had gone differently…
Actions always have consequences. Clark had always warned her that her habit of leaping without looking was going to get her in trouble someday. She had always ridiculed his caution, claiming that a great journalist had to be willing to leap tall buildings to get the story.
She had leapt, and Sawyer had taken the fall. She should have listened to Clark. He wasn't always right, but he was always sincere, and sometimes he was in tune with things she wasn't.
They held each other for a long moment, and Lois could feel Sarah trembling. It was difficult to keep a stoic face turned to the world when you were dying inside. It was a task Lois had struggled with each day Clark had been gone. It would be infinitely harder now.
"How's Jenny?" Lois didn't want to think about Sawyer's daughter. She didn't want to think about anything related to the whole mess. If only Clark was home. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in his arms and cry herself to sleep.
"She's flying in from UCLA. She just started this year."
"Sarah, I know this isn't really the time…" It was hard to talk, difficult to push the lie through her lips. "I've been working on a story with Sawyer, and I need some of the notes he left in his study. Would it be ok if I looked for them?"
Sarah hesitated. "He had a lot of sensitive material in his study. He wouldn't even let me in there. They've already sent someone from work to gather up all of his things. "
"What? He just passed away! Don't they have any respect for the dead?"
"They tell me that it's a matter of national security. I guess it doesn't really matter." She sighed. "Sawyer always kept his work completely separate from his family life. He never told me anything about it."
Sarah gestured and Lois followed her. Lois's mind was reeling. They had come to clean up Sawyer's office very quickly; he had been dead less than twenty- four hours. She had hoped to get ahead of them, but now it looked hopeless.
The door to the study opened, and Lois froze.
Dan Scardino stood in the doorway, his eyes widening in surprise. "Lois?"
For once Dan was dressed conservatively, wearing a black suit and tie. Lois's mind raced. What was he doing here? Sawyer hadn't had any dealings with the DEA.
"Mr. Gordon? How do you know Lois?" Sarah looked confused.
"We went out a few times when I was on an investigation in Metropolis." Dan smiled at Sarah. "She ran away with my heart, then decided to give it back."
Lois winced. It hurt to see Dan, to have to face up to the fact that she had strung him along while waiting for Clark to make up his mind. It was wrong to toy with people's emotions; yet another burden of guilt for Lois to shoulder. The fact that she actually liked Dan made it only worse.
It took a moment for Sarah's comment to register. "Mr. Gordon?"
"I work with Sawyer and his boss asked me to pick up his things." Dan's eyes seemed to beg Lois not to say anything in front of Sarah.
"Sawyer was working on a story with Lois, and she wanted to pick up a few of his notes." Sarah sounded tired and not very interested. The telephone rang, and she said, "I've got to get that. Everybody has been calling."
The moment she left, Lois hissed, "Mr. Gordon? Have you no shame?!?" Lois was indignant. "He hasn't even been buried yet!"
"If I waited any longer, they'd have cleared away all the evidence," Dan said. He seemed to look at her closely for the first time. "What happened to your eye?"
"I ran into a door. Don't change the subject. Who's going to clear away all the evidence and since when have you worked for the CIA?"
"I'm investigating corruption in the CIA for the Justice Department. They are concerned about possible drugs for arms trades in the Philippines."
"You think Sawyer was involved in that?"
"No, but he started asking questions recently. I thought his death was suspicious, and some of the things I have collected here make me think I was right."
"I need to have a look at it." Lois wasn't going to allow Dan to bully her. He didn't really have any more right to the information than she did; he was here under false pretenses.
"Lois, most of this stuff is top secret." Dan shook his head. "I'm obligated to keep it that way until the Justice Department decides that it's time to unveil it."
"You've got to give me something." Lois didn't like the whining tone in her own voice. Since when had she become the sort of woman who whined?
Since when had she gotten sources killed?
"Are you and Kent still seeing each other?" Dan changed the subject smoothly.
"Yes. We are quite happy together, thank you."
"He didn't have anything to do with that, did he?" He glanced at her eye, and it took Lois a moment to realize what he was implying.
"No! Clark would never…"
"I'll find out who killed Sawyer." Dan paused for a moment. "Don't worry, Lois. I can find out a lot more from the inside. Just go back to Metropolis."
He turned to pick up a box which was full of file folders, computer disks, ledgers and loose papers.
"We could share information!" If Dan left, Lois knew she would never get a look at the material inside the box.
"We could have shared a lot more than that." Dan grimaced. "I knew it was a long shot, asking you out, but…"
He had known what he was getting into. Lois could take some comfort in that.
"One thing has nothing to do with the other. We are both professionals, and we both have the same goals."
"Lois, if you go to press with what you have before the Justice Department is ready to prosecute, all the evidence will disappear. Leave it to the professionals." The condescending tone in his voice infuriated her.
He didn't even seem to realize that he was implying that she was not a professional. It made things easier for Lois. Dan had always been pushy and full of his own self-importance, but Lois had recognized those qualities in herself. Like Clark, he had not been intimidated by her. Unlike Clark, Dan had never really treated her like an equal. It hadn't been as obvious in dating situations as it was now, but it had been there. There was a limit to the charm of old-fashioned chivalry if it came with old-fashioned chauvinism.
"Are you sure that it won't all be swept under the rug?" Lois stepped closer to Dan.
"These are internal investigations, Lois." Dan hesitated. "This is a matter of national security, and that's all there is to it."
Dan picked up the box. "Go home, Lois. There isn't anything for you here."
Lois followed him down the hallway. "This isn't over, Dan."
He stepped outside and set the box on the hood of the government issue Ford Taurus while he opened the trunk. Lois itched to at least have a look inside the box, but Dan never took his eyes off her. He dropped the box into the trunk, then turned to Lois.
"I never claimed to be a choir boy, Lois, but the people I'm investigating are worse. Stay out of this." He hesitated. "I'd hate to see you get hurt."
He closed the trunk, then walked to the driver's door. He pulled a card from an inside pocket. "If you ever change your mind about Kent, give me a call."
He drove away quickly.
As soon as his vehicle was out of sight, Lois turned back to the house. She slipped back into the office and tried to boot up Sawyer's computer. It took her a moment to realize that all files had been deleted.
Dan had been thorough in his search, but he had been too arrogant. By the time Sarah returned, Lois had opened the computer case, pulled the hard drive and closed the case again. Jimmy knew how to retrieve deleted data, and if he couldn't manage it, Lois knew of a company that specialized in it. The hard drive was the size of a thin paperback novel, and Lois slipped it into her purse before accepting a glass of iced tea.
Lois spent the rest of the afternoon allowing Sarah to cry on her shoulder. She would have cried herself, but the guilt eating away at her insides would not allow her the release.
She couldn't bring Sawyer back, but she could avenge him.
Like misery, paranoia was contagious. Lois had never had any reason to doubt Dan Scardino, but his comments about a vague and nebulous "them" who were going to clean up the evidence made her suspicious of everything.
Leaving Sarah's house, Lois had found herself watching her rear view mirrors for any signs that she was being followed. Once she reached her room at the Bed and Breakfast, she had found herself checking out her windows every few minutes. After two hours, she had given up in disgust. It didn't take long to pack all of her things. She had been pleasantly surprised to see that Clark had prepaid the bill. She was on the road as quickly as she could leave.
As the crow flew, Metropolis was only about three hundred miles from Washington DC. The delays caused by the beltway traffic had slowed Lois's progress to a crawl. By the time she reached Philadelphia, her eyes had grown heavy. It took several tries before she could find a motel that didn't ask any questions; the one she found wasn't the Ritz, but Lois didn't expect anyone to be looking for her in a place that rented by the hour.
She left before daylight, and managed to catch Jimmy before he left for work. She encouraged him to call in sick; she didn't trust the telephone lines at the Planet anymore.
Now she was sitting in a house in suburbia, waiting for Jimmy and one of his hacker buddies to come up with results. Jason Turner reminded Lois of a teenage Bill Gates with a bad complexion. He was several years younger than Jimmy, and Lois had almost backed out at the first sight of him. Jimmy had reassured her that his friend was a genius. Not only was he one of the best; he received the latest in equipment from an uncle in DC and had plenty of time to use it. The fact that he lived in his parents' basement was not reassuring, but Lois had trusted Jimmy's judgment.
She hoped it was well founded. She was trusting a child with information that could save Clark's life.
At least they had some information to go on already.
Several hours earlier they had come out with the news that the files had been partially purged. Normally, when a file was deleted, it still existed, and could be recovered until it was finally overwritten. Files that were purged could not be recovered.
Jimmy's friend said it looked as though the computer had been shut off in mid-purge. This made Lois a little suspicious. Dan had had time to shut off the computer and walk across the room, yet had acted surprised to see her. It was possible that he had been expecting Sarah and hadn't wanted to raise any questions due to the sounds of the computer, but it did raise a small doubt. Dan would likely have a quick explanation; he had always been far better at making excuses than Clark.
There wasn't anything for her to do but worry. Every urban legend she had ever heard about the CIA was going through her mind. If they were working with Bureau 39 and the Quazistani government, it would mean trouble not only for Clark, but for anyone involved with the story. She hated the idea that she was putting Jimmy and his friend in danger, but she didn't see any other choice. During her drive, it had occurred to her that the Data Reclamation Company might notice the CIA headings on some of the data, and turn her in. Being caught wasn't part of the agenda.
After the first couple of hours of Lois looking over their shoulders, Jimmy and his friend had banished her to the other side of the house. In the six hours since that point, neither Jimmy, nor his friend, had said anything other than to ask for some pieces of warmed over pizza. In all that time there had been no sign of Jason's parents, even though the workday had already ended.
It had always been difficult for Lois to wait. Her first response to any situation tended to be to act first, and worry about the consequences later. Only the knowledge that Jimmy and Jason were likely to work faster without her interference kept her from continuously pestering them.
Jason's parents were well off. Lois had been keeping the sound low, and the big screen television set to LNN. She had been relieved to note that there were no stories at all about Superman or Quazistan. In this case, no news was good news. Clark was keeping his promise to her, and this gave her hope that he might survive. Nonetheless, each time she switched on the television it was with trepidation.
"Lois, it looks like we're in luck." Jimmy emerged from the cubbyhole that served as a work area for his friend. The place was filled with computer equipment from the floor to the ceiling, and there was barely room for two people to stand in there, much less three.
"Your cousin must have really liked you. Half the stuff we recovered was scanned in copies of old articles you wrote."
"He was my second cousin," Lois said absently, noting that Jason was carrying a small collection of printouts.
"Most of the rest of it was personal finance and family correspondence," Jason Turner spoke up from where he was staring at a printed read-out.
"I always thought CIA agents made a lot more money than that," Jimmy said. "It's sort of disappointing really."
"Did you get anything we can use?"
"We found this under the filename, Justice Department. We went ahead and made hard copies just in case." Jimmy grinned.
Turner handed her the stack of printed papers. Lois read as quickly as she could. What they had was damning; financial transactions being routed through Turkish banks on the border of Quazistan, times, dates and ship manifests of weapons shipments delivered to the Turkish border, and the names of a few of the CIA agents who had been involved in the deal.
The data was incomplete, lasting only up to November of 1994. The agent list was truncated; only twelve names were listed; after that, there was only blank space.
Lois bit her lip. The data she had would be enough to run a story, but the CIA would do everything it could to deny any wrongdoing. She needed corroborating evidence. She hadn't wanted to call Dan; it felt odd now that she was with Clark.
It was now clear that she had to call him. She had leverage; he wanted the information she now possessed to be suppressed until after the Justice Department had its chance to prosecute. She couldn't delay forever; each day the war went on, Clark was in danger. She could afford to delay for a day or two.
"I'd like you to make four copies of this information." Lois stared at the information in front of her. "I'd like you to take one and the hard copy and give it to Perry. I'll write him a note. I'll take care of the rest. I'll take the hard drive, too."
She paused. "Jimmy, did the police ever give you back your spy pen when they arrested Lenny Stoke?"
"Sure. It still works, too. I used it just the other day to play a joke on Melindez down in sports."
"I'd like to borrow it."
"Don't say anything to Perry. Just give him the disk, the papers, and my note."
Lois quickly scribbled a note, then gave it to Jimmy.
It was the work of only a few moments to give her three disks containing all the information she needed. Perhaps she was becoming paranoid, but she couldn't be too safe. She would mail one copy to Lucy at college, put the second in her safe deposit box and mail the third copy to her own apartment.
There was barely time to reach the bank before it closed. Lois thanked Jimmy and his friend, then left as quickly as she was able. It took her almost two hours to get everything done; only then did she feel safe in contacting Dan.
It wasn't that she didn't trust him. Dan simply had a history of dealing with shady characters. Intergang had bugged his briefcase at least once, and Lois would expect the CIA to do no less.
Lois reached for her cell-phone to call Dan and realized that it was dead. She cursed inaudibly and slipped her replacement battery out of her purse. She then dialed Dan.
"Gordon here." Dan's voice was curt. It sounded cold and distant, unlike the warm and friendly voice he normally presented to her.
He was still using an assumed name. "Dan?" Lois asked.
"Lois!" Dan's voice changed instantly. "I wasn't expecting your call so soon."
"I think I've reconsidered about having dinner with you. Could you meet me tomorrow for lunch at Big Jim's?"
They'd gone to Big Jim's sports bar on their first date.
Dan hesitated. "Right now might not be the best time to meet."
"You left something at Sarah's house. I thought we could talk."
His voice grew colder. "I think I can reschedule. I'll meet you there at noon tomorrow."
She would get there early; there was always the chance that Dan's telephone was tapped. She hadn't specified which city Big Jim's was in, but it wouldn't take much research for any listeners to find out the location in Metropolis.
The night passed feverishly, with Lois haunted by dreams of Clark falling to the earth, dying, his blood soaking the ground as she watched helplessly. A shadowy figure held a shining gun and laughed soundlessly.
It was late when Lois finally woke. She made it to Big Jim's and spoke to the waiter, ensuring that she would have a table beside the kitchen. The head chef was also the owner. Lois and Clark had helped him escape the influence of organized crime. He had vowed to help them both. Hopefully, he'd be willing to help her if she got in over her head.
As she waited for her drink, she watched one of the many televisions situated on the walls. The volume was high enough that people with parabolic microphones would have trouble hearing their conversation. She didn't have long to wait. Dan arrived early. He was back to wearing his brightly colored print shirt and leather jacket, and he smiled when he saw her.
It was strange that she had never before noticed how wide and toothy his smile was.
He took the chair across from her, and said, "What was it that I left behind?"
"You should have finished purging the hard drive on Sawyer's computer. I've got enough information now to go public."
Dan lost his smile. "I already told you why that wouldn't be a good idea, Lois."
"How long do you expect me to hold the story?" Lois hesitated. "I can hold off on it for a while, but I'd prefer to have corroborating evidence."
"I can promise you the scoop, Lois," Dan said quietly. "But I can't give you a timeline. It's just going to take as long as it takes."
"I can't hold on to this story forever," Lois said. "I can wait a few days if I have to, but I need more than I have."
"This isn't a good idea , Lois." Scardino looked grim. "I don't think you have any idea what you are getting into."
It was time to make an intuitive leap. If she was right, it might convince Dan to open up to her. If she was wrong, all he could do was laugh in her face. "I think I'm looking at the possibility that the CIA had something to do with the murders of the Royal Family of Quazistan."
Dan's face froze. "Who have you been talking to?"
"I have my sources, the same as you have yours. If we were to work together we could get the proof we both need."
Dan seemed to be struggling with himself. Finally, he said, "I've been assigned to go to Turkey to find out the truth of some of these accusations. I'll be visiting some of the banks found in Sawyer's list and speaking with some of the agents assigned to the border." He paused. "I doubt the Planet has the resources to fly you to Turkey, but I could meet up with Kent while I'm there if you'd like. Just give me a way to contact him, and…"
Dan was volunteering to work with Clark?
"Nobody has heard from Clark since Superman rescued the two of us in Quazistan. He's missing; it's one reason I'm interested in finding out everything I can."
"And I thought it was my charm and wit that drew you here." He smiled with a slightly bitter look in his eyes. "I should have known it had something to do with Kent."
"Also, I have to get word to Superman about a new weapon that Bureau 39 sold to the Quazistani government."
Dan's lips tightened. "I guess you and your second cousin had a longer talk than I thought." Dan sighed. "I've heard rumors about that sale, but there isn't much I can give you. It has something to do with a shoulder-mounted missile designed to release biological weapons at the point of impact. It's been redesigned to release Kryptonite gas. They say that Superman's chances if he gets hit with the weapon are virtually zero."
How had he known about her meeting with Sawyer? She hadn't said anything to him, and Sawyer wouldn't have told his wife. He had wanted to keep the meeting as secret as possible.
"Lois, it goes against my better judgment, but will you come to Turkey with me? I have a certain amount of latitude in what I do, and it won't really cost the government any more to have you aboard."
Lois looked into his eyes, searching for any hint of the offer being an excuse to be alone with her in a romantic sense. She had made her decision, and she didn't want to cause Dan any more pain by leading him on.
What she saw in his eyes was not lust, but pain. He almost seemed to be begging her not to go with him.
He was only being overprotective. Turkey was not in a state of war. It was the most westernized nation in the Middle East. Lois had been alone in the Congo for a story; she could take anything the Middle East had to offer. Dan had always had an overprotective streak.
Lois's beeper went off. She'd had to replace the batteries on it at the same time as she had her cell phone. She looked apologetically at Dan and pulled out her phone. It was dead. Something must be wrong with the new battery. She looked briefly at the number on the pager.
"I need to make a phone call."
He nodded graciously.
She stood up and smiled at Dan. He smiled back, and Lois tried to ignore the sadness in his eyes.
She made her way back to the women's room, then called Perry's office at the Planet."
"Honey, are you all right?"
"Perry, I'm fine. I'm right in the middle of something, so…"
"Clark called… he said the CIA is hip deep in this whole Quazistan mess. He wanted me to make sure I got you a message. He said that Dan Scardino works for Bureau 39."
Lois froze, her whole body going numb in shock. Her record with men was unrivaled in the history of the world. First Claude, who was a liar and a thief, then Lex Luthor, the richest criminal on the planet, and now Dan; they had all been criminals.
If it weren't for Clark and an Irish boy she'd met as an exchange student in high school, she'd have given up on the notion of dating entirely.
"Thanks, Perry. I needed to hear that."
She hung up the phone, then returned to her seat. She was disgusted to note that Dan had ordered for them both, and that drinks were already on the table.
He looked so innocent. Was it possible that Clark had been mistaken? It was certainly suspicious that Dan had reappeared in her life just at the point in which she was investigating CIA corruption.
Lois hesitated, then returned to her table. "Dan…"
The sounds of conversation began to drop off around the room, and it took Lois a moment to realize what was going on. People were staring up at the televisions on the walls around them in silence.
"This is LNN anchorwoman Maria Deseret. We are here in the camp of General Mohamar Alsadin, where only minutes ago it was revealed that one member of the royal family of Quazistan still survives. Superman was seen flying Prince Fadi into the center of camp. General Alsadin has announced a press conference due to begin shortly."
The picture on the screen shifted. A swarthy face appeared on the screen, one which was gaunt and elderly. He spoke in a steady stream of Arabic, and the woman translator followed along. "He arrived in disguise, dressed as one of Quazistan's many rescue workers. He dropped the prince off, but it seemed to me that he was injured; there were blood stains on his side, and he seemed to be sick."
The anchorwoman's face appeared again. "We have news of an attack on Superman, and we have just received exclusive footage."
The scene changed again.
A small figure could be seen over the skyline, flying slowly, unsteadily.
A streak trailing smoke flew towards it from behind, then exploded in a shower of emerald green. Fragments flew to earth, as did a single humanoid figure.
"No sign has been seen of Superman since he fell to earth minutes ago. Members of each faction are beginning to make a house by house search of the city, but there has been no success as of yet. We'll keep you informed as to any further developments."
The room remained silent even as the screen returned to the regular line of LNN news.
Time seemed to stop. Lois sat frozen, unable to speak. Her mind couldn't seem to grasp what she had seen. Her vision dimmed, and it seemed a struggle to take a single breath.
At last Lois came to a conclusion. It couldn't be true. Clark was alive; he had to be. She wouldn't accept any other answer.
The world seemed to shift back into focus. Clark needed her, and there was no time to waste.
She turned to Dan, and said, "I think I'll take your offer."
Pain had been a distant memory once. Clark had lived a charmed life as a child; the scrapes and bruises that were part of most children's lives had never been a part of his. He had never been ill. He never sunburned, no matter how long he had been outdoors; truthfully, he was slow to tan. Had his complexion not been naturally darker than that of the Kents, it might have been remarked on. On only two occasions had he been injured at all; he'd fallen from a tree and broken his arm when he was six years old. The injury had healed quickly; within three weeks he had pulled his own cast off and resumed his normal life. The other time, he had burned himself on a stovetop. That injury had healed even quicker. The Kents had never believed in spanking, and so physical pain was almost a foreign concept to Clark.
Emotional pain was a different thing altogether. Clark had always been an obedient child, sensitive to the sound of disappointment in his parents' voices. He had been insecure; in later years his mother liked to blame it on his early abandonment as a baby. His father dismissed that as psycho-babble. If Clark had been needy as a child, his parents had always been there for him, and as far as Jonathan Kent was concerned, that was the end of it.
Clark had grown up safe in the knowledge that his parents loved him, but that had not stopped his emotional pain. He had always had a sense that he was different; once puberty hit, his body began to change in ways that the other children's didn't. Once it became apparent that he was not entirely human, his parents had made it clear that it had to remain a secret.
Clark would have hidden what he was, even had his parents not ordered him to. Six years of public school had shown him how children react to those who were different. From the time he had been very young, he had stood up for those who were being bullied. It had taken time, but he had eventually earned the respect of his classmates. Were they to learn that he was a freak, he would lose everything he had struggled for. The easy acceptance of his classmates had never fully eased the void inside him, but he couldn't imagine the loneliness he would feel without their approval.
As he had grown stronger and more impervious to harm, the memory of physical pain grew dim and distant. Gradually, Clark forgot what it was like to feel any pain that was not emotional.
His first experience with Kryptonite had been a shock. Fire burning against his skin, fingers of agony shooting through every part of his body. The first experience had been overwhelming; he had not known pain in so long that he was almost helpless against it. When he lost his powers after the first exposure, it had felt as though part of him had been cut away. As a child he had wished for nothing so much as to be like everyone else. It was only once he lost those abilities that made him different from other men that he realized how much they were a part of him.
Before he met Lois, he had lived with an aching void in the center of his chest. Something was missing from his life, and subconsciously he knew it. In time, he had learned to endure the pain, and had searched the world.
Meeting Lois had filled his void for the first time.
The emotional pain that he had lived with for his entire life was suddenly gone. She had filled him with a feeling of indescribable joy, and a momentous sense of relief. That which he had sought all his life was right before him.
She had rejected him in favor of his alter ego, and that caused new pain, but nothing like the pain he had lived with before. Emotionally, he had never felt so good, especially as the creation of his persona as Superman allowed him to be free in ways he had never before imagined.
While his emotional pain was easing, he was becoming acquainted once again with physical pain. He was exposed to Kryptonite time after time.
Once, he was shot, and while feeling the bullet poison him had been painful; having Lois pry the bullet out had felt even worse. The wound had healed almost instantly after the Kryptonite was gone, but he had been undeniably weakened.
The night before Lois's wedding he had discovered the true meaning of pain. For hour after hour he had been trapped inside a cage made of Kryptonite. He had felt his life being slowly leached from his body as the radiation had made its slow burn across his skin. It had been almost a week before he had recovered any of his abilities, and longer before he was back to full strength.
Each time he had come closer to a realization. Pain could be endured.
Rescuing the prince had seemed simple. The workers had been steadily lining the walls of the palace with lead, but it was a long and tedious job. Clark had still been able to see the comings and goings in two thirds of the palace, and it hadn't taken him long to realize where the prince was being held.
Clark's first impulse had been to simply break in and take the prince. Normally he was a linear thinker. As Superman, his power was such that the shortest way between two points was usually straight through a wall. He felt that he was fast enough to get in and get out before anyone could get him, even with a passenger slowing him down.
He had made a promise to Lois, though, and he meant to keep it. He tried to call her, but had received an error message. He returned to the bed and breakfast to find her already gone. Once the owner reassured him that Lois had left under her own power, he had called Perry and given him what he'd discovered.
Clark was a linear thinker, but Lois made intuitive leaps. Together their skills complemented each other. Without Lois to bounce ideas off, Clark was forced to come up with his own plan.
After some thought, he formed one he thought Lois would have been proud of.
He returned to Quazistan, and followed the convoy of supply trucks back to the factory that had been converted to produce lead sheeting. Moving too fast for the human eye to see, he had stripped himself naked, then dipped himself up to the neck in molten lead.
Acquiring a soldier's outfit and gas mask had been the work of a moment; it had been harder to find an assortment of grenades. Eventually he had done it.
It wasn't hard to launch grenades at an uninhabited part of the building from a long distance away. Most were smoke grenades, but a few were of the more dangerous sort. Clark knew that the palace would assume that it was under attack; after the chemical attacks two weeks ago, everyone who could afford a gas mask had one.
In the confusion that followed the attack, it had been easy for Clark to drill his way under the palace into one of the lead lined areas. He hadn't expected the guard who was with the prince; only his superhuman speed allowed him to almost avoid the Kryptonite bullet that gouged a path along his side then buried itself into the wall behind him.
His wound began healing immediately, but he was weakened. He easily tied the guard to a bedpost, then grabbed the prince, pulling him through the tunnel and flying away before anyone realized that the attack had been only a diversion. Once the pain from the wound would have incapacitated him, but he'd learned to endure.
He'd been lucky; the bullet had only creased his skin, and while it bled and healed slowly, the wound was already mostly closed by the time they reached the camp of General Alsadin.
There were a few tense moments in which Alsadin's bodyguards considered shooting at him. There had been thoughts that Superman might kidnap the leaders of all three factions in order to stop the war. Clark had known that it would be futile. Each leader had at least three underlings able to take his place immediately. The factions were like the mythical hydra; cut off one head, and two more emerged in its place.
At last one of them recognized the prince and called out to the others. It had taken several minutes for the General to emerge, and once he had, several more to question the prince to make sure he really was who he claimed to be. They had known him from the first glance, but Clark knew that they had to be thorough.
There was much celebrating in the camp once the general announcement was made. Clark had done all he could; when he heard the sounds of the approaching LNN news helicopter, he knew it was time to go.
It was best that the west not see Superman in disguise; it might lead to too many questions after the Diana Stride affair. Once the world had assumed that Superman had nothing to hide; he didn't wear a mask and the suit didn't seem to come off. Diana Stride had shattered that view, and while Clark and his parents had managed to discredit her, the idea had been planted. It was better that the world not see him in anything but the familiar red and blue costume. With any luck, the war would be over soon, and he could return home to Metropolis and Lois.
He'd left, flying low as always to avoid radar. One of the LNN news crews had turned to follow him even though he was already at long range even for their telephoto lenses. He'd turned a little, when he noticed a reflection in one of the few remaining glass windows in the city.
The missile had almost taken him by surprise. Assuming that it would be detonated by contact, he had floated in place, intending to move to the side an instant before it could hit him, then use his heat vision to destroy it before it could turn. Even in his weakened state, he was much faster than any missile ever designed by man.
It should have worked, but the designers had taken his speed into account. Once the missile was thirty feet away from him, it exploded into a cloud of green death. He should have realized that it would have a proximity fuse.
The gas had settled all around him, soaking into his skin wherever it could reach. The thin coat of lead he wore protected him, but his scalp burned, and the gash along his side was not protected. The gas mask did not filter all the gas, and Clark's lungs filled with a liquid fire. Instinctively he blew outward as hard as he could, blowing the gas out of his lungs and the mask off his face.
His eyes began to swell almost instantly from the contact with the gas. Like a falling star, he tumbled to earth. Pain had been a distant memory once. Now it was all he knew, but nevertheless he would endure. He had too much to live for.
In the midst of the void he had found himself in, he distantly heard voices, voices that spoke in a language he once knew.
"Help me get him off the street. The others will be looking for him."
He felt gentle hands lifting him, and through his pain he was grateful. He would live to see Lois again.
Blackness engulfed him, and he knew no more.
At the best of times, Lois was not a good flyer. She had been named Mad Dog Lane not merely for her tenacity, but also for her temper, but somehow she was finding it difficult to summon her old anger. Instead, she felt herself on the edge of a black pit of despair. She felt helpless and trapped, knowing that there was nothing she could do to help Clark. It didn't help that Dan had lied; she'd expected a quick trip across the Atlantic on a Concorde, and instead she was forced to endure fourteen hours in coach while Dan enjoyed the comforts of first class.
Normally, the obese Egyptian businessman who sat on one side of her, and the unwashed American student who sat on the other would have made Lois feel claustrophobic. The family with five children that sat in the rows behind her would have driven her to distraction. She would have made snide comments, complained, and convinced the flight attendants to find another seat for her.
She just couldn't seem to summon the energy this time. She was exhausted; between retrieving her visa and passport, packing, and making it to the Lexcorp International Airport on time, she hadn't had time to catch her breath. She'd been dismayed to discover the extent of Dan's duplicity, but there hadn't even been time to curse at him. He'd only smirked as he slipped into first class, leaving her to the terrors of coach.
The thick folder he handed her before boarding had been a mixed blessing. The pictures within were horrendous, snapshots of evil. However, while she concentrated on the folder, she was able to ignore her growing misery. Work had always been her means of escape, and though her concentration wasn't as focused as it normally was, it did help.
The note on the front page was handwritten in Dan's usual scrawl. "Don't publish your story. Here are some of the reasons why." The file was thick, full of pictures of rapes, murders and political tortures. Before she was a quarter done with the file, Lois realized that King Fasil had been a monster, and his sons had been even worse. The dry, factual reports made the stark photographs even more sickening. It took Lois an hour to get through the file; some of the pictures turned her stomach. Finally, she closed the file and lay with her eyes closed.
Every second that passed was torture, because it was one more second in which something could go wrong with Clark. Clark hadn't died; Lois could never believe that. She would have felt a void, a severing of the connection they had between them.
After a time, she even managed to sleep. Her dreams were troubled. Clark was drowning in the middle of a green fog, gasping for breath as he tried to reach out to her. For a moment, he seemed to be about to escape, but a sea of human victims began grabbing at his arms, pulling him back in with them. Though they were dead, their faces shining a sickly green, their wounds gaping, they still cried out. They screamed soundlessly, their pain enveloping Clark, pulling him back in to his death.
Lois struggled, trying to reach him, but strong hands gripped her from behind. She tried to pull away, but was unable to. She looked behind her, to see the grinning face of Dan Scardino. As she watched, his toothy grin became even wider. She'd never seen so many teeth before in a human being. His teeth grew until they encompassed her, and he swallowed her whole.
She woke to find that she was still trapped in coach. They were settling down for a short refueling stop in London before continuing on their way. As soon as they landed, she slid around the Egyptian, and headed for the bathroom.
Like all airplane restrooms, it was tiny. The light shining from the ceiling made her look pale and washed out. She was glad to see that the bruise under her eye was finally turning yellow and beginning to fade a bit, but the bags under both her eyes were a testament to her fatigue.
Fear was exhausting. Though her dream was fading, the scene from the television kept repeating itself in her mind. The missile heading towards Clark, the explosion and the green cloud. The sight of him falling was the worst. She never should have agreed to let him go back. She should have insisted that he stay with her. She needed him.
She'd sworn that she wouldn't go through the pain of losing him again, and yet here it was, happening once more.
She cleaned up as well as she was able, then slipped out again. Most of the passengers were still asleep in spite of the landing, and Lois wondered if she would be able to slip forward into first class without being stopped. She grabbed the file from her seat and carefully slipped the spy pen into the jacket, as though she had been using it as a place marker.
Being careful that no flight attendants were watching, she slipped through the curtain that separated first class from coach. Lois felt a momentary flash of rage. Dan had claimed that first class was booked up. She should have known he was lying. Half the seats in first class were empty, and she was dismayed to see how much leg room they had. The seats back in coach were cramped even for her; she couldn't imagine what they would be like for someone the size of Clark.
It took her a moment to spot Dan. He looked like he was sleeping, and his sleep was almost as troubled as hers had been. She leaned forward to grab his briefcase. As she started to slide it out from under his seat, his eyes opened.
"What are you doing up here?"
"I'm returning your file. I thought it might be nice to stretch my legs and see how the other side lives. I was feeling a little like a sardine back there." She paused, then said sarcastically, "Did I ever tell you how grateful I was for the ticket? I was expecting a Concorde and I get the Turkish Airlines special. I think I actually saw someone with a couple of live chickens back there."
"The government has been making cutbacks recently…" He smirked. "I'd have dipped into my own pocket to make up the difference, but then I remembered that I needed the money to pay the bar bill I've been ringing up ever since you decided to stick my heart in a blender."
"You knew I was dating Clark when you first asked me out," Lois hissed. "Risky propositions don't always turn out the way we want."
"Sometimes the prize is worth the risk."
Lois looked away. "Sometimes you land flat on your face."
Dan was silent for a moment. "So you read the file."
"I wasn't sure why you gave it to me."
"Fasil was a psychopath. A civil war was on the horizon no matter what anyone did. I just can't understand what Superman was thinking when he handed Prince Fadi over to General Alsadin and his men."
"He was thinking that the military was still loyal to Fadi, and that it would be the best way to end the war."
"Alsadin's men were loyal all right. Who do you think helped King Fasil and his sons commit all their atrocities?" Dan shook his head. "If Fadi stays in their hands, it's likely that the government of Quazistan will turn against American interests."
"Are you saying that you agree with what the CIA did?"
"There hasn't been any real proof that they did anything, Lois." Dan glanced at the window. "This could be nothing more than the work of a few rogue agents."
"That's what the party line will be, I'm sure." Lois was sarcastic. "Throwing people to the wolves seems to be a specialty of bureaucrats."
"The royalists will do everything they can to get Fadi back. They've been losing the war, but they aren't ready to give up."
"If a rebellion was inevitable, why would the CIA want to interfere anyway?"
"Probably because they didn't think the rebellion would succeed. Once a tyrant manages to consolidate his power, it's almost impossible to dethrone him."
Lois opened her mouth to argue, but she noticed an angry looking flight attendant stalking down the aisle. She scowled. She'd hoped to be able to stretch her legs for at least a little longer, but she could see that the sky was already beginning to lighten outside. People would be waking soon, and her chance to interrogate Dan was gone.
She slipped out of the chair and back through the curtain before the flight attendant could confront her.
The plane began to lift off shortly after she returned to her seat, and people around her began to wake. The next few hours tested Lois's patience to the utmost.
The children behind her began to whine, cry and scream. The businessman beside her spent much of his time leering at her, and the American teenager beside her, while engrossed in his Walkman, continued to smell just as bad.
The coach section was packed; seats were assigned, and even if they hadn't been, there wouldn't have been any place for her to move to. It was difficult at times for Lois to hold her temper. She only managed it because she couldn't afford any delays in reaching Clark. Being detained by security in Diyarbakir wasn't on her agenda.
She tried using her spy pen a time or two, but all she could hear was the sound of Dan flirting with the flight attendant and enjoying a fine meal and wash cloths to wipe his face. Unwilling to listen to any more, Lois closed her eyes.
This time she dreamed of the explosion, of Clark falling from the sky. His fall seemed to last forever, and though Lois tried to scream, she could not say a word. Shadowy figures seemed to be emerging from every nook and cranny, from doorways and from behind alleys, and they all seemed to be laughing.
She woke just as Clark crashed to earth.
It seemed that she had slept longer than she had expected, but her eyes felt gritty, and she still felt exhausted. She endured another hour of listening to the children behind her, and she wondered why any woman ever chose to become a mother. Children were a nuisance; loud and obnoxious, disobedient, and bratty. They started out with a clean slate, just waiting for someone to make their mark, and most people just scrawled the first thing that came to mind. Children were easy to ruin; Lois's own mother hadn't put much forethought in the way she raised her children.
Clark's parents had, and it showed. Clark would be very careful with his own children. Lois had a momentary dream of a tiny face with Clark's eyes. She smiled bitterly. There wasn't any guarantee that she and Clark could have children, even if Clark managed to survive.
Lois allowed herself to contemplate the idea that Clark might not survive. No matter how much she told herself that Clark still lived, the possibility of his death still loomed in the back of her mind. Like the sword of Damocles, it hovered over her head, leaving her unable to think about anything else. By the time the plane landed, her mood was black. She ignored Dan as they went through customs. She felt a moment of trepidation that they might question her about the receiver for the spy pen, but it was disguised as a radio, and it passed inspection.
They collected their bags, and Lois was surprised to find an American soldier in a jeep waiting for them.
She glanced at Dan, and he grinned. "Pirinclik Air Force base is here in Diyarbakir. It's one of the two bases we have in Turkey. We were hoping to get a few in Quazistan, but Fasil squelched the notion."
The soldier placed their bags in the back of the jeep. Lois climbed into the back of the jeep.
"Are we going to be staying on the base?"
Dan shook his head as the soldier put the jeep into drive. "I found us a nice hotel in the center of the city. The base here doesn't have any room; it was just an electronics depot before the war started. Now we've begun building up troops at the border, just in case the war should spread."
The roads were in poor condition, and Lois was dismayed by the poverty she saw everywhere. She had heard people theorize that if Turkey had possession of the Quazistani oil reserves that the economy might have been more vibrant.
Dan pointed at a set of tall, black basalt walls that separated the inner city from the outer. "Those walls are the second longest in the world. Only the Great Wall of China is longer."
Normally, Lois would have been interested, but her black mood had not lifted, and she found herself staring off into space.
Eventually they reached their hotel, a grand old stone structure with a flat roof and many windows. Lois allowed Dan to check them into their rooms, and she followed him and the bellhop down the long halls. The ceilings were high, and fans spun everywhere. It was cooler than it was outside, but not by much.
Lois dropped her suitcase on her bed, then followed the others to Dan's room. After Dan had tipped the bellhop, Lois closed the door behind him.
"There's one thing I can't figure out. Why would the CIA want Superman dead?"
"That has yet to be proven, Lois. As far as I can see, it was just a simple weapons sale from Bureau 39 to the Quazistanis."
"You can't tell me that the CIA wasn't involved. Bureau 39 is a branch of the CIA, and it doesn't do anything without tacit CIA approval."
Dan glanced at her, startled. "I don't think I want to ask you about your sources."
He sighed. "I can think of a dozen reasons the CIA might want him dead, but they can all be summarized into one argument: he's dangerous."
Lois was outraged. "Superman has done more for the people of the planet than just about anyone else! Is everyone in the government crazy?!? Superman is the most honest, incorruptible man I know."
"He's a man, Lois, and any man can be corrupted." Dan looked serious. "A week before we first met, Superman hijacked a shipment of nuclear weapons."
"He was tricked into it!" Lois had always felt guilty about her own role in that incident. "He'll be much more careful in the future."
"If he can be tricked once, he can be tricked again. Metropolis almost turned into a radioactive crater. The next time it could be New York, or Washington DC."
"He cares too much about people to ever let something like that happen."
"What about the next time someone finds red Kryptonite? How careful will he be then?"
Lois was stunned. She hadn't ever published anything about the effects of red Kryptonite. She had started to write a story, but had allowed it to die on her computer at work."
"How do you know about red Kryptonite?"
"I've been putting my time in the CIA to good use, Lois. You won't believe some of the stuff I've found out. Did you know that they really do have the Ark of the Covenant hidden in a vault somewhere…along with Jimmy Hoffa's body?"
"Get serious. Superman was able to throw the effects of red Kryptonite off easily, once he was aware of them."
"Even assuming that someone does not find a technological method to control him…and given that he was affected by the same pheromone that caused the baby boom in Metropolis a while back, I wouldn't bet on it, there are other issues." Dan sighed. "He may be the most powerful being on the planet, but he is still a man. Superman has human emotions, when he feels like showing them."
"That just makes him all the more commendable for all the things he does! He hasn't taken a single dime in all the time I've known him. He gives freely of his time, and he works diligently to save people, even when they don't want to be saved."
"That's a good point Lois. What happens the next time Saddam Hussein decides to act up, and Superman decides that he's against the war? He's already interfered in Quazistan. He decided who he wanted to place in power, then made sure that person got to the people who would put him there."
"He just wanted to stop the war. People are dying senselessly every day over there. He had to stop it." Lois stared out the window. Clark had done what was right. He always did…except when it came to their relationship. That was where he showed his flawed human nature.
"Power corrupts. It will get easier and easier for him to justify his actions." Dan looked straight into her eyes. "Have you ever killed anyone, Lois?"
Lois shook her head.
"It's the most horrible feeling in the world…the first time. It gets easier each time you do it, and each time a little bit of your humanity drains away. In the end, all that's left is a shell that used to be a man."
He was silent. "Central Intelligence deals with the worst parts of human nature- greed, fear, jealousy…It's impossible for them to believe than anyone can be perfect. Superman lives as an ideal, but for how long?"
Lois opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it.
Dan looked away from her. "Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do, Lois. We just have to believe that in the end, we are doing the right thing."
"So you are saying that the end justifies the means."
"That's exactly what I'm saying."
They were both silent for a long time. Finally, Lois spoke. "I guess I'd better get unpacked."
"I need to make a few phone calls anyway. I have to call the banks we'll be looking at later this afternoon."
Lois nodded, then returned to her room. She pulled the receiver from her suitcase and switched it on.
She could hear Dan dialing one of the old style rotary telephones.
His voice changed. His voice grew cold, and his pronunciation became more clipped. "Is this line secure?" There was a long pause. "Did you get all the copies? I'll take care of things here. Just make sure there aren't any loose ends." Another long pause. "Do what you have to do."
She could hear him flipping pages, then dialing another number. "Get me Georges. I'll wait."
Lois opened her suitcase and pulled out a small knapsack concealed inside. She began packing it quickly.
"Is there any sign of him? Keep looking."
Lois finished packing, then pulled her door opened slightly. She peered out, and was dismayed to find that the soldier who had worked as their driver was standing at the end of the hall. She slowly pushed the door closed.
The window was tall and narrow, and there was no ledge. It did open to the outside, a necessity given the heat. While they were only on the second story, the drop was sheer, and the alley below was paved with bricks. Lois grimaced. It was possible that she could make the fifteen-foot drop, but she would risk spraining her ankle, or worse.
The mattress on her bed was thick and filled with feathers. It took all of Lois's strength, but she managed to pull the mattress to the window and push it out. It landed on the bricks below folded in half. Lois grimaced; while it would make for a thicker cushion, it would also be more likely that she would twist her knee or ankle as she came down.
She slowly lowered herself out the window, until she was hanging by her hands, thus lowering the distance she would fall by the length of her body and arms. She was at the point of no return now; despite martial arts classes, she didn't have the upper body strength to lift herself back up to the window.
She let herself drop, knowing there was nothing else she could do. She could feel Clark out there, somewhere to the east, and she would find him.
Nothing was going to get in her way.
Adrift in a sea of pain, Clark knew that he was in good hands. The hands that carried him were gentle, the voices he heard were concerned. His clothes were quickly removed and the lead that enveloped him like thick mud was peeled away.
He was lowered into lukewarm water, and hands carefully scrubbed away the glowing green crystals that were burning his scalp. His body was cleansed, carefully, and the swelling in his eyes was tended to.
It hurt to breathe; as soon as his bath was done, a mask was lowered over his face, and cool oxygen flowed through his body. It was still hard to breathe, but the feeling that he was suffocating was gone.
He felt the prick of several injections, but in comparison to the liquid fire that was spreading throughout his body, they were inconsequential. The pain of the catheter being inserted was another matter. He struggled; such was his strength even now that he flung four men away from him. A soothing voice in his ear convinced him to relax, even though he could not understand the words. Somehow, he just sensed that he could trust the man.
While his scalp and face no longer burned, the burning pain that filled his veins only grew. He moaned, and he could hear the note of concern in the voices above him. He struggled with the pain, only halfway conscious, yet knowing he had to endure.
He found a lifeline. Somewhere, far to the west, he could feel Lois. He felt her shock and sorrow, and the strength of her love for him. He tried to communicate with her, to let her know that he lived, but he didn't have the strength. He allowed himself to focus his whole being on her, to concentrate and let the whole world fade away.
In time, he slept.
It was an eternity before he woke again. He rode a sea of pain; semiconscious, it was hard to hold on to the image of Lois coming to be with him. When he slept, his dreams were nightmarish. At one point, he dreamed that he stood in the midst of a green mist, drowning beneath the weight of all the people he hadn't managed to save.
Lois reached for him, but she was pulled away by Scardino. The man grinned at Clark, a grin that grew wider and wider until at last it grew to envelop Lois. Clark screamed, and his throat burned like fire.
He was calmed by a gentle voice, and fell into a true sleep.
Clark woke slowly, to the sound of chanting in another language. His bladder burned, as did his bowels, and he felt a strong need to urinate. He opened his eyes slowly, and was relieved to note that they were no longer swollen shut.
He was in a small room whose floor and walls were covered in brightly colored carpets. He turned his head slightly, which caused him some pain, and he saw the source of the chanting.
A bearded man was on his knees, his hands raised to heaven as he prayed. Clark's mind was still too fuzzy to translate, so he allowed the sounds of the words to roll over him. He glanced down, and realized that he was lying on a pallet, and that an IV was connected to his left wrist. It itched, and he had a momentary urge to pull it out.
More troublesome was the pain he was suffering in his bladder. He allowed his right hand to drift downward underneath the cover, then froze in shock. It took a moment to remember the catheter being inserted and he shuddered.
The pain he was feeling was not merely the feeling of a full bladder; he'd been around enough accident victims and hospitals to realize that the catheter created that sensation. Instead, this was a burning, fiery pain, one he had always associated with Kryptonite.
The sounds of the man at his prayers ceased abruptly, and Clark glanced over at him again. The man was carefully rolling up his prayer rug and putting it away in a small mahogany chest. He turned, and saw Clark looking at him.
The man's white teeth were a startling contrast to his swarthy nut brown skin and graying full beard.
"It's good to see you awake. I was afraid that we might have lost you a time or two, but it looks like you will pull through. I am Halim bin Ahmad bin Said Al-Taimur. I am a doctor, and you are a guest in my home."
Clark tried to speak, but his throat felt as though it had been sliced with hot knives.
"Don't try to speak; whatever it was that you inhaled burned your throat and lungs. Until they heal, it would be better for you to remain silent." Dr. Halim checked the IV running into his left arm. "You were brought in over twenty hours ago. My friends grew ill; apparently your enemies mixed the green solution with a simple chemical toxin. It didn't affect you any more than the painkillers did." He scowled. "My friends will recover. They should have been more cautious.. After the chemical weapons attacks of the past few weeks, everyone should be aware of the procedures to be followed."
He looked down at Clark, and said, "I wish there was something I could do for your pain. Some of the drugs I might have tried would have suppressed your breathing…assuming you had responded to them like an ordinary man. I'm beginning to suspect that they wouldn't have worked in the first place. Your body is different enough from that of a human that I can't be sure of anything. Give thanks to Allah that the chelating agents I gave you are working, or we would have lost you altogether."
He gestured to the foot of Clark's pallet. For the first time, Clark noticed that the catheter bag was glowing green. "I've never had such obvious evidence of their success; the drugs are binding themselves to the substance in your blood, just as they would to lead or iron or arsenic. Eventually, your body should eliminate the substance from your blood and your cells." He hesitated. "There isn't much we can do for your pain. I'm reluctant to experiment any more than I have to."
Clark nodded. The pain was bad, but bearable.
"Try to get some rest," Doctor Halim said. "I'll be in later to give you another injection, and change your catheter bag."
Clark gestured, and the doctor frowned for a moment before leaving the room. He returned with a western style notepad and ball-point pen.
Clark wrote rapidly, and the doctor nodded. He left and was gone for several minutes. When he returned, he had a portion of the soft lead Clark had been wearing.
"It's a good thing I had already decontaminated this."
He wrapped the lead around the catheter bag as well as he could, and Clark felt the pain he was experiencing grow infinitesimally less.
Clark nodded as well he as he could without re-igniting the pain his head. While his breathing was still labored, it wasn't a struggle to take in every breath the way it had been before.
He thought again of Lois, and again had the sense that she was much closer. He had felt a connection with her from the first moment he saw her, and it had only grown stronger with time. It wasn't always dependable, but it was always there. As long as he had that connection, he knew he had someone to return home to. He wasn't alone any longer; even apart, he was stronger because of her.
He hoped the war would wind down quickly. It would take time for his body to eliminate the Kryptonite in his system, and even longer for his powers to return. He hoped he was wrong about Lois coming for him; Quazistan was not yet a safe place to be. If she would wait a week or two, he would return to her.
He knew it was a foolish hope. Lois was coming for him. She would have heard what had happened, and nothing would stop her from searching for him. If she had been missing, he would have searched just as diligently for her. That was assuming that he was able to pull himself away from rescuing people he didn't even know.
If Lois got hurt, it would be his fault. Because he was in Quazistan, she had been kidnapped and beaten. Now, she was probably headed into a war zone. She couldn't help but see things he had hoped to protect her from, and she would have to be very lucky not to be hurt or killed.
He didn't have the strength to help her. He didn't even have the strength to help himself. He was as weak as a baby, and it would take everything he had just to sit up…assuming he could manage it.
He allowed himself to focus on Lois once again, allowing her to become the center of his world. With a little imagination, it almost felt as though he could talk with her. He allowed himself to enjoy the thought for a moment. He began to relax, and after a moment fell back into a deep sleep.
He woke with a feeling of being watched. He opened his eyes a slit, and was startled to see two small faces only inches from his own.
Two identical sets of brown eyes set in distinctly different nut-brown faces stared at him in open-eyed wonder. The boy and the girl stared at him as though he had grown a third eye.
"Harith, Laila, get away from him," Dr Halim spoke from the next room. "He's very ill and he needs his rest."
The girl hid behind her brother, who stuck out his chest and grinned a gap- toothed grin, as though to say that he was not afraid of anything, not even a man that could fly. Dr. Halim gestured, and the two scampered out of the room.
"Grandchildren are a blessing," Dr. Halim said. "I need to run some tests."
While the doctor listened to his chest and painfully lifted him into a sitting position, Clark coughed and wheezed. Whatever damage the Kryptonite had done to his lungs was healing, but only slowly. Clark grimaced as he lay back down.
Dr. Halim gave him an injection quickly and painlessly.
Clark spoke for the first time since he had been injured. His voice was raspy, and distorted through the oxygen mask, but understandable.
"You must be good with children."
The doctor glanced at him in surprise. "I hadn't expected your larynx to heal so quickly. You should try not to strain it."
He sighed. "I don't believe in causing any more pain than is absolutely necessary. It is every man's duty to himself and Allah to lend a helping hand. If I was still working at the hospital…"
A new voice interrupted. "You aren't still working at the hospital because you are a Kurd." A man in his early twenties leaned against the door. He bore a strong family resemblance to Dr. Halim. "I don't understand why you would want to lift a single finger to help any of them. You weren't there when they defiled mother, but I was. You know what they did, and yet you still want to tend to their wounds?"
"Why have you returned? I would have thought you would have been too involved in killing to return home."
"My children are here, old man. You weren't the only one to lose a wife to Fasil and Malik." The younger man looked down at Clark, and spoke. "I want to know why you harbor this one? He has brought nothing but trouble to our cause."
"To your cause, you mean. To kill the weak and the innocent is the act of a coward, not a warrior."
"They spit at us behind our backs." The younger man's face flushed with anger. "We were treated as if we were lower than dogs."
"Is that a reason to kill children?"
"If we are ever to have a homeland for our people, we must be willing to pay a price in blood."
"Some prices are too high."
"No price is too high for freedom."
Clark coughed, each spasm causing sharp pains in his chest.
The younger man walked across the floor, and for the first time, Clark noted that while Dr. Halim went barefoot, as had the children, his son continued to wear his boots. He walked across the intricately designed Turkish and Quazistani carpets without even noticing that he was tracking sand and mud.
He pulled a large, curved dagger from its sheath at his waist and squatted down next to Clark's pallet. "I should just kill you right now for what you have done to my people."
"He's helped thousands of our people get across the border." Dr. Halim looked agitated.
"They aren't any more welcome there than they are here." He turned to Clark. "Don't you realize what you've done?"
Clark shook his head.
"You've ruined every chance my people have had to find freedom. Do you remember Ammad al'Fasir, Dramud al'khamir and Tammud al'Halif?"
Clark nodded. They had been three rebel snipers; on his first day in Quazistan he had been unable to prevent them from assassinating three officials of Malik's party. He had turned them over to the authorities, only to learn later that they had been executed almost on the spot.
"The men they gave their lives to kill helped Malik slaughter Kurds in the rural southeast. Their deaths were retribution and an assurance that nothing like that would happen again. Those men were heroes, and you handed them over to their deaths. They were tortured for hours before they died."
Clark wheezed for a moment. "I'll always regret that those men were put to death on my word alone. I didn't know what was going to happen to them."
He'd had to console himself on many nights that there had been no way he could have known. In spite of the fact that the men were assassins, no one deserved to be tortured.
"You didn't care about what was going to happen, any more than you cared about what was going to happen when you decided to start confiscating weapons, leaving men vulnerable to attack."
"I confiscated from all groups equally." Once Clark had realized that none of the three groups was without sin, he'd tried to remain as neutral as possible.
"I had friends die in one group that you disarmed. You took weapons and let people go in the middle of enemy territory. We lost almost two hundred soldiers one evening when they were returning from a battle that you participated in. They were defenseless, unable to defend themselves. You didn't leave them with so much as a pocket knife."
He continued. "It's a curious thing about weapons." He gestured with the knife. "When you take the same amount from everyone, you place the advantage in the hands of the group with the most guns. We have been fighting for our freedom using guns we have stolen from the enemy and what few weapons we could smuggle over the borders. Once you started taking our weapons from us, we were overwhelmed by Malik's men. They were better armed."
"They could have been killed just as easily in the battle I pulled them from," Clark rasped out his reply. He'd been too busy trying to save everyone to pay attention to the consequences of his actions. In the beginning, he'd been so miserable over having left Lois that it wasn't surprising that he'd made mistakes. He felt a wave of new guilt sweep through him.
"Then at least they would have weakened the enemy. They would have killed trained, professional soldiers, men who threaten our women and children as well as our way of life."
Clark had to protest. "You've got no right to talk about ethics. You use assassination and terrorism to kill people…"
"Which is more moral…to kill one psychopath and his family, or to start a war that costs hundreds of thousands of innocent lives?"
"It seems like you've done both." The moment the words left Clark's mouth, he regretted them. He'd been invulnerable for so long that his sense of self preservation lagged behind his outrage.
The man lunged forward, only to be stopped by his father's hand on his arm.
"This man is a guest in my house. Even a Turk wouldn't violate the rules of hospitality."
"We are at war. We can't be expected…"
"You are fighting this war to defend our way of life. If you reject our traditions, then what are you fighting for?"
He shook his head. "This man will bring nothing but death. They are searching every house in the city; we are making them pay dearly for trespassing, but we won't be able to stop them." He turned to his father and said, "How long before they find him? You have apartments over a coffee house; someone surely saw you bring him up here."
Dr. Halim shook his head. "The men downstairs are my friends. They won't say anything."
His son stared at his father. "What happens when their children have knives to their throats? How loyal will they be then?"
He sheathed his knife and stood. "Look at him. He's as weak as a baby." He kicked Clark viciously in the ribs.
"Get out! I will not allow you to treat my patient this way!" Dr. Halim moved quickly to push his son out of the room. His son stepped back quickly.
"That was for my friends who died. I'll leave you alone, but I won't lift a finger to help you, and neither will any of my men."
He turned to his father. "My children are my life. If Malik's men come, give this man to them, then pray. They might let them live. If there was anywhere else I could take them, I would."
He left, leaving the room in silence.
She should be grateful. The fifteen-foot drop hadn't broken her ankle, and even if it left her with a limp, she was still able to move. Lois glanced up at the windows behind her; she didn't see any sign of Dan or his goon, but she couldn't believe that it would take them long to find out that she was missing.
Lois grabbed her knapsack and quickly limped down the alley. She had watched very carefully as they entered the city, and she had seen cabs waiting near the front of the hotel. She could only hope that the drivers spoke English… it was probably too much to expect; the drivers in Metropolis weren't always clear on the language, and some of them were native New Yorkers.
She turned the corner onto the street, and a group of men across the way whistled and made rude gestures at her. Lois cursed under her breath. Her first inclination was to march across the street and show them the error of their ways, but she neither spoke the language, nor did she have the time. She walked as quickly as she was able, turning the corner again, and spotted a cab.
It was decrepit, looking as though it was older than Lois was herself, but she certainly wasn't ready to complain.
The tall bearded man leaning against the car with a cigarette in his mouth stared at her for a moment.
"Do you speak English?" she asked. The cabs she had seen earlier had all disappeared.
The man didn't speak for a moment. He glanced behind her, as though he was looking for someone, then sighed. He dropped the cigarette butt to the ground and straightened. "Where do you want to go?"
"I have to pick up some clothes for my husband." Lois smiled. "If you could just take me to the main shopping district…"
"Why isn't he here with you?" The man's tone was rude and insolent, and Lois fought to control her temper.
"He's ill, and the plane lost all our luggage. Do you take American money?"
The man grunted, then opened the door to the taxi. Without waiting for her to enter, he walked around and slid into the driver's seat. Lois threw her knapsack inside, and tried to ignore the heat as she slipped into the cab.
The cab's windows seemed to be perpetually stuck in an open position, and Lois realized that the vehicle didn't have any air conditioning. It felt good to stay off her ankle, however, and she didn't see any sign of Dan or his crony following.
Reaching Clark wasn't going to be easy. She was going to have to cross two hundred and fifty miles of war torn countryside, and she knew that it wasn't safe to travel as a lone foreign woman even in times of peace. Quazistan was still fiercely patriarchal, and women were expected to travel with groups, or with a husband or father. While those traditions might have broken down somewhat with all the refugees, Lois didn't want to risk it.
The cab pulled to a stop. "That will be 13 million lira."
Lois felt flustered for a moment. "Will you take twenty dollars?"
He grunted and she threw the money at him. She stepped out of the cab, pulling her knapsack behind her. She looked around as he pulled away. She was standing at a wide plaza, with modern looking shops and stores ringing three sides and the street forming the fourth.
Street vendors were in the center of the plaza. Lois smiled; she would be able to pull it off.
It took her longer than she expected to find what she needed. While the shopkeepers invariably spoke English, not all of them were fluent. Lois was careful not to purchase anything too bright or new looking; she wanted to be able to blend in when she reached her destination. She left the shop as quickly as she could, ignoring the suspicious eye of the saleswoman.
She found a cab quickly, and the driver was not much more respectful than the last one had been. She suppressed a surge of irritation. It wasn't long before she reached her destination.
The International Red Cross Headquarters didn't look like much; they were desperately understaffed, and had chosen to spend their resources on aid and not office space. The receptionist was a Turkish woman, and Lois was quickly ushered to meet with the local director.
"I spoke with your editor, and I'll tell you what I told him. The International Red Cross is not in the business of transporting journalists into the middle of war zones. There are other options available to you, and I have to wonder why you don't take them?"
"Most of the routes the journalists took to get into Quazistan have been closed off by this point. The airports are closed and most of the roads have been threatened by guerrillas. The Red Cross is one of the few organizations that is still respected by all three sides of the conflict. There is no safer way to get into the borders unless you are in the middle of an army." Lois was confident and poised.
The director leaned forward. "That may be true. Why should the Red Cross allow you to go along?"
"Clark Kent did a number of articles on the Red Cross. It would seem that you are desperately understaffed here. I've had CPR training, I'm a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, and I'm just as able to hand out food and blankets as anyone else. Since you have vehicles headed for Rial, I'll be available as an extra set of hands all the way there. Your trucks will be empty on the way back in any case."
The Quazistanis weren't accepting aid from the Turkish branch of the Red Cross. Apparently, the long standing enmity between the two countries was strong enough that even Turks bearing gifts weren't welcome. Being forced to rely on foreign volunteers had crippled the rescue efforts. "There isn't any guarantee of safety. Some of our volunteers have been shot at, and some have been hit by shrapnel. You would be expected to work just as hard as anyone. We can't be held responsible for anything that happens to you." He sighed. "If you are willing to pitch in, I can't turn the help down. We have a shipment leaving in just a few minutes; it'll be a week before we can get another one together."
He stood up, and gestured for Lois to follow him. It didn't take long to reach a convoy of thirteen trucks which was in the last stages of being filled with food, medicine, bottles of clean water and other humanitarian goods.
"One of our drivers lost his partner last week. You'll ride with him."
Pierre wasn't much to look at. He was short, had the scraggly beginnings of a beard and a cigarette dangled from his lips. He looked at Lois and grunted, then turned to get into the truck.
Lois scrambled to get into the passenger's side. A few moments later, the first vehicle in the convoy began to move.
Pierre looked straight ahead and didn't say anything, and after a minute, Lois did the same. Pierre had the look of someone who had spent too much time in the sun, and his eyes were bloodshot.
It would take at least two days to reach Rial; Lois resented the time it would take, but there wasn't any other choice. Being killed wouldn't help Clark; he sometimes accused her of not thinking things through, but when it was important, she did what she had to.
Lois stared out the window sightlessly. There wasn't any way of knowing what had happened to Clark already, or in whose hands he might be. Two days would seem like a lifetime, but they were two days that could not be avoided. She wouldn't be able to fly into the country even if she wanted to; the LNN helicopters were the only aircraft that hadn't been shot from the sky, and they were taking risks every time they went up.
They drove for several minutes through narrow side streets before finally reaching the eastern edge of the city. The Tigris River was wide but sluggish, and the rolling hills on the other side were greener than she would have expected. A long stone bridge crossed the divide. At the western end, a new building was being constructed, and a large number of US soldiers had gathered together. The bridge itself was clogged with people and vehicles.
The soldiers spent much of their time interrogating the refugees who were flooding across the bridge. A young soldier waved them on, and Lois was dismayed when she realized that they were driving into a mass of humanity.
Pierre rolled his window up, and Lois followed his example. While this left the interior of the vehicle stifling and hot, it would prevent people from reaching into the cab and clutching at them.
The people didn't seem to notice the vehicles. The look in their eyes was desolate; they had lost everything they had ever known, and were at last giving up in defeat. They were entering a country which had always been the enemy of their own, and they had no idea of what was to become of them.
Old men and women helped young mothers with children in their arms. All were stumbling with heat and exhaustion, and twice Lois saw men collapse, only to be helped to their feet by their fellows. She was tempted to try to help them, but Pierre glanced at her and gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
For the first time, she noticed that he had the same look in his eyes as the refugees. It was pain that seemed oddly familiar.
The last place she had seen that sort of pain and desolation had been in Clark's eyes. He had tried to hide it from her, but he had always been a terrible liar. She had known something was wrong, but to see that same expression reflected from a thousand eyes made it perfectly clear.
Their eyes were dead, devoid of life and hope. Everything that was good in their lives had been ripped from them, and there was little hope that it would get better. The true casualty of war wasn't always the dead, but sometimes in those who were left behind.
The time on the bridge seemed like an eternity. They moved with a glacial slowness, and Lois was glad that she wasn't in the truck in the front. Some of the people were so out of it that they bumped against the sides of the vehicles.
Eventually they reached the other side, and the numbers of refugees began to thin out somewhat. The road beyond the bridge was winding, and while the slope down to the bank of the Tigris was muddy, the hills were covered in green grasses. Lois wondered why the refugees were being so careful to stay on the road.
They hadn't gone a mile before she found out. An explosion by the side of the road forced them to stop. Pierre pulled the vehicle to a halt and quickly pulled a kit from behind the seat. He almost leapt from the vehicle, and ran to the location of the explosion.
Lois rolled the windows back up and took the key, following as quickly as she was able.
It wasn't pretty. What had once been a human being was now little more than a red smear. Pierre examined the body for a moment, then stood up shaking his head.
A crowd had gathered around them, and Lois could hear shouting from behind. A man in his early thirties broke through the crowd and stared down at the body in horror. He sank to his knees beside the body.
The look in the man's eyes was one of madness. It was as though in a single instant, everything that was at the core of his being shattered. He gave a desolate scream, and everyone in the crowd flinched at the sight of his tears. He began grabbing at those who were nearest to him; pleading with them in a tone of voice that broke Lois's heart. She couldn't understand the words, but the meaning was clear.
Help her. I'll do anything, give anything…just bring her back. Take me instead…
The man's pain was like an open wound, and Lois found herself trembling. The raw emotion in his voice brought tears to her eyes, and Lois found that she couldn't look at him. It shamed her somehow to look into the face of his pain. The lump in her throat felt like a golf ball, and Lois swallowed several times as she tried to catch a breath of air.
Pierre knelt beside the man, and began to speak to him in soothing tones. It wasn't long before others came forward as well, a sea of hands offering comfort to a man who had just lost his soul. The man sobbed, and Lois slowly backed away.
She held her tears till she reached the truck, and then she cried silently.
It was some time before Pierre returned to the vehicle. The other trucks in the caravan had already gone on, and most of the refugees had continued onwards as well. Three women had gathered around the grieving husband and had wrapped the body in a white sheet.
Pierre simply repackaged his kit and replaced it before sliding into the driver's seat. While his lips were set, he showed no other sign of emotion. He started the vehicle and drove in silence.
Lois had forgotten that Quazistan had placed land mines all along the border with Turkey. Some of the mines were fifty years old, others dated back only a decade, but they were all deadly. Only the roads were kept clear in times of peace. It was another issue Clark had written about; it made reaching the border even more difficult for those seeking asylum.
Lois tried to start a conversation several times, but it was obvious that Pierre wasn't interested. They had driven for two hours over roads that were worn and bumpy, some of which were little more than trails winding into the mountains. Many of the main highways had been destroyed in the early battles of the war, which had made it all the more difficult to get food into the cities. Lois wasn't sure how close they were to Riad, but on several occasions she heard the sounds of distant mortar fire. The re-emergence of the prince wasn't going to be an instant fix for the troubles that were plaguing Quazistan.
It was dark when they finally reached the village where they would spend the night. It wasn't safe to travel by night even for the Red Cross; by night the distinctive emblems on the sides of their trucks couldn't be seen.
Lois helped to pass out food and water as well as she could, and she was allowed to sleep in one of the beehive shaped houses along with the other three female volunteers. The people here did not have the same dead look in their eyes; instead, Lois saw only fear. The security that they once had known had been ripped away and replaced only with the certainty that sooner or later they would come under attack.
She managed to trade the newer clothes she had purchased in Diyarbakir for a worn outfit last owned by one of the village boys. She carefully folded the outfit and placed it in her knapsack.
It was hard for Lois to sleep. If she closed her eyes she could almost imagine that she could feel Clark somewhere to the northeast. When she finally did sleep, her dreams were filled with the sobbing plea made by a distraught husband for his wife. Take me instead…
Lois was sullen and uncommunicative for most of the next morning. She ignored the stark beauty of the mountains through which the road wound a meandering path. The green beauty of mountain meadows filled with flowers did not stir her heart. Her mood was black.
Twice they were stopped by groups of soldiers who made cursory inspections of the contents of the trucks and stole some of the materials for themselves. Lois couldn't tell which faction each group belonged to, and it didn't really matter.
It was midmorning before they reached the outskirts of the capital city. By western standards, Rial wasn't a large city; since the beginning of the war it had become depopulated. They were met by a group of guards at the main road, and were given an armed escort into a central area.
A sea of people waited for them in the ruins of an old bazaar. They had the fear in their eyes that the villagers had, but she saw something new here. They had hope. While their speech was incomprehensible to her, she heard the name of Prince Fadi spoken many times, always in a hushed undertone.
It almost broke her heart to see the gratitude in the eyes of those to whom she handed out food and water. It was worse when it was all gone. Those who had waited at the edge of the crowd found themselves empty handed, and for a moment Lois thought they were going to turn ugly.
Then a middle aged man spoke sharply to them, and those who had gathered food did their best to share a little with their less fortunate neighbors.
Some heroes were never sung about.
When most of the distribution was done, Lois slipped into the back of one of the trucks with her knapsack. She changed clothing as quickly as she could. Binding her breasts was unpleasant but necessary, and Lois grimaced. When she had been trying to pass as a man to get into Harlan Black's club, Lois had made a careful study of the differences in gestures and mannerisms between men and women. She had learned to imitate the way a man walked, and had discovered a talent for mimicry. She hoped that it would be enough for her to pass. Before she had only had to disguise herself for a couple of hours. Here it might be days.
She had brought a small makeup kit with her, and managed to darken her complexion to a deep mahogany, being careful not to forget her hands or the back of her neck. It was difficult in the confines of the truck, without a washbasin or even much of a mirror, but she managed.
She straightened, and allowed her walk to turn into the stumbling gait of a developing adolescent. She had been watching the adolescent boys among the refugees the whole time she had been in Quazistan, and planned to adjust her body language to match. Her disguise wouldn't stand much scrutiny; she couldn't speak the language. What she did have in her favor was that her sense of Clark's presence had grown much stronger. He was very close now, so close that it almost seemed as though he were calling her.
She slipped out of the back of the truck as quietly as she could, and noticed Pierre looking her way. She could see the look of recognition in his eyes and she hoped that everyone wouldn't be able to see through her disguise as easily.
The sensible thing to do would have been to find the hotel holding the last journalists in Quazistan and to ask about leads. Malik's men were in power, however, and they had control over the hotel where the journalists were staying.
She noticed the middle aged man who had quieted the crowd accepting several packages of medicine from Pierre, speaking with him in flawless French. She approached carefully. She needed to beg Pierre not to give away her secret.
The crowd had thinned out now that most of the contributions were done with. Now a few men stood accepting boxes of medicines from each of the trucks. The middle aged man turned to her, and said, "Pierre tells me that you are Lois Lane, the reporter."
Lois gaped at the man, dumbfounded.
"He says that you are the partner of Clark Kent, the famous writer. I need your help."
Lois leaned forward.
"I am Halim bin Ahmad bin Said Al-Taimur. I am a doctor, and I need you to get in touch with Mr. Kent. I have someone who needs to be smuggled out of the country, and he is one of the few people who has both the contacts and the motivation to do it."
"You know Clark Kent?" Lois was suspicious. Hearing Clark's name on the lips of a man she didn't know was disconcerting. It made her suspicious; was it possible that Dan had managed to call ahead and have someone ready to meet her?
"I know him by reputation. He has been very active in helping people across the border. As he has worked with the Red Cross in the past, I hoped that they might know how to contact him."
"Why would Clark have a special interest in one dissident?"
"He has been a great humanitarian." Dr. Halim wouldn't meet her eyes. He was lying; she was sure of it.
A flash of intuition made her ask, "It's someone Clark knows, isn't it?"
A flicker of acknowledgment in his eyes fueled a growing excitement in the pit of her stomach.
Dr. Halim shook his head. "We shouldn't be talking about this here. Perhaps it would be best if we left. I know of a coffeehouse nearby. I need to deliver these boxes of medicines to my home in any case."
"I can help you carry the boxes." Lois offered, and was surprised when Dr. Halim agreed. He struck her as a traditionalist in many ways. Of course, she never had really understood Muslim society.
Then she noticed the armed men standing on the rooftops. The distribution point had been declared neutral ground, but none of the three factions was overly trusting. Helping to carry boxes might be the best option she had to get out without suspicion. Hopefully, her disguise as a boy would be harder to pierce from a distance.
Pierre shoved a couple of boxes into her arms. She was surprised to see the momentary flash of compassion in his eyes. He hadn't spoken a word to her in two days, yet he had known who she was. She smiled at him, and he turned away from her quickly.
The boxes were more bulky than heavy. Lois noticed that Dr. Halim had picked up another couple of boxes of medicines, each larger than her own. Unlike everyone else, he hadn't taken any food or water; the boxes they were carrying were full of medicines, with labels in French.
Dr. Halim began walking, and Lois followed, stumbling a bit with the weight of the boxes. Once she found a grip that allowed her to carry the boxes more easily, she glanced over at the doctor. He didn't strike her as being a secret agent, but she had been wrong about Dan and Lex Luthor and Claude. Doctor Halim was apparently a leader in his community; he had been able to shame the people into sharing with a single word.
The street they were walking down was mostly clear, with rubble closing off the entrances to some side streets. There were still men standing on the rooftops, and Lois felt as though a target had been painted on her back. The farther they walked, the more nervous she grew.
She relaxed when she realized that her sense of connection with Clark was growing stronger. She was on the right path, she was sure of it.
She was less sure of it a moment later, when she saw four figures looming up ahead. She glanced upwards and noticed that the men on the rooftops were gone; they were entering a deserted section of the city. All her doubts about the man beside her resurfaced. She looked around, trying to find the nearest escape route in case anything went wrong.
Dr. Halim glanced over at her and said, "We've had problems with the black market. The soldiers prevent anyone from taking anything, but once we leave the neutral area, anything goes. They only allow a limited number of people to enter the area, so I've taken to having my people waiting for me." He sighed heavily. "Being attacked once for medicines that would have saved lives was enough to make me cautious."
The men stepped forward, and for the first time, Lois noticed that they were all older men. In their sixties, a lifetime under a brutal sun had visibly aged them. One took Lois's boxes from her, while the others took Dr. Halim's.
Lois sighed with relief. Weekly Tai Kwon Do lessons hadn't prepared her to carry heavy weights all over the country. She shifted her knapsack from where it had been digging into her shoulder and relaxed a little.
They continued to walk for several minutes, though the men who had taken the boxes had disappeared along another route. The streets around them changed becoming less deserted looking. The houses seemed well cared for, and in the distance Lois could hear the sounds of children playing.
No one was out in the streets though, and there were few of the sounds of modern society; no automobiles, no radios, no ringing telephones or people arguing. It was silent, making the sounds that could be heard all the more discernible.
It changed as they approached a nondescript building. From within, Lois could hear the sounds of conversation and laughter. It was a two-story brick building, with the tall and narrow windows on the top floor that seemed to be common to the area. The smell of exotic coffee and cinnamon was almost overwhelming.
Dr. Halim opened the door and Lois blinked at the darkness and cool air inside. She stumbled on a series of steps and for the first time realized that the room inside was recessed, dropping five feet below ground level. It was dark, lit by narrow windows high in the wall and by a few glowing braziers. Electric light bulbs were situated around the room, but were unlit.
The room was filled with tables, and around a few of them old men were gathered playing backgammon or arguing in low tones of voice. It was obvious that the place had been heavily used at one time; there was a curious sense of emptiness about it now.
Dr. Halim led her to one of the tables and waited for her to sit before doing so himself. He had chosen a table that was away from most of the others, far enough that they would not be overheard.
He leaned forward. "I am a man who believes in the value of honesty. Underhanded dealings…before the war I never would have considered becoming involved in them." He sighed. "I made an oath before man and God to do no harm. I cannot sit by and allow people to suffer when I can help."
Lois spoke, keeping her voice low. "Clark Kent is one of my best friends. Before he came here… we made promises to each other. I'll do what I can to help anyone who is a friend of his."
"You aren't able to reach him?"
Lois shook her head. "A week ago, we were both captured by men hoping to use us against Superman. Superman rescued us, and Clark chose to remain behind. No one has seen him since." Dr. Halim flinched slightly at the mention of Superman. Again Lois felt a surge of excitement. He knew something; she was sure of it.
Dr. Halim shook his head sadly. "Then there is little any of us can do. I had hoped…"
Lois noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. A small brown boy stood by the table. He stared up at her with large brown eyes, and when she smiled, he responded with an irrepressible gap toothed grin.
"Harith!" Dr. Halim began to speak, and then changed his mind. He was silent for a moment, then gestured for the boy to come near. He whispered in the boy's ear, and the child nodded solemnly before scampering off.
Dr. Halim turned back to her. "Why have you come into Quazistan? Most journalists are leaving as quickly as they can."
"Superman was my friend, and Clark was…something more. I have to find them." Lois looked down for a moment. "I'd do anything for either of them."
"This war has exacted a heavy price on my people. Muslim, Christian or Kurd…we have all paid in blood." Halim gestured at their surroundings. "We have electricity only intermittently. Food deliveries have become less and less frequent. The hospitals are in constant danger of being attacked, and doctors have taken to working out of their homes. Even with the Red Cross shipments, there isn't enough medicine or equipment to take care of everyone's needs."
"Do you know anything about the whereabouts of Superman?"
The Doctor looked down at the table. "Every journalist in the country is looking for the answer to that question Ms. Lane…as is every soldier and fortune hunter. It has been said that Malik is offering 100,000 Swiss francs to the man who brings him the body of Superman."
Lois opened her mouth to speak, when she realized that the boy had returned. He whispered in Dr. Halim's ear, and Dr. Halim visibly relaxed. The child grinned at Lois again, then scampered off.
Dr. Halim stood. "It might be better if we discussed these matters in a place that is more private."
Lois followed him through a doorway and up a very narrow set of stairs. The walls were thick enough that the inside was cooler than the outside, but by any western standard, it was still uncomfortably warm.
The top floor had a long hall with a number of doors. Dr. Halim stopped at one, and passed through it. Lois followed him.
For a moment the sunlight shining into the room from several opened windows almost blinded her, but when her vision cleared she saw him.
He sat cross-legged across from a small girl and the boy Harith. On the floor between them was a small collection of marbles in the middle of a ring drawn in chalk. The girl knocked a marble from the circle and looked up grinning. Clark spoke to her in gentle tones, and her smile grew even wider. The boy Harith scowled for a moment then leaned forward to hit his own marble.
Clark looked up, and Lois was almost dazzled by his smile. He spoke to the children, then slowly rose to his feet. He was dressed in a simple white robe, and his feet were bare.
Lois rushed forward. "Cla…" His sudden frown reminded her of the presence of others in the room. "Superman!"
He grinned. "What took you so long? I expected you here yesterday."
Lois gaped for a moment before saying, "I decided to take the scenic route. You know how much I love country living…I thought I'd pick up a few souvenirs along the way, see the sights, do the whole tourist thing. You know, Dear mom and dad, I'm having a lovely time in Quazistan. Send money."
She dropped her knapsack and rushed into his arms. They held each other for several long moments, and Lois felt tears gathering. They had been through so much, and while it had only been a little more than three weeks since Clark had left Metropolis, it seemed like an eternity. It felt good to be wrapped in Clark's arms. It felt natural, and right. If there had been any doubt in her mind that they were not meant to be together, it would have been dispelled by what she was feeling now.
They had allowed so much to come between them, foolish things that didn't even matter. Life was short. No one knew when the next bullet or missile… or land mine might fall. All they could do was to enjoy every moment as though it might be their last.
Lois wanted desperately to kiss Clark, but she caught a glimpse of Dr. Halim out of the corner of her eye. He had a slight frown on his face. Lois had as much as declared that she and Clark were betrothed and he probably thought it was inappropriate for her to be holding a "friend" so closely.
For a moment she considered ignoring him. It felt so good to simply hold Clark that she didn't want to even think about being separated from him, even for an instant. It felt good to touch him, and know that he was alive and real.
Reluctantly, she pulled away from Clark. Dr. Halim was one of the few allies they had in the area, and she couldn't afford to alienate him.
For a moment, Clark refused to let her go. He murmured in her ear, "I'm glad you came. You shouldn't be here, and I shouldn't be happy, but I've missed you…"
He noticed Dr. Halim and finally pulled away from Lois. He glanced back at Lois, and her knees nearly buckled from the look of raw hunger in his eyes. It had felt like an eternity since they had been together. Her decision to wait seemed almost foolish now; if Clark hadn't made it, she would have regretted it for the rest of her life.
Clark spoke to Dr. Halim in Arabic. Lois didn't know the language, but just the sound of his voice was soothing to her. She couldn't pull her eyes from his face; for the first time she noticed the small sheen of sweat on his forehead. He wasn't sweating any more than she was, but for him to sweat at all meant that he wasn't completely healthy.
For the first time, she noticed that in spite of the opened windows, the room they were in had the smell of a sickroom. The missile hadn't missed Clark; most likely, he didn't have his powers. He was up and mobile, but they were in the middle of a country where every hand would be turned against them. If it were possible, she would have grabbed Clark and pulled him back to the Red Cross trucks. She knew that they had already pulled away; it wasn't safe for them to remain any longer than necessary lest they be accused of spying for one group or the other.
Their best chances for survival would be to find General Alsadin's men. Superman had freed Prince Fadi, and if the young prince had any gratitude at all, he would help them.
She noticed one of the children poking through her knapsack. The boy had opened it, and had pulled her pager from its depths. Before she could say anything, the boy stood up, approached Lois, and wordlessly handed it to her. It was buzzing.
Absentmindedly, she glanced at the number on the screen. She had brought her phone and pager in the hopes that Clark could contact her if he was able to reach a phone. It hadn't been necessary.
The display screen showed simply a row of sixes. The pager went still, then buzzed again. Again the screen displayed the same number.
Clark spoke from behind her. "Lois?"
"Something must be wrong with my pager. It's showing all sixes."
Clark said slowly, "Lois… mobile phones and pagers don't work here. All the transmitting towers were bombed earlier this year. Even the regular phone lines aren't all that reliable."
Lois looked at the pager, which was buzzing again. "It's receiving a signal from somewhere…"
"It hasn't been out of your sight at any time, has it?" Lois glanced up sharply at the sound of suspicion in Clark's voice.
Lois shook her head. "I've had it on me ever since I got back from being kidnapped. I only put it in my knapsack when I changed clothes an hour ago."
"You haven't noticed anything strange since you've gotten back, have you?"
"I've had to replace the batteries three times since I got back; they just won't seem to take a charge." It had been infuriating; Lois had been tempted to do an expose on shoddy manufacturers. She still might, once they were home.
"What if there wasn't anything wrong with the batteries? What if they are just using more power than they should?"
Lois gaped as she realized what he was saying. She had been worried that Dan and the others would follow her. It had never occurred to her that they might place a tracking device on her. It was underhanded and low. It was also very dangerous.
If there were tracking devices placed in her phone and pager, they would be pulling power from the battery. Her cell-phone was undoubtedly dead by now. The bug on her pager was probably designed to transmit her location only when the pager was called, as a way of conserving energy. Normally, they would have waited until she received her normal pages during the day, but with the situation in Quazistan being what it was…
The pager buzzed again.
"If they mounted a phone transmitter on a truck, how far would it reach?" Lois asked, her fingers tightening around the pager.
"At ground level, it would probably reach out to the horizon — maybe three miles, maybe more depending on the height of the transmitter and the amount of local interference."
"They don't have our exact location yet, or they wouldn't keep calling. My phone probably has a more sophisticated transmitter in it, but it's dead." Lois stared at the pager in her hand as though it were a snake.
"I'm sorry, doctor, but I think you'll have to warn your friends to leave. We've given you away." Clark looked as grim as she had ever seen him. He glanced back at the children, and Lois flinched. It wasn't only their lives at stake. Every person in the coffee house… and perhaps in the whole neighborhood was at risk.
The doctor looked grim, and he said, "Give it to me."
Lois handed the pager to the doctor, and he shouted down to the room below. He turned back to Clark. "The men who are seeking you… they work for Malik?"
Clark nodded. He watched, as the doctor seemed to struggle with a decision. He almost seemed to age before their eyes. His lip trembled, and it seemed as though the weight of the world was settling onto his shoulders.
One of the men from below came up to meet them. Doctor Halim spoke to him rapidly, and Lois glanced at Clark as his mouth set into a grim line. Dr. Halim gestured, and Clark grabbed for Lois's knapsack, handing it to the man. Lois started to protest, but Clark shook his head.
Lois was glad that she had chosen to keep her cash in a money belt under her clothes; she hadn't liked the idea of being lost in a war torn country without any money. The knapsack would have been an obvious target for thieves. Nevertheless, there were things she wanted to keep in it and she gaped slightly as the man left with it at a run.
Clark leaned toward her and whispered. "His son is one of the rebels. They are going to try to use the transmitter to lead Malik's men away from this place and into an ambush. If the messenger gets to his son in time to set it up, people will be killed on both sides. If he doesn't, then the doctor just sent one of his friends off to his death."
The doctor turned back to them, and his eyes seemed to glimmer. He looked as though he had aged ten years in the space of a minute. Lois remembered him mentioning his oath to do no harm only minutes before.
War crushed ideals.
"We've been here for too long. Eventually, someone will backtrack us to this place, and we need to get going."
He barked out a command to the children, and they dropped their toys where they lay and rushed to his side.
"I am going to show you a secret, one which has been known to only a few, until now."
Lois knew that Malik's men couldn't be far away. If they were willing to risk revealing the purpose of the pager, then they must be confident that Lois and the others were within their grasp. There wasn't much time to escape.
They could hear the sounds of vehicles in the distance; the first vehicle noises Lois had heard since leaving the Red Cross trucks.
Clark grabbed her hand, and they hurried down the stairs.
Lois moved as quickly as she could down the narrow stairwell, noticing that Clark stumbled a little in front of her. He wasn't even as healthy as an ordinary man yet; this wasn't a good time for them to be found. If they'd only had a few more days, everything would be different.
She didn't like to think about what would happen if they were caught. The beating she had been given a week ago was just the beginning; they would no longer have any use for either her or Clark. She had little confidence that they would show any mercy.
They could hear the screech of tires as vehicles came to a stop outside.
"Is there a back door out of this place?" Clark asked.
Dr. Halim shook his head. "There isn't any time for questions. Follow me, and remain as quiet as you can." He pushed the two children in front of him.
They came to the bottom of the stairs, and Lois could hear the pounding of fists on the front door. They turned quickly through a low door, and found themselves in a surprisingly modern kitchen, one that was lit only by a few electric lamps.
The four men who had helped Dr. Halim carry his medicines followed them from the main room, which was now deserted. Lois could hear the distant sounds of men trying to break the door down.
The men quickly led them to a small pantry in the back of the kitchen, one that was floored and walled in irregular round stones. In the bottom and back of the pantry was a circular hole about three feet wide. Dr. Halim grabbed a flashlight from the top shelf and his men rushed to do the same. He then pushed the children through the hole and crawled on his hands and knees to follow them.
The men waited for both Lois and Clark to crawl through before following. In the distance, Lois could hear the sound of an explosion near the front of the building. The last man crawled through the hole feet first. He leaned halfway out of it and pulled a shelf into place, bisecting the hole. He quickly began shoving canned goods that had been stored inside the dark area through the hole, filling the shelf as best he could.
The light from the hole in the wall revealed that they were in a low room carved from the volcanic rock around them. Lois started to scramble back from the hole when she heard the sounds of men shouting, but Clark grabbed her arm. She looked behind her and stared when she realized that a gaping pit sat beside them.
Two of the four men picked up poles from the ground and moved to the side of the opening in the wall. They grunted with effort, and the light from the opening vanished. The doctor switched off his flashlight, and they waited.
They could hear the sounds of people moving around in the kitchen, and Lois found herself holding her breath. It seemed impossible that they wouldn't be found; surely the men on the other side would notice a difference in the stone of the wall, even if it was covered with a shelf.
It was cooler in the pit than it was up above. Lois sat still, and as her eyes began to adjust to the darkness, she realized that she could see a sliver of light coming from the stone; the seal wasn't perfect. She moved forward slightly, and put her hand against the wall beside the stone. She could feel a deep notch carved into the stone; the stone wheel had rolled along inside the groove. It felt old; the edges were worn from use.
The light from the cracks in the wall grew brighter, and Lois realized that someone had brought an electric lamp into the pantry. She froze in place, not daring to move for fear that those on the other side would hear her. The others around her were similarly quiet.
There was no shout of alarm on the other side, merely the sounds of men talking and rifling through the canned goods on the shelves. Lois remembered that the black market was supposed to be paying a premium for cans of fruit and the like.
It seemed like an eternity before the men moved away. Even then, Lois was afraid to breathe; there wasn't any guarantee they wouldn't come back. No one in the group moved; they could still hear the sounds of men talking and moving around in the distance. It soon became apparent that the men did not intend to leave soon.
Even with the slight amount of light coming from the wall, Lois could barely see her hand in front of her face. She was startled when she felt Clark touch her shoulder. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear. "We're going down."
Lois couldn't see the gaping pit beside them, but she knew that she wanted no part of it. It was pitch black; there wouldn't be any way to avoid falling. She shook her head, but Clark gently pulled her along behind him.
They came to the edge of the pit, and Lois was surprised to see a gleam from a flashlight twenty feet below. The extra light was enough for her to see that there were notches carved into the rock, handholds which had been created untold ages before.
She could dimly see other figures making their way down the side of the pit, and she realized that both Dr. Halim and the children had already gone. She looked back at the wall behind her. It wasn't certain how long they had before the stone in the wall was discovered. It would be better to escape now.
If two tiny children could make their way down the side of the cliff, she certainly could do no less.
Clark squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, then gave her the passionate kiss she had been longing for. She sighed, then grabbed for him as he slowly edged himself over the side of the pit. In a moment, he was gone.
Lois trembled for a moment, then slowly moved to follow him.
The handholds were very easy to find, even in the dark, and Lois tried to keep her mind off the unknown depths beneath her. The knowledge that one misstep would send her hurtling into space was terrifying. She made her way as slowly and carefully as she could. When she felt Clark's hand grabbing for her, she almost slipped, but he quickly pulled her inside a tunnel in the wall.
She had a glimpse of a long tunnel carved from solid rock, and then the light was switched off.
She was enveloped in darkness. It was an oppressive feeling; thousands of tons of rock lay all around her, and in spite of the fact that the tunnels had probably endured for hundreds of years, she couldn't help but remember Turkey's history with earthquakes. Quazistan wasn't all that far away from Turkey, really.
At this depth, it was chilly, and she could actually feel a cold breeze coming from the tunnel in front of her. The warmth of Clark's hand reassured her, and when she felt something brush softly across her foot, she gritted her teeth and refused to scream.
She kept one hand in Clark's as he led her down the low, pitch-black tunnel. Her other hand ran along the wall, which was sometimes rough, and sometimes worn smooth. At some points the tunnel narrowed until her shoulders actually brushed the other wall. Once, she heard a muttered curse from up ahead and soon came to realize for herself that there was a low spot in the ceiling.
There was an opening in the right wall, and they turned into it. Lois heard a grating noise from behind them, and then she was almost blinded as electric lanterns filled the room with light.
It was dazzling. They were in a large room that was carved from solid rock. Two stone benches were carved straight out of the floor. On one wall was a rounded hole with a basin carved within. On the other was a crudely carved Christian cross.
It slowly dawned on Lois that she was in some sort of church.
Doctor Halim turned towards them and spoke. "Turkey is known for its underground cities. Early Christians carved out refuges from the living rock, often expanding on older ruins. Turkey has over three hundred underground cities, some large enough to support twenty thousand people for a month."
"For a long time it was believed that Quazistan had no such cities." He gestured at the room around them. "Here is the proof that it's not true. There are nine levels and hundreds of rooms covering almost a square mile, with churches and wineries, granaries and living areas."
"This place should be a historical monument, shared with the world," Lois spoke, looking at the room around her. "Why have you kept it a secret?"
"The underground area is mostly under the Kurdish sections of the city. When we discovered it ten years ago, there were real concerns that Turkey would attack Quazistan. The Kurdish people needed a refuge. By the time that threat had faded away, King Fasil had taken over."
He sighed. "We were not to show any outsider this place. We have hidden clothes and supplies, everything we need to hide, until the fighting is done."
Clark looked up. "Why haven't your people come here? I can't count the numbers of dead I've seen in this city alone."
"There aren't many exits to this place. Some were destroyed by the bombings early in the war." Dr. Halim shook his head. "It would be too easy for our people to be trapped here."
"So why keep the secret?"
"It allows us to move from place to place without being seen. Also, it allows us to hide goods that soldiers would confiscate if they found them up above."
Dr. Halim sighed. "There are air ducts leading up into some of the older buildings in the area. Some of these places have been taken over by the opposition, and it represents the perfect opportunity to spy on them."
They could hear the barely audible sound of an explosion.
Dr. Halim looked grim. "The secret is out. We have to get moving."
They heard the sound of a long, drawn out scream in the distance. Someone had slipped as they made their way down the side of the pit. Lois shuddered as she remembered the terror of climbing down in the darkness. It would have been so easy to slip, and then it would have all been over. It wasn't any way to die, even for an enemy.
Dr. Halim looked even grimmer. They all stood and followed him through a low doorway.
They kept their lights on. What followed was a confusion of images. Mottled gray brown walls, curving and uneven ceilings low overhead, pillars of rock torturously hand carved…after crouching through the fourth hatch-like doorway and going down the second set of steep steps, Lois was utterly lost.
At one point, two of the men who were with them stayed behind, rolling a round stone into place behind them as they stepped into a side passage. Lois realized that they were hoping to lay a false trail, forcing their pursuers to split their forces or to go in the wrong direction. It took at least two men to roll one of the great stones into place, and it could only be done from the inside. It would take explosives to get through from the outside.
As Lois passed through room after room, she could almost see the people who had lived there. She could imagine huge rag tag families, toothless and louse ridden, thin and prematurely aged with hard labor, huddling together in silence as the Roman legions marched overhead. She could imagine families calling out to one another with easy laughter. Life would have gone on, even in hiding.
As she passed into a huge church, eighty feet long and with a ceiling that was twelve foot high, she realized what a marvel the place was. Those who had created this place had chipped away at the stone of the walls piece by piece for years on end. Every piece of gravel and every speck of rock had probably been removed by hand. Lois had a hard time imagining the dedication it must have taken; year after year of backbreaking labor.
They continued to descend for a long time. Finally, they reached a long, narrow stair and began to make their way upward. There was no way of knowing how far their pursuers had come, and none of them spoke. They could hear distant sounds and knew that their voices might carry.
Lois noticed that Clark was sweating more than he should in the chill underground air. He was still sicker than she had realized, and as they made their way across series of tall stairs, his breathing grew heavy and labored.
Finally, Dr. Halim called a halt. Speaking in a low tone of voice, he sent the two men remaining off in different directions, then slowly lowered himself onto a slab of stone in the shape of a bench. The children threw themselves onto the floor as Lois and Clark found the second bench across the room.
They were far enough from the others that Lois was confident that they wouldn't be overheard. "Are you going to be all right?" she whispered in his ear.
He nodded. "My lungs were seared a little during the missile attack. I just need to catch my breath."
She noticed that his skin was flushed. She listened to him struggle for air for a moment before saying, "You are going to get better, right?"
He nodded wearily.
"When we get home, we're going to have to talk." she paused for a moment and took his hand again. "I think we've wasted too much time on little things. We've waited long enough."
He nodded. He looked up at her, and she could see that although he was weary, he still yearned for her.
Lois noticed Dr. Halim looking at them and felt a moment of frustration. She pulled her hand from Clark's, stood up and approached the doctor.
"How long until we reach the surface? Superman isn't having an easy time with all the climbing."
The doctor spoke in low tones. "I've sent my men off to check and see which exit is the closest. We are approaching an area filled with air vents to the surface. We will have to be especially silent from this point on, lest we be heard by those in the buildings above."
The doctor spoke quietly to the children, who had begun an impromptu game of tag. They immediately settled down. The endurance possessed by children amazed Lois sometimes. They had been as exhausted as the rest of them only a few moments before, but already they were bounding again with seemingly inexhaustible energy.
She returned to the bench where Clark was sitting. He was still out of breath, and it hurt her to see him that way. His pain was hers, and it had been for a long time. It had taken her far too long to admit to herself that he was the most important person in her life, and by the time she had, it had almost been too late.
She wasn't going to make that mistake again. They would leave this place, and she'd do her best to make sure he never came back. No one should have to see the sort of things he had seen. What she had been exposed to was bad enough.
She would dream of explosions and husbands crying for their wives for a long time to come.
She could only imagine how much worse it had been for him, knowing that he should have been able to make a difference and hadn't been able to. His sense of duty had kept him here, and there was little doubt that he had done a great deal of good. Nevertheless, there was only so much any person could take before cracking.
Clark had a will of iron, but even iron shatters under enough pressure. He hadn't broken yet, but Lois knew that he couldn't take much more. Every time she looked in his eyes, she could see a pain that transcended the physical. His eyes were taking on the same look she had seen in the eyes of the refugees. She wouldn't be able to bear it if she saw the same deadness come into his face that she had seen on theirs.
She held his hand again, and squeezed it reassuringly. After a time, his breathing returned to normal, and she was relieved.
The children played quietly among themselves. They seemed perfectly at ease, as though everything that was happening around them was a game. Lois envied them that ignorance. In the back of her mind she suspected that their pursuers were coming closer, and after a time she began to grow impatient.
How long was it going to take to find an exit? If they stayed in the same place for too long, they would be found.
Finally the men returned. Slowly Clark stood beside her, and they followed Dr. Halim.
There was no need for their flashlights or electric lanterns now. Shafts of light from vents in the rooms up above provided a dim illumination that was enough to move from place to place.
As they passed through room after room, Lois could hear the sounds of movement and conversations from the buildings up above. She couldn't speak either Arabic or Turkish, but the tones of the voices up above told her a great deal.
Most of the voices seemed to be those of people living their daily lives. High childish voices sang out and their parents' voices discussed daily matters. Even in the midst of war, people lived their lives as well as they could. It was comforting to know that children would always find a place to play.
When she stepped through another low, round doorway and heard voices speaking in English, she froze.
"Why the obsession with Superman? He's no longer a factor in this war. He's either badly injured or dead. I can't understand why you are diverting men to search for him."
The voice she was hearing was that of Dan Scardino.
"The morale of my people is at an all time low. A thousand soldiers are deserting very day, and if I don't have a symbolic victory soon, there won't be any opposition for Alsadin and Fadi when they march into the city."
Lois shivered as she recognized the second voice. The last time she had heard Malik speak, it had been moments before having her beaten. His voice was just as cold now as it had been before.
"You've given up on trying to get Fadi back?"
"He's guarded too well to be kidnapped. I have men in place who will take care of the problem he represents."
There was a long moment of silence. Finally Dan spoke. "I don't like it. The plan was to use the prince, not to kill him. The people will turn against you."
"One of Alsadin's men will kill Fadi. I have three men who will testify that Alsadin argued with Fadi last night. When the people learn of what he has done, Alsadin's men will desert in droves. We will be back in business."
"Your assassin has to know he won't leave the compound alive. How can you be sure…?"
"The problem with you Westerners is that you don't have any strength of conviction. Our people know that every great advance has to be paid for in blood. We know that some things are worth dying for. Can you say the same about your people?" Malik chuckled. "Besides, I have his family. He knows what will happen to them if he fails."
"You don't believe in anything, do you?" Dan's voice was disgusted.
"I believe that by nightfall tomorrow my problems will be solved. Fadi will be dead, Alsadin will be discredited, and you will tell me where the Kurdish rebellion keeps its main bases. I, of course, will be innocent of all wrongdoing; after all, I've been spending all my time searching for the war criminal, Superman. We'll put his body on display."
"That won't make you popular with the American people. He's done a lot for the people of Quazistan as well."
"He's helped a few Kurds escape justice. I don't care what they have to say. They won't be a problem for much longer."
"I still don't like it. Maybe we could…"
The two voices trailed off as a phone rang. Malik spoke in Arabic for a short time.
"It seems that Miss Lane and Superman have gone underground. My men have found a series of caves stretching out all over the city, much like the ones in Turkey. They tell me that it shouldn't be long before they find them." Malik chuckled. "The next group of Kurds who tries to use the caves to escape will find a nasty surprise waiting for them."
Lois could hear sounds of motion from up above, and then Malik spoke again.
"Let's go for a bite of dinner. Everything is falling into place, and I'm developing a most excellent appetite."
The sounds from above faded with the slam of a door.
They all sat silent and frozen, staring at the single beam of light from the vent above.
If Malik was planning to have Fadi assassinated, there wasn't much time. Lois could only hope that Dr. Halim had friends who could lead them to Alsadin's army in time to warn the young prince.
Slowly, Halim rose. Lois could see that he was worried; if Dan were to reveal the location of all the Kurdish bases, thousands of Kurds would die. The war had already taken its toll. There probably wasn't anyone in the country who hadn't already lost at least one family member to it.
He gestured curtly, and they slowly moved to follow him.
Lois grabbed Clark's hand and pulled him to his feet. He was looking much better, but she was still concerned for him. He was still weak. It must be frustrating; as far as she knew, he had never known pain before. Even Kryptonite bullet wounds had always healed within seconds after the bullets were removed.
Their trip seemed to take forever. They passed through many more rooms, moving slower and more cautiously than before. Finally, they came to a set of narrow but steep stairs. At the top of the stairs was a trap door. One of Halim's men moved to the top of the stairs and rapped on the trap door three times.
The door was pulled open from above, and the muzzle of an M-16 thrust through the opening. A voice barked out a question in a guttural language that was neither Turkish nor Arabic.
Halim spoke for several moments in the language, and the trap door was pulled open.
Halim pushed the children before him as they made their way up the stairs. His men waited behind as Lois pushed Clark ahead of her.
When they reached the surface, they blinked in the sunlight, blinded by the brilliance after all the time spent in the dark. It took Lois a moment to realize that they were in some sort of covered garage, which was open to the outside.
Men were moving quickly from one truck to the next, loading people and supplies as quickly as they could. One soldier called out a guttural command, and a man came out of the offices in the back.
Clark stiffened beside her, and she realized that he knew the man. It was obvious that the man was related both to Doctor Halim and to the boy; the family resemblance was uncanny.
The boy pulled away from Dr. Halim and ran. His father crouched down as his son leapt into his arms. He held the boy for several seconds, his expression surprisingly gentle. Then he set the boy on his feet and spoke quietly with him for several moments. Eventually he rose to his feet.
His lips tightened the moment he saw them. "What are you doing here, old man?"
"I bring news. The Americans have betrayed you."
"That's old news. We've been pulling people from all our bases over the last twelve hours." He gestured toward all the activity around them.
"They plan to kill Fadi."
"Why should that be of any concern to us? Fadi's family has done nothing but ill to our people." He glanced at Lois and Clark for a moment. "You knew better than to bring outsiders into the city below."
"Malik's men found us. We barely escaped, and they found the hidden entrance."
The man cursed. "I told you it was a mistake to bring him into your home. You have endangered us all for the sake of a man who has brought us nothing but defeat."
Lois opened her mouth to protest. Clark had saved thousands of lives during the war. He'd nearly sacrificed his own life for them, and they had the gall to say he hadn't done anything for them? Rage filled her mind, and she opened her mouth to speak.
Clark placed a hand on her arm and silently shook his head. There was a look of sadness and acceptance in his eyes, as though he had come to terms with some sort of guilt.
The thought that they had convinced him that he was somehow at fault for these people's suffering made her sick to her stomach. What had they done to him?
Dr Halim spoke. "Each of us has a duty to help our fellow man. The Que'ran says that we are all as parts of the body. When one part is injured, the rest rush to help."
"These people are infidels. We owe them nothing."
"It is not what we owe them, but what we owe ourselves. This war has stained the souls of our people enough already. It would be a sin to watch innocents die when we could help."
"If a sin will keep a friend alive longer, is it really a sin?" Doctor Halim's son sighed. "It doesn't matter much. We are almost ready to move."
"We need to reach Fadi's camp to warn him." Lois spoke for the first time. Halim's son glanced at her contemptuously, then turned again to his father.
"We will speak alone."
Halim followed his son into the offices, and the door shut behind them.
Lois looked around, noticing that Dr. Halim's men were out of earshot. She leaned close to Clark and asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Better. It feels good to get out into the sun again." Clark didn't look directly at her, and Lois knew that he wanted to avoid speculation about their relationship. Dr. Halim already seemed suspicious; there wasn't any reason to give him or his men anything more to talk about.
They were both silent for several moments. Finally Lois spoke. "Is there any way we could use our contacts in the press to get in touch with Fadi? It'd be stupid to wander across the country if we could just make a phone call."
Clark shook his head. "Cell phones don't work here. It's hit and miss with even regular telephones. Malik has the press corps locked up; if we tried to contact them he would track us down. It might be possible to reach Alsadin's camp over the radio, but how likely is the message to be believed?"
"You don't have the suit, do you?"
Clark shook his head. "You asked me to leave Superman at home." He smiled weakly. "I take my promises to you very seriously."
"How are you going to prove that you are Superman then? Without the suit and without the powers, you could almost be anyone. You'd be better off to go in as Clark Kent. At least he has the respect of the people."
Clark nodded. "I have contacts in Alsadin's camp, people who would be willing to vouch for me. I don't have my press pass or any identification papers, but I don't think that will matter. The problem is how we are going to make the switch." He glanced around. "We won't make it to Alsadin's camp on our own. The last time I flew there, it was over a hundred miles away. It's farther traveling by mountain roads."
Lois nodded. They needed help. The only question was how they were to get rid of their associates before entering Alsadin's camp.
Doctor Halim emerged from the office with a look of grim determination. "My son will allow us the use of one truck on the condition that we accompany them to a meeting."
"What sort of a meeting?"
Dr. Halim sighed. "There are decisions to be made. For too long those who are hot headed and irrational have made choices that impacted on the rest of our people. This will be my chance to speak for those who have had their choices made by someone else."
"Will there be time to do that and make it to Alsadin's camp?"
Doctor Halim nodded. "The meeting is tonight. If we leave before dawn we should reach Alsadin's camp in plenty of time." He sighed. "If we don't attend the meeting, we won't be able to acquire a vehicle. Every vehicle in the city has been appropriated by one faction or another, or has been grounded by a lack of fuel and maintenance."
A soldier approached them and spoke quietly to Doctor Halim. After a moment, he gestured for them to follow.
The truck that was waiting for them was battered and at least twenty years old, but it seemed serviceable enough. The rear was covered in tan canvas.
Lois slipped into the back of the truck after Doctor Halim and the children. She turned and held out a hand to help Clark into the truck. He pulled himself into the vehicle without much difficulty; he seemed to have found his second wind.
Dr. Halim's men trudged to the front of the vehicle; they were to replace the drivers, who were being shuffled to other vehicles in the caravan. Lois realized that the men who would have ridden in the truck had probably been crowded into other vehicles, and she wondered if Dr. Halim's son was worried that they would contaminate his men.
She probably didn't look very good. She shifted uncomfortably. Bandaging her breasts had seemed like a good idea when she was going to try to impersonate a man. Now it was irritating, and likely to get worse. She wondered if there would be a chance to change before the troops left.
As she began to speak, she could hear the sounds of engines firing. She sighed. She'd just have to find a way to remove the bandages inconspicuously. She'd managed to get her Swiss army knife through customs in her luggage, and had carried it with her since she had changed clothes. She was glad it hadn't been in her pack; she'd lost everything in it when they found the pager.
She had a money belt filled with currency — American dollars, Turkish Lira and Quazistani Riyals. She'd had to empty her bank account, and she fully intended to make Clark pay his part once the whole mess was over.
In a matter of minutes, they were underway.
The doctor suggested that Clark remain in the far rear of the truck so that he could get as much sunlight as he could. The doctor and children retreated into the cooler shadows of the interior, and Lois soon followed. As much as she would have liked to remain with Clark, her skin wasn't exactly designed for spending hours in the sun.
Clark slipped his robe open to the waist in order to expose as much skin to the sun as he could. He then leaned against the side of the truck and closed his eyes.
Lois fidgeted. The children were quiet, eventually lying in the bed of the vehicle for a nap. Even the doctor seemed composed. Long, interminable minutes passed, as the last buildings at the edge of the city fell out of sight.
When she saw that the doctor too had closed his eyes, Lois slowly pulled the pocketknife from her moneybag and pulled it open. She opened three buttons of her shirt and slid the knife in, carefully sawing away at the bandaging.
It was a relief to be finally free of the bandages, and for several minutes, Lois basked in the comforts of relief. Eventually the combination of the summer heat and the forced inactivity began to wear on her.
As she was trying to decide whether to move closer to Clark and into the hot sun, or to lie down and try to sleep, the doctor spoke.
"You don't act like a woman who is betrothed."
Lois bristled. "Customs are different in America."
"I can understand that. In matters of dress and comportment, we have very different standards. In spite of this, some things are universal. A woman who loves a man does not fly to another."
"That's not always true," Lois murmured, feeling a flash of pain and guilt. She'd wasted so much time running from Clark; first to Lex and then to Dan. At least when she had been dating Lex she hadn't been fully aware of her own feelings. She never should have started dating Dan; it hadn't been good for either of them. As it was now, Dan seemed to be just the latest in the list of creeps and criminals Lois had dated.
The doctor glanced over at Clark's sleeping form. "He has a great affection for you."
"We've been friends for a long time." Was he expressing disapproval for their conduct towards each other, or did he harbor deeper suspicions? He hadn't met Clark Kent, and as far as she knew, there hadn't been any pictures published along with his articles. Doctor Halim wasn't stupid, but he didn't have all the facts.
"The writer, Clark Kent, is also friends with this man."
Lois hesitated. "Yes."
"It might be best if you are not so… expressive with this man. Once people realize who he is, it might invite rumor."
He thought she was cheating on Clark with Superman? If it weren't so ludicrous, Lois would cry. After all the time she had spent deciding between the two men, to be accused of hurting Clark for Superman's sake was painful. It raised old feelings of guilt; before she'd discovered that they were the same man, she'd been conflicted about her feelings for Superman while she was dating Clark.
Of course, part of the reason she'd taken so long to admit her feelings for Clark was her guilt about them. She had believed herself in love with Superman; there shouldn't have been room in her life for feelings for another man. She'd seen what infidelity did to a family; her father's affairs had torn her family apart.
It pained her to be accused of hurting Clark, but in a way, Dr. Halim was right. Neither of them could afford to be seen to be too affectionate with each other, lest someone make a connection between Clark Kent and Superman.
"I'll try to restrain myself," Lois said stiffly. It was hard enough not to say something sarcastic. "Why did you bring the children along?"
The doctor sighed. "There wasn't any other place to take them. What few relatives I have are either dead or have fled the country. While I have friends who might take them in, there is no guarantee that they would still be there when I return for the children. Sometimes, you have to keep your loved ones close."
They both lapsed into silence. As the minutes passed with an agonizing slowness, Lois found herself being lulled to sleep by the sounds of the engine and the feeling of the road under the tires. She had almost fallen asleep when the sounds of an explosion up ahead shocked her into awareness.
The explosion was followed by the sounds of rifle fire, and men shouting. The truck screeched to a halt, and they were all thrown forward slightly.
The rifle fire grew closer, and Lois could hear the sounds of men screaming in pain. Fire was being returned from the trucks, but there was no way of knowing which side was winning, or even how far away the battle was.
A bullet tore through the canvas near Lois's ear, hitting the wooden floor of the truck bed. She threw herself to the bed of the truck, rolling underneath the benches. The gunfire seemed to be coming from a higher elevation, meaning that the sides of the truck and the benches would provide at least some limited protection.
The others were following her lead. From the opening in the rear she could see men pouring from the truck behind them and using the truck as cover as they fired at men higher up on the mountain.
Two of them were hit, and fell groaning to the ground.
The volume of weapons fire grew more intense, and Lois shuddered every time she heard a bullet impact on the bench above her. She crawled to Clark and grabbed his hand. He was trembling, and it took her a moment to realize that it wasn't fear.
It caused him pain to know that people were being harmed and he couldn't stop it. Several times he began to pull away from her, when he saw another person fall. She held on to him as tightly as she could. She wasn't going to lose him after all they had been through.
Dr. Halim's son was shouting orders, and men were rushing to do his bidding. A moment later, he fell, hit like several of the others.
Lois heard a wail from behind her, and was shocked to see a tiny form rush by.
The boy practically flew from the truck, avoiding their hands and rushing to his father. Lois watched in horror as he ran across the ground as bullets hit the earth.
In an instant Clark was gone.
In his white robes, Clark made a wonderful target. Lois felt a long moment of disconnection, of unreality, as though everything was being filtered through a murky lens. The world seemed to move in slow motion as bullets pinged around Clark's feet.
He grabbed the boy like a football without pausing and leaped for the safety of the truck. It seemed impossible that he should make it; the volume of weapons fire had increased and focused on him. Bullets whined overhead and underfoot, and Clark was somehow just a little bit faster than everyone had expected.
He twisted as he leapt, landing heavily on his back as he held the boy to his chest. He rolled underneath the truck. Lois could see him speak to the boy for a moment, then, leaving the boy behind, he rolled out from under the truck again.
Halim's son had been hit again as he lay on the ground. He wasn't moving, but Lois suspected that might be a ruse. The gunmen were shooting any of the wounded that they could find, and it was good strategy to play dead.
Clark reached out and grabbed the man, pulling him quickly towards the safety of the truck.
A moment later, they had both made it.
The world came back into focus for Lois as she sobbed out her relief.
The gunfire continued for several minutes, until at last a loud flurry of bursts sounded from up above. There was an obscene silence immediately thereafter, and Lois realized that some of the Kurds had probably found a way up the mountain and attacked their ambushers.
She expected some sort of victory cry from the men; they had just been into battle and survived. Instead, there was only a weary sort of silence, as they slowly took stock of their wounded and dead.
Doctor Halim shoved the little girl into Lois's arms as he rushed from the vehicle.
He ran to his son and made a preliminary check, then began shouting out orders. He moved to the next man, shook his head, and then moved to the next.
Lois could see that Clark was holding the boy as tightly as he could, not allowing him to see the carnage.
Innocence was the first casualty of war.
The boy spoke to him rapidly, and finally, reluctantly, Clark allowed the boy to rush to his father's side.
Halim's son was alive. Now that the danger was past, he groaned and spoke quietly to the boy, who knelt beside him.
The little girl hid her face in the crook of Lois's arm, and Lois hugged her. Clark leaned against the truck, gasping for air.
It took Lois a moment to realize that she was shaking. She couldn't look at the men on the ground; in the back of her mind, she could still hear the sounds of a husband begging the heavens for his wife. Each of the men on the ground had someone who would mourn them, even if only fighting companions.
It had almost been her voice crying into the night. It had been hard enough, knowing that Clark was risking his life without seeing it. Knowing that he was vulnerable and seeing him run into a hail of gunfire was far worse. For the first time, she knew on a deep, visceral level just how close she had come to losing him forever.
Her eyes burned, and she could taste bile in the back of her throat. It made her ill, and for some reason, she couldn't stop shaking. She held tightly to the little girl and closed her eyes. She could feel the hot tears rising, and it was all she could do not to cry out.
This had to end.
She felt a flash of anger at Clark for being so stupid. He could have been killed. One bullet could have ended all their hopes and dreams. He'd risked his life before, but he'd never recklessly thrown himself into the face of death. He'd never been so vulnerable.
She was startled when Clark touched her sleeve.
"We need to move. This truck is needed for the injured." His voice was soothing and gentle, and Lois realized for the first time that the little girl was whimpering in her arms. She allowed him to pull the girl from her and set her on the ground. The moment she touched the ground, the child ran toward her father.
Clark watched carefully until he was sure the girl was safe, then he turned to Lois.
She accepted Clark's hand as he helped her step out of the truck. She was surprised when he pulled her into a tight embrace.
She held on to him tightly, clutching at him as though he was her lifeline. The world seemed to fall away, and she wept again, this time for what she had almost lost.
He pulled her along behind him, heading for the truck in front of them. Lois glanced to the side and gasped as she saw men knocking the remnants of a shattered windshield from the front of their truck. There wasn't any sight of Halim's men, who had been driving.
One of the men threw a large sheet of the shattered safety glass to the side of the road, and Lois saw that it was spotted with red.
She buried her face in Clark's shoulder and allowed him to lift her into the truck. She glanced around the interior, noticing the ten grim men inside. They had the look of hardened soldiers. Their jaws were set, and they were completely silent.
Clark sat on the bench beside her, and Lois couldn't help but lean into him. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to take comfort in the feeling of his chest under her cheek.
Even once the vehicle began moving, she refused to open her eyes. Clark wouldn't feel free to talk with her in front of a large crowd of listeners, and Lois didn't trust herself to speak to him. He'd put himself at risk, and while it was one of the things she loved about him, it angered her as well.
It seemed to take forever for the trembling to subside, and by that point, she was asleep.
By the time Clark gently shook her awake, Lois was gummy eyed and sweaty. Her mouth felt as though she had swallowed a sandbox and she regretted losing her toothbrush with her pack. Clark stepped out of the vehicle and helped her step down.
She stumbled a little, then looked around.
The sun was setting, but there was still light enough to see that they were in a mountain valley, in another of the beehive shaped villages like the ones she had seen before. On the outskirts of the village were a number of more western looking buildings, and vehicles of every stripe were parked everywhere.
People were rushing from place to place ignoring them. Several of the vehicles in their caravan were leaving already even as others were arriving. Lois looked around for someone she knew; her mind was still fuzzy with sleep.
Clark spoke with a passing soldier in his own tongue, then pulled Lois along behind him.
Eventually they managed to find the doctor at a temporary infirmary. The sheer number of those who had been injured dismayed Lois. The children remained by their father's side, but at least he was alive.
They watched for several minutes as Dr. Halim directed a group of men in setting up the infirmary. Eventually, there was a pause. Most of the men had already had at least some medical care.
Dr. Halim spoke to a group of three men, and Lois felt Clark stiffen beside her.
Dr. Halim gestured for them to follow him outside the tent. When they were out of earshot of everyone else, he spoke quietly.
"I told them that you are the famous writer, Clark Kent, and his wife."
He smiled gently. "I never believed that you were the sort of woman who would betray the man she loved."
From within the folds of his own robes he pulled a piece of colored paper, folded many times. He handed it to Lois, and she gaped as she opened it.
It was a page from a French magazine. A color picture of Clark standing in Alsadin's camp was at the head, and underneath was an interview.
"I saw the resemblance between my patient and the man on the page, but I assumed it was a coincidence. There aren't many western reporters who fall out of the sky."
Three soldiers were approaching.
"Even a journalist as respected as Clark Kent will be banned from our meeting, so you will be under guard." Halim sighed. "If it was known that you are not yet married, you would be placed in separate quarters, and I do not believe that is what you wish." He glanced back at the tent containing his son and the other wounded. "As you saw today, there is no guarantee that we will live through tomorrow."
As the soldiers arrived, Halim spoke again. "I have to speak for my people now. Allow these soldiers to escort you to your rest. The call for prayer will begin soon."
Lois numbly followed Clark and the soldiers to one of the beehive shaped houses.
As she stepped through the door, she could hear the first calls for prayer ringing through the camp.
After everything they had been through, at last they would be alone.
The interior of the beehive shaped house was dark and cool, and Lois stood in the entryway for a moment, blinking. Clark pushed her forward a little, and the guard behind them shut the door.
The room inside was spacious. A beehive shaped oven sat in the center of the room. Colorfully decorated mats, rugs, and cushions surrounded it. In one corner, mattresses, quilts and pillows were stacked in a neat pile. The floor was made of stone, and Lois imagined that it would grow very cool at night.
The walls were covered with shelves filled with earthenware vessels as well as plates and pans made of copper and tin. Large wooden chests lay below the shelves. Against one wall lay an old fashioned upright loom. Along the back wall was a door.
A few, small, round glass windows lay high in the ceiling, and the last streamers of light were quickly fading with the coming of dusk.
Lois didn't say anything as she looked around the room.
Lois stepped through the door in the back wall while Clark searched the shelves. On the other side was a small Western style bathroom, with a toilet, sink and mirror. A small round window in the ceiling was the only source of light. There wasn't a shower, and for the first time, Lois realized that she really needed one.
Clark lit two oil lamps and handed one to Lois. She gratefully accepted it and stepped into the bathroom. There was a light switch but no power; Lois wasn't surprised. The war had probably done as much damage to the infrastructure as to the people.
She used the restroom as quickly as she could, then turned the old fashioned faucet handles. The water came sluggishly from the spout, and Lois tried to wash the brown makeup off her hands. She shouldn't have chosen such a dark shade in the first place. Most of the people she had seen in Quazistan had been much lighter skinned than she would have expected. While there were exceptions, like Dr. Halim and his grandchildren, she could have probably gotten away with no makeup at all.
She looked at her dim reflection in the mirror and gaped. The makeup on her cheek was smudged, showing a large pale spot. She tried to wipe it off as well as she could with a wash towel, with little luck. If she still had her pack, this wouldn't be a problem. She'd kept a small jar of cold cream for just this sort of instance. As it was, the makeup was just making a mess; it wasn't water-soluble.
She and Clark were alone for the first time in ages, and she looked like a refugee from a Dickens play. The waif look wasn't exactly the effect she had been going for; Clark had seen too many undernourished dirty people lately.
She stepped out of the bathroom. Clark was crouched beside the beehive shaped stove with his lantern set beside him.
The sounds of prayers in the distance faded. The last rays of the sun were gone and it was finally dark.
"I'm a mess," she said hesitantly. It seemed that Clark had gotten the fire started.
Clark turned, and his mouth quirked. "You look like Oliver Twist. Let me get a washcloth. I think I can get the worst of it off."
He stepped into the washroom for a moment, then returned. "Why don't we sit down. This'll be easier near the fire."
She slowly sat on a set of pillows near the front of the beehive stove. Clark had left it open, and a merry fire was burning inside. He had sprinkled the fire with some sort of incense, disguising the nature of the fuel. Lois didn't look too closely.
Clark lowered himself onto the pillows in front of her. He winced a little, and Lois was instantly concerned.
"Are you ok?"
Lois didn't quite believe him, but she allowed him to lean forward and begin to gently stroke her face with the cloth. The sensation of his hand touching her face was soothing, even with the cloth between them. Lois closed her eyes for a moment and savored the sensation.
"I didn't think I was ever going to see you again," Clark spoke softly. "I think that's what I regretted the most when I was sick. The thought of you helped carry me through the pain."
"You shouldn't have even been in that pain, Clark." Lois wouldn't allow herself to think. She couldn't.
"I don't know that I could have done anything different."
Lois shook her head. She noticed that the washcloth was stained by the makeup. Her eyes glanced down to Clark's side, where there was a dark blotch. It explained why she had a pale spot on her cheek; the makeup had rubbed off as she had leaned against him in the truck. She had slept with the sound of his heartbeat in her ear; it had comforted her.
She grabbed one of the lamps and lifted it closer to the spot on his robe. "I don't think that's going to come out."
"We can worry about our respective cleaning bills later. It's not like I plan to wear this to work at the Daily Planet."
"Clark?" Lois asked carefully.
"Why are there holes in your robes?" She leaned in for a closer look. "There are a lot of holes here." She looked up at him. "What's going on?"
"I must have snagged it on something." He wouldn't look at her, and she knew he was lying.
Before he could say anything else, she grabbed for the bottom of the undershirt and pulled it up.
His side was one huge, ugly, massive bruise, with at least five darker spots interspersed along his ribs.
"They didn't miss you." Lois's voice was flat.
"I didn't even feel a thing till it was all over, Lois. I guess adrenaline… or whatever equivalent I have…"
Lois stared at him. "Did you know you were bulletproof when you ran out there?"
He was silent for a moment before shaking his head.
"So if you had been even a little slower to heal… you'd be dead." Lois fought to control her voice. "Clark… you can't keep doing this."
"What was I supposed to do? I couldn't stand by and watch a child die, even if it meant…" Clark shook his head. "I've seen too many kids die senseless deaths in this war. I don't have the stomach to see it happen again."
"You almost died." Lois felt numb. "Why does all of this keep happening to us?"
Clark shook his head. "It's not just us, Lois. In the last thirty years over half the world's population has lived in war torn areas. People in America and Western Europe are the exception rather than the rule. I've seen too many couples torn apart to think that there is some sort of cosmic curse keeping us apart."
He sighed. "We do what we have to. I'll always return to you, Lois. You have my promise."
"That's a promise you can't keep." She grabbed his hand. "You have to stop being so stupid. It was one thing when you were invulnerable, but now… Malik's men have Kryptonite bullets. How long do you think you can keep going back out there before somebody gets lucky?"
Clark tightened his grip on her hand, then pulled away from her and stared into the fire. "You know, these people have traditions going back for thousands of years. They believe that it's the duty of every man to help those who are weaker than themselves."
"They don't seem to be living up to their ideals."
"Has America lived up to its ideals? Has any place?" Clark shook his head. "When you look at a church, or a people or a nation, do we judge solely on the basis of failures? Everybody fails; it's the price we pay for being imperfect. When you strip everything away, people are basically alike. They all have hopes and dreams of better lives. They hope their children have more than they have themselves. They search for love." His voice softened. "We all look for love."
He turned to her. "Not everyone gets a chance to find the person they are destined to be with."
Lois placed her hand on his again, and this time he didn't pull away.
Lois spoke. "I wouldn't want you to turn your back on people in trouble. That part of you that refuses to see people in pain is part of the reason I fell in love with you. It took me a long time to realize that those traits I saw in Superman were there in full in Clark Kent." She tightened her grip. "You've spent your entire career trying to save lives."
She lifted his shirt again. "But when I see that… when I see how close you came to leaving me for the last time… it scares me, Clark. I have trouble remembering what my life was like before I met you. I remember being desperately, totally alone."
"You had family, friends…"
"My family was always a mess. Nothing I did was ever good enough for my father, and my mother didn't care what I did as long as I didn't embarrass her in front of her friends. We moved from place to place so often that I didn't develop any real friendships until high school, and even then… we were so competitive it was hard to believe we were actually friends."
She leaned toward him. "I didn't even know what I was missing before I met you. The friendships I had were shallow; I never allowed myself to trust anyone enough to really become friends with them. Oh, I called them my friends, but I always felt like an outsider."
"You didn't trust me either, when we met."
"I couldn't allow myself to be hurt. Here you were, new and handsome, a co- worker. The last time I'd pulled out of my shell was with Claude… and you know how that ended. You were different than everyone else. I just felt like I could trust you."
"You can always trust me, Lois."
Lois sighed. "I know I don't have any right to be angry. You're only doing what you think is right." She looked up at him. "I can't help it, though. I'm hurt, and I'm angry. You've made decisions that have affected me for the entire time that I've known you."
"I always listen to what you have to say!"
"You decided that I didn't need to know that you were Superman, even after we started dating. You decided that you would leave the country so that I could date Dan Scardino. You decided that you would fly out in front of a missile, and you decided that you would run out into a hail of bullets."
She grabbed the edges of his robe. "When are you going to learn? Anything that happens to you affects me as well. If you die, that changes the course of the rest of my life. If you keep running off, it hurts me over and over again. There isn't a you or me anymore. There is an us."
Clark nodded soberly. "I understand, Lois. I really do. I was alone my whole life. I had secrets I couldn't reveal to anyone except my parents. I had thoughts and feelings and dreams that I couldn't confide in even to them. I was alone, and I was lonely." He paused for a moment. "I haven't felt that way since the first day I met you. Somehow I knew even then… When I'm with you, I'm stronger than I ever was before."
His thumb began to caress her hand. "When I first left for Quazistan… I can't describe how I felt. I felt empty and lost… hopeless. But even at the lowest point… when I failed to save all those people from being gassed… I took comfort in knowing that at least you were at home, safe."
Lois's voice was low. "When I thought you were dead, I didn't even have that." She looked up. "I felt the loss just as keenly as you did. Even when I realized that you were alive… it hurt me to know what you've been going through. No one should have to see the things that happen in a place like this."
Clark looked away. "I'd rather not have to see the things I've seen. Sometimes I feel dirty." His hands were still in hers, and he tried to pull away, but she wouldn't let him. "I smell blood sometimes… and my skin itches… and my dreams…"
An image of a grieving husband flashed past Lois's mind. It would be a long time before she could set that image aside. How much harder would it be for Clark, who had flown from one place of death to another for hour after hour and day after day for almost three weeks? There wasn't anything Lois could have done for either husband or wife; if she had been able to save the woman and failed, how much worse would she feel?
Before she realized what she was doing, Lois was in Clark's arms holding him tightly. She couldn't bear to think what he had been through, to think about what he must have felt.
She kissed him, and for a time, there were no thoughts at all.
When Lois woke, the fire had finally turned into hot coals. The rugs and pillows had been thick enough that they had only needed a thin sheet. She could hear the call to morning prayers and realized that they had slept the night away.
She shook Clark awake, and they got dressed as well as they could. Lois returned to the restroom and tried to remove the last of the makeup. She was mostly successful.
When she returned, she saw that Clark was neatly folding what bedding they had used.
There was a discreet knock at the door. Clark rose to open it.
Dr. Halim stood outside, looking grim.
He stepped inside without asking permission.
"The decision has been made." He sighed. "My people have suffered more than I had realized. I have been chosen to represent all the Kurds in Quazistan. My people need mercy… and Fadi is our last chance. If Malik wins, there is no chance at all."
Clark felt clean for the first time in ages. He'd felt dirty and soiled for far too long. The days he had spent seeing nothing but death and destruction had worn away at him, leaving him feeling at times like nothing more than a shell of his former self.
He hadn't lied to Lois. She really did make him stronger. The bond they shared had been a source of strength for him to lean on. After the night they had spent together, it had only deepened and grown stronger. He'd never before had such a sense of belonging, and it was balm to his troubled soul.
He stepped out into the sunlight and took a deep breath. It felt good to be able to breathe again. He hadn't realized what a luxury it was until it had been taken from him. What stiffness he'd had from the bruises along his ribs was almost gone. Things were looking up.
His strength hadn't returned yet, but he knew that it wouldn't be long. The only question was whether he would regain his abilities in time to do Fadi any good. They had to assume that he wouldn't and make their plans on that basis. If Fadi was to be killed, Quazistan would be plunged into years more of civil war until some outside force was inspired to step in.
In the meantime, the cost in human suffering would be enormous. Clark had sworn to himself that he wouldn't see another child die. There wasn't any choice. Fadi had to live.
He went through the motions of eating breakfast, but he found that he couldn't tear his eyes away from Lois. When she caught him looking at her, she blushed, which made her all the more beautiful.
Dr. Halim spoke, and it took Clark a moment to realize that he was being addressed.
"I've got a set of Western clothing for you. It will help you pose as a western journalist."
The business suit he offered was cheap, probably bought off the rack. It fit, however, and Clark had no complaints. When he emerged, Halim offered him a small set of John Lennon style glasses.
"The owner of these will no longer need them." Halim's face was devoid of expression, and Clark knew better than to inquire. He'd overheard the guards talking; several of the men had died overnight. Dr. Halim's son was incoherent and ill.
He slipped the glasses on, and was pleased to note that his eyes automatically compensated for the prescription. His abilities were returning, even if the recovery was slow.
Lois emerged from the building, having changed into a smart business suit. She'd finally managed to remove the last traces of makeup, and Clark was pleased to see that her black eye had faded completely. Her ribs were much better too; he'd made sure to check the night before.
Clark was glad that she had given up on trying to disguise herself as a boy. Lois didn't realize how beautiful she was. She knew that she was physically attractive; she had too much confidence in herself not to be aware of her looks. But the traits that made her truly beautiful, her compassion, her need for justice, her vulnerability… she didn't seem to understand that it was who she was, and not how she looked that made him love her. Somewhere along the line, someone had told her that she was unlovable, and she had taken it to heart.
If they were lucky, he would have a lifetime to show her that she was wrong.
Dr. Halim led them to a loaded truck and ordered them inside. No one would be going with them; they would be posing as men carrying food and supplies to General Alsadin's base. An army of thousands of men required tons of food every day just to keep the men healthy, and dozens of trucks entered the compound every day. It was their best chance to get through the outer checkpoints.
Dr. Halim drove.
They rode in silence for a long time, and Clark spent much of his time staring at Lois. She returned his look, blushing at times from the memories of the night before. They held hands, and that simple feeling of connection was enough.
Eventually, the silence began to wear on Clark, and he spoke to Dr. Halim.
"You left the children back at the camp."
"It would not have been safe to bring them with us. In any case, they wished to remain with their father."
"How is he?"
"He was still unconscious when I left, but he will live."
Clark was silent for several long moments, and he was surprised when Lois spoke. "You're angry with your son, aren't you?"
"You are very perceptive, Miss Lane." Dr Halim sighed. "My son has done things that do not make me proud. He has forgotten our traditions in the name of expediency. In the name of freedom, he has given up parts of his soul."
"I don't think this war has left anyone unscathed," Clark said soberly. "I think we've all done things that we regret. We can't change the past, but we can do our very best to make sure that we do better in the future. If we give up on the idea of redemption, then we have lost all hope."
Halim nodded soberly. "If an old man cannot forgive his son, then how can a nation forgive a people who tried to secede?"
"It's a hard thing, forgiving those who have wronged you. Without forgiveness though, there can never be peace. There can only be violence in response to violence in an endless circle throughout eternity." Clark stared at the dashboard. "It doesn't work if it's imposed from the outside either. The hatred just festers below the surface until at last it explodes."
"If anyone can begin the healing process, it's Prince Fadi. He's very popular with most segments of society, and he has a reputation for being level headed and fair."
Clark noticed something on the road up ahead. His vision was beginning to sharpen; he could see men waiting at a bend in the road up ahead.
"I see soldiers up ahead. We'd best be ready."
"Can you tell which group they are affiliated with?"
Clark shook his head. "I don't see any identifying marks."
They drove in a tense silence for five minutes before pulling to a halt in front of a roadblock.
Several soldiers aimed M-16 rifles at them, even as others slipped around to the back of the truck. Clark could hear the sounds of boxes being opened. He tensed. While he might be at least partially bullet resistant by this point, he was neither fast enough, nor strong enough to keep Lois and Halim from being killed.
He could hear several of the conversations in the background. He leaned over and whispered to Dr. Halim. "These are Malik's men." Beside him, Lois stiffened. She'd had bad experiences with Malik's men. Clark hoped that she was good enough at acting not to give them away.
Dr. Halim nodded, and calmly slipped one set of papers under the seat. The other set he kept in his hand.
A man stepped towards them, demanding their papers. Dr. Halim handed them over, and the man took them, looking them over carefully. Clark was more aware than ever of the men with guns pointed at them. They looked nervous. He was afraid to move for fear that one of the young men would interpret it as going for a weapon.
"You are traveling with a woman and a westerner?"
Halim spoke calmly. "The woman is my cousin from Italy. She hasn't been here long, and never really learned to speak Turkish."
"This isn't the time to be bringing people into the country. What about the man? Does he have any papers?"
"He does all my heavy lifting. He's my cousin's husband from Italy."
The man looked up and spoke to Clark in rapid, flawless Italian. Clark responded seamlessly, and for a moment he thought they had gotten away with it. Then the man tensed. Lois's expression gave no sign that she comprehended what they were talking about.
The man spoke. "We've been looking for the famous writer Clark Kent. He's known to be fluent in a number of languages. You wouldn't happen to know anything about his location?"
Halim's voice did not waver. "I perhaps forgot to give you the papers for my cousin and her husband."
He reached into his shirt, and everyone tensed. Clark could hear the sounds of fingers tightening on triggers, and Halim looked up, and said, "I'll give them to you… slowly."
Clark caught a glimpse of green underneath a set of white paper.
The officer examined the papers for a moment, then looked up. "Everything is in order here. Carry on."
The men relaxed, and lowered their weapons. Some pulled the wooden road blockages away while others waved them on.
Clark could feel the eyes of dozens of armed young men on them as they passed dozens of vehicles by the side of the road. It wasn't until the roadblock faded into the distance that they were finally able to relax.
"You had papers for me?" he asked.
Lois shook her head. "He bribed him… slipped him two hundred American dollars underneath a simple cargo manifest. It was as smooth a bribe as I've ever seen." The note in her voice was admiring, and Clark remembered that part of her that reveled in breaking and entering and other minor criminal acts.
Dr. Halim glanced over at them. "I'm not proud of that. Malik has a real problem with corruption in the ranks. Unlike my people, or Alsadin's men, they have no single ideology to guide them. The leader sets the example for his people."
Lois clutched Clark's hand, and he looked off into the distance. The heat no longer bothered him, though he noticed a fine sheen of sweat on the foreheads of both Lois and Halim. There wasn't any air conditioning, and though the windows were down, he suspected they were both uncomfortable. He squeezed Lois's hand reassuringly, and her smile was almost blinding.
After a time, Halim said, "I will think long and hard about what I will say to my son when he is well."
The next checkpoint was more of a permanent thing. They could see the small town that had been converted into General Alsadin's camp in the distance, and there were only a few roads leading up to it. They knew that the open spaces around it would likely be heavily land mined, despite the problems it would cause once the war was over.
A small, squat building sat beside the road, with armed men standing on both sides. Halim grasped his paperwork and slowly pulled to a halt.
The procedures they used were the same as Malik's men had used. The same military had trained both Alsadin's and Malik's men.. The search in the back of the truck was much more thorough, however. It was likely that they feared attacks by suicide bombers or another gas attack. It sounded as though every box was being opened, and Clark was sure that it was true.
The guard who approached the cab was cautious, but accepted Halim's papers without comment.
"Who is that with you?"
"It's the famous writer, Clark Kent. He's come to speak with Prince Fadi."
The man's face turned instantly suspicious. "Fadi isn't accepting any visitors. Does he have any identification papers? People have been searching for the reporter Kent for days."
Clark spoke quickly. "I've had to hide. After my last story, General Malik seems determined to have me killed. I'm certain that there are people in the camp who could identify me. I've spoken to Colonel Fahad al'Aziz, Sergeant Zayed al'Hamad and Khalifa Al Thani."
"You claim to know both the second and third in command? That's easy enough to prove. Get out of the truck."
Clark stepped out of the truck, and the soldiers quickly searched him for weapons. A pair of veiled women quickly and competently checked Lois, and Clark couldn't see Halim, who was on the other side of the truck. He didn't hear any signs of struggle.
Clark was tempted to struggle when they handcuffed him, but he suspected that he would be able to break free if he had to. While his strength wasn't much more than that of an ordinary man, he didn't have to worry about hurting his wrists.
They cuffed Halim and Lois as well and set them in the back along with the boxes and three men to work as guards. Two other soldiers rode in the cab.
"This isn't any way to treat a reporter!" Lois shouted.
"If you are who you say you are, you'll be freed." The man didn't say what would happen if they were lying, but Clark suspected that it wouldn't be good.
Clark caught Lois's eye as they began to move, and she grimaced. Clark was confident that there wouldn't be any problem; he was well known in the camp and would be easily recognized.
Eventually they reached the town. They passed through a checkpoint at the edge of town, then began driving through narrow streets filled with people. Eventually they reached a large, squat building, and were pulled from the back of the truck.
They were pulled into a short hall and from there into a large western style office.
The door opened and Clark was glad to see Khalifa step through. Khalifa looked up, and for a moment his expression widened into a smile. In the next moment, he looked back into the room from which he had come, and his expression closed.
"This man claims to be the reporter Clark Kent. He says that you will vouch for him."
Khalifa frowned and shook his head. "I don't know him. Throw them into the holding cells for interrogation."
One of the soldiers grabbed Clark roughly. As he was shoved from the room, he caught a glimpse through the doorway. Dan Scardino stood on the other side of the door, a pistol in his hands.
They were roughly pushed down the hallway and down a set of stairs. Lois tried to protest, but none of the guards spoke English. The cells at the bottom of the stairs were ancient, but the bars were new. High in one wall was a small barred window open to the outside. It was likely that the cells became uninhabitable during the winter months.
The guards didn't bother to remove their cuffs, just shoving them all together into one cell. They locked the door behind them, and then strode up the stairs.
Clark gritted his teeth as he strained to break free of the handcuffs. It was easier than he would have thought. He quickly broke the others free; they still had the cuffs on their wrists, but there wouldn't be anything he could do about that until he found a key.
He grabbed a bar to their cell and strained to bend it. It wouldn't move. He heaved again, and it remained immobile.
He heard a click behind him, and saw Lois unlocking the cuffs from her wrist and Doctor Halim's. He lifted an eyebrow and she shrugged.
"I got sick of being handcuffed to things, so I brought my own key."
"Is there anything you can do about this?" He gestured to the door. "You didn't happen to bring a set of lockpicks, did you?"
Even if she did, it was going to be difficult to pick the lock from the wrong side of the door. Clark tried to use his x-ray vision on the cylinders, and failed. He gritted his teeth and yanked at a bar again.
"I don't think Khalifa would have rejected me if Scardino hadn't been in the other room."
Lois scowled. "I guess Dan made his choice. Your friend has too; he'll be tried for treason if the attempt doesn't succeed."
"He might be even if it does succeed." Clark shook his head as he tried to work a bar loose from the window. "A man will do desperate things when the people he loves are endangered."
Dr. Halim nodded soberly. "This war has made killers of men of peace. It sickens the soul of all our peoples, and it has to be stopped."
"I don't think any of us are going to leave this war without regrets."
"What do you have to feel sorry about?" Lois asked. "You came to help these people, and they turned their back on you. Present company excluded of course." She glanced over at Dr. Halim.
"Every choice I've made has had consequences I never intended. When I did something that helped one side, it ended up hurting another side. The people here didn't ask for my help, Lois."
Before Lois could protest, Dr. Halim spoke. "Don't underestimate your own accomplishments. You've helped a large number of people to escape across the border. You've destroyed land mines, brought medical supplies to areas that desperately needed them. You've made a difference in this war, and whether you've changed the course of the war or not, you've saved many innocent lives."
"The people I've helped across the border face uncertain lives among their enemies; should the war end, there is no guaranteeing that their homes will be there when they get back. Also, in helping some escape, but not others, I've separated families. There are children who may never find their parents because of the decisions I made." Clark paused for a moment to rest. "If an army rolls over the land mine field I've destroyed, then the deaths of all they kill are on my head. Every soldier who gets well from medical supplies I deliver is one more set of hands to take up arms against the enemy."
"So what do you do then?" Lois spoke angrily. "Should you just sit in a cell somewhere and meditate, never touching the ground for fear of harming a blade of grass? Last night you told me that making mistakes is the price we pay for not being perfect. Your body may be Kryptonian, but your mind and your heart is more human than anyone I've ever known. What makes you think you are perfect, or that you should be?"
"When I make mistakes, it costs people lives."
"Every time I get into my jeep, I make life and death decisions for everyone on the road." Lois looked down at the cell floor. "My second cousin was killed because I wasn't discreet enough about asking questions."
Doctor Halim spoke again. "All it takes is a wrong diagnosis, and I have lost a patient. Sometimes I'm working half blind; Kurdish doctors never were accorded all the money they needed, and even the best medicine Quazistan has to offer has never matched that in the west. I make decisions sometimes based on gut feeling, because I don't have the equipment I need. Sometimes I lose a patient."
He pulled again at the bars to the window, hoping to at least crumble the wall into which the bars were set. He froze, and gestured to the others to keep silent.
His hearing, while not completely returned, was picking up a conversation in the rooms up above.
"I don't like it, Fatima. I was to be part of the guard detail for the prince, but I have been reassigned to the outer rim."
"You have displeased your superiors?"
"No. The others have been reassigned as well. We are to leave him before evening prayers."
"He will be among the faithful. No one would dare to attack him during prayer. The people would tear any attacker apart with their bare hands."
"The infidels might. There has been word that Americans have been seen in the compound."
Clark grimaced as the sounds faded. It made perfect sense for Malik to have the prince killed at worship. It would unify the entire nation against Alsadin, including his own men. Such would be the outrage of the people that no one would question the truth.
There were three mosques serving the town as Clark recalled. It would be difficult to know which one the prince was worshipping in, even if they were able to escape.
Clark could hear the sound of a gun being cleaned. While his rational mind told him that it was likely nothing, he could just imagine a rifle being assembled, with a bullet waiting for the prince.
"The prince is going to be attacked at sundown as he worships at a mosque. I'm not sure which one."
Dr. Halim looked horrified. "Malik truly doesn't believe in anything then. If he's able to blame the attack on Alsadin… there won't be any end to the war."
Lois examined the door carefully, and sighed. "I don't have any lockpicking equipment; I lost it all when I lost my knapsack. I just keep handcuff keys as a backup." She bit her lip. "We have to get out of here in time to save Prince Fadi, or we've lost everything."
Dr. Halim's expression was gloomy. "Even if we save him, there is no guarantee that he will forgive my people for what they did to his family. He's known to be a just man, but he is only twenty years old, and the blood runs hot at that age. It's a hard thing to forgive, the murder of your family, and no matter how much I plead that not all Kurds were responsible…"
Dr. Halim was taking a risk in coming. If the prince didn't like what he had to say, he could have him jailed and executed as an enemy. There were few limitations on the power of the royal family in Quazistan. It was one of the reasons King Fasil had been able to commit so many atrocities unchecked. Dr. Halim wasn't without courage, Clark knew. The courage of common people in the face of horror surprised him every day. For every coward, there was a hero in war, and no one knew just what they would be until they faced death.
For the next hour, Clark continued to try to work at the bars, even as Lois continued to work at the lock on the front door to the cell. Stray comments Clark heard confirmed his suspicion that an attack was planned during temple services.
The window bar began to develop a noticeable bend. Clark stayed in the single shaft of sunlight as he continued to work at the bar, his anger lending him strength. He was growing stronger by the minute, but the process was slow. He hadn't been this weak for any length of time since he was twelve years old. It was enormously frustrating to know that at his full strength he would have been able to stop the assassination and whisk Lois home in under two minutes.
Dr. Halim must be right about minuscule traces of Kryptonite having settled into his bones. There wasn't enough to cause him any pain, but there was enough to slow both the healing and the recovery of his powers. Dr. Halim thought his body would excrete the last traces of Kryptonite in time, but it still left him frustrated and helpless.
He stopped pulling at the bar. "Someone's coming!" he hissed, and Lois quickly stepped back from the door.
The door at the top of the stairs opened, and a single figure stepped through. Khalifa looked as though he had aged a hundred years in a day; his shoulders were slumped and he moved in a slow shuffle.
He moved towards the bars. "I'm sorry for what I said, Mr. Kent. You've done a lot for our country, and it makes me feel dirty to have to deny you anything. It might be best if you were to sleep here tonight. Things will be different in the morning; you'll have plenty to report."
"They've got your family, don't they, Khalifa?"
The look of fear and abject misery in Khalifa's eyes confirmed Clark's thought. "I don't know what you are thinking about, Mr. Kent."
"They want you to say that Fadi and Alsadin are arguing, don't they?"
Khalifa shook his head. "Fadi is heading for the largest mosque in the city to pray. He hasn't even seen Alsadin today."
"Don't lie to yourself. You know what they plan to do to Fadi. You know where they plan to do it. Do you want to have that on your soul?"
Khalifa hissed. "I don't have any choice. The moment I say anything to anyone, my wife and my two sons will be killed. I'm already implicated in all of this. The best I can expect is a lifetime in prison for treason. At worst, my children will grow up without a father."
Dr. Halim spoke. "Yet you are here. Can it be that your soul is crying out against what is being asked of you?"
Khalifa shook his head. "I don't know why I came. I was never here."
With that, he left as quickly as he had came.
A moment later, Clark saw something lying on top of the lock.
It was a key.
Khalifa had redeemed himself in the only way he knew how. Clark knew that the largest mosque in the city was in the center of town, while the jail they were in was on the outskirts. They had a key, and now all they had to do was to reach the mosque in time, identify the assassins and stop them.
From the look of the sun, they had less than an hour.
Khalifa had given them the key; he probably hoped that if the assassination attempt on the prince failed, seemingly through no fault of his own, that his family would be spared.
All anyone could do was to follow his or her conscience. Clark grinned at Lois as she opened the door; her hands were smaller and more agile than either his or Halim's. He blushed slightly when he saw her grinning back at him. The twinkle in her eyes was back. Lois Lane lived for this sort of excitement.
They slipped quietly out the door, and made their way to the top of the stairs. Clark carefully opened the door at the top and looked around the corner. He could hear Khalifa telling the guard at the end of the hall how important it was that he keep an eye on the prisoners.
As Khalifa had the man faced the other way, he gestured to the others, and they slipped out the door and down the opposite end of the hall, into a room they hadn't seen before. As Lois carefully closed the door behind them, Clark looked around quickly. It was a small office with a large window in the back wall. The window was barred, but Clark saw immediately that they were merely bolted in, not set deeply into the stone as the other bars had been.
The window was open, and Clark grabbed the bars and pushed as hard as he could. The bars gave way with a small screech, and Clark carefully set the bars on the ground outside the window,
They all slipped out the window, only to find themselves in a long alleyway that was enclosed on all four sides. To the right at ground level were the cell windows to the jail from which they had come. Clark recognized the set of windows with a slightly bent bar. Windows ringed the area. Those on the ground floor were barred, those higher up were not. The wall from which they had come was a full story taller than the opposite wall, and Clark could feel a breeze coming from above. Apparently, it had been designed to provide light and a small breeze to the inner rooms of the building and for little more. It was a far cry from the lush courtyard gardens he had seen in other parts of Quazistan.
Clark gestured for the others to be silent, then listened carefully. He strode quickly to a window in the opposite wall, and grunted slightly as he pulled the bars off the wall. He hadn't heard any movement from inside the room, so wasn't surprised to find it empty.
The room inside was a storeroom, filled with the distinctive khaki colored uniforms of Quazistan. Clark allowed the others to enter the room while he went back and carefully propped up the bars on the window through which they came. With any luck, no one would think to look at the bars until sometime later. It was in their best interest to cover their tracks as well as they could.
He returned to the storeroom to find that Dr. Halim had stepped out of the room, and that Lois had somehow found traditional Quazistani woman's dress. While it was true that the Quazistanis used women to pat down female suspects, Clark wouldn't have expected them to store their clothing along with the rest.
He shrugged, then slowly began to slip out of his suit.
While they had seen all there was to be seen of each other the night before, Clark still blushed as he caught Lois staring at his bare chest. He looked down and was pleased to note that the bruises on his left side had faded to yellow.
"You're healing faster now," Lois said. She didn't turn away as he slipped out of his slacks and into a new set, and he blushed again. She looked at him appraisingly. "I'd say you are turning out just fine." She grinned and leaned over to kiss him.
Dr. Halim knocked lightly on the door and coughed discreetly before entering.
Lois pulled the veil on her outfit so that it covered her face. While only half of all Quazistani women chose to wear the veil, adhering to the old ways, it would serve admirably as a disguise.
Dr. Halim looked like the native that he was. While his complexion was unusually dark for the area, it wasn't likely to draw any attention. Clark would have to be more careful. While his coloring wouldn't be out of place, the almost Asian set of his eyes would keep him from being able to pose as a native soldier. They would simply have to keep their distance from anyone likely to pay attention.
Clark listened to the sounds of footsteps passing by in the hall outside. As soon as they had faded, he slipped through the door, followed by Lois and Dr. Halim.
He looked both ways, then turned to the right, following the direction of the footsteps. He had briefly heard the sounds of engines coming from that direction and hoped that it led to the outside.
Around the next corner, a bored looking guard sat at a small metal table with a clip board. Clark gestured, and Dr. Halim moved forward as though to exit the building. As the man asked for identification, Dr. Halim reached into his pocket.
The world slowed around Clark as he began to move forward. Normally, when he moved with super speed, it seemed as though time had stopped. Now time merely slowed somewhat, and Clark cursed the fact that he couldn't move any faster.
The guard had time to look up and begin to draw his pistol as Clark barreled into him. Clark grabbed the man's wrists and held him tightly. Halim shoved a handkerchief in the guard's mouth and grabbed a pair of handcuffs from his belt. Dr. Halim checked the man's pockets and discovered a Swiss army knife and several bills of currency. He left the cash.
Lois opened the door and glanced outside. She nodded to the others, and Clark forced the guard outside.
They were in an isolated parking lot at the back of the building. Various military vehicles were parked in the back, as were a few large cars of American make, and several smaller European vehicles.
"Jimmy never taught you to hot wire cars, did he?"
Lois grinned. "Actually…"
Dr. Halim gestured, and Clark shoved the guard in front of him. When they found a military transport truck, Dr. Halim had Clark lead the guard to the side of the truck away from the building. Clark lifted the man's arms so they could be cuffed to a strut leading from the body of the truck to a large, heavy mirror. The strut was high enough that the man would be able to get little leverage, even by standing on the sideboard. He could probably break free eventually, but by that point they would be long gone.
Lois quickly led them to an ancient jeep with no top.
"Pull the ignition switch out carefully."
Clark grabbed the switch, and managed to pull it out. Dr. Halim handed the guard's pocket knife to Lois, and she leaned forward. "It's been a while since Jimmy showed me how to do this; it's not something I do every day… it should be a cinch on an older model jeep like this."
While she worked on the ignition, Clark glanced at Dr. Halim. The older man looked uncomfortable with idea of stealing a vehicle, and there had been a time when Clark would have agreed with him. Having worked with Lois had taken the fine edge off his scruples, but he didn't share her obvious enthusiasm for grand larceny. He wondered sometimes if she was addicted to excitement.
The engine roared to life with a cloud of noxious black smoke and Lois laughed. Clark grinned. If Lois wanted excitement, he'd give her whatever she needed.
For a moment Lois looked as though she wanted to take the driver's seat. She sighed as she looked at the outfit she was wearing. The sight of a woman driving two men might arouse attention, which was the last thing they wanted at the moment. Reluctantly she climbed into the back seat.
Clark took the driver's seat. Of the three of them, he was the only one who had seen the layout of the whole camp, even if it had only been from the air. As Clark Kent, he was familiar with certain parts of the city, but not with others. As soon as he drove out of the walls enclosing the small parking lot, he could see the minarets and dome of the central mosque.
The sun was already low in the sky. Clark kept to the side streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares as much as possible. The side streets were deserted. People were making their ways to the mosques to celebrate their faith with the prince they had thought was lost.
A large concrete blockade sat at the end of the street.
"What's going on?" Lois asked quietly.
"Alsadin wanted the central district to be preserved; it has mosques and other sites of religious significance. He blocked off all street traffic to the inside. We're on foot from this point on."
Lois cursed under her breath, and Dr. Halim sighed. Within moments, they were out of the jeep, which Clark left running. He didn't know how to shut it off, and there wasn't time to ask Dr. Halim.
They raced through the deserted streets heading toward the mosque. As the sun began to set, they heard the sounds of loudspeakers ringing all throughout the town calling the people to prayer. Clark stepped up the pace; he knew there wasn't much time left.
He could hear Dr. Halim murmuring the words of the evening prayer under his breath as they ran.
By the time the loudspeakers finally became silent, they were within sight of the mosque itself. Walls of red brick surrounded it. The gate was built of yellow bricks. Half embedded in the wall on either side of the gate was a round brick column, nine times Clark's height, and on top of each column was a tower. Clark knew that the towers had once been places where imams would make the call for prayer daily. Now a large set of loudspeakers was attached to both towers.
The mosque itself was a huge, rectangular building with a dome covering half its length and all of its width.
They moved inside the outside walls. A beautiful, green courtyard was inside, filled with trees and a large pond. On the bank of the pond were dozens of large pieces of pottery. The last stragglers were performing their ablutions, cleansing their bodies before entering the mosque and beginning services.
Clark saw movement on the roof. He whispered to the others. "Get inside and warn Fadi. Do everything you can to get him out of there. I think there is a sniper on the roof."
As Clark turned to leave, he noted Halim quickly going through the ablutions, and Lois awkwardly copying his actions. They would manage to slip in among the believers more easily than he would. In any case, he would have to find some way up the thirty feet of wall to the flat part of the roof. The domed sides had many windows; doubtless that was how the assassin planned to kill the prince.
Clark ran around the corner and tried to will himself into the air. He grimaced as he failed to rise even an inch. He leapt, and discovered that even with his strength somewhat enhanced, he could only leap fifteen feet up. When at last he found a window high on the wall, he sighed with relief. He leapt for it, grabbed the edge and swung himself up to stand in the tall narrow window. Another leap, and he caught the edge of the roof. He pulled himself over.
He ran along the flat roof until he caught sight of a black bag lying at the base of the dome. A line of handholds was carved into the side of the dome, which rose another fifty feet. Clark glanced into one of the tinted windows in the side of the dome. The main hall was underneath, fifty foot wide and two hundred foot long.
In the middle of the hall, a deep shrine stood, in which a stepped throne was placed. An imam in full regalia faced the congregation as they filed into the room. The worshippers were forming proper lines facing west, and Clark could see Lois on the women's side of the room, and Dr. Halim on the men's side slowly making their way toward the prince. Several of the worshippers around them were beginning to give them suspicious looks. Clark hoped they would make it in time.
Clark heard a noise from up above. He could see someone making his way up towards the top of the dome with a rifle slung onto his back.
Clark sighed, then began to climb as quickly as he could. The steps really weren't much more than indentations into the wall, and he marveled at the courage of the men who risked their lives to keep their holy place in good condition.
He was able to climb faster than the man because of his superior strength and speed. The man reached a ledge that workers used to repair the second tier of windows and stepped off. He slowly began to move around the ledge, clearly hoping for a better shot at the prince.
He caught sight of Clark suspended against the sheer side of the building and pulled his rifle from his shoulder. Clark began to climb faster.
A moment later, Clark was nearly knocked from his perch as a high caliber bullet slammed into his left side. He looked down; a fall at this distance wouldn't kill him, but it probably wouldn't be pleasant. He climbed faster, only to be hit again.
The bruises had almost vanished along his left side. Lois was going to love the new set. Clark gripped the indentation in the wall so hard that it began to crumble. He scrambled for a handhold and began to push himself up the side of the building.
The intruder had moved around the side of the building and broken a window. Clark almost flew across the narrow ledge in his hurry to reach the intruder.
As he turned the corner, he was stunned to see Khalifa with a rifle in his hands. Tear tracks stained the man's face, and his hold on the rifle wasn't entirely steady.
"Why are you doing this, Khalifa?"
"You were right. They have my family."
"Why did you let us free then?"
Khalifa sighed. "I'd like my family to live… but I'd also like them to have a better world to live in. If I succeed in this, life will be much poorer for everyone in this country. If I don't appear to try, my family dies."
"So you were hoping that we would stop you."
Khalifa glanced through one of the windows, then nodded. "There was only one way this could all end. I knew that the moment I learned of my family's capture."
Khalifa intended to die. Clark glanced down into the prayer hall. People inside hadn't changed positions; apparently they hadn't heard the shots from outside.
"You don't have to do this."
Khalifa shook his head. "I'm already a traitor. I've lost my honor and my hope for life. I can only hope that Allah is merciful. Some things can never be forgiven."
With a murmured prayer, Khalifa stepped off the ledge.
The world slowed around Clark, the air around him becoming as thick as molasses as he lunged forward. He grabbed for Khalifa, and for a moment it seemed as though he wouldn't have any chance at all. He managed to grab hold of Khalifa's collar, and it was only then that he realized that he had overbalanced himself.
He felt himself going over the side of the ledge as well, and he grabbed desperately. He managed to catch himself with one hand, but when the world finally returned to normal speed around him, he found himself hanging from the ledge by one hand, and holding Khalifa below him with the other.
"Save yourself." Khalifa spoke with a quiet sense of resignation. "I'm not worth it."
Clark snarled. "Every human life has value."
He tried to lift Khalifa up to the ledge, but his leverage was wrong. He felt the ledge crumbling beneath his grip. He shifted his grip on Khalifa's collar and heard the man gasp. For all his protestations, Khalifa didn't really want to die.
He pulled Khalifa up to the ledge.
"Grab hold of the ledge."
"No." Khalifa was adamant. Although his breathing and heartbeat was unusually fast, his outward demeanor was calm. "What sort of life would I have, knowing that my wife and children were dead?"
"There is always hope. I will not let go of you unless you grab the ledge. If you go down, I will also."
Khalifa hesitated, then sighed. "I have too much on my conscience as it is."
Clark lifted him again, and Khalifa grabbed hold of the ledge. Clark quickly pulled himself to safety. He turned and grabbed Khalifa's hand just as Khalifa tried to push himself into empty air.
"I refuse to allow one more person to die because of this war," Clark said. "I'm a personal friend of Superman's. If there is any chance that your family can be found, he will bring them back to you."
Hope flickered in Khalifa's eyes. "Superman is dead."
"I saw him just this morning." It was true. Clark had looked at himself in the mirror in a new light that morning. It seemed like an eternity now.
Khalifa frowned. "I'm not the only assassin. I don't know who the other one is; I was hoping that you would be able to warn the prince in time to stop the other one as well."
Clark glanced through the window beside him. The people within were all facing west. It didn't seem as though anyone had seen them. He could see Dr. Halim moving slowly toward the prince.
A flicker of motion caught his eye. In the background he could see Dan Scardino moving slowly toward the prince as well.
He cursed. "What's the best way to get inside?"
"There is a doorway to the Sultan's balcony. It's not used for anything other than access to the roof these days. Prince Fadi prefers to worship from the midst of his people."
"Take me there."
Clark moved down the rungs as quickly as he could, his mind racing. Dan Scardino was involved with Malik, but it wouldn't make sense for him to be the assassin himself. It was important that the assassin be someone from Alsadin's camp. To be killed by an American would only bring the nation together instead of tearing it apart.
Dan Scardino was too cynical to allow himself to be torn apart by an angry mob.
Clark reached the ground, and Khalifa followed him. Khalifa lead the way as they ran around the outside of the dome. Clark caught glimpses of movement through the colored glass. People standing and lifting their arms, people prostrating themselves on the ground before their God.
They reached the door, and Khalifa quickly unlocked it.
The room inside was covered with ornate wooden carvings. The walls and ceiling were decorated with colorful painted flower and plant patterns. It was empty of furniture, and after passing through a second door, they found themselves on a balcony on the side of which was a staircase.
The worshippers were prostrating themselves again. Dan Scardino continued to stand. Dr. Halim was looking in the wrong direction, and Clark couldn't see Lois at all.
When Clark saw Dan Scardino pull a gun, all he could do was shout a warning. Dr. Halim stood and ran toward the prince, throwing himself on top of him.
Everyone looked up just as a shot rang out. The shot came from the wrong direction, and it took a moment for Clark to realize that someone had risen from the midst of the worshippers and shot at the prince with a pistol.
A second shot rang out, and the assassin fell.
Pandemonium filled the room as people realized what had happened. Men grabbed Scardino and pulled him to the floor even as other men pulled Dr. Halim off the prince and began to pummel him. Men surrounded the prince, interposing their bodies between the prince and any possibility of danger.
Clark moved down the stairs to his left as quickly as he was able. He forced his way through the crowd. When someone grabbed his arm, he tried to pull away, but quickly realized that it was Lois.
Clark rushed forward as quickly as he could, hoping he could reach the men before they beat Dr. Halim to death. Other men were already kicking the corpse of the assassin in a frenzy of rage.
By the time he reached them, the beating was done. He could hear the young prince's voice.
"This man saved my life."
The beating had lasted for only a moment; the prince had apparently been quick to defend Halim to the others.
Armed men entered the prayer hall from all sides, rushing toward the prince.
"Are you injured, my Prince?"
The prince stared at the soldier for a moment. "Where were my guards? If it was not for the courage of this man I would have been shot."
"This man is a Kurdish spy."
"He saved my life. I think that grants him the right to be heard. Find a doctor and bring him here quickly."
Men grabbed Lois and Clark by the arms and pulled them toward the prince.
"You called out the warning that saved my life. How may I ever repay you?"
Clark hesitated. "Listen to what he has to say…and find forgiveness in your heart."
Fadi's expression hardened. "I have no love for those who killed my family, and I fully intend to see that they face justice." He glanced at Halim. "However, I was never one to blame an entire people for the actions of a few. I will speak with him, and I will listen."
The soldiers released Clark, and they murmured abject apologies to Lois for having dared to put their hands on her person. Lois didn't understand a word of it, but was soothed by their tone.
Several paramedics finally reached Dr. Halim and loaded him face down onto a stretcher. It looked as though he had been shot in the side, but Clark could see both an entry and an exit wound, and it looked as though it would be superficial. In spite of the fact that Halim was an older man, Clark expected him to recover quickly. He had seen enough gunshot wounds over the past few weeks to make an educated guess.
Clark noticed that the soldiers had managed to evacuate most of the people. Khalifa finally managed to join them, having dropped his rifle and other gear on the roof. As he was third in command of Alsadin's army, he was allowed through the mass of soldiers without question.
Dan Scardino was dragged between two heavy men, and Clark was pleased to see that he was developing a black eye.
"You killed the assassin."
"My name is Dan Scardino. I work for the American government."
"The last I had heard, the Americans were backing General Malik."
"That was before we learned that a legitimate claimant to the throne existed." Scardino paused. "I have news that will please you."
The prince cocked an eyebrow.
"General Malik was killed less than two hours ago in an attempted coup. His killers were killed as well, and without leadership, his faction has already begun fragmenting into small groups. You should be receiving word of this very soon."
Khalifa gasped. Without Malik to give the order, his family was probably safe. Clark glanced at the man and saw that his face was pale. He had just realized that he might have killed his prince… and he hadn't needed to.
The prince was silent for a moment. "What you are saying is that I have won. The fighting will soon be over."
"Give Malik's party a couple of days, and you will find the field clear to resume control. Doubtlessly there will be a few who refuse to surrender, but you should be able to surround them with little problem."
"Why are you here?"
"I'm here to offer you the friendship and support of the American people. Your country and mine had a cordial relationship during the time of your grandfather's reign. Now you have a country that has been weakened by internal strife. Your military forces have been decimated, and your infrastructure has been largely wiped out."
"Our country will have many problems to overcome, yes."
Dan pulled himself free of his captors, then continued. "The Turks have been amassing forces along the border since this war began, supposedly to guard against attack. If they choose, they could take this country in a matter of weeks, maybe less. Even if they don't take the whole country, they will demand your oil fields as part of any surrender."
"Annexation territory by means of war violates many clauses of the Fourth Geneva Convention."
"It didn't stop Iraq from attacking Kuwait." Dan hesitated. "As far as the Turks are concerned, Quazistan should never have been split off from it. They consider Quazistan to be part of Turkey, and if the government of Quazistan is destroyed, the might be able to convince the UN to look the other way."
The prince nodded grimly. "Walk with me."
"What you need is a strong military presence in Quazistan. My country is willing to supply a military base that will serve as a deterrent both to Turks and to any other nation that would take advantage of your weakened condition."
Their voices trailed away. Khalifa leaned toward Clark and whispered angrily, "He was the one who gave me my orders. He could have easily informed me that my family was safe."
Clark grunted, his eyes on the retreating backs of Scardino and the prince.
"Does this mean it's over?" Lois asked quietly. She had removed her veil and headpiece and stood blinking in the light from the windows above.
Clark glanced at the retreating back of Dan Scardino. He had been involved in everything from conspiracy to murder. He'd helped deliver the missile that had almost killed Clark and he'd helped arrange the deaths of the royal family. Clark didn't have any tangible proof, but he intended to look for as long as it took.
He and Lois would find the evidence they needed. They now had the most precious gift of all: time. Time to love and time to heal. They had all the time in the world to catch Dan Scardino, but Clark wasn't going to waste another moment thinking about him.
Clark turned to her and smiled. "It's over for Quazistan." He kissed her deeply. "I guess that means we can go home."
Her smile was blinding.
Clark landed silently on Lois's fire escape. Night had fallen in Metropolis, and Clark smiled as he breathed in the familiar summer scents. He'd considered Metropolis home from the moment he'd laid eyes on Lois, and it was good to be back.
The reconstruction effort in Quazistan was going very well. American aid money was flowing in, and Clark had been more than happy to lend a hand. He had managed to talk Perry into hiring him again; the stories he wrote now about Quazistan were Daily Planet exclusives.
He slipped through the window. Lois had fallen asleep on the couch waiting for him. He sighed. The previous week had been hard for her. It didn't look like they would be able to catch Dan Scardino…at least not now. Since Lois had returned from Quazistan, she'd found doors closed to her at every turn. The copies of the information indicting the CIA had mysteriously vanished. Perry's office had been broken into, her safe deposit box was empty, and the copy sent to her home never showed up in her mail.
She had gone to the home of Jimmy's friend Jason Turner hoping that he would have kept an extra copy, only to find the house empty and deserted. Jimmy had to admit that he had never seen Jason's parents; he had thought that they were simply workaholics. When Lois questioned the neighbors, she discovered that they hadn't even realized anyone had moved in. It was as though the boy's entire house had been set up just for them.
When Jimmy had to admit that Jason Turner had first contacted him the day after Superman had hijacked the nuclear missile shipment, Lois decided that the boy had been planted.
She still felt guilty about the death of her second cousin. She had vowed not to rest until justice was done, and Clark had made a promise to himself. He would spend a lifetime making her dreams come true.
For a moment, he considered waking her. While he had been coming to her every night since she had returned from Quazistan, there were things they had left unsaid. They had spent most of their time clinging to one another, reveling in the fact that they were both alive.
It was hard to say the things he wanted to say. Whenever he stared into her eyes, he was overwhelmed by emotion. Love and regret were intertwined. His regret for the pain he had caused her was palpable, but he had yet to find a way to express it.
His eyes strayed to her kitchen table. It might be easier to compose his thoughts if he wrote them down first. He silently took a pen, paper, and a large hardback book. He floated back to where he could watch her sleep.
Clark was careful to stay out of sight of the window; he'd learned caution in Quazistan. Finding a place in a dark corner, he floated cross-legged, using the book as a flat surface to write on.
He allowed his gaze to linger on her for a moment before he started writing.
I loved you from the moment we first met, and each day that passed, my love for you deepened and grew stronger. In time, you opened yourself to me, revealing your dreams, your hopes and your fears. You allowed yourself to be vulnerable to me in ways you wouldn't to anyone else. We became the best of friends, and I began to look forward to sleep, because it meant that I would soon see your first smile of the morning.
I know that I've wasted time. You never realize how precious time is until you realize that it might be running out. I was afraid to let you know who and what I really was. First, I was afraid that you would reject me in favor of a dream. Once we admitted our feelings for each other, I had no excuse. I knew how I felt about you, and deep down, I knew you could be trusted.
I was afraid. Physically I was invulnerable. Emotionally, I was defenseless before you. In all my life, I had never let anyone in on my secret. I had held myself aloof, and I had never suffered the pain of love.
I paid a price for the shell I placed around my soul. I was lonely, and so I traveled from place to place seeking fulfillment. When you slipped inside my shell, I didn't know what to do. There were so many times I could have told you… times when I should have told you.
You never really had the chance to be angry with me about that. I stole that chance from you when I decided to leave. You were right to say that I've been making too many of the decisions, and I'll do my best to change.
You know who and what I am, and still you love me. There's no greater gift you could give me. You don't love me because of my abilities, or even in spite of them. You love all of me. Whenever I return to you, I feel as though I'm coming home.
You don't know what it feels like to fly. You've flown in my arms, but even that is an experience that pales in comparison to doing it on your own. Being with you is the closest I've ever come to that feeling while standing on solid ground. Yet even flying pales in comparison to my feeling for you. You make me dizzy, Lois. When I'm with you, it's as though I've lost my head. I can't think, sometimes, because my whole world is centered on you. I have to remember to breathe when you come into the room; you make me giddy without even trying. And when you smile, it lights up my world.
I want to be with you, Lois. I want to share your joy and laughter. I want to hold you and dry your tears.
I love you.
Lois was awake. He looked up, and the intensity of her smile almost blinded him. This was what he was missing, what he had searched the world for and never found. It took him a moment to catch his breath; she was so beautiful that he didn't have the words.
He carefully allowed his legs to drop and he set the paper and book aside. He didn't need to write Lois a letter to show her how he felt. If they were to become husband and wife in truth, they would have to share everything with each other, even those things that were painful.
"Have I told you how beautiful you are when you sleep?"
She blushed slightly, then said, "How's the reconstruction work going?"
"It's great. There's some sporadic fighting here and there… there are always a few die-hards making trouble for everyone else, but the war is effectively over." Clark hesitated for a moment. "I've come to a decision."
Lois grabbed his hand and led him to the couch. As they sat, she kept his hand between hers.
"I think it's time for Clark Kent to come home. I've written the stories that needed to be told."
"What about Superman?"
"Superman will cut his time to mornings in Quazistan. That's the middle of the night here, and since I need only three hours' sleep…"
Lois kissed him passionately. Clark allowed himself to enjoy her touch for a moment before pulling away.
"Have I ever told you how great you are?"
"Not as often as I'd like." She grinned, her face lighting up and becoming, if anything, even more beautiful.
"You know… I've spent my whole life alone. I've had my parents, and they're great… but they couldn't be everything. When I was 13, I decided on my own to keep what I was a secret. I saw how kids treated people who weren't like them. People who were different repelled them… and I never wanted that." Clark stared down at his hands. "Lying about who I was became second nature to me. There wasn't anyone I even wanted to tell, until I met you."
"You waited long enough to tell me."
She probably expected him to argue, but Clark didn't. "I waited too long. You were right about me making decisions for us. I had lots of opportunities to tell you… but I always chickened out. My greatest fear was that you would look at me and be repulsed. You'd see something alien within me, and not want me for who I was."
"How could you think that, Clark? I knew Superman was an alien, and it never stopped me from chasing him."
"Superman was never attainable. You could act as free as you wanted with him, and you could always trust him never to go too far."
"I could always trust you, Clark. It just took me too long to realize it."
"You make me feel clean, Lois. When I'm with you, it seems like all my doubts wash away." Clark looked down at his hands. "Everything used to seem so simple. When someone is trapped in a burning building, or an airplane is falling to the ground, there isn't any question about what you have to do. You move as quickly as you can and do everything in your power to save them."
Lois nodded and tightened her hands around Clark's.
"I never felt so helpless as I did in Quazistan. With all my power, there were some things I couldn't solve." Clark sighed. "I'm at my best when things are black and white. When everything is varying shades of gray, I'm lost. "
"You just do what you can. What choice do you have?"
"If one group had been clearly in the right, I could have felt justified in doing what I could to help them." Clark tightened his grip on Lois's hand. "There wasn't any authority I could turn people over to. If I took guns from people, either they re-armed shortly afterward, or they were left defenseless before their own enemies."
"You shouldn't have had to do it alone."
"I shouldn't have had to do it at all." Clark scowled. "There has to be a better way of settling things. People fighting back and forth for the same territory for months and years at a time… it's a terrible waste of lives and resources. I don't understand how people can live that way."
Lois hugged Clark again, tightly.
Clark held on to her for a long time before he continued speaking. "I got so frustrated. No matter how hard I tried, it didn't feel like I could make a difference."
"You made a difference, Clark. The war is over."
"I couldn't have done it without you. You make me stronger than I've ever been, Lois. Together, I feel like we can accomplish anything. I think sometimes that it was only the knowledge that you were safe at home that kept me sane."
"I was terrified for you, Clark. When I saw you hit by that missile… I thought my world was going to end."
"I'm sorry I put you through that." Clark pulled away from her. "Can I ask you a question?"
"What?" Clark could tell that Lois was a little teary eyed. His own throat had a lump in it. They had come so close to losing each other… so close to never discovering what they could be together.
Time was precious.
"Would you help me hunt for an apartment tomorrow?" Clark smiled at her. "I'm looking for something a little larger than I had before."
"Larger? Why? Your old apartment was great!" It took Lois a moment to catch on… and then she blushed.
"I want a future with you, Lois. We don't have to make any decisions right away, but in my heart we are already husband and wife. I want to make a place that will be ours… one we decide on together. I can wait as long as I have to. But since I have to move anyway…"
Lois bit her lip. "Who said I'd be the one who wanted to wait? YOU'VE been the one who has spent our entire relationship running away."
"Lois, I'm done running. I'll marry you whenever and however you want. I don't care if a priest, a preacher, a muezzin or a tribal shaman marries us. All that matters to me is that we are together." Clark hesitated. "Marry me, Lois. I promise I'll do everything I can to make your days on this earth happy ones."
Lois was silent for a long, drawn out moment. Finally she spoke. "Clark…"
His stomach tightened.
"We've wasted a lot of time already. If this war has shown me anything, it's that every moment is precious. I'll marry you, Clark, and the sooner the better."
The world suddenly seemed a little brighter. Clark knew with utter certainty that everything was at long last going to be all right.